What Makes Humans Evil?

The last article “Are Humans Moral?” started an interesting debate on the topic are humans evil or is it the situations which make a normal person evil? What are the underlying factors which make crowds behave aggressively and how should the negative tendencies be controlled?

Geoffrey Morton-Haworth mentioned the video “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil” by Philip Zimbardo available at  http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/459. It is nearly a two-hour presentation covering the abusive behavior of US army staff in the prison of Abu Gharib. Philip Zimbardo has drawn connections between the prison situation in Abu Gharib and Standford Prison Experiment, to explain the sociological impact of the situations on normal human behavior. He has discussed how the same situation can trigger in one human evil tendencies and in another heroic behavior.

I recommend you to watch the video to understand how irrational emotions of human beings can be triggered to make them behave in extremely negative behavior.

I have below given the link to Part I of the same video on youtube. The video contains explicit and disturbing images, so please be careful.

15 comments on “What Makes Humans Evil?

  1. Thanks for this, Sonia. Very useful.

    This re-confirms the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism and shows us why a philosophy that promotes the individual – and accountability, including transparency, is so important. Only such a view can empower us to resist authority figures who take us down the path of evil.

    Indeed, life is an ongoing battle against tribalism (collectivism) which is subject to group think, peer pressure, and the dictates of authority.

    There are significant implications of this way of thinking for institutions – whether governments or businesses. Systemic analysis based on a deep understanding of human nature (and the power of authority) is needed in the design of institutions.


  2. Sonia, should I thank you for posting the video? No, I am sorry I have to see this. Equally I am not keen to see very many videos that do not come out of China or North Korea. What’s the way out?, is what we got to suggest and bring about a change.

    I would like to pose two questions to Geoffrey: – Who is responsible for Iraq Invasion? What has the ‘freedom of speech’ brought to the democratic society? For the first question my answer is, certainly not President Bush and for the second, I would surrender that right and bargain for a better one than that. The way out of ‘Lucifer effect’ depends on the reaction to these two questions.

    • Jayaribcm,

      I agree with you that the videos are disturbing but I do not beleive that human beings should be covered from hasher realities, and deserve to be brain washed into thinking all is well. Geoffery has given the other link on how psychoanalysis was used to manipulate the American society. Definitely a very damaging way of controlling people.

      I think Iraq was a case of long term psychological manipulation by CIA and American government, into making Americans beleive that they are superior and their is something wrong with non- Americians and non-whites. That is the key reason why all this is occuring, sense of superiority with a desire to dominate. Hanging Saddam Hussian while broadcasting on TV was definitely authorized by Bush, and showed his mentality. Whosoever is the enemy, even is he/she is being killed, there has to be some human dignity bestowed on them. How can Americians beleive that democracy is prevailing when such an action was on publically broadcasted.

      I think public worldwide has surrendered too many rights already to the powerful, surrendering freedom of speech is the worst kind of crime. As Gandhi said, I have a fundamental right to make mistakes. No human is entitled to take any rights of the other, and no human should sacrifice their right to please another.


    • I also like Martin Luther King’s statement ‘ I do not intend to stop being mal adjusted to discrimination, racism, evil etc.’. Rather than conforming and compliance, it is better to revolt and rebel to bring positive human values.


  3. Geoffrey,

    Thanks for the comment and providing the link. Will definitely check it out since white collar crime is my area, and now terrorist funding is done through banks.

    I would agree with you that some aspects of morality differ according to society. For example, India is sexually more conservative than Europe or America, so that has to be considered, each culture should be respected for what it is. However, some aspects being Indian also cannot be adjusted or agreed to. For example, in Haryana some girls have started falling in love and wish to marry guys who do not belong to their religion or caste. Their is an order out in the village, that girls should now not be allowed to use cell phones, since that is how they connect to the guys. My reaction is that if any person is not allowed to chose thier spouse, it is completely autocratic. Also, why are the girls being prohibited and sacrificed in honor killings, how about restraining the guys from calling.

    That emphasizes the point that irrespect some the society and time period there are some basic fndamental rights of humans. A right to live in dignity, have freedom of speech, be accountable and responsible for their actions, be honest and trustworthy. These values have persisted and will continue. If these are contravened, then something is fundamentally wrong with the society and people involved in it.

    In such cases, unfortunately innocents suffer, because this is basically a delusional power trip. Ideally the person doing wrong should initiate a dialogue by apologising, confessing to the crime, and making the efforts to rectify the crime. But when delusional thinking takes over, then inhumanity is considered power. Then dialogue is definitely not much use, do you think Hitler would have changed his decisions if someone had managed to successfully talk to him. I am sure the world leaders had a dialogue with him. Did it stop him?


  4. Wonderful. So many excellent questions. I don’t have the answers. We all have to decide on our own.

    I don’t know who started the Iraq War, but I saw the film “W” and I don’t find it hard to believe that it came about from a combination of finishing Daddy’s unfinished business, oil and individual opportunism. Who gets rich out of war? Well certainly the armourers. If you watched the Robert McNamara documentary “Fog of War” then you’ve got to believe stupidity, arrogance and ignorance played their part (the whole film is available in eleven parts on YouTube http://tinyurl.com/36568l4)

    The Century of the Self is relevant to your topic because, if you believe Adam Curtis, the “bad-barrel makers” are still hard at it: http://tinyurl.com/242wlam

    I recommend Mary Warnock’s talk on Political Ethics here: http://tinyurl.com/yc54sfa You just have to bare with her poor delivery.

    As a powerful example of how culture-centred our views on morality become, listen to Barbara Ehrenreich, here: http://vimeo.com/10454695 T

    Note also the culture-related Dunning-Kruger effect: http://tinyurl.com/lf8nuk

    Hitler, of course, listened to nobody, he just ranted. The general impression is that he was certifiably mad. You can’t have a sane dialogue with people like that. But if the British Government had had a better dialogue with Churchill, then Hitler could have been nipped in the bud far sooner (see William Manchester’s “The Last Lion”)

    Finally, for everything you ever wanted to know about dialogue but were afraid to ask, probably the best resource on the web is here: http://ncdd.org/rc/

    Good luck with your exploration of these vital issues.

    • Geoffrey,

      As for talking about terrorism, their is a very cynical viewpoint Indians have regarding Pakistan’s effort on having conversations. Pakistan is unrestrained in conducting terrorist attacks in India. However, when US stops the funding or when they want funding from US, the senior Pakistani politicians start talking about having a dialogue with India. They never commit to stopping terrorism, get the funds from US and attack again. Indians have to take all the attacks, because it is a democratic nation.

      Pakistan used terrorism for claiming superiority over India, and instilling fears in Indians. What has occured is that despite the attacks Indians have survived and India has progressed economically. However, Pakistan is on the verge of being called the most dangerous country in the world. Taliban has destroyed it internally.

      Actually, Buddhism gives the universal law, if you try and harm someone else, you are first harming yourself, and then bearing the attack of the harmed person. So while the other person is harmed once (if he/she does not attack), the person harming is harmed twice. It is applicable to all situations in the long run.


  5. Geoffrey,

    Thank you for providing the links.

    As for my viewpoints on the Iraq war, I am well aware the Senior Bush has oil wells, and Bush family benefitted financially from the war. The question is when Bush was the president, was anyone able to stop him from pursuing personal goals on fabricated stories which cost so many lives and America it’s reputation and was the cause of economic crises. American people would be brainwashed into something else, and may still not be able to accept it, as they have again voted Republicans. They think that Obama could rectify the damage done by Bush adminstration in 2 years, and since he was unable to do, lets choose Republicans back.

    Watching from a distance always makes things clearer. As for Hitler, you may call him mad in hindsight, but he had a whole nation following him. There is this book written Moral Ethics in a Holocaust by John (forgetting the surname) which clearly explains that 90% Germans did nothing to help the Jews though they had been friends previously. Human beings loose their humanity in fear.

    As for Bristish Government talking to Churchill, and nipping in the bud. Yes, that may have benefitted, but that again is hindsight. Doesn’t help when the deed is done and history cannot be changed.

    In Hinduism there is a saying on Karma, it states whatever a person does, good and bad gets accounted for in the personal records. And if one has done bad karma, then one will have to bear the reactions of it, and if one has done good karma, then reap rewards, basically reap what you sow. Disclaiming ones deeds doesn’t help, because God has already recorded it.


  6. It was 30th January 1948, yet to cross 5th Summer. I vividly remember the spot I was standing in my native town not far from Ramswaram southern India, big commotion and lot of crowd. Came back home, it was lunch time that I conveyed the news to my grandma, an orthodox old widow, who started crying. It took her a long time to sober up that I patiently waited for and reminded her of my lunch. She got very upset again and told me that a great Mahatma had died. She made me to wait, went to take another bath for the day that normally is reserved if one in the family had died and came back to serve me lunch.

    That incident awed me ever, how an ordinary old lady who had never attended a school in southern most part of India, far, far away from where Mahatma Gandhi emerged in the scene of India. Today you ask any family in India and they have a similar story to narrate and almost every family had participated in the freedom movement and were greatly influenced by several such men of caliber from every part of India. Recently I was a jury to rate the essays submitted by young students in the age group of 15 to 23 on the occasion of the 135th Birth Anniversary of Saradar Vallabhai Patel. The feelings of anti-corruption and integrity have been expressed by many with great fortitude. They are the strength of a vibrant nation. Mahatma Gandhi is a symbol representing very many such men and women who are yet in our midst. So is Nelson Mandala, so is Aun San Suu Kyi, so is Liu Xiaobo.

    I could define Ethical Responsibility because of such role models as: “the state or position of being responsible for the resources entrusted to the people to run a government of the people, by the people and for the people, including the delegation of authority for the governance of the said resources to those who are entrusted with the usage.”

    Today we need silent majority in every nation, not for fighting for freedom of speech but to realize we are missing the opportunity to bring about revolution in insisting the elected representatives the need to answer us. President Bush is not responsible for Iraq invasion but realization must dawn on the people of USA that it is they who had waged a war against Iraq, President Bush is an excuse for their indifference. Merely looking at Lucifer video is nothing but an additional portrayal of human violence. It’s not a big difference, violence, whether it is inside, or it is manifested outside. By looking at these tapes yes my anger is triggered, no different from looking at the pornography videos that triggers my lust. Do not look into these tapes but take steps to introduce Article 10 of UNCAC – Public Reporting in every nation and in every department. How to do that, click on to http://jayaribcm.wordpress.com/

    • Jayaraman,

      You are very right in saying that there are very few who are willing to walk the talk. People write words, reach and compromise their ethics on the smallest of reasons. Then expect others to be inspired by them. Nobody is such a fool.

      It shows basic lack of respect for others, if one thinks the other can be hooked through glib talk.

      I always consider that actions speak louder than words. People were inspired by Gandhi because he was humble enough to claim he was imperfect, on a learning journey but strong enough to practice before he preached. He got respect because of it.

      Leaders in the presenit world think by glib talk, mass hypnosis, branding etc. people can be influenced. Yes, in the short run they can be, in the long run they can’t.

      The other saying of Gandhi which I respect is “be the change which you wish to see in the world”. The western civilization is externally focused in most things, they wish to change the world but not themselves. First US to be a super power painted Russians in negative light, and now it is the Islamic world. My resonse is always the same, if a person,country or community is desiring to prove to be superior, then they somehwere have a major inferiority complex. Hitler’s history shows the complexes he suffered, and why he was after Jews.

      Even in the Bible it is written “do to others what you expect others to do to you”. Again this is an external focus, that do good only because you wish others to do good to you. Whereas in Hinduism, it is clear, your karma is your own. What you do is your karma, what others do to you is their karma.

      Hence, the first revolution should occur within oneself. The two most diffcult things in life is one to change oneself and other to control your own mind. Any desire to change others or have a revolution can be acheived only when the first two are acheived.

      Expecting others to do a revolution for you to improve your life, is like asking people to change your clothes. One is not willing to make an effort, and then is expecting others to do it for them.

      I think there is complete confusion of expectations. Don’t ask anyone else for sacrifice when one is not willing to make any.


    • Dear Mr. Iyer,

      What a wonderful story! Although i am not from that freedom movement generation, the message from Gandhi still echoes powerfully for me and many others like me in our generation (born in the late 60s and early 70s). Of course Sonia hit the nail on the head as to why this would be so. Thanks for sharing.

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