Why do so many people in Western society today reject religion, particularly the Christianity that a lot of us grew up with? I suspect that one reason is a perceived incompatibility between the core religious value of humility, and a liberal democratic culture in which self-confidence and ambition are seen as positive and necessary traits that support both personal and societal success. At the same time, we know that the ethic of self-advancement can turn nasty. When combined with rampant materialism and the breakdown of social bonds, it can give rise to impulsively self-serving behaviour that is ultimately destructive both for the individual and society. Feeding on fear of this possibility, the figure of the psychopath has come to stalk our collective imaginary.
On the weekend, I crashed a house-warming in Leura and got into an engaging conversation with a very glamorous (especially for Leura) crime writer. To set the scene a little more, the host had cooked goat and rabbit for the event, and there was a log fire keeping us warm as the rain fell gently but continuously outside. Although I am more or less vegetarian, I also subscribe to the monastic discipline of accepting any food that is offered to me, so in a humble and at the same time self-interested gesture of appreciation of the poetically rustic hospitality on offer, I ate (among other things) a baked onion stuffed with rabbit and various herbs, which was delicious, and made me feel as if I was in a country house in the north of France.
While I was digesting, the beautiful crime novelist informed me that 1% of the population worldwide are psychopaths - no variation for culture or gender, this is a wholly democratic concept. This means that you’ve definitely met a few, in fact, you may well be living with one, or even be one. I think there are only about 50 people reading this blog so far, so we could, in theory, be a psychopath-free online community, though I have to admit, it seems unlikely.
Obviously this claim is based on a very broad definition of the psychopath – you don’t need to have done anything life-threatening with a chainsaw, axe, gun or other weapon to qualify. You just need to show a lack of moral conscience, in particular a lack of remorse, “shallow affect” (ie you don’t care much about other people), and a willingness to lie to get what you want. Unintelligent psychopaths often end up in jail (or the doghouse), while intelligent ones end up in positions of power. Basically, anyone who pursues their own interests by doing something that other people consider immoral, and doesn’t seem sincerely sorry when they get found out, can be labeled a psychopath. On this definition, as has probably occurred to you already, most of your ex-lovers, a good number of your colleagues and possibly a few of your close family members are probably psychopaths. A lot of children are undoubtedly psychopaths.
You can see by now that the concept of the psychopath can operate a bit like an emotional chainsaw. It’s a mental weapon you can turn on anyone who has betrayed your trust. It allows you to protect yourself by cutting them off, placing them beyond the possibility of understanding or communication. At the same time, it betrays a lingering fascination with this person, who is not just disappointing, but (at least in your eyes) pathologically heartless. Something ought to be done to control them, for the protection of other actual or potential victims; you can’t just walk away (or close the book, and go to sleep).
Liberal use of the concept of the psychopath beyond the world of crime fiction where it belongs seems a perfect example of what Nietzsche called ressentiment in action. It involves a mode of evaluation that focuses on the other as Evil, and defines the self, in pale contrast, as good. Nietzsche associated this way of approaching the world with institutionalized Christianity. (Has crime fiction replaced Christianity in the emotional and moral life of our culture? Or is crime fiction actually a late, decadent, secular form of Christianity?) Behind practices of so-called humility, ranging from self-effacement to self-flagellation, Nietzsche detected the vengeful spirit of resentment, a desire to attack the more powerful, or the differently constituted, and establish one’s own goodness not actively, but reactively. I am good and normal and deserving of compassion and acceptance because I am not like them. I am not a psychopath.
Lately I have been editing a few papers for the upcoming Sakyadhita conference of Buddhist women (would a psychopath do that?). In the course of this work, I read a thought-provoking paper by a Korean delegate, Eun-so Cho, who provides another angle on the problem of self-effacing or self-denying practices. Her topic is “Women’s Leadership and the Buddhist Concept of Non-self.” In her paper, she addresses the problem of women interpreting Buddhist values like humility and the doctrine of non-self in ways that undermine their self-confidence and conviction in the value of their own activities and achievements. She sees a painful clash between traditional Buddhist forms of self-effacement and contemporary Western-inspired efforts to improve women’s social participation and promote gender equality in her own country. This clash is played out not only in external resistance to women’s advancement, but even more potently within the minds of successful women themselves, who are prone to question their own motivations and worry that their behavior is selfish and their satisfaction in their own achievements amounts to pride, putting them in conflict with their own spiritual ideals.
From a Nietzschean perspective, this is an example of “bad conscience,” a form of consciousness that turns its aggressive tendencies upon itself. The woman worries that she herself may be a psychopath, or on the way to becoming one. Her identity as a “good” religious person attacks what it sees as the Evil, ambitious self that is seduced by the lure of worldly power and success. The paradox is that the aggression of the “good” self is likely to be motivated by hopes and fears that are even more heavily conditioned by social pressures than her worldly ambitions.
How do we move beyond the pathological anxiety of bad conscience, and develop a healthy, moderate, realistic attitude toward our achievements and failures, as well as toward those of others? How do we resist the temptation to indulge in ressentiment whether directed at others or at ourselves? Eun-so Cho’s answer is to point to the Buddhist doctrine of non-self as it is interpreted and lived by women in the early Buddhist texts. Far from leading to self-flagellation, the idea that there is no fixed self, either good or bad, liberated the women of the Therigatha from self-doubt and gave them the confidence and determination to pursue spiritual freedom. Where there is no fixed self, there is no target for ressentiment, or at least none that stays still for long enough to get hit. No self, no psychopath. Hmm, I think I might be onto an idea for an unconventional crime novel…