Thursday, June 6, 2013

Morality only as it applies to in-group actions

I discuss in the book the legal distinction between acts that are malum in se (something is wrong for its own sake) and only malum prohibitum (something is wrong because there is a law prohibiting it). An interesting question for malum in se is what makes something wrong for its own sake? Interesting research with small children sheds light on the mental origins of the distinction. From the Wall Street Journal's "Zazes, Flurps and the Moral World of Kids":

Back in the 1980s, Judith Smetana and colleagues discovered that very young kids could discriminate between genuinely moral principles and mere social conventions. First, the researchers asked about everyday rules—a rule that you can't be mean to other children, for instance, or that you have to hang up your clothes. The children said that, of course, breaking the rules was wrong. But then the researchers asked another question: What would you think if teachers and parents changed the rules to say that being mean and dropping clothes were OK?

Children as young as 2 said that, in that case, it would be OK to drop your clothes, but not to be mean. No matter what the authorities decreed, hurting others, even just hurting their feelings, was always wrong. It's a strikingly robust result—true for children from Brazil to Korea. Poignantly, even abused children thought that hurting other people was intrinsically wrong.

This might leave you feeling more cheerful about human nature. But in the new study, Dr. Rhodes asked similar moral questions about the Zazes and Flurps. The 4-year-olds said it would always be wrong for Zazes to hurt the feelings of others in their group. But if teachers decided that Zazes could hurt Flurps' feelings, then it would be OK to do so. Intrinsic moral obligations only extended to members of their own group.

The 4-year-olds demonstrate the deep roots of an ethical tension that has divided philosophers for centuries. We feel that our moral principles should be universal, but we simultaneously feel that there is something special about our obligations to our own group, whether it's a family, clan or country.

So even though there are moral origins to the distinction between malum in se and malum prohibitum acts, those moral principles underlying the distinction are not universal -- and not really that "moral" either, to the extent that they justify otherwise wrongful actions against people who happen to be different enough to somehow justify mistreatment.


  1. I wonder, can you get 'excommunicated' from the LDS church like you can if you're Catholic?

    There are very few actions that are unjustifiable, or malum in se. For example, a police officer with the opportunity to kill a criminal who is in the act of murdering innocents should kill the criminal. If someone comes across a man in the middle of raping a woman, he should physically assault the man.

    Must every justification be physical, though? If someone suffers severe emotional abuse, is physical retribution inexcusable? The law would say yes, I think. However, emotional abuse is on some level physical, and can cause 'damage', particularly to developing minds, or others that are highly sensitive to it. Perhaps one reason people hate and fear sociopaths is that there is no way to retaliate against emotional abuse and the resulting 'brain damage'. People incapable of learning from the experience end up feeling impotent, and they lash out. Thus, the consequence for sociopaths is that they are socially punished for the actions of a group to which they belong, but have never met. It's the only way for 'victims' to regain control, to regain potency.

    The solution, then, is to attempt to extricate yourself from the sociopath group, and thus no longer be responsible for the unpunished crimes committed by the group of sociopaths. You want to be seen as more than a sociopath, and you are, but redefinition, your only real hope of salvation, is difficult. In fact, I can't imagine how you could do it.

    Maybe you could save a bunch of kids from a burning bus, but then they'd probably think you started the fire. Wow, people really think sociopaths are evil, don't they?

    1. “If someone suffers severe emotional abuse, is physical retribution inexcusable? The law would say yes, I think”

      The law would say yes NOWADAYS. Law evolves and so the methods to determine if someone is the actor of some abuses. The problem making emotional abuse accountable is primarily to be able to prove it happened and it was consciously done.

      “Maybe you could save a bunch of kids from a burning bus, but then they'd probably think you started the fire.”

      That’s a funny one :) Yes, people would probably think that she started the fire, but usually who started a fire can be determined with some precision. So I recommend her to save a bunch of kids from a bus who someone else (with no relation to her at all!) has provoked.

      “Wow, people really think sociopaths are evil, don't they?”

      Isn’t that true by definition? ‘profoundly immoral and wicked’ ‘harmful or tending to harm’. I think that what we are trying to determine here is if Jamie is evil beyond redemption ;)

    2. I am intrigued by the notion of a pro-social sociopath. That's how James Fallon characterizes himself. I suspect that what most people get hung up on is the widespread assumption that personality disorders are largely untreatable. And yet- ten years ago the worst thing to be a was a borderline and many therapists wouldn't even treat them if they could avoid it. Now, studies indicate that when certain protocols are followed, there is measurable improvement in at least half of the patients- to the point where they no longer fit the criteria that makes a person "borderline".
      Just because our collective ability to integrate sociopaths into society is lacking does not mean that it can't happen. From what I understand, using guilt trips isn't effective at all, but positive reinforcement generally is. Once the general public understands that sociopaths can be treated to become more pro-social, I suspect that we will begin to view people like ME in a way that is like Spock (Highly rational, never rattled, good in crisis). We definitely need more people like Spock! Our celebrity obsessed 24 hour news cycle narcissistic culture could definitely use more stoicism.
      That being said, there are smart sociopaths, and dumb sociopaths. I am not sure all sociopaths can be treated. Those who have poorly developed analytical skills may never progress to the point where they connect anti social behavior with continual self sabotage. So perhaps they are incurable. But if a sociopath honestly wants to modify behavior for their own self interest, I suspect that the way to do it is in locating long term goals that require ongoing social cooperation instead of drifting from one pathological space to the next. It's developing the skill of delaying gratification- not because it's good or moral, but because it's smart. I would argue that ME is already doing this.
      Another piece of the puzzle is the anger sociopaths feel. Some say it is the only emotion but I think it's the only "safe" emotion. The others are kept below consciousness. But I'd wager there's some deep grief in there somewhere, especially with the sociopaths who suffered abuse. ME describes a "good" childhood. Clearly being in a faith community and having strong sibling ties helped her. But as a mom, I can't help but feel that her power struggles with a narcissistic father may be a huge part of why she developed a personality disorder. ME is no monster.
      She loved Ann and the guy she was involved with in that time period deeply. ME describes loneliness that sounds painful. She experiences loss. ME is fully human. The more the general public understands that people like ME are not evil robots who live among us, the more people will be able to let go of their fear. Concern is still merited, but fear is very limiting.

      Perhaps ME can be the face of a group that identifies as pro-social sociopaths. Perhaps her book is the start of something larger than just a memoir about what it's like to be the ultimate "mean girl". Only she knows if that's something she wants to do. Serving as the catalyst for the cultural reevaluating of a marginalized demographic by putting herself out there like she has strikes me as incredibly pro-social, and something society at large could appreciate as being a service to humanity.

    3. I see a sociopath who saves a bunch of kids from a burning bus as a pro-social sociopath. Not to have empathy doesn’t mean you have to execute asocial actions, just that you would not mind and even could enjoy doing them. Actually, Andy, up to some point, if what he says is what he does, is close to a pro-social sociopath.

      James Fallon states to be psychopath because at the age of 63, after having a life of social contribution, he discovered by chance that he has the presumed brain pattern, the genetics, and many murders in his family tree. ME states she is a sociopath according to how she feels and her antisocial acts. Fallon’s speech is very different to ME’s speech. He does not focus on finding an alibi on antisocial behavior and all people around him were not surprised at his diagnose as sociopath since he had never played a role. The life of Fallon’s redeems Fallon.

      That’s why I think that Andy is making a mistake at not showing how he is.

      Another thing is to say “I am a sociopath” to an environment who is unaware while, moreover, being a lawyer, which doesn’t have pro-social connotations. That is social suicidal, at least at the beginning.
      Fallon was callous all his life. People like him because he is fun and interesting to be with him. Why those things are not enough for you?

      If my spath would have told me he is a spath I would not have ran. I would not have had a relationship with him neither because that is not what I am searching for, but that’s ok, most of the people are not the ones we are searching for.

      ME, Fallon, my spath, Andy, have the choice to use and abuse or not to do it, as much as anybody else, they have the consciousness to see the damage, and the power to control their actions.

      Mach, we will never see ME as being pro-social because she chooses not to be pro-social. She scams and it’s proud about it. She is searching for alibis to continue doing it. If I reprobate ME is because of these things, not because her brain is wired differently. Actuatlly, ME, did you ever got a brain screening for diagnosis?

    4. @ Jessi-
      You attribute motivations to ME that I am not sure have any basis in reality. You are cynical about her choice to write a book. You assume that it's all for the wrong reasons. Did you read the chapter at the end where she talks about sociopathic children? My take away was genuine concern for someone other than herself.
      It's possible that she might have presented herself differently had she grasped the level of blowback she's getting. But she "outed" herself to her family ahead of time. She understood the risks of doing what she has done. Instead of continuing to exploit people and exist under the radar, ME has opened herself up to public scrutiny. That is an incredibly brave thing to do.
      ME is not all good. She has some seriously problematic relational problems that cause those that emotionally invest in her to feel pain. In writing this book, she is owning her stuff and taking responsibility for it. I am going to guess that people from her life who recognize themselves in these stories will likely feel relieved that she is not externalizing the blame for relationship breakdown.
      But your saying "Mach, we will never see ME as being pro-social because she chooses not to be pro-social." is an incredibly arrogant assertion to make. ME is a complicated person. A brave person, and a valuable person even if she is a dangerous person.

      You know what is more troubling to me? Those that write people off...

    5. Wonderful, thoughtful response, Mach. I agree 100%

    6. Just in case you want your question answered.... yes, LDS members can be excommunicated. But its done case by case. My girlfriend's husband was recently excommunicated for having an affair but the woman he cheated with was not. After a year if you are living the church standards, you can again be baptized.

    7. We perceive ME very differently apparently. It is funny that you perceive a so-called sociopath as someone with “genuine concern for someone other than herself” and point someone who doubts her noble motives as someone who doesn’t have “any basis in reality”.

      “Instead of continuing to exploit people”

      How do you know she is not continuing to exploit people?

      “She understood the risks of doing what she has done”

      Any basis in reality to say so?

      “ME has opened herself up to public scrutiny. That is an incredibly brave thing to do.”

      You attribute ME being brave. Based on what? People sometimes do stupid things because they are convinced they are going to stand out in a situation. It is not being brave; they might just undervalue the difficulty of the situations and consider others to be too mediocre to challenge them. This is more in tune with the sociopath personality than being brave, especially when wearing a wig.

      “ME is not all good. She has some seriously problematic relational problems that cause those that emotionally invest in her to feel pain.”

      I would not call to consciously scam a “seriously problematic relational problem”. Though the euphemism can work for all criminal behaviors. It sound like a sitcom quote: - “I murdered someone. Ups! I might be having a serious problematic relational problem.”-

      “In writing this book, she is owning her stuff and taking responsibility for it.” “ME is a complicated person. A brave person, and a valuable person even if she is a dangerous person.”

      Why are only my guesses arrogant when you are constantly making other guesses? Are they arrogant because my guesses don’t match yours?

      I am not writing ME off (not enough real basis in a direction or the other) but there are cases were certainly the best way to proceed is to write people off.

      I think there is one main difference between you an me on this: I did meet a Sociopath. You have a candid vision in ALL human beings which is something you lose once you cross one.

      Another issue is if ME is really a sociopath, a narcissist, a neurotypical scammer or something else.

    8. Jessi-

      I have known at least one sociopath. I have a complicated backstory that I am not interested sharing online. But suffice it to say that I have been conned. I have been assaulted. I have had my heart crushed to nothing. But I'm not a big fan of allowing past evil to own me.
      There are two individuals I will have no contact with again, ever.

      Do I believe that those two individuals are damned? Beyond help? No. But they are beyond my capacity to help. They were toxic to my family. The less said about them, the better. I have a side of me that is capable of sitting up all night with a baseball bat handy to make sure a predator does not hurt my family during a bender. Those two individuals stole my innocence. But they did not steal my hope. I won't stay in that place of obsessing about people who did evil things to me even though I learned some very important lessons through those experiences.

      I don't know what motivates ME. But I know that this dialogue that would not be possible without her is very good.

      As a lover of the philosophy that undergirds the ideals (but not always the practice, sadly) of the American legal system, I will simply explain my defense of her (arrogant or not) as a manifestation of my firm belief that to live in a civilized society all citizens must be "innocent until proven guilty". In my mind, the jury is still out.

    9. I do believe that there are individuals that are evil beyond help. The ones I met did not steal my innocence, neither my hope. But I do not have hope in people like them because I believe that would be illusory. It is not an obsession. I analyzed how they were, evaluate how they were and that was my dispassionate conclusion. I think that some people prefer a beautiful lie than to face an ugly truth and your comment reminds me of that attitude. The only sure thing, though, is that we conclude different things when faced to the same reality.

      This dialogue would also be possible without ME.

      A confession can be used as a piece of evidence. I am not in the position to judge ME since I can’t evaluate if her confession is false, I let that task to people who were and are in her environment.

  2. I don’t think nothing very useful can be found asking 4 years old kids of any epoch about any complex issue (reflecting is not the strong point of an underdeveloped brain). A 4 year old will just replicate the small information that he has absorbed from his parents on that respect. And this will strongly depend, since it’s and statistical average, on the culture. It would be a mistake not to consider children as humans at an early development stage but as the carriers of all human truths.

    The “malum in se” is not a list of acts, but a list of an act in a context. Remember the crocodile and the man in the park’s bench, without consciousness there is not “malum in se”. And also remember why there is no immorality associated with killing in self-defense. Punishment it has always been consider as part of morality. And the disagreeable reaction you might be encountering in others after your confession is a form of punishment.

    I believe that morals, in its unadulterated form, derive from required rules for human cohabitation. Both, the “malum in se” and the “malum prohibitum”, are not fix and do evolve, as much as society evolves. But specially I don’t think it is that important that some one believes that an action is “malum per se” or not as much as the person is aware of the damage it creates and therefore the justified social banning of that action in its context, and its derived punishment.

    I find funny that you use a text that appeals to the popular “We feel that our moral principles should be universal, but we simultaneously feel that there is something special about our obligations to our own group, whether it's a family, clan or country.” I personally don’t feel that there is nothing special about my obligations to my own group and I see in that just a very selfish statement.

  3. Apparently (according to one of the Amazon reviews ) ME says she has done things, which, if they were known, would have landed her in jail. So she has damned herself. If it's true, she's a criminal. If it's not she's a liar and we can't believe a word from her.

    1. A LOT of people have done things that could have landed them in jail.
      Everybody has lied at some point or another.

      Nobody is damned unless they surrender all efforts to make positive changes. We all have made bad choices. The key is: if we take responsibility for them, we grow beyond those choices. None of us is all good or all bad. Every person exists in a state of moral flux. Each day we have to decide: do I work towards objective good or do I succumb to evil? Anyone who possesses free will is very much the captain of their own destiny.

    2. I am going to finish thinking that you are the mother of all sociopaths, Mach.

      Today is the day of the appeals to the popular.

      Which kind of people do you cross?? I don't ask everyday that question: do you?
      My bad choices were not criminal...


    3. I have enough trouble being a mother to four children.
      Given that most therapy blames the mother for all unfortunate psychiatric outcomes, I think that I will pass on the title of "mother of all sociopaths". Besides. I don't think they would like me very much because I would make them eat vegetables and brush their teeth ;)

      and I am not sure if you second question was to me or to everyone- "Which kind of people do you cross??"

      depends on what you mean by cross. If you mean piss off? well, probably more than I know because I have a habit of not knowing when to shut my mouth. But if you mean betray I hope that that would be nobody because nobody deserves to be treated like they were nothing, or disposable. There is something worthwhile in everyone.

    4. Probably that's the consequence of a highly recluded life. If you would have been more exposed to the world out there I don't think you would still have that candid view.

    5. Jessi
      You are so dumb that it is not funny

    6. I'm going to guess a bit of this may be a language barrier issue. Humor, supposedly, is the hardest thing to understand in a language that is not your own.

      Jessi- I applaud your second language skills- I had five years of German and mostly just remember how to swear in it. So kudos for even trying to debate because I have the unfair advantage of speaking my mother tongue.

      Please consider that some of my remarks are made in jest...

    7. My previous comment referred to the “But if you mean betray I hope that that would be nobody because nobody deserves to be treated like they were nothing, or disposable. There is something worthwhile in everyone” if that was humoristic let me know.

    8. That particular statement was meant to be taken at face value.
      I do not have "hope" that external influences can change a sociopath. That would be naive. That is why there are 2 individuals (one is probably a sociopath, and one is probably a borderline) Their behavior patterns and my experiences with them lead me to conclude that there is no "hope" for positive interaction.

      I do believe that there is hope that exists beyond me, or any other person in a sociopath's life. That hope exists in their free will. Every day, a sociopath chooses to be the person that they are. Who knows what influences those choices? My withdrawing from interaction does not mean that a sociopath is a lost cause, just that my risk/reward calculations compel me to withdraw to protect my family from probable future hurt.

      So- back to hope. There is hope where there is free will. The sociopath is the master of his/her destiny. At any point, the choice to become pro social can meaningfully change the direction of a disordered individual. The catch is- no one can force this change externally- manipulative kindness, guilt, blackmail, and physical compulsion will only have a limited (if any) impact on sociopathic behavior. Only an internal decision to direct the will in a different direction will change the sociopath.

      My robust hope for the sociopath has nothing to do with my belief that any of the outer interventions I've suggested will make a difference.

      Rather, my hope goes back to my belief that all humans have free will. That means change is always possible. Sociopaths are particularly willful and less encumbered with the need to satisfy the wishes of others. The lack of emotional baggage and their stronger than average willfulness make them far more capable than the average person of making meaningful changes in their behavior patterns.

    9. * the two individuals are the ones I referred to a while back in the comment stream- the ones I choose to not interact with anymore.

  4. You ever notice if someone is very articulate or smart, that they say that English isn't their first language?


    Mach em, and Jessi :)

    1. You either made a typo or a mistake. English is Machs first language, it isn't Jessi's. Mach is very articulate and intelligent. Jessi is less articulate, understandably, but still intelligent, though I believe her to be hopelessly embittered towards socios for reasons I don't think I will ever be able to understand.

    2. Maybe he meant what he said...

    3. Jessie is hopelessly embittered towards sociopaths because she is too subjective and would benefit from being more objective.

  5. Morality is socially constructed. Yes. You're starting to get it.

  6. M.E., what's your background re: Foucault? I'm not saying he's the end-all, be-all. He's not. He's really just a fading fad now; can almost lump him in with Freud. But he did have some useful observations on mental illness categorizations--their history, how they are applied, etc. You seem so wedded to DSM and your supposed diagnosis. Maybe think outside the box.


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