Thursday, April 19, 2007

Why do ordinary people commit evil deeds?

Various people have begun to comment on the dreadful massacre at Virginia Tech University. A particularly insightful one is here. The BBC website has also published an article entitled "Why do ordinary people commit evil deeds?" It's author is Prof Phil Zimbardo, creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment - where a mock prison was run by psychologists. In this experiment "good, young men" became as prison guards involved in "chilling abuse and torture". The conclusion is that "given certain conditions, ordinary people can succumb to social pressure to commit acts that would otherwise be unthinkable". Another conclusion is that "Prejudiced beliefs lead to discrimination, and in turn to abuse." Zimbardo maintains that "rather than dismissing [evil] as a bad deed done by a bad person" we should seek "to identify corrosive social forces" that create the situation that fosters such actions.

This doesn't take us very near to understanding the Virginia Tech massacre - although we should admit that a culture which glorifies sin also encourages it. Our society is at a loss to understand evil because it has persisted in calling evil good and good evil. No doubt, there are certain external restraints (social and otherwise) upon the evil of our own hearts and when these are absent the evil becomes much more likely, but the removal of the restraints certainly doesn't create the evil.

Towards the end of the article, the conclusion is drawn rather starkly that "Anything that any human being has ever done - anything imaginable - is potentially doable by any of us in the same situation." Although this depends on the idea of situational forces practically compelling us to evil, it is still a remarkable observation from a psychologist.

Few have been as eminently holy in their life as Robert Murray M’Cheyne. His frequent prayer was "Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made". Yet he wrote in his Diary, published after his death: "I have begun to realize that the seeds of every known sin still linger in my heart." We should acknowledge that for ourselves with all sincerity: "The heart is deceitful above all things and desparately wicked" - Jeremiah 17:9.