Tag Archives: Evil

Zero Degrees Of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen

10 Oct

Simon Baron-Cohen has done some amazing work on autism and I’ve enjoyed reading a number of his articles in the past so decided to have a go with his 3rd book Zero Degrees Of Empathy, the subtitle being “A New Theory of Human Cruelty“. (Part of a series of posts on ‘evil’.)

He starts with saying evil is a pointless concept; he wants to replace this with a lack of empathy. “If I have an agenda it is to urge people not to be satisfied with the word ‘evil’ as an explanatory tool, and, if I have moved the debate out of the domain of religion and into the social and biological sciences, I will feel this book has made a contribution.

He defines empathy as follows:
Empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention, and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention. Empathy is our ability to identity what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.

His Paradigm
He defines levels of empathy from 0 to 6, where people at 0 cannot understand the mind of others and people at 6 are super empathisers. He splits level 0 into the categories of negative and positive zero empathy.

Kinds of negative zero empathy include the psychopath, the narcissist and the borderline and he describes in detail the sort of nasty things they can do and gets into their mindset so we can understand why. He says that while these so-called personality disorders have long been classified and discussed, his is a new paradigm in which to classify and diagnose them and hence more helpfully deal with them. (I think the way we classify “abnormal” behaviour is usually not very helpful as these classifications can become ends in themselves rather than simply targets of understanding. BC adds himself to the list of people that find the DSM limited and often counter productive.)

He then considers positive zero empathy, i.e. those that don’t hurt other people, so people with Aspergers / autism and looks at the difficulties and advantages of conditions in the spectrum. He says that although they have empathy difficulties, they “are often strong systemizers which can be remarkably positive“.

He discusses aspects of the Zero-Positive mind describing a “constant striving to step out of time, to set aside the temporal dimension in order to see the eternal repeating patterns in nature. Change represents the temporal dimension seeping into an otherwise perfectly predictable, systemizable world, where wheels spin round and round and levels can move only back and forth…. People with autism…may become aware of the dimension of time only during events that contain novelty and which therefore violate expectations. The ‘zero-positive’ mind finds change toxic”.

He looks at 10 different parts of the brain that carry out different aspects of empathic work, and presents some of the evidence for them. He dubs this “the empathy circuit“.

He shows evidence that both genes and upbringing affect this circuit (of course genes can be activated and deactivated by the environment too). It should be noted that “these are not genes for empathy per se but are genes for proteins expressed in the brain that – through many small steps – are linked to empathy”.

He introduces the “internal pot of gold” metaphor making reference to the infamous Romanian orphanage studies where kids with no physical intimacy with adults don’t develop empathy and emotion properly – it can be seen in their brain scans where there are deficiencies, confirming his empathy circuit theory. Sometimes these issues don’t come to the surface until another stressor triggers them, such as becoming a parent.

As well as nature and nurture, short term factors can also affect this circuit. Stress, hormones, alcohol, fatigue and depression can deactivate it.

Responding To This New Interpretation
He spends the final section of the book discussing how to respond to his theory with some interesting comments, though does occasionally wander off into unwarranted speculation.

He outlines some treatments such as the educational software he’s developed to help people with autism, and points to interesting research with oxytocin inhalers.

He says that when viewing crimes against others through this new paradigm it leads to a greater understanding of why the person committed the crime. This leads to the possibility that “they deserve our sympathy rather than punishment”. That said, he says that sometimes “imprisonment is necessary for three reasons: to protect society from the …individual, to signal society’s disapproval of the crime, and to restore a sense of justice given the victim’s feelings”. Not that I necessarily agree with the latter. We have the law to stand between the victim and the criminal for a reason – so that emotion and vengeance does not have free reign.

Pushing “this to its logical conclusion: if unambiguously ‘evil’ individuals felt remorse for their crimes, and had been punished, would we try to focus on their good qualities, with a view to rehabilitating them?

My own view is that of course we should. I fall on the side that people are always redeemable; people can always change – the brain is amazingly plastic. Otherwise “dehumanizing them…renders us no better than the person we punish.

He raises “a deeper question about our human nature: namely, are we all capable of killing?” He extends his theory to say that only people with “low empathy could attack or kill another person, that is, individuals whose empathy is temporarily or permanently shut down” though he does not justify this in any way.

He says something that I like very much: “when it comes to problem solving, clearly many situations require both logic and empathy. They are not mutually exclusive.” You can do his personality tests for empathy and for systemizing and I was interested to find I’m well above average on both measures.

He finishes with a call that “empathy is one of the most valuable resources in our world” and that parents, educators and psychologists have overlooked it for too long. He tells a beautiful story of two guys who travel around displaying remarkable empathy. He says he was in a Jewish synagogue in London and saw the two men speak:

The first one spoke ‘I am Ahmed, and I am a Palestinian. My son died in the Intifada, killed by an Israeli bullet. I come to wish you all Shabbat Shalom.’ Then the other man spoke: ‘I am Moishe, and I am an Israeli. My son also died in the Intifada, killed by a homemade petrol bomb thrown by a Palestinian teenager, I come to wish you all Salaam Alaikem.’

He says “Empathy is like a universal solvent… and unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.


Defining Evil

28 Sep

Nothing is easier than to condemn the evildoer. Nothing is harder than to try and understand them.

– Fyodor Dostoevsky

Following from the previous post on Evil, here are some efforts trying to pin down a definition of evil, most of which I heard on a radio program about the subject:

Professor Alain Turain says that with “evil what is at stake is the destruction of the subject“. He says “pleasure is one possibility, also cruelty, it’s destroying your capacity to be a subject, as an animal, as a thing. A notion of degradation and destruction or the integrity of another.

David Mollet writes “The flaw in the discussion is the product of various assumptions about what an evil act is. It seems to focus on the act itself rather than the attitude of the person committing the act. I would offer a different definition of evil: some people do bad things but don’t think that they are doing a bad thing. These people are not evil. True evil is doing a bad thing while knowing that it’s bad.

What about the sincere person that think they are doing their duty, e.g. Anders Brevik? They would not be called evil by the intention definition, nor would the Nazi camp guard that thinks he’s doing his duty.

So by this definition “Brevik is not evil as he didn’t gain enjoyment from the killing, whereas Che Guevara is quoted as enjoying making the order to fire on his enemies.

Some would then conclude that “pleasure is not a necessary component.” which means we can say that both an intention and an act can be separately categorised as evil.

Also we talk about a distinction between violence and extreme violence.

Smith: “We want to know whether something is just very bad behaviour, gross moral turpitude, or do we need an extra category of evil. It’s definitely something to do with magnitude.

A useful question is: “is there a bigger pattern, a bigger system that corrupts your morality” – pushing towards Zimbardo’s conclusions?

Young: People can “try to ground a notion of evil by appeal to human rights. Human rights is not just a set of laws but part of a universal culture.

Professor Barry Smith suggests: “a separation between act and intention: what are evil intentions? Our intuitions are good at figuring out what an evil act is.” I disagree; it’s interesting that many people share the idea that there is evil but that they don’t agree on what it is.

I say that morals are obviously relative from which it follows that evil must also be relative. This explains why there is not a succinct definition on which people can agree.

Peter Young, a Professor of Criminology, says people often fall back on the holocaust when relativism is brought up and most agree that this was “evil”. But there were then, and are now, some people who think otherwise, thus it is still not an absolute.

Young says that “criminologists also don’t like to talk about evil. Using evil is a way to get away from relativism.

Michel Wieviorka (a Professor of Sociology who recently published a book called Evil) discusses the example of Anders Brevik who killed 79 people in Norway. “In looking for an explanation, we look to sociological factors: the political discourse of muslims and immigration, etc. But this is not enough. Then we look at psychological factors: let us understand the psychologies of the person involved, but of course this is still not enough.There is some mystery in what we try to understand. In the same circumstance one will commit a murder, another will not, and we try to understand this.”Young said “people try to stop the explanation by saying look, that’s just evil.

To understand you have to express empathy. Is this a limit to social science?

Wieviorka: “the more you help, the more you explain, the more you can help to fight against crime, it means that how will you fight something that you don’t explain? How do you fight racism for instance if you don’t try to understand why people become racist. You are not born racist you become racist. So if you don’t try to explain, maybe you need some empathy to understand the people that are racist, but because you understand does not mean that you don’t want to fight.

So is evil even a useful concept?

Wieviorka says “evil is not a concept readily adopted by sociologists. This is because religion gets in the way. It’s not a sociological category. It’s a non-explanation – it’s moral, political, religious. Not a tool to use in order to understand better, but an object in itself. Using evil becomes saying it’s something in itself, it’s not a human issue, it’s nature or its genes.

Laurie Taylor: “it’s useful as something to express extreme intolerance of certain types of behaviour but not nail it to a particular type of phenomenon. So do we need this category? Yes, we do want it, but it’s the target of explanation, not the explanation in itself. It’s a mish-mash of ideas and definitions. We can say the behaviour is what we want to explain.

A more useful paradigm than evil here.


14 Sep

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

– Aristotle

When somebody does something bad, say killing a child, genocide or rape, people tend to call them a monster or “evil”.

It doesn’t explain anything; in fact it is used to shut down any effort at explaining such behaviour.

It’s as if giving them this label explains everything. The implication is that there’s something intrinsically wrong with the person that has committed this act.

I say calling someone evil is a cop out.

It implies they’re just made that way so they will never change and we should just do away with them. It’s saying that punishment and vengeance is the only way and there is no point in trying to understand and hence rehabilitate the person.

There’s a dangerous de-humanising element here. And this means it sets them apart from the rest of us.

There’s an issue with empathy: it’s not easy to understand why someone has done something that on face value seems heartless and goes against our deeply held moral codes. But why this fear? It requires a level of empathy that not everyone is willing to use.

To empathise is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to try to think what they thought, and to feel what they felt. To empathise is to consider yourself committing that act.

And this is the problem.

It’s a sign of maturity that a person can hold someone else’s point of view in their mind without agreeing with it.

To empathise also means to admit that you could commit the same act. To accept that we all have a side that we don’t like. The thing is, we are all capable of heinous acts. Study after study proves this to be true. People think “oh no, not me, I couldn’t possibly do something like that, I’m better than that”. Alas that’s just wishful thinking.

Psychologists Professor Philip Zimbardo and Doctor Stanley Milgram have clearly shown how “normal” people can be made to commit “evil” acts. If you find this difficult to accept, read about the infamous Stanford Prison experiment or the Milgram experiment.

If we accept that in some situations, with certain influences, we are all capable of very bad acts, then the question is what are those situations and what are those motivations, and how do we protect against them? To do otherwise is simply idiocy.

The good thing is that there’s a corollary to this conclusion. Zimbardo describes the ways in which people can be influenced to do “good” things against these forces, people he calls heroes. In fact, Zimbardo has set up a project in America and is doing some great work educating people “to overcome the natural human tendency to watch and wait in moments of crisis” so they can “act heroically on behalf of those in need“.

More evil in the next post.

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