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Jeremy Tattersall

Evil is the absence of empathy

The view that the urge to destroy, to compete, profit and come out on top, no matter what the price is simply human nature is a very commonly held belief. We might not find extreme selfish behaviour or ‘evil’ justifiable, but it is to be expected, because we assume it is what we are. In this climate, the idea of developing an attitude of love and compassion towards the world and its inhabitants can seem hopelessly idealistic.

Does it actually matter what society feels about whether the human potential for evil is inherently part of our nature, or whether we are more naturally disposed love and compassion? Personally, I believe a society with a pronounced disposition towards love and compassion would be far more likely to do its best to alleviate poverty, famine, drought and violence of all kinds. Maybe there’d be fewer wars. It might even be able to bring people together to tackle the damage we are doing to our environment and the climate. Members of a society with a focus on the common good might even be prepared to lower their standard of living somewhat in order to achieve these aims. So yes, it does matter, because it could change the future.


As we know, the lives and the words of the great spiritual figures of world history are not rooted in evil, but in love. ‘Love’ in this context is unconditional, not given in the hope of personal gain or shared with some and denied to others. Whether faced by goodness or cruelty, this is a love that is constant and invincible. There are meditation techniques that help us develop love to its fullest potential. Some Christians meditate on the love of God, and, in addition to the pacifying effect of shamatha meditation, there is a wonderful series of meditations on loving kindness in the Buddhist tradition.

But if a secular society is going to involve itself in actively promoting values such as love and compassion, it needs to be convinced to do so by something other than a spiritual and religious perspective.

This is where science could help. There are previous blogs on this site exploring this area. (‘Did you know? What scientists say about meditation’, ‘The happiest man on this planet’). The View magazine article ‘Neuroscience and Meditation’ (you can browse articles from this magazine at www.viewmagazine.org) notes that

Experienced meditators have the ability to generate mental states that are precise, focused, powerful and lasting. In particular, experiments have demonstrated that the region of the brain associated with emotions such as compassion, for example, showed considerably higher activity in those with long-term meditative experience. These discoveries indicate that basic human qualities can be deliberately cultivated through mental training.

Jon Kabat-Zinn and many others have effectively demonstrated the role mindfulness meditation has in, for example, reducing stress and pain and the treatment of depression. You can read more about this in another View article, ‘Towards a Mindful Society’

So I was intrigued by a new book by Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge University. The book is called Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty.

As he said in a recent interview for the British newspaper, The Observer:

Evil is treated as incomprehensible, a topic that cannot be dealt with because the scale of the horror is so great that nothing can convey its enormity. But, when you hold up the concept of evil to examine it, it is no explanation at all. For a scientist this is, of course, wholly inadequate.

As a scientist I want to understand the factors causing people to treat others as if they are mere objects. So let's substitute the term "evil" with the term "empathy erosion".

We all experience temporary empathy erosion when we get angry, seek revenge or need to protect ourselves. Scientists have found that the brains of borderlines, one of the types of people who can experience zero empathy:

are definitely different in much of the empathy circuit. First, there is decreased binding of neurotransmitters to one of the serotonin receptors. Neuroimaging also reveals underactivity in the orbital frontal cortex and in the temporal cortex – all parts of the empathy circuit.

One interpretation of all this evidence is that the early negative experiences of abuse and neglect change how the brain turns out. But the key point is that the zero degrees of empathy in borderlines arises from abnormalities in the empathy circuit of the brain.

Childhood stress and neglect is also a factor associated with psychopaths, who have a different set of abnormalities in the empathy circuit:

Remarkably, too much stress can damage and shrink your hippocampus, irreversibly. This is one more piece of evidence for the argument that instead of using the term "evil" we should talk about reduced (or even absent) empathy.

‘Zero empathy’ is definitely a constructive way for us to look at ‘evil’, an absence of basic goodness rather than the presence of evil. And perhaps there is some additional evidence here to show that meditation and loving kindness meditation have something to offer in the alleviation of temporary empathy erosion.

What future misery could a well-funded social programme promoting the development of empathy from childhood remove? According to Baron-Cohen:

Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is effective as a way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether this is a marital conflict, an international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in a friendship, political deadlocks, a family dispute, or a problem with the neighbour. Unlike the arms industry that costs trillions of dollars to maintain, or the prison service and legal system that cost millions of dollars to keep oiled, empathy is free.