I wanted to write a response to this NY Times review of Simon Baron-Cohen's book "The Science of Evil," but I already expressed most of my outrage about the book and it's theory that a lack of empathy is the root of all evil here. Today, however, there was an interesting response to both Baron-Cohen's book and Jon Ronson's "The Psychopath Test" by Yale professor of Psychology Paul Bloom, again in the NY Times. Under the title "I'm Ok, You're a Psychopath":
For Baron-Cohen, evil is nothing more than “empathy erosion.”Bloom goes on to criticize Baron-Cohen's theory by pointing out that everyone can suffer from a lack of empathy due to circumstances or sometimes through choice. Unfortunately Bloom does not then take the final step of questioning whether a lack of empathy should actually be the scientific definition of "evil," as Baron-Cohen advocates, but instead makes a nod to the I-hate-sociopaths camp, quoting: "'Why should we care about psychopaths? They don’t care about us.'" At least people are starting to think twice before drinking the Hare et al. Kool-Aid of fear-mongering.
Now, one might lack empathy for temporary reasons — you can be enraged or drunk, for instance — but Baron-Cohen is most interested in lack of empathy as an enduring trait.
For Baron-Cohen, psychopaths are just one population lacking in empathy. There are also narcissists, who care only about themselves, and borderlines — individuals cursed with impulsivity, an inability to control their anger and an extreme fear of abandonment. Baron-Cohen calls these three groups “Zero-Negative” because there is “nothing positive to recommend them” and they are “unequivocally bad for the sufferer and those around them.” He provides a thoughtful discussion of the usual sad tangle of bad genes and bad environments that lead to the creation of these Zero-Negative individuals.
People with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, Baron-Cohen argues, are also empathy-deficient, though he calls them “Zero-Positive.” They differ from psychopaths and the like because they possess a special gift for systemizing; they can “set aside the temporal dimension in order to see — in stark relief — the eternal repeating patterns in nature.” This capacity, he says, can lead to special abilities in domains like music, science and art. More controversially, he suggests, this systemizing impulse provides an alternative route for the development of a moral code — a strong desire to follow the rules and ensure they are applied fairly. Such individuals can thereby be moral without empathy, “through brute logic alone.”
This is an intriguing proposal, but Baron-Cohen doesn’t fully elaborate on it, much less address certain obvious objections. For one thing, if people with autism can use logic to be good without empathy, why can’t smart psychopaths do the same? And what about the many low-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum who lack special savant gifts and don’t spontaneously create moral codes? On Baron-Cohen’s analysis, they would be Zero-Negative. But this doesn’t seem right. Such individuals might be awkward or insensitive, but they are not actively malicious; they are much more likely to be the targets of cruelty than the perpetrators.
I think there’s a better approach, one that involves breaking empathy into two parts, understanding and feeling, as Baron-Cohen himself does elsewhere in his book. Individuals with autism are unable to understand the mental lives of other people. Psychopaths, by contrast, get into others’ heads just fine; they are seducers, manipulators, con men . . . and often worse. . . . The problem with psychopaths lies in their lack of compassion, their willingness to destroy lives out of self-interest, malice or even boredom.