Of Evil and Empathy

Dalrymple has often written of his belief in, and preference for, the complexity and even inscrutability of human behavior. In New English Review he respectfully disagrees with British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s claim to have unlocked the mystery of human evil by defining it as lack of empathy.

In the first place, Baron-Cohen sometimes makes precisely the mistake that he accuses the users of the term ‘evil’ of making, namely of rendering the explanandum identical with the explanans….Baron-Cohen is certainly not the first to think that he has plucked out the heart of Man’s metaphysical mystery (for why should empathy be any different from any other quality?). Moleschott, for example, told us a long time ago that the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile. (Actually, the brain also secretes quite a lot of bile, metaphorically speaking of course.) I am afraid I think there is a lot of plucking still to be done: in fact, I think it will never be done. That is the heart of our mystery.

11 thoughts on “Of Evil and Empathy

  1. Josephus

    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.”

  2. Jackson

    On Empathy, I’d recommend having a look at this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbUHxC4wiWk try not to be put off by what McGilchrist considers the hitherto (naturally) poorly represented right hemisphere/left hemisphere division; at least in popular writing. It easily tends to be unhelpfully thought of as a dichotomy rather than the/our very dynamic and fundamentally dialectical nature of being. Yes, you might have guessed already, the considerable evidence strongly suggests the right hemisphere (master) is primarily where empathy occurs.
    The left hemisphere (ideally the loyal emissary) has an Ayn Rand like penchant for runaway mutinous objectivism (though McGilchrist never describes it thus, too objective perhaps).

    Put it this way, after right hemisphere damage (from stroke, surgery, accident etc) therefore being reliant on left-hem, there are rather consistent symptoms such as ‘hemi-neglect’ – an extreme case being where, to the extent that the patient didn’t neglect his left side, (primarily the province of the right hem, and vise versa) he perceived it as mechanism, wooden compartments ‘an assemblage of scaffolding’, objectivist.

    McGilchrist is probably too critical of the Industrial Revolution (the ultimate LH bias hubris) for, say, Dalrymple’s liking, he sees our artificial world as perhaps something like Howard Roark’s (Le Corbusier?) self perpetuating ‘hall of mirrors’ (Post Modernist Brave New World?) and we get trapped at our peril.

  3. Jackson

    I think his theory might very well be grist to the mill of anti-feminists, for he is very keen on the idea that the early experiences of love and security are vital in the development of empathic responses to others. By far the easiest way of giving children that vital early experience of love and security is to ensure that mothers devote a great deal of attention to their children, most other ways having failed miserably, en masse if not in every case. But that is by the by.

    By the by… superlative understatement… just compare his two essays The Rage Of Virginia Woolf and A Lost Art (Cassatt)

    You’ve got have empathy for to be enraged by the betrayal of that emapathy.
    Of Rwanda, I seem to recall Phillip Zimbardo saying that the Tutsi had a closer resemblance to Westerners; more attractive western standards. I mean, how often did explorers favourably compare the Australian aborigine with, say, Tahitian’s on account of appearances alone? I could well imagine that being cause for some serious resentment.

  4. Jay C

    I am a biology student whose lecturer insists on attempting to pluck out the heart of our mystery. Today he was comparing human sexuality with the courtship rituals of animals as if they were in the same category, making unnecessary comments that “animals have sex in public” with an expression on his face that implies he is a supporter of human exhibitionism, and quoting behaviourists’ work with birds or small mammals to suggest our superstitions and religions are a matter of mere animal instinct.

    He is averse to the very idea of there being something in humans that can’t be broken down in Darwino-Skinnerian terms. I sometimes think of correcting him and find myself unable to articulate in simple terms why I believe he is wrong- it exasperates me.

  5. Jackson

    Hmmm yes, well… I may be similarly guilty only the expression on my face would imply something like “The first requirement of civilization is that men should be willing to repress their basest instincts and appetites: failure to do which makes them, on account of their intelligence, far worse than mere beasts.”

    Your lecturer might appreciate the Bonobo Fallacy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eubDSQrFako
    which goes like this, in the enlightened Bonobo culture, the Scott’s http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40Dw1Q2jvsY&feature=related of this world should be a thing of the past, but in the extremely rare event that a Scott should surface the likes of Dirty Cristina (“you are beautiful no matter what they say”) Aguilera http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVTQa7SNK8g will be on hand to administer sexual succour. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-USUDzycRvM

    Capuchin Monkey’s are probably more relevant to humans.
    In preliminary studies, two conditions were used: ‘equality’, in which two monkeys exchanged tokens with a human experimenter to receive cucumber, and ‘inequality’, in which one monkey exchanged for cucumber and its partner for grape, a more favoured food.

    Monkeys refused to participate if they witnessed a conspecific obtain a more attractive reward for equal effort, an effect amplified if the partner received such a reward without any effort at all. These reactions support an early evolutionary origin of inequity aversion. http://tinyurl.com/yhnmgtt

    and I’d be interested to know how your lecturer interprets this http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3812483.stm

    And in so far as birds are concerned… well, they don’t do Lek-cess anything like humans – tails of lekcess.

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  7. Edwin Rutsch

    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.

  8. George

    “I sometimes think of correcting him and find myself unable to articulate in simple terms why I believe he is wrong- it exasperates me.”

    You’ve probably done well not to correct him. A lot of professors aren’t too kind to students who question their authority. And even if he isn’t one of those professors, he’s not likely to take you seriously anyway.

  9. Jackson

    I dipped into Zero Degrees of Empathy today. Dalrymple’s essay What Makes Doctor Johnson Great http://www.city-journal.org/html/16_4_oh_to_be.html comes to mind. Not least this

    >However, his Dictionary—43,000 definitions and 110,000 citations from literature, a work of near unimaginable proportions, when one considers the labor of devising for oneself the definition of even one word—provides a key to his abiding greatness. His definition of the word “conscience” is “the knowledge or faculty by which we judge the goodness or wickedness of ourselves.”< Conscience is morally freighted, unlike ‘consciousness’ – the preoccupation of so many academics (is that an ultimately unavoidably scientistic preoccupation?) Johnson’s dictionary, whilst an enlightenment triumph is necessarily morally freighted, the 110,000 citations (Shakespeare, The Bible, Milton etc) embedding our living language in a context of depth and richness; of course it’s the choice of the individual as to whether he sees fit to honour this heritage by writing, say, Rasselas or an essay such as the one I quote, or pissing on it. I’m not sure what to make of Zero Degrees, it is almost certainly more of the former. It is interesting that he establishes early on the term ‘erosion of empathy’ I’d say promiscuity is the great and the universal cause of the ‘eros’ion of the moral sentiments. He refers to Arendt’s Banality of Evil, of how, as I understood it, a division of labour (evil), accounted to the industrial scale efficiency of ‘normal’ people applying Hitler’s final solution, they focused on the mundane aspect of their little function. More generally, a digression, The alienation of labour, labours under, is the beast of burden, the scapegoat, for much of the sins of the world.
    I am no stranger to the monotony of the division of the labour of factories and warehouses. It’s often not nice (and though, it’s true, the people are generally agreeable enough) it would have been more tolerable even enjoyable had the majority of people in such work respected the miraculous organisation of labour as a means to live well, within your means, to make time to study, say, history, science, philosophy, literature, economics, Shakespeare, piano, Bach, orienteering, gardening, to make quality time with friends (i.e. not high on ecstasy at a Rave, not watching pornography) etc etc
    I didn’t get the impression Baron-Cohen cared too much for such thinking.


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