Do you sigh for a world without evil? A place where criminals are conscience-stricken and altruistic folk of all nations sit down together to make peace?
Well, Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge, has an answer: Just boost humanity’s EQ, or empathy quotient.
Though a cousin of comedian Sacha (a.k.a. “Borat”), this Baron-Cohen isn’t kidding. In “Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty,” he seriously proposes that we ditch the word “evil” in favor of “empathy erosion,” a pernicious state of mind in which we lack any feelings for others and treat them as objects of our will.
Baron-Cohen specializes in developmental psychopathology. His theory, an offshoot of the protean discipline of neuroscience, is grounded in experiment, we are assured. In accessible language, he describes empathy circuits in the mind. He is enlightening about the workings of the “mirror system,” whereby humans and animals echo the acts and emotions of others -- why we sneeze when our fellow beings sneeze or feel pain when a pin pricks their skin.
Yet when psychopaths submit to brain scans, they register no emotion while viewing images of suffering. An unsurprising result, as are many others discussed here, such as the discovery that females score higher on EQ than males (who nonetheless have their uses, being on the whole more pragmatic, we’re told).
Zero empathy, we learn, can take three forms: borderline, narcissistic and psychopathic. These may interact in nasty and even criminal ways. Baron-Cohen calls such personality types “zero-negative,” though there are also “zero-positives,” including those with Asperger’s Syndrome or autism. While they may find it hard to interact socially, they can possess precise, exacting minds, capable of impressive feats of systematization.
Though all of this is instructive, the book can be maddening, especially when it turns an intriguing lesson in neuroscience into a Pollyanna recipe for improving the world. Education, the author laments, has ignored empathy. No it hasn’t: In many a modern school, mawkishly correct feelings have been instilled as a substitute for knowledge.
And what about people whose flamboyant empathy is in truth a form of self-gratification? What of pop stars who are keen on giving foreign aid to countries where the money ends up in the bank accounts of ministers almost as rich as the (occasionally tax-dodging) performers themselves?
More seriously, what happens when the notion of human responsibility for evil goes out of the window, along with the very concept of evil? In Baron-Cohen’s world, murderers, rapists and villainous statesmen lack empathy for genetic and environmental reasons.
The murderer came from a bad neighborhood and was abused as a child; his feelings are deadened, so what else can he do but kill? As for Adolf Hitler, he was of poor genetic stock, we must surmise, and grew up in an atmosphere of anti-Semitism. So naturally he exterminated six million Jews -- an act not of evil, but of someone with a deficient EQ, for which he wasn’t to blame, judging from Baron-Cohen’s logic.
“Empathy is a universal solvent,” capable of resolving even the Arab-Israeli dispute, says the professor. A sentiment that annoys me because it’s both indisputably true in theory yet fatuously -- maybe dangerously -- idealistic.
Is Baron-Cohen simply saying “all you need is love”? If so, I’m not convinced. Feelings can be fickle; what we often need is cool reflection. Can science itself be a touch autistic, one sometimes wonders -- smart as a bag of monkeys yet blind to the realities of the human condition?
We’ve seen universal solvents before. Marxism, many a scientist agreed, was impeccably scientific. Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, also had everything sorted out: For social class, substitute sex. And the dark science of eugenics was popular on the political left, notably in Sweden, well before the Fuhrer rose to power.
If that sounds cynical, so be it. When white-coated professors climb into the pulpit to preach a new science of feelings -- to usher in a brave new godless world in which no one is responsible for anything and all we need is to be nicer to one another -- it’s time to take cover.
“Zero Degrees of Empathy” is from Allen Lane in the U.K. (190 pages, 20 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(George Walden, a former U.K. education minister, diplomat and member of Parliament, is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)