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Permeability of Good and Evil

I you believe that the world is divided into the good people and the bad people, don’t miss Philip Zimbardo discuss how good people become evil.

Put us in the right situation, and anyone can become evil.

  • Mindlessly taking the first small [evil] step
  • Dehumanization of others
  • De-individuation of self (anonymity)
  • Diffusion of personal responsibility
  • Blind obedience to authority
  • Uncritical conformity to group norms
  • Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference

Conversely, put us in a different situation, and any ordinary person can be a hero.

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Lifelong Friends

We could use a few more people like Fred Rogers:

Maybe it sounds hokey, but Mr. Rogers really did make me feel like I was his friend.

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Write Your Own Epic

There was a required class in the computer engineering curriculum that was only ever taught by one particular professor. This professor had a penchant for creating pointless busywork. His homework for this class consisted of one page reports on each section of the book that we read. He didn’t tell you this at first, but these were no ordinary reports. He expected you to fill up that one side of the page with as much information as possible. Margins should be as tight as possible: usually ¼” all around. The last line of each paragraph should be as long as possible: whitespace was the enemy. Smaller fonts got more points. Color got more points. Diagrams were good but should not take up too much space. None of those criteria were stated up front. The class members discovered them through trial and error over the course of the semester. This is only one illustration of his eccentricities as a professor.

His arbitrariness clashed with my sense of fairness. I had a hard time bringing myself to just do whatever it took to pass the class. I took the class four times before the professor gave me the required C or better in the class. By that fourth semester, I knew the material in the class better than he did. It wasn’t for lack of knowledge that I didn’t pass; I didn’t pass because I didn’t want to bend to his will.

I tell this story to give you the context of why I hate admitting what I’m about to say. One of this professor’s favorite sayings was that each of his students was “special, just like everyone else”. That really bugged me, but I must now confess that he was right. Each of us is unique and special, but that makes us no more special than anyone else.


Lately I’ve been feeling kind of empty. My first reaction was “Oh crap! The Mormons were right. I’m losing the Spirit!” I fell prey to the indoctrination of my youth, but only for a moment. I reassured myself that some other reason must explain the emptiness that I felt every time I thought about life. I just had to find it.

It took me a while to put my finger on the cause: I miss being part of a grand epic. Mormonism put me in the middle of a larger-than-life struggle between God and the forces of evil. It told me that I was a valiant spirit in God’s army before I was born. God took a special interest in the course of my life. Everything that happened was part of his eternal plan. My life would determine my future eternal state. My destiny, if I lived worthy of it, could be to become a god to rule and reign over numberless worlds and their inhabitants. Mormonism gave my life a greater context and purpose than the mundane appearances of my day-to-day existence. It reassured me that I was special, more special than those who had chosen not to embrace the truth.

The initial euphoria of casting off old religious demons and tasting sweet freedom and intellectual integrity has now worn off. The euphoria had anesthetized me while my sense of my own inherent, unearned specialness was being removed. I’m just now becoming aware of the hole that Mormonism vacated.


My brother recently made me aware that Maslow extended his hierarchy of needs beyond what we typically hear about. Usually the hierarchy includes five levels of need (from the lowest to the highest): physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Maslow later included cognitive and aesthetic needs in his hierarchy, but more importantly for me, he made the top of his hierarchy self-transcendence.

My needs for self-actualization are finally being met. My native self is finally finding expression outside the culture-imposed narratives of Mormonism. I am becoming self-determined. This self-actualization has come at a price. I have lost the Mormon myths that gave me a false sense of self-transcendence, Maslow’s next higher level of need.

The hunger that I feel in my heart is born of the questions “Why do I live? What greater purpose will my life hold?” I have to answer these questions on my own for the first time in my life. I no longer have a source of ready-made meaning to turn to. No one-size-fits-all story could possibly anticipate the full effect of my life. I have to write the story as I go. My purpose will be unique (just like everyone else) because my place in the universe is unique (just like everyone else).

What will I do to transcend myself? This is my story, my quest. No other hero can take my place.

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Hero Worship

Mother Theresa lived her life with supreme compassion for the poor. Mahatma Gandhi struggled against the oppression of all people and lived a simple, virtuous life. The Dalai Lama crusades tirelessly for the freedom of the Tibetan people and the end of violence in the world. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. [warning: strong language] If you don’t want to sit through all 30 minutes, you can jump to the good bits about Mother Theresa.

We want to believe that people can reach superhuman levels of virtue. We want it so bad that we will latch onto someone, ignore their faults, and proclaim them a hero. It gives us hope that we can be better people. We want to believe that Mother Theresa, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Joseph Smith, Jesus of Nazareth, or the Buddha somehow transcended their humanity.

The wonderful truth is that we are all human, even our heroes. No one of us has been more than that: human. Many of us have led exemplary lives of service and heroism. But none of us have ever been something other than human. Humanity encompasses a broad field of virtue and vice.

Though we don’t like to consider it, our favorite demons like Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, child rapists, terrorists, etc. are none of them truly demons. They were and are human beings every last one. That human beings—not so different from us—could be capable of such savagery is a dark thought. If there is any hope of preventing future cruelty, it is in our capacity to overcome the desire to pretend we are not like those villains and to acknowledge and accept our own capacity—as human beings—for the darkest of deeds. But we are also capable of great virtue and heroism.

People are not perfect. Not one perfectly virtuous person has walked the earth. Not a single perfectly villainous monster has been born of a woman. Good and evil are found everywhere and in all things. To worship our heroes as infallible gods and revile our villains as inhuman demons shows a profound lack of self-awareness.

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