Falling Off the Empathy Cliff Into Evil

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?

This entry was posted in good vs. evil, Practicing Goodness, psychology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Falling Off the Empathy Cliff Into Evil

  1. I am inclined to be skeptical of Baron-Cohen’s work after reading Rebecca Jordan-Young’s critique of his conclusions about differences between male and female brains in her excellent work Brain Storm. While the idea that evil is the result of a lack of empathy makes sense in the case of sociopaths — perhaps lack of empathy is a defining term of that disorder — it doesn’t address evil committed by people who don’t lack empathy. And I think most people are empathic.
    I tend to think a lot of evil is done by people who are just trying to get along in the world. It’s not that they don’t think something might be wrong; it’s that they know they could get in trouble if they bring it up. Or it will inconvenience them in some other way. Given how we treat whistleblowers in this society, it’s actually more surprising that some people do take a stand against something being done wrong by their employer or others.

  2. dianesilver says:

    Nancy, What did Jordan-Young say about his conclusions on the male and female brains?

  3. Diane, that’s an essay in itself, and I’ll have to respond later when I have time to dig out the details.

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