Real Experiments (of Living)
Psychology is a relatively new science which only emerged as its own field in the late 1800’s. Its impact was huge, as many, many researchers raced to learn about human brains, thoughts, behaviors, etc. Very quickly, this field yielded a great deal of psychological discoveries in the past century and a half. However, with all of this excitement came many unethical experiments which would never be allowed in today’s research environments.
One of the most memorable experiments is that of “Little Albert” in 1920. The behaviorist John Watson wanted to prove that all human behavior, even emotions, were a product of learning and conditioning. In his experiments, he used a little orphan boy named Albert to test if the emotional fear response was learned. In his experiments, he allowed Albert play with a white laboratory rat, and Albert showed no fear of the rat. Watson would then make a loud noise while he was playing with the rat, and Albert would begin to cry. Albert became conditioned to fear the rat, and he even began to fear similar white, fluffy objects like cotton balls, bunnies, even a Santa Claus mask! Watson never unconditioned Little Albert of the fear, and so Little Albert lived on with the effects of this experiment (although we do not know how much of an effect they had).
Another famous experiment involving human subjects was Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiment in 1961. In this experiment he had participants sit in a separate room from a man hooked to electrodes, and the participant would have to shock the man every time he got an answer wrong in a small quiz. The shocks increased with severity as the experiment went on, the last button being labeled “XXX.” During the experiment, the man getting “shocked” (who was of course part of the experiment) would yell out that he was in pain, for them to stop shocking him, and that he was having pains in his chest. At one point he even stopped responding completely. The participants, hesitant to go on after these episodes, were convinced by the experimenter to continue, and many of them became very emotionally disturbed by the process. They felt as if they were being forced to injure another human being.
*Begin watching around 8:00.
Although both of these experiments yielded wonderful discoveries into the field of psychology, they came at a cost. They mentally disturbed their human participants. Since then, experiments using human subjects must now follow certain guidelines as defined by the American Psychological Association. These experiments would not be allowed today.
The question I ask is, would Mill support these “unethical” experiments? If we look at Mill’s harm principle we can gain a little insight:
The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.
According to this principle, Mill believed that as long as no direct harm was being done, then said actions would be permissible because they would be furthering the ideas of the society as a whole. Mill’s definition of direct harm is the physical scope of the word. The subjects were not being physically hurt; instead, Albert was merely being scared, and the participants in Milgram’s study were just being pressured. To Mill, neither of these instances would constitute real harm because they were simply emotional disturbances, not physical. He would argue that these scenarios would not significantly affect the participants’ abilities to live their lives as before. (Although, for Albert, there may have been some long-term effects.) Not only would Mill have supported these psychological experiments, he would have loved them! He would have loved them because they created new theories, and they provided us with new ideas and different knowledge to either adopt, or argue against.
Mill’s support for these “experiments” could also be argued by his ideas of “experiments of living” because he argues that we can learn from others’ failed experiments of living. Although this theory is based on the freedom of the individual, this same principle be used to argue the idea that despite the fact that a few people were “harmed” by these experiments, they benefited our larger knowledge as a society, and furthered all of us. A few sacrifices do not matter in the grand scheme of things because we can learn from them. Do you agree that Mill might apply this argument? What other theorists might agree about “sacrifices”?
Even though the field of psychology provides many instances of unethical treatment of participants, these experiments were able to teach us a lot of about human behavior and the mind. Do you think these experiments, although harmful, were worth it? Do you think Mill would think they were? What about the idea of “sacrificing” a few? Do you agree?