'Good' and 'evil' Editorial
Stabroek News
May 13, 2007

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In the 1960s Stanley Milgram, a psychologist, set up what became a series of famous experiments, the results of which were subsequently published in a work entitled Obedience to Authority. He asked students to apply electric shocks to subjects at ever increasing voltages in order, he told them, to test the relationship between physical punishment and learning. In reality, the experiments had no such end, since there were no electric shocks, and the subjects were actually actors who registered pretence pain as the voltage supposedly increased when they could not 'remember' their exercises.

These studies revealed that the majority of students were prepared to apply considerable levels of 'pain' in order, as they thought, to get their subjects to learn, and a surprising number were willing to go to the highest point on the voltage scale apparently with few moral qualms. How far the students were prepared to go depended partly on the environment, so that a scientific setting with 'scientists' in white lab coats resulted in a far greater willingness on the part of the students to apply significant levels of 'pain' than if the context appeared less formal. Significantly, when the scientists after being asked by a student indicated that they were taking responsibility for the experiment, that student then absolved of individual responsibility would be more prepared to inflict serious 'pain.'

Milgram's experiment had partly been inspired by the responses given at tribunals such as Nuremburg, where the defence of the accused was simply that they had been following orders. His pioneering research was to be followed a few years later by a more radical study along related lines that was called the Stanford Prison Experiment. It was conducted by Philip Zimbardo, who only very recently recorded his conclusions in a popular format (as opposed to an academic one) in a book entitled The Lucifer Effect [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] .

The question Zimbardo's experiment was designed to answer was what happens when you put good people in an evil place, and approaching from the other end, so to speak, why good people do evil deeds. In 1971 Zimbardo [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] divided students randomly into two groups, one of which was assigned to play the role of guards in a pretence prison, and the other the role of prisoners. The experiment was intended to last two weeks, but had to be halted after only six days because the 'guards' became so brutal psychologically speaking (physical brutality was outlawed), that it could not be allowed to continue. The psychologist has been criticized on ethical grounds for permitting the experiment to go forward at all, but leaving that issue entirely aside, the results eerily foreshadowed what went on at Abu Ghraib in Iraq more than thirty years later.

In fact, Zimbardo appeared as a defence witness in the court martial of one of the American guards at Abu Ghraib, maintaining that what happened there was not a case of a few rotten apples spoiling the whole barrel as the US army and senior government officials maintained, but a case of a rotten barrel spoiling some good apples. As such, therefore, it was those at the top who should have been indicted, since they were the ones who had permitted the environment which led to the Abu Ghraib atrocities.

In a nutshell, Zimbardo's research is really about dehumanization, and as he has said, what the Stanford experiment demonstrated was that brutality was a consequence of the 'guards' changing their conceptualization of the 'prisoners' as people, and coming to think of them as "worthless animals." The process was facilitated, of course, by removing the identity of the 'prisoners' and giving them numbers, while the 'guards' too were "deindividuated" by being put in uniform, etc. The psychologist has recognized the work of the author William Golding, who long before Stanford and in an entirely different context captured the process in an act of the imagination, namely, Lord of the Flies.

Perhaps the fragility of the bonds of civilization implicit in the conclusions from this research comes as no particular surprise to most of us, more especially given the experiences of the twentieth century where Stalin's USSR and Hitler's Germany created an environment for the terrorization of all citizens and the murder of millions of them. These are, of course, extreme examples, but in a very much less dramatic sense most people know instinctively that a moral environment is essential if we want a nation of citizens who behave in a generally ethical way. A state framework which is corrupt, with an official class which operates primarily in its own interest and according mostly to expediency rather than principle, will not provide the kind of context where honesty, decency and respect for the humanity of others can flourish. And surely there are few thinking people, at any rate, who need Zimbardo's warning about the dangers of stereotyping with its dehumanizing implications.

Zimbardo's experiment and to a lesser degree Milgram's too was concerned with institutional settings, and as such it is easy to understand what is at work in the case of extra-judicial killings, to give one example, or physical and psychological abuse in filthy lock-ups. But the bonds of civilization in some parts of the world are currently under threat from a non-state direction, although there always is complicity on the part of certain officers of the state at some level. The narcotics trade threatens the institutional and moral fabric of many small countries, compromising traditional values and blurring the lines of what is ethically acceptable and non-acceptable, particularly since at the highest level the drug barons in many instances move freely within a business community and are accorded some status by virtue of their wealth and investment in the legitimate economy.

Behind the fašade are the murders, kidnappings and other serious crimes, but where compromises have been made with illegality because of the seductive nature of the profits from the trade, it becomes possible for those involved in it to rationalize its sleazy underpinnings especially if they do not directly participate in its violence. And where there is no strong moral state framework, more and more compromises will be made by those who in other circumstances would be 'good' people. In fact, in a very small country it may become difficult to draw an unambiguous distinction between the tainted and the decent, so to speak.

There will always be those whose consciences will resist the power of the group engaged in what Zimbardo calls "evil," but what the psychological research suggests is that in an unhealthy setting they will not be in the majority. For many small developing states the challenge is how to regenerate a commitment to community, and restore traditional community values so the pressure of the group is for good.