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Why We Torture: Martha Nussbaum On Zimbardo's "The Lucifer Effect"

By Thomas Riggins

01 November, 2007

Philip Zimbardo is the psychologist who carried out the Stanford Prison Experiment [SPE] in 1971. He has published a book about the lessons to be learned from that experiment and others. The book is “The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil”. This article is a review of the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s discussion of the book in the October 19, 2007 issue of the TLS.

The purpose of the experiment was to study the psychological ramifications of isolation on prisoners. One group of college students would spend two weeks 24 hours a day as prisoners while another group played the role of prison guards alternating in eight hour shifts.

“In general,” Zimbardo said, “what all this should create in them [the prisoners] is a sense of powerlessness. We have total power in the situation. They have none. The research question is, what will they do to try to gain power, to regain some degree of individuality, to gain some freedom, to gain some privacy.”

To make a long story short, Zimbardo had to stop his experiment after just 5 days of an intended 14. This is because the “guards” began to humiliate and abuse the “prisoners” (sleep deprivation, for example.) A mini Abu Ghraib type of situation was beginning to develop.

Besides the SPE, Zimbardo also talks about the work of Stanley Milgram, among others, who did experiments on authority. Nussbaum tells us that these experiments showed “that about three-quarters of subjects would administer a shock labeled as seriously harmful to a person who was supposed to be a subject in an experiment on learning, if ordered to do so by the researcher....” These experiments, and others like them, show that average people are capable of cruel and inhumane actions that they would normally never think of doing.

After reviewing the literature, Zimbardo, Nussbaum reports, concluded “that situational features, far more than underlying dispositional features of people’s characters, explain why people behave cruelly and abusively to others.”

With respect to Abu Ghraib itself, Zimbardo says the actions of torture and abuse there were not due to the evil natures of the guards, Nussbaum writes, “but by an evil system ... that virtually ensures that people will behave badly.” It is the system itself that is wrong and has to be attacked and changed, not the ordinary people caught up in it who are tainted by the system rather than tainting it.

Nussbaum doesn’t think much of way the SPE was set up or executed, but she thinks Zimbardo’s conclusions are basically correct, although the evidence for them really comes from other more rigorously conducted scientific research by others.

“Research,” Nussbaum says, “has amply confirmed that people of many different kinds will behave badly under certain types of situational pressure. Through the influence of authority and peer pressure, they do things that they are later amazed at having done, things that most people think in advance they would never themselves do.”

Zimbardo thus makes a plea for “humility” on our part, a plea not to be too judgmental about “bad apples” as we ourselves may very well have acted in the same way were we in the same situation. We should instead “blame the system” and the people who set the system up.

There is a lot to this. We all know that at Abu Ghraib it was the “little fry” who were punished and the “big fry” who actually created the situation and were really responsible, especially Donald Rumsfeld and his ilk, were let off the hook.

Nussbaum tells us that what Zimbardo calls for is “collective responsibility -- not as a total replacement for personal responsibility, but as its necessary concomitant, if people are not to be faced, again and again, with demands to which they are very unlikely to respond well.”

Nussbaum thinks Zimbardo is on the right tract, but that he puts too much emphasis on the situation itself. He should look to the emotional and psychological factors that trigger these cruel and inappropriate responses. Nussbaum has a point too. And with the Bush administration actively pushing torture as a matter of national policy we are going to see more cases of the kinds Zimbardo writes about.

Nussbaum wants to know what makes so many people “vulnerable” to bad behavior and why do some few end up refusing to engage in it. “Zimbardo should press this question,” she says.

I’m interested in how far up this chain of bad situations goes. If the small fry of Abu Ghraib should be cut some slack and we go up the chain to the big fry, say the Bush-Cheney gang, because they brought the situation into being that allowed for the negative behavior of the small fry to develop, then what about the situation the big fry are in?

They are in a situation that reflects the nature of a class society, where wealth and power are the result of the exploitation of the labor power of masses of human beings, where wars over natural resources and markets are constantly on the agenda due to the structure of the imperialist relations between the the big capitalist countries and the smaller ones (not to mention the fight against all progressive and pro people forces). They act like beasts because their situation is bestial. The logic of the situation calls for the replacement of the capitalist system itself as the ultimate goal if we really want to live in a humane world.

Zimbardo does not call for socialism. Nussbaum says he calls for critical thinking to be at the basis of our educational system-- beginning at the elementary level. “We need a culture of timely whistle-blowers, and we will only get this, he rightly argues, if we encourage Socratic questioning of authority both in the family and in the classroom.”

You can forget that. In 99% of the school districts in this country a teacher wouldn’t last ten minutes if he or she encouraged students to question authority and challenge their parents as well as the school authorities. Most teachers label such students, questioning authority in the classroom, as disruptive and as troublemakers.

The recent tenure fights we have been reading about at major colleges and universities usually are about someone whose ideas or viewpoints are especially challenging to the authority of people in power or to the ideas that the government wants spread among the people.

So contradictory is the reality on the ground in our society to the notion of “Socratic questioning” that the government itself rejects science as its guide because the interests of the capitalist economic system. cannot be justified by science-- i.e., pollution, gobal warming, mass environmental destruction, fossil fuel usage, the poisoning of the oceans, etc., all the result of the workings of our economic system.

So this idea of reforming the education system’s approach to critical thinking is a bit utopian, but should nevertheless be fought for because it is a way to organize and educate masses of people. Zimbardo also wants us to be educated in personal responsibility and respect for others. All three of these things, by the way, the system claims to be doing as it is.

Nussbaum is all for these changes. She brings up the work of Daniel Batson who has shown that the compassion we all need to work on is linked to trying to understand other people’s existential situations “with vivid imagination.” She ends by saying we should hope that Zimbardo’s book will “stimulate a critical conversation that will lead to more sensible and less arrogant strategies for coping with our shared human weaknesses.”

I will also end with a hope. The hope that compassion and human understanding of the Other will lead to the rapid repudiation of the Iraq war and to reconciliation in Afghanistan, will lead to end of the blockade and isolation of the Cuban people, will lead to the end of the hatred and vile way many of our fellow citizens feel about the millions of hard working undocumented immigrants living in our country, and finally, that the Republicans will give up all the political ploys they use to further racist policies and agendas in the country. This may be to hope for too much, but at least it is something to struggle for.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at or at Thomas Riggins Blog.



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