Friday, February 12, 2016

Evil Prevails

Sunday is Valentine's Day so the timing of this seems apt.  Haha.

Anyway, I mentioned I watched the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  In the movie, they bring up an experiment done back in the early 20th Century.  Basically a shrink had an actor go in a little booth to pretend to be a random person and then brought in subjects, who were commanded by a scientist to keep shocking the person in the booth with increasing amounts of electricity.  For the most part, people would question the scientist but then deliver the shocks as ordered, no matter how much the actor in the booth scream or carried on.

The gist of the study was that ordinary, seemingly non-evil, non-sadistic people were capable of doing horrible things to someone else so long as they were commanded by someone in authority.  The movie doesn't mention it, but we saw real-world examples of this at Nuremberg and other war crime trials where someone would say, "I was only following orders."  Most of us would probably say that if we were conscripted into the Nazi army we wouldn't kill a bunch of Jews and other people, but would we really not do that?  If it came between you being killed or all those people, would you really not do it?  Or would you rationalize by saying you're following orders?

For the most part I think that's the kind of evil we have to worry about more than supervillains like in comic books or James Bond movies.  Most people are capable of doing terrible things because either they're "following orders" or they think they're doing the right thing.  That's why it's so hard to eliminate evil in the world.  First it's hard for all of us to agree on a definition and second, we're all fragile and fallible. 

There you go, depressing thoughts for your weekend of love and chocolate.


  1. It can be compared to people working for a boss who is doing illegal things and just trying to ignore it because one needs a job. People have to be educated about ethics because if you go along with it, you too can end up in jail.

  2. It doesn't even have to be something evil that someone is being told to do. It can be stupid. And we are people who will blindly listen to someone us to do something stupid all the time, because that's the basic level of intelligence in society, how society functions at all, everyone being scared into doing stupid things because they fear they have no other choice. And that's called conformity. I'm not talking about conformity as if the only other choice is hippy culture (which is the same thing), but conformity in that we assume the rules someone said were perfectly logical, but are in fact incredibly stupid (deliberately set in place to maintain the status quo), are perfectly logical. And yet the rub is, you can't force radical change. Most of the radical change we think has happened, and has worked (say, the American Revolution) cost a lot more than anyone is really willing to support, and even less capable of putting together a good enough support structure to see succeed. So we settle for mundane, slow change. And that's been going on for thousands of year. For instance: we no longer participate in public executions as if they are spectator sports. So: progress. Yay civilization!

    1. To clarify (a bit), I am suggesting that the American Revolution was such a fluke, and has never been successfully duplicated, that we can't possibly expect lightning, say, to strike twice. Americans, despite the fact that literally our whole history is a series of wars that produced everything we know, think war is the worst possible thing, and we've basically thought that since we won the most important war in human history. Which is insane. But there you go.

  3. The study you're referencing is the Milgram Study, started in 1961. It was later replicated in 2007 by Burger, a Santa Clara University Professor. A lot of attention has been paid to Milgram's study in recent years, and a lot of issues with his methodology and to some degree his ethics. However, even though his results have been replicated, there exists no agreement on what it means. Arndt's book, "The Banality of Evil" came out around the same time, '63, and reached similar conclusions as Milgram, and in recent years other ethic and social scholars have started to disagree with her, saying the 'banality of evil' is too simplistic.
    An interesting issue, to be sure.



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