Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Psychopathy, lack of empathy, and Capitalism

One of the key characteristics of psychopaths is their lack of empathy. What do we mean when we talk about "empathy"?

Empathy is generally understood to be when a person understands how another person feels psychologically and emotionally, and responds in a constructive way to those feelings. This definition follows from the thinking of leading British psychologist, Simon Baron Cohen of Cambridge University (a cousin of the famous comedy actor, Sasha). In his book, "Zero Degrees Of Empathy", Simon Baron Cohen talks about the importance of empathy in human society, what happens when it is eroded, examples of psychological disorders that create a lack of empathy, and its scientific basis.

Zero Degrees Of Society

An article by George Monbiot talks about the relationship between conservatism and how core values are shaped by our social environment. I just talked about psychological disorders that create a lack of empathy: the most famous example is psychopathy (more on its key attributes here and here), but this also includes Narcissism. But social environment can also create a lack of empathy itself, as Simon Baron Cohen (SBC) also mentioned in the book mentioned earlier.

A famous example SBC talked about was the Nazis. In the right social environment, people begin to lose their sense of empathy. Scientific evidence has suggested that highly-stressful environments can have the effect of eroding the part of the brain responsible for empathy; over a period of time (such as during war, extreme deprivation etc) people begin to think more about themselves than the lives of others. Over time, others came begin to be thought of as objects rather than people with their own feelings and lives. In this way, people who lose their empathy can be called sociopaths. Psychopaths are people who have been born that way through biological and genetic factors; sociopaths are made that way over time by their environment.

The Nazis are a famous example of what happens when a society as a whole loses its empathy: people with a lack of empathy have no regard for those who they see as "enemies" (as Nazis saw the Jews); similarly, people with a lack of empathy have no regard for the suffering of strangers.

Continuing on the last point, it is generally understood that a society that treats those less fortunate than themselves with ignorance or worse has some kind of failing at its heart. To be "humane", almost by definition, is to have empathy for those who you know nothing about: it is why "charity" exists. Looking at it from an economic angle, it the reason why people willingly pay taxes; as was once said, taxes are the price of civilisation. Without taxes, government wouldn't be able to financially function, and likewise, government wouldn't be able to provide collective services to society as a whole.

How to be a sociopath

Of course, there are people in human society who do not believe that taxes are "the price of civilisation", and do not believe that government should provide collective services. From a psychological point of view, these people appear to have a severe lack of empathy.

These people are generally today called "economic liberals", "neoliberals", or "conservatives". Modern-day Neoliberalism has its roots in the thinking of Ayn Rand, who developed a philosophy called "Objectivism". The key value in this philosophy can be summarised as "the virtue of selfishness" (also the name of one of Rand's most famous books). Conventional morality (in effect, what we understand as "empathy"), is turned on its head: to act against your own interests is illogical, even evil. Likewise, "charity" is treated with contempt, as a concept that simply encourages indolence and reliance on others. As far as Rand was concerned, government should exist simply to provide security and enforce rule of law; all else was the provide of the individual.

It is this aim that modern-day neo-liberals, from the "Tea Party" in the USA, to the Conservative and Ukip parties in the UK, and the Liberal parties in Australia and Canada, ultimately look towards.

As these people see it, the financial crisis was not the result of a broken and utterly corrupt "neo-liberal" financial system, but the fault of government spending too much on society. Again, this is turning a conventional understanding of recent history on its head, blaming the lower half of society for the ills of society overall. Like sociopaths, these people find a moral justification for declaring economic war on the bottom half of society. Poverty is the enemy; therefore, poor people must be treated worse in order to encourage them out of poverty. It a "sociopath government" way of applying the principle of "tough love".

In any case, the result is a widening inequality of society. Like the psychopath, the "neoliberals" talk of inequality being a natural consequence of society, forgetting that the most equal societies in the world are also the most stable, and happiest.

In such a situation, it is not surprising that societies ruled by the "neo-liberal" consensus are more unequal, more unstable, and more stressful.
After the fall of Communism, the same philosophy was applied to the former Soviet Bloc. The result has generally been the same, if not worse: inequality skyrocketing, government services often failing in their most basic functions, and an increasingly dystopian appearance of society. While on the surface "neo-liberal" economies appear richer, once you peel off the golden facade, you see the broken and ragged mass of individuals that have been left behind to fend for themselves. This is the result of the lack of empathy embedded into the philosophy of modern-day Capitalism.

Rich people and psychopaths flourish under such conditions. Mass communication and consumerism is the golden skin that covers over the grinding reality for most people who live in "neo-liberal" societies; in many ways, with the strange destruction of privacy in the 21st century, modern-day "neoliberalism" and globalisation resemble a form of ideological tyranny. As Capitalism encourages people to see themselves as individuals first, the result is that society as a whole becomes a forgotten concept, a sea of individuals thinking like Margaret Thatcher that "there is no such thing as society". Well, if the government does less and less for you, how can you think that "society" exists? And if "society" doesn't exist, why would you give a thought to others, when there is nothing in it for you?

In such conditions, what proof would you have that there is such a thing as "humanity"? In such conditions, it is no wonder that psychopaths are attracted to careers like big business and politics; that's where all the money is.

(Update: Tuesday, 8 July

A recently-published study, described here, explains how the wealthier a person is, the more likely their levels of empathy will be eroded. In this case, the richer you are, the less likely you are to empathize with those worse-off than you, and society in general. While, of course, there are many exceptions to the rule, taken as a whole, it is not difficult to understand the psychology. The experiment described in the link demonstrates how those at the top end of society are statistically less likely to contribute to charity, behave in a more aggressive and entitled way, and have less empathy and instinctive kindness to relate to people's problems and lives)

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