Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ethics, Psychology and Abu Ghraib - Bad People or Bad Systems?

Ethics training in the CF currently focuses on helping personnel to make good choices, using individual "gut checks" to ask if a course of action is right, or asking themselves, "what would mom think if my actions were on the news". In this approach, abuses can be attributed to bad judgement or character flaws on the part of the abuser. But what happens when abuse is perpretrated by a system or culture, which is the thesis of Philip Zimbardo's book, The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil (Rider and Co, 2007), 9781844135776. Zimbardo is famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, a study which attempted to understand the psychology of imprisonment.

Zimbardo's book comments on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, which the US attempted to attribute to the actions of several low-ranking "bad actors". Here is part of Martha Nussbaum's review of this section of the book:

"Zimbardo concludes that situational features, far more than underlying dispositional features of people’s characters, explain why people behave cruelly and abusively to others. He then connects these insights to a detailed account of the abuses by United States soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison, where, he argues, the humiliations and torments suffered by the prisoners were produced not by evil character traits but by an evil system that, like the prison system established in the SPE, virtually ensures that people will behave badly. Situations are held in place by systems, he argues, and it is ultimately the system that we must challenge, not the frequently average actors. He then sets himself to analyse the features that make systems and situations bad, and to suggest ways in which they might be remedied."

Nussbam's critique of Zimbardo is that he tends to speak as if systems determine human psychology, "and the insides of people explain nothing at all". She argues that emotional development is just as important in explaining individual responses.

"Philip Zimbardo does not focus on emotional development, but it is surely a key part of the future of any society that is going to refuse to go down the road of the SPE and Abu Ghraib. What the guards in the experiment crucially lacked, when they lacked the ability to see the other as human, was empathy and its close relative, compassion. Compassion, as Daniel Batson’s wonderful research has shown, is closely linked to the ability to follow the story of another’s plight with vivid imagination. Situations can certainly encourage this ability, as Batson’s experimental situation did. Nonetheless, the imagination is a muscle that gets weak from routinized thinking and strong from vigorous challenges, and this suggests a vital role for the arts and humanities in any curriculum for good citizenship.

Let us hope that The Lucifer Effect, which confronts us with the worst in ourselves, stimulates a critical conversation that will lead to more sensible and less arrogant strategies for coping with our shared human weaknesses."

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