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Zero Degrees of Empathy
by Simon Baron-Cohen

Release Date: 7th Apr 2011
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978 0 7139 9791 0
RRP: £20.00

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Evil does not exist; there is only an absence of empathy...

Zero Degrees of Empathy:A New Theory of Human Cruelty aims to put the discourse of ‘evil’ back on the table by introducing the notion that as a concept it is scientifically flawed; and instead poses the theory that human cruelty that would hitherto have been considered ‘evil’ is actually the result of a lack of ‘Empathy’. We all have our own understanding of what ‘Empathy’ is, however, this novel idea necessitates that ‘Empathy’ is given a stable definition and this is the platform from which Baron-Cohen makes his extraordinary leap.

He proposes three types that are ‘Zero-Negative’: Borderlines (Type B), Psychopaths (Type P) and Narcissists (Type N); the classification of a ‘Zero-Negative’ being broadly that of an individual whose very personality renders them incapable of having empathy. These three personality types are discussed at some length, which whilst being intellectually interesting, doesn’t seem entirely relevant to the discussion at hand. At the opposite extreme of the Empathy spectrum lays the ‘Zero-Positive’ individuals: these are people who lack empathy but are genetically predisposed to be extremely capable at ‘systemizing’ (Baron-Cohen relates this to Autism or Aspergers). Initially, this would appear unsatisfactory as an explanation, as surely any lack of empathy is bad; however, Baron-Cohen asserts that the value of having a highly developed systemizing brain counterweights the lack of empathy, he further suggests that those on the Autistic spectrum ‘unintentionally’ lack empathy for others. This seems a little thin, although it does sit well with society’s idea of morality and the law’s treatment of mens rea versus actus reus.

The factors responsible for creating a ‘Zero-Negative’ (or ‘Zero-Positive’) are considered in some depth. The foremost and perhaps most obvious being the analysis of that Psychologist’s staple: environmental versus biological (genetic). The invariable conclusion after many fMRIs of brains and much debate on previous studies concerning environmental impact, is as expected with Baron-Cohen acknowledging that both factors play a part in determining where an individual stands on the Empathy spectrum. However, his ‘discovery’ of four genes that appear to directly influence Empathy is intriguing, if not unexpected.

Baron-Cohen rightly calls this a ‘theory’. His notion of Empathy and its possible explanation for human cruelty is relatively new ground and whilst existing studies currently support his hypothesis, there is no telling whether this idea will stand the test of time (and more scientific study). The author is not adverse to throwing in a few grenades either; unabashedly stating that religion is oppressive, the death penalty is always unwarranted and only selecting examples of cruelty on a mass scale from third world countries and Nazi Germany. His opinion that not everyone is capable of murder sits well with his theory of Empathy, but doesn’t quite ring true for me. Indeed, the author himself offers up evidence to the contrary; the key study concerning the innate response to authority (where individuals were directed to “give” electric shocks to unseen subjects, up to lethal levels). Given the ‘right’ circumstances, it would seem any one of us would murder. And whilst Zero Degrees of Empathy may read more like a scientific paper than a book; its credibility is diminished by the bizarrely irrelevant reference to his cousin (otherwise known as the controversial make believe character of ‘Ali G’ and ‘Borat’), the perpetually under defined explanation of how ‘Empathy’ replaces ‘evil’, the overly elaborate digression into discussing empathy in animals and the seemingly endless caveats that would make Baron-Cohen appear reluctant to commit entirely to his on Empathy (or anything else for that matter).

The culmination of which is a tentative, overly-cautious presentation of ‘Empathy’ as a replacement for ‘evil’; ironically, I would be inclined to agree with him, if only he could clearly and consistently state that it is a lack of empathy, rather than empathy itself that is the root of ‘evil’ behaviour. Certainly, Zero Degrees of Empathy is worthy of further debate and from a purely literary perspective it was refreshing to see Baron-Cohen inject some beauty into an otherwise ugly narrative: “…each drop of empathy waters the flowers of peace”. Poetic.

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