Zero degrees of empathy - it’s the root of all evil

Michael Bywater on Simon Baron-Cohen’s fascinating study of what makes some people able to be cruel

Column LAST UPDATED AT 11:32 ON Tue 26 Apr 2011
Bywater

Now that nobody in their right mind really believes in the goaty old Devil, all hooves and pitchfork, Hitler is our benchmark of evil. Yet we don't know what the word means. It's self-referential. What was Hitler? Evil. What's evil? It's what Hitler was.

And the word descends, through the headline-writers, upon paedophiles, terrorists, drug barons, yobboes on inner-city estates, Mr Clegg, Mr Blair, Saddam Hussein, loan sharks, the Kray twins... "evil" is one of those any-port-in-a-storm words which we instinctively love to hang on to anyone really bad. Not just bad bad, but evil bad.

Perhaps it's because although we're an analogue species, our diagnostic words tend to be digital. I'm short, you're handsome, she's black, he's a geek. Yet none of these conditions are either/or. There's no point at which the switch flips over with an audible click.

They all, instead, exist on a spectrum. Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge, is a great advocate of the idea, which he's already applied to autism, now described as Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Baron-Cohen's "new theory of cruelty" is that there is also a spectrum of empathy, and at the far end of that spectrum, evil - cruelty - lies.

This neatly fills a gap. Someone with autism can't easily intuit what other people are thinking, but if you tell him (it's usually a him) that he's upset the other person, he's as mortified as the next man.

Evil and cruelty aren't qualities of the autistic. Despite the banging on, the systematising and the remarkable bees in the bonnet, the autists and Aspies I know are kind souls, utterly devoid of malice because malice requires the very thing - the ability to imagine themselves in someone else's shoes - of which nature has deprived them.

Cruelty is a different matter. The wilfully cruel can see into others' minds all too easily, which is why their cruelty is often so horribly apposite. It's simply that they don't - or, rather, can't - care. The pain and screams of the torturer's victims are as meaningless to him as the ruin and destitution of the "little people" are to a banker. Both are, in some awful way, insulated.

Of course, too much empathy is equally grotesque, but a man who finds it hard to choose a pair of socks in case the other socks feel sad (I am that man) is only going to upset himself, not others. What counts here, although headline writers and politicians will resent it, is the idea that evil is not something we are, but something we do. Cruelty is not a destination but a waypoint.

It's not a new notion, but one which, in Baron-Cohen's thesis, can now be supported with data from neurochemistry and fMRI brain imaging. And with data comes the hope of understanding, and, with understanding, a remedy.

It is, and always has been, a crucial sickness. If the modern world has been built by those out on the autistic spectrum (without whom there'd be no computers, no internet, telephone system, express elevators, mathematics, counterpoint, public finance or any of the infrastructure of modernity) then it has also been convulsed again and again by despots for whom cruelty is the sine qua non of power.

Men like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot at the extreme end of the empathy spectrum. All those dictators and rulers and self-appointed demi-gods across the world. The little ones, the thugs and secret policemen and enforcers. All the way down. Men who will not be missed if what ails them can be expunged.

St Augustine, who concluded that evil was a defect of the soul, would have been as pleased with this book as the Victorian moralist would be enraged. As, too, the populist politician who proves, when he says "I feel your pain," that he doesn't.

I, too, am glad to see a sort of neurological case for something I have always thought, in a rather half-baked way, to be true: that if you don't give a fig what anyone thinks of you, there's nothing you can't do. I was almost right; the thing is, they don't actually have a fig to give.

Have a look on Friday. There'll be a fair old scattering in the Abbey, dressed up to the nines. No names, no pack drill, but you'll know them when you see them.

Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen, Allen Lane, £20. ISBN 978-0-71-399791-0 ·