Thursday, 19 July 2012

Zero Degrees of Empathy? Baron-Cohen on Human Cruelty

I must say I had expected more from Simon Baron-Cohen's new book "Zero Degrees of Empathy. A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness" (London: Allen Lane 2011), which I finished last night. If the main goal of this book is, as the author expressly maintains in his preface, "to understand human cruelty" (xi), then he fails rather spectacularly. The idea that he pursues in the book is that cruelty or what is commonly called "evil" should be understood as "empathy erosion". In other words, people who do really bad things to others do so because they have "zero degrees of empathy", which allows them to "treat others as if they are mere objects" (4). Baron-Cohen claims that this "new theory", i.e. thinking of human cruelty in terms of empathy erosion, provides an explanation, whereas speaking of "evil" does not. "Why did the murderer kill an innocent child? Because he was evil. Why did the terrorist become a suicide-bomber? Because she was evil." (4) Doesn't sound like much of an explanation, that's true, but look what happens when we replace the word "evil" with "complete lack of empathy": Why did the murderer kill an innocent child? Because he had no empathy. Why did this terrorist become a suicide-bomber? Because she had no empathy. Obviously, even though a lack of empathy might be necessary to do certain things to others, it is hardly sufficient to explain those actions, as the author himself occasionally admits. In fact, he spends most of the book discussing personality disorders that are also characterised by zero degrees of empathy, such as borderline, narcissism, Asperger syndrome, and classic autism, but that are not accompanied by a tendency to acts of cruelty. In fact, people with Asperger Syndrome are often very kind and gentle, which Baron Cohen tries to explain by distinguishing between a cognitive and an affective component of empathy, but the distinction remains largely obscure, although we can probably relate it back to his conveniently ambiguous definition of empathy, which is defined as: "our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion." (12) So there are allegedly two "stages" of empathy: recognition and response. It is hard to see, though, how one should be capable of responding to someone else's thoughts and feelings (the affective component, presumably) without first identifying (the cognitive component) what they are thinking and feeling. And surely someone who enjoys torturing another person, must do more than just know (in an abstract, unaffected way) what they are feeling. For the one who has zero degrees of empathy, Baron-Cohen explains, the other person's feelings do no longer exist. But surely they do for the cruel person. They must respond to it affectively in some way, though obviously not in what Baron-Cohen thinks of as the "appropriate" way. They are not just objects (though perhaps means to an end), but living, feeling beings. So is that what makes a person capable of enjoying (!) the suffering of others really a lack of understanding? Indifference, which certainly gives rise to many terrible acts, can perhaps be understood that way, but not cruelty. Even if we are charitable and understand Baron-Cohen as saying that a lack of empathy is necessary, though not sufficient for cruelty, we are not really any wiser than before, for all it means really is that someone who is capable of hurting others badly usually doesn't give a shit about the other person and their interests and feelings, and that is not exactly news, is it? Baron-Cohen squanders any explanatory value that the concept of empathy, or lack thereof, might be thought to have by declaring that a mother who kills her two children, must "by definition" (111), at least while she commits the deed, lack empathy. So this doesn't get us any closer to understanding why she did it. And it might not even be true that you can only kill your children, or do other terrible things to people, when they and their feelings "don't exist" for you. I don't see why a parent, in desperation, should not kill their children and at the same time feel love for them and suffer immensely in response to their distress. Is this really impossible? So at best, "lack of empathy" doesn't explain anything, and at worst it is misleading.

Notwithstanding, in the very last section of the book Baron-Cohen even goes so far as to praise empathy as a kind of panacea, a "univeral solvent" (132). If we only had more of it, everything would be just fine. Peace on earth and all that. Sure, if people were nicer to each other and thought more about others than themselves, there would probably be less violent conflicts in the world. But unfortunately they aren't and Baron-Cohen does not tell us anything about how we might change that.

What I found most interesting (because it is relevant to the possibility and meaning of moral enhancement) is an experimental finding that Baron-Cohen only mentions in passing (57). Persons with damage to certain brain regions related to empathy are far more likely to judge it morally permissible to kill an innocent person in order to save the lives of others. In other words, the psychopath is the better utilitarian. Who would have thought?

No comments:

Post a Comment