Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Good and Evil

Simon Baron-Cohen, who has often been featured on these pages as an expert on autism, has a new book out, reviewed here in the New York Times.  In the US, it's title is The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty.  From Katherine Bouton's review, cited above:

“My main goal is to understand human cruelty, replacing the unscientific term ‘evil’ with the scientific term ‘empathy,’ ” he writes at the beginning of the book, which might be seen as expanding on the views on empathy expressed in his 1997 book, “Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind” (Bradford). Evil, he notes, has heretofore been defined in religious terms (with the concept differing in the major world religions), as a psychiatric condition (psychopathology) or, as he puts it, in “frustratingly circular” terms: “He did x because he is truly evil”).

Dr. Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge and director of the university’s Autism Research Center, proposes that evil is more scientifically defined as an absence of empathy, exacerbated by negative environmental factors (usually parental, sometimes societal) and a genetic component. When these three exist in tandem they result in what he calls a Zero-Negative personality. Zero-Negative takes at least three forms (and possibly more), borrowing from terms used in psychiatry: Zero Type P (psychopathology), Zero Type B (borderline disorder) and Zero Type N (narcissism).

Zero-Positives, on the other hand, can be genius type Aspies.

People with Asperger’s syndrome also fall on the zero end of the scale, but they are Zero Positive. Zero Positive is almost always accompanied by high scores on the systemizing scale (and can lead to genius). In addition, the way “their brain processes information paradoxically leads them to be supermoral rather than immoral.”

Bouton guesses that relating the psychopathology and autism will annoy a lot of people, and CIP, multiply burned, agrees.

FWIW, I searched Baron-Cohen's book (on Amazon) for the terms "Nietzsche" and "Ayn Rand" and came up negative.  However, B-C seems to think that he is original in locating the definition of evil outside of religion.

UPDATE: It seems that Arun has anticipated me in the comments.