Simon Baron-Cohen argues that evil should be defined as the absence of empathy. In his new book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, the University of Cambridge professor of developmental psychology proposes replacing the “unscientific term ‘evil’ with the scientific term ’empathy.” New York Times reviewer Katherine Bouton explains:
Evil, he notes, has heretofore been defined in religious terms (with the concept differing in the major world religions), as a psychiatric condition (psychopathology) or, as he puts it, in “frustratingly circular” terms: “He did x because he is truly evil”).
Instead, Baron-Cohen proposes that evil is:
more scientifically defined as an absence of empathy, exacerbated by negative environmental factors (usually parental, sometimes societal) and a genetic component.
Like the reviewer, I am both intrigued and critical of Baron-Cohen’s approach. It seems simplistic to me, but it does raise some interesting and unsettling questions. The reviewer writes:
At the core of this deceptively simple book is the question of the nature of cruelty. In the last and most philosophical chapter Dr. Baron-Cohen discusses situations in which an individual who is not otherwise lacking in empathy may behave cruelly. Citing the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s term “the banality of evil,” and discussing the work of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo in which ordinary people exhibited cruel behavior, he acknowledges that in most of us empathy may be suspended temporarily, under certain circumstances.
This is a frightening thought, but one borne out not only by research but by history. Dr. Baron-Cohen’s hypothesis that cruelty is merely the zero end of a continuum on which we all fall makes that possibility more comprehensible.
That’s the problem, isn’t it? How does one practice goodness when it is so easy to fall into evil? If lack of empathy is the issue, how does that lack occur, particularly in normally empathetic people? What drives us off this cliff, and how can we each guard against taking the plunge?