cult recovery 101


Evil, part 4: the social dimension

Clare Carlisle

Does contemporary society give rise to conditions more conducive to evil than in the past?

November 5, 2012

So far in this series I’ve considered evil as if it were an individual matter – a question of personal virtue, or the lack of it. In emphasising the relationship between sin and freedom, Christian philosophers such as Augustine seem to assume that if we look hard enough at the human condition we will gain insight into evil. This attitude implies that evil has nothing to do with history or culture – as if the fall is the only historical event that matters, at least as far as evil is concerned.

In the 20th century, a series of scientific experiments on the psychology of evil told a very different story. Among the most infamous of these are the experiments at Yale and Stanford universities conducted in the 1970s by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo. Both Milgram and Zimbardo found that, under certain conditions, well-educated and apparently ordinary university students were capable of immense cruelty. Under the instructions of an authority-figure, Milgram’s students were prepared to administer painful electric shocks as a penalty for poor memory: two-thirds of them increased the voltage to lethal levels as their “subjects” cried in agony. These results demonstrated how dangerous and immoral obedience can be. In his experiment, Zimbardo created a prison environment in the psychology department at Stanford, assigning roles of guard and prisoner to his group of undergraduates. Within a few days guards were treating prisoners with such cruelty and contempt that the experiment had to be terminated early.

Reflecting on his Stanford prison experiment in 2004, Zimbardo wrote eloquently about the conditions that make good people do evil things. The prison, he suggested, is an institution set apart from normal society in which brutality can be legitimised. Wearing uniforms and sunglasses, identifying prisoners by numbers and guards by official titles and removing clocks and blocking natural light all helped to dehumanise and deindividualise the participants. In this “totally authoritarian situation”, says Zimbardo, most of the guards became sadistic, while many of the prisoners “showed signs of emotional breakdown”. Perhaps most interestingly, Zimbardo found that he himself, in the role of prison superintendent, rapidly underwent a transformation: “I began to talk, walk and act like a rigid institutional authority figure more concerned about the security of “my prison” than the needs of the young men entrusted to my care as a psychological researcher.”

Although Zimbardo insists that “there were no lasting negative consequences of this powerful experience”, his conclusions raise ethical questions about scientific experimentation itself. Does the laboratory, like the prison, provide a special kind of environment in which pain can be inflicted with approval? Do the white coats and the impersonal manner of recording results dehumanise both scientists and their subjects?

These questions point to a larger philosophical issue. Does contemporary society give rise to conditions more conducive to evil than in the past? Do science and technology, in particular, dehumanise us? Modern technology has certainly created forms of communication that allow people to remain more safely anonymous. Take the internet, for example; it’s right here. In recent years the malevolent online behaviour of internet trolls and vitriolic commentators, hiding behind their pseudonyms, has become a much-discussed cultural phenomenon. Maybe it’s quite natural that we have a delicious taste of freedom and power when given the opportunity to go undercover – like Stevenson’s Jekyll-turned-Hyde as he runs gleefully through the night to the wrong side of town, stamping on children as he goes. But in such circumstances are we really in control? Milgram’s electrocutors thought they were in control, and so did Philip Zimbardo. It turned out, of course, that they too were part of the experiment.

As usual, Plato has something to contribute to this debate. In the Republic Socrates’ pupil Glaucon recounts the story of a shepherd,Gyges, who fell into the earth during an earthquake and found a ring that made him invisible. “Having made this discovery,” says Glaucon, “he managed to get himself included in the party that was to report to the king, and when he arrived he seduced the queen and with her help attacked and murdered the king and seized the throne.”

Plato uses this story to depict the prevailing immorality within his own Athenian society – a society which had, after all, sentenced to death its wisest and most virtuous citizen. Plato suggests that his contemporaries regard hypocrisy and deceit as the surest route to happiness, since they seek all the benefits of a reputation for virtue, or “justice”, while promoting their own interest by vice, or “injustice”, wherever possible. In the Republic he argues, through the voice of Socrates, that this view is not only morally wrong but misguided, since true happiness and freedom can only come from living virtuously.

The story of Gyges’s ring seems to suggest that evil is a simply a fact of human nature. When anonymity releases us from responsibility for our actions, we will gladly abandon morality and harm anyone who obstructs our pursuit of what we think will make us happy. In this way, we might point to Gyges in arguing that there is nothing particularly modern about evil. On the other hand, though, Plato had to resort to a myth, and a magic ring, to illustrate the conditions under which our tendency to evil manifests itself. In our own time, technology has worked its magic, and the fantasy of invisibility has become an everyday reality.