By Deepak Chopra, MD
ISIS and its atrocious acts have thrown the issue of evil into high relief. Once more we are forced to confront a horrifying aspect of human nature and to ask ourselves what can be done about it. This post isn’t about U.S. policy against ISIS–that’s the business of the President, his advisers, the military, and Congress. But evil itself deserves better, clearer thinking than what it generally gets. If better thinking leads to better policy, all the more reason to find it.
Recorded history contains no time when human evil didn’t exist, although only very recently has it been called a problem. Traditionally, evil was looked upon as something much worse than a problem–the fruit of sin, the work of cosmic satanic forces, a divine punishment, or an animalistic instinct. It has taken thousands of years to get past such thinking, and when atrocities arouse public fear and hatred, the old explanations return. But on the other hand, it has become possible to think of evil in terms of psychology and its insights, which is a mark of progress.
Turning to psychology has made evil our responsibility; it can’t be shuffled off to a supernatural agent, either God or the Devil. Also, by taking responsibility, we can stop blaming “the other” as if a whole class, gender, race, ethnicity, or religion is uniquely evil. There’s enough war, crime, and general violence for everyone to accept the blame, and if we take psychology seriously, blame is clearly not a solution. In times of war, the normal boundaries that keep evil in check are lost, and even the “good” side of the conflict is forced into the fray under extraordinary circumstances. But that’s not my topic here. I’m not forgiving or condoning ISIS; forgiveness has rarely been a practical means of dealing with evil when it shows up on your doorstep.
Making evil a psychological problem represents progress, in my view, but it doesn’t automatically lead to optimism. Freud, for one, came to the conclusion that human nature contained an impulse toward aggression and sadism that could possibly be held in check by civilization but never eradicated. Two famous and now widely publicized laboratory experiments indicated that “good people” can commit shocking acts under the right conditions. Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram showed in the early Sixties that ordinary people will obey the orders of an authority figure to inflict pain on someone else (the setup involved administering greater and greater doses of electrical shock to a person sitting behind a pane of glass–in reality the shocks were faked).
The subjects, mostly young males, showed a willingness to deliver painful shocks even when the person receiving them started to scream and beg for the experiment to stop. Obedience to authority was still heavily overhung by memories of Nazism, and Milgram broke a taboo by showing that everyday Americans would also exhibit sadistic behavior under the cloak of following orders. Not every subject was susceptible, and some refused to go beyond a certain level of administered pain. Yet overall, Milgram concluded that any of us should give ourselves a 50-50 chance that we would comply.
The other study, which is even more shocking, is the Stanford Prison Experiment from 1971 (the subject of a recent Hollywood film with Billy Crudup). A team led by psychologist Philip Zimbardo divided a group of college students into make-believe guards and prisoners. The two groups were in constant contact, and the guards were allowed to have total control over the prisoners, barring only physical punishment. The guards quickly became abusive toward the prisoners, some going as far as psychological torture. The prisoners tended to take the abuse passively, and those who objected to it were harassed by their fellow prisoners at the instigation of the guards. The situation became so intense that the experiment was ended early, after only six days.
The conclusion of the Stanford Prison Experiment was the so-called “good apples in a bad barrel.” In other words, abusive behavior arose out of the situation, not from pathological individuals (bad apples) infecting everyone else. The conditions that bring out evil behavior have now been well studied and apply to prison conditions from Attica to Abu Ghraib. A good apple will turn bad if:
— Permission is given to act badly.
— People in positions of authority give this permission.
— No blame or guilt is applied by others in the group.
— The opportunity for violence become commonplace.
— No reprisals or punishment threatens the wrongdoers.
What both experiments agree upon is that evil action tends to be situational, and without curbs it can go viral, spreading its influence throughout “normal” society. The effect won’t be the same on everyone, because not everyone is capable of stepping beyond accepted boundaries. But even when the vast majority of people don’t commit violence, they may wind up condoning it or feeling paralyzed to change it–presumably this is the trap that countless Muslims find themselves in wherever civilian populations are embroiled with extremists.
The situational explanation for evil is shocking at first, because everyone has a tendency to identify as being good, as well as a member of a moral society that is on the side of right (often with God’s approval). But on second thought, if evil arises in perverse and corrupt situations, we can prevent and change the situation. Every aspect that leads to bad behavior can be reversed.
— Permission to act badly can be refused.
— People in positions of authority can enforce this refusal.
— Blame or guilt can be assigned by others in the group.
— The opportunity for violence can be limited and policed.
— Punishment can be meted out to wrongdoers.
None of these remedies is exceptional; they prevail under conditions of peace in a civilized society. But in times of panic and fear, when irrational voices declare that only fighting fire with fire will work, it takes patience and resolution to bring the situation back down to rational behavior. There are problems with the situational view of evil, however. One is that some situations, like the Islamic State, have veered so far into perversity that there is little hope of changing it without equal or greater violence on the part of outside forces. Morality is very difficult to enforce when immorality has gained all the power.
The second problem with the situational theory is that it doesn’t address Freud’s belief that aggression and sadism are inherent in human nature. Do dark forces lurk inside each of us, waiting to erupt from the unconscious unless we keep a tight lid on them? If so, then the spiritual aspirations of the human race could be foolish, naive, or dangerous. The topic of inherent evil will be discussed in the next post.
(To be cont.)
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are Super Genes co-authored with Rudy Tanzi, PhD and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com