The occasion for this interview is that Baron-Cohen has apparently written a new book, one that extends his ideas about empathizing and systemizing from their usual territory (autism, psychological sex differences) to relatively new ground (explaining the human capacity for antisocial acts).
The American edition of the book is called The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, and it's reviewed at length (also by Kim Wombles!) here.
I haven't read the book, so I won't bother critiquing it without knowing what it actually says, but I will reproduce some of Wombles's Q&A with Baron-Cohen.
KW: Do you think readers will potentially ... get confused as to why you've placed the ASDs in a book titled The Science of Evil?Right now, I'm going to restrict myself to a few brief, superficial comments: first, in response to Professor Baron-Cohen's contention that everyone who says they are autistic on the Internet is a highly verbal, high-IQ computer geek with Asperger's --- no, we're not. There's a wide variety of autistic people on the Internet, including people with all sorts of functioning labels. The format of the Internet itself actually makes it easier for the less verbal, likely-to-be-called-low-functioning autistics to participate, since they don't have to produce speech. We might not be represented on the Internet in the exact proportions that we exist in the real world, but neither do we all belong to the same narrow subcategory of autism.
SBC: ... [Z]ero degrees of empathy does not necessarily lead to acts of cruelty. In the case of people with autism spectrum conditions, their low empathy usually leads them to avoid other people because they find other people confusing. Their low empathy doesn't lead them to commit acts of cruelty any more than anyone else in the population, but it does often lead them to feel socially isolated, with the added risk of depression.
The key difference [between autistics and psychopaths] seems to be that in psychopaths the 'cognitive' component of empathy is intact but the 'affective' component is not. In autism, both components may be impaired, or just the cognitive component. But their strong systemizing leads them, through powerful logic, to develop a moral code based on 'fairness' and 'justice'. Psychopaths lack the moral compass that most people develop using their empathy, and lack the moral compass that people with autism develop using their strong systemizing. People with autism spectrum conditions often end up as 'super-moral', developing a set of rules they expect people to live up to consistently (such as honesty), arriving at the conclusion that one should 'treat others as you would have others treat you' because it is the most logical approach.
KW: The online autism community is very vocal (and fairly well in agreement, considering the wide divides usually tearing it apart) that you are incorrect in your belief that autistic people lack empathy (and theory of mind). How do you respond to that charge and what evidence do you have that people with ASDs have zero empathy?
SBC: The online autism community is just one sector of the autistic population: namely, those with at least average intelligence, who can therefore use the internet. They are sometimes referred to as having "high-functioning autism" or Asperger Syndrome. This sector of the autistic population may not have zero degrees of empathy, but they do tend to have below average levels of empathy on different measures that research[ers] have used. These include (but are not restricted to) the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' Test, or the Empathy Quotient (EQ).
Many people with autism in the remainder of the spectrum may well have absolutely zero degrees of empathy, as shown in failing the False Belief Test (theory of mind) that even a typical 4 year old child can pass, but which is failed by many children with autism with a mental age above 4 years old. Many may not even show 'joint attention' that even a typical 18 month old toddler can show, such as spontaneously following another person's gaze. A meta-analysis review of false belief studies by Francesca Happe in 1995 found that most children with autism take until the age of 11 years old to pass this test, which is a 7 year delay (see attached graph and the recent paper by Senju, 2011). Even among children with Asperger Syndrome or high functioning autism, delays in 'social sensitivity' (such as detecting faux pas) are seen, despite their average or above average IQ.
So why might people with autism in the online community challenge this view? One possibility is that it is in the nature of empathy that people who are low in empathy are often the last people to be aware of it. ... An analogy might be with colour blindness. Many people who are colour blind are the last people to know about it, until they are given a test of it by an optician or vision scientist. They simply assumed that they were seeing the same colours as everyone else.
In my experience whilst even adults with Asperger Syndrome may have difficulties figuring out why someone else's remark was considered funny, or why their own remark was considered rude, or may judge others as liars when they simply are inconsistent in not doing what they said they would do, they may nevertheless have a highly developed emotional empathy, caring about how someone feels and not wanting to hurt them. If they do hurt them it is often unintentional and they feel mortified when it is pointed out, and want to rectify this. In this respect, they do have some of the components of empathy.
Many people with autism also form very strong emotional relationships with their pets ... whilst they struggle to 'read' human behaviour and human intentions, they can read the arguably more predictable behaviour of a pet.
(And yay for him pointing out the difference between cognitive and emotional empathy, and also for pointing out that autistic people can be very emotionally empathic! That often gets lost, even in his own previous discussions of this subject.)
Also, I'm just going to express my skepticism at the idea that most of the abusive state employees described in the New York Times stories I referenced in this post had any psychiatric diagnoses, much less diagnoses that would explain their startling lack of empathy for the developmentally disabled people in their care. While Baron-Cohen does mention that failures of empathy can occur in people whose faculties are theoretically intact, he doesn't go into detail about how this happens. I guess I'll have to read the book to see what kind of case he makes that there is an "empathy circuit" in the brain that is bypassed or otherwise disabled when a person acts in a nasty way toward other people.
Finally, the "moral code[s] based on 'fairness' and 'justice'" that autistic people are supposed to develop through our amazing abilities to reason logically and think abstractly, sound a lot like the "mental widgets" that are so baffling to Amanda Baggs, and to (what seems to be) a significant subset of other autistic/non-neurotypical people! So I very much doubt that *all* of us are intellectualizing our way toward a system of ethics, even if I were to grant that some of us do that.
*I am a living refutation of the common stereotype that being autistic automatically makes you technologically gifted. Oh, how I wish!