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Anger and Forgiveness"Are You There Alone?"10 Good Questions about Life and DeathA Casebook of Ethical Challenges in NeuropsychologyA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to Muslim EthicsA Cooperative SpeciesA Critique of the Moral Defense of VegetarianismA Delicate BalanceA Fragile LifeA Life for a LifeA Life-Centered Approach to BioethicsA Matter of SecurityA Natural History of Human MoralityA Philosophical DiseaseA Practical Guide to Clinical Ethics ConsultingA Question of TrustA Sentimentalist Theory of the MindA Short Stay in SwitzerlandA Tapestry of ValuesA Very Bad WizardA World Without ValuesAction and ResponsibilityAction Theory, Rationality and CompulsionActs of ConscienceAddiction and ResponsibilityAddiction NeuroethicsAdvance Directives in Mental HealthAfter HarmAftermathAgainst AutonomyAgainst BioethicsAgainst HealthAgainst Moral ResponsibilityAgency and AnswerabilityAgency and ResponsibilityAgency, 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How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
With the threat of terrorism
discussed at length in the daily media, and with almost any unfortunate event
now being labeled an act of terrorism, the power of the word "terrorism" is quickly being
eroded by overuse. A similar fate has
befallen the word "holocaust" due to its being used to describe a
disparate variety of terrible events. A
word that might accurately describe both terrorist acts and the holocaust is
"evil." But this once-potent
little word has suffered the same fate as "terrorism" and
"holocaust," having lost its intensity not only to overuse, but to
misappropriation, redefinition, and a postmodern ambiguity arising from claims
about the involuntary psychological functioning of the human mind.
The topic of evil has a long and multi-faceted
history in the field of philosophy.
Philosophers have for centuries been struggling to answer questions such
as, Is evil a thing which has an ontological status (actual being)?, Is there
such a thing as evil in nature?, Can
evil be objectively defined, or is it always relative to time and place? and Is it accurate to say that a person who
does evil is an evil person? This last
question has been adopted as an important topic in psychology where evil is
examined not only in its relationship to the mental contents and conditions of
individuals but also as an element in the fabric of society. Psychologist Ervin Staub goes further still
by discussing how evil can at times itself be at the very heart of a
community. He examines why it is that
at certain times whole groups of normally law-abiding citizens will become
perpetrators of previously unimaginable harmful acts, and at other times
good-hearted individuals will stand by and do nothing but watch as innocent
people are intentionally injured or killed. What is it that makes an action or
inaction evil, as opposed to simply wrong or bad? And what is it that makes an action good? Is it even acceptable
in our postmodern world to still use the words "good" and "evil"? Staub deals with these question from the perspective of
individual values, group dynamics, societal pressures, and national agendas.
This large book is a collection of
essays written by Staub over a number of years. It consists of six parts, 49 chapters, and close to six hundred
pages, including a very thorough index.
The first part deals with core concepts around the topic of good and
evil. Part two discusses why some
people don't hesitate to help those in need, while some go to great lengths to
justify not helping. The third part is
divided into two sections. Overall it
discusses reasons why some children grow up caring and helpful while others
become hostile and aggressive. But the
first section looks at the influences of socialization, culture, and experience
while the second section deals with a number of interventions that may make
children more caring. Part four discusses
the origins of genocide, mass murder, and group violence. The fifth part discusses the necessary
consequences of violence such as trauma, healing, prevention, and
reconciliation. In part six Staub
offers some insights and suggestions on how to create a caring, morally
inclusive, and peaceful society.
What I found particularly
enlightening was the way many of the chapters summarized fascinating human
experiments conducted by Staub and his colleagues. With this information Staub takes the discussion of good and evil
well beyond the realm of the purely philosophical and offers his readers solid
empirical data to support his conclusions about human personality, motivation,
and so on.
This book is very informative and
easy to read, but it is clearly written by a psychologist. What I mean by this is that while the
information is presented in a very engaging manner, some of Staub's arguments
lack the logical rigor and thoroughness found in books about evil written by
philosophers. For example, throughout
the book Staub writes about what he calls a "prosocial orientation"
or a learned mode of being in the world that includes the avoidance of doing
evil. He explains, in chapter 19,
titled "Reducing Boys'
Aggression," that there are a number of basic human needs that must be met
if a child is to become an adult with such a "prosocial
orientation." One of the five
basic needs discussed is a
"comprehension of reality," or the need to have an
understanding of how people and the world operate (p. 253). But a
philosopher will immediately ask the question,
"Will any understanding
of how people and the world operate be good enough? What about the us-against-them view of reality taught to children
born into religious groups who believe they alone are God's chosen people and
everyone else is evil, such as the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses?" Unfortunately this is a question Staub does
Although the above point may seem
trivial to some readers, there is a more glaring blind spot in this book, and
that is the issue of gender. Notice
that chapter 19 mentioned above is titled
"Reducing Boys' Aggression."
There is no mention of the increasingly aggressive and violent behaviour
of girls. Throughout the book
aggression and violence is equated with males, and, although chapter 19 refers
specifically to boys, when the discussion involves children Staub consistently
refers to them in neutral terms. The
author suggests in his "Acknowledgements" that the essays in this
book were collected over the span of some 35 years. The vintage of these essays may be an explanation as to why there
seems to be no awareness of gender issues in the earlier essays, but it does
not excuse this lack in the later ones.
At a time when words like
"terrorism," "holocaust," and "evil" are losing
their impact and meaning, Staub's book is like a breath of fresh air. It is a systematic, rational, and very
detailed discussion of a complex subject that is sure to help clarify the
thinking of both academics and lay individuals in these uncertain times.
© 2004 Peter B. Raabe
Peter B. Raabe
teaches philosophy and has a private practice in philosophical counseling in
North Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of the books Philosophical
Counseling: Theory and Practice (Praeger, 2001) and Issues
in Philosophical Counseling (Praeger, 2002).
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