Environmental Law Student & Writer Linda Cockburn’s Interview of Me About Ponerology

Posted by admin on October 7, 2013

Back in June, I came across a post by Linda Cockburn on her blog, Living the Good Life. Linda studies environmental law and her blog focuses on issues of sustainability. Its tagline is “Our ongoing attempts to live as sustainably as possible.”

The post that I came across is entitled “I am angry!” and, in it, Linda expresses her despair about the state of the world and the futility of placing hope in and comforting ourselves with small daily pro-sustainability lifestyle changes in the face of destructiveness on such a massive scale. Like many who have wrestled with this viewpoint, Linda appears to have been influenced by Derrick Jensen, since the post features an image of the graphic novel he produced along with Stephanie McMillan, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial.

I was moved by what Linda was expressing in that post so I left a comment to share with her the idea that psychopathology may play a key role and to let her know about the field of ponerology, which has shed so much light on issues like this for me.

Linda responded right away with a comment that showed interest in those topics.

Then, a few weeks later, I got an email from Linda. She said my comment had thrown her off on a tangent looking into the ideas I had mentioned in the comment. She also said she was inspired to write an article about ponerology and how screening for psychopaths might improve workplaces, governments, the environment and the world at large. She wanted to interview me for this article.

A couple weeks after that I received a set of interview questions from Linda.

At that time, I was under the impression that Linda was writing an article for her blog that would just consist of the text of her questions and my responses. So I answered the questions at great length, thinking these would make up the bulk of her post. Only later, after I had responded, did I learn that she was actually writing a feature article for an Australian magazine called The Monthly, whose readers share an interest in law, politics and management.

Linda was then kind enough to share the early drafts of her article with me to get my feedback. As her editing process continued, though, it became clear to her that – perhaps because I had answered the questions having misunderstood their purpose or perhaps for other reasons – the information from the interview wasn’t well-suited to this particular article that she was writing, after all. However, since her questions had helped to surface some valuable information, we both agreed that it made sense for me to just post the interview, in its entirety, here on this blog.

As of this writing, Linda’s article is not yet published. If and when it is, I will link to it here.

So, without further adieu, here are Linda’s questions and my responses.

I’m not comfortable with the word ‘evil’.

Perhaps the deepest debate of all when it comes to the issue of “evil” – and you can tell that I agree that this is a debatable point by the fact that I, too, often put the word in quotes – is whether there is or is not any such thing objectively. People’s views fall all along the spectrum in regards to that question. At one extreme, we have some people who say there is no such thing as evil and, at the other extreme, we have those who are emphatic that evil exists and that denying it has terrible consequences (and that perhaps, in some cases, this denial itself even constitutes an evil act.)

I consider it one of the roles of ponerology to determine, to our best ability, whether there actually is any such objective thing as evil or there is simply “that which we often refer to as ‘evil.’” I am not sure if we will ever be able to resolve that question or not, but striving to do so is one of ponerology’s defining tasks and, even if ultimately unsuccessful, the process of striving itself can bring great insight.

Regardless of whether you choose to use the word “evil” or not, we can find common ground around the concepts of:

With that being the case, those who take the stance that there is no actual evil, but simply “that which we often refer to as ‘evil,’” can still clearly see the importance and potential benefits of ponerologic study.

What is your definition of evil?

I don’t claim to have a scientifically supportable definition. Like I said, developing such an objectively-based definition for the word ‘evil’ – or concluding that there is no such supportable definition – is a task for ponerology. It may be one that we cannot succeed at for quite some time. And it may be that we never completely succeed at it.

In the meantime, I focus on these two main concepts.

Whether you consider these activities evil or just think of the word ‘evil’ as a shorthand term that is often used to describe them and those who partake significantly in them, seeking to better understand them and their origins and devising optimal responses to their role in our world should keep us busy for quite some time.

Are psychopaths actually evil?

Without an objectively-supportable definition of the word ‘evil,’ this question cannot be answered precisely. However, what we can say with strong confidence is that psychopaths act maliciously and with potentially dangerous willful negligence quite frequently. Thus, they often pose a threat to those around them. Pragmatically, this is all we need to know to realize that the influence of psychopathy is an issue that deserves consideration. Philosophically, the debates about the semantic use of the word ‘evil’ and whether it applies to psychopaths – or anybody else – will carry on for some time.

Have you worked with psychopaths?

Given that psychopaths are estimated to make up 1% of the population – and, as suggested by some research, possibly even more in certain sectors of society such as on Wall Street – most people have probably worked with psychopaths at some point. However, it is not often that a psychopath will tell you that they are one (if they even know for sure themselves). In fact, they may spend much of their energy hiding that fact. So we usually will not know for sure whether someone is a psychopath or not. I’ve certainly worked with people who I would consider suspect. But definitively labeling someone a psychopath is not something that I would do without their having been tested by a qualified professional.

What methods are available that reliably diagnose psychopathy?

The best available method that I know of is the Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R) test devised by Robert Hare. I’ve written about diagnosis of psychopathy here.

Do you know of any examples where organisations or businesses have screened for psychopathy?

I know of examples where researchers came in and screened this way. For instance, Robert Hare studied people in high level management positions at Fortune 100 companies to find out about psychopathy in that population. He describes that work himself in an interview in the movie I Am Fishead: Are Corporate Leaders Egotistical Psychopaths? As I detail in my review of the film, I’m not a huge fan of the second and third parts of the movie. But the first part is a great introduction to this material and includes this interview in which Hare describes his research. You can see the interview here. It runs from 22:00 (I’ve linked to this starting point) through 24:55.

Hare and colleague Paul Babiak have also written about this topic at length in their book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work.

However, I’m not aware of organizations or businesses having such specific screening for psychopathy done of their own accord as a matter of policy. If anyone does know of such cases, I would like to hear about them. Whether such screening should be done, and, if so, how to make sure that it is done fairly and responsibly, are certainly among the very most important and controversial questions considered within the realm of ponerology.

Do you believe labeling people as either normals or psychopaths, as  Andrew Lobaczewski does in Political Ponerology, might be counterproductive? While he does urge that we do not discriminate or persecute psychopaths, this could easily happen regardless (or am I just stuck in political correctness, perhaps the means justifies the end?)

Ponerology is, by definition, a scientific field. So, like all scientific fields, it is concerned with categorizing accurately. The evidence seems to increasingly reveal psychopathy to be a neurological condition that differs significantly from the norm in deeply meaningful ways with quite serious implications. It seems unreasonable to ask scientists to pretend it isn’t a real or substantially abnormal condition simply because some people might use this information in harmful ways.

All scientific knowledge has the potential to be used for harm rather than help. If we restrict scientists to only categorizing knowledge based on whether we think the categories will be used in healthy ways by the public, we will reduce science to a public relations battle. This seems more dangerous than the alternative. What is very important, however, is making sure that science – in this area and others – is being carried out in accordance with the rigors of the scientific method and not being manipulated for the benefit of those with self-serving or potentially harmful agendas.

There is one thing worth noting that makes this case somewhat special. Using – or manipulating – scientific knowledge in order to persecute a group of people is itself something most likely to be carried out, or at least led, by those with reduced levels of empathy and conscience. Becoming aware of those with conditions that significantly reduce empathy and conscience and informed regarding the tactics they use gives us a much better chance to protect people – even psychopaths themselves – from the type of persecution you fear. When people of conscience bond on the basis of a conscious appreciation for their strong conscience itself, recognizing that there is a segment of the population that does not – and may never – share this trait, they can more passionately and effectively work toward solutions that are, on balance, healthiest for everyone involved. So, in this sense, accurately categorizing on this particular dimension, as opposed to some less ethically-relevant dimensions, could actually help reduce, rather than increase, persecution throughout society.

The incidence of psychopaths in the workplace is becoming reasonably well understood, but do you believe  psychopaths in positions of authority are having an impact on our environment, and our subsequent attempt to address climate change and other environmental issues?

I cannot say for sure whether or not psychopathy is significantly and detrimentally influencing our efforts regarding a sustainably healthy ecosystem and environment. But, given what we know, it is reasonable enough to suspect this could be the case that the question deserves serious study. One of the main reasons that I am so passionate about advocating for the firm establishment of ponerology as a respected field of study is so that more people can access a platform and the necessary resources to do just such work.

One of the benefits I’ve experienced from researching and writing about ponerology is that, in the process, I’ve come across people and related fields that I had not previously known about doing work on issues like this one. For example, a few months ago I learned about the field of Green Criminology, which studies the role criminal behavior plays in the process of environmental damage. One of the benefits of running a website dedicated to these issues is that I can then share this information with others, as I did in this feature on Green Criminology that I posted soon after learning about it.

If so, how can we, armed with an understanding of ponerology, deal with psychopathic influences?

Psychopathic influences can occur at all levels and in all facets of human systems and, in each of these, pose different quandaries that both call for and challenge our responses. Just to give some examples:

Lobaczewski’s experience at the university – the new lecturer espoused views that appear to influence a formerly benign group. Are we ‘normals’ to a greater or lesser extent, vulnerable to their influence?

I think that, when uneducated about ponerologic issues, ‘normals’ are indeed vulnerable. The vulnerability stems from the fact that we tend to assume, on a very deep level, that other people are fundamentally like us. We realize that they differ in more superficial ways such as gender, skin color, ethnicity, talents and skills and so on. But we assume that they all share the most basic human traits and abilities such as the capacity to experience pain and pleasure, sleep and waking, heat and cold and so on. Experiences like these are so basic as to seem elemental to what it means to be human.

Along the same lines, we assume that the capacities to empathize with others and to experience pangs of conscience are also elemental to being human. Yet psychopaths, while often pretending to experience these, may not actually do so. And, at the same time, they realize that ‘normals’ around them are under the impression that they do. And this is the misinformation gap, the area of ignorance, that they are often able to exploit.

If so, how does a psychopath influence others to behave against their ethical beliefs?

There are a number of tactics that psychopaths use in manipulating others. Lobaczewski talks about and names several of them in his book Political Ponerology. Just a few examples:

You’ll notice two things that these tactics have in common:

Of course, when these tactics alone don’t work, many psychopaths, lacking a conscience to restrict them, are not averse to using explicit or implicit threats or even brute force to get their way.

If an organisation wanted to screen for psychopaths are there legal ramifications? What would they need to do?

As I alluded to earlier, screening for psychopathy – like any form of screening – raises serious concerns about issues ranging from privacy to unfair discrimination. So, if it is done, it needs to be done with care by highly responsible and competent people. I am not expert in exactly how the law applies here, since I’m not a lawyer, but I find it hard to believe that there wouldn’t very quickly be legal challenges as soon as anyone was refused a job or fired or forced to change positions as a result of being identified as a psychopath.

So I think it will be very important to involve legal experts, preferably with specialized training, ideally including education regarding ponerology itself, in developing any solutions in this area.

Having been interviewed numerous times myself I always wish they’d give me a completely open question. So here goes. What is the most important aspect of ponerology that you would like to share?

There are several important points I’d like to make that I don’t think have been raised in the rest of the interview.

  1. Not all psychopaths are the same. Lobaczewski, in Political Ponerology, distinguishes several different types of psychopaths.
  2. We have recently seen increased recognition regarding those who are not technically psychopaths, but share many of the same traits to a significant and troubling extent. These people are often referred to as “almost psychopaths.” Ronald Schouten, an M.D. and J.D. affiliated with Harvard Medical School, along with criminal defense attorney James Silver, has written a book about this subject called Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? I covered this topic, a television news story about it and Schouten’s and Silver’s book on this blog post.
  3. We have focused entirely on psychopathy here. But, as I emphasized in the title of one blog post, ponerology is not only about psychopathy.There are other conditions marked by significantly reduced levels of empathy and conscience that also play a role in the development of unhealthy systems. Lobaczewski’s name for a process by which human systems become pathological is ponerogenesis. And, in Political Ponerology, he goes into some detail about the various roles that his work revealed not only different types of psychopaths, but those with conditions besides psychopathy – as well as vulnerable normal people – to play in this process.

    I believe the other conditions most often involved are some of those that psychiatry has, for quite some time, classified as the Cluster B personality disorders, namely:

  4. Finally, I just want to say that, like many fields of science, but perhaps to an even greater extent than most, ponerology attracts its share of pseudoscientists – people who either speculate in a non-scientific manner on the material within its purview or take scientific findings that it has revealed and then twist and misuse them to serve an agenda. Since ponerology is a relatively new and unknown field, many people, when first investigating it, may come across the pseudoscientists first, recognize their work as not credible and then dismiss ponerology as a whole. This is a shame because there are also many very credible scientists in a variety of related disciplines doing fantastic and responsible work on these issues.

    I hope that people will not let the fact that some misappropriate the name and ideas of ponerology keep them from putting in the effort to learn about the solid and important work being done in this area. I try to encourage this effort by documenting the growing body of such critical work at PonerologyNews.com.

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