The Psychology of Evil

Week of: 
July 17, 2011
What is it: 

True evil seems easy to recognize: the killing of innocent children; assigning whole populations to death by gassing, or napalm, or aerial bombing.  These acts go beyond the criminal, the mean, the bad.  But what is the psychology of evil-doers?  Are they monsters among us just like the rest of us, with one screw a little loose, or are they radically unlike us?  John and Ken probe the evil mind with Simon Baron Cohen from Cambridge University, author of The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty.

Listening Notes: 

John and Ken start by trying to get their heads around the concept of evil itself. They begin by considering evil actions and move on to evil people, but each time they end up with the same unsatisfying and circular conclusion: that, in its simplest form, evil is about doing ‘bad’ things and that people do ‘bad’ things because they’re evil. But who decides what is bad? Is there some universal ‘evilness’ inside us that can be measured?

Professor Baron-Cohen offers one solution with his ideas of ‘empathy.’ ‘Evil,’ or as he likes it, ‘empathy erosion,’ can actually be measured, both directly through brain scans, as well as through cognitive testing. What he finds is that the level of empathy we have is normally distributed in the population.

Does that mean some people are naturally more evil than others? Professor Baron-Cohen argues that ‘evil’ is an unhelpful term to use in this context, because it carries philosophical connotations outside the realm of science. A better term would be ‘cruelty,’ which denotes actions carried out with diminished empathy. He says that a propensity for cruelty is indeed found in some people more than others, but not necessarily in direct proportion to our levels of empathy.

To demonstrate this, he cites the example of autism. Whilst both psychopaths and those with autism are severely lacking in empathy, it is only the former who are inclined to act cruelly. Autistic people tend instead to withdraw from action.

In our society we treat severe autism as a disability. Should we apply the same logic to psychopaths? The final segment of the show deals with how we should apply the theory of empathy to our lives. Are we really justified in punishing psychopaths for killing? Is it better to have more or less empathy? Can we develop empathy? Tune in to find out.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter:  Caitlin Esch finds out how empathic her friends are, using a test developed by Professor Baron-Cohen himself. She discovers that although most people think they have a great degree of empathy, they tend to overestimate themselves. She is joined by Psychiatrist Thomas Lewis.
  • Sixty Second Philosopher: This week our Sixty-Second Philosopher provides us with a terrifying tale about why you should never trust your boss…  

Simon Baron Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, Cambridge University

Related Resources: 


Arendt, Hannah Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil The Viking Press (1963)

Baron-Cohen, Simon The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty Basic Books (2011)

De Waal, Fran The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society Crown (2009)


Melvyn Bragg Talks about Evil on BBC Radio 4.

Stueber, Karsten, "Empathy," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Test your empathy quotient in the test designed by Simon Baron-Cohen.

Get Philosophy Talk


Sunday at 10am (pacific) on KALW 91.7 FM Local Public Radio, San Francisco


Individual downloads via CDBaby and iTunes. Multipacks and The Complete Philosophy Talk via iAamplify

John Perry and Ken Taylor

Continue the Conversation

Sidebar Menu

Upcoming Shows

  • December 4 : Conspiracy Theories
    Some claim that the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 was actually caused by a controlled demolition orchestrated by the U.S....
  • December 11 : Weapons of Mass Destruction
    The United States recently threatened military action against Syria in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Similar...
  • December 18 : Seeing Red: The World in Color
    Is the red you see indeed the very same red that anyone else does? What is the redness of red even like? These sorts of questions are not just...
  • December 25 : Risky Business: The Business of Risk
    There is an element of risk – either to ourselves or to others – in almost everything we do. By deciding to go to the grocery store, for example, we...

Support Philosophy Talk


Philosophy Talk relies on the support of listeners like you to stay on the air and online. Any contribution, large or small, helps us produce intelligent, reflective radio that questions everything, including our most deeply-held beliefs about science, morality, culture, and the human condition. Make your tax-deductible contribution now through Stanford University's secure online donation page. Thank you for your support, and thank you for thinking!