Simon Baron Cohen vis Cambridge Neuroscience
[DISCLAIMER: Although I am using a conceptual distinction I got from the embedded Simon Baron-Cohen TEDx talk (where ever he got it from), I am not taking a position on his stance on Autism or Psychopathy. I have no point of view about Autism and have reflected on empathy and psychopathy in this blog before, here and here. I'm interested in the constituent parts of empathy that he lays out in relation to Smith and Hume's Moral Sentiment. If you want to see some responses to Baron-Cohen on Autism, check out this blog or this one.]
Through the magic of Twitter, I was recently connected to a TEDx talk of Simon Baron Cohen on the erosion of empathy (embedded below). After the requisite National Socialist reference, he outlined a distinction between two different aspects or types of empathy: cognitive and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to imagine someone else’s thoughts and feelings, the ability to put yourself in their position. It is the recognition of the other’s state of being. Affective empathy is the drive to respond with the appropriate emotion.
This put me in mind of our past discussion of Adam Smith and David Hume on Moral Sentiment. Smith and Hume claimed that we build our understanding of morality by reflection (reason) on our reactions to people and events in comparison with the reactions of others. These sentiments, filtered through the lens of rational moral judgment, form the basis of morality in any given society. Smith explained the mechanism of sentiment as sympathy with others: the ability to use imagination to put oneself in another’s place, feel their woes and judge oneself with respect to that experience. That’s having a conscience. Continue reading »