Good vs. Evil: Considering The Lucifer Effect’s Argument On Society and Its Influences

From a USA Today article on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal

If we are constantly bombarded with societal influences, do we blame society or ourselves?

The book,  The Lucifer Effectby social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, argues that our choices when responding to the influences around us are what define the difference between good and evil. Zimbardo coins the phrase, “the  banality of heroism”, suggesting that being what he considers to be good requires more than just not participating when faced with a bad situation, it requires actual action against that evil. According to the author, lack of an authority to put limits on power, dehumanization and deindividuation, and other factors all contribute to a situation where individuals allow themselves to succumb to evil.

The book constantly circles back to the same concept, and it’s somewhat terrifying: Ordinary people, like myself or any stranger I see walking down the street, have the potential to act like monsters when placed in the right circumstances. There are not “bad apples” in groups, the group itself is a “bad barrel”.

Zimbardo has a point. Societies have been guilty of some horrendous actions. The author makes sure to remind us of that, citing several examples including the Rwandan genocide, the My Lai Massacre, and the Holocaust. However, I was somewhat disappointed in his counter argument, that humans are capable of bravery and goodness even when faced with bad situations. Zimbardo makes it sound as though any act going against “the System” will be one resulting in extreme danger and/or possible death. His attempts to offer some hope in the face of  the bleak disillusionment he provides are only a half measure.

In my opinion, society is not a force that must constantly be fought against. The author’s view seems to coincide somewhat with the conflict theory, considering that he focuses heavily on the issues with domination and abuse. However, I believe that it is not as difficult to resist negative temptation as Zimbardo makes it out to be. Every day, we make conscientious decisions when it comes to right and wrong, and Zimbardo’s book focuses on the more extreme cases when it comes to negative actions, suggesting that everyone can be capable of committing murder or abusing innocents.

Good and evil are not strict definitions, but Zimbardo’s book does make a compelling point. Not everyone is “evil”, but everyone has the capability for evil if they allow negative societal influences to control their decisions.


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