THE BLOG
03/08/2013 08:49 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

The Social Influence of Good vs. Evil

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

When I ponder the concept of good versus evil, I pause for a moment to recognize that the words have varying meanings to different people. While one culture may view the stoning of women for sexual behavior perfectly acceptable, others will view it as being despicable and an abomination to humanity. The important fact is to isolate and define a form of evil that is all-encompassing for the human species and not varied between individual cultures.

As humans, we precariously straddle two worlds. One world is based on our genetic hard-wiring which is geared towards survival and aggression -- our animal instincts. Our other world is the modern, civilized society based on rules and conformity which we have created and enjoy. The vast majority of people reside prominently in civilized society, and they dismiss their instinct for aggression and dominance. Being a part of the group ensures safety and prosperity, and the group strongly influences and defines individual behavior.

This relationship between the group and the individual is a two-way street. The group defines rules and limitations, and the individual complies for the purpose of integration. The end result of this is mutually beneficial to the good of one and the good of many. Evil acts occur when one aspect of this system breaks down and either the motivations of the group as a whole become corrupted or an individual rebels against the norms created by society.

As a whole, we recognize evil acts as being those committed by individuals who have abandoned society. Deranged individuals who commit rampage style shootings, those who target children for sexual exploitation, those who target vulnerable women for rape, and so on. These are acts which, regardless of their root cause, have no seed of good within them. They are committed solely for the purpose of delivering pain, suffering, and torture to the victims, with no redeeming value to society, and without remorse.

When the individual breaks away from the group in this manner, there is very rarely any chance for true rehabilitation.

When the failure of good is on the side of the group as a whole, however, the result can be much different. If good people are subjected to degraded values within the group, even the best person can become subject to committing the worst acts. This is often highlighted in examples of heroes-turned-criminal in the military and police officers who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

A war veteran is often revered as a hero in our society today, and most soldiers hold themselves to the highest standards of conduct while in battle. However, if the group as a whole becomes broken, the strength of the brotherhood between soldiers can drive many to do things which later carry grave regret. In January of 2012, such an example came to light in America.

A group of soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines rose to infamy when a video surfaced on the internet depicting them urinating on dead Taliban fighters. The soldiers are heard saying "Golden like a shower," and "Have a great day buddy," while desecrating the remains. In our modern, civilized world, we would rank this act as evil under almost any terms, but it's important to remember this didn't take place here. It took place in the less civilized, less modern world of war, and it took place under conditions most would never dare to imagine much less experience. So, what went wrong?

Soldiers, while legally adults, are very often still within a very impressionable age. If I dare to think back to myself at the age of 19 or 20 years old, I hardly recall a mature adult. If people at such an age are removed from an environment of order, structure and safety, and placed in an environment of disorder, chaos, and fear, the motivation of the group shifts, and the results can devastate lives.

In a scenario such as the soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, the motivating factor for the group became anger and rage. As the soldiers dealt with significant combat resulting in heavy casualties, the individuals responded in suit. While urinating on the remains of others may be regarded as evil, it is very important for others to form the distinction between the act itself and the people committing it. The act may be evil, but the people themselves are not. The moral compass of the group lost its way, and the natural drive for the individuals to conform brought them to a very unwanted infamy.

Violence and evil are no strangers to our world, and they are never going away. However, if we learn to recognize the sources of derelict behavior, we may be able to intervene and prevent good people from making tragic decisions.

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