Fresh, compelling analysis of the human capacity for cruelty, and how redefining evil in terms of empathy can reveal new psychological insights.
Baron-Cohen (Developmental Psychopathology/Univ. of Cambridge; The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain, 2003, etc.) has spent 30 years researching autism and its neurological relationship with empathy, defined as the ability to identify another's thoughts or feelings and respond appropriately. Historical examples of evil, such as Nazi torture, can be examined in light of this "empathy quotient,” and the author argues that everyone lies somewhere on the "empathy spectrum." Baron-Cohen explores the complex interplay between social and genetic factors that results in an individual having a high or low level of empathy. Low or zero levels can result in cruel or hurtful behavior, though not always; a variety of factors, including early-childhood parenting, affect individual behavior. The author suggests that modern psychiatry, which identifies "personality disorders" as borderline, narcissistic or psychopathic, can reconceptualize these categorizations by instead classifying them as examples of zero degrees of empathy. Doing so would encourage new social and scientific approaches to diagnosis and treatment options, and may have long-term effects on how societies treat affected individuals. Baron-Cohen raises and effectively parses tricky ethical and biological questions (Should a person with zero empathy serve prison time for a crime he doesn't understand was wrong? Is there an "empathy gene"?), backing up his arguments with scientific research. He also makes a point to declare his book an attempt to "restimulate discussion on the causes of evil by moving the debate out of the realm of religion and into the realm of science.” Biological and psychological factors, not religious belief, he argues, determine cruel behavior. Only by examining the roots of those factors can we begin to understand empathy, which he calls "the most valuable resource in our world.”
Baron-Cohen's theory is exhilarating in its implications.