A search for the definition of a sociopath yields an abundance of prurient descriptions, but this, from drdrew.com, suffices:
“Typically characterized by a lack of impulse control, empathy, morality and guilt…”
It is not controversial that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer. Ergo, continuing to produce and market cigarettes is sociopathic.
Leaded gasoline and paint, high fructose corn syrup, Teflon, thalidomide, glyphosate, burning fossil fuels. These are just a few examples that come readily to mind of people continuing to make and market products they knew were deadly. Sociopathic.
The words psychopath and sociopath have come to be used interchangeably, and to the extent that they’re used any more it’s to indicate a location on the spectrum of Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD), which is now the preferred professional diagnostic term.
APD is caused by a combination of physiological and environmental influences. There are differences in the structure of specific areas of the brain of people with APD. Environmental conditions during childhood have a significant effect on the degree to which behaviors associated with APD will be expressed and there are separate genetic configurations that influence whether APD tendencies will be expressed violently.
We’re all on the spectrum
Our most current understanding of biology recognizes a high degree of physiological plasticity. Environmental stimuli, including emotions, affect the growth and concentration of neurons, the development of synaptic networks, and even genetic expression. Given this plasticity, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to postulate that APD can be induced by environmental conditioning in people whose brains are not congenitally deformed. In this case, the environmental conditioning takes place under the aegis of an intellectual infrastructure that rationalizes away the natural impulses of empathy for the sake of justifying one’s own entitlement.
Do Unto Others
There’s a reason that we teach the golden rule. We use our rational minds, the new part of the brain, the frontal neocortex, to curb our reptilian impulses of selfishness and to grow our habits of empathy. That’s how we build character and mold ourselves into moral beings. In his Phaedrus dialogue, Plato characterized the tripartite soul as a chariot driver trying to control two horses. The chariot driver represents the rational mind, one horse the noble impulses, and the other horse is the base appetites or ignoble impulses. We make the choice to ride one or the other of these horses and the sum of those choices comprises our character.
The rational mind is vulnerable to trickery. Arguments can be made to turn the Golden Rule on its head. For instance, during the famine in Biafra in the 1970’s an argument was put forward that it was inhumane to save people from starvation because the land could not sustain the surviving population who would later suffer. This ignores the political orthodoxies and policies that led to the situation in the first place such as agricultural policies that led to desertification, unequal distribution of wealth, failure to remediate conditions. The point is that adherence to the Golden Rule would motivate one to investigate the root causes of the situation, to ameliorate immediate suffering and look for a solution to the problem. That always involves costs, which means sharing, which threatens the pocketbooks of those in power, so they are content to confine their reasoning to the political orthodoxies, which, by the way, were cultivated for the very purpose of protecting private wealth.
The work of suppressing empathy, of conditioning the mind to operate from a worldview of inequality, is extensive. Whole edifices of intellectual scaffolding are needed to rationalize apparent cruelty so that the perpetrators can live with their consciences. What that intellectual paradigm boils down to is that the world is better off with a system that allows some people to get very rich. Some suffering is unavoidable, but if we put limits on the accumulation of personal wealth, things would be worse. It would weaken the authority of the ruling class to maintain order. This is, in turn, predicated on the basic venality of humanity: we are motivated by self-aggrandizement rather than by creative expression in the service of the whole. Strong authority is required to protect us from our nastiness. Wealth imparts the power to rule, so greed is good.
Greed is Good
This attitude finds spiritual justification in the Calvinist formulation that wealth is evidence of God’s preference for the wealthy and hence their superiority.
Living with the trappings of wealth requires a comprehensive rationale for justifying inhumanity. At its root, any such rationale has to be based on the premise that some people deserve more of the beneficence of life than others. This rationale serves to suppress the natural impulse of empathy. I’ll call it the rule of gold. Adherence to the golden rule will help us curb a selfish impulse, the rule of gold will help us curb a generous one.
The field of economics has largely been contorted to support this world view. The canard of the “free market”, utility theory, “trickle-down economics” are a few examples of that intellectual chicanery that have found their way to widespread acceptance and respectability, but which have no more intellectual heft than fig leaves.
It’s beyond my scope here to delve into the evolution of this philosophical tradition. Today we’re in a situation in which aberrant norms have become sacrosanct. It’s sacrilegious to consider limiting personal wealth even though it’s immoral and its legitimacy is underpinned by venality. Beyond that, it promotes behavior that is clearly pathological. That behavior is not limited to the wealthy. It infects all of society through the intellectual institutions that promulgate the norms of behavior.
The field of economics is almost exclusively driven by the mission of supporting an ethos of inequality. The law has also been distorted for that purpose, which can clearly be seen in the degree to which legality has diverged from justice. White and non-white, rich and poor, powerful and weak are each treated differently under the law. Especially in the case of protecting business, criminality is permitted under the subterfuge of incorporation.
We have become a society in which ruthlessness is honored and emulated. By definition, we have become pathological. The cure is to replace the ethos of self-aggrandizement with the ethos of sharing.
Why does that go so against the grain of our culture? The fear and grasping that characterizes our conception of an economic system is s embedded our framing of its definition; a system for the distribution of scarce resources. The key is the word scarce. It pits us in competition with each other from the start and perverts the principle of fairness. People should be entitled to the fruits of their labor, therefore if they work harder and are more clever they are entitled to have more than others. The problem is that the focus is on having, which becomes a source of power which becomes a tool of dominance; cleverness is corrupted and becomes guile. The goal of having breeds jealousy. Lao Tzu says it best.
It is better not to make merit a matter of reward
Lest people conspire and contend,
Not to pile up rich belongings
Lest they rob,
Not to excite by display
Lest they covet.
A sound leader’s aim
Is to open people’s hearts,
Fill their stomachs,
Calm their wills,
Brace their bones
And so to clarify their thoughts and cleanse their needs
That no cunning meddler could touch them:
Without being forced, without strain or constraint,
Good government comes of itself.
Humans are social animals
Satisfaction in life comes from being in community and serving that community, from being able to express oneself through the use of one’s talents and abilities. It does not take much wealth to physically sustain a person healthfully. The trappings of wealth are habits that have accrued over a long period of history. They were born when the interconnectedness of our finite planet was not so apparent as it is now. The change we need to make now is a matter of breaking those old habits and replacing them with new ones.
There is a canard used to justify the massive salaries of the captains of industry. It’s the premise that people would not be motivated to work so hard if the incentive of extreme wealth were removed. Let’s unpack that. First of all, as I said, what brings people satisfaction is the ability to use their talents for the greater good. CEO’s are among the highest paid people, presumably because their work provides the greatest good. Management is a great human enterprise. The ability to harness human effort for a collective goal enables us to create massively supportive infrastructures for the organization and sustenance of communities. It is in all of our interests to enable people who are capable of this work to do so unencumbered. If it frees up their creative time not to have to deal with the minutiae of administration then we should be happy to provide them with secretaries and other kinds of assistants who enable them to devote their time to their important work. It’s not inevitable that these relations devolve into an elitist hierarchy.
Our problem now is that systems have evolved in such a way that CEO’s and the organizations they run are not responsive to the common good, which, by the way is the original purpose of the corporation. Shareholders and owners of corporations have used their power and influence to detach the corporation from its public responsibility so that it serves their personal interests instead. The mission of the corporation is now to maximize shareholder value, and the race to compete for investments has narrowed that mission to maximizing short-term shareholder value. Everything else be damned. Instead of rewarding talented managers for organizing people and resources for the greater good we are rewarding them for rape: the violent abuse of people and the physical planet for the sake of their own pathological pleasure. Lack of impulse control.
Stripping the excessively wealthy of their excess wealth is therapy for this pathology. No doubt it will be painful for the patients, in the same way that withdrawal from addiction is painful, or that surgery is painful. If we recovered 95% of the wealth of billionaires can we really feel anguished that they would only be left with $50 million? I should think that would be a sufficient anaesthetic. We might even put an absolute cap on personal wealth to the curb the fever of money lust.
We do not want to be led by people who are driven by the lust for money. In fact, it’s a sure sign of character and of leadership when someone eschews that excess and is content with simple comfort. An occasional extravagance is permissible and we would gladly indulge a good leader. In fact, an occasional extravagance is permissible for all of us, though it might be on a different scale for different people. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).
Deep personal satisfaction is congruent with the health of the community.
Human beings long for connection, and our sense of usefulness derives from the feeling of connectedness. When we are connected – to our own purpose, to the community around us, and to our spiritual wisdom – we are able to live and act with authentic effectiveness.
— Malidoma Somé, The Healing Wisdom of Africa
The scale of the chasm of income inequality is proportionate to the distance we have from our sense of community in this culture. It’s a disease. We need not be contemptuous or angry at those who are thus afflicted, but we had better administer the cure, no matter how reluctant the patient.
 The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu, translated by Witter Bynner, (The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1944)