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Although ‘evil’ is a religious notion, religion is not where ideas of good and evil come from.

Religion, rather, is one way to respond to the reality of their existence. It came about because there was evil in the world. Without religion there would still be the concept of evil.

Religion can function as a source of evil, or an explanation for evil, or a solution to it. It no more invented the concept of evil than it did the concept of good.

Religion is rather a way of trying to give shape and structure to the moral concepts embedded in our lives. Even if at times it has descended into the petty discreditation of the things in the world the Church dislikes.


All or nothing

If religion isn’t the source of the idea of evil it does still encourage our tendency to think of evil as an all-or-nothing affair.

If you believe your soul will end in heaven or hell, then the question of whether your soul itself is good or evil matters. Matters, in fact, more than anything in the world.

If you have a pure heart it is your ticket to redemption. If you don’t you may think efforts to do good are pointless.

Good and evil can come in increments, however, if you are not convinced of an ultimate fate. 

Which is good, as it’s not the most extremes of evil that threaten us. Most psychopaths and people who take pleasure in causing misery and pain are few and far between.


Sad truth

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never made up their minds to be or do evil at all. Focusing on psychopaths is a good way to forget this, and carries more than one risk.

Besides obscuring how little evil is committed by madmen, it focuses on the evils for which responsibility is hardest to ascribe. Psychopaths, by definition, are too sick to be culpable.

But the problem, wrote Primo Levi, is “not that evil men did evil things, but that normal men did them.”

There aren’t enough Sado Masochists around.


The Last King

A recent film provides a far better model of what we should fear. Not the mad dictator Idi Amin, but the young doctor in The Last King of Scotland shows the innocent descent into evil that threatens us most.

Without malice in his heart or cruelty in his dreams, he’s driven by the most common of motives. Lust for proximity to beautiful women and powerful men and a taste for the small privileges and luxuries that lighten everyday loads. It isn’t wickedness but thoughtlessness that makes him cause a series of awful deaths without ever meaning to.

Most psychology studies confirm the same thing. Under the wrong sort of circumstance, most of us are capable of the wrong sort of actions.



You may deplore it, but the conclusion has been verified many times over. Not only in the acts of genocide that have recurred with regular frequency in the years since the Second World War, but also in a series of controlled experiments.

In his most famous experiment, social psychologist, Philip Zimbardo took a group of healthy young men and tested them to rule out any measurable form of psychopathology. He assigned half of them to act as prisoners. Half of them to act as guards. All in a makeshift jail in the basement of a Stanford University laboratory. Zimbardo himself took on the role of prison superintendent. He gave the guards the instruction to refrain from physical torture. Within forty-eight hours, each group transformed.

“At the start of the experiment, there were no differences between the two groups; less than a week later, there were no similarities.”



This set a vicious cycle in motion. The student guards set about degrading prisoners through simple sorts of punishments: verbal abuse, sleep deprivations, hours spent in stress positions repeating mindless physical and mental exercises. As the prisoners became dehumanized, the guards found it easy to degrade them further. One student who had played the role of prisoner reported:

“The Stanford prison was a benign prison situation, and it still caused the guards to become sadistic, prisoners to become hysterical, other prisoners to break out in hives.

Here you have a benign situation, and it didn’t work. The guard role promotes sadism. The prisoner role promotes confusion and shame. Anybody can be a guard. It’s harder to be on guard against the impulse to be sadistic.

It’s a quiet rage, malevolence, you can keep down but there’s nowhere for it to go; it comes out sideways.”

Zimbardo’s conclusion after a lifetime of research is chilling:

“Any deed that any human being has ever committed, however horrible, is possible for any of us – under the right or wrong situational circumstances.

That knowledge does not excuse evil; rather, it democratizes it, sharing its blame among ordinary actors rather than declaring it the province only of deviants and despots – of Them but not Us.”



Zimbardo’s’ research expands the conclusion delivered by his colleague Stanley Milgram, whose experiment set out to explore how ordinary Germans became accomplices to mass murder. The experiment showed how little is required to command obedience to orders that clash with conscience.

Hundreds of subjects believed they were participants in a study that examined the role of stress in learning. They were told to give intense electric shocks to learners they could not see.

The shocks were fake, like the screams of the actors pretending to be learners in the next room, but the results were not. Sixty-five percent of subjects tested were willing to cause electric shocks they believed would cause unconsciousness, and possibly death. Their willingness to follow orders did not even need the defence of God or country, but only the cause of science.

Milgram’s conclusion: “If a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany one would be able to find enough personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town.”


This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

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