This article in Psychology Today offers a new perspective on the phenomenon of the sociopath. The article begins with the story of “Skip”, an 8 year-old boy described by both his parents, teachers, and fellow students as incredibly charismatic, who relieved himself of boredom by calculating his inheritance, charming other children into doing what he wanted, and recounting summer vacations where he would stab frogs with a knife and hurl them across a lake for entertainment. His sister commented on his “weird eyes”, and issue which his parents avoided discussing, understanding that he was different. He escalated over his lifetime, applying charm and family influence to become the chief executive of an international mining corporation, marrying into a billionaire family and starting his own, and being rewarded by the company founders, all the while continuing sexual liaisons without impunity and secretly scoffing in contempt at everyone in his life. So describes a sociopath, a human being with the neurogenetic markers which disable the mind’s ability to develop a conscience. Normally, human cooperative tendencies are cultivated by neurological functions such as those governing oxytocin, creating a great need to belong to a group; sociopaths lack this, thus enabling them to act without regard for their effect on others, refusing to assume responsibility for actions, and uncaring of whatever harm they cause, leaving only self-interest. The article concludes with an analysis suggesting that the prevalence of sociopathic expression is disproportionately greater in Western societies. It is suggested that this is the case due to the unique, and the historically recent, association of Western culture with an extreme form of individualism, which encourages and rewards such traits as “impulsivity, irresponsibility, and lack of remorse.” More communitarian cultures cannot relieve sociopathy where it is manifested, but instead give sociopaths an avenue whereby they can camouflage themselves by acting so as to fulfill their social expectations of inclusion in a tight web of communal familiarity. The article is complemented by a list of methods whereby one can identify and avoid a sociopath in everyday life.
There is considerable work on the intriguing subject of sociopathic behavior. It must always be remembered that sociopaths do not possess choice in their ability to experience emotional attachment to others. However, they do possess freedom of action. Skip may live an emotionally vapid, insincere, and shallow life, yet he could have turned out far worse. An abusive household would have gone far in creating him into a more unstable, violent version of the manipulative businessman he became, and it was perhaps this factor of nurture in his life which prevented him from becoming a prisoner. Sociopaths, like other sufferers of neurological disorders, are also not without their own idiosyncrasies. In another article, S.E. Thompson (the author of Confessions of a Sociopath) described her love for a closed set of people who she could not imagine harming, yet unabashedly describes her exploitation of fellow students and coworkers. In his well-known book, The Psychopath Inside, Jim Fallon admits to never having loved his wife or children, yet a combination of childhood experiences and emotional eccentricities make it emotionally hurtful for him to see a baby crying or in pain, forcing him to look away. Such examples demonstrate how sociopaths have choice in their action, even though they are incapable of forming a conscience.
This leads to other issues, both social and philosophical. Many moral theories exist which evaluate morality based upon the intention or character of the actor, without regard to the effects of what the actor does. However, this becomes difficult in the case of a member of the moral community who has freedom of action, but not freedom of intention. Whatever one believes insofar as faith in human goodness and spiritual solutions to all issues, the fact is that sociopaths do not chose to be sociopathic, but are products of neurological and genetic traits which limit their ability to feel. As such, while a sociopath might commit an act of kindness to another human being, it will never be sincere, but will be motivated only by a desire to blend in, obtain favor, appear kind, etc. Because this is the case in every situation, the intentionalist much necessarily condemn the sociopath, not for the content of any action committed, but simply for being the person they are. The implication is that the sociopath is inherently immoral, as their disorder rests beyond choice and cannot be modified; the same is true for other such maladies as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Such a moralist must do either one of two things: accept that sociopaths are morally condemnable for existing, or accept a moral theory of action alone (disregarding the content of any intention or character) to accommodate them as moral agents of potential goodness.
As far as what this means for society, the comparative statistics of sociopathic prevalence in Western and non-Western societies should be telling of the shortcomings of Western ultra-individualism. Western culture has devolved to not only disregard acts of corruption, but to encourage them as exultations of the self as the sole and ultimate good. This can even be observed in the attitudes of Hollywood heroes: the ill-tempered, headstrong, impulsive, thuggish cowboy saves the day while his mild-tempered, intellectual partner is marginalized at best, punished at worst for being less of a desperado. Forming a culture of interdependence and mutual assistance in unprejudiced human unity may not give a sociopath conscience, but it seems likely to provide an avenue whereby a sociopath could channel his or her naturally amoral state into something constructive and socially beneficial, a possibility vanishing in a society which encourages the selfish to act selfishly.
Stout, Martha. “The Ice People.” Psychology Today. 23 Mar 2016.