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.

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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.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Human, Non-fiction, Research, Science, Study