Quote of the day—Venkatesh Rao

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?

Venkatesh Rao
November 21, 2009
Morality, Compassion and the Sociopath
[H/T to M.E. via her post The morality of sociopaths, clueless, and losers.

I’ve dealt with sociopaths before and was amazed at how effortlessly they would “win” when you got in their way. The most fundamental assumptions I had about human behavior were completely destroyed as they crushed me. I “follow the rules” and it is difficult for me to imagine other people not doing the same. Sociopaths know the rules far better than you. The rules that you acquired as a small child and “just follow” without thought or even awareness they have thoroughly examined under a light of hyper rationality. They may follow them most of the time but it is with the knowledge that it is to their benefit to do so at that time and place. When it is to their benefit to not follow them they effortlessly break them.

I began following M.E., a diagnosed sociopath, a year or more ago and my burning hate for sociopaths diminished some as read more. After a time I was able to develop a model for their behavior that allowed me see them in a different light. They lack empathy for other people. In a sense you can think of them as totally selfish but to do that would be to continue misunderstanding them in a way that is detrimental to both yourself and them. The short version of my model for them is hyper-rational beings who only care about themselves. They will act to the benefit of others but only if it furthers their own interests.

They examine the rules of society and understand them and use them to their advantage. They have and frequently need and want friends and family. They can be good friends, family, neighbors, and citizens when they want to be. But what you consider fundamental principles of behavior to them is nothing more than a suggested script to be read at the appropriate time. They examine, evaluate, and act with full awareness and no guilt for “going off script” when they need to achieve their goals.

This, perhaps surprisingly, was reassuring to me. It explained to me why there might be a genetic component to sociopathetic behavior. Having a small number of sociopaths in society is almost certainly an advantage to the group. Let me explain.

In The Walking Dead there are many people who avoid doing things that are clearly the rational thing to do and put themselves and a great many other people at extreme risk. You watch the show and you understand the dilemma of the character but you also understand they really need to put a bullet in the head of the zombie that was their child.

The show is make-believe but you have to be extremely well insulated from reality to not realize we have similar situations all around us.

We euthanize our pets when they are in pain and have no hope of recovery. We, in the gun community, think about and train for the use of deadly force to protect innocent life. Yet most, if ever in the position of taking the life of a human, even when clearly saving innocent life, will suffer for a significant period of time, if not their entire life, for doing the right thing. We send our young adults to war to kill and be killed when the alternative is even greater loss to our society.

These are tough choices and we agonize over them before and after making them when “the proper choice of action” is frequently crystal clear and obvious to the sociopath. Having people with this clarity of vision, ability to make these decisions quickly, and implement them without guilt or hesitation, is an advantage to a society.

One of the things that M.E. said in a previous post has almost haunted me. She said, IIRC, she fears mob behavior because it is so unpredictable. She understands individuals because after observing and interacting with them for a very short period of time she knows, with a high degree of certainty, how they will behave. Their behavior probably isn’t rational, but it is predictable. A mob is unpredictable and powerful.

This observation of mobs extrapolates well to a mindless or evil group culture which is destroying the good and the innocent. The sociopaths among us may be able to make tough choices, in direct violation of deeply held principles, and save a good society from the indecision which would result in the total destruction of that which is good.—Joe]

12 thoughts on “Quote of the day—Venkatesh Rao

  1. I agree with your points. But please let’s not use fiction (The Lottery, Children Of The Corn, The Walking Dead) to support them. There are, sadly, plenty of real, true, not made up, characters that illustrate the sociopath just fine. Have you noticed that most of the more flagrant examples that leap to mind are Lawyers? Just sayin …….

    • More than that. There are sociopaths all around us: people who know that they are supposed to feel sadness or remorse, they just can’t. They do the jobs that the people who ARE remorseful about things cannot do, and they excel at them.
      Jobs like emergency medicine, where people who feel remorse frequently burn out or experience PTSD. Soldiers, morticians, and other jobs that need to be done, but that cannot be done by people who are not pragmatic and rational about their choices.

  2. “They examine the rules of society and understand them and use them to their advantage. They have and frequently need and want friends and family. They can be good friends, family, neighbors, and citizens when they want to be. But what you consider fundamental principles of behavior to them is nothing more than a suggested script to be read at the appropriate time. They examine, evaluate, and act with full awareness and no guilt for “going off script” when they need to achieve their goals.”

    In Gamer Terms: Chaotic Good.

    See also: http://www.wallsofthecity.net/2011/02/dungeons-and-midbulk-transports.html

  3. One can be pragmatic, rational, and do the right thing without being a sociopath, while having compassion for others, and without being traumatized by the past.

    We can look at three real-life people who had to do and see some of the most horrible things. Sergeant Winters as depicted in Band of Brothers, Chris Kyle as depicted in American Sniper and Sergeant York as depicted in the movie by the same name. They witnessed a lot of evil and killed a lot of people, and if I may be so bold as to speak for them; I don’t believe any one of them suffered a great deal of gnawing torment as a result. When action was required, they acted, then dusted themselves off and went home.

    On the other hand there are many others who never get over it, who are tortured by it for the rest of their lives. Suicide, PTSD, and other symptoms of emotional trauma among combat veterans are fairly high.

    So what’s the difference between those who suffer long after, and those who seem relatively at peace with it? You seem to be saying that the latter must be a sociopath. I believe that that is not so. It may be one explanation but you need to look a little farther to find the other one.

    In each of the three cases above you will find that faith played a significant role in the man’s life. The message; “Love. Don’t hate your enemy” being a central theme, along with the unshakable belief that we as individuals do not really control our own lives, that there are forces at work which we cannot understand, and purposes which are far larger than ourselves and more important and than our mere lives.

    The above paragraph describes a singular phenomenon, which is a state of mind. Historically we called it confidence, but it’s meaning has diminished through the wear and tear of mass ignorance. To some people it comes more naturally, and they may not give it a lot of specific examination, yet that basic theme is at work in them.

    So; functionally, mentally and emotionally, what is the difference between the vet who comes home and lives at relative peace with himself, and the other vet who flips out and kills him for no apparent reason?

    The latter hated his enemy, and that which you hate controls you. You thus end up bringing the enemy home with you, and that enemy, acting through your emotions, will eventually destroy you one way or another. It’s an occupying entity. You’ve been infected. You are thus a zombie in a way. “Rationality” no longer has sway, or it has taken on a corrupted meaning. Nor does such require war in the normal sense. Many families are at “war”, producing the same effects on one another. Much of the world operates in that environment. I call it “the authoritarian system”. Rule by fear, desire, guilt, and all the other emotions, highs as well as lows.

    There’s good reason for the term “deadly sins”. That shit will in fact kill you dead.

    As humans we typically can’t avoid emotions, but there is a world of difference between being controlled by and through those emotions and being able to see them for what they are.

    I imagine most of this will sound foolish, or like gibberish to you, or ideas you dismissed long ago, but I write it anyway because I believe there are some places you’re not looking in your investigations, or have dismissed prematurely, which nonetheless deserve careful attention.

  4. I don’t understand sociopaths as “The short version of my model for them is hyper-rational beings.” That’s a description I would apply to the ideal men of Ayn Rand, as in her “the Virtue of Selfishness”. But her key point (and various other Libertarian authors like Neil Smith also make this point in various ways) is that an accurate rational analysis of self-interest will show that acting with respect for the equal rights of others is most effective.
    Sociopaths do not do this, and their actions may appear rationally self-interested, but only if their victims are defenseless. They are not the polite neighbors that Heinlein said are found in an armed society, or the rational individualists of Neil Smith’s Probability Broach.

    • That sentence, particularly on its own, does not represent what I was trying to say. I’ve elaborated on it to improve clarity. Sorry about that.

      You lost me with, ” their actions may appear rationally self-interested, but only if their victims are defenseless.” Could you elaborate on that some please?

      • You said “The short version of my model for them is hyper-rational beings who only care about themselves. They will act to the benefit of others but only if it furthers their own interests.” That is an incomplete definition, because rational/moral individualists also fit that description. Any of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged could be described that way.
        I would argue that the difference between a normal human and a sociopath is in whether he understands that individual freedom includes the equal right of others — which implies Neil Smith’s Zero Aggression Principle. A person who respects this is a moral individual; a person who insists he can do what he wants but you cannot is a sociopath. And such a person can survive only when self defense is not properly practiced.

  5. My older brother is a sociopath, and has been since before I was born. He exhibits the traits of exclusive self-interest, zero empathy, rational disregard for rules and self-satisfaction above all else, as described in the post.

    I hated him while growing up, for he was a rotten person to have as a big brother. I hate him as an adult, for he is a rotten person to have as a family member.

    It is sad to know that he cannot support or care for, in any way, an event, need, activity, get-together, celebration or necessary family function. When he deigns to show up at family events, all he can do is talk about himself. When he (rarely) interacts with nephews and nieces, he is as big a jerk to those kids as he was to me 50 years ago.

    In almost 60 years of life he has formed no close connections to a single person in the family or among the rest of the world, and never will. Nobody, not a single person, will mourn when he finally dies.

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