Thursday, May 05, 2011

To Banish Evil

Simon Baron-Cohen, who I have mentioned before in conjunction with autism research, has banishing evil and increasing empathy as his new project. Hard to argue with the spirit of that, but it would seem at minimum quixotic.

He has some thought of redefining evil as lack of empathy, and seeking ways this might be treated. He's an intelligent man, and the immediate objections that come to mind have likely occurred to him, at least in part, so I don't want to shoot from the hip and reveal my dilettante shallowness. Yet it does occur to me that this is exactly the sort of grandiose scheme that gets humankind in trouble. The balance of empathy along a continuum in a tribe might allow only a narrow range for group survival.

For the record, yes, he is related to Sasha Baron-Cohen of "Borat" fame. There are other filmmakers and artists in the family tree as well. And yes, the irony of a premiere social-understanding researcher being Borat's cousin is worth contemplating.

1 comment:

Donna B. said...

Maybe it's just a problem of the definition of "empathy" that worries me.

Feeling someone's pain, understanding someone's pain or plight does very little... probably nothing in relieving that pain.

I do not think empathy is part of righting injustices. Feeling bad about something doesn't change anything does it?

Actions are what counts.

As a perhaps trivial example, I went out on a limb once and encouraged a 13 year old to try out for something that her parents may or may not have wanted.

They were not there. I was. I felt her pain when she was not chosen for the role her parents had pushed her to try for.

(That was an awful day. I was the "stay at home" parent who transported 3 aspiring ballerinas to try out for the role of Clara in the Nutcracker. I had prepared my daughter (not really necessary since she knew she was not a contender) but I had failed to understand how much the other two wanted the role and how much parental pressure there was on them to get it.

I could have "felt" their pain all day and done nothing to alleviate it. Fortunately, I had as a template the plan for my daughter -- try out to be a senior -- mature -- dancer rather than try for the top role of the immature dancers.

I was a close friend of the parents of one of the girls and had discussed the possibility of "failure" with them. I knew what they wanted me to do.

The other girl's parents were strangers to me other than the fact that I'd seen them push their daughter to excel. I was very worried that they would be angry at me for deciding their daughter should try out for the senior company.

Of the three girls, their daughter was the most talented. My daughter was the least. Oh how I hate admitting that!

Her parents never said anything to me about my decision. The only feedback I got was that I was still acceptable as transportation.

Yes it was empathy that I felt for her, but if I'd only felt and not acted (go, try out for something else) would I have not had a negative impact rather than positive?

Either way, I was empathic.