Again, the response to the Gervais Principle II seems to require a response to key themes that have emerged. There are several that I am going to touch upon in the next part, and some I am not touching, ever, but one deserves note and a serious response, since I hadn’t planned on addressing it. This is the question of good and evil. For those of you who want the elevator-pitch version, the short position is this: my entire thesis is amoral; there are good and evil sociopaths; more sociopaths is a good thing; the clueless and losers are exactly as likely to engage in evil behaviors as sociopaths. Details follow. Keep in mind that this is a very rough sketch, and a sidebar to the main series that I really don’t want to pursue too far.
The Word “Sociopath”
A large number of commenters have objected to this term, and it has also led to some unnecessary confusion. Néant Humain, in a precise comment, pointed out that my use of the term does not square with the clinical use (actually, the term is no longer considered clinically precise at all, and has been replaced by phrases like “antisocial personality disorder”).
But let’s step back here. I am using the word in its everyday, loosely overloaded sense. As in, you telling your friend, “you are such a !@##$ sociopath.” I want to stick to the term for two good reasons. One: Hugh Macleod’s original cartoon which inspired this series is too good to give up. Second, distrust of communities and groups, and a stubborn individualism, are the main personality characteristics here (and this position is not original to me; it is derived from William Whyte). Words like “player” or “enlightened” (two suggested alternatives) don’t cut it.
I originally characterized “sociopath” as will-to-power people. Let me add a few more characteristics.
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 democractic 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.
In all this, the source of the personality of this archetype is distrust of the group, so I am sticking to the word “sociopath” in this amoral sense. The fact that many readers have automatically conflated the word “sociopath” with “evil” in fact reflects the demonizing tendencies of loser/clueless group morality. The characteristic of these group moralities is automatic distrust of alternative individual moralities. The distrust directed at the sociopath though, is reactionary rather than informed.
The Morality of the Clueless and Losers
The opposite of the morally-responsible sociopath is what somebody called “evil clueless” in a comment, an archetype we haven’t met in the Office universe. The classic example is the petty, tyrannical bureaucrat of the “I was only following orders” variety. A category that includes the over-zealous Nazi concentration-camp guard. This example too, came up in the discussion, and in one comment, Harold Smith noted that the Nazi rank-and-file often viewed their actions through a bizarre moral compass:
Your comment about how the loser role fits most people is apt. I am reading They thought they were free, about the Nazi era in Germany. The author, an American Jew, interviewed ten ex-Nazis in depth, all of them self-styled Little Men, who thought the Nazi era was the best part of their lives. They had no idea what was going on, and didn’t want to know. The Nazis took care of unemployment, and that was all they were interested in.
Other than characterizing these people as clueless, rather than losers, I completely agree with Harold here.
If the clueless often go “evil” in the “we were only following orders” mode, losers often go “evil” in bystander mode, like the Seinfeld characters in the incident that got them hauled into court under Good Samaritan laws. As Douglas Hofstadter said, “apathy at the level of individuals leads to insanity on the level of civilizations.” It is loser-apathetic “somebody else’s problem” mode thinking he was talking about. Since the very idea of “collective action” (ranging from AIDS walks to signature campaigns) relies entirely on clueless and loser moralities, it is fair to ask: if responsibility-abdicating moral apathy is the characteristic of the loser group (which is the largest), is “collective action” a sham?
The answer is yes, and it has been well known in philosophy for a while as the Free Rider Problem (originally studied by Olson). In most cases of collective action, a few pay the costs for the many, in bringing about social change. The ones who pay are usually the benevolent clueless (Michael-like people with altruistic, but still delusional, grand narratives).
The key here is that the clueless and losers often externalize their moral sense, into some sort of collectively (and ritually) adopted code, thereby abdicating responsibility for the moral dimension of their actions entirely. You don’t have to think about the morality of what you do if you can just appeal to some code (religious texts are the main kind, but there are others, such as Hippie or Joe the Plumber codes). The morality that they defer to is always a codified communal version of the views of some charismatic sociopath, but it is the abdication of responsibility, as a group, by the clueless and losers, that amplifies the impact of both the Hitlers and Gandhis of the world. Without this group dynamic, Hitler would have been a random local psycho, perhaps serial-killing a dozen people. Gandhi might have been no more than a friendly neighborhood do-gooder.
Which implies, by the way, that organized religion is incompatible with sociopathy.
This entire view can be disturbing to some of you, so take a step back here. What do you fear most?An evil group or an evil person? Read Shirley Jackson’s thoroughly scary story of group insanity, The Lottery. Watch Children of the Corn. Would you rather live in a town where there is a sole vampire terrorizing the population, or be the sole non-zombie in a town that has gone all-zombie? Ask yourself, who scares you more — Hitler or the mindless army he inspired? Would you prefer the tyranny of a dictator or the tyranny of an illiberal democracy, where a mob tramples over individuals? Dictators can be overthrown. Can an evil group culture be as easily displaced?
I don’t want to offer flippant and easy solutions to these age-old moral conundrums. I just want to point out to those who are equating “sociopath” with “evil” (modulo any semantic confusion) that morality needs to be looked at in more complex ways.
Compassion, Sociopathy and Reluctant Messiahs
Let’s talk a little about the Good Sociopath. When people engage in actions that are broadly recognized as “good,” the defining quality of their behavior is usually the value of compassion. Yet, compassion plays out very differently among the three groups.
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.
When driven by compassion, therefore, sociopaths prefer small individual kindnesses to joining large-scale world-hunger solving efforts. The good sociopath is more likely to ask: how can I make a modest and cautious effort to improve the life of this person I am with right now, as opposed to participating in something lofty and dangerously abstract, like a signature campaign.
When a sociopath has the resources for (and feels the imperative towards) larger scale do-gooding, you get something like Bill Gates’ behavior: a very careful, cautious, eyes-wide-open approach to compassion. Gates has taken on a world-hunger sized problem, but there is very little ceremony or posturing about it. It is sociopath compassion. Underlying the scale is a residual distrust of the group — especially the group inspired by oneself — that leads to the “reluctant messiah” effect. Nothing is as scary to the compassionate and powerful sociopath as the unthinking adulation and following inspired by their ideas. I suspect the best among these lie awake at night worrying that if they were to die, the headless group might mutate into a monster driven by a frozen, unexamined moral code. Which is why the smartest attempt to engineer institutionalized doubt, self-examination and formal checks and balances into any systems they design.
The clueless are not capable of much compassion, unless they can very strongly identify with the person. The one time Michael displays this sort of compassion is when he attends Pam’s painting exhibition. In his other “charitable” efforts, Michael is clearly posturing.
Losers, by and large, engage in apparently compassionate actions to feel good about themselves, assuage guilt, and other sorts of purely pathos-driven motivations. Mostly, they are apathetic due to a rational realization that there isn’t actually a whole lot they can do. Ethos and logos can only enter into compassionate action when there is, to begin with, an acceptance of individual responsibility. So loser-morality is ultimately either derivative or flawed, and therefore uninteresting.
This is not to say that all loser/clueless attempts at compassionate action must fail, backfire or otherwise mess up. The group morality in favor of which they abdicate responsibility may be a good one. And since all moral codes must be invented by someone, and only sociopaths accept the individual moral responsibility necessary for invention, it follows that the clueless and losers must be good or evil in roughly the same proportion that the sociopaths are good or evil.
Why Am I Doing This?
I am staggered by the number of people who seem to react (either with glee or horror) as though I were revealing some deep secrets of an inner-circle cult that runs the world. There are those who react like I am revealing some secret pragmatist manual, whistle-blower style. One commenter, RC even suggested that I ought to look at the morality of writing this series the way hackers look at the morality of revealing exploits: good because it might clue-up losers, bad because it might encourage more people to become sociopaths.
This particular class of criticism breaks down into two kinds. First, some of you disagree with me at a moral/philosophical level about the nature of sociopathy, and that’s the “do we need more [assumed evil] sociopaths?” critique.
I hope my explanation of the amorality of the sociopath stance makes a response mostly unnecessary: I disagree with the premise that “more sociopaths is bad.” More people taking individual moral responsibility is a good thing. It is in a sense a different reading of Old Testament morality — eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge and learning to tell good and evil apart is a good thing. An atheist view of the Bible must necessarily be allegorical, and at the risk of offending some of you, here’s my take on the Biblical tale of the Garden of Eden: Adam and Eve were clueless, having abdicated moral responsibility to a (putatively good) sociopath: God. Then they became sociopaths in their own right. And were forced to live in an ecosystem that included another sociopath — the archetypal evil one, Satan — that the good one could no longer shield them from. This makes the “descent” from the Garden of Eden an awakening into freedom rather than a descent into baseness. A good thing.
But I realize a lot of you will disagree (with various degrees of violence) with my personal moral code as I have articulated it here. In that case, if you liked the two Gervais Principle articles, you must ask yourself — did you badly misunderstand what I was saying, or did you understand, but haven’t faced up to the disconnect between what your gut resonated with, and the actual logical structure of these arguments?
The second kind of criticism here is based either on acceptance of my moral framework or obliviousness to the moral dimension. This is the source of the “why are you sharing tactical/playbook secrets from the inner circle?” question.
For this kind of criticism, I frankly have low patience. If you don’t get that reading a playbook and being a good player are entirely different things, then to quote that fascinating sociopath, Eric Cartman, “somebody please put that retard out of his misery.” You are putting the cart before the horse. Kasporov was, in a sense, a great chess player before he read up the rulebook and learned the major openings. If he hadn’t learned Chess, he’d have learned some otherrelated game, say Go, and become good at that.
Finally, some have asked me what I consider myself. I am surprised that is not clear. Morally, I am a sociopath and have been for maybe 10 years. Before that, I oscillated between cluelessness and loserdom. Whether I am an effective sociopath, and actually good at playing the game (as opposed to describing it with an anthropological eye) remains to be seen. I am not dead yet, and so far, the other sociopaths in my world haven’t yet bankrupted me of table stakes.
That moral stance, by the way, should make it clear that I didn’t particularly enjoy writing this post, since morality is a personal thing for me. But I figured I ought to put this out there. And remember, I am not looking to legitimize, justify or apologize for these views. Do with them what you will. If this makes you want to stop reading the series, so be it.
That’s all for now. Gratified though I am by the popularity of this series, I don’t want it taking over my blog, so I probably won’t get to Part III of the main series till January. I promise at least one other meaty piece on some other topic before the holidays though.