Intelligent Design

Follow Up on Psychopath as Übermensch

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In my Psychopath as Übermensch post I suggested that for the metaphysical naturalist who takes his own truth claims seriously, becoming a psychopath (or at least acting like one) is an obvious – even an inevitable – choice. The clear-eyed metaphysical naturalist understands “empathy to be nothing but weak-kneed sentimentality.”

I got a little pushback.

goodusername wrote simply “why,” to which I responded:

I would think the answer to that question is obvious. For our clear-eyed, unsentimental Übermensch, “empathy” is an arbitrary barrier to the unfettered assertion of his will to power. You might as well ask why the lion does not feel empathy for the gazelle.

The Übermensch says to himself, “I want X. Obtaining X causes pain to my fellow man. I don’t care. Just as the lion is willing to kill the gazelle to satisfy his desire to eat, I am willing to cause pain to my fellow man if that is necessary to get what I want.”

If you say to the Übermensch, “you should have empathy for your fellow man,” he will throw your own question back in your face. “Why?”

How would you answer him GSU?

To his credit, GSU took a stab at answering my question:

Maybe I’m missing something from not having done much study of Nietzsche (been many years since I’ve read “Zarathustra”), but it seems odd to me to suppress empathy – a primary source of our wants and desires – in order to achieve… our wants and desires. The reasoning doesn’t seem obvious to me at all.

As for why a lion doesn’t feel empathy for the gazelle, well, I’m pretty sure lions don’t feel much empathy period. I think it’s beyond their ability. You might as well ask why lions haven’t invented calculus, written a symphony, or traveled to the moon.

It also seems odd to me to refer to someone as a “super-man” who has lost one of the key characteristics that differentiates us from other animals. Sounds more like an “under-man”.

This is just confused. GSU is unable or unwilling to accept that the metaphysical naturalist must believe that empathy is nothing but a “feeling,” and like other feelings it can be suppressed in the service of other ends.

Here’s a simple example. Joe is a young college student. We can imagine him having this conversation with himself: I have new car fever; I really want that shiny red convertible. Wait a minute. If I spend my money on that car I will have to drop out of school and that will really limit my long term earning potential. But if I suppress my desire for the car now, in the long run I will be able to buy many cars from my increased income. I will suppress this feeling.

Joe understands that the decision whether to suppress his gut feeling in the service of other ends is a cost-benefit analysis. The calculating part of our brain suppresses the feeling part of our brain all the time.

Most of us do not make this calculation when it comes to ethical decisions, including the decision whether to hurt another human for our selfish gain. But for the metaphysical naturalist empathy is just another gut feeling that can be suppressed – or not – based on a “rational” cost-benefit analysis.

Can someone explain to me why that last sentence is not true – even obvious?

20 Replies to “Follow Up on Psychopath as Übermensch

  1. 1
    jw777 says:

    You have chosen an impossible debate.

    You see, the psychopath will use empathy when it serves his purposes and not when it doesn’t. The psychopath will also argue that naturalism doesn’t inexorably lead to psychopathy when it serves his purposes to keep those around him ignorant of his actual position.

    Thus, the only person interested in refuting the idea that naturalism must logically conclude in psychopathy is a psychopath; and he will do so in order to perpetuate the ignorance of those around him as to his true motivations. More importantly, he will do so to keep others from achieving the same status of psychopathy/übermensch, in order to maintain his obvious advantage.

    This is akin to an exorbitantly wealthy politician convincing the meagerly-means general populace that progressive tax bracketing isn’t in the public’s best interest. That is, the thinking goes, “if everyone realizes the same advantage that I have, I will have no advantage, so I better curb this thinking before it creates even more people who are as or more powerful than I am.”

    Any psychopath interested in an admission of his own psychopathy would only do so as a universal admission, like, for example, “we are all psychopaths insomuch as we will all do whatever it takes to perpetuate ourselves or progeny.” You know, something along the lines of a selfish gene hypothesis. Oh wait, didn’t some psychopath already suggest that?

  2. 2
    goodusername says:

    This is just confused. GSU is unable or unwilling to accept that the metaphysical naturalist must believe that empathy is nothing but a “feeling,” and like other feelings it can be suppressed in the service of other ends.

    I don’t disagree that empathy is a feeling, and that it can be suppressed in the service of other ends.  But, in this case, I can’t see any reason why someone would choose to do so.

    Even putting morality aside, trying to suppress empathy makes no sense. First, I’m not so sure that it’s even feasible to do so in the sense of eliminating empathy. I kinda doubt that one can become a psychopath by will. The college student in your example, despite not buying the car, probably still wants the car. He’s merely taking solace in the fact that there are likely far greater benefits later. A psychopath, OTOH, is not overcoming empathy, he lacks empathy.

    But assuming we can suppress empathy in the same sense as suppressing the desire for a new car, why do so? In the case of a college student trying to decide whether to buy a fancy new car or use his money to remain in school, I think we all agree that staying in school will lead to greater happiness. When does suppressing empathy, that basic part of humanity, ever lead to greater happiness? Does anyone think that works? Sounds more like abject misery.

  3. 3
    Axel says:

    GSU. When we use the term, übermensch, which was coined by an apparent psychopath, and its use certainly favoured by Hitler and the Nazis, we do so because we are obliged to use the same terminology in addressing the topic.

    It does not mean that, at one level or another, we are not fully aware of the irony implicit in its application to cyphers of evil.

  4. 4
    Jul3s says:

    GSU. On the contrary, one can learn to reject empathy and in doing so, their happiness becomes completely unaffected by their actions. If this wasn’t true, then e.g genocide wouldn’t exist. The world would be unrecognizably different.

    There are many incentives to suppressing empathy depending on the environment.

  5. 5
    goodusername says:

    Jul3s,

    Genocide is certainly a difficult thing to explain. It’d probably be too easy to just say that everyone carrying out a genocide are psychopaths. Instead, it shows how selective empathy can be. There does seem to be an unfortunate tendency for many to lack empathy for others whom they perceive as very different from themselves. In the case of the Holocaust, there were also a lot of de-humanizing beliefs regarding the Jews, which the Nazis did their best to popularize, and took full advantage of.

  6. 6
    jw777 says:

    This is very fundamental. The benefits any of us enjoy from the progress of humanity is an outcome of collaborative effort and sacrifice, NOT selfish ambition. It is a paradox: that self-interest might benefit others some of the time and that sacrifice might lead to self-gain. It isn’t an easily untied Gordian knot, leading to lots of internal contradictions in thought, perhaps best seen in this Ayn Rand interview: http://youtu.be/1ooKsv_SX4Y

    But again, if we put certain “eternal” values as possibilities or even inescapable realities, the question of immediate selfishness is muted entirely. Perhaps that’s where the real debate lies.

  7. 7

    don’t disagree that empathy is a feeling, and that it can be suppressed in the service of other ends. But, in this case, I can’t see any reason why someone would choose to do so.

    He provided a reason. To get what they want.

    Even putting morality aside, trying to suppress empathy makes no sense.

    Of course it makes sense. As a parent and grandparent, I know it is absolutely necessary in many cases to suppress your empathy for the good of your child. Sometimes, you just have to let your child cry, or you have to let them learn things the hard way. Or, in some cases, you have to provide them with tough love. Empathy suppression, to some degree, is necessary IMO to get through life by anything other than sheer dumb luck.

    In other cases, one’s empathy must be suppressed in favor of reasoning, or else one becomes an easy mark for every con man with a good sob story.

    First, I’m not so sure that it’s even feasible to do so in the sense of eliminating empathy. I kinda doubt that one can become a psychopath by will.

    People can train themselves to set empathy and other emotions and feeling aside for various purposes. People can become desensitized to what would otherwise be normal emotional reactions and inhibitions. Surely you realize this?

    The college student in your example, despite not buying the car, probably still wants the car. He’s merely taking solace in the fact that there are likely far greater benefits later.

    These kind of willful actions, however, can be developed into habits that turn into a re-training of one’s mind. People that get emotional solace from buying things or eating food can re-train themselves into a new habit where “buying something” or “eating food” is not their emotional habit.

    I guarantee you the same can be done in terms of empathy, because I trained myself to be able to control my empathetic feelings towards others.

    A psychopath, OTOH, is not overcoming empathy, he lacks empathy.

    He qualified his position with “or at least act like one”. You can certainly train yourself to be in control of your empathy, like any other feeling or emotion, to be able to do things that empathy, left unchecked, would otherwise overrule.

    But assuming we can suppress empathy in the same sense as suppressing the desire for a new car, why do so?

    He already answered this: to get something you want, or do something you want to do, that empathy would otherwise prevent.

    In the case of a college student trying to decide whether to buy a fancy new car or use his money to remain in school, I think we all agree that staying in school will lead to greater happiness. When does suppressing empathy, that basic part of humanity, ever lead to greater happiness? Does anyone think that works? Sounds more like abject misery.

    How can a sense of empathy not lead to greater misery and suffering, if you are empathetic with those who are miserable and suffering? Not being subjected to feeling the pain and suffering of others when I don’t wish to be has increased my personal happiness quite a bit. How could it not?

    Psychopathy is not exactly the same thing as sociopathy. Many non-empathetic sociopaths (or semi-sociopaths) have a high capacity to function socially because they do not have psychopathic compulsions. For them, the world is often just a game they are playing to see how much money & power they can accumulate (the “I win” scenario).

    Do you think politicians and many corporate CEOs and COO’s and investment bankers and hedge fund manipulators and gang bangers and jihadists and others were born with poorly-developed empathy, or do you think that it’s more likely that along the way they became desensitized – one way or another – to caring about the harm they were causing many, many strangers?

  8. 8

    Put simply, goodusername, why shouldn’t I train myself to not feel empathy for others when bad things happen to them (or when/if I harm them for my own benefit), and to feel empathy only when good things happen to them?

    Wouldn’t that increase my happiness and let me do whatever I want for my own benefit, even if it includes harming others? What’s the down side?

    Under materialism/atheism, there is no downside. There’s only upside.

  9. 9
    goodusername says:

    WJM,

    People can train themselves to set empathy and other emotions and feeling aside for various purposes. People can become desensitized to what would otherwise be normal emotional reactions and inhibitions. Surely you realize this?

    Obviously. There’s more to us than just empathy.
    Unless you’re saying that you’re a psychopathic Ubermensch, and, indeed, that we all are, then you’re talking about something very different than Barry and I.

    I’m not saying that we are helpless in the face of every empathetic impulse, or that we should be. As I explained, I’m saying that I doubt that we can wholly eliminate empathy, a basic human component and a primary source of our desires, and voluntarily become a psychopath. Nor does it make sense to want to do so.

    Put simply, goodusername, why shouldn’t I train myself to not feel empathy for others when bad things happen to them (or when/if I harm them for my own benefit), and to feel empathy only when good things happen to them?

    You say that as if it were at all remotely possible.

  10. 10
    Barry Arrington says:

    GNU: “Nor does it make sense to want to do so.”

    Sez you.

    The next guy will say, “It makes eminent sense to want to do so, because if I can learn to suppress my empathy I will get more of what I want.”

    Why should anyone take your position as opposed to the next guy’s?

    That is the key question that you steadfastly refuse to face.

  11. 11

    goodusername,

    If someone could desensitize their empathy in order to free themselves from feeling bad for others, and free themselves from emotional inhibitions against harming others when it benefits them, is there any reason under metaphysical naturalism why they shouldn’t desensitize their empathy?

  12. 12

    Metaphysical naturalists want “empathy” to be enough as a means of self-governance when it comes to social behavior.

    When you ask them why one should listen to their empathy, however, they immediately act as if nobody ever suppressed or desensitized their empathy for any reason whatsoever – as if you have to be a psychopath to be able to override empathy or desensitize it.

    IOW, they have no reason why you should obey your empathy when it comes to the point in question. Goodusername knows you can override it and desensitize yourself to it but then plays dumb when it comes to the hard question of “why not override it when it comes to harming others for your own benefit”, as if that’s somehow different (under metaphysical naturalism) than ignoring a beggar or turning off the TV when the starving children commercial comes on, or letting your child throw a crying fit because they don’t get to watch their favorite TV program.

    Yes, goodusername, it is possible to train your empathy to not feel bad for other people when they are harmed – or, at least, not let that feeling stop you from doing what you want to do. I’ve done it. It’s relatively simple psychology. It’s all in the framing.

  13. 13
    CentralScrutinizer says:

    WJM @ 12: IOW, they have no reason why you should obey your empathy

    Well, why should we?

  14. 14

    Well, why should we?

    We shouldn’t.

  15. 15
    goodusername says:

    GNU: “Nor does it make sense to want to do so.”

    Sez you.

    I’m not sure but you seem to think that empathy is just something that gets in the way of our wants. But empathy is itself among the most powerful, basic sources of our wants. It’s one of the main reasons that we want what we want. So yes, I say it doesn’t make sense to want to eliminate a primary source of our wants so that we can get what we want. It seems self-evident.

    The next guy will say, “It makes eminent sense to want to do so, because if I can learn to suppress my empathy I will get more of what I want.”

    Assuming such people exist (although I kinda doubt it), IMO such people will discover that even if they gain whatever it is that they think they want, that they aren’t going to end up very happy, and will have a lot of regrets. What do you think would happen?

  16. 16

    Assuming such people exist (although I kinda doubt it),

    You doubt that people can suppress their empathy to be able to do something that their empathy would otherwise contravene? How do you account for soldiers? Parents who engage in tough-love practices? People who do not give to charity or turn off the TV when commercials with starving children come on? People that stand around and do nothing when someone is in trouble or being harmed? Have you never watched the show “What would you do?”

    How do you account for corrupt politicians who sell their constituents down the river? Lobbyists who don’t mind harming countless people for their corporate bosses? Pharmaceutical companies that hide the harmful effects of drugs? Gang-bangers? Jihadists? Whole governments that have engaged in ethnic cleansing?

    What are they doing if not suppressing their empathy, or are you admitting that a huge section of the population of the world simply doesn’t have much empathy to begin with?

    IMO such people will discover that even if they gain whatever it is that they think they want, that they aren’t going to end up very happy, and will have a lot of regrets.

    Why would they end up “not happy” and “having regrets” any more than anyone else? Does this have any basis in any kind of research or logic, or is it just wishful thinking on your part?

    What do you think would happen?

    I think that training yourself to not feel bad for other people will certainly save a person from a lot emotional distress over the course of their lives and also broaden their available options in many cases.

    Training myself to control my empathy has played a large role in increasing the quality and enjoyment of my life, and has certainly expanded my actionable options – so, I speak from experience. I can also tell you that it is not empathy that keeps me from purposefully harming others for my own gain. Harming someone else doesn’t bother me one bit – unless it’s someone I love. Even then, in most cases, I can turn off my empathy if they need some “tough love”.

    The only thing standing between me and harming others for personal gain is my theistic view on the inescapable consequences of immoral behavior. Empathy (at least the meatphysical naturalist version) is just a temporary feeling I can desensitize myself from; the spiritual consequences of immoral behavior branded into my conscience are serious and inescapable. I ignore them at my own peril, regardless of how empathetic I am towards others.

  17. 17
    goodusername says:

    WJM,

    You doubt that people can suppress their empathy to be able to do something that their empathy would otherwise contravene?

    Of course people can do that, and do it all the time. That’s not what I’m talking about.
    Again we’re talking about different things. Here’s the context of who I’m talking about:
    “As I explained, I’m saying that I doubt that we can wholly eliminate empathy, a basic human component and a primary source of our desires, and voluntarily become a psychopath. Nor does it make sense to want to do so.”

    The only thing standing between me and harming others for personal gain is my theistic view on the inescapable consequences of immoral behavior.

    Well, in that case, I hope you remain a theist.

  18. 18
    Barry Arrington says:

    WJM, GSU is now just hunkering down and spewing back his talking points. He’s got nothing. Don’t waste any more time with him.

    Is there anyone out there who can answer the last sentence in the OP?

  19. 19

    WJM:

    Training myself to control my empathy has played a large role in increasing the quality and enjoyment of my life, and has certainly expanded my actionable options – so, I speak from experience. I can also tell you that it is not empathy that keeps me from purposefully harming others for my own gain. Harming someone else doesn’t bother me one bit – unless it’s someone I love. Even then, in most cases, I can turn off my empathy if they need some “tough love”.

    The only thing standing between me and harming others for personal gain is my theistic view on the inescapable consequences of immoral behavior. Empathy (at least the meatphysical naturalist version) is just a temporary feeling I can desensitize myself from; the spiritual consequences of immoral behavior branded into my conscience are serious and inescapable. I ignore them at my own peril, regardless of how empathetic I am towards others.

    A pristine specimen of psychopathic thinking, if ever there were one.

  20. 20
    Joe says:

    OK I must be missing something or watching too much Star Trek: The Next Generation- Empaths sense emotions in other people, with empathy being the ability to do so.

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