Monday, December 22, 2014

Delighting in the pains of others

“I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others; for let the affection be what it will in appearance, if it does not make us shun such objects, if on the contrary it induces us to approach them, if it makes us dwell upon them, in this case I conceive we must have a delight or pleasure of some species or other in contemplating objects of this kind”

-- Edmund Burke

Sunday, December 21, 2014


I've spoken a little bit before about being moved. What I mean by that is feeling emotions as a result of some stimulus. It differs from empathy in that I am feeling my own emotions, my own reaction to things as opposed to imagining what someone else is feeling. It is almost always a result of music or film (is it the music in the film that does it?). I can also be moved by seemingly most other things that normal people are moved by -- shows of heroism, patriotism, gratitude, injustice, gross inefficiency, and probably some others that aren't springing immediately to mind.

It's a very odd phenomenon to feel moved. I can turn it off, but if I am in tune with it, it is as if the feeling wells up inside of me, typically inspiring me to some sort of action. It often feels like an increase in adrenaline -- a sense of the necessity of action. This added adrenaline is most often accompanied by a sense of purpose -- like my path has suddenly been made clear. If I wanted to get really caught up in it, who knows where it would take me. Most of the time it dwindles as quickly as it comes on -- too short a time span to really act. For instance, during my trip, I hired impoverished guides to take me around all day. One of them I liked so well, I talked to him about his future and whether he should start his own tour company. He said that that he didn't have the capital to do it. The next day I thought about it and whether I should invest in his company, or at the very least set up a website for him with his contact information because all he needed was an email account and a Trip Advisor page to double his business. The next day as I was motoing about the countryside, I happened upon this brilliant sightseeing must-see, not many kilometers from where we had been the day before. I suddenly felt that he had done a poor job with me and was glad that I hadn't had time to act on being "moved" by the gratitude and sense of inefficiency from the previous day.

I am not moved by certain things that might move other people. I am not moved by signs of want, not beggars or poor starving orphans or slums or anything (although I often "give" on little more than a whim). I am not outraged by unfairness, in fact I embrace it as I do death. I suppose it's an odd distinction to make between being moved by perceived injustice but not unfairness. I guess what I mean is that there is quite a deal of luck/context involved in every aspect of life, and that people cannot therefore expect the same outcomes from the same actions. In contrast, I perceive injustice as someone putting a thumb on the scale, artificially enabling one outcome over another -- an intentional interference thwarting the natural course of things. I guess it's because I don't mind risk, it actually gives me a thrill, but I have no desire to play a rigged game. If I thought my life was rigged, I would probably kill myself and/or others. It's only because I think I can (and most often do) play the game better than others that it keeps my interest enough to persist in playing it.

But what causes this sensation of being "moved" and why am I almost as susceptible to it as most people? Maybe it provides an emotional glue to facilitate group work and cooperation. There are certain things in this world that are impossible to do without help. Maybe those people who are capable of being moved had an evolutionary advantage particularly in small groups of people like isolated clans and tribes. And of course I take advantage of the phenomenon by trying to induce it in others to get them to do what I want. I guess that is what is meant by being a "charismatic" leader.

I'd be interested in hearing whether the other disordered or non neurotypicals are also susceptible to being "moved."

Saturday, December 20, 2014

If it feels this good getting used...

I thought this recent comment on an old post was an interesting perspective:

You act like ALL sociopaths are abusers. That ALL of them are born to hurt and kill. You don't even considered human. ERROR! The whole reason why I'm alive right know is a sociopath. I've had a terrible and abusive life, but because of many reasons my sociopath friend is interested in me. The moments I was about to kill my self he told me "No. Why do you want to die when you know me?" I tried explaining to him all the benefits my death would bring him, but he comely explained that all of it's short term, where me living would be long term. This may seem so terrible to you, but I have PTSD and it's not for me. To me I don't have anything good about me, I suck at everything. I only harm everyone I'm around. To him I'm full of opportunities to benefit him in some way. To him I'm useful. To him it's a game of seeing how long he can hug me before I flinch away because of sexual abuse that happened to me. Sure, his motives isn't like yours or anyone else because they have motive but it's enough to help save a life. How could someone be evil who's keeping me alive at this moment in time?

Friday, December 19, 2014

There are no bad people

I have finally started watching Homeland, am in the second season so no spoilers in the comments. It's obviously an engaging show but I also find myself wondering not just whether it is an accurate depiction of bipolar disorder but what elements of the character are bipolar and what elements of the character are just who that person is. Like if the person gets sad over something that happened I wonder, is that how bipolar people act? Am I meant to think that this character is being histrionic? Or over emotional? Or is this supposed to be "normal" behavior?

Similarly, I think the sort of wholesale ignorance that people have about sociopaths leads them to believe all sorts of things about how the disorder must play out in the every day lives of sociopaths. Some think that we're supermen, some absolute villains, some think we're absolutely two faced and nothing truthful ever comes out of our mouths. I just don't believe that such caricatures of humanity exist. I was watching clips of Frozen this weekend with my little relatives. I don't believe the villain prince in that movie exists -- someone who is just nice and unassuming and then turns out to be absolutely two-faced and everything he did (even the nice stuff like handing out blankets to townspeople) was all for some nefarious purpose. I just don't believe that particular type of person exists.

I thought about that when I read via Brain Pickings "Dostoyevsky on Why There Are No Bad People":

We are all good fellows — except the bad ones, of course. Yet, I shall observe in passing that among us, perhaps, there are no bad people at all — maybe, only wretched ones. But we have not grown up to be bad. Don’t scoff at me, but consider: we have reached the point in the past where, because of the absence of bad people of our own (I repeat: despite the abundance of all sorts of wretches), we used to be ready, for instance, to value very highly various bad little fellows appearing among our literary characters, mostly borrowed from foreign sources. Not only did we value them, but we slavishly sought to imitate them in real life; we used to copy them, and in this respect we were ready to jump out of our skins.
We used to value and respect these evil people … solely due to the fact that they appeared as men of solid hate in contradiction to us Russians, who, as is well known, are people of very fragile hate, and this trait of ours we have always particularly despised. Russians are unable to hate long and seriously, and not only men but even vices — the darkness of ignorance, despotism, obscurantism and all the rest of these retrograde things. At the very first opportunity we are quick and eager to make peace… Please consider: why should we be hating each other? For evil deeds? — But this is a very slippery, most ticklish and most unjust theme — in a word, a double-edged one… Fighting is fighting, but love is love… We are fighting primarily and solely because now it is no longer a time for theories, for journalistic skirmishes, but the time for work and practical decisions.
A true friend of mankind whose heart has but once quivered in compassion over the sufferings of the people, will understand and forgive all the impassable alluvial filth in which they are submerged, and will be able to discover the diamonds in the filth.
Judge [the people] not by those villainies which they frequently perpetrate, but by those great and holy things for which they long amidst the very villainy. Besides, the people are not composed of scoundrels only; there are also genuine saints — and what saints! They themselves are radiant and they illuminate the path for all of us!
Somehow, I am blindly convinced that there is no such villain or scoundrel among the Russian people who wouldn’t admit that he is villainous and abominable, whereas, among others, it does happen sometimes that a person commits a villainy and praises himself for it, elevating his villainy to the level of a principle, and claiming that l’ordre and the light of civilization are precisely expressed in that abomination; the unfortunate one ends by believing this sincerely, blindly and honestly.
Judge [people] not by what they are, but by what they strive to become.

No wonder Dostoyevsky is so popular amongst the sociopathic crowd.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The science of evil

I wanted to write a response to this NY Times review of Simon Baron-Cohen's book "The Science of Evil," but I already expressed most of my outrage about the book and it's theory that a lack of empathy is the root of all evil here. Today, however, there was an interesting response to both Baron-Cohen's book and Jon Ronson's "The Psychopath Test" by Yale professor of Psychology Paul Bloom, again in the NY Times. Under the title "I'm Ok, You're a Psychopath":
For Baron-Cohen, evil is nothing more than “empathy erosion.”
Now, one might lack empathy for temporary reasons — you can be enraged or drunk, for instance — but Baron-Cohen is most interested in lack of empathy as an enduring trait.
For Baron-Cohen, psychopaths are just one population lacking in empathy. There are also narcissists, who care only about themselves, and borderlines — individuals cursed with impulsivity, an inability to control their anger and an extreme fear of abandonment. Baron-Cohen calls these three groups “Zero-Negative” because there is “nothing positive to recommend them” and they are “unequivocally bad for the sufferer and those around them.” He provides a thoughtful discussion of the usual sad tangle of bad genes and bad environments that lead to the creation of these Zero-Negative individuals.

People with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, Baron-Cohen argues, are also empathy-deficient, though he calls them “Zero-Positive.” They differ from psychopaths and the like because they possess a special gift for systemizing; they can “set aside the temporal dimension in order to see — in stark relief — the eternal repeating patterns in nature.” This capacity, he says, can lead to special abilities in domains like music, science and art. More controversially, he suggests, this systemizing impulse provides an alternative route for the development of a moral code — a strong desire to follow the rules and ensure they are applied fairly. Such individuals can thereby be moral without empathy, “through brute logic alone.”

This is an intriguing proposal, but Baron-Cohen doesn’t fully elaborate on it, much less address certain obvious objections. For one thing, if people with autism can use logic to be good without empathy, why can’t smart psychopaths do the same? And what about the many low-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum who lack special savant gifts and don’t spontaneously create moral codes? On Baron-Cohen’s analysis, they would be Zero-Negative. But this doesn’t seem right. Such individuals might be awkward or insensitive, but they are not actively malicious; they are much more likely to be the targets of cruelty than the perpetrators.

I think there’s a better approach, one that involves breaking empathy into two parts, understanding and feeling, as Baron-Cohen himself does elsewhere in his book. Individuals with autism are unable to understand the mental lives of other people. Psychopaths, by contrast, get into others’ heads just fine; they are seducers, manipulators, con men . . . and often worse. . . . The problem with psychopaths lies in their lack of compassion, their willingness to destroy lives out of self-interest, malice or even boredom.
Bloom goes on to criticize Baron-Cohen's theory by pointing out that everyone can suffer from a lack of empathy due to circumstances or sometimes through choice. Unfortunately Bloom does not then take the final step of questioning whether a lack of empathy should actually be the scientific definition of "evil," as Baron-Cohen advocates, but instead makes a nod to the I-hate-sociopaths camp, quoting: "'Why should we care about psychopaths? They don’t care about us.'" At least people are starting to think twice before drinking the Hare et al. Kool-Aid of fear-mongering.
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