circumstantial innocence

The title of this post is a phrase I used in my previous post, and I want to expand on the implications of it by quoting a few passages from my book on Original Sin. Read on if you’re interested.

A vigorous debate on the violence we inflict on one another has recently been prompted by a new book by Philip Zimbardo called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. In this book Zimbardo tells, for the first time, the full story of a now-famous psychological experiment he designed and conducted in 1971: the Stanford Prison Experiment. The design of the experiment was remarkably simple. At Stanford University, Zimbardo recruited some college students, created a simulated prison in the basement of the building that housed Stanford’s psychology department, and randomly divided the students into two groups. Half of them would be prisoners, the other half guards. Those playing the role of prisoners were told to expect some curtailment of what in ordinary life would be their civil rights, along with minimal nourishment and few comforts.

The first day of the experiment proved relatively uneventful, but on the second day tensions between the two groups rose extraordinarily, and the guards began to mistreat the prisoners. Six days into the experiment, which Zimbardo had planned to extend over two weeks, the guards’ reign of terror over the prisoners had become so brutal that Zimbardo had to call the whole thing off. (Interestingly, he did so only with great reluctance: Christina Maslach, a fellow psychologist who was also Zimbardo’s lover, and later his wife, got into shouting matches with him while demanding that he send the students home.) “At the start of this experiment, there were no differences between the two groups,” Zimbardo writes; “less than a week later, there were no similarities between them.”

When psychologists debate the question of why some — but only some — people behave violently, or otherwise cruelly, to others, they often fall into two camps, the dispositionists and the situationists. The terms are self-explanatory: dispositionists believe that certain people are (for whatever reason) disposed towards cruelty, while situationists believe that particular situations produce cruelty. The prison experiment made of Zimbardo a lifelong, deeply committed situationist. Anyone, he came to believe, could be placed in conditions which would transform them into active perpetrators of cruelty, or, at best, passive accepters of it.

Yet it seems to me that Zimbardo shies away from the implications of his own experiment and his own position. He presents his key question in this way: “What happens when you put good people in an evil place?” And notice his book’s subtitle: “Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.” But on what grounds does he say that the people were good? Simply because they had not — to his knowledge, which was extremely limited if not nonexistent — done anything especially foul before being assigned the role of prison guard? Long ago John Milton wrote, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” But Zimbardo does just that: he is happy to call people “good” who may simply have not had the opportunity to do noticeable evil.

Similarly, when Michael Bywater reviewed the book for the Times of London he commented that “evil” is “a word so empty that it should surely have withered away” — but doesn’t Zimbardo’s book suggest just the opposite, that the word is of wider application than most of us (especially Zimbardo) would want to to admit? Doesn’t it make us wonder whether something is wrong with all of us? — that we are somehow stained, or tainted, or infected with some contagion? — that we’re all born with the intrinsic . . . well, disposition to do bad things?