The age old question of how evil manifests itself in today’s society is still widely unanswered, and is still debated in many social and biological sciences. In modern times we seem to see evil a lot more, the news is filled with tragedies. We often view the source of evil as a murderer, con artist, or someone who commits fraud. However, what if there was evil inside of all of us? The evaluation of ourselves in terms of evilness starts with psychological experiments that test the theory that, when put into an authoritarian position, a normal person could grow to be evil.
However, could this really be true if there wasn’t already capacity for evil in such a normal person? Macbeth is an example of our exposure to this concept and the Stanford prison experiment is a practical application of this theory. Criticism of Macbeth could also shed light on the issue of where evil comes from and if we can avoid it completely. The year is 1971, and for a projected two weeks, 24 college students were placed into the basement of the psychology department in the Stanford University for a psychological experiment headed by professor Philip Zimbardo. 2 of these randomly assigned students were the ‘prisoners’, though they didn’t commit any crimes.
The other 12 students were assigned as the authority figures in the makeshift prison and given the proper equipment. Soon after, the ‘guards’ begin to grow more and more confident in their actions and began to beat and humiliate the prisoners. An example of this is the final straw that ended the experiment, “Finally, psychology PhD student Christina Maslach (later Zimbardo’s wife) persuades him to change his mind after seeing the prisoners, half-naked and chained together, with bags over their heads, on a trip to the toilet.
She tells Zimbardo: ‘Those are boys, and you are harming them. ‘ The next day, as guards force prisoners to pantomime (imitate) sexual intercourse, Zimbardo tells them that it is time to go home. ” (Maher). The study eventually ended prematurely at 6 days instead of the projected two weeks. The atrocities that occurred during those six days are a testament to the evil that exists in everyone. There is no evidence to suggest that the instructors forced the ‘guards’ to act as cruel as they became in only six days, they already had a small part of them that gave them the capacity to abuse the other students.
Our state of nature is not completely violent or it would unlikely that society would be what is today. However, it is not completely good, otherwise the Stanford Prison Experiment would not have yielded the same results that it had. This leads one to conclude that most people are born with two parts of human nature in them, ‘good’ and ‘evis. However can we really evaluate whether someone is evil if there is not true definition of evil. If someone believes that an idea or object is evil, there is bound to be someone else who thinks the opposite.
The definition of evil is subjective and means something different to every person. Even Zimbardo himself perpetrated this evil in his ground-breaking experiment according to a analysis of the Stanford Priso Experiment, “Now consider the fact that no prisoner leaves the SPE by declaring to quit. Several are released because of their severe stress reactions, but no one simply walks away…. The prisoners remain confined because they do not find the right words that would remove them from the situation. Why does he not simply say, “I quit this experiment.
You must give me my clothes and belongings, and I am out of here! ” Zimbardo wonders (p. 147). The failure to utter the magic words calls for an explanation. Here is one possibility. Time and again, Zimbardo and his proxy Carlo obscure the prisoners’ options. During the parole hearing, Carlo mocks a prisoner, ‘So wise guy, you think this is just an experiment? ‘ (p. 139)…. Even when release finally comes, Zimbardo himself is unable to drop the charade. About a distressed participant he says that ‘it would be best if he were paroled at this time’ (p. 61)” (Krueger). Not only had the evil manifested in the participants of the experiment but in the creators of said experiment. Zimbardo was unable to separate himself from the role of ‘warden’ and continued to oppress and harm the students in the experiment. The potential for evil was inside of all the people included in the experiment and thus, exists within all of us. This concept can also be applied to many literary characters that are renowned in our society today. A notable one is the famous Shakespearean character Macbeth from the play Macbeth.
Macbeth is notoriously known for his rampant murders during the course of the play in order to rise to power. During the beginning of the book, Macbeth is introduced as the hero that killed the two-faced Thane of Cawdor, an act that deemed him the new thane when the battle ended. “Lady Macbeth uses her superior willpower to overrule his “moderately good” nature and coaxes him into murdering Duncan. ” (Shanley). His introduction is inherently mixed, good and evil; Meaning, while his murder of the former thane is overall good for the kingdom, the traitor is ended and killed, the murder itself is considered a sin, even if it is justified.
Macbeth has never been portrayed as completely good or completely evil and eventually, his evil overtakes him and he reaches a point of no return, “[Macbeth]I am in blood Stepped in so far that should I wade no more. Returning were as tedious as go o’er. ” (III,IV,168-170). He begins with that seed of evil and lets it grow and develop until he gets what he wants, and he continues that until he is eventually stopped by Macduff. This shows that Macbeth fits the description of having a small portion of evil within us but depending on the situation, whether someone lets that evil develop into an unstoppable force.
While Macbeth lets it overtake his personality and morality, other characters in the play try and push it down. Lady Macbeth originally sets the plan in motion for the murder of the king, “Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty! make thick my blood… ” (1,1,41-44). She allows the evil to grow and manifest itself but later in the play, she allows the remorse to engulf her, not letting it develop by continuing to fuel the evil.
Macbeth on the other hand kills many other characters after Duncan and continues to escalate the murders. The evil inside of all the characters exists but only Macbeth cultivates it and allows it to control his life. Another example of this thesis exists in the infamous experiment dubbed the Milgram experiment. This experiment took place at Yale university and was headed by psychologist Stanley Milgram. The experiment was created to evaluate obedience with the Nazi officers in World War II but can also be used in the context of the presence of evil.
The procedure is incredibly detailed and yielded many trials, “In his experiments, Milgram told participants that a man was being trained to learn word pairs in a neighbouring room. The participants had to press a button to deliver an electric shock of escalating strength to the learner when he made an error; when they did so, they heard his cries of pain. In reality, the learner was an actor, and no shock was ever delivered. Milgram’s aim was to see how far people would go when they were ordered to step up the voltage.
Routinely, an alarming two-thirds of participants continued to step up shocks, even after the learner was apparently rendered unconscious. ” (Abbott). This demonstrates the idea that many people do have the ability to murder, especially when paired with the results of the experiment. Almost all of the participants continued on to the level where the person in the next room would be ‘screaming in pain’ louder and louder, it seems unthinkable to the public but this experiment shows that everyone is capable of this kind of cruelty.
The small seed of evil is released when encouraged by an outside force, slightly encouraged that is. The people experimented on truly believed that the people they were shocking were real and in pain but continued on, despite the protest the previously recorded voices gave. They were performing acts that many people would consider ‘evil and they thought that they were in the right in that situation. The evil inside them was cultivated with the encouragement of the overseer in the experiment.
This does not excuse their actions and they would be responsible for the harm of the people they thought they were helping to learn by administering shocks. This experiment shows that everyone is capable of the violence that many people loath in the real world. Evil has become one of the most despised concepts in the modern world, all of the atrocities people have encountered in the 20th and 21st century steer them away from the path of comprehending where evil begins.
Many people refuse to see that the evil exists within us and the circumstances we are placed in allow that evil to flourish and grow until it becomes unrecognizable to the public eye. The Stanford Prison Experiment, the Milgram Experiment, and the famous play Macbeth show that evil is still prevalent and closer than many people assume in daily life. This type of evil presents itself in different ways but ultimately it is within us all.