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A Sunday School lesson from Colbert, heh

Hat tip to LookingCloser for the head's up on Stephen Colbert's recent interview with Dr. Philip Zimbardo (of the Stanford prison experiment fame, which I remember learning about in psych class in college). Zimbardo was promoting his new book (The Lucifer Effect, which he explains looks at how basically good people end up doing bad things), and stepped into a pile of trouble when he suggests that Lucifer was justified in rebelling against God. Heh, Colbert (who is Catholic) takes the doctor to task in his own unigue style. You can see the interview (a few minutes long) here. (Warning: Colbert uses some bad language, which is bleeped but nonetheless evident.)


Ken Brown said…
Colbert does a good job of dismantling Zimbaro's wacky ideas about the Devil (how do you write a book called The Lucifer Effect arguing that good people can turn evil, and then claim that Lucifer was not, in fact, evil...!?) But even so, Zimbaro was trying to make a valid point about the danger of blindly following human authority, before the conversation took that wrong turn.

Granted that disobeying God's authority is, by definition, evil, that doesn't change the fact that sometimes obeying human authorities can itself be an evil. If Colbert would have addressed that point he could have noted that it isn't naked "reason" that allows us to distinguish good human authority from evil human authority - it is the comparison of these relative authorities with the higher good (which is God, and the inherent value he has given to all human beings, even prisoners). It is our knowledge of this higher authority, implicit though it may be, that allows us to distinguish good and evil at all.

That said, it rather sounded like they were mixed up on what the experiment actually proved. I haven't read the book, but from what I understand, they never actually ordered the "guards" to torture (such that "good" kids did evil only because they followed orders). Instead, the guards were given too much authority in an intentionally dehumanizing situation, and it quickly went to their heads. That sounds more like a proof that power corrupts (and that prisons are particularly apt to induce this corruption) than that some "good" people will follow evil orders.

Either way, the real take-home point ought to be that, apart from God's grace, there really are no "good" people at all. Each of us possesses the potential to do great evil; experiments like this merely reveal what was already true.
Carmen Andres said…
well put. and good point about the stanford experiment. i think the experiment also shows what happens with the lack of accountibility.

i, too, agreed with zimbardo's comments about critical thinking when it comes to authority (and i'm pretty dang sure colbert does too in real life), but i groaned aloud when zimbardo started in on his comments about lucifer and God. while i don't have a problem (and even advocate) critical thinking when it comes to authoritative and institutional structures (including religious ones), his comments esssentially reject God as the origin of that higher good, in which case we get back into that mire of conversation that you've done such a fantastic job of wading through on your blog (i love your posts about humanism and morality - i'm right there with you). i just groan because sometimes i feel so been-there-done-that. but that could be because i'm a bit peevish today, heh. i need more coffee.