Much has been written about how to cope when bad things happen to good people, but it’s the question of evil itself—why there are bad people who perpetrate evil acts—that tends to leave us stumped. What do we mean by evil, anyway? Is it a moral flaw, a religious pronouncement—or, for the more therapeutically-minded among us, a synonym for a more scientific term like psychopathy? And, depending on your answer, should we regard evildoers as beyond rehabilitation or as the possibly treatable products of a ghastly mix of genetic predisposition and traumatic circumstances?
Those are the serious questions posed by two new books about psychopathy and cruelty that differ so vastly in tone and approach that you may be tempted to shelve one with such darkly iconoclastic absurdists as Mel Brooks and the Monty Python gang and the other beside the harrowing works of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi and trauma guru Robert Jay Lifton. Take your choice—or better yet, learn from both.
If you’re looking for a provocative, lucidly written, serious-minded examination of the spectrum that runs from empathy to cruelty, you won’t do better than the compelling read The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, by the eminent British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen.
Baron-Cohen dates his first awareness of the existence of evil to when he was 7 years old and his father told him about meeting a Holocaust survivor who’d been the victim of a…