Simon Baron-Cohen is director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, and has been instrumental in showing that Autism is caused by a defect in the empathy system. Now, Baron-Cohen is seeking to banish evil by boosting empathy:
His proposal is that evil be understood as a lack of empathy — a condition he argues can be measured and monitored and is susceptible to education and treatment.
In the article, he talks about his lifelong quest to understand how the Nazis could have committed such atrocities against the Jews, and his conviction that a lack of empathy was the cause:
Baron-Cohen also sets out an “empathy spectrum” ranging from zero to six degrees of empathy, and an “empathy quotient” test, whose score puts people on various points along that spectrum.
Drawing a classic bell curve on a graph, Baron-Cohen says that thankfully, the vast majority of humans are in the middle of the bell curve spectrum, with a few particularly attuned and highly empathetic people at the top end.
Psychopaths, narcissists, and people with borderline personality disorder sit at the bottom end of the scale — these people have “zero degrees of empathy.”
This is quite remarkable coming from a guy who studies autism. Autistic people aren’t known for being evil. If you torment an autistic person, he might bite or pummel you and run away, but that’s just self-preservation. He’s not plotting to turn anyone into a lampshade. I’ve worked with plenty of people with Asperger’s, so I know that they can be deceptive, stubborn, and egotistical. But they are generally far more honest and less malicious than the average person.
Conversely, it seems that violent criminals have problems other than lack of empathy. Poor impulse control and hair-trigger insecurity come out near the top. And there are several other neural defects that have been clearly linked to violent sociopathic behavior which have nothing to do with empathy.
So, I’m not convinced. In my experience, a strong empathic system can help to inhibit sociopathic aggression. But the root cause of evil aggression is not a lack of empathy. And, more importantly, if the root causes of the aggression are strong enough, the empathic system will be overridden and enlisted in aid of the aggression.
Neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran discusses many of the neurological defects that underpin sociopathy in his new book “The Tell-Tale Brain“. He also discusses Simon Baron-Cohen’s research, and suggests his own novel technique for improving empathy and “curing” autism — he suggests giving recreational drugs to children!
A possibility—one that I suggested in an article for Scientific American that I coauthored with my graduate student Lindsay Oberman—would be to try certain drugs. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that MDMA (the party drug ecstasy) enhances empathy, which it may do by increasing the abundance of neurotransmitters called empathogens, which naturally occur in the brains of highly social creatures such as primates.
If administered sufficiently early, cocktails of such drugs might help tide over some early symptom manifestations enough to minimize the subsequent cascade of events that lead to the full spectrum of autistic symptoms.
Again, I’m not convinced. Baron-Cohen wants to “banish evil” by “boosting empathy”, and empathy can certainly be boosted by boosting empathogen levels, as Ramachandran says. Feeding mind-altering drugs to kids seems like a profoundly bad idea.
In any case, empathy can be used for evil as well as for good. Perhaps to be wicked requires a lack of empathy, but to be truly evil requires empathy.