Thursday, 19 July 2012

Simon Baron-Cohen on empathy and evil

Just finished a short book on a huge subject: evil. "Zero Degrees of Empathy" by  Simon Baron-Cohen, who is a psychology professor, and an authority on autism. The book is right along the boundaries of psychology, neuroscience and philosophy. 

In my probably crude and clumsy summary: he seeks to demonstrate that low or non-existent empathy provides pathways that can (it doesn't always) lead people to carry out acts we call "evil." 

It is possible, he says, to show that certain common circuits in the brain are fired when we are being empathic. (That's the neuroscience - it's easy to follow in general though a bit demanding for your present reviewer in the detail.) People with zero degrees of empathy don't fire up these circuits when shown material that does create responses in the  circuits in people whose empathy capabilities are in better shape.

He also discusses the degree to which zero empathy can be caused by the environment (especially the early environment, of course) and the degree to which genes are involved.

He brings in the way that even normally empathic brainwork is disrupted or shut down by stress, fear, hunger, etc, and looks at the way people do appalling things when they have been convinced that "they," the others, are less than human, not worth as much as they themselves are.

He is looking for an explanation of human evil, other than a religious one, and he is not content simply to see it as "the problem of evil." I suppose some of his broad and general statements are obvious enough - when someone does something dreadful to someone else, he (less often she) is suffering from a permanent or temporary breakdown in empathy. Well, yes, it's hard to stab someone, I would guess, if you are empathising with them. 

But his absolute emphasis on empathy, and his location of it in the way the brain works, struck me as a new and invaluable insight, based on research and careful thought. If he's right, the depths of human cruelty are not caused by an additional phenomena that most of us don't have most of the time: evil. It's actually caused by a lack of something most of us do have to some degree most of the time: empathy.

The author champions empathy as a civilising treasure to be nourished and cared for. He writes of the "pot of gold" that is the empathic personality that develops in a child who is well supported, loved and properly cared for.

My further thought is this: if adults accept and truly live with the fact of their own mortality, if they see life as a precious and singular event, then perhaps that state of being encourages empathy. From empathy comes compassion - not only in a general way, but also for this person here and now.

If the fact of your own death has never truly occupied you, then perhaps that makes it easier to make light of another's well-being, and perhaps their life too. 

"Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." And at once I am linked to common humanity. It is difficult for me consistently to commoditise people, to see them merely as agencies towards what I want to do, to objectify them entirely, if I know that their bell is also tolling for me.


  1. Very, very interesting, GM. Persuasive, too. When I worked with young offenders, research showing that a bad childhood leads to emotional underdevelopment was often cited - as a way of reinforcing the idea that there's nothing we can do for them except bang them up. I am entirely persuaded of his argument, I have to say, from my own experience of people. Does he say how empathy can be nurtured in those who have been left out or born with very little?

  2. Interesting comment Charles. No, but your question prompts the thought that on the basis of S B-C's researches, the psychs and the therapists perhaps need to work on just this- is it possibles to re-vitalise the empathy circuits? I've heard that some people on the autistic spectrum, maybe Aspergic people, can be taught ways of responding with more affective empathy, ie how to read the signals and respond to them in a socially functional way. I wouldn't know, but it seems like a very important area to me.