Studies in good and evil

Those who consider our species to be naturally nasty often cite two studies as proof.  One is the Milgram experiment, ginned up at Yale in 1961 – the time of the Eichmann trial, with its supposed revelation of the banality of evil.  During the experiment, an “authority figure” easily persuaded subjects to give what they believed were severe electric shocks to other participants who had failed to learn the right lessons.

In the second experiment, the 1971 Standford prison study, play-acting “guards” over-internalized their roles, and ended by abusing and humiliating the “prisoners.”

Neither experiment has been fully reproduced.  Sophistpundit argues persuasively that the methods used in both were so flawed as to render the results statistically meaningless.  However, I suspect the meaning contained in the two studies has nothing to do with statistics:  rather, it’s about our intuitions and preconceptions of human nature.

It pleases some people to believe that, under the veneer of civilization, there lurks in all of us an inner Nazi – repressed, pitiless, amorally obedient to authority – waiting for the right moment to break out.  For such people, kindness can only be hypocrisy, and Abu Ghraib is a confirmation rather than a transgression.  Given the prestige of science, the Milgram and Stanford studies provide the equivalent of divine sanction for this dark view of humanity.

Interestingly, the contrary view can now cite its own studies to highlight the power of compassion.  This article (via ALD) describes several such experiments – which, I confess,  to my untutored mind seem almost as bizarre as Milgram and Stanford.  In one, for example, two persons who couldn’t see each other tried to “convey one of 12 emotions, including love, gratitude, and compassion” by touching their forearms.  Apparently, it worked, much to the gratification of the author.

Another experiment, designed by Daniel Batson, involved electric shocks to slow learners, just like Milgram but with a twist.

one study had participants watch another person receive shocks when he failed a memory task. Then they were asked to take shocks on behalf of the participant, who, they were told, had experienced a shock trauma as a child. Those participants who had reported that they felt compassion for the other individual volunteered to take several shocks for that person, even when they were free to leave the experiment.

A third study, also by Batson, sought to learn whether subjects would help someone in distress, even if their kindness remained anonymous.

In this study female participants exchanged written notes with another person, who quickly expressed feeling lonely and an interest in spending time with the participant. Those participants feeling compassion volunteered to spend significant time with the other person, even when no one else would know about their act of kindness.

So there we have it:  dueling studies showing the human race to be innately good and intrinsically evil, with both opinions sanctioned by that Janus-faced deity, science.  What are we to make of this?

My first instinct is to reply:  not much.  As Sophistpundit observes, the number of participants in this type of university-funded experiment are nearly always insufficient to allow meaningful generalizations.  One simply can’t buy that many grad students to play prisoner or forearm-tapper.  In addition, of course, the demographics of American academia are scarcely representative of the human race.

Another objection has to do with the way morality functions in the wild.  We learn right and wrong behavior one situation at a time, with each situation identified by certain clues or tags.  The moral universe is thus a dense matrix of these clues, which overlay, complement, and contradict one another, and to which the individual is in part habituated.

To remove the individual from the clutter of habitual situations, and test in isolation a single aspect of moral life, is to invite a distorted and confused response.

My second thought is an obvious one:  there are times when aggressive, even selfish, behavior is useful to an individual – when competing for love or sex, for example.  Other times, compassion and altruism help bond a family or a group.  From a strictly evolutionary perspective, the broader the range of behaviors, the better the chances of success in ever more situations.

To speak of the human race as innately good or evil is to give a philosophical answer to a biological question.  We are good and evil.  The line between the two, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, runs through every human heart.

Which is also why we are moral animals – struggling toward the light, but sometimes drawn, against our will, to the dark.


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