The Line Between Good and Evil

Hva får mennesker til å begå onde handlinger? Dette er tema for vinneren av Ungdomskonkurransen Fritt Ord 2011.

Anna Rømcke Høi­seth fra Frogn videre­gå­en­de sko­le vant første­pri­sen i 2011-utga­ven av Fritt Ords ung­doms­kon­kur­ran­se med essay­et «The Line Betwe­en Good and Evil». Vox Pub­li­ca pre­sen­te­rer her Høi­seths sam­men­fat­ning av arbei­det. Du kan også las­te ned essay­et i sin hel­het (pdf).


Evil comes in many shapes and forms. Whether it is dicta­tors respon­s­ib­le for hor­rib­le geno­ci­des, pri­son guards in Abu Ghraib, or two young, Eng­lish boys bru­tally mur­de­ring the two-year-old James Bul­ger. When expo­sed to such evil, we are shocked and sick­e­ned, but per­haps most of all, fasci­nated. How is it pos­sib­le for peop­le to go through with these atrocities? We might then dis­tan­ce ours­el­ves from the evil­do­ers, and claim that we could never act in such a way. But is it only the socio­paths and the «bad apples» that com­mit evil deeds? Are they only the excep­tions, and not the majority? Or is eve­ryone capab­le of car­ry­ing out evil deeds?

Anna Rømcke Høi­seth (foto: Kon­kur­ran­sen Unge Fors­ke­re)

From these ques­tions I for­mu­lated the spec­i­fic rese­arch ques­tion: “What cau­ses peop­le to com­mit evil deeds?” To answer this, I began by sear­ching for the most use­ful defi­nition of evil. I found that evil is often defined as non­com­pli­an­ce with soci­al norms. This defi­nition alo­ne is not enough, sin­ce such norms are not auto­ma­ti­cal­ly good in them­sel­ves. Furt­her­mo­re, an evil deed must cau­se harm or injury, and most often with the inten­tion of doing so. I then tur­ned to the Nor­we­gi­an phi­lo­so­pher Lars Fr. H. Svend­sen and his four cate­go­ries of evil: the demo­nic, the igno­rant, the idea­li­s­tic and the igno­rant form of evil. These proved to be use­ful throug­hout my essay.

I split the rest of the essay into two parts: indi­vi­du­al evil and col­lecti­ve evil. Each sec­tion had a state­ment which I assessed. These were: “Peop­le are essenti­al­ly good or evil” and “Peop­le are situa­tio­nal­ly evil”. In the first part I exa­mi­ned seri­al kil­lers and socio­paths, and their rea­sons for com­mit­ting evil deeds. Two of the main rea­sons were lack of empat­hy, and the feeling that soci­al norms do not apply to them. Furt­her­mo­re, their evil fell into the cate­go­ries of idea­li­s­tic and igno­rant evil. To discuss the state­ment “Peop­le are essenti­al­ly good or evil” furt­her, I tur­ned to the phi­lo­sop­hies of Kant, Augus­tin and Rousseau. My con­clu­sion with regard to the first state­ment was that peop­le are not essenti­al­ly good or evil, but that some are more like­ly to com­mit evil deeds becau­se of their genes and upbrin­ging.

In the next part I discus­sed the state­ment “Peop­le are situa­tio­nal­ly evil”. Here I look­ed at the Mil­gram Expe­ri­ment, the Stan­ford Pri­son Expe­ri­ment, the events that took place in Abu Ghraib and the Rwan­dan geno­ci­de. All these cases are examp­les of how ordi­na­ry peop­le can become per­pe­tra­tors, if placed in the right situa­tion. Peop­le will more easi­ly follow soci­al norms than breach them, even when the norms of a socie­ty or a soci­al group are evil. The thre­s­hold for breaching these norms is so high that few have the coura­ge to become devi­ants. Anot­her cau­se is the crea­tion of a gene­ra­lized ima­ge of the ene­my, which leads to see­ing other peop­le as group inste­ad of indi­vi­duals. Through the process of dehu­ma­niza­tion, evil deeds are more easi­ly com­mit­ted.

My con­clu­sion is that of the two state­ments abo­ve, the lat­ter is the most valid. I think almost anyone can com­mit evil deeds, even though some might be more like­ly to do so. Anot­her con­clu­sion I have I arrived at — whi­le wor­king on this essay — is that evil is a dan­gerous term and must be used with cau­tion. By bran­ding “the others” as evil we name ours­el­ves “the pro­tec­tors of good”. If we do not rea­lize that we have the capacity to com­mit evil deeds, we can­not be pre­pared to pro­tect ours­el­ves from power­ful situa­tio­nal and sys­te­mic for­ces. Also, we must try our best to under­stand the per­pe­tra­tors, and imme­dia­te­ly naming them evil is not at all wise.

Furt­her­mo­re, we must be pre­pared in some situa­tions to become devi­ants, for the right thing may be to breach the norms of a socie­ty or group.



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