Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen


A fascinating book.

The opening sentence:-

When I was seven years old, my father told me the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades.

This book tries to…

…examine why some people become capable of cruelty, and whence a loss of empathy inevitably has this consequence. This book goes deeper into the subject than I have gone before, by drilling into the brain basis of empathy and looking at its social and biological determinants, and it is broader too, by having a close look at some of the medical conditions that lead to a loss of empathy.


My main goal is to understand human cruelty, replacing the unscientific term ‘evil’ with the scientific term ’empathy’.

The term evil is just lazy – it says nothing, and worse, it seeks to close down discussion. It’s tabloid explanation. And, of course, a term at the heart of religious philosophy:-

Religion has been singularly anti-enquiry on the topic of the causes of evil. For most religions, the existence of evil is simply an awkward fact of the universe, present either because we fall short in our spiritual aspirations to lead a good life of because such forces (e.g., the Devil) are in constant battle with divine forces for control over human nature…


If I have an agenda it is to urge people not to be satisfied with the word ‘evil’ as an explanatory tool, and , if I have moved the debate out of the domain of religion and into the social and biological sciences, I feel this book has made a contribution.

Baron-Cohen makes a good argument for loss of empathy as the route to understanding a range of extreme behaviours, including Borderline Personality Disorder or are Psychopathy. He demonstrates the following main points:-

We all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum. Part of what science has to explain is what determines where an individual falls on this spectrum. I have pointed to some of the genetic, hormonal, neural and environmental contributory factors…


At one end of this spectrum is zero degrees of empathy…


Bowly’s remarkable concept of early secure attachment can be understood as an internal pot of gold… When we fail to nurture young children with parental affection we deprive them of the most valuable birthright we can give them, and damage them almost irreversibly…


There are genes for empathy…Environmental triggers interact with our genetic predispositions, and scientists are starting to discover particular genes that in far-reaching ways influence our empathy…

Finally, a bold statement that…

Empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world. Given this assertion, it is puzzling that in school or parenting curriculum empathy figures hardly at all, and in politics, business, the courts or policing it is rarely if ever on the agenda.

This is a book which raise profound and sometimes uncomfortable questions. The reviews highlight some interesting issues. Alasdair Palmer in the Telegraph, for instance:-

This fascinating and disturbing book is an examination of why some people are viciously, violently cruel to others.


Zero Degrees of Empathy is a strange amalgam of scientific sophistication and philosophical naivety. The detailed findings on which Baron-Cohen bases his conclusions about which parts of the brain do what, and his identification of the particular neurological pathways on which the capacity for empathy depends, are as dazzling as they are surprising.


But the basis for his insistence that a lack of empathy is the root of all evil is curiously crude. He claims that if you can fully recognise others as having feelings like your own, then you must empathise with them, and this will mean that you are as incapable of harming them as you are of harming yourself.


…Baron-Cohen seems committed to denying the existence of that particularly nasty form of sadistic cruelty that depends on the perpetrator recognising his victim’s feelings and homing in on those that he knows will hurt his victim most.

This criticism, though, downplays an important point which Baron-Cohen makes:-

Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion. There are at least two stages in empathy: recognition and response. Both are needed, since if you have the former without the latter you haven’t empathised at all.

Certainly, the book does not have – nor claim to have – all the answers. However, it does provide a useful and potentially productive reframing of our understanding of human cruelty.

Well worth a read.


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