Am I Evil?

Am I evil? Am I capable of pulling a switch to shock experimental subjects to the point of excruciating pain or even death? Am I the kind of person who would walk past a wounded person in need while making my way to give a speech on charity?

While commuting to work I’ve been listening to a set of 40 lectures from an enlightening course entitled Why Evil Exists (, in which University of Virginia religion professor Charles Mathewes surveys Western and Middle Eastern views on evil from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the modern era. The majority of the course looks at evil from a religious perspective, but I was particularly interested in hearing about a couple of key twentieth-century scientific experiments that reveal some scary tendencies in human nature.

No doubt many of you are familiar with the Milgram experiments, in which subjects were led to believe they were participating in an experiment that required them (at the behest of “scientists” in white coats) to pull a lever to deliver a series of increasingly severe electric shocks to other “subjects” behind a glass wall. The majority of those who were asked to pull the lever did so until the shock recipient actors nearly “died.”

Professor Mathewes also reflects on the “Good Samaritan Experiments,” in which one set of Princeton Seminary students was asked to deliver a speech on the Good Samaritan while another set was to give a nonreligious speech. As the speech-giving students walked from on Princeton building to another, they passed by an “injured” man in clear need of assistance. Most of the students neglected to stop and help the “injured man,” and it didn’t make a difference whether the speech they were about to give was on the Good Samaritan or not.

My first instinct was to think that I would be better than the subjects in these experiments, but then I realized that no doubt most of those who failed would have thought of themselves as good, upstanding people incapable of such moral ineptitude.

Though I’d like to think I’d do better than majority of these experimental subjects, maybe I’m just like the majority of individuals who think they’re morally better than the average person. The majority can’t be better than average, by definition.

Perhaps it’s helpful for all of us to reflect from time to time on our very real capacity for evil, especially those of us who think most highly of our moral rectitude. Did Hitler think himself immoral? No; as he wrote in Mein Kampf, “By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s work.” I concur with the Apostle Paul, who wrote in Romans 12:3, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”

Had I been a Hutu in 1994, could I have wielded a machete and mowed one or more of the million Tutsi slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide? As I sit in my warm, comfortable home in front of my glowing computer screen while my beautiful wife decorates the Christmas tree, with one son home from college for the holidays and another one on the way tomorrow, with a full belly and everything I need to flourish, am I in a position to judge whether, in a particular set of circumstances, in a time of want, in a wave of popular tribal ferment, I would not be capable of such moral monstrosities?

There but for the grace of circumstances (or, if you prefer, by the grace of God) go I.


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