In a previous post, I referred in passing to the idea that a psychopath could live a moral life, despite lacking an inner moral compass.
I’d like to share here some background information, especially for those whose information about psychopaths comes from TV stories of serial killers!
First, by way of denifition, I’m talking generally here. There are various terms used: “psychopath”, “sociopath”, “antisocial personality disorder”. These are used sometimes synonymously, sometimes to refer to different conditions on a related spectrum.
A number of years ago, I read a first person account of a “good psychopath”, and while I can’t find that exact passage, it’s easy to find similar accounts. Here’s an interview with a diagnosed psychopath:
Is there anything that you feel that I left out, that you would like to add?
It’s a lot more complex than people realize. I think it’s important to hold people responsible for their actions, not brain formation. People make choices. Psychopathy is not an excuse, and it’s definitely not a reason why someone does bad things. People do bad things because they make bad choices. So instead of looking at psychopathy as this constellation of things that represent evil, just look at it as a different way of experiencing the world, and what a person chooses to do with that is on that person.
The last part is really important, and actually insightful: “People do bad things because they make bad choices.”
Here’s a thread on Quora, with some interesting responses.
Some of the responses are quite disturbing:
I enjoy not experiencing emotions in the same way as others. Everything they seem to go through looks exhausting and stupid. However, I do enjoy studying the behaviour of my peers. They are fascinating, with the way they speak, and move around certain people, and react to certain situations. I find their fears funny, and their likes disturbing. For instance, all of my school friends hated blood, bugs and even violence, whilst I relished in the presence of them. I never needed them, as they were never true friends anyway. After studying their behaviour, I could tell who my real friends were. I didn’t have a single one, but they didn’t know that I knew that. I played them, and used them, and it only brought up the confidence I had in myself.
Other responses are almost sweet; you can catch a glimpse of a deeper humanity.
I have a friend (James) who has always been a really good friend to me. My behaviour towards him instinctively reflects his behaviour towards me, so naturally he trusts me and believes I truly care about him. I had a birthday party awhile ago and said the obligatory “thank you for coming” to my friends that I’ve heard other people say at their own birthday parties and when I said it to James, his response caught me off guard because he said “of course, I will always come to your birthday parties”. In that moment, I knew in my heart that he loved me because all of his actions and words over the years proved that to me and it all culminated in that one instant and it was the only time in my life I’ve ever not felt alone. Not only that, I felt joy and I was completely at peace. I can’t even describe how I felt in a way that does it justice but it only lasted a split second because my life-long defense mechanisms kicked in and I wouldn’t allow myself to emotionally bond with him any longer than a split second.
Psychopaths are well aware of how people look at them.
How does it feel to be a psychopath? As if you’re unburdened from the chains of emotional possession, but locked behind a glass wall watching everyone point at you as if you’re some kind of ravenous beast waiting to attack. Eventually, you learn to just blend in to avoid the persecution.
The context of this discussion began with the so-called Trolley Problem, and the “moral” choices of psychopaths. In the Suttas, the Buddha argued that there were multiple different reasons for living a moral life, and did not use a reductionist approach. I proposed that this gives an opening for a Buddhist morality that might be useful for psychopaths.
The Buddha said we should do good both for our own benefit and the benefit of others. A psychopath wouldn’t act for the benefit of others, but if they can be persuaded to act morally for their own benefit, surely that is a good thing.
Consider, for example the benefits of giving:
- A giver, a donor is dear and beloved by many people.
- Good people associate with them.
- They get a good reputation.
- They don’t neglect a layperson’s duties.
- When their body breaks up, after death, they’re reborn in a good place, a heavenly realm.
Surely the first three of these would be appealing to a psychopath. They like it when people like them, as it gives them advantages. They don’t particularly care that people like them, but having friends, or at least the option of them, is entertaining and opens up options.
Similarly they may also like the friendship of good people. It would help them stay on track, avoiding extreme acting on any immoral or criminal impulses.
They may also prefer to have a good reputation, as it gives them power and opportunities.
The fourth and fifth benefit are probably less relevant, I guess. But we already have some good reasons!
This argument could be extended to cover a variety of moral issues. It’s not unproblematic by any means, as a psychopath can, and probably will, twist the appearance of morality for their own benefits. However, as long as their own benefit does not actually harm anyone else, it’s as good as can be expected.
To be clear, this is not meant as a treatment or cure for psychopathy. Nor am I recommending that anyone get involved with a psychopath: generally I would encourage avoidance where possible. Nor is it a basis for meditation—which I would absolutely recommend a psychopath avoid—or higher wisdom, all of which require a deep level integration of compassion and are impossible for a psychopath.
However, such approaches may be useful in the case of self-aware or diagnosed psychopaths who want to integrate and live a safe and prosperous life. Many psychopaths develop such coping techniques by themselves, lacking any support. And little wonder, since religions and moral systems rely heavily on the assumption of conscience and compassion, and have little to say to those who lack these.
Evil is not a psychological condition, it is a choice. Making the right choice is harder for some people than others, but it’s always possible. While it may seem strange to point out that Buddhist teachings can be applicable to a person who seems so detached from “Buddhist” values, it is, to my mind, an affirmation that the Dhamma truly is for all sentient beings.