Ethical? I think not.
Neither the Milgram nor the Zimbardo experiments were ethically carried out under the current guidelines that we have in place. The short answer for the underlying “why” as to whether or not there was any sort of ethical breach lies in the wake of said experiments, and others like them, leading to the development of an overarching legally enforceable “code of ethics” (OpenStax Sociology 2e, pg. 43) applied throughout the profession (adopting its first in 1970 [source]. In each of the experiments the well-being of the participants were severely compromised and the harm being inflicted was ignored for the purpose of gaining further insights into the variables being studied and the behaviors of the human psyche.
Not only that, but in the case of the Zimbardo Experiment, both participant psychologists in the video we watched (Dr. Craig Haney and Dr. Zimbardo himself) along with admitting to the harm they had inflicted, readily admitted to having lost control of the experiment, its boundaries (and in turn, the variables), and themselves. In doing so, they crossed the ethical line Max Weber established via the principle of “value neutrality” (OpenStax Sociology 2e, pg. 44) as they, themselves, were too deeply apart of the experiment and lost within it to remain impartial and objective. Zimbardo highlights this fact when relating that it took an outsider’s perspective (that of Dr. Christina Maslach, whose visit to the site, and resultant shock and abhorrence acted as the light of reason that shone through the fog of the experiment gone so very, very awry) to make them see what was happening, and how out of control it had truly gotten.
Zimbardo’s Experiment took place in the year following the ASA’s adoption of their first code of ethics, so clearly, the framework was in place and they were crossing lines that had already been advised against. The same cannot be said for the Milgram Experiment, which is the only reasonable doubt that could even be cast in the direction of its labeling as unethical. Which it has been labeled (highlighted by Zimbardo’s confession of Milgram hugging him after the study and thanking him for doing a study so unethical it took some of the heat off of him for his). The participants in Milgram’s Experiment (the Teachers) were visibly distressed and disturbed by what was happening, and yet they were told that they must continue. While at any time, they could have refused, just like the fact that they were paid for their participation and were told that they would receive the money just for showing up at the lab regardless of their participation, the very fact that they were suddenly in a stressful situation that they felt obligated and pressured to complete shows that the contextual strain had a toll that could have easily rendered this option somehow outside of reach. This would imply that a line was most certainly, and recognizably crossed.
With regard to whether or not the findings of either study were worth the damage inflicted upon their respective participants, I would have to answer a resounding “No”. Especially when participants enter into a study with deception used to conceal the true motives, they cannot truly give consent for what they are going to be experiencing or being put through. So as the actor in the Milgram Experiment repeated over and over again, no one has a right to inflict harm on another for the gain of anyone else. Okay, so I am paraphrasing his pleas for release, but essentially it echoes a theme that we do not have the legal, nor moral, right to subject harm on another being to aid anyone without their consent. Even though we so often do under the guise of “care”, the asylum histories are full of examples of said agency-stripping and personal violations.
If I were a sociologist I would study the conditions of oppression and privilege that allow for their wide social acceptance to better understand why oppressors oppress. What social conditions do they use/need to establish/maintain these systems of control, and why do they said systems get so readily challenged. I feel like I know a lot of the easy surface answers that simplistically relate the problems to greed and power, but I want to delve deeper and dissect all of that much more. As a WEST (Women & Ethnic Studies) major that is a primary focus of the field, one I hope to teach in one day.