“Evil is a point of view. We are immortal. And what we have before us are the rich feasts that conscience cannot appreciate and mortal men cannot know without regret. God kills, and so shall we; indiscriminately He takes the richest and the poorest, and so shall we; for no creatures under God are as we are, none so like Him as ourselves, dark angels not confined to the stinking limits of hell but wandering His earth and all its kingdoms.”
Anne Rice, Interview With the Vampire, spoken by Lestat
“I am evil with infinite gradations and without guilt.”
Anne Rice, Interview With the Vampire, spoken by Armand
“But some ‘anti-psychiatrists,’ notably Thomas Szasz, would argue that mental illness is itself a myth; and that therefore terms such as ‘sociopath’ and ‘Antisocial Personality Disorder’ are themselves just moral judgments disguised as empirically verifiable psychiatric disorders. ‘We call people mentally ill,’ argues Szasz, ‘when their personal conduct violates certain ethical, political, and social norms.’ Is this view correct? Is calling someone a sociopath, or saying that the person has Antisocial Personality Disorder, merely a concealed way of calling the person evil?”
Elliot D. Cohen
“Most especially, the term (character disorder) has been used to reflect those aspects of an individual’s personality that indicate the degree to which his or her personality traits reflect socially desirable qualities such as self-control, ethics, loyalty, fortitude, etc. So, the term ‘character’ generally refers to the extent of one’s virtuousness and social conscientiousness.”
Imagine my surprise the first time I saw psychopathy and narcissism described as character disorders instead of personality disorders. I started wondering what is happening to the “science” or psychiatry/psychology. Have these fields gone back to theology from whence they came? Psychology was supposed to remove the moral judgement from behavior by explaining it as a “sickness” or “condition.” Now they are signs of bad character again? What’s going on?
Once societies were very homogenic. Everyone practices the same religion (or were outcasts). When society became more diverse, “truth” also became more problematic. Different values were claiming legitimacy and we were told not to judge other cultures. Of course, that only came about after some bloody wars as society tried to remain homogeneous. Finally, they realized they didn’t have to all be Catholic or protestant or Muslim. But there were core values that most people seemed to accept.
Medical science deals with the difference between a healthy body and a sick one. There isn’t much dispute about what health looks like. Healthy people feel good and function well. Sickness is whatever interferes with that state of health. It’s pretty easy to recognize sickness when it strikes.
Medical science has expanded to cover the human psyche. Sickness and health are more complicated in this realm. We usually agree on what is a healthy body. But we have less consensus on what is a healthy psyche. Of course, there are phenomena that are clearly examples of an unhealthy psyche. For example, schizophrenia makes people often unable to function and most have said that psychosis didn’t feel good at all. In the realm of sanity, there are phenomena called neurosis which involve impairment of functioning and a certain degree of discomfort.
Psychiatry has also defined what it calls personality disorders. They are divided into three categories or clusters, A, known as the weird cluster, B, known as the dramatic cluster and C, the anxious cluster. People with these disorders usually suffer to some degree although some don’t feel that anything is wrong. Some people feel discomforted by behavior of people with certain “disorders” and much of what is written concerns “spotting” these people, defending oneself against them and recovering from “abuse” by these people. Here, subtly or not so subtly the people with the disorder become the problem rather than the disorder being a problem for them.
Some writers, some of them psychiatrists, have started referring to character disorders. Dr. George Simon writes, “The word ‘character’ derives from both French and Greek words meaning to engrave or furrow a distinctive mark. The word has been used to denote the most distinguishing traits of an individual that define or ‘mark’ them as a person. Most especially, the term has been used to reflect those aspects of an individual’s personality that indicate the degree to which his or her personality traits reflect socially desirable qualities such as self-control, ethics, loyalty, fortitude, etc. So, the term ‘character’ generally refers to the extent of one’s virtuousness and social conscientiousness.” This is getting dangerously close to moral judgment rather than medical analysis.
When psychiatry started, “bad behavior” was explained as representing an illness or malfunction in the person and was intended as an alternative to moral judgement. Now, it seems to have gone full circle and is saying, “yes, these people are evil after all.” Some folks are relieved to see things brought back to morality. They never felt comfortable with letting bad people off with the excuse that they are “sick.” Others divide the condition from behavior. In other words, someone may be a pedophile, have sexual feelings for children but, unless he acts on it, he is not evil. This is oddly reminiscent of a solution offered to “homosexuals” by Christians. It’s alright to be gay as long as you don’t practice your proclivities.
I notice that most articles about “character disorder” are by George Simon so his views can be taken as his own, individual opinion, not the voice of psychiatry, per se.
Neurotics have well-developed and overactive consciences (i.e. superegos), whereas disordered characters have consciences that are under-developed and impaired. Neurotics have a huge sense of right and wrong and always want to do the right thing. They often set standards for themselves that are so high they’re virtually impossible to meet, causing themselves a significant amount of stress. They tend to judge themselves overly harshly when they fail to meet expectations. They take on inordinate burdens, proverbially carrying the “weight of the world” on their shoulders. When something goes wrong, they quickly ask themselves what more they can do to help make a situation better.
Most disturbed characters don’t hear that little voice in their heads that urge most of us to do right or admonish most of us when we’re contemplating doing wrong. They don’t “push” themselves to take on responsibilities and don’t “arrest” themselves when they want something they shouldn’t have. Any qualms of conscience they might experience can be eliminated with great ease. In the most severe disturbances of character (i.e. the psychopath or sociopath), conscience is not simply weak, underdeveloped, or flawed, but can be absent altogether.
So the crux of “character disorder” for George Simon seems to be lack of conscience (or diminished one). I explored this in my Free to Choose blog post. The fact that psychopaths don’t have a conscience and are therefore free to do whatever we want really scares people. But they don’t realize the don’t always want to do the worst possible things.
People seem to feel safer when they know others are restrained by the straight jacket of conscience. Strange they should think that since people with consciences have done such atrocious things. Conscience or no conscience, society condemns some behavior. I guess it’s just self-preservation. We tend to condemn anything that threatens us.
- Science Has Limits: A few things that science does not do
- Are Evil People Crazy? by Elliot D. Cohen
- Am I Evil? by yours truly
- What is Character Disorder? by George Simon
- Neurotics vs. Character Disorder? George Simon
- Free to Choose. by yours truly