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Human cruelty and evil

Friday, 5 August, 2016

Yesterday’s post here about artificial and emotional intelligence referenced Simon Baron-Cohen’s book, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty. The book appeared under a different title in the United States: The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Human Cruelty. The use of the “e as in evil” added to its impact in the bookstores, no doubt, as the combination of “Evil” and “Cruelty” beats “Empathy” and “Cruelty” when it comes to visceral reactions.

Evil The cruel person, says Professor Baron-Cohen, treats someone as if they are an object — ignoring their thoughts and feelings. This is one of the worst things a person can do to another human being. A person suspends empathy when thinking only about his or her own mind (single-mindedness) because empathy is the ability to “identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and respond to that with appropriate emotion,” writes Baron-Cohen. This “empathy erosion” arises from emotions such as resentment or hatred and those who entirely lack empathy are borderline personalities: psychopaths and narcissists.

Compared to the cruel person, an empathic person does not merely ask someone how they are feeling, rather he or she avoids hurting their feelings, considers how to make them feel good and evaluates the impact of his or her words and actions on others. The empathic person listens to what is said, notes how it is said and responds in a decent way. In this way, empathy is a human and a saintly quality.

In the final chapter, “Reflections on Human Cruelty,” Baron-Cohen deliberates on the risks of indifference to cruelty and terrorism. Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil” characterization of Adolf Eichmann is assessed in light of the criticism expressed by the late David Cesarini that she observed only the beginning of the war criminal’s trial. Had she stayed longer, she would have seen how the Nazi displayed extraordinary creativity in planning mass murder. As regards terrorists, their unempathic acts are not necessarily the result of lack of empathy claims Baron-Cohen. “The belief and/or the actual political context may drive the behavior,” he says. This may be so, but as the 9/11 terrorists flew their planes into the Twin Towers, few would deny that their switched-off empathy had led them down a path of cruelty to acts of incomprehensible evil.

Cruelty and evil are facts of life. We should not shy away from naming and shaming them or those persons who engage in human cruelty and evil.

“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago


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