Empathy, honour, and the apprenticeship of violence: rudiments of a psychohistorical critique of the individualistic science of evil

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Research seeking to explain the perpetration of violence and atrocities by humans against other humans offers both social and individualistic explanations, which differ namely in the roles attributed to empathy. Prominent social models suggest that some manifestations of inter-human violence are caused by parochial attitudes (attitudes characterized by interests centred on one's own community) and obedience reinforced by within-group empathy. Individualistic explanations of violence, by contrast, posit that stable intra-individual characteristics of the brain and personality of some individuals lead them to commit violence and atrocities. An individualistic explanation argues that the chief cause of violence is the perpetrator’'s lack of empathy with the victim. To offer the rudiments of a critique of the individualistic approach, I critically examine a model stating that violence is caused by empathy erosion (Baron-Cohen 2011). Specifically, the discussion of the empathy-erosion model is applied to the case of honour-based violence (HBV), a type of violence known for its communal character. Building from prior enquiries into violence and social cognition, I argue that an empathy-erosion explanation of HBV is defective because it does not consider important cultural and historical enablers of violence. Finally, as an alternative to individualism, I propose a psychohistorical approach to HBV in the migration context. This alternative combines psychological and philosophical enquiry with historical and ethnographical analysis. The psychohistorical approach hypothesises that distinct processes of cultural learning of honour codes both scaffold HBV and modulate the perpetrators’ emotions and empathy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-25
Number of pages25
JournalPhenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences
Early online date28 Dec 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 28 Dec 2019


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