Wrong questions

Zimbardo makes another interesting flip point. We often hear about the banality of evil, but this also means that heroism is banal. Disobeying evil orders is not something that requires special, amazing personal characteristics; it simply requires a willingness to honestly attempt to assess what the right thing to do is, and the will to do it even when everyone else is going the other way.

Will Wilkinson, meanwhile, points out that our very attitude about evil is something of an anomaly. In his amazing book, The Elusive Quest for Growth, William Easterly points out that development groups usually ask the wrong question: Why are people (or countries) poor? Poverty is the normal state of humanity. It is our current wealth that is an amazing anomaly.

Similarly, why do people do horrible violent things is perhaps the wrong question. Brutality is pretty much the norm for most of human history; as we've gotten richer, we've gotten less violent in all sorts of ways--we've stamped out (mostly) once common practices like infanticide, torture, wife beating, and the stoning of adulterers. Hunter gatherers are vastly more likely to die from homicide than people living in the developed world. Goodness is, in some sense, a luxury good. The most valuable luxury good we have.