Essays on Mind, Meditation and Ultramarathons

An MRI Scanner Darkly

OR: Abu Ghraib and Philip Zimbardo’s psychology of evil, and how the message of cult sci-fi author Philip K. Dick’s “authentic humanity” may just save the Earth…

Ivan “Chip” Frederick, the now 40 year-old son of a coalminer and a homemaker from Oakland, Maryland, describes his mother as supportive and caring, and his father as very good to him. All of his life he has attended Baptist church services, and to this day considers himself a spiritual and moral person. His sister adored him – she fondly remembers the delight Chip took in feeding the family dog peanut butter. After attending the local community college, he found work as a correctional officer, demonstrating an almost blameless record, before joining the United States Army in 1984, where his exemplary performance led to the award of nine medals. Frederick described himself as a perfectionist, loved neatness, and disliked being alone or feeling rejected by others – he was willing to change his mind to accommodate others so that they would not be “mad at [him] or hate [him].”

In his recent novel The Castle in the Forest, Norman Mailer invokes the Devil in the genesis of young Adolf Hitler’s nascent psychopathology; in Hannibal Rising, Thomas Harris’s recent prequel to his serial killer series, the author cites Nazi atrocities as pivotal in young Lector’s upbringing. By contrast with these demonic early traumata, we find in Chip Frederick’s biography a young man who likes Nascar and pressing his trousers neatly, and who gets depressed when left alone.

In October 2003, Frederick found himself responsible for 400 prisoners in a facility in Camp Vigilant, one of four compounds in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq – a step up from the 100 prisoners he had supervised back home, but one with which he could initially cope. However, shortly after President George W. Bush announced “Mission Accomplished,” instead of the compliant and joyful Iraqi citizenry of which Bush administration pre-war propaganda had confidently prophesied, with the country rapidly disintegrating into insurgent violence, the number of detainees under Frederick’s watch had tripled by December 2003. With no special training for this new assignment, under no supervision, Frederick worked the 12-hour night shift for forty nights straight. When he wasn’t working, he slept in a prison cell. He describes his working conditions to Stanford psychologist and author Philip Zimbardo thus:

I couldn’t find supplies to keep the facilities clean. The plumbing was bad. Shit was backed up in the Porta-Potties. There was trash and mold everywhere…. It was nasty in there. There were human body parts in the facility…. There was a pack of wild dogs running around [still present from the days when those executed by Saddam were buried in part of the prison and wild dogs would dig up their remains.] You know I was so mentally drained when I got off in the morning, all I wanted to do is sleep.

One night near the end of October, Frederick attached electrodes to the left hand of Satar Jabar, the Iraqi prisoner whose hooded spectral image was to become the iconic representation of Abu Ghraib’s atrocious descent into hell. Under Frederick’s watch, prison guards watched or directly participated in the torture or humiliation of numerous prisoners.

Frederick, who feared the disapproval of his peers for not fitting in, had been driven into barbarism. As with Adolf Eichmann, famously psychopathologised by Hannah Arendt in 1963 in her seminal work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, no sulphur and brimstone announced the metamorphosis of Ivan Frederick from Joe Normal to Lucifer: demonic acts appear, in both cases, to have emerged from the minds of “normal” men.

How does this happen? For Zimbardo, who went on to testify as an expert witness in Frederick’s defense at his military trial, Frederick was strongly influenced by “situational pressures” that determined the scope of his actions. As opposed to the classic “bad apple” argument advanced by then U.S Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld – that is, putting the blame for the atrocity at the feet of individual rogue soldiers – Zimbardo argued that Frederick’s mental processes and behaviors were heavily influenced by the dehumanizing conditions of Abu Ghraib and the explicit disavowal of human rights made by Frederick’s military and civilian superiors, all the way up the chain of command to Rumsfeld and Bush themselves. Zimbardo quotes a Human Rights Watch investigation citing evidence that Rumsfeld explicitly authorized torture at Abu Ghraib.

Thus, Frederick was not so much a “bad apple,” as one apple in a “bad barrel”: the whole system was rotten, Zimbardo argues in The Lucifer Effect. Like the professor’s pioneering 1971 investigation into the social psychology of evil — the so-called Stanford Prison Experiment (in which a simulated prison quickly descended into sadism) — Frederick’s personal moral intuitions had been corrupted by social forces. The judge at Frederick’s trial rejected Zimbardo’s mitigating arguments, sentencing the accused to eight years in prison, forfeiture of pay, a dishonorable discharge and a reduction in rank to private. (To apotheosize Sergeant Frederick’s Sophoclean descent from suburban normality to felon, his wife subsequently divorced him.) But where justice has so far failed to deliver equitable punishments to all parties responsible (in Zimbardo’s opinion) for Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo calls for an international prosecution of the broader criminal case. As parties directly complicit in the Abu Ghrab atrocity, Rumsfeld and Bush deserve to be charged with crimes against humanity, Zimbardo argues (a forthcoming website set up by Zimbardo will allow readers to vote on the guilt or innocence of President Bush and other top administration officials on war crimes charges).

So far, so grimly familiar: homo sapiens may lie somewhere halfway between ape and angel, but the vicious half of the human psyche seems tragically irrepressible despite quantum leaps forward in our material and technological capacities, the evolution of morality failing to keep pace with the advance of guns and steel. By this logic, only so many missile defense shields and Jack Bauer-style torture interrogations can stave off inevitable atrocity and apocalypse, or as Bertrand Russell put it:

There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.

Yet the optimism nestled in Russell’s scary proposal is the inviolability of free will. (Was St. Augustine on to something, after all, with his doctrine of the felix culpa, or “fortunate fault” – the idea that humanity’s propensity for wrong-doing is the pre-requisite of our freedom of consciousness?) In a much criticized work, The Blank Slate, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues that nature almost invariably wins out over nuture and that hardwired (mainly brutish) behavioral tendencies will always out. But such Hobbesian socio-biological yarns purportedly demonstrating the mighty clout of the selfish gene in rendering evil unavoidable ignore the striking counter-evidence of humanity’s better half. Evolutionary models sometimes go further and argue that even altruism or heroism are genetically determined as the result of “group selection,” but this logic quickly collapses into a Just So story, neatly subsuming all irksome counter-evidence in an ever-ballooning explanatory circle. Conclusive proof of genetic determinism notwithstanding, we are faced with a humanity perhaps mired in the gutter but still looking at the stars – a commingling of meat and mystery.

If so, the question then becomes: will good yet triumph over evil, and if so how? If evil is a choice rather than a biological destiny – if atrocity and war are perhaps theoretically eradicable in the same way that civilization consigned female infanticide and slavery to the historical dustbin – what are the likely candidate strategies for making sure we avoid an eternal return of our species’ bloodiest blunders?

First, we will need to answer Joel Surnow, creator or hit television drama series 24. As The New Yorker reports of the show’s classic approach to the ethical conundrum of whether torture is ever morally justifiable:

Terrorists are poised to set off nuclear bombs or bioweapons, or in some other way annihilate entire cities. The twisting story line forces Bauer [the protagonist] and his colleagues to make a series of grim choices that pit liberty against security. Frequently, the dilemma is stark: a resistant suspect can either be accorded due process—allowing a terrorist plot to proceed—or be tortured in pursuit of a lead. Bauer invariably chooses coercion. With unnerving efficiency, suspects are beaten, suffocated, electrocuted, drugged, assaulted with knives, or more exotically abused; almost without fail, these suspects divulge critical secrets.

While the “ticking time bomb” scenario frequently depicted by the show may be fanciful, and the efficacy of torture as an intelligence-gathering tool questionable (according to the U.S. Army, quoted in the New Yorker piece), a post-911 urgency highlights fault-lines in the classic utilitarian defense of violence in regard to the ethics of torture and the attendant debate about the nature of wartime “evil.” Early in The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo defines evil thus:

Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others – or using one’s authority and system power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf.

Interviewed by phone and email for this article, Zimbardo conceded that the word “innocent” applied to “others” in this definition raises the problematic issue of defining “guilt” or “innocence” in relation to those victimized by the perpetrators of evil. Asked about the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Zimbardo uncategorically classes the Hiroshima bombing as evil and the Nagasaki bombing as “doubly evil” (the latter thus because it was really the first act of the Cold War, rather than the last act of WWII: at least 70,000 people burned as a message to Joseph Stalin). Zimbardo’s insistence on the absolute moral wrongness of the bombings stands in brave defiance to the common defense that the bombs “saved lives” by preventing a U.S. invasion of the Japanese mainland. However, since the “innocence” reference of his definition might lead some readers to wonder if there are indeed hypothetical cases in which victims are not innocent and whose treatment, however painful, could not therefore be construed as “evil” (this, after all, is the Hiroshima defense, the Abu Ghraib defense, the Dick Cheney defense) – I press Zimbardo for a redefinition. He offers the following:

Evil is the exercise of power to intentionally harm (psychologically), hurt (physically) or destroy (mortally or physically) other people.

To this definition, Zimbardo adds a striking coda that speaks beyond the phenomenon of evil itself to its seductive societal and psychic allure:

Our fascination with evil is less from its consequences than from its demonstration of power and dominance to control people, animals or the environment, and is greater the more creative and unique it is, more raw and absolute.

If this coda is accurate, does Hollywood mythologize the Zodiac killer or John Wayne Gacy because they symbolize an enviably extreme concentration of power and dominance? Some theorists have argued that psychopaths lack a Theory of Mind – an intuitive understanding that you think and feel pretty much just like I do – and that this deficit is possibly related to the activity (or lack thereof) in cells of the orbitofrontal cortex called mirror neurons that contribute to the simulation of internal experience in other human beings. Hence the psychopath, perhaps lacking this critical simulacrum of the sentient Other, feels no pain when he induces it in his victim, and can thus dominate his prey with unconscionable liberty. By contrast, a compassionate person experiences a neighbor’s suffering as partly her own, because at the neuronal level she mirrors this suffering. (In Deconstructing the Psychiatric Bible, I showed how neuropsychonalysis is now replacing “single skull” neurology with an interpersonal and interpsychic model of development and psychopathology; I will be excited to find out more about mirror neurons and their role in this model.) If so, what happens to the Sergeant Fredericks and Adolph Eichmanns of the world once they’ve been lured to the Dark Side: how and why do the mirror neurons stop reflecting the pain outside?

One answer to this question may lie in the unlikely form of How to Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later, a 1978 speech by science fiction novelist Philip Kindred Dick, an author whose cultural and philosophical influence has grown to near-cultic proportions since his death four years thereafter – a popular blossoming in recent times arguably driven by a gradual convergence between the real world of post-911 existential paranoia and the spooky Gnostic ruminations of the writer’s imaginative terrain. Creator of the novels A Scanner Darkly and Minority Report (both now movies) and the short story on which the film Bladerunner is based, Dick used his fiction to explore the nature of reality and the question of what it means to be “authentically human,” this latter issue proving especially perplexing for the literary psychonaut, since he believed that reality is multiple, often hidden from plain sight, and distorted by powerful elites for malign purposes.

For Dick, the cosmos resembles a colossal prison experiment designed to no apparent purpose by an invisible hand: “some of us are prisoners, and some of us are guards,” as Bob Dylan sang. That the prison is simulated does not diminish its power (as the subjects of Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford experiment discovered). However, to realize the prison’s simulated nature is to illuminate the artificer’s hand, and thus potentially to shift the shape of the simulation. “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven,” wrote Milton in Paradise Lost. But are there limits to such solipsistic grandiosity? Yes, we must ultimately face the constraints of Reality, defined by Dick as follows: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” (Hopefully, President Bush is not real). But within these limits of the Real, there’s a great deal of creative freedom. To be authentic is to resist the seduction of groupthink, to endure the aloneness that Chip Frederick could not tolerate and without which his Baptist principles meant zero. Dick writes:

The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.

Zimbardo retired from lecturing at Stanford this week. He also announced that, after a distinguished career investigating the horrible things that people do to each other, in this era of “extraordinary renditions” and terrorist dirty bomb plots he is now more interested in a corresponding topic which Dick would admire: the nature of heroic acts, big and small.

If Dick is to be believed, perhaps there is hope for humanity and grist for Zimbardo in the next generation:

The power of spurious realities battering at us today— these deliberately manufactured fakes never penetrate to the heart of true human beings. I watch the children watching TV and at first I am afraid of what they are being taught, and then I realize, They can’t be corrupted or destroyed. They watch, they listen, they understand, and, then, where and when it is necessary, they reject. There is something enormously powerful in a child’s ability to withstand the fraudulent. A child has the clearest eye, the steadiest hand. The hucksters, the promoters, are appealing for the allegiance of these small people in vain. True, the cereal companies may be able to market huge quantities of junk breakfasts; the hamburger and hot dog chains may sell endless numbers of unreal fast-food items to the children, but the deep heart beats firmly, unreached and unreasoned with. A child of today can detect a lie quicker than the wisest adult of two decades ago. When I want to know what is true, I ask my children. They do not ask me; I turn to them.

“Blank slate” romanticism? Maybe. But let’s not forget that Theory of Mind – our mirroring, compassionate capacity – apparently emerges in toddlerhood, and that arguably the roots of good and evil may well lie there, too. Let’s also remember the fate of Adam in Book XI of Milton’s Paradise Lost: after his ejection from Eden for eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam is transported by the Archangel Michael to a high hill, from which he observes a seemingly infinite succession of future progeny corrupted by his first taste of evil, of which Michael remarks:

Adam, now ope thine eyes, and first behold
The effects which thy original crime hath wrought
In some to spring from thee, who never touched
The excepted Tree, nor with the Snake conspired,
Nor sinned thy sin, yet from that sin derive
Corruption to bring forth more violent deeds.

Milton gives Adam and Eve the power to resist the Snake and put an end to violent deeds in the future: “The world was all before them,” reads the poem’s last stanza. So, if Zimbardo and not Lucifer triumphs, maybe the world really won’t fall apart in the next two days after all…


March 14, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Fascinating piece. Some thoughts:

    As well as the Stanford Prison Experiment, the famous experiments in obedience conducted by Stanley Milgram seem particularly appropriate as background to the Abu Ghraib torture: Milgram showed that ordinary subjects were amazingly willing to give increasingly painful electric shocks (as they thought) to another person, if told to do so by an authority figure.

    Since Nuremburg, the “just following orders” defence has a bad reputation. But is it, in fact, a pretty good defence? I don’t know, but it’s a question that has to be asked seriously.

    Zimbardo, as you cite him, cites “evil” as “intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others”. Is this, do you think, a deliberately wide definition? Who among us can claim not to have committed evil on this definition, at least according to the first few verbs? His redefinition, prompted by you, is as wide: “to intentionally harm (psychologically)” is, I fear, something we have all done in moments of anger. Is that his point?

    Comment by Steve | March 14, 2007 | Reply

  2. Yes, the Milgram experiments on obedience are definitely revealing in this context; Zimbardo discusses them in the book. (Interestingly, Zimbardo and Milgram went to the same high school, and both grew up in the South Bronx…)

    The “just following orders” defence, by Zimbardo’s analysis, is indeed quite a good defence in the sense that the culpability of Frederick (according to Zimbardo) is reduced to the extent that his military and civilian commanders were also to blame for his crimes. Reduced, that is, but not eliminated.

    The point of the wide definition may, as you hint, be deliberately to implicate all of us in arguably “evil’ acts – to stress the moral continuum connecting decent folk to monsters, as opposed to the more traditional demarcation of “evil” people as dispositionally distinct from the rest of us. The definition effectively redefines evil as an operational rather than constitutional term, which while unsettling (since it denies that war criminals are fundamentally different creatures than you or I), successfully circumvents the confounding variables of metaphysics, culture, and clinical etiology. Google’s unofficial corporate slogan is: “Don’t Be Evil,” but this instruction may be impossible to observe for all but the most saintly the entire time. “I am human, nothing is alien to me,” as Terence wrote…

    Comment by jasonthompson | March 14, 2007 | Reply

  3. But what if we conceive of a more robust form of the “just following orders” defence than saying Frederick’s culpability was “reduced but not eliminated”? What if we imagine Frederick saying: “If I hadn’t done it, I would have been replaced with someone who would do it, and so it would have happened anyway, and I am not a legal scholar, and was not privy to the arguments in the Justice Department at the time or the exact wording of Rumsfeld’s memos, and anyway my training is to follow orders according to the chain of command, without which no military organisation can work effectively”? What then? I think this is a really hard argument to dismiss.

    Comment by Steve | March 14, 2007 | Reply

  4. Even if Frederick made that argument, a court would still, I think, be warranted to try and extricate the extent of Frederick’s assumed ethical responsibilities as a rational individual versus the extent of those duties imposed upon him by virtue of his professional circumstances – since he wasn’t claiming innocence by virtue of insanity (the only legal criterion entirely absolving the rational individual from all responsibility for his actions).

    But how to perform that extrication? The Third Geneva Convention sets strict rules on the treatment of prisoners-of-war. By this standard, Frederick was transparently a war criminal. Ah, but in January 2002, President Bush had announced his government’s intention to ignore that international ruling in its prosecution of the “War on Terror” – preferring to term his adversaries as “enemy combatants.” Frederick presumably knew this; did he thus act accordingly, not knowing thereafter of any countermanding judicial restrictions? Sure, by 2003, Iraqi prisons apparently contained a mix of “enemy combatants,” civilian security detainees and official POWs – with differing levels of legal protection afforded to each category – but, as you rightly indicate in your imagined Frederick defense, how was the average soldier really expected to know this, and to appropriately temper the treatment of every single prisoner according to varying legal parameters? Frederick says his superior officers ordered his brutality; Zimbardo clearly agrees that consideration of this institutional pressure ought to outweighs Frederick’s own alleged personal culpability — was it fair for a military court to find otherwise?

    I think it was unfair. The mitigating circumstances are, in my opinion, compelling. I’d love to believe that, forced into Frederick’s shoes, I’d definitely behave differently – that my internal moral compass would direct me more powerfully than external forces (or that I’d be smart enough to know which particular international protocol applied to my actions at any particular time.) But it seems to me naïve and presumptuous to assume this. So I’m basically agreeing with you.

    Comment by jasonthompson | March 14, 2007 | Reply

  5. “Ah, but in January 2002, President Bush had announced his government’s intention to ignore that international ruling in its prosecution of the “War on Terror” – preferring to term his adversaries as “enemy combatants.” Frederick presumably knew this; did he thus act accordingly, not knowing thereafter of any countermanding judicial restrictions?”

    Why would he “presumably” know this? Having served in the military, I know from first hand experience that you are often uninformed about such details unless you are actively seeking out such information.

    Comment by SallyT | March 14, 2007 | Reply

  6. An untenable presumption, you’re right, Sally – thanks for the comment: I’ve just found out that actually Frederick claimed not to have read the Geneva Conventions until after he was charged. If this claim is genuine, then it’s equally possible to believe that he would not necessarily have been aware of the Bush administration’s decision to opt out of the Conventions, or the unclear legal status of those held in Abu Ghraib. However, the point in relation to Zimbardo’s mitigating argument on Frederick’s behalf remains essentially the same irrespective of whether Frederick was aware or unaware of the Bush administration’s posture on the Conventions: under either interpretation the behavioral norms of the prison were skewed by morally ambiguous external directives.

    Comment by jasonthompson | March 14, 2007 | Reply

  7. Excellent post! But, rather like a Chinese meal, it was delicious and then soon left me hungering for a bit more. I think that this is because some key terms are lingering, undigested. What is “intentionality” in the context of “situational pressures”? Are we at all happy with these definitions of “evil”? They smack of bland secularisms, and are not only broad to the point of absurdity (if I were to insult some rudepublican on a blog, would that intentional act of psychological harm qualify as evil? Maybe? Under what other circumstances?) but they are also unimaginatively restricted (do we not detect a trace of evil in flogging a horse to death?) – although Zimbado heads this way in his coda. Is there something in “evil” that leads us towards absolutes, even if we want to avoid heading that way? And if so, is that why we end up confronting it in terms of clashing absolutes we are more comfortable with (such as free will vs determinism), rather than applying the “creative freedom” within the limits of the Real that you identify? How does removing “only” or “just” from “following orders” affect the claim, morally and legally? Do these situations and experiments really help us understand the nature of evil? Rather than looking at what those monsters, madmen, psychopaths or psychology grad students are doing, and trying to describe their actions in general terms, a braver route would be to consider one’s own acts of evil and go from there. Otherwise, when considering evil, one tends to be thinking, “Well, under those circumstances, I would hope that my moral compass would direct me in the right way, and I think it would, but I am humble enough not to be sure.” Mind you, I don’t hold that last statement up for contempt; but does it really help us understand anybody’s evil?

    What to make of the psychopath and his/her theory of mind, and this paucity of mirror neurons? Let me turn it around. Perhaps there is some mindblindness in our own definitions of evil, which are no more than gossamer projections into the psyche of those whom we consider evil: we assume that the blank we come up with is in them and not in us. Oh, we say, they have no empathy and no concept of what it is to be another person . . .

    Comment by s | March 15, 2007 | Reply

  8. All great points, S. (Excuse the pun, but given your Chinese meal-style reaction, I can’t help wondering if my headline should have been An MSG Scanner Darkly…)

    By the word “intentionality” in relation to “situational pressures,” are you basically addressing the quandary Steve and I discussed in comments 3 and 4 and that I summarize as:

    …the extent of Frederick’s assumed ethical responsibilities as a rational individual versus the extent of those duties imposed upon him by virtue of his professional circumstances.

    If so, I think the two factors are close to inextricable when we consider extreme situations such as Frederick’s, where (to answer your question, as I understand it), surely a person’s “intention” is subordinated to forces beyond his or her control? For instance, if I fall off a cliff, will my intentions as I fall influence my landing? You may say that Frederick’s situational determinants were intense but by comparison nowhere near this absolute, which would be fair, but — to throw the question back at you — what might then constitute an objective criterion for judging when situation subsumes intention, or the reverse?

    Re the broadness of Zimbardo’s definition of “evil,” I sense the broadness springs from his goal of defining the object of his investigation in terms that circumvent the variables of culture, metaphysics and etiology: that is, rather than getting into a complex defense or critique of any existing ethical code, spiritual belief system or biopsychosocial pathology, he attempts to base his study on an idea with the widest potential application. At this expanded width, however (as you suggest), I agree the definition does lose specificity and heuristic muscle. One way out of this, is strikes me, is to dispense altogether with longstanding folk-psychological ideas of “good” and “evil” – not in the Nietzschean sense of asserting the “will-to-power,” but in the Buddhist sense of disavowing metaphysics in favor of examining the consequences of our actions. This move brings us away from psychopathic absolutes (to address your other question) and into the everyday reality of our own thoughts and behaviors, the outcomes of which range from those which decrease suffering for ourselves or others, and those which increase suffering. Clearly, insulting someone on the Internet (to quote your hypothetical) causes less suffering than, say, genocide. But perhaps considering the meaning of “evil” in either the trivial or grievous case is ultimately a philosophical dead-end.

    To elaborate on this point, there’s a famous parable in the Middle-length Discourses of Buddhist scripture about a man who comes to the Buddha vexed by various metaphysical questions, such as whether the universe lasts forever and what happens after death. The Buddha replies:

    [Your questions are] just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.

    The Buddha goes on to answer the man’s questions by saying that the universe is neither eternal nor limited, and that life neither ends nor continues after death, which is a cryptic way of insisting that metaphysical questions will not lead to enlightenment; that only the outcomes of our actions in the present moment matter. Scrutinizing the metaphysically-laden ethical systems that include “evil” for clues as to its nature in this sense far less important than learning to cultivate harm-reducing thoughts and actions (plucking out the arrow); I suppose this might be one way of understanding why Zimbardo’s research interests have evolved from monsters to heroes….

    Re our “mindblindness” to the “blank” in the psychopathic mind, I guess it’s theoretically possible to imagine a presence where the Theorists of Mind suppose an absence (and thus a lack or deficit in mirror neurons). But why do I find myself instinctively recoiling from this possibility – purely out of deference to conventional thinking, or because I can’t bear to dwell too long in that headspace, or because to consider the psychopath’s empathic vacuum is to momentarily deprive my own empathic capacities? It might be interesting (if gruesome) to look at what literature exists on the thoughts which occur to psychopaths both in the act of causing suffering and before/after, to find out what type of mental states correlate with, for instance, acts of murder: dissociation, euphoria, or some strange mix of both?

    Comment by jasonthompson | March 15, 2007 | Reply

  9. I may have misunderstood, but it seems to me inconsistent for s to claim both that Zimbado’s definition of evil is “broad to the point of absurdity” and also that “a braver route would be to consider one’s own acts of evil and go from there”. If it is to encompass “one’s” own acts, by which pronoun I take s to imply “us” qua relatively non-psychopathological folk with ordinarily shabby ethics – people who do not actually flog horses to death or maim human beings – then “evil” does need to be defined about as broadly as Zimbado does. If, on the other hand, “evil” is defined more narrowly, so as to reserve it, as it has mostly been reserved throughout its history, for acts considered somehow especially bad, then by definition it is not the sort of thing that people by and large do, and so not a description of “one’s” acts, assuming we are all not kitten-torturers etc.

    I agree with Jason (and I think s was hinting at this already) in that I don’t think the word “evil” is much help defined either way. Often, it can even be a handy way to ignore structural and social (and sure, why not, biochemical) causes. (As Zimbado does not, but I think his use of “evil” as described here works against him for this reason.)

    Comment by Steve | March 16, 2007 | Reply

  10. I didn’t make myself clear at all. I think we would agree that evil requires some sort of intentionality at some point, and I think we would agree that this intentionality is actively shaped or limited by circumstances (“situational pressures”). But then:

    You may say that Frederick’s situational determinants were intense but by comparison nowhere near this absolute, which would be fair, but — to throw the question back at you — what might then constitute an objective criterion for judging when situation subsumes intention, or the reverse?

    This is exactly the problem I was groping towards. I am suggesting that the perspectives we are comfortable with and enjoy thinking about tend not to be ones that permit an “objective criterion”. To quite an extent, we are approaching this from a “free will”/”determinism” perspective – but so heavily shaded with psychological and sociological colours that we are quite comfortable with the nonexistence of either black and white extreme (and so are rejecting absolutes, and with them, “objective criterion” for judging a situation). Is this perspective compatible with evil? I don’t have the answer to that question. And, one is left wondering whether to understand is to forgive . . . Or, less horrifyingly, it may bring us to the Buddha:

    Scrutinizing the metaphysically-laden ethical systems that include “evil” for clues as to its nature in this sense far less important than learning to cultivate harm-reducing thoughts and actions (plucking out the arrow)

    It sounds almost bureaucratic. Cue Zimbardo’s definitions.

    I sense the broadness springs from his goal of defining the object of his investigation in terms that circumvent the variables of culture, metaphysics and etiology:

    Right, that’s exactly what he did. And so you have evil without evil. In your essay, I think, you addressed this hollowness by turning – refreshingly and naturally – to Philip K. Dick and Milton, who most certainly did not resist

    getting into a complex defense or critique of any existing ethical code, spiritual belief system or biopsychosocial pathology

    And then do not Buddha and Zimbardo seem to support the banalization of evil?

    I’m so glad you mentioned Through a Scanner Darkly – am I alone amongst fans of Philip K. Dick in also thoroughly enjoying that film?

    Comment by s | March 16, 2007 | Reply

  11. Hi Jason, great post once again.

    While I don’t doubt the reality of the Lucifer effect, and my experiences with the psychiatric system have taught me the inadequacy of the ‘bad apple’ theory of misbehaviour, my question is how might this theory influence the personal ethics of individuals. A rule of thumb might be to reverse the usual self-serving cognitive bias and tell yourself that while others who behave badly might be in bad barrels, but if you behave badly, you’re a bad apple…

    The work of Zimbardo and Milgram, while compelling and necessary, is not without its detractors. Experimentation in social psychology is fraught with paradox, since the central assumption of social psychology is that behaviour should be understood as arising from specific situations, rather than individual personality traits. (Although this is not something that Milgrim fully accepted – following in the footsteps of his mentor Solomon Asch, he attempted to find common, and possibly causal, traits among the men who shocked his “learner” to the maximum extent.) The experimental set-up is, of course, a specific, highly artificial situation, which theoretically makes it hard to make generalisations based on its findings. The use of Milgram’s results to shed light on the behaviour of Nazi soldiers is a particularly good illustration of sloppy reasoning in this regard – the Nazis had ample opportunities to stop and consider their actions, while Milgrim’s subjects were placed in a pressure-cooker situation that provided little time for reflection.

    In that sense, it has been suggested by Ian Parker, Lauren Slater and others that such experiments are more absurdist theatre than scientific enquiry. Certainly, the most salutary effect the Milgram experiment had was on some of its subjects who did shock the learner until he was ostensibly unconscious. Once the purpose of the experiment was explained to them, they took the opportunity to radically reassess their personal ethics. One of Milgram’s 65% became a conscientious objector and another came out of the closet as a result of their participation in the experiment.

    On a more humorous note, Bush and Rummy have also performed a valuable service in producing a modicum of moral enlightenment in many people of the Chip Frederick mold. 40, 50, 60 years of pressing their trousers and worrying about being a good boy or girl has been leavened by the late-in-life realisation that some of the most powerful people around are stupid and/or corrupt and that Father Doesn’t Always Know Best.

    Looking forward to reading your next post.

    Comment by Ruth | March 16, 2007 | Reply

  12. This isn’t a “free will vs determinism” problem in itself. If determinism is true, the entire problem goes away (or at least becomes something very different, cf. Honderich on punishment); but if free will is true, then the problem is still with us. At least, at #3 I was certainly not arguing that Frederick was somehow forced do to what he did, actually had no choice in the matter, that he could not have done otherwise. Of course he could. The question, rather, is what counts as a reasonable expectation of how people should exercise their free will under certain extremely onerous circumstances. Say, for the sake of argument, that Frederick knew he would be summarily executed if he did not torture his prisoners. Even this, of course, does not mean he had no choice. He could have chosen to die instead. The question is whether it is right that he be punished for not having made that choice.

    For deciding which question there are no “objective” criteria, but that doesn’t seem to stop the law working, with its handy concept, which we might fruitfully consider here, of “duress”.

    I’m interested meanwhile in Philip K. Dick’s admiration of the “authentic” human being because: “He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves.” I find the second half of this extremely problematic. Really – even if he knows that his family will be killed because of it, his action is still somehow right? Surely it is not so simple.

    Forgive me for citing Baudrillard again, but I think this from him is apt:

    The exciting question is not why there is evil. First there is evil, without question. Why is there good? This is the real miracle.”

    Well, at first, it looks like Baudrillard is merely cutely inverting the old saw of the “problem of evil”, while keeping the same theological language. But remember that the French for evil, “mal” (which also means “pain” or “badly”) is not so specifically theological as the English word. And I think the upside-down viewpoint is useful: in a sense, Baudrillard “naturalizes” evil as simply a feature of the world as we find it (whether you read this as a Hobbesian view of “human nature” in particular, or a more general gloss of “nature red in tooth and claw” etc). But does this avoid the question of what we actually do about evil? Maybe it only points out that labelling things “evil” is pointless since “evil” is already everywhere, and the point, as Jason and the Buddha suggest, is to get on with trying to fix what can be fixed in terms of actual behaviour and institutional practices.

    Comment by Steve | March 16, 2007 | Reply

  13. Presumably the reason why the “free will vs. determinism“ debate has exercised the minds of so many brilliant people for centuries without clear signs of a resolution yet is that, while the reality of human nature probably lies somewhere ambiguously between the two extremes, life would so much less complicated if we reached a conclusion on either side. But as Obi-Wan put it, “only the Sith deal in absolutes.”

    Steve’s right that the legal concept of “duress” fits squarely into this debate, but so far I’m not finding many signs that legal scholars will shed much new light on the topic. Rather, it seems more likely that the jurists are hoping the psychologists will clarify the issue. For example, J. Dressler, quoted by Peter Westen & James Mangiafico in The Criminal Defense of Duress, comments:

    To determine when coercion should excuse, we must conduct a balancing process somewhat similar to that which occurs in choice-of-evils justification analysis. [The] issue…is not whether the actor made…[a] choice [that] was expected as a predictive matter, but rather whether, in light of the nature of the demand and the expected repercussions from noncompliance, we could fairly expect a person of nonsaintly moral strength to resist the threat.

    This definition begs the questions of what Dressler means by a “person of nonsaintly moral strength”: once again, we’re hurled back on the quandary of what society can reasonably expect of people placed in extreme situations where their normal mental (and thus moral) processes are tested to (or beyond) breaking point. “Heroes are hard to find in an environment of total terror,” as Dressler puts it.

    How to define that breaking point? Maybe neuroscience has some answers. I do worry, however, that the jurists are seizing upon an interpretation of the neurological findings that’s based upon a fallacious naturalism: that is, that they risk using neurochemistry to justify pre-existing moral or legal ideas, rather than letting science open up new ways of considering the scope of human agency. In Jeffrey Rosen’s article on neurolaw in the New York Times last Sunday, for instance, he describes his encounter with Owen Jones, professor of law and biology at Vanderbilt University and Rene Marois of Vanderbilt’s psychology department, that illustrates the problem I’m describing. Jones and Marois speculate that:

    ….If they discovered a significant gap between people’s hard-wired sense of how severely certain crimes should be punished and the actual punishments assigned by law, federal sentencing guidelines might be revised, on the principle that the law shouldn’t diverge too far from deeply shared beliefs.

    The problem here is that Jones and Marois are making the meta-scientific assumption that the neurological correlates of our concepts of justice would necessarily be causally prior to the psychosocially driven phenomenon of the law. But the reverse interpretation could equally be valid. My idea of the injustice of, say, capital punishment is quite different from, for instance, John Ashcroft’s idea — for all sorts of reasons, many of them undetermined by neurobiology. If an fMRI scan were to reveal a section of the brain that lights up when Ashcroft or I think about the electric chair, I’d bet that it’s our moral ideas that are driving their neurological correlates, rather than the other way around: no “hardwiring” there.

    So, absent conclusive neuroscience or jurisprudence, are we yet again back to the business of trying to sort out the limits of human responsibility on the basis of an imperfect and fallible societal consensus regarding the nature of reasonable actions in unreasonable times? Help us Obi-Wan, you’re our only hope….

    Comment by jasonthompson | March 16, 2007 | Reply

  14. I’m not quite sure how my statement

    To quite an extent, we are approaching this from a “free will”/”determinism” perspective – but so heavily shaded with psychological and sociological colours that we are quite comfortable with the nonexistence of either black and white extreme (and so are rejecting absolutes, and with them, “objective criterion” for judging a situation).

    has become an insistence that this has to be looked at as a strict matter of free will vs determinism, especially given that I am saying that the actual binary is itself rejected – and with it the possibility of objective criteria. (Yes, I used free will vs determinism in my earlier post, but passingly, and in the same way). My point is this: the debate, even about “duress”, is about qualifying the moral nature of the choice – the extent to which that choice is possible, the extent to which it is determined by circumstances or, less controversially, the social influences and and duress and coercion at work in limiting that choice; and how these conspire to defy objective standards. When asking how a nonsaintly but moral person would be expected to act (or not to act), Dressler is appealing to choice sans extraordinary determinants. What would a decent, average person under similar circumstances choose if he or she were fairly free to do so? This is by no means an “objective” criteria, though it pretends to be. My question is not about the worth of free will and determinism in questions of evil, but about whether this structure (of choice, of duress, of what the average bloke would do) is more comfortable intellectually than discussing it in religious terms; and then to wonder whether evil always fades away in these secular discussions of “evil”, because these legal and bureaucratic concepts of duress and choice and social determinants can’t quite capture what evil is – though they wonderfully explain the context for how people harm one another (or even, “again back to the business of trying to sort out the limits of human responsibility on the basis of an imperfect and fallible societal consensus regarding the nature of reasonable actions in unreasonable times”). The turn to Buddhism, then, is part of this failure to grasp evil, as a nonsecular approximation of the religious without the most uncomfortable decorations and claims of other religions. The notion that Buddhism here provides an answer may be true for you in many wonderful ways; but here, to me, it smacks of anti-intellectualism (“let’s throw that metaphysical garbage where it belongs”) and vapid platitudes (“let’s stop blogging about evil and start reducing harm in the world! What can I fix first?”) Sincerely – apologies if this misrepresents your evocation of Buddhism, Jason. I know very little about Buddhism outside of some yoga classes and adolescent Pirsig binges.

    The desire for objectivity in evil outside of the free will/determinism/choice/duress discourses, which cannot provide an objective category, and without resorting to theologies, leads us to hoping that a bright glow in the frontal cortex might be an objective standard. While I am not at all pessimistic about the possibilities of neuroscience in partly explaining some of what we wonder about, I quite agree that any conclusions about concepts of justice drawn from fMRIs would be quite premature.

    Comment by s | March 17, 2007 | Reply

  15. It may be accounted a virtue of the law, rather than a troubling vagueness, that it regularly appeals to juries and judges to decide what a “reasonable” person might do in certain circumstances. I do not think that the law “pretends” that this is an objective criterion. One useful thing about it is, on the other hand, is that it enables the law to respond to changing social ideas of what is reasonable.

    I’m baffled, along with Jason, by Jones and Marois’s invocation of a “hard-wired sense of how severely certain crimes should be punished”, as if such a sense had already been shown to exist. Do they really think there is something like a Chomskyan grammar for justice “hard-wired” into our brains from birth? Are ideas of justice – and, indeed, of “evil” – not learned socially?

    The idea of “neurolaw” itself is fascinating, though I agree with Jason’s representation of its dangers, as though it evinces a wish to sweep all our messy moral problems away and replace them with shiny, hard objective fact. There is also a new discipline of neuroeconomics, which aims for a better understanding of how people actually make choices. Doubtless these disciplines will illuminate some matters, but it seems to me that they are unlikely to tell us the answer to the problem of “evil”, since that question is already couched so as to be impossible to answer in terms other than the metaphysical.

    Comment by Steve | March 17, 2007 | Reply

  16. S, you ask whether “evil” fades away in secular discussions of the idea, and suggest that a turn to Buddhism might be part of a failure to confront whatever “evil” really is. Your reaction tells me that I need to say more about what I mean by “”Buddhism” (I’m not in the least offended, by the way.)

    It’s worth making a distinction here between a) Buddhism as a 2,500 year-old Asian cultural tradition; and b) the insights into the nature of mind and reality that Buddhist philosophy and the contemplative practice of meditation may offer us. As Sam Harris argues, the latter would not necessarily be inflected as “Buddhist,” even if their origins could be traced to Buddhist practitioners. To cite an analogy, the invention of the mathematical concept of “zero” by Indians does not lead us to think of “zero” as a product of “Indian mathematics”; we simply think of “mathematics.” One stream within Buddhism, itself aware of the tendency Harris identifies, has deliberately attempted to resist religious reification precisely to avoid collapsing the psychological territory it may illuminate into any one culturally-located map, illustrated notably by the instruction from ninth century teacher Lin Chin: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

    Where Buddhist thought helps us approach the question of “evil”, I think, is in asserting the non-duality of “good” and “evil” and stressing the iinsubstantiality and interdependence of ostensibly distinct phenomenological entities. Don Cupitt has argued along these lines in After God for a new form of ethics that asserts a post-metaphysical way of living based on a very Buddhist-sounding acceptance of transience (the “Blissful Void”) and a commitment to increasing self-knowledge. Through this move, there is no “problem of evil” as such; there is the problem of suffering in the world and the question of why we stay intellectually attached to the good-evil binary even if appears inconsistent with the continuous spectrum of real human behavior. In my opinion, such a move isn’t anti-intellectual, bureaucratic, or banal – it’s a shift to a post-metaphysical paradigm which allows us to confront ourselves and the world with philosophical and practical efficacy. And it’s also a move away from “evil-doers”, “axis of evil”, and all the many egregious abuses of organized religion idenitifed by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. But it sounds to me like you still need or want “evil” – why?

    Comment by jasonthompson | March 17, 2007 | Reply

  17. Now, that’s a lovely explanation. I am not convinced that it’s “a shift to a post-metaphysical paradigm which allows us to confront ourselves and the world with philosophical and practical efficacy” – although I’m willing to be convinced. Without sarcasm, I might question whether there is such a thing as “philosophical . . . efficacy” (even if you pad it with the redundant “practical efficacy” – 🙂

    I am, however, no more impressed by your contention that it’s “a move away from “evil-doers”, “axis of evil”, and all the many egregious abuses of organized religion idenitifed by Richard Dawkins” than I would be by some spaced-out hippie telling me that “Buddhism is the way, man, where there’s only peace and harmony in the world” – or whatever cartoon of occidental Buddhism you can imagine. Bush’s stupid use of “evil-doers” does not prove that the term is entirely worthless (although, I would admit, it’s pretty close to being worthless).

    You ask “it sounds to me like you still need or want “evil” – why?” Let me take a step back: in all fairness, the first mention of evil is by you in your subtitle to this post, and you go on to talk about evil in the post and the blomments. My line of questioning has been to ask whether you are actually always talking about evil – there are times when I question whether you are doing so (although I’m not disputing that you’re talking about people doing bad things – just whether or not it is “evil”). This line of questioning has followed this trajectory: are there approaches to the concept of “evil” that erase the moral (and aesthetic) dimensions of “evil” and that simply become banal, vague descriptions of people causing intentional harm? and, is it then possible that “evil” – evil – requires some sort of objective correlate, provided by explanations that do not rely on cause/effect/duress/psychological interpretations of actions? One answer to this is adequately provided by your last blomment, in which you reject these questions by rejecting “evil”; fair enough.

    In answer to your question, do I need or want “evil”? Maybe – not quite sure. I can hardly reject “the non-duality of “good” and “evil” [or] the iinsubstantiality and interdependence of ostensibly distinct phenomenological entities” But I leave the concept of “evil” alive as an essential part of the moral imagination, without which I fear we cannot countenance the full range of human ethics. Or, perhaps, I am not morally imaginative enough to see the full spectrum of human ethics without it.

    Comment by s | March 17, 2007 | Reply

  18. I am not just disturbed by the fact that I used a “smilie face” at all – I am doubly horrified that it has turned into a bright yellow bouncing face. Sweet Christ, I’m sorry. It is the face of evil.

    Comment by s | March 17, 2007 | Reply

  19. There are indeed some very reasonable grounds for the retention of “evil” in ethics, with the scope of our “moral imagination” quite integrally implicated in that retention. Suppose that human brutality in extremis evokes such a phenomenologically distinct experience for its victims and witnesses that words less metaphysically-laden than “evil” simply seem emotionally etiolated: banal, bureaucratic, as you put it, S. This might be the case irrespective of where we stand ontologically – “evil” could just be a feature of social cognition so deeply entangled with our culturally-inherited psychic architecture (like “love” or “beauty”) that we’d be reluctant to divest our ethics and language from it entirely, even if, say, neuroscience were to supply a more sophisticated and heuristically powerful alternative.

    But by contrast, there might equally (or even more persuasively) be a case for dispensing with “evil.” Suppose that an historical analysis of the consequences of a metaphysically-laden ethical system led us to the conclusion that the dualistic moral categories of “good” and “evil” were both inadequate to representing the (dimensional, non-categorical) nature of human behavior as we now understand it, and had also contributed to a false polarization in our ethical thinking that diminished or even corrupted our understanding of the Other. We might then say that “evil” was a metaphor that had outlived its usefulness (or had declined in “philosophical efficacy,” to clarify my ill-formed phrase) – and that consequently we would be better off exploring new modes of thought.

    “Better off” in what way? Well, I think we would be likely to agree that ultimately our debate here is far from value-neutral: the world would doubtless be a better place with less violence, torture, war. The question then presents itself of what forms of societal and philosophical systems are most likely to effect that reduction in violence. S’s cartoon stereotype of the Panglossian Buddhist hippie contends unconvincingly that following Buddhism will necessarily lead to universal peace. But while I may be premature in heralding some aspects of Buddhism as the potential doorway to a post-metaphysical ethical paradigm (with an impact, we might conceivably discover, not just on our understanding of man’s inhumanity to man but that inhumanity itself), surely the stakes are high enough to warrant its consideration? If this post-metaphysical landscape risks succumbing to the “banality” S identifies, then it would be the challenge of progressive theologians, artists and philosophers to mitigate this risk by reinvigorating human ethics through a moral imagination beyond the limits S currently feels applies. Should this endeavor fail, nothing would presumably prevent us from returning to the older, theologically-inflected metaphors. Yes, I mentioned “evil” first in my headline, but I hope it’s clear that part of the article’s objective was to interrogate this storied concept to see how well it still holds up.

    Comment by jasonthompson | March 18, 2007 | Reply

  20. Well, I certainly can’t complain that my questions are being unanswered or that I am being misunderstood (insert smilie face here). Your first paragraph covers that material admirably, and your second paragraph makes a fantastic case for moving beyond evil, echoing previous comments you’ve made. Much of your third paragraph is likewise powerful. But then I find myself stumbling on “post-metaphysical” – perhaps such an exit from metaphyics may be found in some aspects of Buddhism, but I can’t imagine it – still, there is more in heaven and hell than dreamt of in my philosophy. In that third paragraph, you pose the problems of this exit but I still have a hard time appreciating the perspective on the other side (other than what I can glean from earlier posts – where we will be working hard to fix problems and reduce harmful actions without resorting to binaries). If “the stakes are high enough to warrant its consideration”, then the stakes are too high to be casual about how if “this endeavor fail[s] we can always go back to the older metaphors.”

    Quickly, my “stereotypical hippie” – no doubt beaded, bearded and lentil-scarfing – was conjured up only to counter your claim that dispensing with evil would protect us from the rhetorical claims of Bush et al; the misuse of Buddhism may not have caused all the strife that the Christian misuse of “evil” has caused, but we would surely agree that that misuse does not necessarily obviate correct usage. (The concern that whether what I characterise as Christian misuse of “evil” is actually always Christian misuse of “evil” and not Christian use of evil is accepted as a caveat.)

    Comment by s | March 18, 2007 | Reply

  21. By the way: can there not be an evil scientific experiment even if there cannot be a scientific experiment on evil?

    Comment by s | March 18, 2007 | Reply

  22. Post-metaphysical ethics: harder to imagine, perhaps, than John Lennon (or your Buddhist hippie straw man) would have us believe (“Imagine there’s no heaven/It’s easy if you try…”) To modify a phrase, are there really post-metaphysicians in foxholes?

    But I wonder if clues exist as to the shape of one such possible future ethical landscape in the course of a different (yet related) stream within the history of ideas: aesthetics. Looking back roughly three millennia to Homer’s The Odyssey, we find the human story first conceived as a narrative interwoven with supernatural forces: the gods. Cut forward three thousand years to twentieth century Dublin in Joyce’s Ulysses and the gods are reconceived as symbolic features of a man’s multi-layered inner consciousness – a novelistic rendering of Freud and Heisenberg – with Homer’s Kingdom of the Dead replaced by an alcoholic’s funeral, presided over by a priest whose lecture on the immortality of the soul Leopold Bloom refuses to believe. Individual skeptic rationality replaces epic supernaturalism.

    Cut forward another century and waste management expert Nick Shay wanders through the post-Hiroshima existential scrap heap of De Lillo’s Underworld: Joycean intertextuality evolves to the radical interrelatedness of Derridean differance and Dennett’s “multiple drafts” model of consciousness. In De Lillo’s story, the psychic echoes of a Russian hydrogen bomb test reverberate across the planet at a New York Giants game – the ethical implication of this most recent version of the archetypal human narrative perhaps being that an epoch of indeterminate or fractured meta-narratives is one nonetheless of profound global interdependence. The ethical verities of Homeric supernaturalism may still hold a nostalgiac allure, but like a child letting go of fairy tales as he evolves towards psychic autonomy, maybe 21st Century ethics can bid farewell to the old gods and assert humanity’s interconnectedness without them. Lennon again: “I hope someday you will join us, and the world will live us one.”

    Comment by jasonthompson | March 18, 2007 | Reply

  23. I, for one, would be absolutely thrilled to live in a post-metaphysical world where the holy texts are Joyce and DeLillo, and the hymns are by Lennon.

    Comment by s | March 18, 2007 | Reply

  24. A belated reply to Ruth (11): Parker and Slater are perceptive, I think, in comparing the Zimbardo and Milgram experiments from the ’70s to absurdist theater. The experiments (whatever one makes of their empirical validity) seem for me very much of a piece with the anti-Vietnam campus protest era of Be-Ins and Die-Ins. On the validity issue, though, I wonder whether a social experiment of a Zimbardo/Milgram variety really could conceivably be designed that more rigorously verified the phenomenon of “evil” without completely brutalizing its human subjects. (Perhaps the Z/M critics choose to ignore this obvious ethical constraint?) Also, I wonder if arguing for the experiments’ inherent theatricality necessarily counts as a negative criticism. If a reframed understanding of the Stanford Prison Experiment were to imagine it as a situationist extension of “Godot,” Antonin Artaud or Pinter’s “The Birthday Party,” this might arguably sustain its historical and cultural resonance more powerfully than an attempted defense of its experimental design on traditional grounds. That Hollywood is producing a big-budget movie version of the Prison Experiment (for release next year) perhaps suggests that such a deepened resonance is already close to having been achieved.

    Comment by jasonthompson | March 19, 2007 | Reply

  25. This from Michael Shermer looks interesting:

    In The Science of Good and Evil (Times Books, 2004), I argued that we evolved moral emotions that operate similarly to other emotions, such as hunger and sexual appetite. Thinking of these emotions as proxies for highly efficient computational programs deepens our understanding of the process. When we need energy, we do not compute the relative caloric values of our food choices; we just feel hungry, eat and are rewarded with a sense of satisfaction. Likewise, in choosing a sexual partner, the brain employs a computational program to make you feel attracted to people with good genes, as indicated by such proxies as a symmetrical face and body, clear complexion, and a 0.7 to 1 waist-to-hip ratio in women and an inverted pyramid build in men. Similarly, in making moral choices about whether to be altruistic or selfish, we feel guilt or pride for having done the wrong or right thing. But the moral calculations of what is best for the individual and the social group were made by our Paleolithic ancestors. Emotions such as hunger, lust and pride are stand-ins for such computations.

    Comment by Steve | March 19, 2007 | Reply

  26. In that article, Shermer allows that “bad ideas” like suicide cults and addiction can infilitrate the brain’s otherwise robust computational mechanisms. If so, who’s more susceptible to those bad ideas, and why? And why, in a potentially “evil” situation like Abu Ghraib, would one person apply his (self-interest vs. group interest) computational module and choose to act murderously, when somebody else might act heroically? Accounting for our moral choices in evolutionary neuro-computational terms is likely a step forward for cog psych in terms of representing our mental processes, but without also accounting for the power of changing personal, social or cultural forces to shape those computations – for nurture to overcome nature – I worry that what Shermer provides is a really just a new spin on sociobiology’s Just So stories.

    Comment by jasonthompson | March 19, 2007 | Reply

  27. Oh, I agree. It would be interesting to see what kind of evidence/argumentation his book provides for the Just So story. I’m also very dubious about his metaphor of “computational programs” in the brain, for various reasons. (One of which is, as you point out, that it implies a kind of computational determinism to which Jones and Marois also appeal with their weird invocation of a “hard-wired” sense of justice, ignoring the fact that the brain is well known to be able to “reprogram” itself, on the individual’s initiative or in response to social/cultural input.)

    But the general idea in principle seems to me plausible. Just as cavemen thought the weather to be caused by the emotional caprice of gods, and our understanding of what actually causes weather has advanced, now requiring no more appeal to deities, so too, perhaps, the idea of “evil” is an outdated supernatural mode of folk science (for the cavemen, too, were scientists, just not very advanced ones by our standards). Of course, this remains to be demonstrated and argued properly, but I see no reason in principle why human psychology should not be thought capable of the same advances in understanding as has been the weather, etc – unless one is already committed to metaphysical explanations.

    Comment by Steve | March 19, 2007 | Reply

  28. Yes, that make sense. In the evolution you’re describing, psychology develops from its theologically-inherited good/evil framework into a more advanced, demythologized system that models human actions on a more granular, neuroscientifically-informed level: a shift perhaps analogous to the growth of chemistry from alchemy. Supply enough energy and the nuclear transubstantiation of lead into gold actually is possible (if unprofitable), but physicists don’t bother invoking Gnostic deities to do so; maybe an advanced ethics has similarly no need of God, the Devil and so on. In this scenario, some people go on believing in good and evil even when the new, more powerful framework emerges – perhaps their belief even intensifies as archaic systems seem jeopardized by secular alternatives. (I think we’ve been witnessing a postmodern vs. premodern conflict of this kind in the ascent of various fundamentalisms.)

    Comment by jasonthompson | March 19, 2007 | Reply

  29. Re Jones and Marois again: the idea of a hard-wired Chomskyan universal “moral grammar” is asserted unconvincingly by Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser here and critiqued robustly by Richard Rorty here.

    Comment by jasonthompson | March 20, 2007 | Reply

  30. Thanks for the Rorty link. I was really into Rorty at the age of 20 and had somehow forgotten about him since. There’s also some similar discussion about a hypothetical hard-wired ethics here, starting off from the comforting liberal assumption that humans somehow have an “evolved” aversion to hurting one another, and at the end of which the author makes the remarkable statement that non-human primates do “evil things”, which I find baffling.

    I have read, though, the book cited by one of the commenters, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, and it is very good (and there’s an extract here).

    Comment by Steve | March 20, 2007 | Reply

  31. Hi Jason, great post once again.

    Comment by puzatik | August 25, 2008 | Reply

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