Huffpost Business
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Marcella Mroczkowski Headshot

Danger! Empathy and Psychopathy as Competing Value Systems in Politics and Economics

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

Four to five percent of the population is born without a capacity for empathy. It is a neurological lack. A psychopath may be a genius and become a multimillionaire, but he will never be able to understand empathetic values. In fact, because of the grandiosity of these personalities and consequent intense denial they have toward their shortcomings, they are arguably less capable of understanding empathy than a congenitally deaf person is of understanding music. Their minds are closed. Psychopaths treat the empathetic majority as the defective ones and seek relentlessly to remake the world in their own image, to proselytize their viewpoint and values and to "teach" their "defective" empathetic fellows to think like them.

Unfortunately, they can. A psychopath can never learn to think like an empathetic person. The functioning brain tissue is just not there. But people with a normal capacity for empathy can turn off that capacity and think like psychopaths.

To a certain extent, the empathetic do this as a matter of evolution. As studies of war, racism and genocide indicate, humans draw what Martha Stout called circles of empathy. They behave empathetically toward those in the circle and psychopathically toward those outside the circle. However, we are not hardwired for xenophobic violence like chimps. For us it is a function of learning and culture.

Normally empathetic human beings need linguistic cues to switch to psychopathy mode. The alarm cry of the animal world morphed into the language of demonizing hate. The ancient Greeks and the Founders of our country understood the devastating destructiveness of the language of demonizing hate, particularly to democracies. They called the charismatic psychopaths who excelled at its practice "demagogues." More recently, neuroscience has provided evidence how demonizing hate radically alters the way the human brain processes information, making subjects immune to reason, increasingly intolerant and even violent and easily manipulated. Most tragically, there is a drug-like pleasure aspect to this process. Subjects in its grip mistake this pleasure for proof they are right and righteous when the opposite is the case.

This call to demonizing hate is supplemented by ideologies that substitute psychopathic values for compassionate values, including the remaking of accepted ideologies by gutting their compassionate content. Basically, the forces of compassion create the institutions and articulate the values and beliefs that advance civilization, and then the forces of psychopathy work relentlessly to take over those institutions and values and remake them in their own image and to their own advantage. This ideological tug of war is an essential dynamic underlying history and the rise and fall of civilizations.

The calling card of the psychopathic value system is its Manichean worldview -- idealized me versus demonized him, idealized us versus demonized them, reflecting the Echo-Other worldview of the pathological narcissist, of which psychopaths are the most pathological subset.

This relentless effort to supplant empathetic values with psychopathic values is blatantly evident in the rightwing campaign to convince people that Adam Smith and Ayn Rand share the same beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ayn Rand's Objectivism is basically a how-to manual designed to teach a normal person to think like a psychopath. First, Objectivism teaches the pupil the basic thinking of the pathological narcissist, to regard his own viewpoint as absolute, objective reality and any other person's viewpoint, to the extent it conflicts, as a figment, a fantasy that he need not consider at all. Objectivism then proceeds to "elevate" the pupil to true malignant narcissism by demonizing "altruism" -- Rand's term of art for all the empathetic values -- and lionizing sadism.

Adam Smith was a deeply compassionate moral philosopher whose other great work besides The Wealth of Nations was The Theory of Moral Sentiments. His concept of the free market was not at all that of Ayn Rand or other laissez-faire advocates. Adam Smith did not regard an unregulated market as a true free market: the ruthless and powerful would quickly rig it. Like the Founders, Smith worked to expand and secure the rights of the less powerful. Though Smith and the Founders were minimalists as to government power -- what's the least amount and type of government power necessary to achieve desirable and legitimate ends -- they were not anarchists. And they did not go to so much trouble to articulate and defend the rights of ordinary citizens and to design governments that would protect the rights of those ordinary citizens only to throw those citizens and their rights under the bus in the face of the abuse of private power.

One problem we have in this study is that Smith and the Founders wrote and worked a century or more before the founding of modern psychology and psychiatry. The words "empathy" and "altruism" did not yet exist, although the concept embodied in those terms, in the form of the Golden Rule, is as old as human nature and appears in almost all cultures and religions. The language with which they spoke of these values is somewhat different than the contemporary idiom and this has posed some obstacles to scholarship. It is not difficult to overcome and it must be overcome. This minor linguistic obstacle has also unfortunately provided the advocates of the psychopathic worldview with another advantage.

This difference between the deeply empathetic values of Adam Smith and the flagrantly psychopathic values of Ayn Rand is also reflected in devastating changes in this country's business culture, particularly in the structures and values of the management of our largest corporate enterprises.

The executives of the Greatest Generation, forged by their experiences in the Great Depression and World War II, were much more compassionate. The structures of corporate governance were built on a system of checks and balances that reflected the institutions of democratic governance. Truly independent boards of directors, empowered shareholders and union-empowered employees acted as a check on management. Liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, the executives of the Greatest Generation believed they were building a great nation, not just great companies, and that they had a responsibility to use their power to make this a better nation for all its people, not just line their pockets. Though we started from a much poorer place, the morality of their leadership helped make possible exponential growth in both prosperity and civil rights that uplifted the middle class, the working class and the poor.

By contrast, today's large corporations are run like banana republics by tin-pot dictators. The checks and balances are gone. The replacement of the Greatest Generation's empathetic values with psychopathic values is evident in the manner in which executive salaries have skyrocketed past all possible justification while rank and file wages and benefits have been eviscerated and jobs ruthlessly outsourced. The devastation they have wrought on lives and communities is further exacerbated by their relentless corruption of government at all levels into a kleptocratic source of revenue. They have become intolerable parasites.

And it is all empowered and reinforced by an ideological juggernaut of psychopathic values and the media machinery of demonizing hate -- the very demagoguery that Plato's Republic and the Federalist Papers warned us would destroy our republic.

The contemporary right has also relinquished any claim to represent the original intent of the Constitution, because they are traitors to its value system.

Whenever I despair, I remember that the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.
Mohandas K. Gandhi

Time wounds all heels.

John Lennon