Psychopathy has been a longstanding research interest of mine, and it will be a topic which – hopefully – I will pursue into academia, should the stars align. I am not certain if current researchers in the area share my perspective, but psychopaths are – to me – far less deviant and malevolent than they are typically judged to be. I view psychopathy merely as a personality construct which in and of itself is morally neutral.
It is a fairly justifiable assertion that most, if not all, research psychologists were initially drawn to the discipline by a personal connection of sorts. This assertion is one which dangles implicitly; unspoken but assumed among academic circles. Granted, research interests almost always diversify as researchers become entrenched in the ivory halls, but it was always something personal that set ablaze the initial spark of curiosity; of interest, of possibility. The ex-depressed researcher who studies stress and coping, the perfectionist who studies perfectionism, the autistic who studies autism, and the psychopath who studies psychopathy. It is not surprising that one excels at what one knows best.
All but a rare few in my social circle understand my motivation to pursue research psychology. My research interests since then have now expanded to include emotional regulation, consciousness, visual cognition, autism-spectrum disorders, and evolutionary psychology. I also have a great interest in correlated and/or related personality constructs such as antisocial personality disorder, narcissism, and machiavellianism.
To address the serenading elephant in the room: Yes, I have considered the possibility that I exhibit many psychopathic characteristics. No, I have concluded that I am not a psychopath – that is, my psychopathic features are not present at a sufficient level by which to receive the threshold research label of psychopathy. That being said, I’m not sure if I draw this conclusion out of empirical rigor or wishful thinking. I am aware that, as I am, I am atypical in many regards. I do share an astoundingly high number of psychopathic features, I will admit.
Most laypeople do not realize that psychopaths do not, in fact, possess a deficiency in emotional understanding. Psychopaths often excel at reading others, adopting another person’s perspective to better control the social interaction. Psychopaths are perhaps most aptly characterized by a lack of empathy, but this lack of empathy is of a distinct flavor which is not to say that psychopaths cannot “put themselves in another person’s shoes”. It is particularly the superior ability of psychopaths to adopt the viewpoint of another that makes them, very often, so dangerous. Psychopathic lack of empathy is more the inability to simulate another person’s experience of a given event. It is coupling of an impressive ability to read the intentions and emotion states of others, with a genuine lack of compassion. In laymen’s terms, psychopaths know but do not care.
This is largely why psychopaths are largely seen as immoral or amoral. To a psychopath, the moral laws and legal laws are equivalent. It is generally accepted in contemporary research that most of human morality is based upon emotional experience. Moral cognition therefore hinges on the experience of emotion. Emotions evolved because they allowed for humanity’s ancestors to respond quickly to any given situation. As most individuals today realize, there is no course of action undertaken with such swiftness or vigor other than those we believe are morally right. Emotion provides an incentive – a conviction – to pursue a course of action with as much efficacy and speed as possible. Presumably, these courses of action are those which have proven to be evolutionarily adaptive. For instance, consider the universal moral violation of murder. It is clear even back during primordial times that murdering one’s neighbor would result in cultural disapproval. For the early member of humankind, such ostracization and explusion from a society (eg. village) could potentially result in death. Humans function optimally when they operate in societies of other humans, with each individual contributing a unique, specialized skill. Hence, most individuals today have evolved the innate revulsion toward murder. Very commonly when asked why they disapprove of murder, people respond that it is a result of a “gut feeling” or “conscience” rather than intellectual reasoning. Individuals derive positive affect from prosocial behavior, and in that sense, they very much condition themselves to that which they are already evolutionarily predisposed.
Perhaps you may see now, why the moral poverty of a psychopath is problematic but not obvious, nor readily identifiable. I resent the association that exists between psychopathy and “evil”. Evil is a word that I thoroughly dislike, both because society tends to misuse it and the fact that I do not believe in moral axioms. Morality will always be, to me, a point of view – a perspective on actions taken, a judgement of propriety. Without moral individuals there is no concept of morality, only action. The universe behaves as it behaves, not as it ought to behave.
For this reason, I often find it difficult to engage in moral discourse. As a vocal member of the secular/atheist movement, I often find myself in debates regarding the prescription and discussion of moral conundrums. These usually take the form of two teams of debaters, with stances determined randomly at the flip of a coin. Such intellectual exercises are useful for evaluating numerous moral truths, but over time I have come to the realization that – despite both parties agreeing to advocate their designated position to the best of their ability – there is always a “correct” answer. It does not matter if an individual is randomly assigned the role of devil’s advocate – there is ALWAYS a correct answer which hangs implicitly in the air. There is an unspoken agreement that 1) there is a correct moral stance to take, and 2) regardless of how reasonable “immoral” arguments may be, a consensus will eventually arrive upon this moral truth. Accordingly, I encounter a great deal of difficulty defending this “correct” answer. I do understand the reasoning behind this correct stance, but it is at an intellectual level only. There is no conviction behind my words. There is an entirely hidden layer of moral subtext which I am never privy to. Even when arguing the “right” stance, I experience no emotional conviction. Over time it became abundantly clear that most individuals adopt moral stances because they “feel” wrong to some extent, whereas I am not similarly compelled to distinguish between moral and immoral. The morality of crimes, to me, is a function only of its potential consequences to the self.
This understanding of morality appeared early. As a child, I was bitter and cynical and ruthless. I shoplifted, I set fires, I schemed, I manipulated, I tortured and killed neighborhood cats, I lied indiscriminately, and I saw people only as objects within my environment. For all these actions I regretted and regret nothing.
To be frank, human compassion is not something that comes naturally to me as it does others. Empathy is not something that I was reared to understand. Perhaps I never will, but I do wonder. Some mornings when I awake, I feel a spark of motivation; a vibrant touch of zeal to attempt to understand what it means to be a good person, but it is fleeting. It dissipates before I can muster the self-awareness to understand what it was.
Other terms I would find myself pondering the universe within a peculiar intellectual paradigm – that of an infinite universe. I have touched on this before in previous posts, but whenever I find myself contemplating the universe a few million years from now I become apathetic. Most people would think that because I find the human species so insignificant, that I would not hesitate to do as I will. This is a wary assumption, because my orientation on action and inaction is precisely the opposite. Because I am aware that my existence is only in this moment – in a few billion years no species would still be living to have any recollection of the human race, and therefore, myself. There is nothing so infinite as to be understandable. There is no reason why I must hesitate to, for instance, murder my neighbor in his sleep. There is no reason to refrain from manipulating others for my own sadistic pleasure. There is absolutely no reason critical enough as to refrain from destruction for the sake of free-floating morality.
Because I do not believe that morality is intrinsic or axiomatic. Morality, from my perspective, is nothing more than a large, species-wide, generally agreed upon democracy. To that understanding, perhaps the purest understanding of our existence must be understood through the eyes of children. Children who have not yet attained moral reasoning are, by far, the purest method we have by which to make sense of our time here. For children are not immoral so much as amoral.
Perhaps then, those axiomatic altruists who spend their lives and careers defending the well-being of children, were onto something after all.