Thursday, October 26, 2017

Benevolent Psychopaths

If abuse is the problem, is empathy the cure? If we must declare culture war against psychopaths, can we solve their problem by putting each of them on a permanent empathy drip? If men are the problem, are women the solution? Will the world be a better, a kinder and gentler place if more women have more power?

This feminist solution to the nation’s problems has been in force in America for decades now. How has it been working out? The wave of scandals about sexually abusive men, now including Leon Wieseltier, Knight Landesman, George H. W. Bush and John Halperin suggests that enhanced awareness about sexual abuse does not tamp down sexual abuse. One might even suggest that it aggravates the problem.

When you throw away the rules of courtship, courtesy and civility you end up with something resembling a free-for-all. In a free-for-all you had best have the balance of strength tipping in your favor.

Tarring one gender with every propensity for evil does not induce members of this gender to behave well. Declaring that members of the other gender to be angelic, to the point of being always truthful does not seem to advance anyone’s cause.

One questions the way the notion of psychopath is defined in the current literature. We question it more strongly since it seems to be a way to defame men and especially to diminish their competitive spirit. I do not need to tell you that highly competitive men do not feel very much empathy for their opponents. They cannot function in competition if they are feeling the pain that they want to inflict on their opponents. Is this a psychopathic trait or are we criminalizing a desirable character?

If you belong to a team engaged in competition and you are actively empathizing with the opposition team—you feel badly for them because they are being beaten badly—will you be a better or worse teammate? Will you be undermining your own team because you do not want the other team to feel like losers?

If psychopathy is defined as antisocial behavior are we within our right to suggest that the teammate who feels for his opponents is being more prosocial or more antisocial?

Take the latest from the world of psycho research. It comes from the University of Plymouth, in England. Researchers address this question: if you are in a position of leadership and you want to save the lives of a multitude of people, but the only way you can do so is to sacrifice the life of one person, could you do it? And, what personality types are more likely to do so more effectively, with fewer guilt feelings.

Experiments of this sort have been conducted from time to time. We have discussed the issue in slightly different terms on this blog. If we go back to 1915 and suggest that the American president, namely Woodrow Wilson, could have forestalled the unmitigated calamity of the Great War by getting America involved sooner, even if that would have caused American casualties, should he have done it? When called upon to respond to the sinking of the Lusitania Wilson famously responded that he was “too proud to fight.”

I would suggest that executives sometimes face such issues. We like to think that decisions are defined as good vs. bad. It is nice to sit on the sidelines and to want there to be no casualties at all, but executives do face situations where they need to decide on the least bad course of action.

The researchers from Plymouth ran a series of experiments to see what kind of personality would be more likely to be more decisive in certain defined circumstances. They were told that, in order, to save a large number of people, they would have to sacrifice one person. Of course, beyond applying this to difficult foreign policy decisions, we can also apply it to cultures that practice human sacrifice. Of course, in such practices, the connection is mythic, not real. Savages sacrifice human beings because they believe, by the terms of their mythology, that they will thereby be saving their community. 

The researchers wanted to knowwhat kind of people would have been quicker to sacrifice the one to save the many and what kind of people would have been more reserved, more timid, weaker in their response.

The result: they discovered that people who have psychopathic tendencies were the most decisive and the strongest. By the terms of the problem—we are not allowed to offer up a third way approach that frees us from the responsibility of choosing— one group was better at taking decisive action than any other.

Doesn't this suggest that we should revise our definition of what it means to be competitive and decisive, what it means to be a competent executive… thus to relieve such people of the label of psychopath. One must assume that some of those who aced the test were abominable human beings and that some of those who were weaker and more timid were not the people you would want sharing your foxhole. Is that a reason to defame all people who have these decision-making skills?

Note the way the researchers famed the moral issue. They concluded that those who had more psychopathic tendencies were really making pragmatic choices for the greater good. If you are making the right decision to advance the greater good, should you be tarred with a defamatory diagnosis?


Jack Fisher said...

Without more of a context and with the question posed with parameters that are certain, these kinds of questions are meaningless. Unless you're shooting people yourself, you don't know that the "victim" will die or the multitudes will be saved.

Without any moral qualms, in the right circumstances, a senior officer should tell his lieutenant to hold a rearguard position while the rest of the formation escapes even knowing that the rearguards will be overrun and probably killed. Both officers understand this context, and the intention of the senior is not to kill the junior. In fact, if he leads the rearguard himself, the point does not change.

I believe it would have been morally indefensible for a civilian sheltering a Jew from ze Nazis to betray his trust under the threat of the murder of hostages. Either don't take on the job of protecting the persecuted or be prepared to accept the personal consequences if Hans Landa is pointing a Luger at you as well.

On the other hand, in slightly less dire situations, such as civil litigation, the point is to hurt (by forcing them to expend money, time and stress) the other side and keep hurting until they come to their senses and settle. It's just business.

Shaun F said...

It's a shame chivalry is something that no longer really exists. There used to be brave men of good character and good moral standing (say knowing the seven deadly sins or even the four cardinal virtues) - that weren't labelled as being benevolent psychopaths.

Ares Olympus said...

It certainly is easy to predict that people with psychopathic tendencies will find it easier to make decisions based on cold hard reason, and that reason could be either selfish (what's good for me now), or benevolent (what's good for everyone.)

And there's an issue of "who is everyone", so for instance, should a politician make the best decision for the country, or the best decision for the party? It is nice that sometimes someone elected to an executive position like president says "I don't represent those who voted for me. I represent all Americans." And he or she can go further and say "I represent all those who have died for our freedom." and "I represent all those who will yet be born." and when you represent people who can't communicate to you directly, that's a much higher responsibility since you have to try to guess what their interests are, and then try to put all those interests from all sides together and find some middle ground that best represents the whole.

But maybe the real power of the psychopath isn't in making quick decision, but not second guessing himself, or blaming himself for making a decision that ended badly. So the potential flaw of this is that a psychopath may be "unteachable" since he's not willing to look back at his past mistakes, he's more willing to keep making the same bad decisions over and over. So an ordinary person might get caught in one affair, and be forgiven, and take that as a sign he should reform, while a psychopath will take forgiveness as a sign all is well, and do the same thing tomorrow.

I recall Jesus tried to simplify justice and said there are only 2 commandments, Matthew 22:37-49, to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Perhaps the golden rule comes out of that, and the golden rule can apply to competitive situations.

You can say "I'd not like my rivals to cheat, so I won't cheat." But a more competitive person doesn't think that way - he thinks "Everyone else is cheating, so I have to cheat just to keep up." Lance Armstrong said "What am I on? I'm on my bike busting my ass six hours a day." So he tried to shame his doubting critics into silence.

So given both sorts of people exist, I guess what we're left with is Reagan's "Trust, but verify" and that's why we have referees and courts to rule on the psychopaths ability to put themselves above the law.