Evil by any other name

Review of Simon Baron-Cohen’s The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty

Science of EvilIn his Acknowledgments, Baron-Cohen begins by saying, “This book isn’t for people with a sensitive disposition” (p. xi). It is a fair warning.

His first chapter is particularly distressing, with descriptions of numerous barbarities. If you need to be persuaded that human beings have provided many examples of man’s inhumanity to man besides those of the Nazi Holocaust, then read it all; otherwise you may prefer to skip some details.

Probably all of us can give examples of human behavior that we view as “evil,” but Baron-Simon suggests that by calling a behavior “evil” we tend to shunt it off into the moral domain rather than recognizing that evil behavior, like other behavior, can be studied scientifically and perhaps thereby become modifiable or preventable.

The key to understanding why people behave cruelly, according to Baron-Cohen, is empathy—and particularly deficits in empathy. To explain how “empathizing mechanisms” work,  Baron-Cohen takes readers on a tour of the “empathy circuit” in the brain.

Although he uses scientific language to identify parts of the brain that provide a neurological basis for empathy deficits, his book is not overly technical; it is accessible to the educated lay reader.

Baron-Cohen describes three types of personality disorder associated with deficits in empathy—psychopathic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. The development of each type of personality disorder is associated with some form of abuse, neglect, or rejection in childhood.

Although Baron-Cohen emphasizes the strong link between childhood maltreatment and empathy deficits, he also suggests that empathy can and should be developed, and concludes with the story of two men, a Palestinian and an Israeli, both of whom lost their sons in the Intifada. Together the two of them tour synagogues and mosques promoting the importance of empathy and raising funds for their charity, The Parents Circle – Families Forum for Israelis and Palestinians.

This is a very readable book despite the frequent references to brain structures and circuitry. The message is crucial: empathy is probably essential to human survival.

Kathie Malley-Morrison, Professor of Psychology

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18 Responses to Evil by any other name

  1. Gold Dust Twin says:

    This is an excellent, thought-provoking article. I understand better why my sister has been acutely paranoid all her adult life. We were both molested nightly by our father, but I was able to overcome this trauma and live more normally when I matured. The one big question I would ask my father, who died when I was 15: Did you think we’d just forget?

  2. Regina Amorello says:

    I am extremely intrigued by this book. The causes of “evil” are sought after frequently by psychologists and scientists alike. If we can pinpoint the cause, we can surely find the cure. This is never as simple as it seems. I have recently been reading about child killers after watching a movie called Boy A, which I strongly recommend. It is the story of a young man recently released from confinement with a new identity after murdering a girl when he was a child. The film, based on a novel of the same name by Jonathan Trigell, shows many similarities to the British case of two child killers, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, in the murder of 2 year old James Bulger. The movie continually begs the question, “Can people change?” The reason why child offenders are so fascinating is that they have relatively little exposure to the environment. The causes of their actions usually fall into 3 categories: brain wiring, bullying, or parental mistreatment. In the case of Venables and Thompson, there is no definitive evidence of abuse. The reasons for their callous act becomes even blurrier. I will definitely give the Baron-Cohen book a read, since it seems to fall in line with these aspects of crime that have been on my mind.

    • Sarah says:

      There WAS evidence of abuse in the case of Robert Thompson (he was physically and sexually abused). With regards to Venables, he was mostly neglected (his mother was once investigated by the police after leaving all her children alone for a long period of time). Both boys had parents with drink problems. Certainly Thompson’s family life was extremely traumatic (there were serious domestic violence issues between his parents) and there was constant exposure to criminality and casual violence (his father had been in prison and his brothers were known to police – one of them was investigated for allegedly interfering with young boys).

      I’m of the opinion that there may be biological factors which deem a person more susceptible to personality disorders but they are triggered by childhood risk factors such as abuse and neglect.

      • kathiemm says:

        Sarah, thank you so much for sharing this information concerning Thompson and Venabales. Do you have any additional recommendations for readers who are interested in learning more about the case?

    • Jodie Bowes says:

      Thank you Regina for sharing about the movie Boy A. I have never seen the movie but I did put it on my Netflix list to get. You said that the movie keep asking the question of can people change? You did not say if you believe that people can change. Myself, I believe that people can change. There is many people who have a criminal background and have changed their ways. Some examples of some people I know who have had a history of crime who have changed their ways in my area are some people who work at the local drug and alcohol. I had to take drug and alcohol classes and a few of the counselors there have been where many of us who took the class were but they made a change. Also at my local church that I go to the preacher used to be a drug dealer but he changed his life around. Myself, I am working on changing my ways. I have a felony but I choose to give up the life of crime and go to college and get a good job helping others. So yes I do believe that people can change. Do you believe that sometimes society makes it hard for a person to change their ways? I have heard so many times people talking down on people who have committed crimes or have been in jail, even in my classes I have heard this. Sometimes people make bad choices in life but it does not mean they are bad people or evil. An example of a person making a bad choice and could end up in prison is a person drinking and driving and accidently kills someone. That could happen to anyone who drinks and drives.

      • kathiemm says:

        thank you for an inspiring comment, Jodie. I too have known some people who made awesome changes in their lives–most typically by giving up alcohol or other drugs, but also because they somehow realized they had started down a road that looked nothing but scary.

  3. It is important work, helping ourselves and others cultivate empathy.

    EMPATHY CAFES. There is important work being done in S. Vermont, where therapist Wendy Webber, conducts “EMPATHY CAFES” for community groups, neighborhoods and others who are willing to explore the blocks to and benefits of Empathy. The work integrates lessons which Wendy has learned and integrated from non-violent communication, restorative justice work and her own personal and professional journeys. She received foundation support for this important grassroots initiative.

    • kathiemm says:

      Empathy Cafes!! I had never heard of them. What a wonderful idea.
      and leave it to Vermont to host that kind of activity. If it weren’t so cold up there, that is the state to which I would move.
      I certainly want to read more aboat Wendy Weber.
      thanks for the info.

    • Jodie Bowes says:

      Cheryl thank you for pointing out about Empathy Cafes. I have never heard of them before you mentioned it. After you mentioned the empathy cafes I looked them up on the internet and found out that there is also one in Manhattan, N. Y. I wonder if there are more states that have these empathy cafes then New York and Vermont. If not I wonder why more states does not have these? I also found a interesting website about empathy that some of you may find interesting, it is http://cultureofempathy.com/

  4. chari tsatsaroni says:

    This is a very thought-provoking review!
    I would be very interested in reading the book.
    Given my scientific interest in moral disengagement and engagement, I recently read a related article by Hyde, Shaw, and Moilanen (2010) about the developmental precursors of moral disengagement and the role of moral disengagement in the development of antisocial behavior. Their findings revealed that there is a possible pathway towards moral disengagement, in which the quality of early child-parent relationships contributes towards the development of empathy, which in turn influences the development of later moral disengagement. According to these findings, children with adverse experiences with their parents may develop low levels of empathy towards others during the transition to adolescence and, when combined with neighborhood risk, may develop a cognitively and affectively disengaged attitude towards society and others.

  5. Abram Trosky says:

    Thanks for this review, Kathie; glad to know this work is out there. Interesting that a scientist like Baron-Cohen does not shy away from using the word “evil” like other studies have because of its “othering” effect or ideological overtones. Acknowledgment of human cruelty and identification of its sources, both individual and social, strike me as crucial in marshaling the courage to address it as a problem.
    I remain interested in the question: if we can have this conviction individually, is it thinkable that a polity could do so collectively? Or should evil be off-limits, politically- speaking, because of historical (and recent) abuses of the concept, limited to the four categories in the UN Responsibility to Protect (Crimes against Humanity, etc)?
    Would love to see/do a review of Alan Wolfe’s “Political Evil” to this end but I know we have our own books to write 🙂

    • kathiemm says:

      Thanks for your comments, Abram. It does seem essential to recognize the human capacity for cruelty and try to figure out the roots and reinforcers of that capacity, as well as potential antidotes–and to do all those things without becoming immobilized by empathic pain and frustration. It would seem that the UN position on the Responsibility to Protect is indeed a good example of collective identification of evil; why might not other such doctrines evolve?
      Do we have any readers out there who would like to read Alan Wolfe’s Political Evil and write about it for this blog?

  6. Katie Geiger says:

    I think that it was very interesting to read the view point that evil behavior occurs because of a lack of empathy. I believe in science whole-heatedly so I great appreciated that Baron-Cohen utilized neurology to prove his point about a brain lacking empathy. This book, although sounding disturbing at times seems like an uplifting tale of how Israel and Palestinian people can come together to try and promote peace if empathy is developed.

  7. Kayla Procaccini says:

    The thought of empathy deficits being the main cause of evil actions is an extremely thought provoking concept. As the researchers continue to search for a common personality factor for different kinds of abusers, a lack of empathy seems to fit the mold for any type of child abuser, whether sexual, physical, or both. If empathy stems from the idea that one can feel another’s pain, wouldn’t an adult spare the pain of a child assuming that their sense of empathy is intact?
    While some child sex offenders are mentally ill, many of them are conscious of their actions, and knowingly classify themselves as pedophiles, or people who are sexually attracted to children. The question therein lies: Can people be pedophiles and not act upon their feelings? The answer to that question depends on the pedophile’s sense of empathy. If they understand the implications of abuse and how it can affect a child’s upbringing and even adult life, then acting upon their pedophilic thoughts might be seen as not worth the pain to the child. However, if their sense of empathy is skewed or deficient, their decision to act on the abuse may turn out differently, putting their sexual desires ahead of the long term pain of a child.
    According to a study in Family Violence in the United States by Denise A. Hines and Kathleen Malley-Morrison, approximtely 40% of child sex abuse perpetrators are the victim’s parents (112). What else besides an empathy deficient could compel a parent to sexually abuse someone as close to them such as their own child while most people would never even do it to a stranger? Lovelessness, selfishness, and power hunger are all factors that contribute to the personality of an abuser, but lack of empathy may lie at the root of all of those problems. Without empathy, you can’t completely love another person, you act only for your own benefit, and you hurt so that you can keep the upper hand.
    The last comment of the blog states, “empathy is probably crucial to human survival.” I could not agree with it more. Empathy makes people act selflessly, and is the main concept behind the “golden rule.” Without it, everyone would act simply to please themselves, which, in my opinion, would be the end of the world as we know it.

    • kathiemm says:

      Thanks for your comment on the book review of Simon Baron-Cohen’s book The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. He does make a convincing case for the importance of empathy as a barrier to human aggression, and the links you make to family violence are good ones.

  8. This review is very interesting and intriguing, it has really peaked my curiosity and I would love to read it. I do still wonder why only certain people grow up to be offenders when there are so many people that have had an unfortunate childhood. These problems would have to go beyond just empathy, because anyone who had a childhood that was far from desirable would have empathy deficits, so why wouldn’t they all have problems when they are older. I did an essay on Jeffrey Dahmer and the only thing that he stated about his childhood was that his mother and father fought a lot and that he was never going to get married and go through that. There are many, many kids that are subjected to fighting amongst their parents and they do not grow up to be serial killers. I just think there is way more to “evil” then just empathy, I believe it goes way beyond that.

    • kathiemm says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Staci. I think you have put your finger on one of the great puzzles: how can it be that there are as many people as there are who have been victimized during childhood yet turn out to be kind and caring adults? I think you would find it worthwhile to read the book. It may be that many victimized children are fortunate enough to find social support and caring from at least one person in their environments, and that having that one relationship allows them to develop empathy and to have a role model for caring behavior.

  9. Justine Vecchiarelli says:

    An example of behavior that many would label as ‘evil,’ and that is brought up in the post as a major source of empathy deficient disorders, is child maltreatment. However, as stated in the post, simply identifying a behavior as evil is not going to solve the problems that behavior causes. The underlying mechanism of evil behavior must be unearthed in order for such cruelty to be understood. While empathy is certainly a large factor in people committing atrocities against one another, there are many other factors that must be understood in order to formulate solutions to these problems, particularly in regard to child maltreatment as well as other forms of family violence. Another important factor in understanding, and therefore combating, child maltreatment is exploring cultural differences in differing contexts.
    Historically in Native American cultures, for example, children were revered, and childcare was a responsibility held in high esteem, and was shared amongst members of the community (Malley-Morrison & Hines, Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective, pg. 65). Their views on acceptable punishment also traditionally excluded any form of corporeal punishment, choosing instead to instill beliefs that supernatural beings were in charge of punishing wrong-doers (Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective, pg. 65). According to Cross et al, there was little or no evidence of corporeal punishment in Native American tribes before European domination (Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective, pg. 65). However, in the current state of affairs, rates of neglect and physical abuse have risen, with variability between tribes, and emerging evidence that the rates of abuse in Native Americans may be higher than the general population (Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective, pgs. 82-83). With such a drastic change emerging in a cultural with traditional beliefs opposing aggression, one must consider the impact that social changes have had on the current situation of Native American tribes. Many factors could be implicated, such as reduced quality of life, increased economic and health stressors, as well as racial factors.
    Other cultures suffering from similar burdens, which could be increasing the incidence of child maltreatment, are the African American and Hispanic communities. Both communities in America may suffer from racial discrimination, lower socioeconomic status, drug abuse, and other psychosocial stressors (Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective, pg. 121). In contrast to Native American tribes, however, African American families are more likely to endorse corporeal punishment (Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective, pg. 98), and thus, report higher frequencies of severe violence against children (Violence in a Cultural Perspective, pg. 110). Additionally, the Hispanic cultural value of Familism may be another risk factor for child maltreatment, in that it emphasizes the strength of the family unit, and may thus lead to reluctance of victims within a family to seek aid (Family Violence in a Cultural Context, pg. 151). Hispanic communities tend to be subject to the same economic and neighborhood stressors as African American communities (Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective, pgs. 168-169). When considered along with the fact that low socioeconomic status is linked to child abuse regardless of ethnicity, it is reasonable to link rates of low SES to rates of child maltreatment (Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective, pg. 168).
    Asian Americans also have cultural beliefs that could make families more prone to child maltreatment, such as the value of patriarchy, and the idea that suffering is “seen as a path to maturity and a stronger, better character” (Family Violence in a Cultural Context, pgs. 200-201). And even instances of child maltreatment, child physical abuse in particular, can vary greatly between different Asian American groups (Family Violence in a Cultural Context, pgs. 206-209). Thus further investigation even into more specific cultural subsets are necessary to really illuminate the reason behind child maltreatment.
    In all of these cultural contexts, there are differences in cultural beliefs overall, and these beliefs in turn alter what each culture perceives as ‘normal’ or acceptable treatment of children. As you can see, any transgressor is experiencing cognitions much more nuanced than a lack of empathy alone, and uncovering cultural beliefs and possible stressors play an important role in what parenting practices these cultures condone. By uncovering these pathways to child maltreatment, we can find routes to improve recovery from child maltreatment, improve and hone prevention programs, and consequently reduce the incidence of people growing up with a lack of empathy, thus leading to further acts of ‘evil’ on the large and small scale.

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