Are Autistic People Evil?

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.

9 thoughts on “Are Autistic People Evil?”

  1. Maybe it isn’t only the lack of empathy, but the lack of empathy in other wise mentally “normal” people.

    A person with autism is surrounded by people who know that he/she is autistic, and while they can certainly act out and harm people around them, the people around them recognize that much of the behavior may be out of that person’s control.

    The truly evil seem to lack empathy while also being controlling, dominating people.

  2. So I have to ask: have you ever read M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie? Peck’s books probably qualify more as “pop psych” than as actual scholarship, but his own analysis of evil is that it’s essentially malignant narcissism (his phrase). He argues (or argued, since the man has left this plane of existence) that evil could and should be considered a clinical condition, although much of his book is devoted to outlining the dangers of using a term like “evil” in a clinical context.

    I doubt that Peck would agree with any sort of close association between evil and autism. He might, at best, see “lack of empathy” as more of a coincidental resemblance than as evidence of any sort of connection between the two states.

    For my part, I find it ridiculous to accuse — however obliquely — the entire German population of suffering from a form of autism (am I reading you right? I this what Baron-Cohen is suggesting?). I tend to see the issue in terms of free will, and view the German population as largely morally complicit in what happened to the Jews in Europe during World War II.

    Simon Baron-Cohen isn’t related to Sacha Baron Cohen (no hyphen), by any chance, is he?

  3. Simon Baron Cohen is related to Borat, yes…
    There’s a lot of misunderstanding about empathy and the autistic spectrum. Those people have trouble reading people and picking up non-verbal cues, it isn’t a question of not feeling other people’s pain. There’s in fact something called the intense world theory that states that the problem with many autistic people is that they are overwhelmed by the pain and problems of others. The people with the empathy trouble here are the psychopaths. Interestingly there have been studies done that the level of empathy in people has declined greatly in this social Darwinist neoliberal age. They’re really building a New Man aren’t they! A monster, really.

  4. @Terri – It would be interesting to see if there is a major difference in outcomes between people with Aspergers who are diagnosed as children (so all of their caregivers know it), and those who only find out later. In other words, if the parents didn’t know, will the kids turn out to be more “evil”? It seems at least conceivable.

    @Kevin – Yes, I actually own “People of the Lie” and thought it was pretty good. Simon Baron-Cohen does indeed have the same general belief that careful training can fix the underlying causes of evil. I read it about 20-30 years ago, the same month I read Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”, which also reflected on the source of Nazi evil. I agree with your assessment that Peck probably wouldn’t endorse the autism link. Speaking of Borat, I don’t know of any close relationship, but most living Cohens are genetically related through a gene that tracks back roughly to the Biblical Aaron.

    @RR – I hadn’t heard of the Intense World theory, but that’s basically what I was getting at with my “Cauterize Your Empathy” post. It seems fairly plausible to me, particularly based on my personal experience growing up. However, I think the oversensitivity gets cauterized, leading to permanent neurological change, early on.

    Maybe we could look at brain autopsies of executed psycopathic killers and see if there is a reduction in mirror neurons.

  5. I read something a while ago trying to make a distinction between sociopaths and psychopaths. It went something like this:

    Sociopaths are poor personal empathy managers due in part to environmental stuff. Not well trained in terms of dealing with feelings. They can actually feel close and protective toward in-group individuals and may not hurt people they are attached to. Psychopaths, however, are like professional empathy managers. They can use any and all emotional states and information for their personal goals.

    So, in a sense, I think I’d agree with you that evil (deliberate, willful) needs empathy. It needs to know how it is making another feel. But if by wicked you mean evil (in the ignorant sense), then yes, lack of empathy or empathic awareness creates the problem.

    Reserving judgment does seem the best course so far. Ramachandran, for one, is an inspiring scientist but not necessarily qualified for laying down public policy. 🙂

  6. Labeling an autistic person as evil because they have trouble understanding others is like labeling a blind person evil because they can’t see others.

    The entire premise of the book is wrong. Consider a newborn baby. The baby does not have empathy, so is the baby evil? Of course not. True evil is knowing what hurts people and doing it anyway. It is ridiculous to argue that Nazis were somehow impaired in the compassion department. They chose evil and chose evil until their consciences were completely dead. In truth, the biggest bullies are the ones most aware of how they affect others. They pick on the weakest because they enjoy watching them suffer. Those who give no reaction don’t get picked on–because the whole point is to make someone feel bad. The person with the most empathy is the person with the highest capacity for good or evil. We make our own choices.

  7. For some reason, I’m not getting e-mail notifications of comments. Interesting post and comments over at your blog.

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