Psychopaths and Morality – An Interview With Rob Kall

This week I had the honour of being interviewed by Rob Kall for his Bottom Up Radio Show. Rob is the executive editor and publisher of OpEdNews.com one of the top 100 blogs overall, according to Technorati.com

Rob has a deep interest in psychopaths and the damage they do to societies. His previous guests on Bottom Up Radio have included Clive Boddy, author of Corporate Psychopaths, Sandra Brown, author of Women Who Love Psychopaths, and Donald Black, author of Bad Boys, Bad Men.

The interview was an opportunity for us to explore in some depth some of the main issues surrounding people with dangerous personality disorders, the damage they cause, and what we can do to protect ourselves from the violence and suffering they inflict.

Listening back over the interview has allowed me to summarise five key messages about people with dangerous personality disorders and how they impact on your world.

The Big Picture

The big picture is that a small proportion of people with dangerous personality disorders have dominated the psychologically normal majority of the population in every society on earth for most of human history. The conditions that prevailed the world over, until relatively recently, (including widespread poverty and disease), meant that life for most was ‘nasty, brutish and short’. In such conditions, those with dangerous personality disorders could thrive. It is only in the last few centuries that socio-economic development has enabled the normal majority to begin to wrestle power from this violent minority. Today that struggle is gathering pace, as a clash of civilisations takes place. That clash of civilisations is not between the West and the Rest, or between Islam and modernity. The main clash of civilisations we are seeing today is between the psychologically normal majority and a dangerous pathological minority.

What Are Dangerous Personality Disorders?

There are three dangerous personality disorders – psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder. The core feature of psychopathy is an absence of conscience. The cognitive and emotional functioning of people with this disorder is such that they see little or no distinction between people and things. Lacking any trace of empathy, they can commit violence of fraud without remorse. People with narcissistic personality disorder are capable of empathy, but that capability is often overridden by their rigid belief in their own superiority. People with this disorder treat others with disdain, and are cognitively incapable of even conceiving of the idea of equality. Paranoid personality disorder is characterised by a hyper-attentive paranoia, and people with this disorder view everyone around them as a real or potential threat. The role of people with this disorder is often to scapegoat acceptable enemies and to whip up hatred and fear in society.

How do People with These Disorders Come to Power?

In many circumstances people with dangerous personalities have a higher probability of reaching positions of authority and power than those with normal psychology. In violent situations, such as revolution or civil war, the ruthlessness of psychopaths proves an almost unassailable advantage. Such was the case with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and countless others. In societies scarred by violence or communal division, those with paranoid personality disorder can also gain widespread popular appeal by vilifying acceptable enemies. But it is not only violence that can allow those with dangerous personality disorders to gain positions of influence. Ideology can also play a crucial role. Examples of ideologies which have afforded pathological elites a ready path to power in recent times have included communism, national socialism, neoliberalism, and religion.

The Role of Culture  – ‘The bitch that bore him is again in heat”

The rise of pathological elites to power is not simply down to the psychology of those with these disorders; it is also crucially about the psychology of the rest of us. People with dangerous personality disorders often have a powerful appeal for the normal majority. Their ambition and boundless energy, their charisma, their dogmatic certainty, and unlimited confidence, means that we often willingly place power in their hands.

Culture plays a vital role in empowering pathological elites. The role of culture can be seen in examples as disparate as the rise of right wing extremism in Europe in the wake of the Financial Crisis, to the aggressive and predatory culture within the world’s largest financial institutions which caused the crisis in the first place.

In his play ‘The Resistible Rise of  Arturo Ui’, Bertolt Brecht wrote (of Adolf Hitler) ‘Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the bastard is dead, the bitch that bore him is again in heat.’ Culture can either enable those with dangerous personality disorders to flourish, or culture can act as a brake on their destruction.

What Can We Do?

The strongest protection against pathological elites is also the most logical – to ensure that individuals with dangerous personality disorders do not achieve positions of power or influence at any level of society – within communities, within organizations or within nations. However there is clearly much in our existing cultures, religions, politics and psychology that needs to be addressed for this to become a reality.

But we have already begun to put in place the rules and institutions that can protect us. The safeguards we have devised include the rule of law, electoral democracy, the separation of church and state, protection for individual human rights, social democracy, shared sovereignty, and cultures of tolerance and equality.

While in times past those with dangerous personality disorders may have had an evolutionary advantage, in modern societies that advantage is waning. The arc of history is bending slowly, away from tyranny, selfishness and violence, and towards democracy, equality, and human rights. A different future beckons…

You can listen to my interview with Rob Kall here and download the podcast for free here

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6 thoughts on “Psychopaths and Morality – An Interview With Rob Kall

  1. I will have to thank Rob Kall for giving me the chance to discover your very interesting work and very well written blog..

  2. Ian, very much enjoyed the radio interview. One question that came to mind; what research has been done on whether there is a spectrum of these personality disorders (analagous to the autistic spectrum)? I think many people could identify some minor or isolated aspects of personality disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder, etc in acquaintances or colleagues etc. I could imagine these ranging from very mild disorders that manifest in mostly harmless ways, through to the full sociopathic disorders that you’ve discussed in the book.
    Any thoughts on this or has there been research on such issues?

    • Hi James, Thanks for your post. Your question is an important one but I’m afraid there is no easy answer. The question you are asking is whether personality disorders are spectrum disorders or category disorders. That is are they disorders that lie on a spectrum of behaviour that ranges from normal to severe – so that all of us lie somewhere along this spectrum; or do these disorders have characteristics that mark them out as being in a category of their own, clearly distinct from normal behaviour.
      This question is currently being debated within psychiatry and I’m afraid there is no consensus as yet. I can however offer my own views, based on my research to date. Any psychiatrists reading this, please do add your voice.
      To begin with, I think that the answer as to whether a personality disorder is a spectrum disorder or a category disorder may vary between disorders. For example, while it is possible that paranoid personality disorder may turn out to be a spectrum disorder, it is much harder for me to see psychopathy as being anything other than a category disorder. Total absence of conscience, which characterises psychopathy, isn’t something that lends itself easily to a spectrum disorder classification. Either you have the psychological / emotional capacity to feel how others feel or you do not.
      My own belief is that personality disorders are effectively category disorders. Even if there is a continuum, by the time we get to the behaviour of those with psychopathy, narcissistic and paranoid personality, we are in territory that is quite distinct from normal behaviour. I would point to two blog posts I have written to illustrate this point – the first on Hitler, and the second, my review of The Act of Killing. The mentality evidenced in these posts, to my mind, justifies categorising those with dangerous personality disorders as being a different type of human being.

  3. Fascinating stuff. While the media and film industry seem intent on portraying psychopaths as serial killers, the most dangerous psychopaths are those in politics and in the boardroom- and those are truly the environments in which psychopaths most thrive.

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