Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty. By Simon Baron-Cohen.
WICKEDNESS has long been the preserve of religion. For an act to be evil, it must be significantly wrong, embarked upon with full knowledge of its wantonness and embraced wholeheartedly by the person doing the deed. In “Zero Degrees of Empathy” psychologist and psychiatrist Simon Baron-Cohen argues for a scientific explanation of why some people act in a way that appears to be evil. He thinks that they are sick and that they can be treated.
The past offers all sorts of unsavoury stories of behaviour brought into the realm of medicine with dire effects. Remember, for instance, the eugenic sterilisation of the feckless? Yet Mr Baron-Cohen’s agenda is liberal and his arguments at least merit inspection.
Can a baby be born bad? Or does poor parenting explain why the cherub has grown up to become a psychopath? There is an element of both nature and nurture in explaining the evil actions of individuals. Though acknowledging that there is a genetic basis for acting like a rotter (men are more likely to behave cruelly, for example), Mr Baron-Cohen notes that “genes cannot code for a high-level construct like empathy. Genes simply blindly code for the production of proteins, blissfully unaware of their ultimate long-range effects.”
Empathy—the ability to appreciate that a stranger struggling with a suitcase not only finds his situation challenging but also needs help which, assuming you are not incapacitated yourself, you can and do provide—is key to Mr Baron-Cohen’s thesis. He reckons that only those who can empathise with their fellow man (and who consequently act in a considerate way) can hope to be without malice.
Cruelty comes from failing to empathise with others, whether through being inconsiderate or through wilfully ignoring their pain. Some people lack empathy permanently, others switch it off when they are tired, stressed or impatient—telling a child not to bother you because you are working, for example—and experience regret for their harsh words when their empathy returns.
Those whose minds never consider their fellow traveller are not bad but disabled, Mr Baron-Cohen argues. For some, there is a genetic explanation for why crucial parts of their brains seem disengaged while other people suffer. For others, activity in those brain areas has been subdued by some awful experiences in childhood.
The author champions his own parents for instilling in him what he calls an “internal pot of gold”—a measure of self-reliance and self-confidence which he thinks is vital for developing empathy. Children learn to consider the thoughts of other people only when the minds of those who care for them are safe places to enter. A child whose mother wishes he did not exist will not want to contemplate the thought, and will fail to develop empathy as a result.
Travelling through the book, the reader is introduced to a range of character studies complemented by descriptions of real people, including Marilyn Monroe, whose early sorrows blighted the rest of her life. Are the people he describes odd? Yes. Is there a consistent underlying explanation for their oddness? No: brain function is complex, many different personality types are involved and all such categorisations are bound to be messy.
Is it feasible to cure evil? That is a far more interesting question than Mr Baron-Cohen acknowledges. He suggests that society should have empathy for those who lack it and that they should receive treatment: a puff of the hormone oxytocin, might do the trick. Whether it can be right to cure someone of what is not yet considered a disease remains unaddressed.