I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Jonathan Haidt on righteousness: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. I’d have finished it by now and started blogging about it if he hadn’t derailed me by mentioning the ideas of Simon Baron-Cohen – no, not Sacha, his cousin, though Simon’s book has clear implications for dictators.
So then what happened? Well, I had a book token burning a hole in my wallet and ten minutes to spare when I found myself three hundred yards from a Waterstones. Among the shelves I always gravitate towards are those that hold books on ‘Popular Science.’ Almost immediately, like iron filings to a magnet, my eyes were draw to a thin volume with an unobtrusive white cover called Zero Degrees of Empathy. Why did it catch my eye so fast when it was so relatively tiny and colourless?
An Irresistible Attraction
Basically because the taster I found in Haidt’s book made it all but irresistible. He writes (page 116):
According to one of the leading autism researchers, Simon Baron-Cohen, there are in fact two spectra, two dimensions on which we can place each person: empathizing and systemizing. Empathizing is “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion.”
. . . . . Systemizing is “the drive to analyse the variables in a system, to derive the underlying rules that govern the behaviour of the system.” If you are good at reading maps and instruction manuals, or if you enjoy figuring out how machines work, you are probably above average on systemizing.
This blog is crowded with my attempts to address the issue of compassion and empathy (see links below for some posts).
When he threw in, as a further temptation, references to Kant and Bentham, I was lost (ibid):
The two leading ethical theories in Western philosophy were founded by men who were as high as could be on systemizing, and were rather low on empathizing.
Even so, I probably didn’t realise just how compelling a read Baron-Cohen’s book would be. Even before I got a sense of his position in detail he had me hooked.
He opens his first chapter on the first page with his father telling him, when he was seven years old, that ‘the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades.’ I was two years old when the war ended and my childhood was overshadowed with tales of the death camps. Here was a book that was addressing, yet again, the issues that have haunted me since infancy. My nightmares were of being chased by the Gestapo.
Then, his basic thesis resonated so closely to the idea in the Bahá’í Faith that evil is the absence of something rather than a positive force in itself. He aims, he writes, (page 6):
. . .to explain how people can be cruel to each other not out of evil but because of empathy erosion.
The closeness of the parallel is clear if we look at a typical statement from the Bahá’í perspective on this issue:
The epitome of this discourse is that it is possible that one thing in relation to another may be evil, and at the same time within the limits of its proper being it may not be evil. Then it is proved that there is no evil in existence; all that God created He created good. This evil is nothingness; so death is the absence of life. When man no longer receives life, he dies. Darkness is the absence of light: when there is no light, there is darkness. Light is an existing thing, but darkness is nonexistent. Wealth is an existing thing, but poverty is nonexisting.
Then it is evident that all evils return to nonexistence. Good exists; evil is nonexistent.
Aspects of Empathy
Secondly, his definition of empathy is a rich one that avoids the possibility of anyone’s using an understanding of the other person the better to take advantage of them (page 11):
Empathy therefore requires not only that you can identify another’s person’s feelings and thoughts, but that you respond to these with an appropriate emotion.
It is also a dimension and not simply either absent or present. We are also talking about a trait of character here, rather than the transient though powerful states that Philip Zimbardo explores in his brilliant book The Lucifer Effect.
He goes on to examine the roots of empathy in brain functioning as well as the fruits of recent research that is seeking to locate possibly genetic mechanisms. He is clear however that genes and environment interact to produce the effects upon the brain that lead to a person with an empathy depletion.
Those sections of the book may not appeal strongly to the non-specialist. His skill at conveying what zero empathy feels like and results in will appeal to almost everyone, though there are some shocking examples of cruelty on the way. He does not flinch at briefly depicting some of the horror of the concentration camps for instance or the unfeeling and sometimes extreme cruelty of damaged individuals.
Early in the book there is a fine depiction of the zero empathy mind state (page 19):
It leaves you feeling mystified by why relationships don’t work out, and it creates a deep-seated self-centredness. Other people’s thoughts and feelings are just off your radar. It leaves you doomed to do your own thing, in your own little bubble, not just oblivious of other people’s feelings and thoughts but oblivious to the idea that there might even be other points of view. The consequence is that you believe 100 per cent in the rightness of your own ideas and beliefs, and judge anyone who does not hold your beliefs as wrong, or stupid.
As illustrations he examines in some detail three negative forms of zero empathy: Borderline, Psychopath and Narcissist before surprising us with the possibility that there could be a positive form of it: the extreme systematiser with a degree of Asperger Syndrome (page 65). He gives us absorbing case examples before asking the crucial question (page 83): “Where would we be without zero positive?’
Arguably we would not have as much (perhaps any) technological innovation and we would still be pre-industrial and pre-scientific.
He also contends that, while the Zero Empathy Positive’s lack of feeling for others may lead to unintended harm, they have a powerful route of their own to a strong moral sense (page 84):
. . . despite their low levels of empathy, this group of individuals do not for the most part act in cruel ways towards others. . . . That is because, even though most people may develop their moral code via empathy, these individuals have developed their moral code through systematising. They have a strong desire to live by rules and expect others to do the same, for reasons of fairness.
His Last Word on the Matter
His basic position, as summarised in the final chapter is (page 103):
. . . empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world.
He sees the situation as a stark choice (page 125):
Without empathy we risk the breakdown of relationships, we become capable of hurting others, and we can cause conflict. With empathy we have a resource to resolve conflict, increase community cohesion, and dissolve another person’s pain.
All in all, though relatively short at a slender 190 pages, this book is a richly rewarding read, especially for those who, like me, seek a deeper understanding of the nature of human evil.