Does self-knowledge harm people?

A defense of putting trainees for tough jobs through Milgram-style situations.

Several email correspondents object to my suggestion below that training for jobs whose holders may feel justified, or sometimes be justified, in deliberately inflicting pain on others — police and prison guards, for example — ought to include a Milgram-like scenario.

They make three points:

1. Doing so would be illegal under “informed consent” rules.

2. Doing so would be wrong because deception of subjects is wrong. (The deception is what makes it impossible to get real informed consent.)

3. Doing so would be wrong because some subjects will suffer emotional trauma as a result.

I think #1 and #2 are simply wrong, because they confuse the ethics of research with the ethics of training. #3 is more complicated.

As absurd as the human subjects bureaucracy has become, the principle that experimental subjects shouldn’t be put at risk without informed consent is one I wholeheartedly endorse. And, in addition to the potential damage to the subjects, the practice of deceiving research subjects has bad long-term results for the research enterprise. So I’m with the behavioral economists, who make sure their subjects know exactly what’s going on.

But training is not research. There’s nothing in law or ethics to prevent the Army, or a police force, from having a Milgram-style “following orders drill,” and a long, careful after-action analysis of that drill, as part of basic training. Yes, after a while there would be some leakage of information back to the recruits, which would diminish the value of the drill. But it wouldn’t eliminate that value: every drill thereafter would take place in the shadow of the possibility that the order just given was one better disobeyed.

(Whether human-subjects rules would allow a scientist to get a grant to study the results of such training, or whether a journal would publish a paper on the outcome of such a study, is a different question. I think the answer ought to be “Yes” as long as the researcher isn’t involved in setting up the program in the first place, but I’m not at all sure an IRB would agree.)

As to #3, if self-knowledge is bad for human beings then Socrates deserved what he got and social scientists and humanists are in the wrong business.

Yes, some people will be deeply upset when they discover what horrible things they’re capable of. Those who need skilled counseling to integrate that discovery should receive it. But I deny that people are damaged by being taught who they are, and I’d much rather have them find out in a drill than in real life.

It’s not enough to admire and praise Spec. Joseph M. Darby, though admiration and praise are certainly his due. We need to work to create more Joseph M. Darbys.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: