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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