why we’re more evil than you may think

Researchers show that far more of us than we'd admit would harm a stranger for the promise of cold, hard cash.


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.

# science // ethics / evil / morality / psychology

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