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Morality, Compassion and the Sociopath

November 2009

From Morality, Compassion and the Sociopath, part of The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to “The Office”:

First, sociopaths are driven by unsentimental observation of external realities, no matter how unpleasant. Second, they use the information they acquire through reality-grounding in skilled ways. Third, their distrust of subsuming communities and groups leads them to adopt personal moralities. Whether good or evil, the morality of a sociopath is something he or she takes responsibility for.

Finally, and most importantly, sociopaths do not seek legitimacy for their private morality from the group, justify it, or apologize for it. They may attempt to evade the consequences of their behavior. In fact their personal morality may legitimize such evasion. Equally, they may, out of realistic and pragmatic assessments, allow themselves to be subject to codified group morality (such as a legal or religious system), that they privately disagree with. So they might accept consequences they feel they do not deserve, because they assess attempts at rebellion to be futile. But in all cases, they reserve for themselves the right to make all moral judgments. Their private morality is not, in their view, a matter for external democratic judgment.

So yes, this entire edifice I am constructing is a determinedly amoral one. Hitler would count as a sociopath in this sense, but so would Gandhi and Martin Luther King. […]

Sociopaths can be compassionate because their distrust only extends to groups. They are capable of understanding and empathizing with individual pain and acting with compassion. A sociopath who sets out to be compassionate is strongly limited by two factors: the distrust of groups (and therefore skepticism and distrust of large-scale, organized compassion), and the firm grounding in reality. The second factor allows sociopaths to look unsentimentally at all aspects of reality, including the fact that apparently compassionate actions that make you “feel good” and assuage guilt today may have unintended consequences that actually create more evil in the long term. This is what makes even good sociopaths often seem callous to even those  among the clueless and losers who trust the sociopath’s intentions. The apparent callousness is actually evidence that hard moral choices are being made.

Fraser commented:

This guy is scary clever. I can see his ideas illustrated all around me. Also, I'm going to have to read some Gareth Morgan (presumably that's the same economist named Gareth Morgan whose son founded TradeMe, and who recently collated a (apparently good) book about global warming that weighed up the for-and-against research).

I have to say, it's getting tiring being a rationally-disengaged loser; I wonder how I can develop some benevolent sociopathy?

Matt commented:

I'm not sure it's the same Gareth Morgan, but here's the book on Amazon.

And yeah, hard choices. I suspect the trick to engaging as a benevolent sociopath is to be working in an organisation that could potentially reflect your own moral values – it'll be easier to play the game if you believe in the outcomes.

KT commented:

Try this: www.theforest.org.uk

(I'm not absolutely sure why I feel it fits this discussion, other than perhaps the fact that that's where I was sitting when I read this post.)

reuben commented:

He has some interesting things to say, and has inspired me to sit down and watch the office, but I think his use of "sociopath" is quite misleading.

It appears as if he found a cartoon that used 'sociopath' to label the top level in organizations, and proceeded to build his theory entirely around making the label fit. My real concern is the point at which he extends his discussion to talk about society in general. It is at this point that he is forced to contort the label to fit. It makes some sense to describe CEOs as sociopaths, but i think he is either twisting words when he applies the label to the likes of Gandhi, or perhaps he is sincere but really just doesn't have a very deep insight into the psychology of such great people.