"Authority", evil, and Philip Zimbardo

In a recent Skeptic.com email I read an interview with Philip Zimbardo, famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment, and what it taught some people about the dangers of believing in “authority” and such.

Using the context of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which is also the subject of a movie coming out soon, he discusses whether we all have the potential to be evil. I tend to believe we do- I can feel the stirrings of it inside me under certain circumstances.

But, how exactly does Zimbardo define “evil”?

Zimbardo defines it in The Lucifer Effect thusly: “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.

So he goes even further than I have when I say evil is: “any act which intentionally harms any person who isn’t currently initiating force or violating private property; someone who does not deserve to be harmed at this moment“. I approve of his inclusion of those using “authority” to influence others to be evil under the umbrella of evil.

He talks about one of the Abu Ghraib monsters:

In this model, Zimbardo told me that before he went to Iraq, Chip Frederick was an all-American patriot, “a regular church-going kind of guy who raises the American flag in front of his home each day, gets goose bumps and tears up when he listens to our National Anthem, believes in American values of democracy and freedom, and joined the army to defend those values.”

I don’t see anything good there. Instead I see the seeds of evil in almost every morsel of the above description. I see nothing in Frederick that recognizes Rightful Liberty and human rights. Instead I see a person deeply brainwashed by a religion (statism) and willing to do horribly evil acts on its behalf. That he became a monster doesn’t surprise me in the least.

Yes, we all probably have the capacity for evil behavior, but some superstitions make it more likely to happen. Some make it almost inevitable.

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11 Responses to “"Authority", evil, and Philip Zimbardo”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Depends on the definition of 'evil.'

    Ol' Chip's crime of riding herd in the prison while one of the female MPs 'rode' the prisoners could be 'evil' in one man's universe.

    As could the removal of the penis and testicles of two of our lads from the 101st after hours of torture by the Iraqi insurgents.

    Moral equivalence much?

  2. Kent McManigal Says:

    I think I explained how both I and Zimbardo define evil.

    Both of your examples are evil, although I question your use of the term “our lads”, since they weren't mine in any way. Plus, if you don't invade other people's territory to murder and destroy, you don't face much chance of being captured by “insurgents” (which is a silly statist term). Don't initiate force, and don't violate other people's property and you won't be committing evil.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Any act that violates rights is evil.

    Evil also comes in many other forms. It can be as simple as something like having an affair with your neighbor's wife. While it may not be violating rights, it does foster an environment for evil to flourish. It likely results in things such as broken families and financial ruin. While those are secondary effects, when a person engages in an affair, they knowingly and willingly risk the possibility of such adversity.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    There is a book called “People of the Lie” by Scott Peck, which is a great book on the psychology of evil.

  5. Kent McManigal Says:

    I would say my definition can cover that quite well.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    I concur, citing 'harm' is not always caused by a direct violation of rights. I will also posit that it doesn't necessarily have to be about harm either. It could be in the form of provocation or a lack of wisdom or complete disregard or negligence, stupidity, etc.

    How many ways are there to allow evil?

  7. Kent McManigal Says:

    I'll clarify something else here- I believe there are wrongs which don't sink to the level of evil. Unintentional harm is still harm, but isn't evil. Breaking a promise/contract that was deceptively entered in to may (or may not) be wrong, but it isn't evil.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    Guess we'll have to agree to disagree.

    One man's 'monster' is another man's pledgemaster.

    Was in the sandbox during Abu Ghraib. I went through worse on 'hell night' pledging a frat.

    You know not of what you speak.

    Spent 5 years in the middle east. Speak arabic. Was invited into their homes, weddings, funerals, prayers.

    Islam is less a religion as much as it is a political ideology. The 'statism' we both abhor is embodied in this ideology.

    And it's coming to neighborhood near you. God bless.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    Any agreement under the pretense of fraud or deception or circumstances other than knowledgeable willful consent is invalid.

    That is to say that for an agreement to be valid, all parties must be clear and open about any and all obligations of said agreement, and under no duress or coercion to engage thereof, nor should they be in a condition where they are incapable of agreeing as such.

    Fraud, deception coercion, duress, and incapability voids any agreement or contract.

    There is no such things as breaking an invalid promise.

  10. Kent McManigal Says:

    There's a lot of statism in that.

    Making or keeping a pledge to commit invasion, destruction, and murder- or to support those doing it- isn't a good thing.

    Calling someone else's territory “the sandbox”, like it's a game, is a purely statist outlook.

    I don't have to have participated in evil to know what's evil.

    I despise Islam- because I despise all superstitions (including statism). Yes, I believe Islam is probably a little worse than most, but that's not a recommendation to any of the others. If it comes to a neighborhood near me- and violates rights (as I believe it inevitably would) I will fight it. I will not commit murder on behalf of a State, because of what those who support that State tell me, nor will I “preemptively” initiate force or violate private property.

    I would apologize for that, but it's the right thing to do. If a government tells me to fear/kill someone/something, I check it out and come to my own conclusions. Disbelieving known liars has always served me well.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    Look up “Milgram experiment”

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