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December 28, 2019

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

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 HBVis 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.

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