2012-07-18

Answer Evil with Justice and Community

Assuming we can avoid the "evil-and-must-be-destroyed" mindset, what is the best response to sociopaths?

For primary sociopaths, as part of the genetic package that equips them to occupy the niche in our world that they do, along with an inability to have the “social emotions that normally contribute to behavioral motivation and inhibition,” they also are “high on novelty-seeking, low on harm-avoidance, and low on reward-dependence.” They’re thrill-seekers – looking for high levels of physiological arousal – perhaps because that’s the only way to feel alive in a reality where they can’t pick up on anybody’s feelings but their own. You put all that together, and you can see where the Charles Mansons and the Jeffrey Dahmers come from.

Primary sociopaths can’t empathize, but they can reason. They can calculate their own self-interest. Suggests sociologist Linda Mealey:
"The appropriate social response is to modify the criminal justice system in ways that increase the costs of antisocial behavior, while simultaneously creating alternatives to crime which could satisfy the psychopysiological arousal needs.” (Mealey, L. [1995]. The sociobiology of sociopathy: An integrated evolutionary model. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18 [3]: 523-599. See here.)
When we say increase the costs of antisocial behavior, remember that research indicates that increasing the probability of being caught is the primary deterrent. Increasing the severity of the punishment itself does almost nothing. When we speak of alternatives that could satisfy the psychophysiological arousal needs, we’re talking about finding these people appropriate jobs. They don’t empathize, but they often get quite good at pretending to, so they can make good novelists, screenplay writers, talk-show hosts, and disk jockeys.

randomly chosen talk-show host
Sociopaths also seek high levels of excitement, so they can make good stunt men, explorers, race-car drivers, and sky-diving exhibitionists.

Let’s find a way to use the gifts they have, instead of labeling them evil. Find a productive use for them, and they won’t have to use destructive outlets.

The secondary sociopaths call for a different strategy. Here we can aim to reduce the carrying capacity of the “cheater” niche. For secondary sociopaths:
“The appropriate social response is to implement programs which reduce social stratification, anonymity, and competition, intervene in high-risk settings with specialized parent education and support; and increase the availability of rewarding, prosocial opportunities for at-risk youth.” (Mealey)
In other words, we need justice, we need community, we need cooperation-fostering frameworks, we need education, and fair opportunity.

We don’t need the word or the concept, “evil.”

There’s also a spiritual reason for dropping the concept. When I invoke the concept “evil,” I draw a line, and put myself on one side – because no one ever thinks they themselves are evil – and some other part of creation on the other side. It divides the whole, and what our spirits long for is connection with the whole: all of creation, the earth, the stars, and the grasses, and the rivers – including the water bugs that dissolve frog innards, and people who vote differently from us, and even sociopaths, and Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer. Our spirits long to be made whole.

Ultimately, as an early Taoist text says, “life and death are one, right and wrong are the same.” The same. Seeing this frees one from handicaps and fetters. With spiritual healing we perceive the vast whole as deeply good, and every part of creation is an integral and necessary part.

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This is part 5 of 6 of "Theodicy: Addressing Evil"
Next: Part 6: "The Wound that Cuts Through Every Human Heart"
Previous: Part 4: "Primary Sociopaths and Secondary Sociopaths"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Evil Thought-Stopper"