Empathy

June 22, 2011

Another day, another book that the reviews and press reports make me want to comment on even though I haven’t had time to read it (yet…)

Simon Baron Cohen, a cousin of the Borat Baron Cohen, is a psychologist known for his research on autism. Years ago I was impressed by an article I read by him – NY Times I think, an op-ed or else something in the Tuesday science section – in which he depicted the autism spectrum as an extreme development of that preference for systematic thinking over empathy which tends to distinguish men from women. An “extreme male mind.” As one of the many who would rather read a map than ask for directions, of course I found this quite interesting, and made a mental note of his name if only so as to recognize it whenever it popped up again.

Well, this week it’s been popping up quite a bit in connection with his new book The Science of Evil: On empathy and the origins of human cruelty. (Original U.K. title:  Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty.) Psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists and the like, he says, all lack the ability to empathize, to recognize and share the feelings of others – but unlike people on the autism spectrum, they also lack the somewhat compensatory ability to observe patterns and follow rules strictly, and so are a total menace to those around them. He calls them “Zero-Negatives.”

I’m not so sure. There’s something to it, no doubt, but I agree with the observation made already by several critics of the book, that the people who commit really sadistic acts don’t seem at all unaware that their victims are in pain. The whole point of it is that they enjoy seeing people in pain. – I do not use the word “evil” much, I am not a very moralistic sort of person, but if I had to define something that I considered quintessentially “evil” it would be malice – the unprovoked desire to hurt and destroy for the sheer pleasure of it. And where does that come from? The cluelessness of autism can’t explain it, it seems to be something else entirely…

– Baron Cohen himself, defining empathy in an earlier book The Essential Difference (which I also haven’t read but I found the quote on Wikipedia), distinguishes a cognitive and an affective component to empathy: “understanding the others [sic] feelings and the ability to take their perspective,” contrasted with an “appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotional state.” But even this can be broken down further: “understanding” and “taking their perspective” are two very different things…

I don’t consider myself particularly “empathetic” in the sense of actually sharing others’ pain, nor do I feel a need to. I can try to imagine how I would feel in another person’s situation, but I have no confidence that the result of the exercise is really what the other person is feeling; and all my life I’ve had people claiming to know what I was feeling when in fact they were quite mistaken, which has led me to believe very strongly that no one really knows what it feels like to be another person. But I can recognize others’ pain, even if I haven’t a clue what’s causing it, and I generally would like to end it if I can. Because I tend to like people, and I especially like being around happy non-suffering people. That’s just me.

I think Baron Cohen is correct in his claim that a “theory of mind” is essential to normal development – i.e. a recognition that inside the heads of all these other organisms that look more or less like ourselves, there is probably something going on which is analogous to what is going on inside our own heads. But it seems to me that a further step is needed to produce reliably good behavior, and that is a recognition – whether we get to it more by cognitive or by affective means – that we and those around us are at some level on the same side. Ideally, we extend this recognition to all humankind; in the more limited case, we get those perfectly good citizens who will readily commit atrocities against whomever they’ve been taught to regard as an “enemy” or “not fully human…”


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2 Responses to “Empathy”

  1. D. Ramsey Says:

    You say that you are not empathetic to others as much as you can determine their perspective. I might be beating a dead cat here, but does the potential of the mind not intriuge you to think that there might be a way to ‘step into ones shoes’ so to speak?

    • allogenes Says:

      Indeed, there may be a way to do it not just “so to speak,” but literally. I am an avid reader of science fiction and have always been intrigued by stories of mind-melding, computer-assisted telepathy and the like. I’ve even tried writing one myself. But I have no idea how to go about actually doing that sort of thing.


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