In a previous post I talked about how Dr. Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority experiment showed us something important about our audience as it pertains to arguments on life destructive human technologies like human embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.
The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) supports some aspects of Milgram's Obedience Experiment (MOE) while introducing other interesting elements surrounding the impact of institutions on our behavior. In 1971, Philip Zimbardo and his team chose 24 male college students from a larger group of volunteers they had psychologically profiled to assure mental health. They randomly divided the group into two groups of nine - guards and prisoners – leaving alternates on call if needed. Actual police officers arrested the prisoners who were then processed and placed into a makeshift prison over which Zimbardo was the superintendent.
To intensify the psychological effect, Zimbardo's team emasculated the prisoners by forcing them to wear gowns with no underwear, a stocking cap to cover their hair, and a chain on their ankle. The guards wore khaki uniforms, mirrored sunglasses to offer anonymity, and carried a billy club and whistle. They intended the experiment to last for two weeks. It was stopped after six days.
The guards psychologically tortured the prisoners and emotionally abused them to the extent that five healthy young men emotionally broke down within the first five days. A research assistant, Christina Maslach, confronted Zimbardo and told him, “It is terrible what you are doing to those boys.” Zimbardo had lost sight of the fact that he was a professor responsible for the well being of the students.
Elements of SPE compare to what we see in MOE. Early in SPE a student goes to Zimbardo and asks to leave. When Zimbardo encourages the student to stay he agrees but then goes back and reports to the other prisoners that, “we are not allowed to leave.” The students don't protest but immediately become disheartened and more obedient to the mistreatment. They acknowledge the authority of a college professor and other students to hold them prisoner against their will.
The accelerated rate that normal students turned into abusive guards is disturbing. The most famous of the subjects of the experiment is a guard nicknamed John Wayne (JW), who later claimed he modeled a part inspired by the sadistic guard in the film Cool Hand Luke. Even if he introduced an element of cruelty out of a desire to see how far he would be allowed to go - a startling ineffective and flawed defense that I'll address in a moment – that does nothing to explain why other guards allowed his cruelty and even joined him. Those guards that disapproved of the treatment of the prisoners – all of whom are normal college students – busied themselves with other tasks during the worst of the abuse rather than confronting JW and his cohorts.
Zimbardo became so immersed in the experiment that after releasing a student who opted out he became convinced of the truth of a rumor that the released student was coming back to break the others out and moved the prisoners. His first choice of location was the local jail but when the real authorities scoffed at his ridiculous idea he complained about a lack of “institutional cooperation.”(?!!) Ultimately he moved them to other rooms on campus and waited for the expected breakout. A colleague came by to see how the experiment was going and found Zimbardo sitting there alone waiting to surprise the former prisoner.
Zimbardo has since written about understanding the bad barrel as well as the bad apples and uses the toxic conditions of SPE and places like Abu Ghraib as evidence. In an appendix of the Schlesinger Report on DoD Detention Operations – a report birthed by Abu Ghraib – the committee sites both SPE and Abu Ghraib and writes:
Without proper oversight and monitoring, such interactions carry a higher risk of moral disengagement on the part of those in power and, in turn, are likely to lead to abusive behaviors.
Zimbardo argues that certain conditions where a group has power over another group without limitations breeds evil behavior in otherwise normal people.
But beyond that and more to the point of our discussion, a fascinating moment happened in the interviews with the participants after the fact. JW was confronted by a fellow student/prisoner that rebelled in the experiment by starting a hunger strike. JW and the guards placed him in solitary and taunted him to encourage him to give in. When confronted to defend his obviously abominable behavior, JW responds that what the student doesn't understand is that JW was conducting his own experiment.
How did he learn to excuse inexcusable behavior by pleading experiment? One can only assume that the SPE taught him that as long as you can characterize what you are doing as a scientific experiment then whatever wrong you do is justified. I can't think of any other way to understand why a normally functioning human being would think that he adequately accounts for abusing and torturing other human beings simply by saying, “It was an experiment.”
This is moral justification and it is a twist on what we saw in MOE. The Schlesinger Report sites Albert Bandura's definition of moral justification as the belief that misconduct can be justified if it is believed to serve a social good. Again, we see an otherwise normal and healthy individual appealing to our natural trust in the benefits of scientific exploration, but this time it is not someone who hesitantly and reluctantly pressed on. He is using our trust to excuse his zealous and immoral mistreatment of others by casting it in the light of experiment. Whether he legitimately believes it or not is irrelevant. He holds enough faith in other's trust of the social good of scientific experimentation - Stott's idealogical pressure – to justify his bad behavior.
Lydia McGrew once told me that she is convinced that many people that champion the pro-choice position do so from a similar point of view. They see themselves as able to push past the ugliness of it in some heroic sense to serve the greater social good. Certainly William Saletan cast George Tiller in this light as discussed in this earlier post. Saletan paints the picture of a true believer that did what others feared to do.
So this element seems present in our audience as well. Not just those who obediently acquiesce to authorities they trust, but also those people who independently excuse themselves through moral justification by way of some consequentialist gymnastics. The wrong that I do is not wrong because it serves a greater good, and we know it is good because it is scientific experimentation.
This most often comes up with the person that says things to me like, “So what if it is a human being. It doesn't know that it is alive or feel any pain and the experiments will help living people that are aware that they are in pain.” They are willing to do what must be done further to the cause even if it is objectionable. It is an experiment that will produce results that will help us all. You have to break some eggs if you want to make an omelette.
I have encountered this on college campuses which I will detail in another post as well as how I responded.