Psychologist George Simon thinks psychopathy should be called a “character” disorder instead of a personality disorder because we are bad people with a bad character. So imagine my surprise when I read that this same man has said we are born this way.
Someone on Quora asked Athena Walker if she thought she was “evil.” She replied, “… for being born?” It’s pretty clear that moral judgements can only exist in the realm of choice. The growing belief among scientists that psychopathy is a condition one is born with would seem to preclude the possibility that we can logically be blamed for what we are. Parents of psychopaths welcome the idea. My own mother gleefully informed me that some doctor reassured her that I could have been just born that way, so it wasn’t her fault. Simon is also aware “all this might come as welcome news to those exasperated parents who used to blame themselves and who we used to blame for raising monsters….” Of course, they still provided the genetic material.
Nevertheless, Dr. George Simon, the man who insists psychopathy be called a “character disorder” instead of a “personality disorder,” thereby injecting morality into the traditionally neutral field of psychology, has declared himself an advocate of the nature (as opposed to nurture) in the etiology of psychopathy. Of course, everything has a cause. Whether someone was born with a particular brain structure or developed a personality as a result of trauma, s/he is “that way” as the result of a cause. Morality is implicitly connected to the assumption of free will. Wikipedia defines Free Will as “the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.” What is presupposed, is the existence of something called a “will” which is identical to our self. We have a will which is independent of the chain of causality. The causeless cause is what people call God. The belief in free will implies that everyone is (a) God.
A strict belief in determinism (nothing without an outside cause) makes moral responsibility difficult if not impossible. Inanimate objects have no will and no responsibility. If I throw a ball, the ball isn’t responsible for where it goes. If it breaks a window, that is unfortunate but not a sin on the part of the ball. I might have been evil to have thrown the ball but the ball has no way to express volition so it cannot be an agent of morality. Nietzsche articulated the dichotomy of good/bad and good/evil. The former is about the worth of something (to the person evaluating that worth). So fruit can be good if it tastes good to the person eating it and promotes his health. Bad fruit would be that which is either unpalatable and/or poisonous. There is no expectation that the piece of fruit would have the ability to be other than what it is. The dichotomy good/bad is amoral. The second pair of values is what falls under the rubric of morality. A man who chooses to do things we consider morally wrong can be evil. Poisonous fruit can never be evil. It just is what it is. And it’s “bad” fruit (from our human standpoint).
Criminal jurisprudence (and religion) assumes that people have free will. There are exceptions for those who suffer from severe mental illness which can rob them of the ability to make a choice. If a psychotic doesn’t know what he’s doing, in murdering someone, for example, his lack of understanding makes a moral choice impossible. Likewise, if someone is acting under an irresistible compulsion, he couldn’t help himself and is exempt from moral judgement. Such people are separated from society for the protection of society not for punishment. They are exempt from punishment but also lose civil rights. Freedom is responsibility.
Dr. Simon hypothesizes that psychopathy is a holdover from an earlier time in human history when psychopathy traits were favorable to survival. “There was a time – back in our more primitive days – when two of the factors we now think of as highly problematic: fearlessness and the capacity for the remorseless perpetuation of violence, were the very qualities the tribe valued most in its dominant leaders. The truth be told, psychopaths probably helped us survive and get to where we are.” And where are we? Today, of course, we are civilized. Oh, yeah? A world which has seen the Third Reich, the bombing of Hiroshima, two world wars, to mention only a few examples of barbarism is more evolved than it was in the days of tribal living? Even the behavior of children in a modern classroom shows the cruelty and aggression of modern man. What kids do to each other reflects the society they are growing up in. I don’t care how many anti-bullying programs a school creates. Kids learn better and faster by observing adults than by listening to their preaching.
Simon says psychopaths are “natural predators, but there are no wild beasts to slay. So, as Hare notes, they’ve become intra-species predators (which is why in both of my books I suggest that the most appropriate descriptive label for these personalities is ‘predatory aggressive’).” So why are so many children forming their own societies with pecking orders, cruelty and competition? Psychopaths are thought to only be about 1% of the population. The average child is neither a psychopath nor “callous unemotional” (the psychiatrically approved word for children with these tendencies). They can be cruel but they also have consciences. They are capable of empathy and emotional attachment. It must be comforting for NTs to project all their bad stuff on psychopaths. Simon repeats the same tedious lines blaming us for all the ills of the world. But, as a professor in the movie If said, “perhaps it isn’t a matter of evil dictators but whole populations of evil people like … ourselves?”
True. We don’t need to slay wild beasts. We raise the beasts in factory farms. Civilized, I suppose. But not kinder or gentler. Have we really evolved beyond tribal society? Look at Donald Trump and his supporters.
Simon says, “Some have suggested that psychopaths might rightfully be considered a different species because they’re so different with respect to the critical attributes that most of us think define us ‘human.'” Hello! A species breeds within it’s own kind. While animals of different species occasionally made to produce offspring, those offspring are infertile. Even Simon discards this ridiculous theory.
My own view:
I believe in the links of cause and effect. Everything has a cause. Whether it’s biological or environmental or (as Dr. Kevin Dutton suggests) epigenetic, it has a cause. But I also believe in free will. As I mentioned above, the belief in free will actually makes us godlike. To be able to make choices that are not mechanically determined by other things (which would strip us of all responsibility) is to be a first cause. What an awesome thought. Ironic that all the religions and laws accept this heretical viewpoint.
Sure, psychopathy has a cause. We didn’t choose it. It was given to us along with our eye color, intelligence, ethnic identity and economic position. But, as individuals, we do have free will. I realize that’s an act of faith. It’s also an every day experience that most of us accept intuitively. As a corollary to the belief in free will, I accept responsibility for my choices.
- Is Psychopathy Genetic? Dr. George Simon
- Free Will, Determinism and Moral Responsibility…. Ted Honderich
- Separate Morality from Free Will. PhilGoetz, LessWrong
- Malignant Narcissism. Introducing George Simon.
- Are All B’s Badasses? George Simon thinks so.
- The Bad Seed. “You were always a law unto yourself!”
- Science and Morality. Political Ponerology. Andrew M. Lobaczewski