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The Face of Evil

Every time a tragedy like a mass shooting happens, the media talks about the perpetrator as “evil.” Originally religious in connotation, that description is often used to definitively identify someone as an “other” – someone completely different from ourselves, a monster devoid of conscience or morals. But, throughout history, we have examples of otherwise good people doing evil things. Unpacking the concept of evil and its origins can help us understand a variety of phenomena from corporate malfeasance to prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib to organized genocide. More importantly, it can help us to identify and examine the warning signs and circumstances that can bring out the worst in our nature, and how to prevent it. Dr Philip Zimbardo discusses this topic in a TED talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/philip_zimbardo_on_the_psychology_of_evil.html (warning: disturbing images)

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  • Louis S.

    Louis---This was my first time joining a conversation as part of this group. I want to thank you, Andrea, for both organizing and moderating a terrific discussion.

    February 4, 2013

  • Nick

    Enjoyable and stimulating. Well led, Andrea. With 15+ people it becomes harder to hear than last week with 12, and the group starts to fragment, although you and others quickly pulled it back together. With the larger group and the difficulty being heard it seemed that people were sometimes hesitant or not sure when to jump in. I agree - when we are talking we need to know when to stop. Somebody previously mentioned a nearby Starbucks that might be quieter?

    Also...The Princeton Public Lecture site is back online and some good stuff is coming up. And for those up for the trip (carpool?) there is a wide range of places to eat within a couple of blocks of McCosh Hall.
    Coming up: http://lectures.princeton.edu/
    Archive: http://hulk03.princeton.edu:8080/WebMedia/lectures/
    Campus Map: http://etcweb.princeton.edu/pumap/#0024

    1 · February 4, 2013

  • Amy

    Thanks, Andrea for leading a great discussion today! I agree that it's a topic we can revisit, perhaps focusing on one or two questions we raised today.

    February 3, 2013

  • Sidney

    And thank YOU Andrea for a great job organizing and moderating the meeting!

    February 3, 2013

  • Patty

    Andrea, thank you for the work you put into this discussion. It was a good group, and the discussion was enlightening and engrossing. I've given this topic, along with the related one about sociopaths and psychopaths, a good bit of thought lately. I have, and have had in the past, family members who have shown sociopathic behavior, so I want to try to understand this, as well as the concept of evil. It's a complex, tough issue.

    2 · February 3, 2013

    • Andrea

      Thanks, Patty. Your contributions, as always, were interesting and on point!

      February 3, 2013

  • Sidney

    Very stimulating; just a bit too monopolizing of discussion at times by a couple of participants

    February 3, 2013

    • Andrea

      Thanks for the feedback, Sidney. Next time I host, I will pay more attention to giving everyone a fair share of time.

      February 3, 2013

  • Andrea

    Thanks for the comments and thank you all for such a lively discussion. It's such a broad topic and maybe one day, we can delve into other areas of it. The forensic psychologist I referred to, Dr. Robert Hare, has some very informative (but technical) information on his website about percentages, diagnoses, and other things we discussed about psychopathy/sociopathy: http://www.hare.org/

    2 · February 3, 2013

  • Sidney

    Just my humble opinion on the bit of monopolizing. But overall, I relished interacting with a really bright and passionate group of people! That said, in my haste to have to return to my beautiful home state of New Jersey, I realized there was a subject I meant to broach, but a proverbial senior moment kept that from happening. The subject is the immortal "money is the root of all evil" cliche (please disregard if this subject came at all up after I had left). Having given this enough thought over the past year (as part of the process for my writing a just-completed first draft of a self-help book on self-sabotage), i believe money itself is definitely NOT the root of all evil by any means. But what I will maintain is a big part of the root of many evil acts is JEALOUSY--deep-seated, pathological jealousy. Combine that with a sense of betrayal, and I believe you've got a set of psychological factors predisposing ANYONE--including people with a conscience--to commit evil acts.

    February 3, 2013

  • Will B.

    A very enjoyable and productive exchange of ideas. Everyone spoke and there was respectful conversation and exchange of ideas and beliefs.

    2 · February 3, 2013

  • Elaine

    Very good. Well moderated, a balance of views, knowledgeable comments.

    2 · February 3, 2013

  • Valerie

    Great group, great conversation!

    2 · February 3, 2013

  • Nick

    Just one more...
    I started reading Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature” this afternoon and bumped into something relevant for tomorrow morning. In the preface he describes “Five Inner Demons” that lead to aggression:
    Predatory or instrumental violence – a means to an end
    Dominance – the urge for authority
    Revenge – retribution, punishment and justice
    Sadism – Pleasure taken in another’s suffering
    Ideology – violence justified by idealistic goal

    1 · February 2, 2013

  • Nick

    Dissecting “evil:”
    Can a place be evil?
    Can there be evil forces other than human thoughts and feelings?
    Can a person be evil to a non-human animal?
    To a mammal?
    To a reptile?
    To an insect?
    To a microbe?
    Can a non-human animal be evil?
    Can non-human animals be evil to each other?
    If evil describes a quality of human brain activity…
    What does neurological wiring contribute?
    What do developmental experiences contribute?
    What roles in evil are played by acquisition urges (Sméagol killing Deagol for the One Ring or Sargon conquering Sumerian city states), fear and preemptive strikes, revenge, distorted honor beliefs, etc?
    Can a person be evil on a desert island?
    (From idea presented during the Morality session)
    Are evil thoughts evil if not acted on? (Tenth Commandment)
    And so on…..

    February 2, 2013

  • Sidney

    A couple of pre-meeting questions on the subject of evil that have struck me today: 1) is it still evil if the person or group on the receiving end of what most members of a society may label an act of "evil" nonetheless do not consciously see themselves as being victimized by that act? 2) what is the connection between evil and betrayal? 3) under what circumstances if any is an act of evil forgivable by the victim? and 4) if money is really not the root of all evil, then what else could be the root or roots?

    February 2, 2013

  • Nick

    When a topic is focused on a word it's good to check out the various definitions associated with it, and maybe even the etymology. Wikipedia isn't without errors but it's a great place to start tracking down the origins of the idea of evil and what it has meant to people throughout the centuries. Which brings up the question; Can there be evil without people?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evil

    February 1, 2013

    • Andrea

      Thanks, Nick. When I started to prepare for this, Wikipedia was a good starting place for different perspectives.

      February 1, 2013

  • Sidney

    Thanks Andrea--c ya Sunday!

    February 1, 2013

  • Sidney

    Hi-I'm Sidney. I'm third on the waiting list for this Sunday's meeting on Evil, and would greatly relish the chance to attend this meeting. I don't know if there is any typical or average no-show rate for this meetup group's events, but if it's say 25% is there a possibility the event could be opened up to 20 people instead of 15, with the understanding that some of those 20 will drop out? Grasping at straws here probably, but hey, nothing to lose, right?

    February 1, 2013

    • Andrea

      Hi Sidney. We have been opening up the list to 20 people for just that reason and will do so now. I look forward to seeing you there!

      February 1, 2013

  • Jean S.

    Commitment ethics - I hosted a play at the College of Physicians last night. There were 15 NO-SHOWS out of the 20 that signed up. Mathematically, that is 75% did not show up. As organizers, hosts and other members, this is an embarrassment to the group. If you cannot attend, CANCEL YOUR RESERVATION IN ADVANCE so that someone else can have your seat at the table.

    1 · January 29, 2013

  • John S. J.

    Existential human-species risk -- worth reading, may be relevant Sunday re future evil.

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/cambridge-cabs-and-copenhagen-my-route-to-existential-risk/

    January 28, 2013

  • Katie

    Here is a video (courtesy of CJ) on the Lucifer effect by Zimbardo (might be similar tot eh TED talk below). This video is almost 2 hours.
    http://video.mit.edu/watch/the-lucifer-effect-understanding-how-good-people-turn-evil-9241/

    January 28, 2013

  • Jean S.

    Recognizing evil is one of the keys to staying safe. I was in a situation recently that I could feel the evil radiating from a man on my way home on the bus from Philly. I was able to stare right back at him but I felt cloaked in his disturbance for several hours afterward. Even the next morning I felt I had to open all of my doors and windows to let the stink of him get out of my house. I am looking forward to hearing about your experiences with evil.

    1 · January 21, 2013

  • Louis S.

    The ambivalence of evil is one of the most disturbing subjects i can think of; I am looking forward to hearing what people have to say about this experience.

    1 · January 21, 2013

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