I recently watched a TED video of Philip Zimbardo’s “The Psychology of Evil”, where he delves into the question “What makes a person good or evil?”. He brings up the subject of the released photos of American soldiers torturing Iraqis and his own account of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo’s talk centers on the point that people are not necessarily good or evil, it is the circumstance they are placed under that determines their action.
In the video, Zimbardo asks the audience “Would you electrocute a prisoner if Hitler asked you to?”. Of course, my immediate response (in my head) was “Absolutely NOT!”, but then a thought came to my mind: “What does Hitler have against me that would make me do it” and “Would I do it?”. Even though my immediate response was a “No”, I found myself wondering if that reply would change if, say Hitler was holding my family hostage and would kill them unless I do what he says. It all depends on the circumstance.
A few days ago I was at my friend’s house and as I was showing her a clip of Key and Peele’s “Make-a-Wish” video, I was just thinking the boy in the video is absolutely evil. I was especially disturbed by his expression around the 2:56 mark after Dr. Gupta screamed at Liam. There’s just a split second when I thought I saw this smug, in-your-face look that was unsettling to me. It seemed like Liam was taunting Dr. Gupta, and coming from a patient, that’s not something one in Liam’s situation should do. Even though the video was just a sketch, it really made me wonder about the nature of good and evil.
Last year in my history class, we briefly talked about Thomas Hobbes, who believed that people, by nature, are bad and cannot be trusted to govern themselves. Hobbes believed that left alone to themselves, humans are selfish creatures who will put their self-interests before others, which is why democracy would never work. We then learned about Jean Jacques Rousseau, who believed the opposite, that people are good by nature. After the day we learned this, I found myself going back to Rousseau and Hobbes’s beliefs. I would agree with one of them in math and then agreed with the other one in English. I finally decided to agree with Hobbes. I thought that people are bad by nature, but most people are good people. I think that today’s society values goodness more than bad. We are admired when we help an elderly woman cross the street while those who just robbed the store are criminals. People like fitting in so in order to fit in with a society that values goodness, people suppress their bad nature, which is why we often hear of criminals using the line “I don’t know what happened”, “I don’t know what came over me”. Although there are circumstances when I see a headline in the news that for sure, must be evil (ex. most child rapist headlines), I think that people are good but their nature is bad.
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