Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review The Science of Evil: on Empathy and the Origins of Cruelity

    This book, by an author famous for his autism research, is an attempt to bring evil into the realm of the scientifically understandable by equating it with a type of deficiency in empathy.(pg. xii) I think, in the end, he fails. But I think the way he fails casts interesting light on the way we think about evil and the way we think about science.
He starts off describing instances of evil relating to the failure to take into account the human feelings of other treating them as objects to be used and disposed of. Then he goes on to tell a story of a Nazi guard forcing a man to help hang a friend. The guard is angry when the condemned man relives his friend's feeling and puts the noose on his own neck. Baron-Cohen attributes this to a lack of empathy. Now clearly in this case the evil guard is not unaware that the two men are thinking, feeling beings, he is not confused as to what their feelings in reaction to this situation are, he is not even ignoring their feelings. If he had been indifferent to their feelings there would be no reason for the guard to be angry. After all, the physical result, the noose around the condemned man’s neck, that he wanted had been accomplished. His anger only makes sense if his main goal was to inflict emotional distress, because that goal is what has been frustrated. This goal not only allows for but requires an awareness of the emotional capacity of the victims.
Baron-Cohen often focus on lack of awareness of or allowance for other people’s emotions as if this is the key indicator of a lack of empathy. In fact the first definition offered is “Empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double minded focus of attention.”(pg 15-16) But in some of his most striking examples of evil, such victims of third world civil wars being forces to assault or kill family members, considerable extra effort is being taken just so that deep emotional scars can be inflicted on these victims, in it obvious that a violent awareness of the other person's feelings is the prime target of these perpetrators. And Baron-Cohen’s second definition included a nod to an ‘appropriate’ response: “Empathy is our ability to identify what some else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feeling with an appropriate emotion.” (pg16) This sounds like the person’s interior emotional reaction is the standard by which empathy or lack thereof should be judged, but throughout the book it is outward actions by which appropriate empathy is actually judged. As Baron-Cohen is nearing the end of the book he states: “According to the theory I have been developing in this book, it is only individuals with low empathy... who could attach or kill another person.”(pg. 169) So complete empathy is not only understanding others emotions but acting appropriately in response to them.
But this leads to the question of how we define the “appropriate” inappropriate reaction to others emotions. It can’t be simply to always avoid causing negative reactions in others, even if a child has a negative emotional reaction to getting shots there are times it is appropriate to give the child a shot anyway. It can’t even be to avoid negative emotional reactions when it is consistent with the person’s physical well being. Consider the case where one child has physically hit another child and hurt him or her. You don’t just want the hitter to say apologetic words by rote, you want that apology to be sincere, to have real remorse behind it. You will use your words and attitude to try to make the hitter feel sadness at the other child’s pain. You always have to balance negative emotional reactions of one person with their own emotions later, with the emotions of others, with the rights to others too distant in place or time for their emotions to be felt, even with your own emotional reactions. Thought there are incidences throughout the book of inappropriate reactions mentioned in passing they are not addressed directly nor are parameters for appropriate defined. So this “appropriate” reaction seems to stay in the realm of philosophy and ethics, An important part, in fact the pivotal part, to this new definition that is supposed to replace evil still slips beyond the measurable and the scientific.
    So why is Baron-Cohen so interested in trying to cram evil into the purview of science? On page 109 he gives this definition: “Truth is (pure and simply) repeatable, verifiable patterns.” This is a very good definition of what can be known scientifically. But look what this definition leaves out. anything that is truly unique is denied existence. Anything that can’t or won’t submit to a verification process not only can’t be known but can’t be True. In fact I’m not sure that part of emotion we actually experience is allowed to exist under this definition. After all, it is the physiological reactions and observable behaviors that can form verifiable patterns, the interior experience of having a feeling is reserved to the individual. There are many metaphysical categories that science has trouble finding traction in. And perhaps that is why Baron-Cohen call evil a non-explanation. (pg. 6) In the end Baron-Cohen is not able to take the uncertainties that come with our emotional judgment out of our inquiry into evil. But it is a noble attempt and provides much food for thought, about both empathy and evil.

This review is based on the hardcover edition.

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