Obedience, Evil, and Resistance

Monday, February 18
Kanya, Abdu, Natalia, and Rachel

People are capable of tremendous evil and great good, depending on the circumstances they are placed in. Acts of both obedience and resistance have the capacity to inspire, like in religion and social movements, and to repulse, like Nazism and the French Reign of Terror. This class will analyze the causes of that duality based on both social experiments, historical reactions, and literary commentary.




*Optional but recommended- they are short articles!



Because Professor Ariely will be off joining a cult on Monday, Feb 18 (it’s a social science experiment:  that’s dedication!), the interview the student leaders will tape for this course will be with Prof Davidson and the brilliant magician Joshua Lozoff.    To hear both of us talk about attention, distraction, and mentalism and the elegant beauties of magic unfolding before our very (blind) eyes, please listen to this NPR interview by Frank Statio:  http://wunc.org/post/science-behind-paying-attention.

See Joshua Lozoff’s website http://www.deep-magic.com/


After completing the readings and watching the videos, add a Reading Response comment to the comment space beneath this schedule post, and respond to a peer’s comment. Please select one reading from each of the categories Obedience, Evil, and Resistance, and:

  1. Write about your reaction to each of the readings. Some of these readings are very emotional, so we encourage you to be creative and personal.
  2. Please write a well-formed question that we can ask during our in-class interview.

89 responses to “Obedience, Evil, and Resistance

  1. Obedience: Ghosts of Abu Ghraib
    A) Please write about your reaction:

    Abu Ghraib was truly a disgusting and shamefully embarrassing act in American history. It is very difficult to reflect on the happenings, and to watch the documentary, without being filled with anger, disgust and remorse. Indeed, while there are many American soldiers who honorably serve our country, Abu Ghraib revealed to us the maniacal and disgusting truth about some of “our nation’s finest”. The reality is that the psychological mistreatment, physical abuse, and dehumanizing acts that the implicated soldiers forced upon the Iraqi prisoners only served to paint an even more despicable picture of America to the greater world. The fact that the soldiers were let off so easy, and received relatively short prison sentences, only serves to exacerbate the image of America in this situation – as it almost suggests that we tolerate this kind of mistreatment of other human beings, and that we value our soldiers more than our civilians. Surely if a farmer in Texas were to tie up a group of migrant workers, defecate on them, and treat them like animals, the nation would be in a state of unrest, and maximum sentences would be given out. Yet this was simply not the case with the convicted soldiers.
    What is most troubling about Abu Ghraib is that many Americans have since forgotten and overlooked the torturous acts. To me, it serves as a sad and harrowing reminder of how history is how we choose to view it. To this end, while each of the several thousand soldiers who lost their lives were painted across the TV sets in America as heroes, there was little to no mention of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who lost their lives. In fact, we don’t even have an accurate estimate of this statistic, which only signals our indifference to those who are not us.

    B) Please write a well-formed question that we can ask during our in-class interview:

    How can we ever aim to promote freedom and democracy when we allow such disgusting acts as Abu Ghraib to occur with relatively few consequences? Is our military above the law?

    Evil: Philip Zimbardo: The Psychology of Evil
    A) Please write about your reaction:

    Professor Zimbardo presents a very interesting take on evil and its manifestation in society that is often overlooked. We are often very quick to dismiss crazy people as different than us – social rejects, mentally ill, etc. The reality, however, is that if we look at evil as an institutional and situational factor, the argument can be made that they are a function of their environment. Zimbardo takes this approach by essentially applying the nature vs. nurture argument to the production of evil. Just as he and Milgram showed experimentally, intelligent civilians can be turned into machines of abuse and torture. By using this lens of examination, Zimbardo presents a justification for the Abu Ghraib tragedy. While I disagree with Zimbardo’s justification, I do think that evil can be a situational factor. If we are surrounded by it, we become desensitized to it, and therefore are more accepting of it. Zimbardo’s piece has many implications for modern society and how we understand evil. The reality is that many of us, despite what we think, are capable of pronounced evil, provided the situation encourages it. This is a reality that I find hard to accept, yet true nonetheless.
    In considering Zimbardo’s message, it is important for institutions to really and deeply consider how they are shaping individuals. Whether the US Military, Duke University, or even the Red Cross, all of these institutions have the ability to produce humane and inhumane people.

    B) Please write a well-formed question that we can ask during our in-class interview:

    How can the military prevent another Abu Ghraib? Or is another similar tragedy of human morality inevitable?

    Resistance: Sout Al Horeya — Voice of Freedom (music video)
    A) Please write about your reaction:

    After the relatively depressing and disturbing required readings/documentaries for the other subjects, obedience and evil, I found this video to be very refreshing and lifting. The Arab Spring and the civilian led protests against dictatorships, tyranny, and demagoguery that ensued revealed the tremendous power of human resistance. The music video clearly shows reveals this capacity, and the lyrics are particularly poignant, matched with the imagery of the revolution.
    What I appreciated about this video is that while the other pieces we read/watched showed how crowds can be manipulated for evil, this video showed how they can also enact positive social change. Equipped with nothing but a communal dream and desire, crowds can help make and shape society. The unfortunate reality, however, is that often they only mobilize after so much bloodshed and tears have been exhausted. The question that arises is therefore if disaster and outrage are necessary pre-requisites for bringing people together for positive change. Personally I cannot recall a revolution, or mass protest, that wasn’t brought about by some tragic occurrence or crime against humanity.

    B) Please write a well-formed question that we can ask during our in-class interview:

    Do we need tragedy and disaster to unite us for a common good? Are these pre-requisites, or can you think of a revolution or resistance-based social movement that spawned out of simple desire for a better system?

    • I completely understand your reaction to the Abu Ghraib documentary– it did show acts that were completely horrific, and entirely hard to stomach and even watch. However, I do wonder if your question “Is our military above the law?” somewhat illustrates the problem the documentary is trying to address. By targeting the military as inherently evil and heartless, in being allowed to commit these acts, we once again assume that perhaps the military and its programs are just “bad apples.” But we are the ones that created this situation. In simply having war and creating the concept of enemies, we are dehumanizing certain people and treating them as inferior, as they are the “evil” side. But simply blaming the existence of war as a whole is not a solution, as it benefits no one and does not create a solution to combat future similar situations. However, I’m just not entirely sure that we can completely blame the military as defying the law in what they did, because I don’t think it’s a unique behavior.

    • I think to make sure that such crimes don’t happen again, we need to encourage feedback. At the same time, obedience is crucial for a military. An army needs to be disciplined to be effective, and especially when the gap between life and death is so narrow, like one of the interviewees said, you don’t have the space to question your orders.

      But there should always be a choice to report to your authorities. If they don’t listen, then report the authorities. To higher authorities. And if that doesn’t work, then to the public, to the media. But, I do think that after reporting to the authorities, if the act continues, the blame has shifted to the authorities. You create a conflict of interest when the solider has vowed to be obedient to their authorities, at risk of severe punishment if he or she doesn’t, but feels the orders are ethically compromising.

    • I found particularly interesting your discussion of how individuals can be exposed to evil actions for their differentness. It reminded me of the reading we did during the first week of class on the same topic. I am most interested in what type of features societies possess that can cause them to be exclusionary. The Ghosts of Abu Gharib is an example of how organizations can be capable of evil through obedience. What of these same features extend to societies at large that make evil possible?

    1) What always makes me angry about the topic of obedience, and seeing realities such as these so harshly brought to attention, is how little credibility and buy-in it elicits from other viewers. We, as a society, are so mired in the “bad apples” mentality that we sneer in horror and outrage when these things do occur, never imagining that we would do the same thing if we were in that position. However, unlike the other topics we’ve covered– our inability to self control and to recognize defaults– our attention blindness in the realm of obedience and evil has dire consequences. The case that I think of, in particular, is when the film “Compliance” was released earlier in the film season– it depicts the real life events of yet another instance when blindly obeying authority can lead to disaster. And yet when it was screened at festivals such as Sundance, audience members actually walked out of the film in anger, at being “manipulated.” But if we are ever going to go about preventing atrocities such as Abu Ghraib from happening again, we NEED to accept that we, as humans, fall short in this arena, even if we have the best of intentions and morality.

    2) What is the best way to distinguish between disobedience that is merely disruptive and harmful, and that which is perhaps just cautionary and ahead of its time? Is blind obedience something that is unique to humans?

    1) Quick funny side note about Zimbardo– my AP Psychology units paralleled his “Discovering Psychology” videos, so I would routinely spend 1st period with “Phillip Zimbardo” and his rather creepy narration about all manners of psychological principles. But it’s now a bit jarring to see him in any other context haha. Regardless, I found his talk to be interesting, but left me wanting for something different. He spends much of his time explaining the logistics of the experiment– but it seems to me that many people are familiar with it already. Considering the nature of his argument, that people are not “inherently” evil and rather influenced by their environments, I would have liked to hear more of a first person perspective. After all, as a participant in that very experiment, Zimbardo has the unique point of view of being personally altered by his situation– and I feel as if this would have been more persuasive, compelling evidence for his conclusion.

    2) What are situations that you’ve faced in which you were no longer sure of your actions, and what was right and wrong? What factors influence how people tend towards good or evil? (ex: Dan provided the example of wearing a cape, and yet in the Good Samaritan example, thinking about a lesson in morality did not impact the level of good-doing)

    1) This video is perhaps an answer to some of my previous questions, in that it shows how the power of a group and collective action can combat evil. As we learned in the concept of attention blindness, it is only when you gather a group of people together– with some who can see the gorilla, and some you can’t– that you can see the whole picture. But then there is perhaps the question of, as we learned last lesson, if we are all subject to the same defaults, how do we guard ourselves against some basic assumptions? Nevertheless, this was rather refreshing and inspiring, in comparison to the other readings, but shows how much farther we have to go in order to inspire everyone to speak up and move against inaction.

    2) What distinguishes the individuals who aren’t afraid to act against the bystander effect? How can we condition or exercise ourselves to do the same, and become “everyday heroes?”

    • Scoobydu,

      I understand and sympathize with your anger in us focusing on only the “rotten apples”. However, I’d like to argue that in order for society to become better, it’s necessary to single out those individuals. They don’t have to be the low-ranking officials. They can also be the powerful in the White House, for example. It’s easier to say that the system is bad, and that’s how individuals under unfortunate conditions behave badly. Yet, I see great value in holding individual persons accountable, other which there is little incentive for the rest of the us to behave honestly. See Prof. Ariely’s story on “why we lie”

  3. Peer Response to Scoobydu:

    Before I delve into my analysis of your response, I want to say that I very much agree with you that Zimbardo’s talk was subpar. I think he rushed through it, did not offer much in depth insight, and spent the vast majority of it recounting the logistics of his experimental design (which, as you noted, is already very well known). That being said, I think your question about what distinguishes individuals who fall into the bystander effect from those who actually take action is a profound one. My understanding is that the bystander effect occurs when we have a diffusion of responsibility, and are, to an extent, confused or alarmed by the situation that the victim is in. That is to say, that if we were to see a woman getting raped in the streets, we would be shocked and emotionally distraught and not thinking entirely rationally. Thus, it may very well be that our emotions override our call to action in such circumstances, and also that the potential danger (of getting involved in breaking up a rape) is overbearing. In crowds, or protests, however, there seems to be a reverse effect. To this end, we tend to assume the strength of the group, and therefore draw energy and fervor from it. In so doing, we empower ourselves to perform potentially dangerous acts, simply because those around us are also doing it. This link doesn’t exist in the bystander effect, and therefore I think this is a major distinguishing factor. That being said, this is entirely my own interpretation, and while I looked, I was unable to find any scholarly data on what differentiates the two.

  4. ”5 Psychological Experiments that Prove Humanity is Doomed”

    Most people don’t think they’re bad people. I don’t think I’m a bad person. But I think we’re very good at convincing ourselves that we did or are doing the right thing. If you asked the participants in the various studies whether they thought they were doing bad things, I hypothesize that they wouldn’t say yes. There’s always a rationale: Why didn’t you stop your car? Because someone else probably had. Why didn’t you leave the study? Because it was my job. Because I was told it was safe. Because it was controlled and scientific. Because I trusted my instructor.

    I don’t think that “humanity is doomed.” Hardly anyone wants to be evil. If you told someone, shock this man until he is unconscious, then I don’t think many people would be willing. So reflection is key in order for us to question our situations, our actions, and to make the right decisions.

    Does anyone ever go out to do things that are evil, except for lapses in self-control?

    Sout Al Horeya—Voice of Freedom

    Inspirational video. These people believe they are participating in writing history, in making a better future for their children, in shifting monumental structures—and indeed, they are. It reminds me of the motivational song from the recent movie Les Miserables in which the revolutionaries are riling up their group. Except these Egyptians are young and old, and seemingly rich and poor. We are lucky to have access to such vivid pictures of historical moments that will be written in the textbooks to come, from across the globe.

    Has the age of the charismatic leader been replaced by the span of social media?

    Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

    Disturbing, especially the part where the man looks at the photo of his older brother, chained. I instantly thought of what if that was me in that situation, where I had done nothing, and saw my brother undergoing such treatment. What hopelessness I would feel. And I would agree that psychological torture is just as, or even more, damaging and lasting than physical torture.

    It’s a pressure cooker of a situation, where the burden to do evil is so overwhelming. Are the MPs still to blame? Yes. But there must be blame also on those who made that situation possible. Would I have done the same? It’s chilling to think about that. But perhaps there can be checks in the future to stop such things.

    At the same time, did the authorities know exactly what they were authorizing? Before they authorize anything, they should witness it firsthand.

    Are human beings innately more obedient or disobedient?

    • I found each of your responses very interesting, especially your comments on “5 Psychological Experiments that Prove Humanity is Doomed.” I had a similar reaction when reading the article. I do not think the results of these experiments prove humanity is “doomed”, but instead show how easy it is to rationalize poor decisions. As Professor Ariely found in his research on dishonesty, this same line of thinking applies to cheating. My question is does this rationalization of poor behavior extend to random acts of evil, such as the recent mass shootings?

    • I found your analysis of “5 Psychological Experiments that Prove Humanity is Doomed” very interesting. I agree with you that people are not necessarily born to be evil and they do not ‘want’ to be evil. I feel like we do what we do because we trust too much. An authority is mostly just a black box; it is ambiguous and unrecognized. We don’t really feel its pressure on us when we abide by its rules. It is only when we get out of the system or when we are a stranger to the system that we become aware of the discrepancy between what we would have done and what we did. Also, after reading your question I have to say that I do not think that evil is necessarily a matter of self-control. A lot of people do evil in the name of doing good, and this goes back to what you mentioned in your post about people not intentionally wanting to be evil. There are fathers, in different parts of the world, that kill their daughters who are no longer considered “proper” (for various reasons) to respect the values of the society and to be a honorable men by sacrificing their daughter who could have been a bad influence on other girls. There are people who go on to jihads, thinking and truly believing that it is the right thing to do to make the world a better place. There are people who try to bring peace and democracy to a nation simply by killing and torturing civilians ‘who look like terrorists.’ People don’t do these to be evil, some people actually believe that they are doing good but do so in what we would consider as immoral ways. So although I do like your analysis, I am a little more hesitant when I say I don’t think that “humanity is doomed.”

    • With regards to your first point, I think we have to make a distinction between the situational type of evil that Zimbardo suggests, and the intentional malice that some people do. Certainly there are people that snap and go on mass-killing sprees, and it seems unreasonable to completely write off these sorts of acts as products of flawed systems. But maybe Zimbardo’s point is that the two aren’t as far apart as we like to think they are?

      You also raise an interesting question about social media; if anything, I’d want to say that social media has complemented the charismatic leader, actually. Just think about Obama and the 2008 campaign, which used social media to reach young people to an extent never really seen before.


    I begin by quoting some of the most revealing comments from the documentary that made me pause and think. When one solider received vague military instructions and was asked to arrest people who look like enemies to him, he said: “I’ve never been outside of the United States. Everybody seems like an enemy to me.” One other military guard responded to why he was silent facing evil, he said: “It is all business.” Those military guards were in a paradoxical position: they are the most powerful, but also the most powerless. They have the capacity to impose their prejudices, to carry out their fantasies, and to subjugate their fellow humans in the most degrading positions, — so long as they view and treat them as the “other”, the enemy. Yet, in the meanwhile, they have to succumb to group mentality of the oppressor, to “cheerfully” carry out their duty as if it’s nothing but “business”. Although nobody in the video mentioned explicitly the effects of peer pressure that compelled them to engage in oppressive activities, I do not doubt that they felt obliged to do so as a result. They were the ones who were also subjugated to inhumanity.

    The problems that I identified with the system of America that from top-down “empowers” individuals to stop being human, are that 1) there is no immediacy between the high-ranking officials sitting in the white house who write out torture commands in the name of freedom and democracy and the low-ranking guards who witness the gruesomness of the war and the injustice, pain, and suffering on the parts of both sides of the war. No communication mechanism is implanted in the system for the guards to discuss their sentiments since they are supposed to treat it as “business” instead of crying out injustice and expressing social and political indignation 2) no accountability was requested on any party who were involved in drafting, carrying out of the tortue, until after what had already happened. There is no third party monitoring system who holds *indiviudals* accountable for violating international laws, as the latter is empty without *power*. This leads to my 3) point, that is, there is no balance of power on a global scale. The only leverage that the Iraqi party has is the terrotist activities, which was what had instigated the whole torturing activities that led down a spiraling effect of inhumanity.

    My question is: how can we prevent it from happening again?

    Continuing on the question I raised in OBEDIENCE, I wonder how meaningful Philip Zimbardo’s dissection of evil actually is. Yes, he helps us understand better that evil lies less in the disposition of an individual than in the circumstances of power dynamics that give rise to dangerous, intentionally harmful acts. He further suggested creating a paradigm model of public goods that can turn people into heroes (or, if not heroes, at least hero-aspiring, hero-loving persons). However, the problem with this paradigm is that wherever there are people, community and society, power dynamics exist. There can be a virtuous cycle/reward mechanism where everybody desires to be good, but throughout history, I’ve only seen this utopian vision ends in disaster. Communism promotes the kind of socio-centric, collective individuals (no. they are not individuals in the sense that they know what their personal preferences, desires and motivations are) who aspire to contribute to the revolutioanry causes, who lose their individuality amidst a societal cause. It leads only to disinllusionment, lies, and insentivity to any public goods. (Read 1984, or search “China princelings” in NYTimes). Furthermore, Susan Wolf in her article on Moral Saints (Wolf, Susan. “Moral saints.” The Journal of Philosophy (1982): 419-439.) notes the dangers of promoting moral heroism in society, because they have no interest in any non-moral activities, they tend to be very boring people, and that a society with all moral saints are not only impracticable but disastrous for humanity.

    Question: How do we have a society that strikes a balance between developing a mechanism that promotes public goods and moral heroes and holding people accountable by celebrating individuality?

    The song makes the readings end on a hopeful note–a group of people who aspire for freedom can change society for the better. But the question is, does it? Has the Arab spring make Egypt a better country? Will it?
    I am also uncomfortable with the phrase “stop saying the word ‘I'”. If we forget who I am, isn’t it more likely that we will just choose to be passive, instead of standing up and speaking out?

    • The “I” (the Ego, anyone?) is an interesting point to bring up: I would agree with you that being aware of “I” should reasonably counterbalance things like group-think and falling in line with authority. And, I think America is a nation / culture that stresses the “I” –in comparison to other cultures that stress the importance of the group, like Egypt. However, the experiments were conducted in the United States, as in the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Asch Conformity Experiment, etc. where the “I” is emphasized. One could make a tenuous disassociation between “sense of self” and “obedience.” So perhaps the video is onto something.

      Also you make an astute point when going into the mechanics of power dynamics. It seems to be a common thread in the readings / videos: that inhumanity comes out as a result of having control. Can we take solace in the fact that we’re probably not inherently evil beings? I don’t know –but we should focus on this type of ‘attention blindness.’

  6. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

    The documentary points to the conclusion that the MPs were not working alone –that their torture techniques came from higher orders. And, I think it is largely established that this is most likely true through different pieces of evidence such as Donald Rumsfeld’s letter outlining torture and the fact that the techniques they used were well-established ones. However, just as an interesting counterpoint, in another article we had to read “5 Psychological Experiments That Prove Humanity is Doomed,” a psychologist conducted an experiment called The Stanford Prison Experiment. What this experiment suggests is that people in an authoritative role in prisons are inclined to abuse this privilege. The article says that the existence of consequences is what largely keeps up from behaving like degenerates –Abu Ghraib even gets a shout out in this particular section of the article. Thus, an argument could be made from this experiment that the MPs implemented their own torture devices, not necessarily at the behest of the U.S. government. Or, more specifically, that some of their actions were not U.S.-sanctioned. However, the documentary seems to imply that it was a little bit of both.

    I’m interested in exploring how physical distance factors into this; I can imagine that a perceived distance would put a monkey wrench into this whole “obedience” thing –especially going off of a premise that people behave based on perceived consequences.

    My question is, was it really obedience that motivated the MPs to continue perpetrating these cruel acts? Did they really feel pressured by the U.S. government, despite the physical distance?

    “5 Psychological Experiments that Prove Humanity is Doomed” by Alexandra Gedrose

    This article gets into some gritty stuff: negative effects of groupthink, pressures to obey, temptation to abuse power, etc. But, none of these are actually surprising; thanks to a couple psychology and sociology classes at Duke, I’ve already come against a few of these experiments. I’d wager that their shock-value and judgments on human nature have made them classics in the world of psychology. One, though, that was particularly surprising to me was the one that dealt with the people in seminary school, the Good Samaritan Experiment. I had honestly expected religion to play a role in whether the injured person was helped or not. But more importantly, I’m interested in the fact that this was put under the “evil” category. Yes, a lot of these experiments reveal facets of human nature that seem evil, at least at face value. But I think instead of evil, these experiments point to different aspects of human danger, such as selfishness or, bringing it full circle, a fear of disobeying. The only one that highlights the “evilness” to me is the Stanford Prison Experiment –which is pretty chilling any way you look at it. I’d like to think, however, that people aren’t necessarily evil. But that our actions can be evil –and that the motive is not with the intention of being evil. If anything, this proves that humanity is deeply flawed. I’d like to continue experimenting on the notion that humans only behave because there is consequences set in place to keep us in line. This concept is particularly frightening because the risk of anarchy becomes more real; and I’d like to think that we’re not motivated by just the “stick.” Perhaps further experiments could be conducted on this –but not to the extent of the Stanford one. One that would ideally take the law out of the picture, allowing people to act knowing they wouldn’t have repercussions for their actions after the fact. Then, this would get an accurate read on the motives people have.

    What do you think about the motives behind these different experiments? Are you also inclined to default to an explanation of ‘evil’ that is in all of us? Or are these experiments an incomplete picture of the human psyche?

    Sout Al Horeya—Voice of Freedom

    So, the placement of this video at the end of the readings and documentary was well timed; it was an uplifting way to end this segment. Especially when the previous sources casted such a negative light on humanity. The smiling faces in the video – so filled with hope and idealism – was refreshing in the midst of all these psychologists basically saying one thing, that humanity is “doomed.” The section is entitled “Resistance,” and given the other sources, I was expecting violent resistance. It was a pleasant surprise to be met with scenes of fathers and daughters holding hands, children on shoulders, and people with loudspeakers, all otherwise peacefully protesting. With a resounding “voice of freedom,” they imparted a wisdom: that resistance can be effective and it can be peaceful. These two concepts are not mutually exclusive. That resistance is not limited to a certain social strata or age group or gender. And that resistance looks best when it is embraced peacefully by whole communities. Another important message: this kind of resistance is the most effective. We can combat disobey evil; it gives me hope that we can fight “human nature.”

    But the real question is, can we actually “fight human nature”? The previous experiments make it seem pretty bleak, so what are some ways you personally check yourself when it comes to evil and obedience?

    • Afiez, your response to the article on the psychological experiments resonated with me. I thought it was appropriate to challenge the categorization of this article as one about “evil” — such a label seems unfair. These experiments reveal unattractive parts of human nature — apathy and selfishness for example — but I do not think they prove that “humanity is doomed” by “evil” traits that are inherent in humanity. To make such a characterization would be both deeply cynical and deeply ignorant of all the examples we know of humans overcoming depravity to promote compassion, justice and righteousness. Such a negative view of humanity will only serve to justify evil as inevitable, whereas a more positive worldview helps to promote good expected and natural in spite of the bad that exists. We must recognize that human beings are more complicated than being either inherently good or bad and to relegate human nature to either label sidesteps the complexity and paradoxes of human nature — a fault evident in the title of this article and perhaps a fault in characterizing this article was evidence of “evil” in human nature.

  7. Lord of the Flies

    Lord of the Flies is an interesting take on one author’s point of view of how children act when removed from the comforting structure of society. It is a tale of some of the more unattractive features of mankind. Obedience is a key concept in this book because of how the boys react when they are given freedom. They enjoy being free for a few days, but chaos beings to rule. When the structure and mature adult leadership was missing, things got worse and worse on the island. They immediately create a hierarchal structure, and eventually begin to obey the evil dictator on the island, Jack. He goes so far as to convince young boys to murder one another. It is a truly shocking take on the darkness of mankind.

    In fact, I think this category not only fits into obedience, but evil. I remember the final quote of the book that stuck with me for a long time.
    “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, for the darkness of man’s heart”. It goes something along those lines. It was a powerful quote to end the book. In this sense, I think the author also addresses the topic of evil. How the boys treat Ralph is pure evil, and that sort of selfishness may be at the center of everyone’s heart.


    Do you feel that humans have a constant desire to have leadership, the need to “obey” someone or some structure? If so, where does this desire come from?

    5 Psychological Experiments that Prove Humanity is Doomed

    While these studies are interesting, I don’t think they point to the fact that humanity is doomed or that we are evil. The title is extremely misleading in this case. For instance, let’s look at the “Intercom Seizure” study. Sure, less people reacted than normal to someone in need. This was based on the fact that they knew others were in a position to respond. When they knew that no one else was in a position to respond, they came to aid 85% of the time. That’s a pretty good percentage of people who are willing to help out when they know it depends on them. I think we all agree that we fall victim to the collective action failure that can come in this instance, but that does not mean we are evil.

    Many of the other studies, including the “Good Samaritan” study, certainly point to the fact that humans are selfish, however, the subjects were not malicious. Certainly this cannot come as a surprise to anyone. Is there ever an action we do that isn’t selfish? If we stop to help someone, couldn’t it be argued that we stopped to help because we didn’t want to feel bad about ourselves? Or that we wanted credit for it? When we do charity work, is it really to help plant trees, or is it because we feel good about ourselves when we do it? Humans are inherently selfish, and I think these studies prove this obvious fact.


    I asked many above that I think would be interesting to talk about. But I’ll narrow it down.

    Do you believe that every human action is inherently selfish? When can we truly be selfless?

    Voice of Freedom

    Given my lack of ability to speak Arabic, I had a certain inability to understand the linguistics of this video. However, human feeling is universal, and I can relate (to a certain extent) to their desire for freedom and democracy. I am very close to an Egyptian student here on campus, and he constantly describes the pride he feels for what many Egyptians are fighting for, a better future. Though the methods not be the most ideal, it is a struggle that he feels is worth it.


    Many people describe how they “pick their battles”. Are humans effective in putting the most effort from which they receive the most utility?


    • Regarding your last question about “picking battles”, I certainly think you are on to something. I think an additional and important question is what exactly we mean by utility. Is it happiness? Success? Efficiency? On the one hand, I think that many people derive utility/happiness/whatever we want to call it from winning. Likewise, most people dislike failure and will do much to avoid it. Thus, as you said, it makes a lot of sense that people would pick their battles to avoid failing and ensure that they win. If we think of utility maximization strictly as a matter of efficiency, I think the same applies. From my observations, people are predisposed to pursue those activities and passions that they are most successful at. If you ask a student why they are majoring in biology or English or economics, generally the first answer you’ll get is “because I really love it”, quickly followed by “I’m really good at it”. We like to spend time doing things we’re good at, because no one likes to spend time on something they’re bad at. Of course, I’m sure this doesn’t apply to all people and all situations, so humans can’t be completely “effective” in putting the most effort into the things they get the most utility from. However, I would say that if we are defining utility as happiness, the majority of humans do indeed spend the most time and effort on those things that are likely to bring them the most success, and thus the most happiness.

  8. Obedience:

    Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

    My first reaction upon watching the documentary was disgust. I vaguely recalled the events of Abu Ghraib, but I’m not sure I ever knew the details of the alleged abuse nor the involvement of the top level of U.S. government in sanctioning (if not encouraging) the over-the-top interrogation techniques. Beyond the horrific nature of the actions of the American MPs, I think what stuck with me most was the way in which different MPs justified their actions. Almost every MP that was interviewed admitted at first that they were shocked and uncomfortable with the techniques and methods they were being asked to use on the prisoners. One mentioned that they felt it was “immoral” while another wrote home to her family expressing that she felt what they were doing was “wrong”. And yet, they continued to obey the orders of those above them. By the end, the even justified what they were doing, using phrases like “it was war” and claiming that they had become “numb” to their own actions.

    Of course, we all ask: “How could you possibly become numb to such violent and disgusting behavior? How could you continue acting in a way that you yourself find despicable and immoral?”. But I’m not sure we can be surprised that the MPs were obedient to orders. They went from being in a position of little power (inexperienced, untrained guards tasked with controlling thousands of prisoners) to positions of unimaginable power. They had little oversight and no immediate consequences for their actions. Though the government ultimately failed to support them, the guards believed that the U.S. military—and not themselves—were responsible for what happened to the prisoners at Abu Ghraib. I believe that when you combine this sort of unlimited power and unclear orders with diffusion of responsibility and extremely unfamiliar surroundings, it’s not surprising that a few “good soldiers” became bad apples.

    Question: Can you think of a time (from literature, social science, or your own life) in which obedience has a positive impact? Can you think of a time when it has had a negative impact?


    Philip Zimbardo: The psychology of evil

    I found the Zimbardo talk to be interesting and reassuring but not groundbreaking. I will say, on the one hand, that I was already familiar with the Milgram study, the Stanford Prison Study, and the Abu Ghraib tortures. Though these studies and situations are shocking—how could humans possibly do something like that to another human?—the conclusions are not necessarily surprising to me. They tell us that the situation can have a profound impact on how we act and where we fall on the good-evil continuum. This is intuitive, I think. Even outside of the discussion of evil, I think we can all recall times when we acted a certain way because of the circumstances around us. The fact that an ordinary person could be compelled to do evil despite the fact that they are uncomfortable with it (e.g., Abu Ghraib and Milgram) is not very surprising. Behind every evil act—both in literature and in the real world—there is generally a story.

    On the other hand, this news is reassuring. As Zimbardo touches on briefly (he covers a LOT in this TED talk!), the fact that much of the evil in the world is situational means that we can actually do something about it. For the most part, people are not inherently evil or sadistic. Despite the few “bad apples” who act as a result of mental illness, drugs, or other internal factors, a lot of the evil in the world is a result of situational variables. This means that we can teach children how and when to act heroically. We can identify situations that foster evil and seek to avoid them or alter them. So although it is sobering to realize that we can all succumb to evil, it is reassuring to know that we are all capable of being heroes as well.

    Question: Do you think the idea of “heroism education” is realistic? If so, how would you go about doing it?


    Voice of Freedom

    As others have mentioned, my primary reaction to the music video was that it was a nice change of tone from the earlier videos on obedience and evil. What stood out to me most was the great diversity of the Egyptians in the video. They were men and women, young and old, some smiling and some looking more somber. But despite their differences, these people all came together to resist evil and obedience to fight for their freedom and beliefs. The message of the video is uplifting—no matter the magnitude of the evil we are up against, we can often fight it so long as we work together under a common cause. It is almost the opposite of “group think” working here. We typically think of group think as a bad thing—a herd mentality that makes people act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t. But in the case of Egypt and the numerous other Arab Spring protests, the group think is used for a positive change.

    My final reaction when watching the video was that, despite the happiness and joy on many of the protesters’ faces, it’s difficult not to think about how happy they are now. Were they able to resist in a way that will enact positive, long-term change in Egypt? The results of the recent election may point otherwise. However, I suppose only time will tell us.

    Question: What is your favorite example of a group doing good—or evil—from either social science, literature, or your own experiences?

    • Hey CE,

      I really appreciated your post about resistance. I couldn’t agree more about your remarks about the uplifting video that concluded the assignment. However, you say that this is the opposite of the “group think” mentality, but at the same time it is the exact same as the “group think” mentality just from a different perspective. I feel that your post harkons to a viewpoint in that the masses all follow the current trends of society, whether they be good or bad. In the case of this music video, the group is promoting positive change, enabling citizens to have more freedom and liberty. But at the same time, these people, although the cause is great, may simply be following the popular ideas of the time. From this standpoint, we can extrapolate that the group will do whatever the new, most popular revolution calls for. If a movement gets rolling, it will continue to do so because people want change whenever times are bad, no matter what kind of change that might be. In the case of the Egyptians, I think that this movement is a positive one, from a completely outside perspective. Your post addresses this belief that the outsider’s perspective really doesn’t let us know what’s really going on. What do Egyptian citizens think about the current government now? Was the big “revolution” that effective? Does the voice of the people really have that much resistance capability? Or will societies continue to be moved to and fro from by the popular movements that come about in times of chaos and unrest? I appreciate your post CE, and I look forward to more discussion!

      – Butter

  9. OBEDIENCE: Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

    This documentary was truly shocking, depressing, and riveting. These soldiers understood that what they were being told to do was morally and ethically wrong, but they felt they “had no choice” but to obey the orders of their superiors. But it wasn’t simply a matter of obedience. These soldiers became desensitized to human suffering due to their belief in the condemnable guilt of the detainees. I like to think that it was their internal demonization of these prisoners and not their submission to authority that caused them to act in these ways. This marginally more idealistic view of the situation helps eliminate this notion that the authority can make us do things that we know are wrong and, over time, usher us into the normalization and acceptance of what was previously inadmissible in our eyes.

    These former soldiers, in coping with their situation, engage in varieties of talk that help them reconcile their past with the present. Some of them claim they were someone else at that moment and blame their need to follow the orders of the authority. If I were in their position, I would hope that I would have the courage to challenge authority. I cannot imagine having to bear the guilt of having so much innocent suffering on my hands.

    Why is the individual so willing to blindly accept authority in situations like Abu Ghraib and Dr. Milgram’s psychology experiment? Are we inherently obedient? What explains the commonplace instances in which we resist authority?

    Can you recall a time when your boss told you to do something that you didn’t believe was the right thing to do? How did you manage the situation?

    EVIL: Alexandra Gedrose – “5 Psychological Experiments That Prove Humanity is Doomed”

    This article was certainly a depressing read. We like to think of ourselves as compassionate individuals with integrity, and yet, when push comes to shove, we would most likely elevate and/or ignore the suffering of another individual or puppy due to obedience or due to the fact that it’d inconvenience us. While I was filled with detest for the human race as I read through the results of these experiments, I cannot comfortably say that I would have answered differently than other participants in the Asch Conformity Experiment or that I would have been the Good Samaritan when I saw someone slumped in an alleyway.

    I was in New Orleans last spring for a conference and was walking from my hotel to my friend’s hotel after midnight when I saw a young man who was completely inebriated. He was stumbling through the streets, dropping his phone, and walking into trash bins and completely on his own. He moved down the street, getting closer and closer to the more dangerous part of the city. I followed him from a distance and wanted to help him, but I was scared. How would he view my attempt to help him? What would others think of me approaching him? Would they view it as an attempt to take advantage of him? These thoughts raced through my head as I ultimately decided to let him go, hoping someone else would take care of him.

    Though I had the capacity to take care of him, I was unwilling to take on this huge responsibility largely because of fear. I often think of what happened to him and simply hope that someone else had the courage that I lacked.

    Can you tell us of a time when you acted with courage in a risky or dangerous situation in order to help someone in need? How did you make the decision to act?

    RESISTANCE: “Sout Al Horeya”

    As an Egyptian-American, I really appreciate this video, but I do think the lyrics send a mixed message. At the beginning of the song, we hear the line “our weapon was our dreams,” giving us the impression that revolution comes through the manifestation of peace and optimism. It then becomes a matter of collective action with this line: “stop saying the word ‘I’.” All of this sounds great until we hear: “With the ink of blood, I write the future of my country.” This language might all be figurative, but I think popular thought is that revolution requires bloodshed. Many of the most famous cases of revolution, including the Arab Spring, were ones in which peaceful protest failed to engender the desired change. We begin to think that violence and force are part of the equation of change.

    Which historical uprising/revolution was most powerful and transformative? What elements of the movement made it unique and particularly effective?

    • You raise a really great point that the lyrics of “Sout Al Horeya” were kind of contradictory. When watching the video, I too felt that a good amount of the lyrics were uplifting, but then felt that the parts about bloodshed gave off a more aggressive vibe.
      Can change happen without aggression, or have we reached the point where violence is required for change? I worry that history does not work in our favor, and that, in general, people are on the defensive. Reaching an agreement is difficult unless people feel they are left with no other choice.
      Maybe this is a very pessimistic view of humanity, but I think people rarely trust others nowadays, and expect to be taken advantage of.

    • I though your story about the late-night in New Orleans was very interesting. I recently read a study that tried to tackle this question of “Why are we so afraid to help strangers?”

      The conclusion of the study pointed to a large factor of our fear is legal or other negative ramifications for ourselves, and not a lack of desire to help others. This is a very selfish state of mind, but it is not malicious. If we involve ourselves, we face both social and legal repercussions that could be negative. Maybe you end up hurting him more. Maybe he feels threatened and calls the cops, and now it is a whole ordeal. If we take out the “guilt factor”, we are all-in-all better off by leaving him alone and going our own separate ways.


    • Jatlantis,

      Thinking about the problems at Abu Ghraib as resulting from the dehumanization of those prisoners is an interesting perspective. I think there are very strong in-group/out-group preferences at play, particularly since the soldiers presumably share a very similar background of training and military culture. It’s a constant struggle in the military to build “cultural awareness”, and the education of soldiers on these topics goes a long way towards preventing tragedies such as these. I think it’s particularly difficult for members of the military to see “humans as humans” because their line of work constantly requires them to identify the enemy.

  10. Obedience

    (1) The torture and prisoner abuse that took place at Abu Ghraib is shameful for our country, especially for our military leaders. What I find as disturbing as the atrocities endured by the prisoners is the atmosphere of submission. It is this atmosphere that caused the guards to believe it was acceptable for them to follow orders which, out of the context of war, can be clearly seen as morally outrageous.

    Megan Ambuhl, one of the female prison guards who was eventually demoted for her role in the abuse, compared her experience to the “discomfort” of going to the dentist. Part of her duties included standing in the male showers and ridiculing the prisoners—using her status as a woman to accentuate the embarrassment they felt for being fully exposed. Ms. Ambuhl was not experiencing much physical discomfort, the kind we are familiar with from our experiences at the dentist. She simply has to stand there and raise her voice slightly. Other duties of war would have certainly been far more physically demanding. What Ms. Ambuhl felt was moral discomfort—she sensed that what she was doing was wrong. Yet, she did it anyways. Why?

    The prison guards were simply following orders. As a product of our modern nonconformist culture, I find it difficult to empathize with their blind obedience. But in the military, as I understand it, obedience is the utmost virtue. Whatever the orders were—however morally questionable—the one absolutely right thing for the guards to do was to follow them.

    In the wake of Abu Ghraib, we are left with two problems. First, it is wrong that only the lower-ranking guards and interrogators were punished for war crimes. The guards were doing the “right” thing with respect to the social and moral norms of war. If we can’t go back in time and punish their commanders, then action should be taken to ensure that the higher-ups no longer have the power to give morally outrageous commands or the lack of responsibility to get away with it.

    Second, it is despicable that the military and the government turned torture into an “acceptable” practice through a series of cheeky memos and a transparent rebranding scheme. That said, it is evidence of a turning moral tide. For a long time, torture was widely accepted as a necessary evil of war (even in the United States, according to this recent New York Times article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/13/torture-and-taboo/). In fact, it is only recently that people have gotten “the idea of torture as taboo.” Now that we are getting the right idea, and although it may make us uncomfortable to get involved in the messy morals of war, we must demand that our government uphold the sanctity of basic human rights in all its foreign relations.

    (2) How can we make sure that Abu Ghraib is a closed chapter in our history? Is it enough to outlaw torture, or must we also reform the atmosphere of blind submission cultivated by the military?


    I first learned about the incident that inspired experiment #3 in the Cracked article in my neuroethics class. The victim, Kitty Genovese, was a New York City woman stabbed to death outside her apartment complex. Although many other residents were present at the time to hear her screams, no came to her aid.

    In my neuroethics class, we focused on how this incident reveals something about the way our brains are working when we do or don’t decide to help others. What the Kitty store underscores is the importance of a sense of agency for altruistic actions. Indeed, neuroimaging studies show that altruism is associated with an increased neural response to agency (http://www.virtualna-kultura.com/user_files/altruism.pdf). When an individual recognizes the importance of his or her own role in an altruistic act, and the social recognition he or she will gain for committing that act, then the individual is more likely to be altruistic.

    Looking at altruism this way—as an equation with weighted variables like social recognition—seems to take away personal responsibility for our altruism. It is a brain computation, not an individual’s willed decision. (Of course, that might be said for any decision.) Likewise, evil decisions are based on other motivating factors that our brain inputs into our decisions. Are we responsible for any of our moral decisions?

    I think so. By reading about the Kitty Genovese murder and the psychology experiment designed in response, I have become aware of the effect of social factors on my willingness to help others. As a result, it is something I will consider in future scenarios and try to overcome. In this way, knowledge and self-awareness bolsters self-control processes that can overcome the brain’s default computational process for moral decisions.

    (2) What is the appropriate way to assign blame to people who commit evil acts? How can hold individuals accountable when their decisions may have been precipitated indirectly by society or directly by their brains?


    (1) It is so uplifting to see how the Egyptian people have stood up for their rights and fought for improvements in their government. This song underscores the positive tone of the movement. “The sound of freedom is calling,” they sing in the refrain. Rather than condemning how the past government has wronged them, they focus on the future that they aspire to.

    In the cases of revolution that come to my mind, change is always a response to negative circumstances. The United States were founded as a way of escaping religious oppression. The French Revolution was a resistance against the absolute monarchy that had ruled in France. By contrast, the Arab Spring seems to be driven by a desire for freedom, with the move away from previous forms of government incidental to this goal.

    (2) Taking principles from social science and the arts, what is a good strategy for creating a movement that will take off? What is the best way to get other people to support your ideas?

  11. Obedience- Lord of the Flies

    This classic story deals with human nature in the face of freedom and addresses the inherent disobedience of the human race. Given complete freedom, the boys in the story quickly turn not only obedient but also evil. I remember reading this book years ago and thinking the author (William Golding) had a very pessimistic view of humanity. Reflecting back on the book now, however, I think Golding was being more realistic than pessimistic. His views on human nature are supported by the terrible events documented in the Ghosts of Abu Ghraib documentary, which shows people obeying and committing acts of extreme evil. My question for Professors Dan and Cathy is, are human beings biologically hardwired to be obedient, or is the need for structure and willingness to follow orders a product of socialization and the structure of our society?

    Evil- “10 reasons why India has a sexual violence problem”

    I found this article to be very disturbing, yet unfortunately not that surprising. Repeatedly cited as one of the worst countries for women, India’s sexual violence problem ultimately stems from women’s subordinate status in society. It is terrible that sexual violence against women is not taken seriously, but not surprising considering the gender as a whole does not seem to be taken seriously. While some of the explanations the article offers seem like relatively simple fixes (such as adding more female police officers), solving the root cause of the problem involves upending the values of an entire society. This is a disheartening and urgent matter, as millions of women suffer from rape, domestic abuse, and other effects of gender discrimination every day, not only in India but around the world as well. As anyone who saw Me Too Monologues a few weeks ago heard firsthand, brutal sexual violence is not the problem of solely faraway places; it is happening right here at Duke. My question for Professors Dan and Cathy is similar to the one asked above about obedience. Are some people inherently evil or is evil a product of societal beliefs, customs, and pressures, as this article supports? If societal norms (such as gender discrimination in India) are the cause of evil, how can we go about changing them?

    Resistance- “Sout Al Horeya- Voice of Freedom”

    Like the rest of the class, I found this video beautiful and uplifting. It is inspiring to think what a large group of people can come together to do in the face of evil. Watching this video reminded me of Time’s Person of the Year in 2011- the protestor. Do you agree with Time’s award? Are the mass protests of the past few years an effective form of resistance? Do they incite actual change or just serve the (still very important) purposes of uniting a group around a common cause and raising awareness about a particular issue?

  12. OBEDIENCE: Ghost of Abu Gharib

    I found the movie very upsetting. My feeling wasn’t only because of the horrifying pictures, troubling governmental addresses or the disturbingly relaxed interviews of the soldiers. I was upset because of the position that the movie seemed to support, that all of what happened in Abu Gharib was due to a systemic problem either here in the US or there in Iraq, or perhaps both, which caused good people to act badly. It seemed like the people in the documentary who have committed the crime did not regret what they had done. It seemed like they were trying to say that since it was a different place, different situation, different people, different system, it was okay. It seemed like the case was simplified to just a matter of empathy: “if you were there, you would have done that too, so it was okay for us to do it.” Blame the situation, blame the system: that is the easy way. You could just say that the people in some of the most violent terrorist groups were also in similar situations. They were born and raised in that particular environment, influenced by wrong authorities, were taught wrong was right, it was the particular situation or system or society they were in that made them do the terrorist-y things that they did. But we don’t because every person is always responsible for the actions they commit. That being said, I do agree that the situation during the time was awful thanks to a government that deliberately manipulated information and a war that just seemed too moral to be true. However one has his or her free will at all times, no matter what the situation is. We always have the option to pick from the right from wrong and we make the decisions for ourselves.

    Question: What is different between people who don’t obey and people who do? How can we critically analyze a system with the perspective of an outsider while still being a part of it?

    EVIL: 10 reasons why India has a sexual violence problem, India: Protesters Call for Execution of New Delhi Gang-Rape Culprits

    I have been looking into cases of violence towards women for some time. This past summer I was in a city called Van in Turkey doing a social research project on the normalization of domestic violence towards women at that city and in Turkey as a whole. What drew me to this topic was the accumulation of news from all around Turkey about men stabbing/beating/killing their wives and the society not reacting to these, what I would consider as, unacceptable acts. At one point last year, I was surprised to see absolutely no reaction from national TVs, women’s NGOs or known feminists about the new of a husband stabbing her wife fifty-six times. How much hatred do you have to build in you to stab someone fifty-six times, that still repulses me. One of the most shocking things that I realized was the level of acceptance of domestic violence in the area, similar to reason #4 why sexual violence still persists in India. Women did not seek for help until the point that they were threatened for their lives or the violent behavior also affected their children. I remember that one women that I talked with said: “My husband broke my back bone, but god knows, he was never violent to me.” This made me think that the meaning of “violence” for these women is different from what we know it to be. I believe that in India as well long years of the persistence of sexual violence has caused certain things that would seem unacceptable to us seem more normal, daily-happenings. I think that this chain of normalization reds to be broken in order for people to act against the crime and for the perpetrators to realize that what they are doing, actually, is not okay.

    Another interesting incident that happened in Van was when I met an old guy who came to the women’s NGO that I was working in, to seek help or advice. This guy had a daughter that was almost as old as I was. She ran away with a guy that she loved when she was 16 and married with him through a religious marriage. However the daughter eventually regretted her decision and came back to her family house after a couple years since she experienced domestic violence and also since “her husband” wanted to marry with a second wife. After her daughter came back home, the dad continuously faced social pressure to kill his daughter, since she was no longer considered a “proper girl”. Whenever he stepped outside his house, he could feel the eyes of the entire community expecting him to commit the murder and questioning his honor every second he is not doing so. And believe me when I say that loosing one’s honor is the worst thing that could happen to a guy in Eastern Turkey. “But,” he said when he came to ask advice from the NGO, “I still love my daughter. I don’t want to kill her. What should I do?” Right there you see a clash of what one morally believes to be true and what a society/system asks you to do. Most people simply adapt to the system and do what it asks him/her to do, in this case killing the daughter or being violent towards their wives. You might ask, well who is the evil in this story; the person who commits the murder or the society? It is true that most of the time people obey the system, that does not make them right. No one ever considers the situation of a person who has killed their daughter okay, because it is not okay. There is always an alternative, people that you can ask help from. Similarly, the torture that the soldiers have put the individuals into, is not acceptable and they do deserve to serve jail time. The governmental officials and generals in the army who have ordered those tortures is even a more wicked story…

    Question: Would you consider people or the system they are a part of as the source of evil?

    RESISTANCE: Sout Al Horeya — Voice of Freedom (music video)

    After doing all of the readings and watching the movies, I felt that watching this movie was like coming to the end of a long, dark tunnel where the daylight shines right in your eyes. One problem with actually starting the resistance movements is the fact that most of the people who feel in a certain way about a wrongful system think that they are alone. This lack of support makes people feel isolated and eventually just decide to adapt. I am curious to understand the mechanism of that causes people to understand that they are not alone and that gives them the courage to stand against to a stronger force, the system.

    Question: What brings people to the realization that change needs to happen? Why don’t we act on our thoughts and morals as soon as we realize that something is wrong and instead wait for things to accumulate and the situation to become unbearable before we actually do something?

  13. Obedience

    I agree with most of the other posters who were horrified by Abu Gharib. As it relates to obedience, it reminds me of other horrific acts that are condoned because of group mentalities and mindsets. Edmund Burke once said “bad things happen when good people do nothing.” I’m more interested in how good people can be coerced by peer pressure and other influences to behave in an evil way. In this case, these people were obedient to a system that would never have condoned something like this. By being obedient to their peers, colleagues, and immediate superiors, this group of soldiers was disobedient to the larger organization and cause. My question is then, to whom are we obedient and what are the relevant factors? As is the case with Abu Gharib, people were obedient to a smaller peer group, but in larger sample sizes people remain obedient to entire systems of government. Within these constructs of obedience where is the most potential for harm?


    Both of these essays, interestingly, implicitly mentioned utilitarianism as an explanation for evil. I really don’t think evil people engage in such calculations. I believe there are the people who engage in evil actions because they do not understand the consequences of their actions (psychopaths, etc.) and there are people who can be coerced into doing evil things because of there affiliations (Naziism, etc.). As it relates to your topic, I’m far more interested in the latter. At what point are people capable of doing evil things, and what are the factors that cause a group of people to ignore the consequences of their actions. I imagine obedience plays a major role.


    Resistance runs contrary to the previous statement I made about the potential for obedience and evil to be related. Obviously, obedience can be related with good actions as well, and resistance can be related with poor judgement. I was interested by the video and some of the other posts about resistance movements. I had always though of resistance as a personal issue, but as it relates to institutions resistance is a powerful means of sometimes overcoming evil. What sparks resistance movements? What causes people, instead of being obedient to a system that demands it, to instead overthrow it?

    • Hey Buck,

      You note an important dimension of obedience: proximity. After I watched the Abu Ghraib documentary, I couldn’t help but wonder why these soldiers were so willing to accept orders from their superiors, as it often seems like we are inherently disobedient, striving to be different and anti-authority. As a young generation, we make a statement out of our disobedience of government law or even the policies on campus. This may all be due to the distance we feel between such authorities. This separation and the lack of a physical embodiment of authority that we can look to cause us to more easily disobey the law and/or our standards. When the authority is physically present in front of us and gives us the direct commands, however, we practically act irrationally, remove ourselves from our decisions, and robotically accept orders from above. Thus, this matter of proximity may help explain why these soldiers were so willing to accept such inhumane commands from their superiors.

  14. Obedience
    Lord of the Flies:
    I remember reading this book my freshman year of high school. I had trouble accepting the graphic and violent nature of Golding’s writing at times. To me the most disturbing aspect of the story is the overwhelming loss of innocence when the young boys realize there is no longer social order. Allegorical relationships emerge to show the degree to which the children act out on savage instincts. For example, the conch shell is deemed as a symbol for social order and decorum, but when Piggy is killed the conch shell is smashed to pieces, signaling ensuing chaos, disruption and the end of obedience.

    My question for Dan and Cathy: what does Piggy’s reliance on the conch shell say about social conventions? What does the destruction of the shell say about how susceptible conventions are to change? Can uou share examples of where this social commentary exists in society today?

    ALSO! Aren’t we all born disobedient? Then obedience and discipline is learned through parenting and attention to social conventions. How important is parenting in promoting our obedience?

    “10 reasons why India has a sexual violence problem”
    I think that the most alarming component of this article is that there are so many bystanders in New Delhi who may help rape victims, yet one of the reasons why the bystander effect exists is because people have become accustomed to “blaming the victim.” This is something I can’t wrap my head around. I understand being fearful of confrontation or putting yourself at risk to protect a stranger, but I have always felt that humans are inherently altruistic, and when we see someone in danger or asking for help, we take on a civic responsibility to assist them. Yet in India it appears that the culture does not promote these values. It is said that women “bring it upon themselves” for wearing provocative or suggestive clothing. I believe that these generalizations and cultural stigmas are the reason why it is so difficult to implement change. I think that transforming the culture of New Delhi into one that fosters a safe environment for women will require a grassroots approach. I cannot see this being a matter of hiring more female police officers. If society deems the victim as the one at fault, women will have to accept these distributing acts of violence. 560 cases of rape were reported in recent years, but I can only imagine how many cases go unreported and how many individuals go without conviction because of the stigma that has been created around violence.

    For Dan and Cathy: how do we prevent the bystander effect? How do we encourage that one person to speak up in a violent situation like this? What do you think the answer is to promoting Better cultural values in New Delhi?

    After reflecting on these emotional and perturbing subjects, this video was a refreshing example of how positive change is driven by community. In a policy class I learned that some of the most successful social campaigns happen when members in society experience a “common moral struggle”, or seek to promote change because of common struggles shared by members of community. This video and movement embodies this notion, and we can think of many other examples in our world’s history when common struggles of a group have inspired then masses to become successful agents for change. I think that resistance (both on an individual and group level) is thus an imperative call to action to drive social change.

    For Dan and Cathy: what is the relationship between the individual and the group during times of resistance and social activism evident in this video? What do you think incentivizes the individual to potentially risk his/her life during protests? Can we think of situations or people who wouldn’t be willing to make sacrifices for a group?

  15. OBEDIENCE – Ghosts of Abu Ghraib
    The torture that took place at Abu Ghraib is a disgrace to our country. The psychological and physical pain inflicted upon these prisoners by American soldiers is absolutely disturbing and shocking.
    It is so confusing to me that our country prides itself on being so moral and being such activists for human rights when our soldiers are encouraged to inflict such intense torture upon prisoners. Former Sgt. Ken Davis explained that it was never clear to him what was and was not allowed in Iraq. No one could ever answer questions for him. How could our soldiers have been so uninformed over there, while Americans at home were led to believe we were fighting a war against WMD and to spread peace and democracy? Davis also explains that someone asked him what to do if he was being forced to torture someone and felt it was morally wrong and Davis advised him not to do it. The other soldier told him he had no choice. It is so absurd what happens to the minds of the officers over there – in the moment, they can’t internalize what they are doing to other humans.
    What was especially disgusting to me was when it looked like the soldiers were having a party while they had to torture the prisoners (around 42 minutes). Is this what became their source of humor? These soldiers seemed to be so numb to all the damage they were causing. I really wonder how I would’ve responded to orders if I were over there.

    A bunch of questions…
    Is torture really the best way to get someone to speak?

    It seemed as if certain guards felt more empowered by inflicting torture. Why were the guards differentially affected by their administering of torture? Why did some guards find the torture disgusting while others found it okay to take pictures with the prisoners? In retrospect, (in particular the brown haired female), the soldiers seemed understand how messed up their actions were. Why, in the moment, was their understanding of human rights so blurred? Why did the soldiers look like they were having a party at Abu Ghraib? How is that possible? Was it because this was all they knew so it became their only source of entertainment?

    RESISTANCE – Sout Al Horeya
    Sout Al Horeya was especially uplifting after the videos/other readings about evil and obedience. This song gives off vibes of strength and optimism. They sing “our weapon was our dream” and “the most important thing is our rights”. It shows how as a collective people can work together to inspire, rather than destroy. Unlike the other pieces, it does not doom humanity.

    What makes people become inspired to resist, instead of conform?

    EVIL – 5 Psychological Experiments that Prove Humanity is Doomed

    These psychological experiments are really interesting to me. I’ve heard of a bunch of them before. Its really shocking to see how people react differently when they feel 100% responsible, versus when they know someone else could deal with the problem. The hypocrisy in The Good Samaritan Experiment makes me wonder people are truly genuine in their beliefs, or if they only speak about their beliefs for a certain image.

    Is there a piece of every one of us that is evil? If yes, does a person’s inner evil kind of occur on a sliding scale?
    Are people genuine? In a lot of these experiments people act differently because others are judging them. In the Conformity Experiment, this is a bad thing, as the subject conforms to the group’s opinion even when he knows it’s wrong. In the Good Samaritan Experiment, the subjects didn’t help the person slumped in the alleyway because they were in a rush. But if the subjects knew someone was observing them, they probably would have helped. Someone else’s judgment, in this case, would be a good thing. Can you speak to how the public eye affects people’s actions, and if/when this is a good/bad thing? How often do people really act just for their public image?

  16. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (Documentary)
    1) Write about your reaction to each of the readings. Some of these readings are very emotional, so we encourage you to be creative and personal.
    The actions that took place in the Abu Ghraib prison were asinine, disgraceful, and has left a black mark in the American history books. The fact that these leaders in a position of power with the ability to humiliate, torture, and take lives took their power for granted and used it irresponsibly were able to get off by not receiving an equitable punishment for their actions is egregious. The fact that no one has been convicted for the murders of the detainees is deplorable. The American interrogators and commanding officers should have been properly reprimanded at the time. The way that the detainees both living and dead in the prisons were treated was inexcusable and I believe if the same thing were to happen on U.S. soil by U.S. soldiers the story would be much more salient and the soldiers would receive a much more equitable conviction for their actions. I think the Torture Memos aided in assuaging some of the initial negative feelings the soldiers may have had when they first started their interrogations. The Torture Memos made “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation okay and I think once the soldiers reached the gray area between interrogation and torture they felt less guilty using even more advanced interrogation techniques and eventually taking it way too far. That being said their actions should not be rationalized and are not justifiable and these soldiers should have been punished accordingly.
    2) Please write a well-formed question that we can ask during our in-class interview.
    What can be done to provide better oversight of leaders so that actions such as these never take place again in the future?
    Philip Zimbardo: The Psychology of Evil
    1)Write about your reaction to each of the readings. Some of these readings are very emotional, so we encourage you to be creative and personal.
    The photos taken of the prisoners in the Abu Ghraib were not only inhumane and sadistic but photos that could be taken by normal healthy people if placed in the right situation. The Ted Talk by Professor Zimbardo helped elucidate that it is not that difficult to get someone to display morally remiss behavior. This is possible with an amalgam of psychological phenomenon such as the social proof i.e. De-individuation of Self (anonymity) & Conformity of Group Norms (getting people to believe that the behavior that they are displaying is acceptable because everyone else is doing it.) While I do believe that we are all for the most part innately, moral creatures. I do believe that when placed in a situation where the “7 Social Processes That Grease the Slippery Slope of Evil” are used it does become difficult for us to resist the norm and not display amoral characteristics in the situation. It truly does take someone that is a little socially deviant to go against the grain and take the initiative to say no to evil and break the group for their negative behavior.

    2) Please write a well-formed question that we can ask during our in-class interview.
    What are the characteristics of the socially deviants that are willing to be proactive and stop amoral behavior and how do we empower more people to be socially deviant in situations where evil behavior is present?
    Sout Al Horeya: Voice of Freedom (music video)
    1) Write about your reaction to each of the readings. Some of these readings are very emotional, so we encourage you to be creative and personal.
    First off I want to start by saying the music video was beautiful and inspiring. This video goes to show us the power of a mob or an alliance of people fighting for the same cause. In the readings and videos for “Obedience” and “Evil” mainly centered around how good, normal, people can display amoral behavior if placed in the “right” situation. The “Resistance” piece centered on how a mob of people can also be empowered by a leader to create positive change in society. This was rather refreshing and restoring to know that people can become work together to do good just as easily as they can be brought together to do evil.
    2) Please write a well-formed question that we can ask during our in-class interview.
    Many times it seems that these uprising only happen when citizens are placed in a dire situation. What are some ways that citizens can act and think in just as agile a manner to bring change in not only ominous situation but also in circumstances that are okay but can be improved upon?

  17. Obedience – Ghosts of Abu Ghraib
    Abu Ghraib was indeed a horrific part of our nation’s history, and we are rightly outraged by the events that happened. The juxtaposition of what happened at Abu Ghraib with Milgram’s obedience experiment was illuminating; yet for all we know about how difficult it is for people to refuse authority, no matter what sorts of circumstances they’re placed in, no matter how much we know how much choice can be influence, we still hold people morally responsible for their actions, even if they are, in some sense, the product of a flawed system. It makes me wonder why we hold people in so much contempt if really, we would probably do the same thing were we put in their situation. Perhaps we’re just scared to acknowledge that we are just as broken?

    We can also look at the positive side of Abu Ghraib, though; the fact that somebody had the guts to bring to light what was happening is, though tragic that it happened so late, still a good thing, and certainly much better than nothing. In how many places is this still happening, but nobody has brought the tragedies to light?

    Evil – The Psychology of Evil

    I had read of Zimbardo’s experiment before, but I like how he framed it in his talk; it’s easy, and I think kind of natural, to just be depressed by the state of human nature when we read of experiments like this (or the Cracked article), so it was interesting that Zimbardo kind of saw it as two sides of the same coin, emphasizing that the same situations can result in heroes as well as villains. It does seem like these circumstances bring out the villain in us more often, if what we hear from the news is any indication, but we are occasionally graced with inspiring stories of heroism. But I wonder at how effective achieving this through education will be; Zimbardo noted that we should inspire our kids to think of themselves as heroes in waiting. But it seems to me that that probably isn’t enough, though I don’t have a satisfactory solution other than something like practice. If a shooter walks through a school building, the natural reaction is to be paralyzed; is it possible, or even desirable, to train our kids to have any other reaction?

    Resistance – Voice of Freedom

    I was struck by the line “Our weapon was our dreams.” There’s something powerful and crucial about hope that enables people to rise up against oppression and fight the odds; people need something above and beyond themselves to live, or be willing to die, for. I’m reminded of this article in The Atlantic, which noted that the types of people that survived in the Holocaust forced themselves to live for something else, whether it was a child to take care of or a series of books to finish. I wonder, then: hope is certainly useful, it seems, but is it irrational? I’d want to ask Professor Davidson: What are your favorite literary instances of characters continuing to fight against oppression simply because they’re clinging on to something hoped for?

    • Hi Aether,
      I like your point about someone being brave and good enough to bring these tragedies to light, and that there are probably many more tragedies that haven’t been brought to light. I remember that the documentary briefly mentioned this as well – that if there weren’t any photos at all, there would have been no action or reaction. Everything would have been swept under the rug, and administration probably would have patted everyone on the back for a job well done. This makes me wonder how the pictures actually came to be released. We know that Sabrina took a lot of the pictures, but it’s unclear whether she actually handed them over or whether her hand was forced. Someone describes that there was an “Amnesty box” where the prison guards could throw all of their pictures and CDs and everything would be forgotten…so how did many of these pictures end up becoming public? I tried to do some more digging to find out but it’s still unclear…
      This ties into the way Zimbardo described evil in his Ted Talk as well, which you also pointed out. It’s easy for good people to turn into villains and that includes most of us, as much as we hate to admit it. On the flip side though, Zimbardo also mentions that bad people can recover given the right circumstances. Perhaps this is what happened when someone came forward with the pictures at Abu Ghraib.

    • Hey Aether,

      I liked how you noted Zimbardo’s mention of how certain situations give rise to heroism and heroic action. This got me thinking: what type of situations do we most see such heroism, and how would an education aimed at inspiring the ‘hero-in-waiting” mentality in kids look like? I agree with your point about practice, at a certain point habit it what overcomes the initial shock that often paralyzes good people in situations where they do nothing. Yet overall, I remain puzzled as to how, through education, we can imbue an awareness and confidence in society at large so that people are stepping up in Kitty Genovese-type scenarios.

    • Hi Aether,
      I think the mind is a powerful thing and many times what we hope, think, or just affirmations in general can play a big part in helping us fulfill our goals. In the “Voice of Freedom” video the people had hope that what they were fighting for would come to fruition and it did. I think that hope empowered them and allowed them to achieve their dreams. Affirmations tend to work in the same way as self-fulfilling prophecies in that people take the cues that you give off. For instance, if you are a confident person people tend to treat you differently than if you were timid and shy. In all, I think hope/affirmations are powerful tools that can be used to empower people to achieve.

  18. Obedience: Ghosts of Abu Ghraib
    1) The images that stick out most clearly for me in this documentary are the ones of the prison guard, “Sabrina,” who likes to take pictures and always smiles in them with a thumbs up motion. For me, she embodied this issue of obedience the most, as she was clearly not an evil, callous person. Instead, she came across as extremely genuine, innocent, and naive. It is therefore shocking to see her in pictures, smiling next to a dead guy bleeding out of various holes in his body after having just been murdered, and smiling on top of a naked pyramid. It really struck me when talked about how she didn’t even realize this guy had just been murdered and thought it was “just a dead body.” She claims she didn’t notice that he was bleeding out of places a person who died of a heart attack would normally bleed out of, and that she simply smiled for the camera because that’s just “what people do in pictures.” She also admits that she realized immediately afterwards that it was a pretty stupid thing for her to do, but that “it happened.” On one hand, it seems ludicrous that Sabrina could have seen that body right in front of her eyes without realizing that the man died of more than just a heart attack, and that she would think it would be okay to smile in these pictures, but it is clear through her commentary (and the fact that she spelled “rapist” wrong on the guy’s leg) that she is uneducated and probably not very intelligent either, and therefore lacked the ability to foresee the consequence of her actions. The segment at the end of the documentary that points out how the tactics used in Abu Ghraib were the same ones used in Vietnam that were created by higher-up officials was especially eye-opening, because it proves how administration took advantage of the prison guards’ unquestioning obedience in order to use them as scapegoats. I am more disturbed by the administration’s attempt to cover up their involvement with their “Animal House” theory than I am by the prison guards’ individual actions. We all know from the Stanford and Milgrim experiments that a great majority of people, even highly educated ones, will conform and obey if an authority figure tells them to. I therefore find it hard to be too judgmental of Sabrina’s actions, and I am instead more repulsed by people like Rumsfeld, who was simply all too quick to use Sabrina as an easy target, knowing that she can’t really defend herself in this situation.

    2) Question: Dictators like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all starved their subjects of intellectual property and most creative forms of education in order to ensure that people stayed subservient and lacked the strategic skills to stage a successful uprising. However, we learn from experiments done in the U.S. that obedience in highly educated subjects can be taken advantage of as well. Do you think it was necessary for these dictators to impose such high amounts of censorship during their rules, and to what extent does controlling education really make it easier to get people to obey?

    Evil: Philip Zimbardo Ted Talk
    1) Is it bad that I saw the demons before I saw the angels in the illusion he showed? I thought it was pretty perceptive for Zimbardo to recognize from the beginning that there are angels and demons in all of us, and to use the Lucifer story as a foundation on which to build his hypothesis on where evil comes from. I can buy that evil can be made and vanquished in every human being, and that it’s all about power. We see this in the Milgram experiment, in the Stanford experiment, and for real in Abu Ghraib. What is most interesting about the Milgram and Stanford experiments to me is that dichotomy of the “guards” or the “teachers” doing what they did while believing all the while that it was really just luck of the draw that they were in that power position. For all they knew, they had just as much of a chance of ending up on the other side of the stick, and yet they still abused power while they had it. On the other hand, there is an aspect of obedience in all of these instances, as described in the topic above. It is interesting that it is this combination of obedience to authority AND power over others that creates the kind of stressful and psychologically conflicted environment needed for these disturbing acts to occur.

    2) Question: In all of the situations described in these readings, we have a struggle between a natural instinct to obey an authority figure as well as the addictive nature of exponential power, and the force of both pulls are used to explain the disturbing results. Do you think that power on its own or obedience on its own would have the same effects as the two of them combined?

    Resistance: Voice of Freedom
    1) It’s nice to end on this note and be reminded that social conformity can be used for a positive message and not just for evil. But I think it takes at least one brave person to come out and stand up for what he/she believes is right, and it takes the right kind of charismatic personality in order for others to follow and trust. The song is uplifting but it would have been nice to get some more background on the resistance in Egypt and the role this video played in it.

    2) Question: What factors do you think need to be present in order to use conformity in a positive way?

    • Hi Mufasa,

      Your response to Sabrina in Ghosts of Abu Ghraib made me think about the prison guards in a different way. I suppose that because I watched the Zimbardo talk first, and was horrified by the pictures he showed of the prisoners, I found it difficult to sympathize in any way with the guards. Even though I agree that the higher-ups held greater responsibility, I was stunned that the guards could so easily forget their their morals in subservience to their military duties.

      However, for Sabrina especially, it seems the guards lost their sense of moral disgust as part of their jobs, and perhaps due to other factors (e.g., Sabrina’s naïveté and apparent lack of education). They were not actively ignoring their morals or passively avoiding them — they lost conscious awareness of them altogether. As you pointed out, Sabrina perceived the murdered prisoner as simply dead; she smiled in pictures of torture victims because smiling is what you do when you get your picture taken. It is tragic that their circumstances betrayed them like this, steering Sabrina and her peers into an amoral environment where transgressions were committed consciously but not conscientiously.

      This leads me to another question about obedience and responsibility. As far as I know, the only ways for a person to evade indictment for a crime they committed is to be declared insane or to have been acting out of self-defense. What about people who are uneducated or naive? They may not be insane or freed by the circumstances of their crime, but lacked the experiences to have known any better. Do they deserve one chance to screw up without recourse (expected thereafter to have learned their lesson)?

  19. Obedience

    Ghosts of Abu Ghraib presents a dark portrait the atrocities that can arise in scenarios where some have power over others. My immediate reaction upon seeing the film was brutal disgust and revulsion at the actions of American military personnel. While this has not subsided, I did begin to try and understand the situation in its larger context. Beyond the dynamics of power and lack of power, there seemed also to be a sense among the Americans that these men were enemies of America and American livelihood, and were of the same cut as those who committed 911. The position of absolute power that the Americans held, in concert with some perverse idea of moral rectitude that guards felt they had over the prisoners probably provided a very fertile breeding ground for the brutality that has since become infamous.
    While Abu Ghraib was a particularly brutal example of abuse and the grave perversion that humans are capable of, I was also struck with the notion/question of to what degree does abuse in this vein occur daily in prisons across the world? War may perhaps the most ripe environment for such brutality, but prison abuse is most likely a daily occurrence.

    Question: In what other social arrangements besides the guard-prison relationship do we witness drastic changes in the behavior of participants?


    After reading the Washington Post article “10 reasons why India has a sexual violence problem,” I again began to contemplate the various social factors that play into the evil acts that humans commit. While I believe that there are probably natural predilections that make some enjoy committing abuses more or make someone more inclined to rape, there are a lifetime of personal experiences and social conditioning that surely factor into crimes such as this. The Arab World and India both have a culture that places some (or all) blame on the rape victim, certainly a product of the dominant ideas about gender roles in these places. This serves to take responsibility away from the criminal in a way similar to those who blame the orders they were given. I do not mean to suggest that rapists believe they are teaching a lesson, but I do think that this helps people do something that some dark part of them might have desired already.

    It is important to imbue ideas about responsibility in scenarios like prison abuse and rape. We have enough research done that can help people to help be be aware of cases where they might be prone to lose their head. Will that change the violent, perverse tendencies that some people have more deeply ingrained in them than others? Probably not, but it will help the overall situation.

    Question: Do you believe that human evil is solely a product of our environments?

    The Sout Al Horeya video was a much lighter than the other material for this week, yet, I was unable to escape the thought that democracy in Egypt has paved the way for a new boss (albeit democratically elected)–the Muslim Brotherhood–that’s probably worse than the old boss, Mubarak. The more liberal and secular groups at the heart of the uprising are seeing their vision of the revolution hijacked by more tightly organized Islamist bloc. This has hurt the economy and prompted more protest from Egyptians who are seeing backlash from ruling Muslim Brotherhood security forces that echoes the violence of Mubarak’s regime. It makes me wonder what the writers/singers of this song would have to say two years later.

    Question: Does the revolutionaries’ perception of the degree of evil of an oppressing regime correlate with the aggressiveness of their revolt? Assuming they are successful, does the ensuing regime tend to last longer or fall apart more quickly?

    • The writer’s comment about 9/11 got me thinking about my own childhood on the US/Canadian border. The need for hierarchical structures familiar from a young age became very apparent after the terrorist attacks.

      I wonder what certain kind of communities promote evil. Do communities that are more homogeneous pull the opinions of the population to one extreme? It may be that the presence diversity counteracts obedience to act on evil principles. The group working on the social proof week would, I think, have insights to this idea.

  20. Zimbardo’s Psychology of Evil holds a positive message: We can create situations in which people will act heroically. The problem created at Abu Ghraib could have been avoided by an active push by the military to create a culture that promotes human rights. The Army has taken steps to do this within the officer core; required reading for all officers is the book “Be-Know-Do” and it serves as the foundation of Army Leadership teaching and philosophy. The book emphasizes the importance of forming firm values–the “Be” component–that guide the action of officers. The Army values are stated as “Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless-Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage.”

    The problem is, of course, actually developing such deeply rooted values in soldiers from all backgrounds. How might an institution such as the military teach values? What elements of culture encourage the heroic and discourage the evil?

  21. These were really good and interesting readings/videos. I think watching videos like this really do get the message across.

    Growing up, I heard of the tortures in Iraq and Afghanistan, but never really looked into them much. It’s hard to get interested in something when it seems so far away and when it doesn’t really pertain to you. It’s crazy how quickly we can become obedient to a power, whether for good or bad. I feel like in most cases in the real world though, it is for the bad.

    This video reminds me of many things, including Nazi Germany and the current North Korean regime. As a Korean, I have a more invested interest in the latter. It’s easy to be removed from a situation and say “how terrible could they be to do such a thing.”
    And actually, whenever I think of obedience and evil, it reminds me of Lion King, especially this scene with Scar:
    It’s crazy how it was all present in our childhood to just be obedient and evil and follow, especially when there is an incentive to us, whether power, money, or status.

    Question: As humans, we want power, money, and status, so it’s hard to go against the norm when these things are on the line. How can we go about preparing to be different when we are placed in the situation? Would knowledge that we are susceptible help us?

    I read the Cracked article and the TED talk. I had learned of the Stanford experiment in high school and it was nice to go back to it again. We are all over confident of our abilities and most are optimistic about life, which is a good thing, since it has the effect of being a self-fulfilling prophesy or at least making the best of a bad situation. However, this optimism about ourself leads to attention blindness in that we are in a situation and we don’t realize what we are doing turns out to be evil.

    Question: I think this also ties in very nicely with the past topics we’ve studied. We think we are relatively better than others (we aren’t AS BAD as the criminal, murderer, rapist), we end up being in a situation without realizing it, tying to attention blindness and lack of self control, especially with Milton’s shock experiment. Is there a way in which increasing self control and being mindful of how others could influence us could help us not fall into the trap of evil too easily?

    We are very lucky to be living in an era where resistance has become accepted more commonly and we are even encouraged to question the authenticity of authority. The Arab Spring is a great example, as shown by the video, but the resistance to limiting civil rights for gays in the States and even resistance on Duke’s campus against stereotyping is present, more than ever.

    Question: I love that we are transitioning to this more open view on things, but what do you think started this trend/how did it start? Did it stem from the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War Protests in the 60’s, or is it more of a recent thing? It’s definitely within us all to rebel, but what sparks that flame?

    • In response to your final question, I believe it’s technology. The speed that we can now share information, hear current events and garner support for a cause is unprecedented. Even the idea of online petitions, which we take for granted really, have been pivotal in creating virtual social movements, which translates to real world action.

  22. Resistance

    My reactions from “Sout Al Horeya” differ from those of Gordon Gekko, afivez, and other peers who wrote that the music video is refreshing and lifting. The first aspect of the video I noticed was that not one lip singer was female besides a small girl standing next to her father (near video time 0:40). Although the music video showed intergenerational solidarity and women depicted in background “Sout Al Horeya” did not feel entirely comfortable to me. This unfamiliarity is, I think, what drives fear of other peoples and cultures that can ultimately impair ethical standards in the case of American military personal in Abu Ghraib.

    Yet on the other hand “Sout Al Horeya” illustrates the cohesive effect of music that has been critical throughout many revolutions. Music especially in juncture with media and artful communications can make resistance movements more approachable. This year I learned about the revolution in South Africa during the Apartheid from a musicology perspective from Duke University professor Ingrid Byerly and a 2012 documentary entitled Searching for Sugar Man. The documentary touched on the universal elements of resistance and how one songwriter named Rodriguez could articulate critical thoughts about poverty and social issues in the United States that become part of a movement across the world. The lyrics of Rodriguez were natural for many South Africans even though his record failed to amass any interest in the US.

    Question: What characteristics of literature and lyrics make the audience available and inspired to take action for social change?


    While watching Ghosts of Abu Ghraiab I thought mostly about how resistance or opposition movements can push supporters to be obedient and in the process function like the regime they are protesting. Resistance requires similar qualities to create a successful social movement including hierarchy, order, and loyalty. A such resistance movements must be cautious not to fall into the very same social structures they campaign to weaken. In Ghosts of Abu Ghraib American military forces use the same prison name, unaltered facilities, and torturing just like practices during the reign of Saddam Hussein. In fact portraits of Saddam Hussein remained on the crumbling walls of Abu Ghraib during the American occupation (shown at video time: 0:16:06). These images seem to represent a default consistent with the status quo even amongst criticism against that very same set of norms. A valuable statement from an American solider from the documentary that stood out to me was the conditions of Abu Ghraib were a hell that he would never wish upon his worst enemy (video time: 0:21:14). Yet this solider was not able to apply these emotions to his professional role.

    Question: How can obedience encourage us to willingly suspend reasoning resulting in voluntary attention blindness?

    Philip Zimbardo as communicated in his TED talk believes that good people have the potential to take part in horrible undertakings. Abu Ghraib and the five pessimistic psychological experiments are not unique cases. From the readings it looks like each of us have the potential to cross the line. So how does this tendency for evil play out in our daily lives? Just recently Duke University students in Cameron Stadium made the decision to participate (or not) in mocking the death of an NC State’s player’s grandmother. While not physical torture, this news story asks how far each of us are willing to go in order to win the war or win the basketball game? I wonder if any Duke student spoke out against this taunting or did they simply make the personal decision to join in or not? If we are not in life threating circumstances or unusual social pressure we may even still be vulnerable to make evil decisions.

    As we learned last week about relativity and defaults our choices are contextual and rooted in comparison. The theme of self control was also an appropriate precursor to this week’s topic. Perhaps the popular simile of practicing self control like a muscle can be helpful to understand how our choices not only impact micro decisions, but also obedience in larger social movements. One positive venture that I came across this week was the work of Daniel Heyman who formed an unexpected partnership between human rights law and art. He has produced a project entitled Portraits of Iraqis from interviews with individuals who were tortured in Abu Ghraib. This project along with “Sout Al Horeya” are positive solutions to deter evil tendencies aggravated by fear. They both encourage us to see more abstract groups of peoples as a collection of human beings or unique individuals. If we cannot be convinced that an enemy is less human than ourselves I think we have an opportunity to alleviate imposed suffering in the world.

    Question: Is there a difference between actively inflicting evil and tolerating evil?

  23. Sorry all, not sure why but originally I mistakenly posted this on the course description page, which is why it is on this page a little late.


    I was deeply disturbed by the documentary. Abu Grahib was prominently covered in the immediate aftermath of the investigation, and while I remembered some of the infamous images, I did not remember much of the story as it was presented in the documentary — either I was not aware of all of the details, or they have faded out of my memory over time. The documentary — prefaced and concluded by insights from the Milgrim experiments – speaks volumes about the compelling nature of authority and the ease of unequivocally submitting to the commands of others rather than questioning such commands. One of the scariest stories of unequivocal obedience came at a California High School when a history teacher sought to demonstrate the susceptibility of human nature to fascism by creating an in class experiment where the classroom was set up with strict discipline, clear leadership and a profound sense of unity and community – with a salute, a slogan, and proper drilling. This classroom experiment quickly became a school wide cult called the Third Wave and by the fourth day the teacher found the need to close it down because it was becoming dangerous. It is an example of how ideologies like fascism or other structures where authority is prominent can so rapidly gain followers and power. Human nature seems to inevitably desire hierarchy and structure to deal with the world’s challenges and complexity. Such structures – which impose rigid consequences — explain why soldiers so willingly did what they did in Abu Grahib, even though they so clearly recognized what was wrong with their actions in hindsight. A fear of a lack of choice compels one to make a wrong choice even if they recognize what is wrong about that choice. Group-think appears natural and as such leaders can easily leverage their positions to gain power. What are ways to disrupt such tendencies in human nature? How can we facilitate a greater sense of individuality and independent thinking in order to prevent the effects of unquestioned and unchallenged obedience?


    The Cracked article on the five psychological experiments was a sad testament to not only the apathetic nature of humans but also the sometimes cruel aspects of human nature. There is a paradox in these experiments that I am trying to sort through. With the Stanford prisoner experiment, the main conclusion was that, “As it turns out, it’s usually fear of repercussion that keeps us from torturing our fellow human beings.” It speaks to the need for authority to impose punishments when we do wrong. It shows that anarchy would lead to a cruel chaos. But, in the presence of authority, human natures obedience can be perverted into an evil obedience by changing the structure of repercussions. The evil leader can make the individual do bad by making individuals fear the repercussions of not submitting to authority. These experiments show both the absence and presence — such as in the Milgrim experiments — of authority can devolve into cruelty. This leads me to the following question. Human nature can be viewed as good with the potential to be perverted into evil or inherently evil with the ability to be curbed. It is the Locke vs. Hobbesian worldview. To Professor Davidson and Mr. Lozoff: which view of human nature do you subscribe to? Why?


    The topic of resistance is an outlier relative to obedience and evil. This week we are discussing a seemingly untenable, indiscernible paradox: our capacity to submit to the forces of evil at times and our ability to resist such forces at other times. Where the first readings were a sad testament to the weaknesses of human nature, the music video – and the work of those in Tahrir Square that it portrays – is a testament to what Faulkner called the ability of the human spirit to not “merely endure” but to “prevail.” In spite of the evil that persists, Faulkner proclaimed man “is immortal not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” Faulkner asserted the “immortality of man” in the wake of World War 2 in spite of the terror and destruction that the world had just witnessed. He did so because of the stories of hope – “of inexhaustible voices” — that emerged in the face of evil. They are the stories of those like Viktor Frankl, who after living amidst the horrors of concentration camps, claimed that “everything can be taken from a man except one thing: the last of the human freedoms – the ability to choose ones attitude in a given set of circumstances.” Faulkner and Frankl prove the ability to not only resist evil but to use ones voice to transcend evil. It is this voice that manifested itself in this video and throughout the Arab Spring – a willingness to defy authority, recognize injustice and sacrifice to remedy such injustice. But, it seems stories of resistance have become less frequent. It seems that for as many stories of the Arab Spring we hear, we hear equally many stories of Abu Grahib. Later in the Faulkner speech, he said, “The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice, which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” Have stories of resistance become less frequent and stories of evil more prevalent in society? And, if so, can it be attributed to a culture that commoditizes and preaches violence (e.g. rap music)? Has modern culture failed to be one of “the pillars to help him (man) endure?”

  24. Thank you for these deeply serious, disturbing, provocative, and important responses, everyone. This is going to be a very powerful class.

    William Golding’s Lord of the Flies tells the story of a group of boys on an island who are trying to survive, and are split up by two leaders Ralph and Jack. Ralph is the more rational leader while Jack has an obsession with “killing the beast.” As his obsession increases, he becomes more and more violent. Eventually Jack and his followers paint themselves and do evil things. The main victim being a fat boy named Piggy. This novel reminded me of the Ted Talk when it discussed how the altering of appearance can increase the actions of violence and evil. Why do people feel more comfortable acting evil when their appearance is altered?
    The Ted Talk was very powerful especially when unveiling some of the horrifying things that happen at prisoner camps. The theme I took away from the whole video was that power is the main reason people act evil towards others. It is disgusting to see people, (even prisoners) treated so poorly. The experiment, which was done to test evil when authority says to do, so was also shocking. 90% of people shocked the learners with the maximum amount of voltage. This makes me wonder what level of authority makes acting in evil ways feel okay. Are people more likely to act evil if they have someone to blame or point a finger at?
    The video titled Salt Al Horeya was extremely inspirational and was a great depiction at the resistance of war, and the calling for peace by the people of Egypt. The people of Egypt have done a great job of making their voices heard by creating a music video and sharing it globally.

    • You bring up an interesting point about how violence can be tied to identity and appearance. I too wonder why it is easier for individuals to be violent or savage when their identity is altered. I think we see this often in literature – not only in Lord Of The Flies but in stories like Jekyll and Hyde. There’s a social commentary here clearly -even crime shows on TV depict suspects who often have a story or justification behind bizarre identities or appearances. I would like to hear Dan and Cathy’s take on why identity is closely tied to violence.

  26. Obedience
    Although I had previously heard snippets of ideas about what had happened at Abu Ghraib, I had never really looked into it very much. (And I should probably consider why that is..) But, I watch a show called Scandal, a show that is based upon drama surrounding the White House. There was one episode, which was prefaced by a waring about violence and gore, in which a man suspected of trying to assassinate the president was tortured continuously in order to get him to confess. For many reasons, I was incredibly uncomfortable this. One, I am incredibly squeamish, and two, as someone who has read various documents about international human rights, this seemed to be blurry. Watching Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, was a very similar experience, except here were real people, not fictional characters. I read that the scandal followed the cliché “Taking the gloves off is no guarantee the job will get done; it is a guarantee that you’ll get your hands dirty.” As I watched the documentary, I was perplexed. When “obedience” comes into play, who is at fault? Is it the subordinate individuals, the ones committing the actions, is it their responsibility to relay the gravity of the commands they are given back to the higher ups? We know that the people who are giving these commands have something that the subordinates are not allowed to keep: a piece of their humanity. So who do we blame? Who are the real “monsters” in the situation. Or, do acts of evil not require evil people to commit them?

    I am a conformist. I will admit that. I like top 40 music, and would probably say that I like it because I like it, but I probably don’t. I read “5 Psychological Experiments That Prove Humanity is Doomed.” The general theme of these five experiments was that people want to take the path of least resistance. For example, in the good Samaritan experiment, the people that would have to inconvenience themselves the most, didn’t. In the first experiment, with the lines, the people who would have to go out of their way to disagree with other people in the group didn’t. So, my basic takeaway from this article was that humanity is doomed because we are too lazy to do anything but be doomed. However, the Zimbardo experiment is the one outlier. How is inflicting pain and humiliation on other human beings the path of least resistance? By that vein, we can assume that our natural inclination is towards cruelty/ power-tripping, and to not give into that is against our better nature.

    Without our peers to let us know what is okay/ socially acceptable, how do we know what is evil? Who defines evil?

    This was a beautiful song, I loved that it was in Arabic, even though I don’t speak a word of Arabic. My favorite line was what’s most important are our rights and to write our history with our blood. But, it was also a very haunting line. It made me consider the worth of freedom. What does it really mean to resist? When is resistance worth it? At Duke, I think we employ very little resistance, about much of anything. We’ll protest the elimination of Dillo, and make huge long petitions, but when issues of race and gender discrimination come up, we have to tiptoe around people that make it seem like we are being too sensitive. What is it about our community that makes us so unwilling to resist?

    • I think in terms of your question at who is at fault, I think it is the motive of the individual being obedient vs. motive of the higher ups to determine this.
      In the case of Abu Gharib, I think the ones actually committing the events did not know of what they were doing (just like the Stanford experiment) while those in power knew that it could/would lead to such a horrifying result.
      However, I think information about being self-aware should be more pervasive to make people question from time to time, “Is this something I should be doing?”

      Q for magician: I think many people come to a magic show to be amused and enthralled and question, “how did he do that?!” We initially always want to know HOW but actually deep down, may not, due to having the mysterious aspects be more intriguing. Do you think people are being, in a sense, obedient, to your act by going on without knowing what happened?

      As for evil, I think it is interesting that you bring up the question of who defines evil. In such a morally confusing world, what is right? Is abortion evil or a right? Is physician-assisted suicide evil or acceptable?
      This is definitely something I am also interested in.

      In pop culture, magic is always portrayed as both evil and good as in LoTR, fairy tales, and Merlin v. Morgana, etc.
      I think having this extra power is what causes us to both be in awe and fear these magicians. Do you think you agree that magic is neutral, but the magicians determine how to use it?

      Resistance is indeed hard because it is going against the default way. As you mentioned, it is easy to sign a piece of paper when it is near the menu for a petition, but actually doing more would be hard and require, gasp, work! haha

      I think it’s just that we realize that the status quo is okay, and maybe we do imagine a world where it could be better with rebellion, but we don’t know that and here would be time and energy and resources spent on getting there.

  27. Obedience
    Lord of the Flies
    Lord of the Flies is a fantastic book that reveals the two types of obedience that humans can follow. Ralph obeys the idea of democracy and pure reason while Jack obeys the more animalistic and barbaric tendencies that are existent in all men. I love that Ralph requires people to hold a conch in order to speak during meetings while Jack speaks out of turn and obeys his own rules. I think that this kind of behavior shows a lot about ourselves. What would we do if we were in those kids’ situation? Well, most probably our behavior would mimic most of theirs. What kind of decisions depends on what natural tendencies we tend to obey. It appears that humans have a particular obedience pattern that they obey. Will I obey social norms? Will I purposefully disobey what my parents tell me? Will I obey the angel on my left shoulder or the devil on my right? What is the right decision for all of these questions? When thinking of examples of this kind of behavior, I immediately thought of club meetings that I attend with in a large group. When trying to hold a civil discussion, most try to follow reason and allow people to speak their beliefs while some are more boisterous and want their opinions to come across forcefully. This scenario leads me to my question.
    Question for Dan and Cathy: What type of person is more likely to get their way: the Jacks or the Ralphs? Further, what type of obedience should we model our behavior of off, democracy embodied by Ralph, or barbaric “natural selection mentality” embodied by Jack?

    5 Psychological Experiments
    Before I begin, I would like to say how much I enjoy cracked.com articles, and my group will consider selection articles that are applicable to our topic from this site. So, thanks for the inspiration! The experiments number 1 and 2 stuck out to me most. The lesson learned from experiment 2 reminded me a lot of the Orwell story Shooting an Elephant from last week. “Ever been harassed by a cop who acted like a major douchebag, pushing you around for no reason? Science says that if the roles were reversed, you’d likely act the same way.” In this same way, the officer in Burma is not inherently a “douchebag,” however, when put in the situation of enforcement, we would enforce our dominance. I do not think that this necessarily demonstrates the “evil” of man though. All it means is that law enforcement are required to be dominant and mean in order to ensure order. Does that necessarily mean that mankind is doomed? On the other hand, I think that experiment 1 was a chilling scenario that made me think about the type of person I am. We are willing to blindly follow orders if the expert orders it. This phenomenon was mentioned in the first few weeks of class but was not coupled with such a hyperbolic example. I am scared to see that evil is able to be orchestrated simply by asking people to do it in the right setting.

    Question for Dan and Cathy: What is evil? Is it an action or a lifestyle? Is an act/person evil if they did not do it purposefully?

    Voice of Freedom
    “In every street in my country, the sound of freedom is calling.” This line speaks of the revolution in Egypt, which can be characterized as a resistance to the evil authoritarian regime that held power before being ousted by the people. So after all of the gloom and doom that was existent in the first two sections, resistance offers a much more hopeful and optimistic viewpoint on humanity. Maybe we are not doomed after all. However, as the song tells us, we cannot resist alone. Well, you can, you just will not be as successful. The power of resistance increases with the more voices you have backing it. In order to enact real change, a group needs to stand up, not just an individual. I am thankful that this video was the last thing I took in while doing this assignment because I will go on with the rest of my day with more optimism. Although there is a lot of evil in the world, fortunately we have the power to resist.

    Question for Dan and Cathy: it appears that in order to properly resist evil, we must join together. However, does a proper resistance thus require a majority of the people? I begin to fear for the tyranny of the majority.

    • I also found the experiments involving authoritative power to be quite frightening. It is amazing what people are able to do when they are being told by a higher power or the law. Many people look to the law for answers as to what is morally right and wrong. I think it is possible for people to become morally blind when they are being told it is okay to act evilly.

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