The Line Between Good and Evil Passes Through Each Human Heart

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

In the book The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo reports on prison experiments he conducted at Stanford University in 1971, in which ordinary young men began to commit abusive actions within the context of an experimental mock prison setting. The students playing the role of guards were given, as a team, power and authority over the students playing prisoners. The prisoners were given numbers and were deprived of anything that affirmed their unique identities as human beings.

Within six days, the experiment had to be halted because the level of brutality rose so dramatically. The researchers drew the conclusion that evil was not dependent upon inherently evil persons, but rather could be evoked in good people by situational factors.

Some of the elements that were found to promote evil include a hierarchy of power, de-personalization, the normalization of harm through laws and rules, and social pressure to conform. Zimbardo applies these factors to other historic and contemporary situations of extreme abuse, such as Rwanda, where ordinary citizens were drawn into unspeakable genocide, and Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers committed atrocities against the prisoners under their watch.

His research brings me back to the question of terrorism, and my dream about locking the doors of my house. We cannot defeat evil by locking the doors or building more walls or more prisons. When we put up a wall, we are cutting off the possibility of relationship. We are putting some human beings outside of our circle of connection. When we define terrorists as evil, we are participating in the same process of dehumanization that contributes to terrorist acts. It is a dangerous myth that evil lurks only outside the wall.

The Russian thinker, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, has said,

“the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.”

Zimbardo admonishes us that if we want to resist evil we must first of all recognize that we too can be drawn into evil. He offers concrete practices which might help us to resist unwanted influences. These include taking responsibility for our own actions; being willing to say “I made a mistake;” holding respect for just authority, but rebelling against unjust authority; understanding our need for group acceptance, but also valuing our independence; and not sacrificing personal or civic freedoms for the illusion of security.

Such admonitions might also influence our understanding of the divine. The divine energy becomes present when we connect with each other in mutual reverence. The divine energy helps us to resist the temptation to build walls, to cast out those who seem to us as evil, but instead to lean toward the beauty of relationship—not dominance or obedience, but respect and compassion and dignity.

Zimbardo concludes his book by celebrating as heroes those who—in the midst of reprehensible situations—have taken a risk to validate human dignity and connection.


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