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I love Dan Holliday‘s example of Sea World. His rhetorical question is something I have long asked myself, and is also my reason for shunning zoos. However, I also felt compelled to add my answer because this is such a difficult question that it easily lends itself to armchair posturing. Such intellectual answers, though interesting and informative, do not get to the heart of “evil“. A victim experiences “evil” at a searingly emotional and physical level while the evildoer and onlooker have the luxury to wallow in abstraction.

I believe “otherizing” enables “evil“. By citing people like Hitler, we “otherize” evildoers, and conveniently distance ourselves from “evil” in much the same manner that evildoers themselves “otherize” yet others to perpetrate their “evil” in the first place. How would we answer if asked instead about our own capacity for “evil“? After all, a single Hitler could not perpetrate “evil” on such a vast scale without mass support. Does not this mass consist of individuals and is not each such individual an evildoer themselves?

I hope to convincingly show that “evil” is usually, though not always, situational, and that anyone can become an evildoer.

Mob behavior and careful studies suggest that, like Pandora’s box, the definition of “evil” is something we would prefer to not examine too closely, precisely because it is relatively easy to “otherize” to justify heinous actions. We see this in many of the historical and current examples referred by the other answers. My own hypocrisy in this matter is undeniable since I killed plenty of mice in the name of biomedical research, notwithstanding my shunning of zoos and staunch vegetarianism. Surely no history of our time could be accurate without a scathing indictment of our current industrial use of animal models in biomedical research and, Temple Grandin notwithstanding, the unspeakably cruel enterprise of industrial livestock agriculture? Obviously it remains dead easy for us to “otherize” non-humans.

I became interested in the subject of “evil” after witnessing mob rampage at close quarters at an impressionable age in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi‘s assassination in New Delhi. I cannot forget it. If you have witnessed a mob riot in action only on television, you have not witnessed what madness it is. In the mob rampage that passed on the street outside our house, I saw not people but beast-like behavior. Many were people from my neighborhood. The next morning, our garden was littered with the tangible though inanimate evidence of their bestiality: designer shoes and sarees, and even television sets from the shops they had looted and burned. What about the non-mob people they encountered during their pillage? I have no idea what fate befell them but I can imagine from the news coverage that it was cruel.

My memory of this mob rampage faded until it was rudely re-awakened by Samantha Power‘s Pulitzer Prize winning book A Problem from Hell on 20th century genocides. In particular, I was haunted by the traumatic experience of the Rwanda UN commander, Roméo Dallaire. His experience shows that to helplessly watch “evil” unfold makes the conscience quail and can drive a decent person suicidal.

Perhaps I too became primed by witnessing mob behavior at such close quarters because ever since, much to my shock and dismay, I have noticed that it is relatively easy for people operating under the belief of institutional authority to become callous, craven and cavalier. When “agency” is outsourced from an individual to an institutional authority, i.e. the Nuremberg Defense (Superior orders), it appears to insulate the evildoer from wrestling with the ethical dilemma of their evildoing. This makes “evil” more easily justified in the mind of the evildoer.

Who among us could rest easy about our self-identity if situational forces could so easily change individual behavior? To those who would argue otherwise, I suggest these two famous though controversial studies which suggest that “evil” can arise from situational responses, particularly in response to fear and authority figures, and from peer pressure and fear of rejection.

1. The Milgram experiment. Many, not all, volunteers were willing to subject strangers to fatal electrocution.

2. The Stanford prison experiment. Seemingly normal college students were assigned to be either “prisoners” or “prison guards”. So quickly did the former conform to subservience while the latter became sadistic that the study was stopped prematurely.

In other words, anyone can potentially become an evildoer.

Given the bleak picture I painted, I’d like to end on a more positive note. While the academic work of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo makes us painfully aware of the extent to which “evil” hits home too close for comfort, the thoughtful if extreme non-violent approach of sects like Jainism suggests that we also concomitantly have an ancient instinct to quell “evil” in our lives.

What is the definition of “evil”?