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The Social Psychology of Good and EvilReview - The Social Psychology of Good and Evil
by Arthur G. Miller (Editor)
Guilford, 2005
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D.
Feb 1st 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 5)

Perhaps nothing really fascinates like good and evil. Perhaps there is nothing more human, or indeed inhuman. Perhaps there is nothing more profound or, as Hannah Arendt famously reminds us, more banal. Perhaps there is nothing that so appeals to the rhetoric of political leaders and nothing that is less examined by rational argument. Perhaps also, there is no better time than to consider these issues in the light of modern social psychology scholarship and examine the way in which the contemporary understandings and uses of the terms illuminate our current situation.

The book is an edited volume. Miller, the editor, has his own area of interest in the legacy of Stanley Milgram and the obedience experiments, but he canvasses opinion and argument from a wide and sometimes contentious field. In 18 chapters the authors evaluate the central questions of inquiry. The situationist perspective is described by Philip Zimbardo who, while drawing on his own seminal work in the Stanford Prison Experiment, gives a concise and clear overview of the essential debate: can and do good people do evil things? Zimbardo argues that they can and do, and that by locating evil, however it may be defined, in the person alone rather lets situational arrangements off the hook. Yet it remains true that most people who do evil do not regard themselves as such. How then can these tensions be relieved? Zimbardo contends that significant and profound changes occur in the psychology of individuals when they are embedded in situationally defined roles. Norms shift, social pressures mount and group behaviors can dominate. It is not a great leap of imagination to consider the relevance of these arguments to recent scandals in the Iraq war. Can, or should, the behavior of soldiers in Abu Grahib prison be explained in this way? Although the book was written before many of current issues in Iraq came to light the inference is clear, and there is a noteworthy section on suicide bombers. The chapter also contains an interesting analysis in which the notion of heroism is redefined as resistance to, or rising above these social pressures. It is easier to go along than to resist, although resisting may be what we all imagine ourselves doing.

However, Zimbardo's perspective is not the only way of examining the issue. Does basic human need dictate matters? If so, as Ervin Straub suggests, participating in genocide or acting in a benevolent way are dependent on the manner in which life circumstances promote either the frustration or fulfillment of basic needs. Morality does not appear in the equation, and while many may contend that is a flaw, the text is about social psychology and not morality; it is more concerned with what people do than what they should. Mores and norms are of more concern than philosophical debate, but sometimes they may need to be examined more thoroughly. While, for example, self-esteem may be widely regarded as a positive virtue, the unlimited pursuit of self gratification may also result in the increase of narcissism and the decrease of social awareness, both leading in their turn to a more unfettered social behavior. It is at points like this that the argument becomes both more complicated and more interesting.

Evil and violence, so often conflated, are explained in another chapter as having four root causes: instrumentality or the means to an end; threatened egotism; idealism, that is to say the belief of doing good by doing bad; and simple sadism. Of these only the last seems not to need to justify itself. The others may all be seen to employ justifications and rationalizations of one form or another. Even the most atrocious of acts are cloaked with some good intent; genocide has its apologists too. As we said, before, those who do evil do not usually see themselves as such.

Happily though, the book is not solely concerned with evil or evildoers. The final five chapters all consider the "possibilities of kindness". Perhaps the one connecting thread in all of these is the centrality of empathy. From that first empathetic moment comes a sense of compassion and understanding; once we see others as being like ourselves can evil persist? An empathetic connection may also hold the possibility of reducing hostility, developing altruism and supporting connectedness. Altruism may have its own reward. It may be more socially productive and more individually rewarding. Empathy may also, although this is not a topic covered by the authors, be the keystone to forgiveness -- what, after all, do we do after evil has been performed?

It may be said that the collection in this volume are provocative and essential to our current understanding of our world. They have relevance at many levels. At the macro level, as in the global political situation full of empires and axes of evil, we see war and terror continually justified and reviled in terms of good and evil (remembering of course that we are good and they are evil). Good and evil, or perhaps evil, have become political commodities, characteristics that differentiate us from them. These may be times of extremes and we should beware. At a psychiatric level we wrestle with the mad and the bad, the personality disordered and the criminal, the treatable and the incurable. And, at the most individual and personal level we may see ourselves only one step away from atrocity, we see ordinary men and women apparently unable to explain their actions but shamed and perplexed; are we all capable of acts like that?

Throughout a reader is reminded of Cassius telling Brutus, "the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves" or perhaps in our circumstances. But although the question is not new, it is still relevant.

It is a fine book, rich in scholarship and argument, rarely tendentious and often stimulating, clear and perceptive. It is to be recommended to scholars and the interested reader alike. It is timely and welcome.

 

2005 Mark Welch

 

Mark Welch, Ph.D. Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta and Co-Director of the PAHO/WHO Collaborating Centre for Nursing & Mental Health.


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