Scientist seeks to banish evil, boost empathy

Thu May 5, 2011 3:12pm EDT
 
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By Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent

LONDON (Reuters) - Simon Baron-Cohen has been battling with evil all his life.

As a scientist seeking to understand random acts of violence, from street brawls to psychopathic killings to genocide, he has puzzled for decades over what prompts such acts of human cruelty. And he's decided that evil is not good enough.

"I'm not satisfied with the term 'evil'," says the Cambridge University psychology and psychiatry professor, one of the world's top experts in autism and developmental psychopathology.

"We've inherited this word.. and we use it to express our abhorrence when people do awful things, usually acts of cruelty, but I don't think it's anything more than another word for doing something bad. And as a scientist that doesn't seem to me to be much of an explanation. So I've been looking for an alternative -- we need a new theory of human cruelty."

Baron-Cohen, who is also director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge, has just written a book in which he calls for a kind of rebranding of evil to offer a more scientific explanation for why people kill and torture, or have such great difficulty understanding the feelings of others.

His proposal is that evil be understood as a lack of empathy -- a condition he argues can be measured and monitored and is susceptible to education and treatment.

NEW THEORY

Baron-Cohen defines empathy in two parts -- as the drive to identify another person's thoughts and feelings, and the drive to respond appropriately to those thoughts and feelings.   Continued...

 
<p>Cambridge University psychology and psychiatry professor Simon Baron-Cohen in an undated photo. REUTERS/Handout</p>