One person whose work on these matters has received considerable attention lately is the British Professor of Psychopathology, Simon Baron-Cohen. (Yes, cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen aka Borat, but highly regarded as a serious scientist.) He’s the author of The Science of Evil, which seeks to dispose of the problem of evil in part at least by changing its name.
“My main goal,” says Baron-Cohen, “is replacing the unscientific term ‘evil’ with the scientific term ’empathy.’ ” What he means is that instead of calling someone evil we should say they have no empathy.
Baron-Cohen goes to great lengths to posit an “empathy circuit” in the brain whose varying “degrees” of strength constitute a spectrum, ranging from total, 100 percent empathy to “zero degrees of empathy.”
The problem with this idea is that many people wholly lacking in empathy do not take the trouble to exterminate whole populations of people they see as wholly other than themselves. Moreover, if you see only some people as requiring extermination, while you seek to elevate the status of others, then you evidently see the latter as being in some significant way like yourself — which I think suggests a degree of empathy. So it seems pretty clear that the concept of empathy doesn’t do all the explanatory work that Baron-Cohen thinks it does.