Ethics and The Stanford Prison Experiment

by Grace Boey

Kyle Patrick Alvarez's latest award-winning film, The Stanford Prison Experiment, depicts a real-life psychology study from 1971 that went horribly wrong. What implications do the findings have for moral philosophy?

This month, moviegoers will flock to cinemas to watch The Stanford Prison Experiment (or, if they don’t, the film has at least already won two awards at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival). Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, the drama depicts the infamous study of the same title conducted by Stanford Professor Philip Zimbardo in 1971. The experiment, which subjected its participants to a simulated prison environment, sparked intense debate at the time with the disturbing questions it raised about human nature. After being randomly assigned roles of either ‘prison guard’ or ‘prisoner’ in the simulation, participants became so engrossed in the experience that many guards turned abusive towards the prisoners, who themselves did little to protest the abuse. The experiment was meant to last two weeks, but Zimbardo pulled the plug after six days.

The Stanford Prison Experiment has since become required reading for college Psych 101 classes everywhere. The key takeaway from the study—other than the fact that it’s generally a good idea to terminate an experiment when subjects start denying each other access to basic sanitation—is the idea that seemingly ordinary people can be manipulated by their environment into committing very bad acts. Or, in other words: within everyone lies a ruthless tyrant, ready to reveal itself in the right situation.

At the time it was made, Zimbardo’s proposition was nothing new. Prior to the Stanford Prison Experiment, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram had found in 1961 that ordinary people would readily follow instructions by subjecting others to apparently dangerous levels of electric shocks, at the calm and cordial request of an authority figure. Later studies also showed similar findings that didn’t involve terrible atrocities: for example, researchers Mathews and Canon found in 1975 that when ambient noise was at normal levels, people were 5 times more likely to help an apparently injured man who had dropped his books than when a power lawnmower was running nearby. And—displaying just how arbitrary yet powerful such influencing factors can be—researchers Isen and Levin found in 1972 that people who had just found a dime were 22 times more likely to help a woman who had dropped some papers than people who had not.

The empirical theory of situationism

Such studies are seen by researchers as support for the psychological theory called ‘situationism’. This is the theory that our behaviour is governed by external situational factors, as opposed to internal character traits. Zimbardo, for instance, saw the behaviour of the Stanford Prison Experiment’s participants as a direct product of the simulated prison environment. According to him, the common view on the role of ‘character’ in action is misguided:

“We create an illusion of freedom by attributing more internal control to ourselves, to the individual, than actually exists. We thus underestimate the power and pervasiveness of situational controls over behaviour because: a) they are often non-obvious and subtle, b) we can often avoid entering situations where we might be so controlled, c) we label as ‘weak’ or ‘deviant’ people in those situations who do behave differently from how we believe we would.” (Zimbardo, 1975)

The empirical theory of situationism has been picked apart by psychologists and social scientists, but it also has implications for philosophical theories of morality. What does it mean for ethics when moral behaviour appears to be largely governed by something outside ourselves? The question deserves a close look.

Situationism and virtue ethics

So far within philosophy, situationist studies have been most closely scrutinized by virtue ethicists, who see a person’s character traits as being essential to morality. Virtue ethics stands in contrast to consequentialism (which sees the consequences of one’s actions as morally relevant) and deontology (which sees morality as being governed by rules and regulations). According to the virtue ethicists, to be morally good in any situation is to emulate the character of a ‘moral exemplar’—one who possesses the relevant virtue in question. The challenge of situationism to virtue ethics is this: if moral behaviour is governed by external situational factors, then people have no robust character traits; if so, how is a virtue-centered ethical view plausible at all?

Ancient virtue ethicists like Plato and Aristotle weren’t aware of studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment. But modern-day supporters of the moral theory are tasked with the challenge of explaining the apparent tension away. The are several routes that virtue ethicists might take (and have taken) to defend their position. One might question, as many philosophers and psychologists have, the legitimacy of the empirical studies themselves. Both the methodology and interpretation of situationist studies have been picked apart, leading some to conclude that the theory of situationism, in fact, is false.

One might also point out the fact that in all of these studies, there are always some people who ‘do the right thing’. They might form a small percentage—in the dime experiment, only 4% of the experimental group was helpful—but they’re there. And quite presumably, becoming a moral exemplar isn’t easy, explaining the apparent fact that most people get it wrong. According to Plato’s Republic, attaining virtue requires at least 50 years of effortful training. In contrast, almost all the participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment were young men.

One could also note that character isn’t always embodied in behaviour, which is what situationist studies primarily measure. In the Milgram experiment, some subjects protested while continuing to obey the experiment’s instructions to adminster dangerous electric shocks. This indicates that they might have known they were doing the wrong thing despite persisting in their actions—something all of us can surely relate to.

Situationism and moral responsibility

Virtue ethics, of course, is hardly the most prevalent moral theory amongst philosophers (or anyone else). But whatever one’s pet moral theory might be, situationism appears to have implications for the more basic idea of moral responsibility in general. Consider this: if it turns out that there is some situation which turns inevitably turns everyone into a raging tyrant, would this change the way you assign blame to those who are unlucky enough to be put in such a situation?

Part of the reason why one might say ‘no’ to the question above is the notion of ‘ought implies can’, which is central to morality. The idea is that if we ought to do something, then we should be in fact capable of doing it; conversely, if we aren’t capable of doing something, then it can’t be the case that we are morally required to do it. If this is true (and most ethicists think it is), then it seems like moral responsibility can’t apply in cases like the one above.

Of course, to repeat, none of the studies revealed situations that had universal influence over its participants. Not all the guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment turned abusive. In the dime study, not everyone who found one on the floor was subsequently helpful, and some who did not find a dime were helpful. What the overall statistics indicate is that situational factors have some influence over our moral behaviour that is strong, but not impossible to overcome. Still, it looks like we have much less control than we’d like to think, calling into question just how much freedom we really have, and hence how responsible we really are.

From a broader perspective, situationism can be seen as a small part of a larger movement questioning the fundamental assumption that individuals have control over their moral actions. What allowed the ‘good’ prison guards to remain good? Perhaps it was a product of the way they were brought up—in other words, their behaviour was a product of environmental or social determinism. If it wasn’t the way they were brought up, perhaps they had simply been genetically blessed with the propensity to do good—in other words, their behaviour was a product of biological determinism. One might go further and argue that, in the end, everything reduces to physical determinism anyway. The role that situationist studies play isn’t that special—they simply add to the mounting empirical evidence that our moral behaviour might be largely (if not entirely) governed by external factors outside our control.

Whatever the case, situationist studies at least suggest that before judging others as morally blameworthy (or praiseworthy), we should realistically consider how we ourselves would fare in the same situation. And, philosophizing aside, given that we know how much our immediate environment affects benevolent behaviour, we should thinking about what kind of situations we want to create for the inhabitants of our society.

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