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Thursday September 21, 2017
Posted: Sep 03, 2015

Examining temptation, ethics and the university

College Connection

When we learn how cruelly people can treat one another, it’s tempting for us to think we are exempt from the trend.

Every year, students in my Introduction to Sociology class at the University of Maine at Augusta review data from Stanley Milgram’s chilling classic shock experiment, in which 65 percent of subjects followed orders to deliver apparently lethal shocks to innocent people. Often, my students point out that the original experiment took place at Yale University, in 1961, with male subjects. Yalies are especially conformist, some suggest, and people are more enlightened nowadays. Women, they hypothesize, would be more kind. But as we read on, we find that Milgram repeated his research with women as subjects, who produced the same rate of seemingly violent conformity. A replication in the UK in 2009 led to similar findings despite a different place and a more recent date.

Milgram’s subjects were not the only ones to exhibit worrisome behavior. To satisfy his intellectual curiosity, the professor of social psychology deceived those under his sway into believing they had killed someone. Milgram’s infliction of mental anguish helped provoke a wave of ethical reviews and reforms to prevent harm and institute informed consent in research.

It may be tempting for professors of today to think that ethical scandals are a feature of some uncouth, unenlightened past. But have we really changed so very much? Torture is an official federal crime under Chapter 18, Section 2340 of the United States Code. Assistance in the commission of torture is also a direct violation of the ethical code of the American Psychological Association. Despite this, for a decade rank-and-file members of the APA have been voicing concerns about psychologists working to help the U.S. government make its interrogation techniques more torturous. A new 542-page report issued after an independent investigation not only confirms this but also finds that the leadership of the APA, dependent upon the goodwill of the federal government for large research grants, helped to preserve and extend a system of psychologist-enabled torture.

I am tempted as a sociologist to identify psychology as a uniquely flawed academic discipline and reassure myself that sociologists would never act with such reckless disregard of human rights and dignity. Indeed, the American Sociological Association Code of Ethics insists that professors of sociology respect privacy, anonymity and the rights of all people in “responsibility to the communities and societies in which they live.” Yet in my own subfield of social network analysis, we devise techniques for uncovering relationships and predicting behaviors that people may wish to keep private. This is no mere technical potential; the academic discoveries of sociologists have been implemented by governments and corporations to track and profile ordinary people without permission or a warrant on the basis of mere “metadata.

American public universities were founded for public benefit but are filled with fallible people. Even with good intentions none of us is exempt from ethical temptation.

None should be exempt from ethical questions.


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