Why a lack of empathy is the root of all evil
From casual violence to genocide, acts of cruelty can be traced back to how the perpetrator identifies with other people, argues psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. Is he right?

By Clint Witchalls

Lucy Adeniji – an evangelical Christian and author of two books on childcare – trafficked two girls and a 21-year-old woman from Nigeria to work as slaves in her east London home. She made them toil for 21 hours a day and tortured them if they displeased her. The youngest girl was 11 years old.

Sentencing her to 11-and-a-half years in prison last month, Judge Simon Oliver said: "You are an evil woman. I have no doubt you have ruined these two girls' lives. They will suffer from the consequences of the behaviour you meted out to them for the rest of their lives."

Most people would probably agree with Judge Oliver's description of Adeniji as evil, but Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, would not be one of them. In his latest book, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty, Baron-Cohen, argues that the term evil is unscientific and unhelpful. "Sometimes the term evil is used as a way to stop an inquiry," Baron-Cohen tells me. "'This person did it because they're evil' – as if that were an explanation."

Human cruelty has fascinated and puzzled Baron-Cohen since childhood. When he was seven years old, his father told him the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades and soap. He also recounted the story of a woman he met who had her hands severed by Nazi doctors and sewn on opposite arms so the thumbs faced outwards. These images stuck in Simon's mind. He couldn't understand how one human could treat another with such cruelty. The explanation that the Nazis were simply evil didn't satisfy him. For Baron-Cohen, science provides a more satisfactory explanation for evil and that explanation is empathy – or rather, lack of empathy.

"Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion," writes Baron-Cohen. People who lack empathy see others as mere objects.

Read the rest on The Independent.

Tags: cruelty, empathy, evil, genetics, morality, prenatal, psychopathology, science, testosterone, violence

Views: 99

Replies to This Discussion

Several stark examples of missing empathy here. (ugh) I can think of so many others.

As to the absence of empathy, I assume there are theories on how that can happen.

I have an developmentally disabled son who does not show empathy very often. In his case, it is suggested that he has been very slow to achieve the 'theory of mind' stage of development. This is the inner realization that the thoughts and knowledge in your consciousness are not the same as exist in other people's minds. One characteristic of this is that the individual never tells a lie because they believe everyone knows the same thing they know. I don't think this applies to the cases mentioned in the article.

My guess is that what might be called differential empathy results from authoritarian conditioning to objectify a class of beings. It may be self-brain washing or it may be perpetrated by a charismatic leader of a gang, club, cult, or nation.


Sometimes I have to wonder about the empathy of militant anti-theists...

Makes sense to me. As a former elementary school teacher, it was obvious that some children seemed to lack a conscience or sense of empathy for other humans or creatures. When one cannot identify or connect to the emotions of others, it is much easier to pull the wings off butterflies, bully and push others around, lie, steal, and generally act inappropriately because the child does not connect with the emotional pain they have delivered and there is seemingly no guilt or shame.

The golden rule of doing onto others, as you would have them do onto you doesn't work because they lack empathy to know how to connect with others' joys, pain, struggles. Despite a lot of intervention, counseling, and consequences, empathy building doesn't seem particularly successful. I would guess that somewhere in the brain there is a filter or chemical missing. The hope is that scientists will be able to figure this out and intervene, before the child becomes a psychopath or sociopath.

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