Paul P. Mealing

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Wednesday, 3 October 2007


It seems that a lot of my blogs are the result of a response to someone else’s opinion or something they’ve written. This posting is no exception: in 2003 I read a book by Lance Morrow called Evil, An Investigation. Lance Morrow was an essayist for TIME magazine in the 1980s and 90s, and may still be for all I know, as I no longer subscribe. But this is how philosophy works: someone expresses a point of view supported by arguments and someone else challenges it, and that includes my arguments as well.

His book was a collection of essays, almost anecdotes, from which he derived a philosophical point of view on the subject of evil. I had serious problems with both his premise and his conclusions, so I wrote a lengthy letter to him explaining my disagreement and my position. Not surprisingly, he didn’t reply. My fundamental disagreement was with his apparent premise that evil is the result of a personality disorder, whereas history demonstrates that the worst of evil happens on a large scale involving a large number of people, most of whom would be considered normal under other circumstances. In effect, evil is almost a cultural disease that seems capable of affecting anyone given the fertile circumstances that allow it to develop unchecked.

His book and my response were written well before the incidents at Abu Ghraib, which perfectly demonstrate how evil can arise irrespective of cultural background. Morrow, being American, also seemed to fall into the cultural trap of believing that morality needed theism to ground it. To quote from my own correspondence: “There is an impression one gets from America that atheism is considered synonymous with amorality. Your own rhetoric supports this impression, when you claim that ‘atheism suffers a gag reflex’ on the word evil, and you dismiss philosophy as ‘theology in mufti’. History reveals that there is very little correlation between religion and morality and some may even argue that the converse is true.” Morrow seemed to think that anyone who is not Christian, or without Biblical influence, must believe in moral relativism, where anything goes. He never actually said this, and, in fact, he was careful not to reveal his own religious beliefs, but many Americans purport this point of view (atheism equates to moral relativism), and his own attack on atheism would suggest that he believes something similar.

My thesis is almost the opposite to his, where I believe that anyone, including myself, could perform acts of evil given the right circumstances. I provided 2 sources of evidence: incidents of atrocities performed throughout the 20th century by a diverse array of cultures; and psychological experiments demonstrating the ease with which people can become the perpetrators of culpable acts. Anyone who has studied psychology is familiar with Milgram’s famous study in obedience conducted at Yale University in the 1960’s, in which participants were asked to deliver electric shocks to an unseen person in another room when they gave wrong answers to simple questions. Amazingly, 65% of participants continued to give shocks at the extreme end of the scale (over 400 Volts) to people who had stopped responding. What is not so well known, is that this experiment was performed in many countries, revealing cultural differences in how ‘disciplined’ people were in obeying authority figures. America was not the highest scorer in this regard, with Spain and Holland scoring over 90% and Italy, Germany and Austria scoring over 80%. Australia, which has a long history of disobeying or questioning authority, was the lowest with 40% for men and 16% for women (Introduction to Social Psychology by Vaughan and Hogg, 1998, Prentice Hall). I don’t believe Australians are more compassionate than the other cultures tested, but I think, at the time these experiments were done, Australians had a lesser regard for authority figures than their contemporaries in other Western countries. This experiment or test is not so much about personal morality but about unquestioning trust in authority figures, which is the real reason that the figures varied.

The other famous, or infamous, experiment was the Stanford prison experiment conducted by Zimbardo in 1972. College students were divided arbitrarily into prison officers and prisoners, and, as is well known, the experiment had to be terminated after 6 days, instead of the planned 2 week period because it had pathologically gone out of control. Many commentators, including Zimbardo himself, have made the comparison between this experiment and the conditions that arose at Abu Ghraib.

But it was a documentary of a real prison, for orphaned boys in Romania, that gave me the most sobering insight into human nature at its most base. A psychologist filmed and interviewed adolescents in this prison, where the prison authorities allowed the inmates to create their own society and effectively run the prison autonomously. What happened is that a two-tiered culture developed comprising the bullies and the bullied. The bullies ran the prison and handed out punishments, which the authorities condoned. The psychologist interviewed one of the head bullies, who explained, quite matter-of-factly, that any new inmate, who didn’t have the requisite physical and mental toughness to become a bully, was soon buggered and lived at the bottom of the social heap. I have seen similar behaviour in a school playground, but, at least in that environment, teachers could intervene, and the children could still escape when they went home. In a prison it would become a living hell.

But I think this adolescent, who was interviewed, is the template for all the despots we have witnessed throughout history, who have such a narcissistic and egotistic view of themselves, that they believe an entire country’s population should bend to their will. It is a combination of supreme egotism with a Darwinian belief in total domination. It’s not dissimilar to the behaviour of the herd leader who defeats all the young bucks so that he can have mating rights with all the females. In fact, the worst of evil that we witness arises from the simple fact that we are tribal by nature – it’s part of our evolutionary heritage.

Nature has evolved mechanisms for population control so that resources are not eaten out. In the case of predators the mechanism is usually one of controlling territory, and this includes the human species. We are very territorial and we are very sensitive to others encroaching, invading, entering, immigrating and partaking of resources that we believe are our birthright. If you live in a country where you believe you are well off, then you not only consider visitors as being less well off, but, by corollary, they must also be envious of you. I was surprised to learn, when I visited the US, that almost everyone I met, not only assumed I would want to live there, but that that was my intention – after all, who wouldn’t? This tribalism, and its inherent territorialism, is part of our evolutionary heritage and it is the root cause of most of the evil we witness in the world.

The creation of in-group out-group categorisation happens at many levels: political, business, religious, cultural, national; and this leads to another social category: identity. But before I discuss identity, there is another famous psychological experiment in the US which is worth reviewing. A camp of teenage boys were divided into two teams, and quickly the division escalated where the boys ridiculed members of the other team, even though, beforehand, they may have been friends. I have observed this behaviour many times amongst adults, and no where is it more apparent than in politics, where people will support an idea if it’s proposed by their political party but reject it if it’s proposed by the opposition. In business situations, I have seen one team always critical of their opposing team as if all its members are incompetent whereas their own members are all exemplary. I believe this behaviour is universal. In the case of the camp experiment, described above, the supervisors overcame the division when they created a critical situation (blocked the water supply) that forced both of the teams to combine their efforts to find a solution. No one expects this behaviour to lead to evil, yet it does so on a regular basis, although it usually requires another attribute I alluded to earlier: identity.

How does this come about? What do I mean by identity? Identity is what links our past to our future. It is what we grew up with and what links us to our group, and, most significantly, what we pass onto the next generation. It is something we feel so strongly about, that when we feel it is threatened, we believe it is worth dying for, and therefore, worth killing for. Identity can be to country, to family, to culture, to religion or to race.

It is when people feel that their identity is threatened that they become particularly virulent in their defensiveness, which can lead to demonisation of the out-group, and, consequently, the ability to treat people as non-human. This is the evil that shocks us yet almost any of us could succumb to. You don’t believe me, but history reveals that it is the truly exceptional person who can resist this rather than the exceptional person who doesn’t. In countries like Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, cultural groups that lived alongside each other became politicised to the extent that they committed genocide. When this happens you are either against them or for them; there is no middle ground. Where do you think you would stand?

Even in our own society, we find politicians and ordinary people willing to demonise outsiders, otherwise known as ‘boat people’ because we feel threatened by them. These are people forced to flee the world’s most oppressive regimes so they have nothing to lose and everything to win. It is their very desperation which makes us so fearful of them, so we incarcerate them, in the middle of the desert or off-shore, where they cannot be seen or heard, or given the opportunity to express their case. We already believe that they don’t deserve so-called ‘Christian’ charity, or any of the rights that we do – they are lesser people, less deserving than us. We rationalise our judgements by calling them ‘queue-jumpers’ and ‘opportunists’, yet our real motives stem from our long ago evolutionary heritage of wanting to maintain our territory and preserve our resources. We are not so far removed from the animal kingdom as we like to think. It is because we have the ability to think, judge and rationalise our actions that makes the things we do, evil. Evil is always a perversion because we are able to justify it – we are the only animal that can do that, and that is what makes us different.


The Atheist Missionary said...

I am interested to know if you have read M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie. You would find it very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, you just "discovered" the central tenate of the Judeo-Christian world view - man is evil.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Atheist Missionary,

I have a copy of The Road Less Travelled, which I read about 20 years ago, and I read an interview with him when People of the Lie came out. I should read it, as I think I agree with his thesis: that we deceive ourselves, when we are doing evil, that we are actually doing good; if I remember it correctly.

He is a very good writer in my view, very thought-provoking. Satisfies the criterion I give at the top of my blog.

Hello Anonymous,

I'm pretty conversant with the Judeo-Christian view of evil; it's based on a mythical concept called 'original sin' or 'the fall of man'. So I don't think I've "discovered" anything of the sort, quite the contrary.

Regards, Paul.