May 23, 2011


Of Evil and Empathy (Theodore Dalrymple, May 2011, New English Review)

Let me give his theory as succinctly, and I hope fairly, as I can. We should, he says, replace the word ‘evil’ by ‘lacking in empathy.’ People who behave evilly lack empathy for those to whom they do it. Either they fail to understand the effects on others of what they do, or if they do understand it, don’t care.

From where does this lack of empathy come? Professor Baron-Cohen tells us that, like many another human characteristic, the capacity to empathise varies along a normal distribution, at the tail ends of which are people with exceptional powers of empathy - I do not much care for the psychotherapist he describes as being of this ilk, in fact she makes me feel rather queasy - or of none. The people with no capacity for empathy are at best utter narcissists and at worst psychopaths. (For the sake of brevity, I here leave out his account of people with autism or Asperger’s syndrome.) Most people, of course, fall between extremes, so that, in certain circumstances, and for varying lengths of time, they may show lack of empathy. I doubt that many readers would disagree with this.

Baron-Cohen goes on to tell us that empathy has, or is caused by, certain pathways in the brain, and that these may be defective for various reasons: genetic or environmental. A lack of empathy runs in families, as demonstrated by the concordance rates among twins, identical and non-identical, as well as by adoption studies, where adopted children come to resemble their biological parents more that their adoptive ones; but also certain experiences, particularly early life experiences, may do permanent damage to the parts of the brain responsible for empathy, as well, of course, as pathological processes such as injury and disease (brain tumour, front-temporal dementia etc.).

I think his theory might very well be grist to the mill of anti-feminists, for he is very keen on the idea that the early experiences of love and security are vital in the development of empathic responses to others. By far the easiest way of giving children that vital early experience of love and security is to ensure that mothers devote a great deal of attention to their children, most other ways having failed miserably, en masse if not in every case. But that is by the by.

Now Baron-Cohen thinks that he has now more or less solved the problem. There are, of course, details to be filled in; not everything is understood about the neural circuits of empathy, not every gene that contributes to the expression of empathy has been found. Environmental factors leading to psychopathy remain to be elucidated, though some are known; but, grosso modo, or in outline, we now understand evil, which is a neuro-psychological state or trait of lack of empathy. Evil has been removed, one might say elevated, from the murky realm of metaphysics into the sunny uplands of science, where all is progress and light.

I am not so sure. In the first place, Baron-Cohen sometimes makes precisely the mistake that he accuses the users of the term ‘evil’ of making, namely of rendering the explanandum identical with the explanans. For example, he describes his discussion with a psychiatrist of the case of a woman who stabbed her two children to death as a way of getting back at her estranged husband, of whose new girlfriend she was jealous. The psychiatrist had found her to be normal, to be not suffering from any identifiable medical condition; but Baron-Cohen thought this ridiculous. At the time of her crime, he said, by definition she must have been suffering from a lack of empathy, even if she had now recovered it: for if she had not, she would not have committed the act.

Now what is being said here is quite obviously open to the objection that he has made to the concept of evil: we know the woman lacked empathy because of what she did, and she did what she did because of lack of empathy. If the concept of evil explains nothing, here (at any rate) the concept of lack of empathy stands in the same case.

Does Baron-Cohen’s theory illuminate mass outbreaks of evil, such as in Lenin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany. Pol-Pot’s Cambodia, or post-Habyarimana’s Rwanda, for example? I think the answer is no.

In Rwanda, for example, if accounts are to be believed, thousands of perfectly ordinary people, of no apparently psychopathic tendencies, took up machetes and other instruments and killed their neighbours, then enjoying their goods and feasting on their food, celebrating what they had done.

What would Baron-Cohen say about this (he does not use this example in his book)? Well, he would say, in certain circumstances – fear, mass hysteria, or whatever – some circuits in the brain overwhelm other circuits in the brain, those for example that are necessary for the expression of empathy. Remember that people are on a continuum of empathy: as circumstances grow more and more dire, so a bigger and bigger percentage of the population loses its capacity for empathy.

But we already know this from raw observation of the events: so when we read Baron-Cohen, we experience no thrill of enlightenment, no eureka moment in which we feel that we now understand what previously was opaque to us. He is, in fact, merely re-describing in slightly different terms what we already knew.

Between the autism spectrum and the ADHD spectrum no male is responsible for any behavior and every boy can be drugged by his parents and teachers.

Posted by at May 23, 2011 5:42 AM

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