Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Studying evil with empathy

Jonathon Rosen reviews a new book:
“The Science of Evil,” by Simon Baron-Cohen, seems likely to antagonize the victims of evil, the parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, at least a few of the dozens of researchers whose work he cites — not to mention critics of his views on evolutionary psychology or of his claims about the neurobiology of the sexes. “The Science of Evil” proposes a simple but persuasive hypothesis for a new way to think about evil.

“My main goal is to understand human cruelty, replacing the unscientific term ‘evil’ with the scientific term ‘empathy,’ ” he writes at the beginning of the book, ...

Finally, zero empathy is not necessarily negative. In what he acknowledges is a controversial idea, he maintains “there is at least one way in which zero degrees can be positive.” Preparing for the howl of dissent, he adds: “It seems unthinkable, but bear with me.” People with Asperger’s syndrome also fall on the zero end of the scale, but they are Zero Positive. Zero Positive is almost always accompanied by high scores on the systemizing scale (and can lead to genius). In addition, the way “their brain processes information paradoxically leads them to be supermoral rather than immoral.”
This sounds like a dubious oversimplification. I wonder if he has any data to back up his theory. Some academics refuse to admit that there is any such thing as evil.

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