A Morality for Sociopaths
by Benjamin Studebaker
Most moral theories attempt to determine how people ought to behave without considering whether or not people are capable of behaving in the ways they describe. Those that do consider whether or not their moral theories are too demanding do so only in minor ways. They consider perhaps whether or not the average person is capable of acting in the way they describe, or whether or not the average person could one day be capable, but they do not commit themselves to designing a moral theory that is universally feasible. What about morally abnormal individuals, who do not have the altruistic and social impulses many moral theories assume? Can they be incorporated into a moral theory? I not only think we can incorporate these individuals, but that we must do so, because if we do not, these individuals will act in harmful ways that our moral theories fail to anticipate. Our popular morality allows these individuals to gain by being immoral, to take advantage of those who do subscribe to the common morality. Only moral theories that expect the worst can be prepared to deal with the worst. Today I’d like to discuss how we ought to assimilate these people into a common moral theory, one that anticipates their inclinations and adjusts itself accordingly.
Let’s begin with an idea–egoism. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of egoism:
- Psychological Egoism–a descriptive theory that claims that all human behaviors are ultimately motivated by self-interest.
- Ethical Egoism–a normative theory that claims that human beings ought to consider self-interest exclusively in a rather narrow way (e.g. Ayn Rand).
Psychological egoism is the variant I need to talk about today. Psychological egoism attempts to ground even seemingly altruistic behavior in selfish ends. Psychological egoists argue that even a soldier who throws himself on a grenade in order to defend his comrades is ultimately acting selfishly, perhaps because he believes he will go to heaven if he does so (or hell if he does not), or because he could not live with himself if he did not do so, etc. There is some ultimately selfish motivation ascribed to him. Fundamentally, psychological egoists believe that human beings only do things because they desire to do them and enjoy having their desires satisfied, such that even when we do things for others we are still ultimately doing them for the satisfaction of our own desires. Many go to great lengths to contest psychological egoism, and there is a rich literature on the subject. For my purposes here, it’s not especially important whether or not psychological egoism is universally true. I propose that we assume it is true as a deliberate abstraction.
Let’s go further than that. There some people, perhaps a great number of people, who would not voluntarily throw themselves on grenades for the benefit of others. These people are not all sociopaths (though some of them are), but they lie on a continuum between sociopathy and altruism. Let’s presume an even narrower psychological egoism, one that picks out the motivations of the least sociable of these people. We’ll assume people are exclusively concerned with:
- Their immediate self-interest, narrowly considered.
- The interests of others, but only insofar as those others contribute to their immediate self-interest.
Here I exclude all forms of general benevolence or empathy. I do this not because I actually believe people are not capable of benevolence or empathy, but because it is reasonable to say that some number of people are this way. Instead of conceiving of people as broadly benevolent with some exceptions, let’s conceive of people as broadly apathetic to the well-being of other people who do not directly benefit them. In this way, when people behave different from our expectations, we are surprisingly better off rather than worse off. In this way, we do not rely or depend on any kind of benevolence inherent to the nature of people. In this way, we can devise a moral theory such that even those who are motivated exclusively by a repugnant selfishness can nonetheless be persuaded to largely behave positively.
This restricts what we can appeal to in our moral theory. While we might imagine that many people want others to do well for its own sake, or feel bad when others do poorly, the egoist assumption forces us to appeal exclusively to the self-interest of moral agents. In order to persuade a sociopath to behave in a benign way, we must appeal to his nature, not to ours.
So why should a sociopath choose to act benevolently without coercion? We must align the individual’s interest with the social interest and thereby make it impossible for the sociopath to gain by harmful behavior. We need to put people in social roles in which, by pursuing their individual interests, they simultaneously and inadvertently achieve public goods.
This has all been rather abstract to this point, so let’s bring it home with an example. If we assume that all voters are sociopaths, we’ve consequently assumed that voters will only vote based on self-interest, that they will never vote based on the common good. Furthermore, we’ve assumed that all legislators will vote in whichever way advantages them (typically whichever way facilitates re-election), and never with a thought to the welfare of the people independently. These assumptions are rarely made in democratic theory. It seems clear that egoists cannot run a democratic government effectively, with each citizen attempting to direct state resources in his direction and each legislator directing resources not on the basis of any just principle, but solely on the basis of what will persuade citizens to keep him in office or cause him to become wealthy. What kind of government could egoists institute such that they might be well-governed?
Our egoist presumption assumes that people care exclusively about themselves and their projects, with no thought to others or the projects of others except insofar as those others can facilitate their projects. Given this assumption, if we want a good government, we need to find people whose project is good government. In other words, we need to find people who derive satisfaction from instituting good government, whose individual interests are synonymous with the public interest. We want people who gain satisfaction primarily from ordering governmental systems efficiently, who are obsessed with this task and want little else for themselves. These people must enjoy governing more than money, fame, popularity, or any other potential competing objective. Who might fit this description? It’s certainly not our present politicians, who are primarily fame-seekers and/or wealth-seeking businessmen or lawyers. No, what we need are true political obsessives, and these can only be found in academia in the social sciences. Academia presents all of the relevant deterrents:
- Academia pays poorly relative to other occupations similarly skilled individuals could enter into (e.g. law, business).
- Academia is poorly respected relative to other occupations similarly skilled individuals could enter into (e.g. law, business).
- Academia is harder to enter into than the other occupations that pay better and/or are better respected–it requires more years of schooling and more rigorous work.
A person who gains satisfaction primarily from material gain or social standing would never enter academia. There are easier, more lucrative options readily available for someone of his skill set. In order to choose to be a social science academic, you have to be a very strange person who gains satisfaction from abnormal pursuits. For this reason, it is reasonable, assuming the very worst about people, to choose to put the government into the hands of social science academics, and it is for this reason that I do this in sophiarchism.
This method of analysis can and should be applied across moral and political theory. We should design institutions, laws, and other systems so that even presuming that the entire population is made up of selfish people, the institution or law in question will nonetheless be able to perform its assigned function well. We should assume that all businessmen will attempt to eviscerate their workers if given the opportunity, and that in turn, all workers will do the same to their employers. We should assume that those who are poor will never receive help from charitable private entities, that foreign states will always attack us or otherwise harm us if it is in their interest to do so, and so on. We make this assumption not because it is true, but because it is useful. It helps us to avoid the ever so common human mistake of assuming a level of reasonableness and decency that is all too often absent.
So many mistakes in theory might be avoided in future as a result. All of the most prominent failures in theory that come to my mind are primarily the result of a reliance on an unrealistic level of human benevolence:
- Marxists, with their presumption that human beings will work just as hard even without disparities in income, or that they could one day be socialized into so doing.
- Supporters of democracy, with their belief that human beings will vote for the public good rather than merely their own.
- Anarchists, with their belief that human beings can live together in peaceful, harmonious, spontaneous cooperation without the state.
- Libertarians, with their belief that markets and individuals will self-regulate.
- Monarchists, with their belief that rulers will govern justly without checks or balances.
The list could, conceivably, go on and on.
I’m confused. Your argument hinges on assuming the broad validity of psychological egoism, that people only pursue actions for their own benefit. I don’t have trouble accepting that, but I do have trouble believing that this is a particularly fresh way of looking at the issue of ordering society. I’m an undergraduate economics student, and my discipline has been operating under that assumption ever since Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. When examining the consequences of, say, government policy, it’s never assumed that everyone’s in it to help each other out. We start from the perspective you do: everyone is responding to incentives in the hope of maximizing their own utility. Theories about collective action, in particular, emphasize this (the free rider problem would be a well-known example).
Following from that, I’m even more confused as to why you included free market philosophy in your list of theories that ignore your assumption, when in fact the opposite is true. The market is not said to self-regulate through wide-spread benevolence. It regulates through competing selfishness. A business has a strong incentive to deal honestly with customers: repeat business. Deliver what the customer (himself a selfish animal) wants and he will come back. Deliver something sub-par or even dangerous, and you risk losing that customer. Going back to economics, there are arguments as to how smoothly this works, but the point is that the philosophy fully takes into consideration an assumption you claim it ignores.
Actually, the US Constitution is partly founded on this same assumption. The Framers didn’t pretend that every aspirant to political office would be an upstanding human being, and they didn’t assume that voters would always respect the rights of their fellow citizens. So the system was designed to nullify those egos by pitting them against each other through a frustrating and inefficient system of divided powers.
It is indeed a common assumption in economics, but it is quite uncommon in political and moral theory, and that is where I’m advocating for its application.
Most economists support some level of regulation by the state because they buy into this assumption. My criticism is not of economics broadly, but of the libertarian strain, which presumes better behavior from economic actors than we generally get. Before the regulatory state, individual businesses frequently engaged in behavior that might benefit them immediately but externalized costs on society. There is not sufficient self-interest reasons for businesses to behave in a uniformly collectively beneficial way without outside coercion.
The US constitution made some effort to protect against self-interested politicians and some effort to protect against tyrannies of the majorities, but these efforts have been insufficient. They do not prevent self-interested parties from attempting to control government through campaign donations, or prevent congressmen from placing their concern for re-election over the public interest, or prevent voters from voting in a self-interested way that frequently results in sub-par policy. It relies either on voters to vote on the basis of the public good (as democratic theorists frequently argue voters ought to do or must do for the system to work) or it relies on the voters’ aggregate self-interests to track the interest of society as a whole, which they fail to do.
[…] both refined in his movements and savage in his desire? Benjamin Studebaker, in his proposed “Morality for Sociopaths,” writes, “What about morally abnormal individuals, who do not have the altruistic and […]
Thanks for sharing!