The Moral Calculi of Sociopathy

Authored by Venkat of Ribbonfarm:

 This is the question of good and evil. For those of you who want the elevator-pitch version, the short position is this: my entire thesis is amoral; there are good and evil sociopaths; more sociopaths is a good thing; the clueless and losers are exactly as likely to engage in evil behaviors as sociopaths. Details follow. Keep in mind that this is a very rough sketch, and a sidebar to the main series that I really don’t want to pursue too far.

The Word “Sociopath”

A large number of commenters have objected to this term, and it has also led to some unnecessary confusion. Néant Humain, in a precise comment, pointed out that my use of the term does not square with the clinical use (actually, the term is no longer considered clinically precise at all, and has been replaced by phrases like “antisocial personality disorder”).

But let’s step back here. I am using the word in its everyday, loosely overloaded sense.  As in, you telling your friend, “you are such a !@##$ sociopath.”  I want to stick to the term for two good reasons. One: Hugh Macleod’s original cartoon which inspired this series is too good to give up. Second, distrust of communities and groups, and a stubborn individualism, are the main personality characteristics here (and this position is not original to me; it is derived from William Whyte). Words like “player” or “enlightened” (two suggested alternatives) don’t cut it.

I originally characterized “sociopath” as will-to-power people. Let me add a few more characteristics.

First, sociopaths are driven by unsentimental observation of external realities, no matter how unpleasant. Second, they use the information they acquire through reality-grounding in skilled ways. Third, their distrust of subsuming communities and groups leads them to adopt personal moralities. Whether good or evil, the morality of a sociopath is something he or she takes responsibility for.

Finally, and most importantly, sociopaths do not seek legitimacy for their private morality from the group, justify it, or apologize for it. They may attempt to evade the consequences of their behavior. In fact their personal morality may legitimize such evasion.  Equally, they may, out of realistic and pragmatic assessments, allow themselves to be subject to codified group morality (such as a legal or religious system), that they privately disagree with. So they might accept consequences they feel they do not deserve, because they assess attempts at rebellion to be futile. But in all cases, they reserve for themselves the right to make all moral judgments. Their private morality is not, in their view, a matter for external democractic judgment.

So yes, this entire edifice I am constructing is a determinedly amoral one. Hitler would count as a sociopath in this sense, but so would Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

In all this, the source of the personality of this archetype is distrust of the group, so I am sticking to the word “sociopath” in this amoral sense. The fact that many readers have automatically conflated the word “sociopath” with “evil” in fact reflects the demonizing tendencies of loser/clueless group morality. The characteristic of these group moralities is automatic distrust of alternative individual moralities. The distrust directed at the sociopath though, is reactionary rather than informed.

The Morality of the Clueless and Losers

The opposite of the morally-responsible sociopath is what somebody called “evil clueless” in a comment, an archetype we haven’t met in the Office universe. The classic example is the petty, tyrannical bureaucrat of the “I was only following orders” variety. A category that includes the over-zealous Nazi concentration-camp guard. This example too, came up in the discussion, and in one comment, Harold Smith noted that the Nazi rank-and-file often viewed their actions through a bizarre moral compass:

Your comment about how the loser role fits most people is apt. I am reading They thought they were free, about the Nazi era in Germany. The author, an American Jew, interviewed ten ex-Nazis in depth, all of them self-styled Little Men, who thought the Nazi era was the best part of their lives. They had no idea what was going on, and didn’t want to know. The Nazis took care of unemployment, and that was all they were interested in.

Other than characterizing these people as clueless, rather than losers, I completely agree with Harold here.

If the clueless often go “evil” in the “we were only following orders” mode, losers often go “evil” in bystander mode, like the Seinfeld characters in the incident that got them hauled into court under Good Samaritan laws. As Douglas Hofstadter said, “apathy at the level of individuals leads to insanity on the level of civilizations.” It is loser-apathetic “somebody else’s problem” mode thinking he was talking about. Since the very idea of “collective action” (ranging from AIDS walks to signature campaigns) relies entirely on clueless and loser moralities, it is fair to ask: if responsibility-abdicating moral apathy is the characteristic of the loser group (which is the largest), is “collective action” a sham?

The answer is yes, and it has been well known in philosophy for a while as the Free Rider Problem (originally studied by Olson). In most cases of collective action, a few pay the costs for the many, in bringing about social change. The ones who pay are usually the benevolent clueless (Michael-like people with altruistic, but still delusional, grand narratives).

The key here is that the clueless and losers often externalize their moral sense, into some sort of collectively (and ritually) adopted code, thereby abdicating responsibility for the moral dimension of their actions entirely. You don’t have to think about the morality of what you do if you can just appeal to some code (religious texts are the main kind, but there are others, such as Hippie or Joe the Plumber codes). The morality that they defer to is always a codified communal version of the views of some charismatic sociopath, but it is the abdication of responsibility, as a group, by the clueless and losers, that amplifies the impact of both the Hitlers and Gandhis of the world. Without this group dynamic, Hitler would have been a random local psycho, perhaps serial-killing a dozen people. Gandhi might have been no more than a friendly neighborhood do-gooder.

Which implies, by the way, that organized religion is incompatible with sociopathy.

This entire view can be disturbing to some of you, so take a step back here. What do you fear most?An evil group or an evil person? Read Shirley Jackson’s thoroughly scary story of group insanity, The Lottery. Watch Children of the Corn. Would you rather live in a town where there is a sole vampire terrorizing the population, or be the sole non-zombie in a town that has gone all-zombie? Ask yourself, who scares you more — Hitler or the mindless army he inspired? Would you prefer the tyranny of a dictator or the tyranny of an illiberal democracy, where a mob tramples over individuals? Dictators can be overthrown. Can an evil group culture be as easily displaced?

I don’t want to offer flippant and easy solutions to these age-old moral conundrums. I just want to point out to those who are equating “sociopath” with “evil” (modulo any semantic confusion) that morality needs to be looked at in more complex ways.

Compassion, Sociopathy and Reluctant Messiahs

Let’s talk a little about the Good Sociopath. When people engage in actions that are broadly recognized as “good,” the defining quality of their behavior is usually the value of compassion. Yet, compassion plays out very differently among the three groups.

Sociopaths can be compassionate because their distrust only extends to groups. They are capable of understanding and empathizing with individual pain and acting with compassion. A sociopath who sets out to be compassionate is strongly limited by two factors: the distrust of groups (and therefore skepticism and distrust of large-scale, organized compassion), and the firm grounding in reality. The second factor allows sociopaths to look unsentimentally at all aspects of reality, including the fact that apparently compassionate actions that make you “feel good” and assuage guilt today may have unintended consequences that actually create more evil in the long term. This is what makes even good sociopaths often seem callous to even those  among the clueless and losers who trust the sociopath’s intentions. The apparent callousness is actually evidence that hard moral choices are being made.

When driven by compassion, therefore, sociopaths prefer small individual kindnesses to joining large-scale world-hunger solving efforts. The good sociopath is more likely to ask: how can I make a modest and cautious effort to improve the life of this person I am with right now, as opposed to participating in something lofty and dangerously abstract, like a signature campaign.

When a sociopath has the resources for (and feels the imperative towards) larger scale do-gooding, you get something like Bill Gates’ behavior: a very careful, cautious, eyes-wide-open approach to compassion. Gates has taken on a world-hunger sized problem, but there is very little ceremony or posturing about it. It is sociopath compassion. Underlying the scale is a residual distrust of the group — especially the group inspired by oneself — that leads to the “reluctant messiah” effect. Nothing is as scary to the compassionate and powerful sociopath as the unthinking adulation and following inspired by their ideas. I suspect the best among these lie awake at night worrying that if they were to die, the headless group might mutate into a monster driven by a frozen, unexamined moral code. Which is why the smartest attempt to engineer institutionalized doubt, self-examination and formal checks and balances into any systems they design.

The clueless are not capable of much compassion, unless they can very strongly identify with the person. The one time Michael displays this sort of compassion is when he attends Pam’s painting exhibition. In his other “charitable” efforts, Michael is clearly posturing.

Losers, by and large, engage in apparently compassionate actions to feel good about themselves, assuage guilt, and other sorts of purely pathos-driven motivations. Mostly, they are apathetic due to a rational realization that there isn’t actually a whole lot they can do. Ethos and logos can only enter into compassionate action when there is, to begin with, an acceptance of individual responsibility. So loser-morality is ultimately either derivative or flawed, and therefore uninteresting.

This is not to say that all loser/clueless attempts at compassionate action must fail, backfire or otherwise mess up. The group morality in favor of which they abdicate responsibility may be a good one. And since all moral codes must be invented by someone, and only sociopaths accept the individual moral responsibility necessary for invention, it follows that the clueless and losers must be good or evil in roughly the same proportion that the sociopaths are good or evil.

Read the full article here.

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40 Comments on "The Moral Calculi of Sociopathy"

  1. What I see looks to me like elaborate rationalization, I’m inclined to think that the “good sociopath” is a figment of your imagination.

    • Calypso_1 | Oct 29, 2012 at 11:34 pm |

      Why? What about such a person would make them incapable of good? If you take one of the standard clinical signs, lack of empathy, do you then see empathy as the source of all goodness?

      • Not saying that a “sociopath” is incapable of “good” behavior given incentives towards “good” behavior or disincentives in the form of certain punishment for “bad” behavior. I am saying that if the balance of incentives changes to encourage “bad” behavior, there is nothing in a “sociopath” by definition which would prevent that person’s behavior from flipplng from “good” to “bad” . . . say from working for a cure for AIDS to even more malignant and harder to cure versions of AIDS because the research lab got a new DARPA research grant to develop a new superAIDS bug and the research team’s salaries just went up. My guess is that if this happened, at least half of a typical research group would quit.

        Your suggestion that empathy is the source of all good is interesting. While I think the above paragraph demonstrates otherwise, the idea that empathy is why people do good when the incentives point towards doing harm as the road to profit is worth thinking about.

        Original poster’s Bill Gates example is interesting. Few years ago, Gates Foundation was called out on socially irresponsible investments (IIRC, a dirty coal electric plant in an area where they’d built a cancer clinic was an example), they explicitly disclaimed social responsibility in determining the direction of their investments. I’ve wondered ever since then if where they put their money does more harm than they do good with the money they spend.

    • Hadrian999 | Oct 30, 2012 at 12:37 am |

      i think the “good sociopath” behavior being described is like triage, leaving those who can’t be helped to die seems horrific on the surface but is necessary to have the greatest effect. in some instances when you try to help everyone you really help no one. this wouldn’t apply to what we think of as a sociopath who has no ethical compass but may apply to one who knows right and wrong but is devoid of sentimentality.

      • I doubt that what you describe is really a sociopath.

      • Calypso_1 | Oct 30, 2012 at 2:47 am |

        The one study that I know of that has been done on sociopaths in prison related to such ethical questions has indeed shown that they have a utilitarian moral ability, easily choosing sacrifices for mass benefit that others would find too abhorrent to face. Granted that was a simulation and simply shows that in their minds such individuals face no such qualms.

        Obviously in real life scenarios there are many psychologically healthy individuals that have the capability to make such choices. I do believe however, that one could search through history and find many examples of persons who would be deemed wholly unfit for society in normal circumstance but in the face of dire situations would be very well suited both for maintaining their own survival needs and that of others in the most efficient means possible.

        Though the author of this piece strays from what is
        clinically defined as sociopathy (which is nebulous anyway), I think the point
        being made related to an internally driven value system that is motivated by aversion
        to outside control is very relevant. The
        problem is that most people with clinical symptoms have significant executive function
        problems with unrealistic goals and impulsivity conjoined with both serious
        confabulation & no self-awareness of the disorders effects – all signs of
        neurological deficit.

        I don’t like the modern boogey man myth of the ultimate evil psychopath. It’s just not that
        simple. People without these problems do bad things as well and most of the people with these problems that have been studied have been in the penal system so it leaves the possibility of a whole unknown, difficult to study population.

        • Hadrian999 | Oct 30, 2012 at 12:19 pm |

          I don’t really buy into the premise. I do agree about the boogey man though, psychopaths are scary but I find people who assured of their own moral superiority much more dangerous

          • Calypso_1 | Oct 30, 2012 at 12:32 pm |

            The problem with any premise available regarding what a psychopath actually is that we don’t know. There is just a small but growing body of hard neurological research. Everything else has largely been the growth of various parties’ personal theories that are based on groupings of traits that are supposedly characteristic of the disorder. There is no DSM diagnosis for it – despite the significantly different APD. The designation has grown more from the criminal justice system & popular culture.

          • We do know how they, or rather their brain, responds under functional MRI’s-a distinct brain configuration is present in 100% of sociopaths-there is no distinction between words associated with goodness or those associated with evil-both elicit no emotion and an equivalent response-the true automatons of the world.

          • Calypso_1 | Nov 2, 2012 at 9:33 am |

            not quite. It depends on how you interpret the results. You cannot so easily make this an argument for ‘good & evil’. It is more of a high stimulation threshold for the words
            presented. Where neurotypical persons would be stimulated (be it by fear, anxiety, etc) when presented with distressing words or images associated with things such as rape or murder these individuals are not. They also would not show a difference between ‘toast & roller coaster’ whereas others might. The moral distinction is less clear in the later but the lack of stimuli or absence of anxiety/excitement response is not.

            Lacking the sensory processing ability to be stimulated by situations that would provoke a moral aversion in normal society members is indeed a deficit that could cause an individual to be a danger to themselves and others and to develop in a most unfortunate way. So would being born without the ability to feel pain.

          • Sociopaths brains are structurally different.

          • Calypso_1 | Nov 2, 2012 at 2:10 pm |

            A characteristic I have discussed on this site w/ some regularity.

    • The reality of sociopathy is more banal than sexy.

      • Calypso_1 | Oct 31, 2012 at 11:43 am |

        …and more tragic and in need of recognition as a spectrum of disorders that in time, through increased knowledge, will come more under the care of the medical profession when need be, instead of the definitions offered by the penal system. At the very least it should be deconstructed as a cultural mythos.

        At one time Idiot, Imbecile, Cretin, Moron & Mongoloid were socially accepted ‘clinical’ definitions. Now we can look at these things in terms of environmental teratogens, telomers, or PRSS12 protease.

        Knowledge increases, perceptions change.

    • The reality of sociopathy is more banal than sexy.

  2. razzlebathbone | Oct 30, 2012 at 12:29 am |

    tl;dr: douchebags deserve respect for being douchebags.

    My reply: no you don’t.

    • can’t tell if troll or just a genuine douchebag projecting his self-hatred onto others…

  3. bobbiethejean | Oct 30, 2012 at 6:28 am |

    Yes, let’s have more sociopaths who are lacking a key element of what makes us human. Great idea. Who needs empathy anyway? Let’s just turn into a bunch of reptiles. Maybe some of us will do good out of some logical, utilitarian morality… maybe…. some.

  4. If a person do nice things, feel empathy and compassion why consider him sociopath?? The problem is that we think “normal” people can’t do bad things and rationalize your bad actions. BIll Gate is an sociopath compassionate?? hahahah! Come on! Really??? The author thinks there’s only one type of mental/personality disorder.

  5. secretlab | Oct 30, 2012 at 9:37 am |

    How appropriate…during ‘Ayn Rand week’.

  6. Sociopath is the pop culture term for the clinical term “Anti Social Personality Disorder”. ASPD is listed in the DSM as follows:

    There is a pervasive DISREGARD for and VIOLATION of the rights of others occurring since age 15, as indicated by 3 or more of the following:

    -deceitfulness, repeated lying to others

    -irritability and/or aggressiveness

    -impulsivity (commonly connected with substance abuse, violently breaking the law or sexuality)

    -reckless disregard of safety for others

    -failure to hold responsibilities

    -lack of remorse, as indicated following causing pain to another

    How the above description is equated with someone like Ghandi, I have no idea and find this argument to be non existent. There are leaders and there are followers in the world. Often times leaders are loners. Who is more scary the leader or the heard? Depends on the leader of the heard.

    Defining people acting in compassion who are not leaders as losers or clueless, is very elementary school and that is boring.

    Let’s try an evolve beyond name calling. Granted the term sociopath has become so main stream pop culture that it is thrown around very loosely and people don’t know wholly what it means any more. And yes, language is forever transitioning. However, it is quite clear that is not the argument you are making here.

  7. and, there are also people who are neither leaders or followers. is that scary or comforting or boring?

  8. I actually found myself favouring many of the traits described in this article (such as internalising morality, compassion for individuals over groups) ever since I read “Distant Suffering” by Luc Boltanski and, funnily enough, on the rare occasions that I hit circuit 5. Boltanski also highlights in his book the difference between pity and compassion, pity being based on a ‘spectacle’ as the suffering are physically distant and politically generalised, true compassion only evident when suffering is local.

  9. I actually found myself favouring many of the traits described in this article (such as internalising morality, compassion for individuals over groups) ever since I read “Distant Suffering” by Luc Boltanski and, funnily enough, on the rare occasions that I hit circuit 5. Boltanski also highlights in his book the difference between pity and compassion, pity being based on a ‘spectacle’ as the suffering are physically distant and politically generalised, true compassion only evident when suffering is local.

  10. To summarize: Venkat thinks Sociopaths are sexy


  11. To summarize: Venkat thinks Sociopaths are sexy


    • Calypso_1 | Oct 31, 2012 at 11:19 am |

      So does the Entertainment Complex. They certainly try to sell their version of the sociopath in all it’s “glory”. Sex & fear – nice control buttons. I believe others have explored this topic quite deeply.

      From my perspective some of the most recent research does open the possibility that a key component is malfunctions in more primitive sexual/reward circuits, specifically arousal to fear response.

      Clinical hallmarks of the disorder [given what classification schema you are using] are lack of anxiety in ‘fearful’ situations & very poor susceptibility to normal ‘carrot-stick’ conditioning. Makes for lurid boogey-men.

      Most people that can be demonstrated to have these traits are anything but alluring. There are a
      host of other symptoms that make them inept and they do as much or more damage to their own lives as those around them.

      • I run into them. I am not a trained Clinician or anything, but I feel like I can pick them out. The last one I met was a heroin addict addicted also to gambling. The one interesting thing was that he was handsome. But having conversations with him was a little scary but also kind of boring, due to huge gaps he had. Gaps in everyday knowledge, gaps in normal human emotion. The high IQ thing, I think is a myth. They are more likely to be borderline mentally retarded. He had a creepy vacant stare, which he used for intimidation.

        I think many of them are con-artists due to being too stupid to do anything else.

        • The reason people of low IQ can be fairly successful con artists is due to the fact that most people are honest. So if there were suddenly more sociopaths, they would be far less successful. They can only be “successful” at low population densities.

        • Calypso_1 | Oct 31, 2012 at 12:48 pm |

          With a manipulative individual street smarts can trump ‘clinical’ knowledge any day. We do get to interact with behavioral aberrations on a daily basis, but most of these individuals are not on their home turf, so it can be a whole different set of rules. Regardless, it never pays to let your guard down in either situation. The difference in my case would be trying to view the person as a human being who is manifesting medical symptoms.

          Sociopath IQs (if they can be measured with the same indicators) should, for the most part, be no different than normal distribution in the genpop.

          • I think it would be lower and I think its probably comorbid with things like dyslexia. I think there have been studies to that effect that IQ is slightly lower in reality but in the media Sociopaths are displayed as having unusually high IQ’s. i.e. Hannibal Lecter etc.

            I look at it like, in each of us, there is a wild animal, but its buffered by socialization, empathy, developments in social intelligence and emotional IQ operating from the pre-frontal cortex. So its like when you meet another person, its like seeing a wild animal in a zoo with a big mote in front of them. In your normal interactions the wild animals stays behind the mote.

            When you meet a sociopath. There is no mote. You are confronted only with the wild animal. Its arresting. But as far as getting inside their heads and trying to see the world as they do. Its mostly a matter if subtraction. Subtracting elements of yourself and getting down to the baser animal drives. Removing all the things people equate with being human. So then you come to a person that just wants to get high, fuck, play intimidation games and go after cheap empty thrills. A person who is easily bored and has no real intellectual curiosity, no dreams, no passions, no actual goals.

          • Calypso_1 | Oct 31, 2012 at 3:03 pm |

            That’s a pretty fair assessment. I would say there can be some serious curiosity though in just tends to be gruesome when manifested through the human animal. It’s those things that tend to be equated with evil. However, without calling it anthropomorphizing, I think its pretty fair to say that many of the ‘good’ human traits are equally apparent in animals as well. Hmm, I’ve never given much consideration to the neurological manifestations of mental illness in animals. We have all kinds of models used in rats for studies, just never thought about it outside the lab in an evolutionary sense. Cool, thx for the thought thread.

          • Do you plan to write more on the subject? I enjoyed the sense of smell and sociopathy piece you wrote. I thought about it, while encountering this recent sociopath I met.

          • Calypso_1 | Nov 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |

            Yes, I will be doing a review article of a new book that is out once I finish reading it and will do similar articles as I come across any research that looks like it would be fun to disseminate or speculate on.

    • Calypso_1 | Oct 31, 2012 at 11:19 am |

      So does the Entertainment Complex. They certainly try to sell their version of the sociopath in all it’s “glory”. Sex & fear – nice control buttons. I believe others have explored this topic quite deeply.

      From my perspective some of the most recent research does open the possibility that a key component is malfunctions in more primitive sexual/reward circuits, specifically arousal to fear response.

      Clinical hallmarks of the disorder [given what classification schema you are using] are lack of anxiety in ‘fearful’ situations & very poor susceptibility to normal ‘carrot-stick’ conditioning. Makes for lurid boogey-men.

      Most people that can be demonstrated to have these traits are anything but alluring. There are a
      host of other symptoms that make them inept and they do as much or more damage to their own lives as those around them.

  12. Sociopaths do whatever will benefit themselves, if that choice happens to benefit the group, it’s not intentional, it’s sheer coincidence.

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