March 11, 2024
SF Gate

Is There a Better Approach to Evil?.


When your mind and heart are truly open abundance will flow to you effortlessly and easily.

By Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP, FRCP

The existence of two international wars was totally unexpected by anyone who thought that wars of aggression were a thing of the past, but no surprise to observers of human nature in its worst aspects. Once more we are forced to confront the concept of evil. Evil is an everyday word for something we don’t actually understand about ourselves. We prefer to leave the mystery alone, but when evil erupts we pay the price. People and whole nations resort to automatic responses of fear, aggression, hatred, and revenge.

This post isn’t about U.S. policy towards Israel and Russia—that’s the business of the President, his advisers, the military, and Congress. But evil itself deserves better, clearer thinking than what it generally gets. If better thinking leads to better policy, all the more reason to find it.

Recorded history contains no time when human violence didn’t exist, although only in the modern era has evil been treated psychologically. Traditionally, evil was looked upon as something much worse, the fruit of sin, the work of cosmic satanic forces, a divine punishment, or an animalistic instinct. It has taken thousands of years to get past such thinking. Unfortunately, when atrocities arouse public fear and hatred, the old explanations tend to return, and the process of demonization takes hold. On the other hand, turning to psychology has made evil our responsibility; it can’t be shuffled off to a supernatural agent, either God or the Devil.

Also, by taking responsibility, we can stop blaming “the other” as if a whole class, gender, race, ethnicity, or religion is uniquely evil. There’s enough war, crime, and general violence for everyone to accept the blame, and if we take psychology seriously, blame is clearly not a solution. In times of war, the normal boundaries that keep evil in check are lost, and even the “good” side of the conflict is forced into violence under extraordinary circumstances.

But that’s not my topic here. I’m not forgiving or condoning the “good” side of violence. Forgiveness has rarely been a practical means of dealing with evil when it shows up on your doorstep.

Making evil a psychological problem represents progress, in my view, but it doesn’t automatically lead to optimism. Freud, for one, came to the conclusion that human nature contained an impulse toward aggression and sadism that could possibly be held in check by civilization but never eradicated. Two famous and now widely publicized laboratory experiments indicated that “good people” can commit shocking acts under the right conditions.

Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram showed in the early Sixties that ordinary people will obey the orders of an authority figure to inflict pain on someone else (the setup involved administering greater and greater doses of electrical shock to a person sitting behind a pane of glass–in reality the shocks were faked).

The subjects, mostly young males, showed a willingness to deliver painful shocks even when the person receiving them started to scream and beg for the experiment to stop. Obedience to authority was still heavily overshadowed by memories of Nazism, which represented a kind of ultimate evil. Milgram broke a taboo by showing that everyday Americans would also exhibit sadistic behavior under the cloak of following orders. Not every subject was susceptible, however, and almost every subject refused to go beyond a certain level of administering pain. Yet overall, Milgram concluded that any of us should give ourselves a 50-50 chance that we would comply.

The other study, which is even more shocking, is the Stanford Prison Experiment from 1971. A team led by psychologist Philip Zimbardo divided a group of college students into make-believe guards and prisoners. The two groups were in constant contact, and the guards were allowed to have total control over the prisoners, barring only physical punishment. The guards quickly became abusive toward the prisoners, some going as far as psychological torture. The prisoners tended to take the abuse passively, and those who objected to it were harassed by their fellow prisoners at the instigation of the guards. The situation became so intense that the experiment was ended early, after only six days.

The conclusion of the Stanford Prison Experiment was the so-called “good apples in a bad barrel.” In other words, abusive behavior arose out of the situation, not from pathological individuals (bad apples) infecting everyone else. Evil behavior is situational, which helps to explain why prolonged injustice and suffering can lead to violent or even criminal responses among everyday people.

The conditions that bring out evil behavior have now been well studied. A good apple will turn bad if:

— Permission is given to act badly.

— People in positions of authority give this permission.

— No blame or guilt is applied by others in the group.

— The opportunity for violence becomes commonplace.

— No reprisals or punishment threatens the wrongdoers.

The main takeaway is that evil action tends to be situational, and without curbs it can go viral, spreading its influence throughout “normal” society. The effect won’t be the same on everyone, because not everyone is capable of stepping beyond accepted boundaries. But even when the vast majority of people don’t commit violence, they may wind up condoning it or feeling paralyzed to change it. Presumably this is the trap that countless Muslims find themselves in wherever civilian populations are embroiled with extremists.

The situational explanation for evil is shocking at first because everyone has a tendency to identify as being good, as well as being a member of a moral society that is on the side of right (often with God’s approval). But on second thought, if evil arises in perverse and corrupt situations, we can prevent and change the situation. Every aspect that leads to bad apples can be reversed.

— Permission to act badly can be refused.

— People in positions of authority can enforce this refusal.

— Blame or guilt can be assigned by others in the group.

— The opportunity for violence can be limited and policed.

— Punishment can be meted out justly to wrongdoers.

None of these remedies is exceptional; they prevail under conditions of peace in a civilized society. But in times of panic and fear, when irrational voices declare that only fighting fire with fire will work, it takes patience and resolution to bring the situation back down to rational behavior. There are problems with the situational view of evil, however. One is that some situations, like ISIS, the Mexican drug cartels, and fentanyl dealers in American cities, have veered so far into perversity that there is little hope of changing things.

Faced with a dead end, calls for equal or greater violence become rife, even though retaliation is just as futile a dead end. Morality is very difficult to enforce when immorality has gained all the power.

The second problem with the situational theory is that it doesn’t address Freud’s belief that aggression and sadism are inherent in human nature. Do dark forces lurk inside each of us, waiting to erupt from the unconscious unless we keep a tight lid on them? If so, then the spiritual aspirations of the human race could be foolish, naive, or dangerous. This is such a critical subject that I will devote the next post to addressing it separately.

DEEPAK CHOPRA MD, FACP, FRCP, founder of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global, a whole health company at the intersection of science and spirituality, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation.  Chopra is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego, and serves as a senior scientist with Gallup Organization. He is the author of over 90 books translated into over forty-three languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. Chopra has been at the forefront of the meditation revolution for the last thirty years. He is author of the forthcoming book, Digital Dharma: How to Use AI to Raise Your Spiritual Intelligence and Personal Well-Being. TIME magazine has described Dr. Chopra as “one of the top 100 heroes and icons of the century.”

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