The Situationist

The Situation of Evil

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 8, 2008

Evil DispositionIn light of the cultural habit of seeing evil as a disposition, we wanted to highlight for our readers a potentially interesting program being shown on National Geographic TV tomorrow night (8:00 p.m. eastern), “The Science of Evil,” which promises to shed some light on some of the situational sources of “evil.” The National Geographic website blurb reads as follows:

“What is evil? Is it a spiritual force that only God can understand? Or a meaningless superstition that science can snuff out by explaining the physical machinery of our brains? It depends on whom you ask. NGC travels into the trenches with the individuals who confront so-called evil almost daily.”

The program will include four segments about different aspects of “evil” from researchers and also from United Nations workers in the Congo and a minister who baptized a mass murderer. Those segments will include a section on the Stanford Prison Experiments conducted by Situationist contributor Phil Zimbardo as well as a section more recent researh on the neurobiology of resolving moral dilemmas being conducted at Princeton University.

For a sample of previous Situationist posts exploring the situational sources of evil, check out Parts I, II, and III of Phil Zimbardo’s series on “The Situational Sources of Evil” and “Looking for the Evil Actor” by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann.

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One Response to “The Situation of Evil”

  1. This brought to my attention your interesting series. The subject is so fundamental to so much of what we consider human nature that the experimental philosophers should be brought in. The list of “ten conditions” (in part III) for a surrender of individual judgment is, of course, the same list that forms group indentity and capability of the group to cohere and to function. This is precisely why it served both the leaders of the 9/11 hijackers and the leaders of “the civilized world” (that is to say, those who equate our own particular way of life with universal goodness) who needed strong group support in order to empower their reaction. The very source of “good,” that is to say, depends upon precisely the same conditions as the source of “evil”.

    The modern realization that the world has come to consist of many social groups in close interaction forces all but the most reactionary members of “the civilized world” to accept the possibility that differences between social groups force a prima facia moral relativity. At best, they can only struggle to achieve some sort of synthesis. But the entire idea of group cohesion depends on doing just the opposite. It depends upon giving one’s own group the emotional allegiance appropriate to a “universal good”.

    To try to bring an end to the “ten conditions” is to abandon all of those who seek to belong to a life-meaningful group to float along extremely susceptible to capture by still less savory groups. We should admit to ourselves that few of us are up to the task of living entirely independent mental and emotional existences. People generally crave the security and emotional satisfaction of belonging. It is difficult to picture “new leaders” who can create a “genuine universal good”. All the same problems somehow must first be overcome in order to begin to be able to overcome the problems, as it were.

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