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The Psychology of Good and EvilReview - The Psychology of Good and Evil
Why Children, Adults, and Groups Help and Harm Others
by Ervin Staub
Cambridge University Press, 2003
Review by Peter B. Raabe, Ph.D.
Jan 21st 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 4)

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 not discuss.

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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