The Rule Utilitarianism: Milgram’s Experiment

Rule Utilitarianism is a form of utilitarianism that holds that an action is right once it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good. From Milgram’s point view, the aim of subjecting people to the experiment was to learn the degree to which ordinary citizens are obedient to authority (Gibson et al., 2018). In essence, Milgram’s experiment is morally justified because according to rule utilitarianism, it helps advance society. Although the teacher has a moral right to a clean conscience and the learner a natural right to life, the Rule utilitarianism only choice is to continue. In other words, humanity’s long-term benefits from the knowledge obtained in the experiment outweigh the short-term negative effects. In fact, some participants in the experiment only experienced short-term effects such as trembling, sweating, laughing nervously, and with additional three experiencing seizures. However, Milgram argued that once the participants were debriefed, their stress level decreased.

In line with above, Milgram is equally morally justified because rule utilitarianism is concerned with how the completion of the experiment affects not just the individual but the whole society. The aim of the rule is to maximize happiness both immediately and in the long run. One way in which this experiment benefits society is evidenced in the theory of diffusion of responsibility (Irlenbusch & Saxler, 2019). According to the theory, every individual within an organization shares the moral accountability of the company’s action. This implies that no single person can hold moral responsibility. With the knowledge gained from Milgram’s experiment, it means that those in the lower chain have no option but to obey the command of those with high ranks. The experiment helps the society understand why corporate executive exploits their employees because they are free from moral responsibility. In fact, such people will not think twice before carrying out unethical task.

Overall, rule utilitarianism will only ask how the Milgram experiment advances society. This aligns with Milgram’s goal of learning the degree to which ordinary citizens are obedience to authority. It is important to note that obedience plays a critical positive role in the society. However, as evidenced in the experiment, obedience can compel people to do terrible things. Milgram’s findings remind those who possess power to understand and be aware of the coercive nature of authority: power and authority can be used to make people do things that they might not otherwise do.

The question, after reading through Milgram’s experiment remains, should you be worried about whether your doctor is utilitarian? The answer to this is absolutely no, because doctor’s aim is to ensure the patient receive high quality and safe care. Similarly, doctors are guided by healthcare policies that strive to promote the best standard of health to a larger number of patients. Every patient has a right to decide how to live their own lives based on values, judgments and preferences. The role of the doctor, in most cases, is to help the patients determine their own ends. Most importantly, the journey to becoming a doctor requires medical students to take the Hippocratic Oath. One of the promises embedded in the oath is “do no harm”. This means that even if the patient is dealing with a utilitarian doctor, there is no need to worry because the doctor is under oath. In other words, doctors must adhere to set standards of behavior including respect, dignity, and courtesy.


Gibson, S., Blenkinsopp, G., Johnstone, E., & Marshall, A. (2018). Just following orders? The rhetorical invocation of ‘obedience ‘in Stanley Milgram’s post‐experiment interviews. European Journal of Social Psychology, 48(5), 585-599.

Irlenbusch, B., & Saxler, D. J. (2019). The role of social information, market framing, and diffusion of responsibility as determinants of socially responsible behavior. Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, 80, 141-161.

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PsychologyWriting. "The Rule Utilitarianism: Milgram’s Experiment." October 14, 2022.