X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

Please note: Previously subscribers used a 'WebID' to log into the website. Your subscriber number is not the same as the WebID. Please ensure you use the subscriber number when you link your subscription.

Books

The nature of evil

Simon Baron-Cohen has spent 30 years researching the way our brains work.

21 May 2011

12:00 AM

21 May 2011

12:00 AM

Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty Simon Baron Cohen

Allen Lane, pp.208, 20

Simon Baron-Cohen has spent 30 years researching the way our brains work. His study of autism led to The Essential Difference, which asked, ‘Are you an empathiser or a systemiser?’ The book was highly influential; its ‘male-brain’ and ‘female-brain’ definitions have entered common parlance. In Zero Degrees of Empathy he aims to move examination of the nature of evil ‘out of the realm of religion and into the realm of science.’ Will this project also prove persuasive?

‘Extremes of evil are typically relegated to the unanalysable,’ he says, but they shouldn’t be. Evil, he believes, is best understood as absence of empathy. We are all situated at some point on a bell-curve of empathy. Those at zero degrees are people who can treat another human being as merely an object — those who cut off a living finger to steal a ring, kill a stranger with a broken bottle, turn a Jew into a lampshade. Those at zero degrees fall into subgroups: psychopaths, narcissists, and people with ‘borderline personality disorder’.

Baron-Cohen writes convincingly about the ‘internal pot of gold’ provided by loving, attentive parents in our early years, that stock of positive emotions that allows us sufficient emotional resilience to extend sympathy and generosity to others. Adversity cannot, he says, completely destroy the wellbeing of the securely attached child. He calls empathy our most precious resource. Emotional abuse and neglect warp the structural development of infant brains; ‘evil’ people are made, as well as born.

[Alt-Text]


But what of those who show ‘zero degrees of empathy’ yet remain harmless? Baron-Cohen is deservedly famous as a champion of autistic specialness; he refuses to see autism simply as a bundle of ‘deficits’. In this book he sections autists off from psychopaths, ‘borderlines’ and narcissists, calling them ‘zero-positive’. Empathy, he says, comes in two parts:

The psychopath is aware that they are hurting someone because the ‘cognitive’ (recognition) element is intact … even if the ‘affective’ element (the emotional response to someone else’s feelings) is not.

The autistic person usually lacks both elements and therefore cannot commit an act with cruel intent.

Zero Degrees of Empathy is short, clear, and highly readable. Baron-Cohen guides you through his complex material as if you were a student attending a course of lectures. He’s an excellent teacher; there’s no excuse for not understanding anything he says. There is, however, a danger of over-simplification, of sweeping statements left unscrutinised. One small point should illustrate this. As the mother of two autistic sons and a third neurotypical one, I take issue with his assertion that parents and siblings of autists ‘show an echo of the same profile, a similar pattern of under-activity in the empathy circuit.’ Yes, some of them do, but not all. According to Baron-Cohen’s own guidelines, neither my third son Jake nor I exhibit any autistic traits, and we both scored highly in the empathy-testing questionnaire provided at the back of the book. Similar unqualified statements crop up throughout. In the interests of clarity, some subtlety of interpretation has been sacrificed.

A bigger problem is that a new definition of ‘evil’ really needs to be balanced by a new definition of ‘good’. The reader is left with the rather hazy impression that human goodness and niceness derive wholly from a high degree of empathy, but this assumption needs to be scrutinised. Can an extremely empathetic person exploit their superior understanding of human nature to bad ends? Baron-Cohen quotes the story of a concentration camp guard who tried to force an inmate to put a noose round his escapee friend’s neck, describing the guard’s ‘extreme lack of empathy’. But surely the refined torture of forcing one friend to hang another is an example of an empathetic response horribly perverted? If the guard had simply, unempathetically, regarded the escapee as an object, wouldn’t he just have shot him?

Baron-Cohen wears his scholarship lightly. He is an outstandingly effective communicator of serious science. His passionate optimism, his belief that scientific study can deepen our humanity, lies at the heart of his theorising. Despite some short-comings, this is a valuable book, though it raises as many questions as it answers.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close