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As author Dutton admits, the title of his book represents "rather an odd conglomeration of words" and I'd have to agree. (28) I also found the cover image, a bust of Socrates wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask, to be as clever as it is provocative. However, I wanted more from this work and find that two basic questions continue to plague me: One, what exactly does Dutton mean by "wisdom" and why should we accept his view? Two, what are his underlying assumptions about human nature and motivation in general? Dutton does give us a few hints: His references -- to Thomas Hobbes, Machiavellianism, Social Darwinism, evolutionary psychology and other egoist theories, along with the claim that he is not referring to wisdom in the "traditional" sense -- give the reader a rough idea of his basic presuppositions. Still, despite the inexorable logic of his position, these premises deserve further exploration.
First, I have two caveats: One, I will ignore the rather obvious gender bias, as female psychopathy is just barely footnoted. I will also do my best to disregard the ethical implications of his analysis -- after all, Dutton is not pretending to be dabbling in moral psychology or virtue ethics. Nonetheless, I can't help wondering whether he would be equally sanguine if discussing women who habitually exploited others for money and sex, eschewed birth control while serially terminating pregnancies or exhibited the same kind of "ruthlessness" he attributes to Navy SEALS? (150) Like their male counterparts, these women are perhaps rare but no less worthy of study. Perhaps Dutton will pen a sequel?
Overall, I enjoyed this work -- it directly appealed to the adolescent in me who finds psychopathy utterly fascinating. I also appreciate the way Dutton expands the definition to include more than "A-list" serial killers or "poster-boy Hall of Famers." Moreover, I'm now able to recognize C- or D- list "psychopaths" from my own experience and two uncles come to mind. However, despite their macho charm and wit -- their youthful successes with women, money, petty crimes, misdemeanors and manipulations -- both ended their lives with a sad and sorry whimper. Simply put, they spent their final years as broken, miserable, lonely, old men. Dutton also admits that psychopathic qualities have a limited shelf life, that psychopaths tend to be more successful in the short term than in the long run, but says little beyond that. Finally, though I agree that Dutton is on to something, when he suggests that the lack of sociability exhibited by "elite spiritual athletes" might be a form of psychopathy -- or, its corollary, "antipsychopathy" (30) -- he fails to explain how to distinguish "good" or socially beneficial traits from "bad" or socially corrosive ones. Yes, Buddhists capable of practicing a preternatural form of detachment, focusing exclusively on "the now," might exhibit an affect as flat as Ted Kaczynski's but Dutton says nothing about their distinct motivations. Also, how would he account for the Vietnamese monks who set themselves ablaze in protest of President Diem? Were they driven by "self-interest" or acting on the basis of humanitarian principles for the sake of a political ideal?
The gist of Dutton's position -- not merely with regard to psychopathy but, apparently, his theory of human nature and motivation in general -- can be summed up as follows: Whatever I do is determined by my own desires and interests. Whether I'm risking my life to save a child, manipulating senior citizens to trust me with their life savings or getting my teeth cleaned, it all boils down to doing whatever I believe is best for me. This is quintessential psychological egoism -- the view that human beings are inherently selfish or that we are all fundamentally motivated by self-interest. Dutton goes on to describe psychopathic killers as well as "politicians and world leaders" as having, "a grandiose sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, superficial charm, ruthlessness, lack of remorse, [are] completely unfazed by the social, moral or legal consequences of their actions" and "myopically self-interested." (9, 34) Dutton then includes neurosurgeon Geraghty's ruminations, taking his self-characterization as a "cold, heartless machine" at face-value. (10) So, this much seems clear -- psychopathy and anti-social or amoral behavior go together. On the other hand, psychopathy is more innocuously described as "personality with a tan" -- one which even has "surprising benefits." (xvii) However, because the term "personality" is as vague as "self-interested," and Dutton himself says it's "far too complex a construct" for a "one-off" definition, I don't see how this follows (34). In other words, there seems to be a problem of consistency.
Specifically, once Dutton strays from a strictly egoistic or social Darwinian perspective, he ends up making claims that undercut his earlier position. To argue that psychopaths are more "saintly," "altruistic" and capable not only of empathy but "enhanced empathy," makes almost no sense at all. (189, 202, 211) The only way to salvage his original definition or avoid such inconsistencies would be to say that, somehow, self-sacrifice is ultimately a self-interested act. But, how is this possible without also defending the existence of an afterlife or believing in divine rewards? Consider the cases of soldiers who've thrown themselves on a grenade to save comrades, kamikazepilots and suicide bombers, or Lt. Hugh Thompson who risked his life and reputation to aid "the enemy" at My Lai: What could possibly have been in it for them personally? Moreover, Dutton appears to conflate "the capacity to recognize emotions," or a talent for eliciting empathy from others, with empathy itself. (118) So, even if psychopathic traits happen to provide social benefits, these salutary consequences are entirely contingent and completely incidental. Like maggots feeding-off infection or vultures cleaning-up carrion, any "good" resulting from a psychopath's selfish acts is surely an unintended consequence. In sum, Dutton's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink explanation creates more confusion than clarity and raises deeper, more intractable questions. He seems to be arguing that psychopaths are just extremely human -- that, whatever we are by nature, psychopaths are simply more so. Thus, the fundamental question of human motivation and essentialism arises once again.
As for "wisdom," Dutton never bothers to distinguish it from mere cunning, intelligence, calculation or what Hobbes calls "reckoning"?A more apt title might be, The Shrewdness of Psychopaths. But that doesn't have the same catchy ring, and the depiction of Ayn Rand wearing a Lecter mask wouldn't be nearly as ironic. Moreover, although Dutton insists that he is not referring to wisdom in "the traditional sense" -- namely, "as an emergent property of advancing years and cumulative experience" -- a very distinct kind of reasoning is implicated. (29) Not only does his account suggest a Hobbesian notion of "reckoning" or Rand's "rational self-interest," it parallels Aristotle's techne as well as Bentham's "Hedonistic Calculus." On the other hand, there is Aristotelian phronesis or sophia, both of which are translated as "wisdom" despite bearing little resemblance to Dutton's concept -- for, the former has an inherently ethical and socio-political dimension, while the latter is the most "perfect form of knowledge."(NE,156)One might also examine Kant's account of "practical reason" or the counterarguments Socrates proffers in response to the claims of psychological and ethical egoism. While Kant's faculty enables us to produce a will that is "good in itself" (Kant, 9); Socrates's wisdom represents a "just" or "ruling principle" identifying "what is beneficial for each and for the whole" (Republic, 442c). So, despite his disclaimer, I found Dutton's implied concept quite traditional indeed -- what he fails to do is give the reader any reason for accepting his view over the alternatives.
Both Oscar Wilde and G.B. Shaw said something along the lines of, "there are only two tragedies in life -- not getting what one wants and getting it." This is one of the paradoxes of happiness and "success" I wish Dutton had explored. For, even if I accept his Hobbesian assumptions and egoistic theories of motivation, there is always the problem of how "ends" are determined and evaluated. Does one always know what's in her own best interest? Are we never misguided or conflicted when it comes to our desires? And, what are we to make of the classic Jekyll-Hyde duality -- do characters like this suffer from ASPD (Antisocial Personality Disorder), alcoholism or psychopathy? These questions come into focus when Dutton discusses "Jimmy" and "Ian" -- yes, Ian may exhibit the "emotionless void" associated with psychopathy, but I can't tell whether Jimmy suffers from ASPD, drug/alcohol addiction or something else. (53-56) In other words, what distinguishes a rational end or reasonable desire from a compulsion, obsession or clinical diagnosis? How can I distinguish between an intelligent, cagey addict in need of treatment and the clever psychopath I'd be wise to avoid? As many in recovery have learned already, the trick to happiness and success isnot necessarily getting what you want but wanting what you get.
To conclude: The philosopher in me yearns for a more critically reflective and thorough analysis. The pitfalls of evolutionary psychology are never mentioned and the Hobbesian/Machiavellian assumptions remain unexamined. Yes, Dutton provides a wealth of information -- anecdotal evidence as well as scientific research. Unfortunately, it's all geared toward building a case or proving the hypothesis with which he began. On the other hand, James Fallon, an acclaimed neuroscientist who's also written on psychopathy, seems to have a broader perspective. Not only does he end up revising his hypothesis, he provides an account which avoids the inevitability of biological determinism arguing that psychopaths are made not born. His position illustrates that, despite one's genetic heritage or natural predispositions, how one is raised and how well one is loved is the difference that makes all the difference. I wish Dutton had included something similar. I say this simply because I'd prefer to believe that he isn't as glib or cynical as he sounds when he embraces the "wisdom" and "success" of psychopaths while ignoring the wreckage of their adulthood and childhood sufferings.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (NY: Macmillan, 1962) -- see in particular Book VI, Chapters 3-7
James Fallon, The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain (NY: Penguin, 2013)
Hobbes, Thomas Leviathan (NY: Macmillan, 1962)
Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981)
Christopher Lawford, Symptoms of Withdrawal: A Memoir of Snapshots and Redemption (NY: HarperCollins, 200)
Plato, Collected Dialogues (NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961) -- see in particular Republic, Book IV, 438-443
Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (NY: Signet, 1964)
© 2013 Camille Atkinson
Camille Atkinson, PhD, Bend, OR