He considers that to attribute it to “evil”, as some do, is a cop-out, for it explains nothing. Why should some people, in otherwise just and caring societies, carry out aberrantly vicious acts? His hypothesis is that underlying such acts is a total inability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, to feel what they feel and act accordingly; a lack of what is called empathy – this he calls “zero degrees of empathy”.
Baron Cohen is a professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, and one of the foremost names in the study of autism and Asperger’s syndrome. He has blurred the boundaries between such extreme mental health conditions and the normal human brain, developing the concept of the autism spectrum and the “extreme male brain”.
He finds support for his hypothesis in neurology and psychology, and demonstrates, with studies using questionnaires, twins and functional magnetic resonance (FMR), that human beings fall along a spectrum in their capacity for empathy.
This empathy spectrum forms a normal distribution curve, where most people cluster in the middle and a few at the extreme ends. At one extreme are those who commit, or perhaps have the capacity to commit, extreme acts of thoughtlessness or cruelty (not necessarily physical), and at the other, those exceptional individuals who devote their lives to caring for others. In the middle are you, me and Joe Public; some are more empathic than others. Interestingly, more men than women fall into the low-average level and more women than men into the high-average group.
He has blurred the boundaries between such extreme mental health conditions and the normal human brain
Baron Cohen goes on to look at possible explanations for the empathy spectrum and he finds them in childhood experiences, eg, low levels of empathy are associated with childhood abuse, neglect or disturbance, characteristic electrical patterns in the brain and their effect on key neurotransmitters, like serotonin, and in distinct genetic variations, though not upon a single gene. The evidence he cites is inevitably drawn from studies of either mental health patients, or those in conflict with the law in either Europe or the United States.
Does he satisfactorily explain Nazi cruelty? I am not sure he does. I think he explains the behaviour of misfits – mental or penal – in essentially just, caring 21st century societies, but he ignores societal norms.
What is regarded as cruel depends on social context. Stoning was not considered cruel 2,000 years ago – such barbaric cruelty was the norm – a mere 100 years ago, callous, insensitive treatment of children was routine and it took exceptional free-thinkers to challenge it. But we still await an explanation for how, in the first half of the 20th century, Nazi doctors treated Jewish people no better than laboratory mice.