Feb 17 2015

Are Humans Inherently Evil?

*Revised on February 27, 2015
If you were to ask someone the question, “Do you think the human race is inherently evil?”, you might be surprised by their answer. An average tenth grade civics class was asked this only a couple weeks ago, and over half of the class agreed, one person said they thought humans were good, and one person, myself, thought that people were neutral.

This question raises more questions, one being, “What makes a person good or evil?” Of course, people can have good or evil traits, and they can do good or evil things, but does that specifically make a good or evil person.  I think the choice to be a hero or a villain depends mostly on the situation and/or the circumstances, and not particularly on the person themselves. In a prison in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, 2003, American soldiers working the night shift in the basement of the prison were caught physically and sexually abusing the inmates. These are some of the people who are considered by many to be some of the most pure and heroic people you can find because they have devoted their lives to helping the people of their country. So, what made them do such morally wrong things to these prisoners? They had power, and they didn’t think they would get caught; authority and consequence play a large role in this idea, and this occurrence, in my opinion, is almost certainly because of that kind of mindset of feeling in control.

This instance raises more points, like that since they were soldiers, they were trained to be forceful and in control. This does not excuse the rest of us though. I believe nearly anyone who is given power will probably end up taking it too far in some ways. The Stanford Prison Experiment, a perfect example of this. In 1971, twenty-four healthy and mentally able male college students were chosen to participate in the experiment, some as prisoners, some as guards. The experiment had to be cut off after only six days because of how the prisoners were being treated. The “guards” had the inmates doing physical labour like forcing them to clean toilets with their bare hands, they were stripped, and many of them were sexually humiliated as well. Many of these kids, who had been chosen because they were psychologically healthy, had mental and emotional breakdowns within thirty-six hours. So the experiment was put to a stop. Were these guards bad people? Were they evil? That is debatable, but there is one obvious parallel element between this experiment and the night guards in Iraq: power. They had both been given positions of control over other people, which made them feel untouchable and like they had the right to control, not the responsibility of control.

People aren’t always naturally good is a pretty safe thing to say at this point. Personal devils like envy, jealousy, and temptation are things that can bring people astray and make them behave poorly, but I believe that above all, the sense of authority is the worst devil of all. As I have mentioned in examples previously, the feeling of dominance and power can be brainwashing, so much so that it can also make the people “underneath” the power very obedient and blind in a way. There are so many people who just mindlessly obey whatever the authority above them tells them to without question, whether that authority be in a school or work environment, or even on a municipal or federal level. Also, the fallout of one’s actions can have a large effect on one’s decision to act a certain way. Circumstances are crucial. If someone knows that there will be no repercussions to their behaviour, their actions will probably differ quite a bit from if there were limitations on their actions. This is why I don’t think people are unconditionally evil. People can make choices, good or bad, but I don’t think that should label them overall as a whole person. Does it make a person evil if they don’t do a noble or heroic thing? Does it make a person good if they don’t make a bad decision? A lot of evil deeds can also come out of mistakes and misinterpretations. Is a person bad if they do something evil unintentionally?

There are so many conditions and so many more questions to ask about the topic, but I think it can be summed up quite simply. So many human things can be classified with our definition of good or evil; actions, decisions, words, but people are not solely based on their choices, they have more substance to them than their perfections or inaccuracies. And decisions are set in time, they cannot be altered once they happen. But humans can change. They can rehabilitate, they can grow, they can develop, or they can retreat, compress and repress themselves and their doings, and turn down roads they initially had no intention of exploring. So many humans things can be classified as evil, but humans themselves should not be one of them.

Feel free to ask questions to or get engaged in the topic for yourself

TED Talk- The Psychology of Evil
where I got most of my ideas and information (note: some images used in this video are slightly graphic so view at own risk)

The Stanford Prison Experiment 
more information about The Stanford Prison Experiment