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It's better with conscience

In "The Sociopath Next Door," Martha Stout makes impressive contributions to psychology and moral theory. She is a psychologist who has worked with "hundreds of survivors" of "the damage caused by the sociopaths among us," and presents a thirteen-point checklist for avoiding being victimized by manipulative people. She also gives her account of what conscience is.

She begins by paying homage to Robert Hare, saying that his "Psychopathy Checklist" is "now accepted as a standard diagnostic instrument for researchers and clinicians worldwide." Hare penned "Without Conscience" (1993) in which he described psychopaths as people who lack empathy. They are not delusional; they simply choose to do things that they know are considered to be wrong, because they lack the interpersonal bonds and complex emotions that would lend meaning to social rules that otherwise seem arbitrary.

They are not interested in being "cured" because they do not believe there is anything wrong with them. Hare explained that he was developing a Canadian program for psychopathic violent offenders that would "convince them that their current attitudes and behavior are not in their own self-interest, and that they alone must bear responsibility for their behavior." As for everyone else, he advised them simply to avoid psychopaths.

In her book "The Sociopath Next Door" (2005), Stout works from Hare's definition — her preferred term "sociopath" means essentially the same thing as Hare's term "psychopath" — but she goes beyond the scope of Hare's book. She develops extended fictional stories that illustrate the key features of sociopathy. She also provides a working definition of the presence, not just the absence, of conscience. These positive passages are often inspirational, and they read beautifully. (Occasionally a sentence rings like the beginning of a poem, as in "We never asked for conscience. It is just there," and "Do not set her up to be gaslighted.")

Calling conscience an "essential seventh sense" (coming after the "sixth sense" of intuition) and identifying it as operating on autopilot most of the time, Stout points out that most people cannot even imagine what it would be like not to have one. What would it be like not to care about family and friends? Never to feel a sinking sensation in the stomach upon wondering if you might have inadvertently injured someone? This seems to require imagining not being human at all, but instead being some kind of robot.

For the estimated 4 percent of Americans who are sociopaths, Stout writes, "the intellectual difference between right and wrong does not bring on the emotional sirens and flashing blue lights, or the fear of God, that it does for the rest of us. Without the slightest blip of guilt or remorse, one in twenty-five people can do anything at all." They treat their dealings with other people as a zero-sum game.

To win is to manipulate others and not to get caught. Sometimes they believe their own lies, which "makes self-awareness impossible, and in the end, just as the sociopath has no genuine relationships with other people, he has only a very tenuous one with himself." Sociopaths are disproportionately represented in the prison population, and among prisoners they disproportionately represent those convicted of the "most serious crimes."

Some sociopaths do not believe that there is such a thing as conscience; not being able to feel it themselves, they believe that others are faking these emotions. Other sociopaths recognize that others have moral feelings, and they simply view these "conscience-bound" people as weak, because their consciences limit them from pursuing self-interested goals, whereas the sociopath has no such limitation. The sociopath will try to exploit the moral feelings of others by seeking their pity.

Stout says that the numbers of sociopaths in Asia today are much lower than in North America — for example, only one-tenth of one percent of the population in Taiwan is said to be sociopathic. While research has found that genetics plays a significant role in the development of sociopathic personality traits, culture also plays a role. "Perhaps a culture that insists on connectedness as a matter of belief," as many Asian cultures do, she writes, "can instill a strictly cognitive understanding of interpersonal obligation" where an intuitive emotional understanding is lacking.

In other words, a culture that preaches the interconnectedness of all living things can teach someone with a limited emotional life to act as if they cared, whereas a culture that preaches ruthless capitalism gives them free rein to act like a sociopath. Her dramatic pronouncement is that "a Western family by itself cannot redeem a born sociopath. There are too many other voices in the larger society implying that his approach to the world is correct."

Stout explores why conscience-bound people claim to prefer having a conscience and do not express a wish to live without one. The conscience is not merely the imagined voice of the parent, inducing guilt and fear, what Freud called the "superego." It's a positive drive based on genuine caring. It gives meaning to life, a deeper happiness than can be achieved through the mere fulfillment of selfish desires.

She also explores the difficulties of being conscience-bound. People with conscience often refuse to admit the possibility that some people "live in a permanent and absolute moral nighttime," preferring to rationalize sociopathic crimes as if the criminals erred in their moral calculations rather than monstrously succeeded. As a result, to normal people, "most of the sociopaths are invisible." When people do become suspicious, they tend to overcompensate by prejudicially distrusting large swathes of the population; such approaches are "irrational strategies that readily become lifelong superstitions" and "tend to produce anxiety and unhappiness in our lives." Another difficulty is that people can become temporarily detached from their sense of right and wrong. There is a statistically effective way to disable an individual conscience: "we are programmed to obey authority even against our own consciences." She references Stanley Milgram's famous experiment and the book "On Killing" by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.

This book covers a lot of territory while often seeming just on the edge of breaking out into lyricism. It will be fertile ground for many students of psychology and ethics.

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