Ethical Reflections on the Stanford Prison Experiment
as the SPE study unethical? In several ways, the answer must surely be “Yes.” However, there are other ways of viewing this research that provide a reasonable “No.” Before we look at evidence in this retrospective analysis in support of each of these alternatives, I need to make clear why I am even discussing these matters decades after the study is over and done. Having focused much personal attention on these ethical issues, I believe that I can bring a broader perspective to this discussion than is typical. Other researchers may benefit by avoiding similar pitfalls if they become aware of some subtle warning signs, and also by engaging greater sensitivity to ethical safeguards that the SPE highlights. Without being defensive or rationalizing my role in this study, I will use this research as a vehicle for outlining the complexity of ethical judgments involved in research that entails interventions in human functioning. First, let us consider the broad category of the ethics of intervention. That will provide a foundation for comparing absolute ethics to the relative ethics that guide experimental research.
The Ethics of Intervention
Every act of intervention in the life of an individual, a group, or an environment is a matter of ethics (radical therapist, R. D. Laing would say it is a "political decision"). The following diverse groups share common objectives: therapists, surgeons, counselors, experimentalists, educators, urban planners, architects, social reformers, public health agents, cult leaders, used car salespersons, and our parents. They all subscribe to one of these objectives: cure, behavior modification, recommendations for action, training, teaching, mind alteration, control, change, monetary allocation, construction, or discipline — in sum, various forms of intervention that directly affect our lives or do so indirectly by changing human environments.
All agents of intervention initially intend benefits to the target of change and/or society. However, it is their subjective values that determine the cost/benefit ratio, and raise critical ethical questions for us to consider. For example, military boot camps train recruits to kill “the enemy.” Societies tacitly approve such a goal. It is an intervention designed to transform ordinary men into effective state-sanctioned killers of the enemy. However, is it ethical to produce this warrior mentality in peacetime, or indeed anytime? Psychotherapists once used aversive counter-conditioning to alter the "diseased" mental state of homosexuals. They ceased doing so after professional associations declared that homosexuality is a "sexual orientation" rather than a "mental disorder." Was it ethically wrong to have made gay men suffer because of these professionals were using the wrong definition? Soviet psychiatrists used similar and worse abusive methods on political "dissidents" who were sent to mental institutions to be “cured” of their politically incorrect values. Was that political decision ethically wrong, or did the fault lie with those in the medical profession who accepted that decision and followed through with their "cures"? Well-meaning urban planners who demolished old, run-down neighborhoods to build new, clean high rise projects did not anticipate the rise in crime, vandalism and alienation that the high rises would create by fostering anonymity and destroying existing social support mechanisms. Is there an ethical issue here about their complicity in these high societal costs paid for their utopian dreams?
We take for granted the value of the powerful socializing influences parents exert on their children in shaping them to their image and toward a socially, politically, and religiously imposed ideal. Should we care that parents do so without obtaining their children's informed consent? Seems like an idle question until one considers parents who help indoctrinate their children into hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, destructive cults, terrorist cells, or into prostitution.
To put a finer point on the issue, "parental rights of domain" are usually not questioned -- even when they teach children intolerance and prejudice -- except when parents are excessively abusive in getting their way. But what can we say about the following case of a father who wanted his son to be more patriotic, ostensibly a reasonable goal in almost all societies? The father in question wrote to a medical doctor whose advice column ran in a nationally circulated magazine.
"I love my country and want my boy to love it too. Is it O.K. for me to give him a little pep talk while he's asleep; no big deal, just some patriotic stuff?" At one level, Dad is asking will this tactic work; is there evidence that sleep-learning can be effective in delivering such below-consciousness persuasive messages. [The answer is there is no supporting evidence.] At another level, Dad is raising the ethical question, is it ethical for dear old dad to indoctrinate his defenseless child in this way? Would it be ethical if he did so when the child was awake, or if he used monetary reinforcement, or social approval instead of this dubious technique? Is it his goal or his means that some might find ethically offensive? Would it be preferable instead for this anxious father to rely upon the more subtle indoctrination devices that are disguised as ‘education' in the classroom: national flags; pictures of national leaders; national anthems; prayers; being forced to read historical narratives, geography and civics textbooks, that often give a biased view of history, and are all designed by every society as educational propaganda to maintain the status quo?
The point here is we must increase our collective sensitivity to the broad range of daily situations where interventions occur as a 'natural' process of social life and where a violation of ethics goes unnoticed because of its prevalent and insidious presence. A case in point is prison. All prisons are social experiments. They are interventions designed to combat crime by means of social isolation of criminals. But do citizens really care about the ethical treatment of prisoners, in real prisons as much as they might be concerned about the ethics of the mock Stanford prison? Many prisoners in real prisons suffer various forms of abuse to which they are subject daily that were not included in their original legal sentence? We become concerned only when prison riots rip off the cloak of secrecy that veils the inhumane conditions in most prisons everywhere. Only then do we notice that imprisonment as an intervention is not succeeding-- and is costing billions of our tax dollars to prop up such failings. The national concern that followed upon news of the riots at San Quentin and Attica prisons, discussed earlier, has since vanished. In its place is the policy “to get tough on crime and criminals and prisoners.” Many citizens agree with cynical politicians who advocate locking them up and “throwing away the key,” replacing rehabilitation efforts with hard-time retributive justice. At this time in the U.S., there are more African-American men in prisons than in colleges. In part, this imbalance is fostered by excessive fears of crime coupled with racial intolerance, but the consequence is devastating Black communities. Such concerns raise issues of societal ethics as well as individual ethics that must be recognized, debated and resolved.