In Praise of Empty Souls—Can We Learn From Psychopaths?
YEARS AGO, as a student, I attended some lectures by a prominent anthropologist who regaled his listeners with odd and engaging stories about a group of indigenous people he had lived among in a far-flung corner of the planet. The tales stuck in the mind. Indeed, some of them were so amazing that I came away from his talks sure that counterintuitive but vital truths about human behavior had just been revealed. Only during the final lecture was I granted an inkling that these truths might not bear much relationship to reality. Fairly gleeful in her disdain, one of his indentured graduate assistants whispered to me that, in the field, the anthropologist had offered his subjects chocolate bars in exchange for stories about themselves—the more fantastic the stories, the more plentiful the candy. Avidly scrawling notes, his audience had become an illustration of how easily the foreign and the fascinating can assume the aura of science.
Though I have no reason to think chocolate was involved, I am concerned that a similar phenomenon may occur among readers of The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton, a research psychologist at the University of Oxford. Dutton’s eye-catching thesis is this: “Psychopathy is like sunlight. Overexposure can hasten one’s demise in grotesque, carcinogenic fashion. But regulated exposure at controlled and optimal levels can have a significant positive impact on well-being and quality of life.” Psychopathy, proposes Dutton, is “personality with a tan.”
Strangely, nowhere in this book about psychopathy does Dutton accurately define psychopathy, so I will do so here. Psychopathy is a disorder of brain and behavior, the central characteristic of which is the complete absence of conscience. All of its other pathological features (such as callousness, habitual lying, and ruthlessness) emanate from this defining deficit. Yet, as a tip-off to the major fallacy in his argument, Dutton does not once discuss the concept of conscience, and, in the entire body of his book he mentions the word itself—conscience—a total of four times, and then only in passin