July 14, 2008


In his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, psychologist Philip Zimbardo comes up with a good working definition of evil:

Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others--or using one's authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf.

People have a strong tendency to believe that human actions are guided by why Zimbardo calls inner determinants (motivations). This can cause us to neglect the force of outer determinants. This leads in turn to a kind of moral dualism in which we see some people (like us) as inherently good and others as inherently evil.

Zimbardo suggests that

The idea that an unbridgeable chasm separates good people from bad people is a source of comfort for at least two reasons. First, it creates a binary logic, in which Evil is essentialized. Most of us perceive Evil as an entity, a quality that is inherent in some people and not in others. Bad seeds ultimately produce bad fruits as their destinies unfold. ...

There are problems with this simplistic view. The idea of a Good/Evil dichotomy

takes "good people" off the responsibility hook. They are freed from even considering their possible role in creating, sustaining, or conceding to the conditions that contribute to delinquency, crime, vandalism, teasing, bullying, rape, torture, terror and violence. "It's the way of the world, and there's not much that can be done to change it, certainly not by me."

He suggests instead that we should think of evil in incrementalist terms, i.e. as something we are all capable of, depending on the situation. This view is more conductive to helping people take steps to prevent its spread.

WILL THEY OR WON'T THEY? Here's another look at Iran, the Bush administration, Israel and likely scenarios.

ANIMALS AND RIGHTS. As mentioned last week, the Spanish parliament is considering granting some quasi-"human" rights to great apes.

IMPERMANENCE. The NY Times reports that Buddhism may be dying out in Japan. Too bad--the world could use more of it.



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