Friday, December 4, 2009

Zimbardo + Abu Ghraib

A book I read a few years back seems relevant to our discussion of the Abu Ghraib cases. Philip Zimbardo (best known for his Stanford Prison Experiment) put out a book, "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil" after testifying at the trial of Staff Sgt Ivan “Chip” Frederick II, one of the Abu Ghraib defendants. Zimbardo argued the lessons learned from SPE: A bad system produces bad situations in which people act badly without even necessarily knowing why. The court martial rejected his testimony, claiming Abu Ghraib was an aberration. Frederick – an army reservist – was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment and stripped of nine medals and 22 years’ retirement pay. The standard line on Abu Ghraib held true, "a few rotten apples can taint the whole barrel," bracketing out the possibility of changing the prison structure, the prison situation that Zimbardo tried to argue caused the behavior.

EDIT: Zimbardo's Hero Project centers around the study of the banality of heroism, aiming to be an "international organization to promote heroism as an antidote to evil and as a celebration of what is best in human nature," and "to internalize the perspective, 'That when I become aware of the need to act on behalf of others needing help or being the victim of evil forces, I will be ready and able to take the necessary action.'” If you want to be a Zimbardo "hero-in-waiting," it looks like you can sign up here (looks like Anderson Cooper did!).

notable post on the Hero Construction Company Blog: "Cameras and Heroes" -- "the camera really did change the way we behaved... and they weren't even real cameras!"


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I can't comment definitively on the case without knowing all of the relevant context but my reaction is basically this:

    1. Barring indication of some very extraordinary circumstances, such as Sgt. Chip having a severe form of mental illness or being literally coerced into doing what he did, Zimbardo is wrong to suggest that Sgt. Chip is not morally culpable at all for what he did. Rather, he was merely a victim of circumstance. (If anyone wants, I can go further into why I think think and also think that both most free will compatabilists and most incompatiblists would agree. Compatibilist here is a fancy philsophical word for people who think the universe (including people) being deterministic and individual free will are not mutually exclusive ideas. Basically, most of them believe: even if every human choice and action that is ever made was, in some sense, already decided and fully explained by events millions and millions of years before those people ever came into existence, those same people can still be responsible for their actions.)

    2. If not necessarily determining Sgt. Chip's behavior, Abu Ghraib's power structure & resulting culture definitely heavily influenced the soldier's behavior. Consequently, the higher ups--policymakers, all the OGA people, ranking prison officers, etc.--should be investigated to ascertain each person's level of involvement and prosecuted accordingly (e.g. for being involved in a cover up, being negligent, ordering torture or murder, etc.).