Among the Intellectualoids

The End of Evil

It is now called empathy deficiency, and it's treatable.

By 5.5.11

Send to Kindle

In Waterloo, Illinois a man stands accused of strangling to death his wife and two small children. The accused, Chris Coleman, worked as a bodyguard for the televangelist Joyce Meyer. After work, he was diddling his wife's best friend. Prosecutors say rather than filing for divorce and risk losing his job, Coleman murdered his wife and two sons.

Entered into evidence was a selection of animal strangulation videos Coleman enjoyed watching. (I suppose the "Tootin' Bathtub Baby Cousins" YouTube sensation just didn't do it for him anymore.)

For an expert witness, the defense could do worse than recruit Simon Baron-Cohen, author of Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty. While the casual observer would insist that Chris Coleman is merely evil, Baron-Cohen would contend that the sick videos prove Coleman suffers from a disability, i.e., a severe lack of empathy. Naturally, a man with "eroded empathy" cannot be found guilty of homicide. He may, however, be treated. Perhaps with a combination of hormone injections, gene therapy, and counseling.

In fact, Baron-Cohen would like us to do away with the concept of evil altogether.

The Cambridge don finds the whole idea of evil unhelpful. What's more, it is simplistic and unscientific. It smacks of the Bible and ancient superstitions. And it tells us nothing. Why is one evil? Again, it comes down to the inability to empathize or to identify with others.

To this end, Baron-Cohen has devised six degrees of empathy. His empathy spectrum would award a six to someone like Bill Clinton, who claimed to be able to feel the pain of an entire nation, and a zero to the husband who honestly answers his wife's query about whether her jeans makes her butt look big. At the peak of the bell curve stands your Average Empathy Joe who tears up at Schindler's List, but remains dry-eyed if not slightly nauseous during the Titanic.

Baron-Cohen has also devised a questionnaire to test our empathy quotient (EQ). Shockingly, I scored at the lower end (31 out of 80), which means either I am a fervent individualist or a menace to society.

BARON-COHEN BEGAN his research trying to "understand the Holocaust." In the main, he agrees with Hannah Arendt's idea about the Banality of Evil (though he would object to the term evil). Arendt found the Nazis to be bland, passionless bureaucrats, who were unable to empathize with their victims. She noted that Germans traditionally had been taught to embrace conformity and unquestioningly follow orders. ("I was just following orders," was the war criminal's standard defense.) However, both Baron-Cohen and Arendt give short shrift to the German's deep ingrained feeling of national superiority, his bitter resentment, his desire for revenge, his anti-Semitism, and the perceived rightness of his actions. Combined these made for a thick stew that fed the flames of the Holocaust. (Actually, the real lesson to be learned from the Holocaust is not that your average German lacked empathy, but rather that he should have been more distrustful of government and his political leaders.)

Baron-Cohen fingers our hormones, genes, and neglectful mothers as causes for empathy deficiency. One example: his research indicates the more testosterone you are exposed to in the womb, the less empathy you will have. (I suppose that explains the Bitch of Belsen. She had too much testosterone, poor dear.)

Naturally, if the problem is largely genetic and hormonal, as Baron-Cohen argues, it can be eradicated through gene/hormone therapy, thus setting the stage for an edenic future where Israelis and Palestinians group hug and your co-workers do not steal your bologna sandwiches from the lunchroom fridge.

Baron-Cohen's agenda is plain. Close the prisons and admit criminals to hospitals where ObamaCare can work its magic. After all, "no one is responsible for his own genes." (Now that we have done away with the concepts of evil and personal responsibility, anything else we can get rid of?)

Just one problem. What we have traditionally identified as evil is not a lack of empathy, but its opposite: the ability to keenly imagine your victim's pain, and relishing in it. I imagine Osama bin Laden understood pretty well what those Americans in the World Trade Center would go through. That was the whole point. Fortunately America didn't swallow Baron-Cohen's snake oil and sic headshrinkers on the Al Qaeda leader. Fortunately we sent in the Navy SEALS.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.