by Theodore Dalrymple (May 2011)
The clinical diagnosis of hysteria has long been attacked by doctors and others who believe that it has no explanatory or even descriptive value. They suggest that the word be abandoned; but, as others have pointed out, it has a tendency to outlive its obituarists. Somehow we cannot now do without it; although allegedly meaningless, it is useful. more>>>
Like TD, I think the Baron-Cohen has much of interest to say, but am unconvinced by his primary theme that evil is better understood in terms of empathy. I am fascinated by the emerging scientific mapping of brain function to behavioral traits (e.g., the mirror neuron system), but the book's theme goes beyond the warrants of science. Table 1 in chapter 6 characterizes the personality disorders under discussion in terms of cognitive empathy, affective empathy, morality, and systematizing. Such delineation of elements of empathy should yield more readily to scientific investigation than our broad notion of empathy itself.
Yet again Dr D forces my brain to think around corners and yet I come back again to a central thought: Evil is centred in a spirit, Diablos, who preys and plays on the essential selfishness of the human heart, and yet still there is mystery with the suffering of the innocent.
"We have a simulacrum of an explanation which satisfies us, but which in fact explains nothing; but, being satisfied, we look no further."
Excellent as ever.
When my sister told me she had a kidney stone I said how relieved I was that it was she and not I who so suffered.
She failed to understand that this was the highest level of empathy.
Evil: isn't it true that a lot of bad things are done due to:
1) emotional incontinence: I know x is bad, but I'm so angry, lustful etc.....
2) cognitive failure: I think x is good, but really it isn't.....
I suspect that most/all 'evil' is really just the effect of these two bad, (but non-evil), causes -weakness or stupidity.
May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews, videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.
also posted a link to your article in our empathy magazine.
If we reserve the term "evil" for those who delight in inflicting harm and/or pain to people who have not in any way provoked them (often strangers), it is expected that they (the evil ones) must be devoid of empathy. However, this could well be only a case of "necessary but not sufficient condition". This could be tested by appropriate interviews/questionaires, but I suspect from limited experience that people of low empathy are callous rather than evil.
Excellent article! I feel enlightened!
Surely the woman who killed her children to harm her ex husband wasn't lacking in empathy. If I kill you I know you are going to be hurt by my action, but to understand that killing others (your children) will hurt you I need to empathise with you enough to realise that will also cause you pain.
I have a lot of time for Professor B-C, but this time I think he has got it wrong.
Could not a low or non-existent empathy be, at least in part, a product of survival instinct and its consequent physical responses to a real or perceived threat?
I studied once with someone who had Asberger's sydrome. By very definition he had no empathy. He had to go to special training so he encycopaedically learn social queues and signs so he could apply them to some kind of internal look-up table which would tell him how to deal with people, or at least manage their responses. I asked myself the question, "does his lack of empathy make him evil, or prone to callous behaviour?". I watched him closely for some time and found nothing unpleasant or vindictive about him. In fact, he would not eat meat on account of the fact that he felt sorry for cows and chickens. And yet, he was unable to understand human emotions, or relate to them in any way. If Baron Cohen is right, then his lack of empathy should have made him "evil", or at the very best, callous or indifferent of other peoples' needs. But he was kind, goofy and, in his own way, considerate and loving.
My suspicion is that evil results not from the absence of empathy, but from its abundant presence. The reason the torturer enjoys torture is not because he has no understanding of pain, but because he understands it all too well. And, for me, that is the mystery of evil. It is the paradox of why some people find fulfilment in helping, while others find fulfilment in destroying.
Very interesting paper discussing human behavior and the origins of evil .
"Shame, Guilt, and Violence / James Gilligan"
I was glad to read a review of this book by someone with Dr. Dalrymple's qualifications and insight into human behaviour. He points out the flaws in Simon Baron-Cohen's arguments and has the guts to say the author's description of a super-empathetic psychotherapist makes him "queasy". My anxiety after reading this book was deepened by the sycophantic reviews, quoted as well as Baron-Cohen's subjective view of empathy. Dr. Dalrymple's witty, but profound, appraisal of this book has cheered me because it should encourage people in responsible positions not to swallow the author's views on empathy without chewing over them.
Excellent as always: The summary thought at the end reminds me of what Chesterton once said : "The center of every man's existence is a dream. Death, disease, insanity, are merely material accidents, like a toothache or a twisted ankle. That these brutal forces always besiege and often capture the citadel does not prove that they are the citadel."
G. Murphy Donovan
"Departing from the living before you die is the worst evil." - Seneca
I used to think I read read Dalrymple because Hobbes was too much of an optimist. Then I thought I read Dalrymple because he buned his wick at both ends - physician and metaphysician. After a eureka moment, I realized that I read him because he sends me to a dictionary - often. As with his wit, it's always worth the trip. Good get - again.
After 34-years of professional work in a department of corrections I can recall many very dangerous and very bad people; But, only a few who were truly "evil". Some of those were actually convicted criminals as opposed to lawyers, police and that department's bureaucrats.
As someone who is versed in the priniciples of Science I find single causes for human misbehaviors very, very, suspect and usually open to more that is objectionable than supportive.
'It's a dull month that goes by without a new cause for autism'
Sir Michael Rutter - Address to the 2nd International meeting for Autism Research 2002.