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Chapter 1: The Psychology of Evil 
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Zimbardo: "Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanise, or destroy innocent others - or using one's authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf, In short, it is "knowing better but doing worse."


Evil acts are intentional assaults upon innocents: the evildoer knows what he is doing and wants to do it to someone who does not deserve it. Essentially, it is a purposeful delivery of unjust suffering. But does the evildoer think his victim to be innocent? What if the evildoer sees his terrible deed as necessary and his target as really deserving? The victims of the Holocaust, in many NAZI minds, were deserving of their fate: eliminating the world of Jews, Bolsheviks, Homosexuals, Cripples, and other Degenerates was an act of Justice...precisely the Just deed, and their terrifying acts were protecting everything beautiful and noble about the world. The Jews were evil and the final solution was how to eliminate the world of their evil influence.

I don't know if evil can be easily translated apart from the religious context from which it developed. In a purely psychological context it seems to capture an event which cannot be tolerated: deeds which are never appropriate and never justified. But the religious term evil refers to something that offends not simply human values, but is an offense to the very source and foundation of all creation: it is something by which God divides who is welcome in the heavenly kingdom and who is kept out. Still, it really is a complex of the term in Judaeo-Christian theology and biblical studies.



Sat Nov 17, 2007 12:31 pm
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But does the evildoer think his victim to be innocent? What if the evildoer sees his terrible deed as necessary and his target as really deserving?


Is the act less evil if the evildoer believes what he/she is doing is good and right (as the 9/11 terrorists presumably did)? I would say no, but then what of the evildoer him/herself?

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I don't know if evil can be easily translated apart from the religious context from which it developed.


Judging by our continuing debate, we certainly seem to be stuggling with this concept. So, here is a question to this point. Which of the following best describes how we each see "evil?"

a. An idea defined by God.
b. An idea defined by the human mind.
c. An idea that exists independently of any intelligence.
d. Other (please specify).



Sun Nov 25, 2007 8:53 pm
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I do not think that nitpicking evil into a religious context, whether it evolved there or not, is conducive to discussing it in the context Zimbardo uses. Lets agree that evil is a term that can mean something other than the religious meaning. For instance, the definition Zimbardo gives.

I also think we can and should agree that there are no totally "innocent others" at all...but each situation may have an innocent and a guilty party. Take the example of killing Hitler I brought up elsewhere. Hitler is by many instances, evil or guilty of many acts. If he were murdered by someone trying to steal his wallet and this person was ignorant of his complicity in said acts, he is the innocent in this situation and the murderer the guilty party.

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Sun Nov 25, 2007 10:48 pm
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seeker: Is the act less evil if the evildoer believes what he/she is doing is good and right (as the 9/11 terrorists presumably did)? I would say no, but then what of the evildoer him/herself?


According to Zimbardo's definition, evil is an intentional harming of innocents while knowing it is the wrong thing to do. This requires the evildoer to accept the innocence of his victims and know what he is doing is wrong...not wrong tactically or strategically, but morally wrong. So, in answer to your question (per Zimbardo) no, if the purveyor of violence sees his deed as just and his victim as guilty- then it is not an evil deed. It may be evil to any bystander, and especially so to the victim, but if the deliverer of the deed sees it as good, then it is not evil.


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seeker: Which of the following best describes how we each see "evil?"

a. An idea defined by God.
b. An idea defined by the human mind.
c. An idea that exists independently of any intelligence.
d. Other (please specify).


If we choose a. An idea defined by God, then we need to decide which God and where can we find the definition. If we choose the Biblical God we discover a complex relationship between God and good and evil. If we line up verses and count the times God affirms the good and rejects what is evil, we see that God has identified evil as that which impedes his plans for humanity. Still, we can find verses that describe God as the source and origin of evil. And, we can identify behavior from God that we could very easily label evil. (Unless we utilize Zimbardo's definition, in which case God's victims always deserve their fate and are not innocent.) And we find conflict in the text where God demands that humans be righteous, act justly, show mercy, offer forgiveness...as well as God demanding terrible deeds commited in his name. The term evil arises out of this complicated narrative: if we take Genesis from Revelation as a whole we see that evil starts with God, and is finished with God...and in between it serves as a volatile marker for righteous behvaior and setting boundaries against those deserving of the worst forms of wrath.



Tue Nov 27, 2007 10:54 am
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I think the author probably takes some liberties with how clear and precise he must be in his discussion of evil.

I think he assumes that his readers are a) familiar with his infamous experiment and b) are part of today's world where it has become commonplace to speak of evil as more of a noun and less of an adjective. (I think this is a trend, actually - and it is one that goes in and out of fashion.)

Where I am in the book (chapter 4), I don't think it is really necessary that an immutable definition of evil be settled on. I think Zimbardo is using what each of us define as evil ourselves and what is commonplace to our culture to discuss the issues.



Thu Nov 29, 2007 1:47 am
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