The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible

Online Book Version (English)

Chapter 28: Psychopathy

If something bites you, it is inside of your clothes.

—Swahili proverb

I have argued that change will come not from overcoming the powers-that-be, but through their transformation. I have stated that we are fundamentally the same being looking out at the world through many sets of eyes. I have described how our perception of evil comes from a lack of understanding of what it is like to be another person. I have asserted that what we do unto the other, we do unto ourselves, and that this is something we can feel. And I have invoked the principle of the gift, that we are all here to contribute our gifts toward something greater than ourselves, and will never be content unless we are. In answer to all of these, sometimes people bring up the counterexample of the psychopath, a distinct subset of humanity that supposedly possesses no compassion, no ability to feel love, and no shame.

These people are, it is said, totally out for themselves, suffering no compunctions in ruthlessly pursuing short-term self-interest. Unfeeling, charming, charismatic, daring, and ruthless, they tend to rise to the top in business and government. To a large extent, they are the powers-that-be, and it would be naive to think that anything but raw force would stop them. Without pity, without conscience, without even the capacity to feel anything but a few basic proto-emotions, they are the epitome of evil. According to many researchers, they can never be cured. They don’t want to be cured. They are happy the way they are.

No one agrees on what causes psychopathy. One of the most prominent scholars in the field, Robert Hare, says flat out that no one really has a clue. There might be some kind of genetic predisposition toward psychopathy, but even this isn’t certain.

The above narrative, left untouched, reintroduces the story of good versus evil into our worldview. Who knows who is a psychopath and who isn’t? “Psychopath” becomes the scientifically sanctioned term for “wicked person.”

The invocation of psychopathy to validate the good-versus-evil narrative and all that comes along with it (such as the necessity of force as the primary means of changing the world) is misleading. Granting for a moment that there is a distinct category of irredeemable people whom we call psychopaths, it is also true that the conditions under which they thrive are systemic. Traditional views both in evolutionary biology and in economics essentially assert that our basic nature is something quite psychopathic: that we are driven to maximize self-interest, and that traits that seem to contradict self-interest exist because, in some way that isn’t immediately obvious, they actually further it. The example of altruism as a kind of mating display comes to mind, or generosity as a means of gaining status and control over others. This paradigm is woven into our economic system. If you don’t maximize your firm’s self-interest, firms that do will outcompete you. Even as consumers trying to get the best deal, the incentive embodied in the price tag often contradicts the impulse to pay the workers who made the item a living wage, or to adopt environmentally responsible practices. Those items are more expensive. Living in a system that rewards psychopathy, it is no accident that the psychopathic rise to the top, and that the psychopathic tendencies within each of us rise to the surface. It is a mistake to blame psychopaths for our present condition; they are a result, not a cause.

Under what circumstances do you become a cold, unfeeling person? Under what circumstances do you shut off your empathy? When do you manipulate others for your own advantage? When I notice myself doing it, usually it is when I am feeling insecure.

Insecurity is built in to our Story of the World: the separate self in a hostile universe of competing others, random accident, and impersonal forces of nature. Insecurity is also built in to the structures arising from that story, for example, the economic system, which throws us into competition to meet basic needs even when, objectively speaking, there is abundance for all. Just living in a mass society where the faces we see have no names, where strangers meet our needs for pay, and where even our neighbors know little of our stories, contributes to the same omnipresent insecurity. Our behavior in the world of separation confirms the premise of that world: it turns us into selfish utility-maximizing quasi-psychopaths.

Given any cultural trait, there are always some people who embody it in extreme form, holding up a mirror so that we can recognize it in ourselves. These would be the psychopaths.

Nonetheless, people with psychopathic tendencies do hold a lot of power today and will act to thwart anything that challenges it. Does that mean we need to use force after all? I don’t mean to rule it out categorically. There are circumstances where I personally might use force, for example if someone were threatening my children. But it is dangerous to extrapolate from these situations: before long, one is concocting “ticking time bomb” scenarios to justify torture for political ends, reasoning that in some indirect way, one’s children are being threatened. Furthermore, even attempting to lay out ethical principles to distinguish when violence is and is not justified perpetuates a dangerous delusion: that the way we should (and sometimes do) make choices is to reason out guiding principles beforehand, and then act on those principles in the moment. In actuality, whatever I write in this book and whatever beliefs I profess, if my children were actually being threatened I am sure something else would take over. Would I fight? Maybe. Would I calmly face the man and say, “You must be pretty desperate to be doing this. How can I help you?” Maybe. This choice would surely depend, in part, on a lifetime of experiences and learning. If I have explored nonviolence deeply in theory and practice, I might be more likely to apply it successfully when fighting isn’t actually the best choice. But absorbing and integrating the spirit of nonviolent action is very different from setting it up as a rule and imagining I will be able to enforce that rule upon myself when the moment arrives. To aspire to be a “man of principle” is a kind of separation, part of the program of control. It attempts to override the gut, the instinct, and often the heart. How many atrocities in history have been justified on one or another principle?

What, exactly, do we mean when we say that psychopaths hold power in our society? Power in human society depends on a system of agreements within that society. A psychopathic corporate executive doesn’t hold power because he personally has big muscles or big guns. His coercive and manipulative powers depend largely on money and the associated apparatus of corporate governance. At the bottom of it all, there are indeed muscles and guns ready to coerce those who refuse to obey the rules, but even so, he doesn’t personally wield those guns. They are wielded by perfectly decent police and security personnel who are not much more psychopathic than anyone else.

In other words, power in a complex society arises from story: from the system of agreements and narratives that scaffold our world. Our current story facilitates the rise of psychopathy and empowers the psychopath. Because it is story, and not force, that ultimately empowers those in power, it is on the level of story, and not force, that we must act in order to take away their power and change the system. That is why advocating force as the primary instrument of change is counterproductive—it reinforces the very same Story of Separation that is at the root of our condition to begin with. One facet of it is the story of the good people finally rising up to topple the bad people.

Let us therefore go one step further in questioning the category of the psychopath. Is it true that the psychopath is simply born without empathy? Another explanation is that the psychopath has empathy, but has shut it down at an early age, rendering him- or herself unable to feel. Why would that happen?

It could be because the psychopath is the very opposite of what we think. What if the psychopath isn’t someone born without feeling, but rather someone born with an extraordinary capacity for empathy and sensitivity to emotional pain? Unable to endure its intensity, he shuts it off completely. Most of us don’t need to do that, because the enormous pain of the world doesn’t affect us quite as strongly. Or, shall we say, it affects us in different ways, a deeper ache perhaps, less immediate, less raw.

You can probably think of many ways our culture of child-rearing contributes to the shutdown of feeling, especially in boys. Beyond childhood, it pervades our whole society. Have you ever wondered why “cool” has been the preeminent term of approbation for the last fifty years? Why does “cool” equal “good”? Why is it desirable to be cool in our emotions, to not feel very much, not care very much, not be in earnest about anything? One reason may be the urge to withdraw from a world too painful to bear. Another is that we recognize the bankruptcy of so many of the things we are given to care about. The news media offer us an endless array of trivialities and pantomimes, punctuated regularly by shocking and seemingly disconnected horrors that we learn to shrug off. Do we inure ourselves to them because we are psychopathic ourselves? Or could it be because we sense that they are a kind of a show, symptoms of a deeper disease? Maybe we hold back because the prevailing story has obscured much of what we really want to care about.

Many classic psychopathic behaviors make sense within the context of a general shutdown in feeling. Inured to feeling, the psychopath nonetheless has, like all of us, a strong physiological need to feel. Therefore he is given to impulsiveness, drama, pointlessly risky behavior that doesn’t contribute to his self-interest at all. Anything powerful enough to breach the walls he has constructed will attract him. For some, it could be the intensity of infatuation, for others, murder, for others closing the big deal. It could be the big risk, the big purchase, the big gamble. Many psychopaths are addicted to such things that, they sometimes say, make them feel alive. Most academic researchers believe psychopathy is a conjunction of two independent axes of variation: lack of empathy, and impulsivity. In my hypothesis, the two are closely linked. The risky behavior is an attempt to breach the lack of feeling.

I must acknowledge that there is very little research supporting this hypothesis. I base it on my own experience—first and foremost with myself. I was an extremely sensitive child and, due to traumatic bullying in my early teens, learned to shut off most of my feelings. Though the shutoff wasn’t nearly as profound as that of a psychopath, still it enabled me to do some pretty callous, manipulative things. I also exhibited other psychopathic traits, such as impulsivity and a penchant for drama. I was trapped in numbness and wanted desperately to feel. Tori Amos’s lyric spoke to me: “Give me life, give me pain, give me my self again.”

In addition, I have also had extensive interactions with several psychopathic individuals, at least one of whom was profoundly so: a man whose ruthlessness knew no bounds. I’ll call him C. He also had other classically psychopathic traits: glib self-justification, total lack of shame, extreme impulsiveness, extraordinary charisma, and great physical courage that often crossed the line into foolhardiness. But there were a few times when I caught a fleeting glimpse of something else, a tenderness or a purity that came out in very convoluted ways, for example as spontaneous, secret, and sometimes magnanimous acts of generosity or caregiving. These were distinct from the cynical devices he routinely enacted to seem a swell guy. There was something else, a real human being. As far as I know, that real human being is still deeply buried, but it is in there and somehow, someday, might awaken.

Whether or not transformation is possible, as a practical matter, most psychopaths might just need to be stopped. I have gone into this speculation on the origin of psychopathy for two reasons. One is to offer an alternative to this common argument for the existence of evil. Looking at the world around us, it certainly does appear sometimes that the psychopaths are in charge. My point is that evil is a consequence, not a cause, and by going to war against it we further the cause of war. Psychopathy is the extreme expression of something that exists in all of us and in the culture that surrounds us. It comes from a cutoff of our extended being.

The second reason I have ventured into this topic is that the transformation of the psychopath has implications for the transformation of our civilization. Exploiting nature and people toward its own ends, applying a superficial charm to entrap other cultures, justifying everything it does with a glib story of progress, our civilization has been little short of psychopathic. On an individual level of course we feel empathy for the species, cultures, and ecosystems that stand in the path of development, but collectively we act only sporadically to stop it—like my friend and his occasional gestures of distorted humanity. Moreover, the question “How can we learn to feel again?” affects everyone, not only those we call psychopaths, because each of us is, in our own way, cut off from the felt connection to parts of our extended selves.

As it happens, I do know that psychopaths can change, because I know one who did. Back when I was teaching at the university, a twenty-two-year-old student came into my office with a rather shocking confession. He told me, in matter-of-fact tones and with no evidence of boasting nor of shame, “I am the top cocaine wholesaler in ___. I make a cash income of $10,000 a week and I spend it all. I drink Dom Pérignon every day. When I go out at night, I have four bodyguards from the inner city. I’ve heard that the DA has a file on me, but I don’t care.”

I told him, “Well, that sounds pretty good, so what’s the problem?”

He said, “I’m kind of tired of it. It doesn’t do anything for me. I walk across campus and all I see instead of faces are walking $100 bills. Every one of them is going to give $100 to their dealer, who will give it to their distributor, who will give it to me. I don’t get a kick out of it anymore. I think I’m going to have to quit my job.”

“That won’t be easy,” I warned. Once in that world, it is nearly impossible to leave. “A thousand hands will be pulling back at you.”

It was no easy matter for F. to change his job. As seems true with a lot of psychopaths, he was extraordinary in more ways than lacking empathy: he also had extraordinary creativity, charisma, and resourcefulness, as well as impatience for conventional rules and mores. In nearly any job, he very quickly bumped up against “Why should I?” His first job was in an ice cream store, where he quickly developed the attitude “Scoop your own damn ice cream!” He got a job selling mortgages, broke all sales records in his first month, then quit. He took up photography and, despite having no experience, in a few months was earning thousands of dollars a shoot—not just because of his salesmanship, but because of his ability to get subjects to let down their habitual guard. That held his interest for a little longer, but soon he didn’t see the point of that either. He wanted to focus more on the creative expression and couldn’t be bothered to do the stuff one typically does to charge big money. He began working for free.

During this period F. began experiencing enormous amounts of emotional and psychological pain, especially when he decided to quit drinking. He became a person with not an ordinary but an extraordinary capacity to feel. Today he spends his time staying at home with his baby son, and playing with photography and other digital arts. I don’t know where he will eventually turn his prodigious capacities. Our society doesn’t offer ready-made positions for people like him. He had to make himself small to fit in. What would the world be like if it expanded to accommodate people like that?

His situation is all of ours. Society renders us artificially small so that we may fit into its boxes, a project in which we become accomplices. If the program of diminishment is unsuccessful, or if the energy denied cannot be contained, then society will have no place for you. It is impossible to feel fully, and still be a functioning member of normal society. When we feel too much, we care too much, and the roles we are put in that grease the wheels of the machine become intolerable—good news, as this is the very same machine that we are riding over the edge of a cliff.

Recall the second reason for “cool” I gave above—our recognition of the bankruptcy of the things we are given to care about. Psychopaths have this quality in huge measure: not only are they preternaturally cool under pressure, but they are relatively unaffected by many of the mechanisms of reward and shame society uses to govern us. Many activists would like to be freer from these constraints too, especially when the work we are doing violates many social norms. Being free from what people think is just one of many desirable psychopathic traits. In fact, psychopaths have many traits ordinarily associated with spiritual masters, such as nonattachment, ability to focus, being in the present moment, and courage. Indeed, one might make the case that certain famous spiritual teachers were psychopaths (Gurdjieff and Chögyam Trungpa come to mind).

Here is another story from Book IV of the Liezi (translation Thomas Cleary):

Lung Shu said to the physician Wen Chi, “Your art is subtle. I have an ailment; can you cure it?”

The physician said, “I will do as you say, but first tell me about your symptoms.”

Lung Shu said, “I am not honored when the whole village praises me, nor am I ashamed when the whole country criticizes me. I look upon life as like death, and see wealth as like poverty. I view people as like pigs, and see myself as like others. At home I am as though at an inn, and I look upon my native village as like a foreign country. With these afflictions, rewards cannot encourage me, punishments cannot threaten me. I cannot be changed by flourishing or decline, gain or loss; I cannot be moved by sorrow or happiness. Thus I cannot serve the government, associate with friends, run my household, or control my servants. What sickness is this? Is there any way to cure it?”

The physician had Lung Shu stand with his back to the light while he looked into his chest. After a while he said, “Aha! I see your heart; it is empty! You are nearly a sage. Six of the apertures in your heart are open, one of them is closed. This may be why you think the wisdom of a sage is an ailment. It cannot be stopped by my shallow art.”

There is more to psychopathy than meets the eye. We can shoehorn it into our category of evil, but only by ignoring some of its many dimensions. Another clue I haven’t mentioned is the tendency for psychopaths to “mellow” and develop empathy with age. Or could it be that whatever story that generated their kicks becomes stale? Sensing this possibility, with C., my psychopathic friend, while I was appreciative of his resourcefulness and audacity in achieving his goals and would laugh along with him, I would show that I was unimpressed with the end result (bedding some woman, humiliating some person, or closing some deal), trying to communicate to him, “There is a bigger game you could be playing.”

While most people are not as extreme as C., who among us can say that we have never been stuck in a smaller game than we could be playing, striving for its trivial rewards that, when we achieved them, left that lingering feeling of “so what”? Psychopaths or not, the winners of the game of our society are the biggest dupes of all.

A generation or two ago, Earth was not yet in such pain, and we had a Story of Ascent—progress and conquest—that absorbed much of the pain there was, which was still a lot. Today the story of technology making life on Earth better and better is tottering, and the pain grows beyond all our attempts to deny it. For a while we might find some distraction, some inconsequential arena where we can feel. Sports extravaganzas, action movies, fantasy novels, celebrity news, and the various heartrending tragedies that appear regularly in the mainstream media all allow us to exercise our feelings and continue living life as normal. But eventually we stop caring about the trivialities, and we realize that the tragedies too are merely the most visible outcroppings of a deeper vein of dysfunction. Life stops making sense. We wonder, as F. did at the mortgage company, what the point is. We keep slogging away, perhaps, at our jobs or school out of fear of financial hardship, but at some point even that isn’t enough to keep us going. The next step is medication: antidepressants to inure us to the pain; antianxiety meds to quell the sense that something is terribly wrong; stimulants to force us to pay attention to things we don’t care about. But all of these merely drive the life-force deeper underground. There it builds, bubbling up eventually as cancer, turning against the body as autoimmunity, or exploding outward as violence. No wonder that nearly all the school shootings in the last two decades have involved psychiatric medications.

Imagine what this world could be, if we could channel that tremendous pent-up life-force toward something worth caring about. To be sure, most people do have access to things worth caring about on a personal level. There are babies to hold, shoulders to cry on, gardens to plant. Our Story of the World and its systems often squeeze these simple avenues of service to the hurried margins of life. Besides, we also need more than just these, at least in certain stages of life. That is why we, and especially young people, hunger for a cause. Like F., we want to care. We want to find a way to open the floodgates of the heart. Such things as “ending polio in Africa” or “internet freedom” might serve for a time, but eventually they cease to excite us. The gates shut again, maybe via burnout or compassion fatigue. For some of us, none of these causes, taken in isolation, can pierce the ennui, the uncaring, the cool. We need to see what bigger thing we are serving. We need a story of the world we really care about.


26. A good case can be made for the existence of psychopaths in premodern societies. The incidence of psychopathy in these societies is apparently much lower, however, reflecting perhaps the smaller degree of Separation those cultures embodied. It was not absent entirely: some would argue that any society that has adopted domestication, or even symbolic culture (language), has already embarked on the path of Separation. (See for example John Zerzan’s Elements of Refusal.)

27. See for example “Emotional Capacities and Sensitivity in Psychopaths” by Willem H. J. Martens, MD, PhD.

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