Thursday, May 05, 2011

Can you "banish evil?"

Glenn linked to an interesting article about the work of Simon Baron-Cohen (Sasha's cousin) and his work on empathy:

As a scientist seeking to understand random acts of violence, from street brawls to psychopathic killings to genocide, he has puzzled for decades over what prompts such acts of human cruelty. And he's decided that evil is not good enough.

"I'm not satisfied with the term 'evil'," says the Cambridge University psychology and psychiatry professor, one of the world's top experts in autism and developmental psychopathology.

In the book, entitled "Zero Degrees of Empathy" in Britain, and "The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty" in the United States, where it comes out in July, Baron-Cohen seeks to pick apart and define components of empathy -- including hormones, genes, environment, nurture, and early childhood experiences.

Citing decades of scientific research, he says there are at least 10 regions of the brain which make up what he calls the "empathy circuit". When people hurt others, either systematically or fleetingly, parts of that circuit are malfunctioning.

Baron-Cohen argues that this lack of empathy can be monitored and treated. Maybe, but I have a number of questions about assuming that everyone has some deep buried empathy that can be brought out. I don't think they do.

How would a person be monitored and treated? How is empathy to be defined? Remember that some psychologists and psychiatrists feel that it is okay to medicate inmates and others for having racist thoughts with anti-psychotic drugs. What else could they do? How would this fit into one's political beliefs? Those on the left often see themselves as "empathetic" but they might be using "empathy" as a synonym for leftist thought. Since the majority of those in the mental health field are leftists, how would this play out? Would Republicans who "lack empathy" in their eyes need to be monitored and treated?

Yes, it would be great if we could get psychopaths and narcissists to have some empathy for others, but at what cost?


Blogger Doom said...

Several questions immediately pop into my mind regarding what is in your article. Even if evil could be said to be a lack of personal empathy, how can that be construed when it is nearly society wide, such as what happened in many communist and socialist governments? Can a whole region become psychotic through propaganda?

My other notion is, do liberals realize that if they concede to forced medication of "racists" (and are blacks who hate whites considered racist, as often I hear that it is not possible for a minority to be racist since they supposedly do not have the means to function on it, or some such drivel), do they realize that eventually they will be medicated by force for whatever the next generation of psychologists and psychiatrists deem unacceptable?

Then again, evil, and I consider liberalism a form of evil, is self-destructive. Hitler, at the end, wanted to flood the bomb shelters of Berlin. Many of his plans are clearly seen as either insane or evil and a means of killing as many Germans and ensuring the loss of the war, such as opening two fronts in the war.

Psychiatrists who are liberal would have fit well in Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, and many other places in the world. They would be willing to use force to their ends, which in their minds is helping people. But isn't that the way of those leaders of which I speak? I am not doing this the service a true master of rhetoric could, but I think the seeds are there for thought.

5:23 PM, May 05, 2011  
Blogger HMT said...

If his science is sound then his theory will set out an actual testable hypothesis. He (and hopefully others) will collect data and test the hypothesis and maybe something useful in the treatment or identification of psychopaths.

If he puts forth no testable hypothesis then he's not dealing in science and his book belongs on the shelf next to books on crystals, pyramids and UFOs.

5:37 PM, May 05, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Right. I agree.

But he may have a hefty influence on the non-thinking part of the crowd, and that's sometimes what matters in society.

5:49 PM, May 05, 2011  
Blogger BobH said...

In his book "Evil", Roy Baumeister makes the distinction between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is the ability to "guess" what other people are thinking and how they will react. Sympathy is the empathy plus the emotional connection with those other people. An empathetic person with no emotional connection is an absolute nightmare to a society. (The phrase "high functioning sociopath" comes to mind.) I wonder if Baron-Cohen is using the word empathy to describe Baumeister's sympathy.

The longer I live, the more convinced I am that the quest for social dominance is an extremely strong drive in humans. We are, after all, very social creatures. However, social dominance has two components (1) being able to manipulate and control others and (2) being able to resist manipulation and control by others. There is a constant war between groups emphasizing one component over the other, but the second group is far pleasanter to have around. Helen, it appears that you put "leftists" in the first group.

6:05 PM, May 05, 2011  
Blogger Zorro said...


Interesting that you latched onto Baumeister. I became a fan of his ten years ago when I was reading his work on self-regulation (he and Diane Tice are the field leaders in self-regulation).

I recently got his book "Is there anything good about men?" and it looks pretty interesting.

I swear, the gender BS in this country will be the end of us all.

6:34 PM, May 05, 2011  
Blogger Eneils Bailey said...

"Since the majority of those in the mental health field are leftists, how would this play out? Would Republicans who "lack empathy" in their eyes need to be monitored and treated?"

I see the effects of this playing out in the broader general political arena as the left constantly, with their personal conception of conservatives as primitive, evil, not-so-smart racists. Then the left responds to their own preconceived image of the conservatives with vile, over-the-top, personal attacks that are more evil than their conception of the conservatives.
Hope this is not too vague; I am a career computer weenie with nothing more than a passing association with the medical profession.
And I have also been telling people for decades that practically all the psychologists and psychiatrists I have been acquainted with have been far left liberals. Most people, even the smart ones always pooh-poohed me as being out of touch.

9:55 PM, May 05, 2011  
Blogger Unknown said...

And, to carry forced empathy way over into nightmare country... I wish I could remember the scifi where a mind reading helmet was invented.

A serial killer got one and made his victims wear the receiver as he broadcast his killing them.

Anyone recall the title?

10:48 PM, May 05, 2011  
Blogger Dunkelzahn4prez said...

Oligonicella said...
And, to carry forced empathy way over into nightmare country... I wish I could remember the scifi where a mind reading helmet was invented.

A serial killer got one and made his victims wear the receiver as he broadcast his killing them.

Anyone recall the title?

I believe that was in the movie Strange Days.

11:10 PM, May 05, 2011  
Blogger Unknown said...

dunkelzahn4prez - Yes indeed. I just ordered it. Thanks.

11:33 PM, May 05, 2011  
Blogger Bill Dalasio said...

I'm more than a little uncomfortable with Baron-Cohen's equation of evil with a lack of empathy. At the end of the day, it relegates right and wrong, good and evil, to the realm of feelings. But, feelings aren't a substitute for justice. Feelings don't replace moral discernment. Often, what is good, what is right, is brutal (consider Osama bin Laden's treatment at the hands of the Navy SEALs). Likewise, the standard of empathy seems ripe to develop an "ends justify the means" standard of morality, where people can get away with anything as long as they do it because they care.

8:06 AM, May 06, 2011  
Blogger DADvocate said...

Reminds me of the old attempts to type criminals by physical characteristics and YYX genes. There may be tendencies, but far short of solid predictors.

Basically, you have another scientist trying to play God.

10:46 AM, May 06, 2011  
Blogger Dr.Alistair said...

crystals, pyramids and UFOs?

my work is in nlp and hypnosis; for which there is no scientific proof, yet people get subjectively better...and i`m ok with that.

regarding banishing evil, i think evil is mostly situational, and those who are of evil intent show their colours, if you are paying attention.

again, not science but observation.

and to shed some light on my point, hitler couldn`t have been a psychopathic dictator without the backdrop of european economies, g.h.farben and people ignoring the signals of his intentions. after 1936 in spain it was clear he was an up-and-comer who couldn`t be trusted...and charles manson would have been nothing without drugs, hippies and access to millionaires who liked to party hard.

12:04 PM, May 06, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Dr." Alistair sez: " ... my work is in nlp and hypnosis; for which there is no scientific proof, yet people get subjectively better...and i`m ok with that ..."


Cool, Dude. In a thousand years, your name will ring out.


Ego big, contribution small.

4:04 PM, May 06, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the way, Doctor Alistair, what did you get your doctorate in?


4:07 PM, May 06, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The world is unfair, Installment 57:

People in physics, molecular biology, electrical engineering, or computer science get their doctorate - which is an absolute bitch - and they contribute an unbelievable amount to society, maybe you get it when you talk on your cell phone or type on your computer. And sometimes they don't even mention it. I've experienced working with someone and only after years knowing that he had post-doctoral credentials. Just for fun.

And then there are the people in the soft sciences, social work, sociology, psychology, whatever. Dr. Phil is going to tell you all you need to know, so just collapse in reverence to him. These people are inordinately proud of their Ph.Ds, although they are pretty easy to knock off. Dr. Phil. Dr. Laura. Dr. Whatever.

And then, right at the bottom, are people who try to impress others that they are Dr. so-and-so, but they have no doctorate degree, not even in the easy area in the second paragraph. And speaking of that ...

... what is your doctorate in, Doctor Alistair?

4:19 PM, May 06, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Good Doctor is nowhere to be found.

4:22 PM, May 06, 2011  
Blogger Dr.Alistair said...

wow, jg didn`t remove three or four comments in a row this time.

we have been discussing my work in supporting people in times of crisis, much like a psychologist, psychiatrist or a hundred different disciplines...but you see no validity in any of them so there is no point answering your pointed attack.

i did laugh though.

i would hazzard a guess that my wife wouldn`t see the humour in your position. she`s a phd in psychology who works with kids on the street with no family, friends or life other than provided through her agency.

physicists, engineers, and so on can`t do that. or won`t. they need proof a child is torn up in side or that a mother is so messed up on crack that she leaves her children on the bus....and that`s funny in a sort of tucker max sort of way isn`t it? it`s their fault they don`t have a job or are addicted or were born to parents who are in jail or are dead.

my wife and i, who had our first anniversary yesterday, do similar work in many ways providing guidance, support and real methods of change. i learn from her and she learns from me....and we get things done. invisible things...unless you are strong enough to look into the eyes of child when he or she is in such horrible pain that it`s eventially going to kill him.

no, in your view there has to be proof first.
good luck with that. and no more personal attacks ok? i don`t like it.

4:34 PM, May 06, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what is your doctorate in, Doctor Alistair?

All of your extraneous bullshit aside.

4:35 PM, May 06, 2011  
Blogger Dr.Alistair said...

divinity, something you clearly lack.

begin ridicule now. to yourself.

4:41 PM, May 06, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:44 PM, May 06, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:07 PM, May 06, 2011  
Blogger jabrwok said...

Just read a review of this book by Theodore Dalrymple:

10:56 PM, May 06, 2011  
Blogger TMink said...

Happy anniversary Dr. Many more to come!

I had a professor named Les who was trained in nlp. He was also a student of Beck, the Rorschach guy. He could tell you a person's life from two or three Rorschach responses. It was like watching magic.

We had a little dog and pony show for awhile where I would administer a Rorschach and give the audience full background info while I only gave Les the age of the person and the Rorschach responses.

The audience would sit slack jawed while Les evaluated the responses and began to describe the individual. It was uncanny. One time I was out to fool him and gave him a protocol from a person at the VA who was halfway through a sex change operation.

Three responses in, Les looked up and said "You know, it is as if this person does not know if they are a man or a woman."

Just amazing. The thing was, Les could not tell you how he did what he did! Well, he could, but it would take him an hour to describe and explain what he processed in a minute.

Anyway, happy anniversary!


6:16 AM, May 07, 2011  
Blogger Dunkelzahn4prez said...

The Alliance government already tried this on planet Miranda with G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate. Didn't turn out so well.

6:49 PM, May 07, 2011  
Blogger kmg said...


You *must* bring attention to how oppressive and evil the 'child support' laws are :

They have been well-designed by feminists to enslave men, while shutting out any critique of these laws.

8:45 PM, May 07, 2011  
Blogger kmg said...

URL of Child Support = slavery here.

8:45 PM, May 07, 2011  
Blogger Justthisguy said...

Interesting about Baron-Cohen. He does a lot of work with autistic people. A lot of autistic people don't think he has them exactly right. The guy above who mentioned Baumeister "hast recht" I think; a lot of auties/aspies have plenty of sympathy, enough to make them weepy over the misfortunes of others sometimes.

12:43 AM, May 08, 2011  
Blogger TMink said...

Justthis, a fine point about spectrum folks. Now that you mention it, they sometimes have more trouble expressing their empathy than feeling it. I was using stuffed animals to bribe a young client into showering. I had excellent access to stuffed animals at a place where I did a group for sexually abused kids. The client found out about it, then the next week brought 8 bags of stuffed animals for the abused kids to my office for me to tak for them.

"I'm weird, they were hurt" was the client's reasoning.

Empathy. And sympathy.

Now I gotta find another powerful reinforcer for payoffs.


9:17 AM, May 08, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think most people want to dish out "justice". But it goes without saying, all would want to receive "mercy".

3:38 PM, May 08, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy Mother's Day, by the way.

3:39 PM, May 08, 2011  
Blogger Job said...

I know many children on the autistic spectrum. I can assure you that lots of them have plenty of empathy/sympathy for others.

Sometimes ASD kids don't realize that other people are hurting or in trouble but when they do, they have empathy.

7:38 PM, May 08, 2011  
Blogger BarryD said...

If we were to "cure" narcissists and sociopaths, who would run for political office?

12:13 PM, May 09, 2011  

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