Thursday, January 10, 2013

Book review - Science of Evil by Simon Baron Cohen

Simon Baron Cohen’s fundamental idea is that in order to prevent evil we must first understand its causes. How was Josef Fritzl capable of locking up his own daugter in his basement and then rape her on a daily basis for more than a decade? The typical reaction to this type of story is that Josef Fritzl is an evil man, and he did what he did because he was evil. But what does it mean when you say that someone is evil, and does deeming someone as an evil person have any positive side effects?

These are of course difficult questions and I don’t think that Baron Cohen provides a complete answer to them (which would have been a lot to hope for). What Baron Cohen does claim is that if we want to prevent evil we must first understand it. He further suggests that individuals, such as Fritzl, who commit horrendous acts probably suffers from a lack of empathy, that is a lacking ability to see the world from another persons perspective. Borderline patients, psychopaths and narcissists are three mental disorders that have a common feature, namely zero empathy. In other words they are more or less incapable of seeing the world from another persons perspective and therefore they may not get the same “gut response” when they hear about Fritzl.

Many people lack empathy, but not all of them endorse in “evil”. Other factors such as upbringing and attachments to caregivers can influence whether a person born with deficient empathy becomes an offender or learns how to follow the rules of society despite lacking some of the intuitions that derives from having empathy.

Simon Baron Cohen’s expertize lies in the field of autism which is another mental dissorders characterized by a lack of empathy. Individuals that have a autism spectrum dissorder (this category includes those with asperger syndrome), also behave in ways that reveal a lack of empathy, however, they are often good at systematizing, that is seeing relationships between various variables in the world. Because of this special ability they have benefited the world in many ways
Rather than deeming individuals evil, we should try to understand why evil acts are committed. To look at people with a severe lack of empathy is a good and plausibly fruitful starting point for such an endeavour.

Simon Baron Cohen, is a terrific writer with the ability to convey complex ideas and complex research findings in an accessible and easy to understand way. This book as well as “The essential difference” show that this is indeed the case.

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