why we’re more evil than you may think

April 11, 2011

In popular culture, mercenaries tend to be either characters with no morality, or with a very fluid sense or right and wrong, motivated primarily by greed, or if they have to be the protagonist of a story, by some circumstance that justified their choices in the grand scheme of things. But only those whose moral compass points to the largest stack of cash would actually hurt people for money, right? Your average upstanding citizen would turn down any offer to make a quick buck from an afternoon torture session with a total stranger, wouldn’t he? On paper, yes. After having some money waved in front of his nose, not so much. You see, there’s a pretty major difference between what we say and what we do, as we all know, and that difference extends to behaviors we often categorize as morally repugnant and sociopathic. This is why researchers who ran an experiment which sounds like something Stanley Milgram would certainly approve of, decided to see if people would be willing to hurt a stranger for a little extra money. And you know what? Almost everyone did it and took the cash.

If you’re a cynic who believes that humans are innately greedy and selfish, and that everyone has a price, this is one study you can cite to confirm your stance. When discussing the situation only in hypothetical terms, no money on the table right away, about 64% of the subjects said they’d refuse to deliver even a mild shock. The bounty for each shock was based on severity, with £1 for a real jolt and a smaller sum for a light one, and the participants who did choose to hypothetically administer the electric shock walked away with an average of £4 or so. Cue real cash and the numbers changed exactly as the cynics in us would expect. Some 96% chose to administer a shock and went for more painful ones, collecting almost £16 on average, though when watching their victims grimace as they pressed the button brought their usual bounty down to £11.55. Of course no one was actually harmed in the process because the shocks were just prerecorded, but the results are very telling and highly reminiscent of the experiments ran by the aforementioned Dr. Milgram, who discovered that when we’re placed in a situation where we have to harm someone on command, we’ll do what we’re told a lot more often than we’re willing to admit to others and to ourselves, especially when the boss is right behind us using a very similar setup. And this is why a lot of people found his works very disturbing.

Experiments which show our dark side and reveal that yes, we all could be mercenaries, we all can be the evil guards of a concentration camp, and that we are all more than capable of abusing the authority we might be given (as shown by guard/prisoner experiments), no matter how much we declare that we could never do any of that were we placed in the same circumstances, are inherently disquieting. How can we identify monsters with no moral guide and appropriately punish them for their crimes when the truth of the matter is that virtually every one of us can very easily be compelled to just follow orders, no matter how atrocious or illegal, or harm someone just because we’ve been given money to do it? During war crime trials, soldiers who did things we consider unthinkable atrocities often say that they just followed orders and we duly declare that they’re simply shielding themselves from an appropriate punishment by invoking someone in a higher rank, someone who might have given a sadistic directive, or whose vague orders were misconstrued to justify abuse of power in a setting conducive to making those with even an ounce of authority decide to push their power as far as it can go. Sound familiar? It should, because that’s the psychological setup for something just like Abu Grahib. We know it’s wrong but we do it anyway because all the elements for abuse are there in full swing, from a vague order from on high, to peer pressure and undefined, but far-reaching authority.

An absolutist will argue that we have codices which draw the lines between right and wrong, and those who violate them for money or by command should pay the price regardless of the circumstances. But of course, the real world doesn’t work that way and we can think of exceptions to everything. Let’s not forget that there is actually popular support for torture of suspected terrorists, ironically a good deal of it coming from a part of the population which proclaims the moral high ground in every facet of life, support justified by the idea that a tortured terrorist will give us the information we need to stop another attack. It’s not a good justification since we know that torture is among the most unreliable methods of obtaining information and that it’s very likely to backfire since those being tortured will just say whatever they think will stop the pain, even if they just made it all up on the spot, but we still do it. Just like we know that not all order are moral and yet follow immoral ones. Just like we know that abusing prisoners is inhumane and unbecoming, but do it anyway. Just like we know that we shouldn’t hurt others for profit, and yet will still do it when we see the money on the table. We justify all sorts of cruel and ethically questionable things when we need to in order to quiet our conscience, but as the disturbing experiments we’ve just covered seem to imply, we do it after we’ve carried out an immoral action to make some money, out of fear, or out of overzealousness to show how much power we have.

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  • FloozieGal

    I had read about this experiment, and actually the results didn’t surprise me so much. Call me a cynic if you like, but I have seen too many “nice” people who can revert to this type of behavior and bare their teeth in all-out war for even the most trivial of reasons. There are no “nice” people; most of us have simply learned to act that way because we are “supposed to” act nice. At the heart of every human being is the ability to do whatever is necessary to provide us with something we want whether is it a lover, a car, defending our property or establishing dominance over another human being.

    These attributes are what helped our species survive. Just because we have been “civilized” for 2,000 years or so doesn’t mean those ancient instincts have gone away, they have just gone underground. There they sit, all 20,000 years of them and it doesn’t really take that much to wake them up. Just look at a schoolyard bully some time and you will see then in all their naked, bloody glory. The “torturers” here were simply acting the same way; their aim was to get something they wanted, ie money.

    What really did surpise me about the story was how little money was involved. I’m not sure what 16 pounds is in American dollars, but it can’t be more than $25 at the very most. That is a trivial amount for doing what they were asked to do; administering torture. What would have they been willing to do for a lot more money, say $5,000? Could the experiment have been extended to the obvious final stage, the death of the tortured, and how many people would have taken it to that extent?

    Just some ramblings of mine, but it does make you think…

  • FloozieGal

    Ooops. I mistyped the numbers in my last post.

    I said 20,000 years for civilization, but I really meant 200,000 years for the rise of apes/monkeys to early humans. After all, apes needed all these qualities to survive and they passed them along to us.

    Second, when I said that we had been civilised for 2,000 years I meant 20,000 years when the first protohumans began to make the jump from simple survival to becoming modern humans. This change is the moment when art first appeared. The ability to see something as representing something else is enormous. After all, if you buy you cat a toy shaped like a mouse it can’t make the connection that it is supposed to be a mouse. It doesn’t smell like a mouse or run like a mouse. Also, as far the research shows so far, art and language appeared about the same time. Once language appreared suddenly it became possible to conceive of and create large projects that required lots of people to work together to make something that hadn’t ever been made before.

    By the way, this didn’t happen at the same time everywhere. The ancient Chinese were mapping the stars and calculating their orbits, creating beautiful porcelin and building incredibly complex temples while our European ancesters were still living in dirt caves and wiping themselves with leaves… if that is what they used, anthopologists are not very clear on these types of things, it probably is not “nice”.

    Sorry, got off the subject a bit, but think of the early societies that sacrificed humans to their gods in the hopes of getting good harvests or whatever; isn’t that a bit like the Milgram study? After all, the torture and murder of innocent people gave power to the priest class over the general population. Kill for money and power, sounds kind of “modern” doesn’t it?

  • Greg Fish

    “when the first protohumans began to make the jump from simple survival to modern humans. This change is the moment when art first appeared.”

    What exactly are “protohumans” and why is human evolution here being discussed in the same terms a self-appointed nineteenth century anthropologist would use? Over millions of years, hominids and their descendants spent much of their time in groups, usually families. Modern humans refers to our specific hominid species and we were first noted in North Africa around 100,000 years ago, not 20,000 years ago. We also do not have any set date when humans started doing anything artistic so to arbitrarily pin the emergence of art to 20,000 years ago is unfounded to say the least.

    “As far the research shows so far, art and language appeared about the same time.”

    That depends what you mean by language, because there’s been some sort of verbal exchange going back to the ancestors of humans and Neanderthals, at least 300,000 years ago or so.

    “Once language appreared [sic] suddenly it became possible to conceive of and create large projects that required lots of people to work together to make something”

    It seems like you’re engaging in some bizarre pseudo-history there since you’ve based your entire timeline of monument and city construction on some bizarre homunculus of ideas which seem very questionable at best. Considering that over the existence of the modern human species, our brainpower has changed little, it seems much more likely that large scale engineering projects are a function of motivation and resources, not an outflow of art and language.

    “The ancient Chinese were mapping the stars and calculating their orbits… while our European ancesters [sic] were living in dirt caves and wiping themselves with leaves”

    Actually, at the time, the Europeans were building Stonehenge digging out what would become sacred catacombs, and trying to establish continent-wide trade according to a good deal of archeological evidence. Just in case you didn’t know, calculating how the Sun and the Moon moved around the night sky over long term periods was required to build Stonehenge so the Europeans weren’t exactly slacking off there. Might I suggest some cursory studies in ancient history before your next comment? Just a thought…

  • This reminds me of the altruistic behavior of Vampire bats, where they regurgitate blood when begged by a less fortunate bat whom has not had an satisfactory blood feed. Only because they will do the same to him in an similar situation. Kinda brings the question of Free will, are we just slaves to our goals and behaviours. I don’t really thing anyone will truly do something selfless. Thats pretty cynical, but the truth hurts.