Tag Archives: Philip Zimbardo

Defining Evil

28 Sep

Nothing is easier than to condemn the evildoer. Nothing is harder than to try and understand them.

– Fyodor Dostoevsky

Following from the previous post on Evil, here are some efforts trying to pin down a definition of evil, most of which I heard on a radio program about the subject:

Professor Alain Turain says that with “evil what is at stake is the destruction of the subject“. He says “pleasure is one possibility, also cruelty, it’s destroying your capacity to be a subject, as an animal, as a thing. A notion of degradation and destruction or the integrity of another.

David Mollet writes “The flaw in the discussion is the product of various assumptions about what an evil act is. It seems to focus on the act itself rather than the attitude of the person committing the act. I would offer a different definition of evil: some people do bad things but don’t think that they are doing a bad thing. These people are not evil. True evil is doing a bad thing while knowing that it’s bad.

What about the sincere person that think they are doing their duty, e.g. Anders Brevik? They would not be called evil by the intention definition, nor would the Nazi camp guard that thinks he’s doing his duty.

So by this definition “Brevik is not evil as he didn’t gain enjoyment from the killing, whereas Che Guevara is quoted as enjoying making the order to fire on his enemies.

Some would then conclude that “pleasure is not a necessary component.” which means we can say that both an intention and an act can be separately categorised as evil.

Also we talk about a distinction between violence and extreme violence.

Smith: “We want to know whether something is just very bad behaviour, gross moral turpitude, or do we need an extra category of evil. It’s definitely something to do with magnitude.

A useful question is: “is there a bigger pattern, a bigger system that corrupts your morality” – pushing towards Zimbardo’s conclusions?

Young: People can “try to ground a notion of evil by appeal to human rights. Human rights is not just a set of laws but part of a universal culture.

Professor Barry Smith suggests: “a separation between act and intention: what are evil intentions? Our intuitions are good at figuring out what an evil act is.” I disagree; it’s interesting that many people share the idea that there is evil but that they don’t agree on what it is.

I say that morals are obviously relative from which it follows that evil must also be relative. This explains why there is not a succinct definition on which people can agree.

Peter Young, a Professor of Criminology, says people often fall back on the holocaust when relativism is brought up and most agree that this was “evil”. But there were then, and are now, some people who think otherwise, thus it is still not an absolute.

Young says that “criminologists also don’t like to talk about evil. Using evil is a way to get away from relativism.

Michel Wieviorka (a Professor of Sociology who recently published a book called Evil) discusses the example of Anders Brevik who killed 79 people in Norway. “In looking for an explanation, we look to sociological factors: the political discourse of muslims and immigration, etc. But this is not enough. Then we look at psychological factors: let us understand the psychologies of the person involved, but of course this is still not enough.There is some mystery in what we try to understand. In the same circumstance one will commit a murder, another will not, and we try to understand this.”Young said “people try to stop the explanation by saying look, that’s just evil.

To understand you have to express empathy. Is this a limit to social science?

Wieviorka: “the more you help, the more you explain, the more you can help to fight against crime, it means that how will you fight something that you don’t explain? How do you fight racism for instance if you don’t try to understand why people become racist. You are not born racist you become racist. So if you don’t try to explain, maybe you need some empathy to understand the people that are racist, but because you understand does not mean that you don’t want to fight.

So is evil even a useful concept?

Wieviorka says “evil is not a concept readily adopted by sociologists. This is because religion gets in the way. It’s not a sociological category. It’s a non-explanation – it’s moral, political, religious. Not a tool to use in order to understand better, but an object in itself. Using evil becomes saying it’s something in itself, it’s not a human issue, it’s nature or its genes.

Laurie Taylor: “it’s useful as something to express extreme intolerance of certain types of behaviour but not nail it to a particular type of phenomenon. So do we need this category? Yes, we do want it, but it’s the target of explanation, not the explanation in itself. It’s a mish-mash of ideas and definitions. We can say the behaviour is what we want to explain.

A more useful paradigm than evil here.


14 Sep

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

– Aristotle

When somebody does something bad, say killing a child, genocide or rape, people tend to call them a monster or “evil”.

It doesn’t explain anything; in fact it is used to shut down any effort at explaining such behaviour.

It’s as if giving them this label explains everything. The implication is that there’s something intrinsically wrong with the person that has committed this act.

I say calling someone evil is a cop out.

It implies they’re just made that way so they will never change and we should just do away with them. It’s saying that punishment and vengeance is the only way and there is no point in trying to understand and hence rehabilitate the person.

There’s a dangerous de-humanising element here. And this means it sets them apart from the rest of us.

There’s an issue with empathy: it’s not easy to understand why someone has done something that on face value seems heartless and goes against our deeply held moral codes. But why this fear? It requires a level of empathy that not everyone is willing to use.

To empathise is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to try to think what they thought, and to feel what they felt. To empathise is to consider yourself committing that act.

And this is the problem.

It’s a sign of maturity that a person can hold someone else’s point of view in their mind without agreeing with it.

To empathise also means to admit that you could commit the same act. To accept that we all have a side that we don’t like. The thing is, we are all capable of heinous acts. Study after study proves this to be true. People think “oh no, not me, I couldn’t possibly do something like that, I’m better than that”. Alas that’s just wishful thinking.

Psychologists Professor Philip Zimbardo and Doctor Stanley Milgram have clearly shown how “normal” people can be made to commit “evil” acts. If you find this difficult to accept, read about the infamous Stanford Prison experiment or the Milgram experiment.

If we accept that in some situations, with certain influences, we are all capable of very bad acts, then the question is what are those situations and what are those motivations, and how do we protect against them? To do otherwise is simply idiocy.

The good thing is that there’s a corollary to this conclusion. Zimbardo describes the ways in which people can be influenced to do “good” things against these forces, people he calls heroes. In fact, Zimbardo has set up a project in America and is doing some great work educating people “to overcome the natural human tendency to watch and wait in moments of crisis” so they can “act heroically on behalf of those in need“.

More evil in the next post.

%d bloggers like this: