Letters to Sam Vaknin no 10
©Stephen McDonnell and Sam Vaknin 2004, 2005
All text is copyrighted and is published here
with the permission of the authors.
Thursday, February 17, 2005, Letter Ten to
After you read Stephen's Letter - Click here
to read Sam's Response
You asked me the following questions:
1.Are narcissists intrinsically evil?
2.Should mental health professionals involve moral judgment
in their work?
An article I sent you on discussions at the most recent meeting
of the American Psychiatry Association sparked these questions.
Several news reports came out of this meeting, for a February
8, 2005 article devoted to Evil with links -go here:
New York Times > Health > Mental Health
No doubt you have read what Dr. Peck wrote about malignant
narcissists and evil.
Here is an interesting commentary on that:
Psychology of Evil
In my mind's eye I envision a bunch of psychiatrists discussing
evil, and trying to formulate a range of evil. It would go from
micro to macro, and have degrees of harm I suppose. They also
questioned their ability to make moral judgments on evil. Many
of those present have treated some very sick people. It must
be disturbing for them to see into the blackness of the human
psyche and they probably want to know the how and why of evil.
So do I. You want to know if a narcissist is fated to be evil
as if a narcissist is the only one capable of evil.
Let us explore.
No doubt I could fill a volume on morals, morality, good and
evil, selfishness and altruism, but to what end? A wise woman
told me once that there is not right and wrong but only "right
and real". Reality is where moral judgment and common sense
meet. Does this mean the end justifies the means? Is there a
range of good and evil? Is this a way of excusing ourselves and
others? Is this a 'slippery slope' that we are told will lead
to damnation? Do NPDs see issues in binary fashion, good and
evil, right and wrong? Should we as 'normal humans' judge others
who do not have the same set of mental filters that allow us
to judge others (He who has not sinned should throw the first
stone.)? We have different rules for children (in the legal system)
as well as for animals, so why no give a little slack to NPDs
and others who suffer from mental disease? He or she was mentally
deranged when they committed the crime or crimes - so innocent
by insanity? Where does one draw the line? What is evil? I have
written extensively on my site about this, but why not address
it again?(SEE Are NPD Evil? and NPD
Rage and The Magus and Dictators
Definition of evil:
1. Profoundly immoral or wrong
2. Deliberately causing great harm, pain, or upset
3. Connected with the Devil or other powerful destructive
4. Characterized by, bringing, or signifying bad luck
5. Characterized by a desire to cause hurt or harm
6. Very unpleasant
1. The quality of being profoundly immoral or wrong
2. The force held to bring about harmful, painful, or unpleasant
3. A situation or thing that is very unpleasant, harmful,
or morally wrong
EncartaÆ World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft
The quote I like to use concerning the harm of evil is the
Half the harm that is done in this world Is due to people
who want to feel important.
They don't mean to do harm - but the harm does not interest
Or they do not see it, or they justify it Because they
are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.
T. S. Eliot
The human being is endowed with intelligence and arguably
a moral compass that enables most people to tell right from wrong,
and to have empathy for others. Even with this moral compass
- the conscious - there is no guarantee that what we do will
produce 'good' as fate likes to play tricks on people who are
right and righteous. Let me illustrate my point by giving you
some outrageous examples.
1. Water in Bangladesh is polluted. A UN program was developed
and carried out to drill wells and install pumps to reach the
water table and produce clean water. After much fanfare trumpeting
the good work of the well water/pump program it was discovered
that this water was contaminated with lethal amounts of lead.
It is now recommended that the people boil their polluted water
and not use the well water.
2. In High school one of my Jewish friends astounded me when
he said that his Rabbi had declared to the congregation that
Hitler had saved the Jews. He went on to explain that European
Jewry was becoming assimilated before WWII and the Holocaust
produced a renewed interest in the faith and a renewal.
3. US Millionaire Jim Rogers (co founder of the Quantum fund
with George Soros, and whom Time magazine called "the Indiana
Jones of finance") predicts that Asian women will be wielding
incredible political and economic power in10 years from now due
to the selection of male fetuses by echo imaging and aborting
female fetuses. The disequilibrium in the sex ratios in Asian
countries will eventually place surviving women into a position
to choose. (National Post Business, February 2005)
Perhaps these are examples of survival of the fittest - the
path to Hell is paved with good intentions - yet in each case
there were decisions made wisely or with evil intent, which produced
(or may produce) different results than expected. They are also
examples of the impact of decisions on large populations. Today
the Kyoto Protocol went into effect but the alleged largest contributor
to global warming did not sign it so it may produce no or negative
results. Or maybe not. Maybe it is too late to even stop the
warming trend - some people do not believe in it anyway.
A few people who think they know what is best for others sometimes
precipitate large-scale events. What if these people are psychopaths,
or suffering from NPD, we then could attribute the eventual good
or bad to them. But who decides what is good or bad - the winners?
With historical distance, it is obvious that genocide was carried
out in the Americas by colonial and postcolonial governments
(and people) against the native populations. In modern day Africa
the AIDS epidemic will surely wipe out a huge amount of the population.
Wars and local terrorist attacks are taking place all over the
world, perpetuated by people who believe they are right. Whole
populations go on rampages of killing and torture, take the case
of Rwanda, motivated by the feeling that they are justified.
Looking at history, one can say that evil is endemic to humankind,
couldn't we? But is that true? Is there a way of measuring 'evil'
in large populations?
In military science, the art of killing is difficult to teach.
In fact most soldiers in the battlefield never shoot, and if
they do, they miss their human targets. People have to be trained
to kill. The occasional psychopath enjoys it, because he has
no empathy for his victim. Most people have to be brain washed
into hating. Most people have feelings and care for their fellow
human being. Perhaps evil is innate to humans, but is not commonly
manifest and it requires an outside agency to provoke it. Fear
of danger, moral debauchery, drugs, mental disease You get the
Macro to micro evil
Last week I was listening to a group of people who were discussing
altruism and Jesus Christ. One person remarked that it would
be hard to recognize God if He walked amongst us, whereby the
narcissist in the group pointed to himself and declared, "Just
look at me." It was a not surprising that he would say that,
but the most unusual thing about the discussion group was the
silence of the other narcissists. Morality, religion and good
and evil make them uncomfortable. Unless they are the ones dictating
Years ago a TV evangelist was caught with his pants down visiting
prostitutes; this same person had been railing against sin and
sodomy, yet he felt he was above morality. In my email box I
found a message from a preacher who had been referred to it,
and he went on to say one had to obey the Bible etc. which led
me to believe he was setting himself up as the ultimate arbitrator
with God like powers. I wasn't surprised. A web site I found
long time ago was dedicated to preachers who suffered from NPD
and how to recognize them. After watching a TV
documentary on the sexologist Dr.Kinsey I came to the conclusion
that he was projecting onto the rest of the world his vision,
and in some cases it was alleged that he doctored his research.
He encouraged sexuality and freedom from sexual repression to
the point where his assistants and wife were in an entangled
relationship. Again, the rules were broken and then rewritten
to fit another person's vision. What type of person likes to
rewrite the rules? A narcissist?
Who comes up with rules of morality?
There are possibly three ways that we develop morality.
A) If one believes the Judeo Christian Bible, humanity (in
the guise of Eve) ate from the tree of knowledge and learned
how to tell right from wrong. This had been reserved for God
and the Devil. It seems like a very paltry gift to eat an apple
- feel shame at your nakedness - and only be able to know good
B) If we look at the parallel of Darwinian evolution, humans
are naked and developed a sense of morality. Either way, we are
moral beings. Animals have the instincts to survive. I doubt
if animals have anything approaching our moral values, or even
a need for them. Morality may even be counter-productive to the
survival of humans.
C) Humans have morals when they exercise that part of the
brain that deals with moral judgment. The famous case in Vermont
of Phineas Gage whose temporal lobes were damaged in a freak
accident and whose personality changed, may point us towards
an anatomical basis for morality if not personality (lots of
pages on the web devoted to this). The whole history of lobotomy
and of ECT is morbidly interesting, with a new chapter being
written using local electromagnetic impulses to bring about cures.
One wonderful image I hold on to that illustrates how humans
differ from animals is the scene in the science fiction novel
DUNE, where the Bene Gesserit (a kind of female Jesuit order)
are testing the hero by having him put his hand into a box that
causes him intolerable pain. If he can master the pain, something
that animals are unable to do, then he will pass the test and
be considered 'human', if he withdraws his hand he will be considered
an animal and they will kill him. Frank Herbert had a Darwinian
view of the future, where people would evolve and develop super
powers, yet he endowed them with human faults; they were not
perfect. They would have to use their moral judgment, and evil
would still exist in narcissist like villains.
One of the sayings from DUNE that I recall when faced with
an invasive and destructive narcissist is this: "Fear is
the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings
total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to
pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past me I will
turn to see fear's path. Where the fear has gone there will be
nothing. Only I will remain."
The Bible also says, "I will fear no evil." Is this
because evil exists? Or is it our view of the world/people as
good and evil? Or should we rather say, I will fear no NPD?
Where do narcissists come into the picture of evil?
On your web pages devoted to Narcissistic Personality Disorders,
you divide NPDs into cerebral and the somatic. Then you go on
to subdivide them into thinner slices of types, but it is the
same basic cake we are talking about. Or should I say apple?
In my dealings with NPDs I have seen many kinds, of different
sexes, races and religions. They also vary in intelligence. They
seem to all have a "native" cunning that enables them
to find out who can be manipulated and used to supply them with
admiration and amusement. They all project a superior air, as
if they are not the normal run of the mill human being. Yet they
will debase themselves if necessary and mix with common people,
charming them with their wit. But only if they feel the necessity,
and only if it is worth their time and effort. These are bottom
line people. Zero sum economics - not altruism - reigns in the
NPD mind. You lose, they win, end of game. To see narcissists
in a moral light is specious. Their victims make excuses for
them, trying to 'understand' using their own moral gauges. They
respect brute force or people who turn the tables on them; because
you enter into their moral-less domain of playing. By debasing
yourself - by playing by their rules - they win.
There are exceptions to this rule. They can teach you some
very valuable lessons. A narcissist woman taught me how to lie.
She showed me that if you suspend your humanity, if you only
care about the outcome and could care less about who gets hurt,
then you are able to play a better hand of poker. In brinkmanship,
when you are faced with a more powerful foe, lying is a powerful
weapon. You lie by simply showing you are not afraid. You can
hypnotize yourself into believing that you can do some impossible
task, or change your life style. This is what NPDs do on a daily
basis - self-hypnosis. They also take the terrible feelings they
have for themselves and foist it on others. This shedding of
emotional detritus is useful for normal people, if they can do
it without involving others. The narcissist uses other people
(victims) as garbage bins for their emotional offal.
For years I wondered about the antics and motivations of certain
people. It was easy to dismiss them as simply characters, clowns,
etc; the more powerful were not so easy to ignore. Once you are
involved with them by choice or by birth, the web of their deceits
is a reality, eventually you sympathize with them, their enemy
is your enemy because the narcissist is always right and the
other person, persons, or society in general, don't understand
the narcissist. Once you join the NPD 'gang' you have to toe
the line. What they say goes. It is the law. You may find yourself
doing things you never thought possible, both legal and illegal,
if you accept to ride in the roller coaster ride of their reality.
(Manic Depressives also suffer this up and down type of life.)
You may think that you can put on the brakes and get off.
But when you do, they, the narcissists, will hit you with guilt
and their gang will reject you. So how did this happen? It may
have started off with a simple handshake, and when you looked
into their eyes they either looked very sincere or they avoided
your look. They are wonderful at first, charming and amusing,
and they compliment you, even make you feel important. The charm
stage will last to you are hooked. If you are lucky they may
pick you as their favorite; such attention is actually positive
as long as it doesn't go to your head. In the movie "The
Talented Mr. Ripley", a girlfriend says that you feel like
you are in a spot light, basking in their love and attention
powerful and addictive. When it is over you will feel empty as
if they stole part of your soul. You have made a pact with the
devil, and in the end you are left with the taste of ashes in
your mouth for all those days, months, years of spending time
under their influence.
You feel victimized, though you have this guilty inkling that
you were part of the game and even enjoyed it. Like the people
who go up to a booth at a carnival and start to play with the
hope of winning, you want to believe it is not a rigged game,
and that you can win. The narcissist loves to make you feel that
way, as if you can win with them, but disabuse your self of that
thought. No one wins with narcissists, only the therapist who
treats the victims.
The victim has made a fool of themselves and is traumatized,
you receive hundreds of emails from them and how many of these
broken relationships end up in court? How many victims go on
to live full lives, or do they commit emotional and even physical
suicide? Are they forever damaged goods? The narcissist feels
nothing; like a light that goes on and off, narcissists have
binary emotions, so feel no pain or guilt for what they do. Sam,
I think that you are the first narcissist I have ever known who
has shown some sort of sincere remorse, if at least a cognizance
of what you are and have done.
They are dynamic leaders, charismatic, and impressive and
if they have the intelligence and good sense, they will succeed
where others fail. Often they are ' legends in their own mind'
ending up as tin dictators who want to control their families,
friends, and neighborhoods. Only when they become bullies do
they pose a real physical threat. On the emotional field of life,
they use whatever it takes to get what they want. They come across
as know it alls, giving advice on all subjects, which may lead
the unwary victims to their ruin.
When I introduced a friend to a NPD woman, he was bamboozled
and told me how charming she was; from some recess of my subconscious
came this reply, "Hitler was charming too!"
It seems to me that someone who is evil or good must first
have some sense of morality. Are narcissists immoral or amoral?
Do they feel pain if they hurt someone, or do they only feel
pain for themselves? Do they only have empathy for themselves?
In my book, a thin one that contains a few rules of conduct,
I feel that the lack of empathy leads to harm. Do unto others
as you would have them do unto you is a wonderful moral statement
that may well have been aimed at NPDs.
You hit the narcissist ... er ... the nail on the head. The
root problem, the cause of most if not all narcissistic behaviors
is a pronounced lack of empathy. Indeed, morality and possessing
a moral sense are not possible without empathy!
Following your clue, I have decided to dedicate the bulk of
my response to the convoluted issue of empathy.
But first, are narcissists inherently evil?
In his bestselling "People of the Lie", Scott Peck
claims that they are.
I agree with you that the concept of "evil" in this
age of moral relativism is slippery and ambiguous. The "Oxford
Companion to Philosophy" (Oxford University Press, 1995)
defines it thus: "The suffering which results from
morally wrong human choices."
To qualify as evil a person (Moral Agent) must meet these
These "differences" are artificial. This how empathy
is defined in "Psychology - An Introduction (Ninth Edition)
by Charles G. Morris, Prentice Hall, 1996":
"Closely related to the ability to read other people's
emotions is empathy - the arousal of an emotion in an observer
that is a vicarious response to the other person's situation...
Empathy depends not only on one's ability to identify someone
else's emotions but also on one's capacity to put oneself in
the other person's place and to experience an appropriate emotional
response. Just as sensitivity to non-verbal cues increases with
age, so does empathy: The cognitive and perceptual abilities
required for empathy develop only as a child matures... (page
In empathy training, for example, each member of the
couple is taught to share inner feelings and to listen to and
understand the partner's feelings before responding to them.
The empathy technique focuses the couple's attention on feelings
and requires that they spend more time listening and less time
in rebuttal." (page 576).
Thus empathy does require the communication of feelings AND
an agreement on the appropriate outcome of the communicated emotions
(=affective agreement). In the absence of such agreement, we
are faced with inappropriate
affect (laughing at a funeral, for instance).
Moreover, empathy does relate to external objects and is provoked
by them. There is no empathy in the absence of an empathee. Granted,
intersubjectivity is intuitively applied to the inanimate while
empathy is applied to the living (animals, humans, even plants).
But this is a difference in human preferences - not in definition.
Empathy can, thus, be re-defined as a form of intersubjectivity
which involves living things as "objects" to which
the communicated intersubjective agreement relates. It is wrong
to limit empathy to the communication of emotion. It is the intersubjective,
concomitant experience of BEING. The empathor empathizes not
only with the empathee's emotions but also with his physical
state and other parameters of existence (pain, hunger, thirst,
suffocation, sexual pleasure etc.).
This leads to the important (and perhaps intractable) psychophysical
Intersubjectivity relates to external objects but the subjects
communicate and reach an agreement regarding the way THEY have
been affected by the objects.
Empathy relates to external objects (the Others) but the subjects
communicate and reach an agreement regarding the way THEY would
have felt had they BEEN the object.
This is no minor difference, if it, indeed, exists. But does
it really exist?
What is it that we feel in empathy? Is it OUR emotions/sensations
merely provoked by an external trigger (classic intersubjectivity)
or is it a TRANSFER of the object's feelings/sensations to us?
Such a transfer being physically impossible (as far as we
know) - we are forced to adopt the former model. Empathy is the
set of reactions - emotional and cognitive - to triggering by
an external object (the other). It is the equivalent of resonance
in the physical sciences. But we have NO WAY to ascertain the
"wavelength" of such resonance is identical in both
subjects. In other words, we have no way to verify that the feelings
or sensation invoked in the two (or more) subjects are one and
the same. What I call "sadness" may not be what you
call "sadness". Colours have unique, uniform, independently
measurable properties (like energy). Still, no one can prove
that what I see as "red" is what another calls "red"
(as is the case with Daltonists). If this is true where "objective",
measurable, phenomena are concerned - it is infinitely true in
the case of emotions or feelings.
We are, therefore, forced to refine our definition:
Empathy is a form of intersubjectivity which involves living
things as "objects" to which the communicated intersubjective
agreement relates. It is the intersubjective, concomitant experience
of BEING. The empathor empathizes not only with the empathee's
emotions but also with his physical state and other parameters
of existence (pain, hunger, thirst, suffocation, sexual pleasure
The meaning attributed to the words used by the parties to
the intersubjective agreement known as empathy is totally dependent
upon each party. The same words are used, the same denotates
- but it cannot be proven that the same connotates, the same
experiences, emotions and sensations are being discussed or communicated.
Language (and, by extension, art and culture) serve to introduce
us to other points of view ("what is it like to be someone
else" to paraphrase Thomas Nagle). By providing a bridge
between the subjective (inner experience) and the objective (words,
images, sounds) -language facilitates social exchange and interaction.
It is a dictionary which translates one's subjective private
language to the coin of the public medium. Knowledge and language
are, thus, the ultimate social glue, though both are based on
approximations and guesses (see George Steiner's "After
But, whereas the intersubjective agreement regarding measurements
and observations concerning external objects IS verifiable or
falsifiable using INDEPENDENT tools (e.g., lab experiments) -
the intersubjective agreement which concerns itself with the
emotions, sensations and experiences of subjects as communicated
by them IS NOT verifiable or falsifiable using INDEPENDENT tools.
The interpretation of this second kind of agreement is dependent
upon introspection and an assumption that identical words used
by different subjects still possess identical meaning. This assumption
is not falsifiable (or verifiable). It is neither true nor false.
It is a probabilistic statement with no probabilities attached.
It is, in short, a meaningless statement. As a result, empathy
itself is meaningless.
In human-speak, if you say that you are said and I empathize
with you it means that we have an agreement. I regard you as
my object. You communicate to me a property of yours ("sadness").
This triggers in me a recollection of "what is sadness"
or "what is to be sad". I say that I know what you
mean, I have been sad before, I know what it is like to be sad.
I empathize with you. We agree about being sad. We have an intersubjective
Alas, such an agreement is meaningless. We cannot (yet) measure
sadness, quantify it, crystallize it, access it in any way from
the outside. We are totally and absolutely reliant on your introspection
and my introspection. There is no way anyone can prove that my
"sadness" is even remotely similar to your sadness.
I may be feeling or experiencing something that you might find
hilarious and not sad at all. Still, I call it "sadness"
and I empathize with you.
This would not have been that grave if empathy hadn't been
the cornerstone of morality.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica,
"Empathy and other forms of social awareness are
important in the development of a moral sense. Morality embraces
a person's beliefs about the appropriateness or goodness of what
he does, thinks, or feels... Childhood is ... the time at which
moral standards begin to develop in a process that often extends
well into adulthood. The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg
hypothesized that people's development of moral standards passes
through stages that can be grouped into three moral levels...
At the third level, that of postconventional moral reasoning,
the adult bases his moral standards on principles that he himself
has evaluated and that he accepts as inherently valid, regardless
of society's opinion. He is aware of the arbitrary, subjective
nature of social standards and rules, which he regards as relative
rather than absolute in authority.
Thus the bases for justifying moral standards pass from
avoidance of punishment to avoidance of adult disapproval and
rejection to avoidance of internal guilt and self-recrimination.
The person's moral reasoning also moves toward increasingly greater
social scope (i.e., including more people and institutions) and
greater abstraction (i.e., from reasoning about physical events
such as pain or pleasure to reasoning about values, rights, and
But, if moral reasoning is based on introspection and empathy
- it is, indeed, dangerously relative and not objective in any
known sense of the word. Empathy is a unique agreement on the
emotional and experiential content of two or more introspective
processes in two or more subjective. Such an agreement can never
have any meaning, even as far as the parties to it are concerned.
They can never be sure that they are discussing the same emotions
or experiences. There is no way to compare, measure, observe,
falsify or verify (prove) that the "same" emotion is
experienced identically by the parties to the empathy agreement.
Empathy is meaningless and introspection involves a private language
despite what Wittgenstein had to say. Morality is thus reduced
to a set of meaningless private languages.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica:
"... Others have argued that because even rather
young children are capable of showing empathy with the pain of
others, the inhibition of aggressive behaviour arises from this
moral affect rather than from the mere anticipation of punishment.
Some scientists have found that children differ in their individual
capacity for empathy, and, therefore, some children are more
sensitive to moral prohibitions than others.
Young children's growing awareness of their own emotional
states, characteristics, and abilities leads to empathy--i.e.,
the ability to appreciate the feelings and perspectives of others.
Empathy and other forms of social awareness are in turn important
in the development of a moral sense... Another important aspect
of children's emotional development is the formation of their
self-concept, or identity--i.e., their sense of who they are
and what their relation to other people is.
According to Lipps's concept of empathy, a person appreciates
another person's reaction by a projection of the self into the
other. In his sthetik, 2 vol. (1903-06; 'Aesthetics'), he made
all appreciation of art dependent upon a similar self-projection
into the object."
This may well be the key. Empathy has little to do with the
other person (the empathee). It is simply the result of conditioning
and socialization. In other words, when we hurt someone - we
don't experience his pain. We experience OUR pain. Hurting somebody
- hurts US. The reaction of pain is provoked in US by OUR own
actions. We have been taught a learned response of feeling pain
when we inflict it upon another. But we have also been taught
to feel responsible for our fellow beings (guilt). So, we experience
pain whenever another person claims to experience it as well.
We feel guilty.
To use the example of pain, we experience it in tandem with
another person because we feel guilty or somehow responsible
for his condition. A learned reaction is activated and we experience
(our kind of) pain as well. We communicate it to the other person
and an agreement of empathy is struck between us.
We attribute feelings, sensations and experiences to the object
of our actions. It is the psychological defence mechanism of
projection. Unable to conceive of inflicting pain upon ourselves
- we displace the source. It is the other's pain that we are
feeling, we keep telling ourselves, not our own.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica:
"Perhaps the most important aspect of children's
emotional development is a growing awareness of their own emotional
states and the ability to discern and interpret the emotions
of others. The last half of the second year is a time when children
start becoming aware of their own emotional states, characteristics,
abilities, and potential for action; this phenomenon is called
self-awareness... (coupled with strong narcissistic behaviours
and traits - SV)...
This growing awareness of and ability to recall one's
own emotional states leads to empathy, or the ability to appreciate
the feelings and perceptions of others. Young children's dawning
awareness of their own potential for action inspires them to
try to direct (or otherwise affect) the behaviour of others...
...With age, children acquire the ability to understand
the perspective, or point of view, of other people, a development
that is closely linked with the empathic sharing of others' emotions...
One major factor underlying these changes is the child's
increasing cognitive sophistication. For example, in order to
feel the emotion of guilt, a child must appreciate the fact that
he could have inhibited a particular action of his that violated
a moral standard. The awareness that one can impose a restraint
on one's own behaviour requires a certain level of cognitive
maturation, and, therefore, the emotion of guilt cannot appear
until that competence is attained."
That empathy is a REACTION to external stimuli
that is fully contained within the empathor and then projected
onto the empathee - is clearly demonstrated by "inborn empathy".
It is the ability to exhibit empathy and altruistic behaviour
in response to facial expressions. Newborns react this way to
their mother's facial expression of sadness or distress.
This serves to prove that empathy has very little to do with
the feelings, experiences or sensations of the other (the empathee).
Surely, the infant has no idea what it is like to feel sad and
definitely not what it is like for his mother to feel sad. In
this case, it is a complex reflexive reaction. Later on, empathy
is still rather reflexive, the result of conditioning.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica
quotes fascinating research which dramatically proves the object-independent
nature of empathy. Empathy is an internal reaction, an internal
process, triggered by external cue provided by animate objects.
It is communicated to the empathee-other by the empathor but
the communication and the resulting agreement ("I know how
you feel therefore we agree on how you feel") is rendered
meaningless by the absence of a monovalent, unambiguous dictionary.
"An extensive series of studies indicated that
positive emotion feelings enhance empathy and altruism. It was
shown by the American psychologist Alice M. Isen that relatively
small favours or bits of good luck (like finding money in a coin
telephone or getting an unexpected gift) induced positive emotion
in people and that such emotion regularly increased the subjects'
inclination to sympathize or provide help.
Several studies have demonstrated that positive emotion
facilitates creative problem solving. One of these studies showed
that positive emotion enabled subjects to name more uses for
common objects. Another showed that positive emotion enhanced
creative problem solving by enabling subjects to see relations
among objects (and other people - SV) that would otherwise go
unnoticed. A number of studies have demonstrated the beneficial
effects of positive emotion on thinking, memory, and action in
pre-school and older children."
If empathy increases with positive emotion (a result of good
luck, for instance) - then it has little to do with its objects
and a lot to do with the person in whom it is provoked.
Here is an Interview granted to the National Post, Toronto,
Canada, July 2003:
Q. How important is empathy to proper psychological
A. Empathy is more important socially than it
is psychologically. The absence of empathy - for instance in
the Narcissistic and
Antisocial personality disorders - predisposes people to exploit
and abuse others. Empathy is the bedrock of our sense of morality.
Arguably, aggressive behavior is as inhibited by empathy at least
as much as it is by anticipated punishment.
But the existence of empathy in a person is also a sign of
self-awareness, a healthy identity, a well-regulated sense of
self-worth, and self-love (in the positive sense). Its absence
denotes emotional and cognitive immaturity, an inability to love,
to truly relate to others, to respect their boundaries and accept
their needs, feelings, hopes, fears, choices, and preferences
as autonomous entities.
Q. How is empathy developed?
A. It may be innate. Even toddlers seem to empathize
with the pain - or happiness - of others (such as their caregivers).
Empathy increases as the child forms a self-concept (identity).
The more aware the infant is of his or her emotional states,
the more he explores his limitations and capabilities - the more
prone he is to projecting this new found knowledge unto others.
By attributing to people around him his new gained insights about
himself, the child develop a moral sense and inhibits his anti-social
impulses. The development of empathy is, therefore, a part of
the process of socialization.
But, as the American psychologist Carl Rogers taught us, empathy
is also learned and inculcated. We are coached to feel guilt
and pain when we inflict suffering on another person. Empathy
is an attempt to avoid our own self-imposed agony by projecting
it onto another.
Q. Is there an increasing dearth of empathy in society
today? Why do you think so?
A. The social institutions that reified, propagated
and administered empathy have imploded. The nuclear family, the
closely-knit extended clan, the village, the neighborhood, the
Church- have all unraveled. Society is atomized and anomic. The
resulting alienation fostered a wave of antisocial behavior,
both criminal and "legitimate". The survival value
of empathy is on the decline. It is far wiser to be cunning,
to cut corners, to deceive, and to abuse - than to be empathic.
Empathy has largely dropped from the contemporary curriculum
In a desperate attempt to cope with these inexorable processes,
behaviors predicated on a lack of empathy have been pathologized
and "medicalized". The sad truth is that narcissistic
or antisocial conduct is both normative and rational. No amount
of "diagnosis", "treatment", and medication
can hide or reverse this fact. Ours is a cultural malaise which
permeates every single cell and strand of the social fabric.
Q. Is there any empirical evidence we can point to of
a decline in empathy?
Empathy cannot be measured directly - but only through
proxies such as criminality, terrorism, charity, violence, antisocial
behavior, related mental health disorders, or abuse.
Moreover, it is extremely difficult to separate the effects
of deterrence from the effects of empathy.
If I don't batter my wife, torture animals, or steal - is
it because I am empathetic or because I don't want to go
Rising litigiousness, zero
tolerance, and skyrocketing rates of incarceration - as well
as the ageing of the population - have sliced intimate partner
violence and other forms of crime across the United States in
the last decade. But this benevolent decline had nothing to do
with increasing empathy.
The statistics are open to interpretation but it would be
safe to say that the last century has been the most violent and
least empathetic in human history. Wars and terrorism are on
the rise, charity giving on the wane (measured as percentage
of national wealth), welfare policies are being abolished, Darwininan
models of capitalism are spreading. In the last two decades,
mental health disorders were added to the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of the American Psychiatric Association whose hallmark
is the lack of empathy. The violence is reflected in our popular
culture: movies, video games, and the media.
Empathy - supposedly
a spontaneous reaction to the plight of our fellow humans - is
now channeled through self-interested and bloated non-government
organizations or multilateral outfits. The vibrant world of private
empathy has been replaced by faceless state largesse. Pity, mercy,
the elation of giving are tax-deductible. It is a sorry sight.
But lacking empathy is only one of the reasons that narcissists
are amoral (and consequently, immoral). The other important reason
is that narcissists are fake. They suppress their true selves
and their emotions to the point that they are rendered inaccessible
to them. And there can be no moral sense without active, self-aware
The distinction often made between emotions and judgements
gives rise to a host of conflicting accounts of morality. Yet,
in the same way that the distinction "observer-observed"
is false, so is the distinction between emotions and judgements.
Emotions contain judgements and judgements are formed by both
emotions and the ratio. Emotions are responses to sensa (see
of Sense") and inevitably incorporate judgements (and
beliefs) about those sensa. Some of these judgements are inherent
(the outcome of biological evolution), others cultural, some
unconscious, others conscious, and the result of personal experience.
Judgements, on the other hand, are not compartmentalized. They
vigorously interact with our emotions as they form.
The source of this artificial distinction is the confusion
between moral and natural laws.
We differentiate among four kinds of "right" and
The Natural Good
There is "right" in the mathematical, physical,
or pragmatic sense. It is "right" to do something in
a certain way. In other words, it is viable, practical, functional,
it coheres with the world. Similarly, we say that it is "good"
to do the "right" thing and that we "ought to"
do it. It is the kind of "right" and "good"
that compel us to act because we "ought to". If we
adopt a different course, if we neglect, omit, or refuse to act
in the "right" and "good" way, as we "ought
to" - we are punished. Nature herself penalizes such violations.
The immutable laws of nature are the source of the "rightness"
and "goodness" of these courses of action. We are compelled
to adopt them - because we have no other CHOICE. If we construct
a bridge in the "right" and "good" way, as
we "ought to" - it will survive. Otherwise, the laws
of nature will make it collapse and, thus, punish us. We have
no choice in the matter. The laws of nature constrain our moral
principles as well.
The Moral Good
This lack of choice stands in stark contrast to the "good"
and "right" of morality. The laws of morality cannot
be compared to the laws of nature - nor are they variants or
derivatives thereof. The laws of nature leave us no choice. The
laws of morality rely on our choice.
Yet, the identical vocabulary and syntax we successfully employ
in both cases (the pragmatic and the moral) - "right action",
"good", and "ought to" - surely signify a
deep and hidden connection between our dictated reactions to
the laws of nature and our chosen reactions to the laws of morality
(i.e., our reactions to the laws of Man or God)? Perhaps the
principles and rules of morality ARE laws of nature - but with
choice added? Modern physics incorporates deterministic theories
(Newton's, Einstein's) - and theories involving probability and
choice (Quantum Mechanics and its interpretations, especially
the Copenhagen interpretation). Why can't we conceive of moral
laws as private cases (involving choice, judgements, beliefs,
and emotions) of natural laws?
The Hedonistic Good
If so, how can we account for the third, hedonistic, variant
of "good", "right", and "ought to"?
To live the "good" life may mean to maximize one's
utility (i.e., happiness, or pleasure) - but not necessarily
to maximize overall utility. In other words, living the good
life is not always a moral pursuit (if we apply to it Utilitarian
or Consequentialist yardsticks). Yet, here, too, we use
the same syntax and vocabulary. We say that we want to live the
"good" life and to do so, there is a "right action",
which we "ought to" pursue. Is hedonism a private case
of the Laws of Nature as well? This would be going too far. Is
it a private case of the rules or principles of Morality? It
could be - but need not be. Still, the principle of utility has
place in every cogent description of morality.
The Aesthetic Good
A fourth kind of "good" is of the aesthetic brand.
The language of aesthetic judgement is identical to the languages
of physics, morality, and hedonism. Aesthetic values sound strikingly
like moral ones and both resemble, structurally, the laws of
nature. We say that beauty is "right" (symmetric, etc.),
that we "ought to" maximize beauty - and this leads
to the right action. Replace "beauty" with "good"
in any aesthetic statement - and one gets a moral statement.
Moral, natural, aesthetic, and hedonistic statements are all
mutually convertible. Moreover, an aesthetic experience often
leads to moral action.
An Interactive Framework
It is safe to say that, when we wish to discuss the nature
of "good" and "right", the Laws of Nature
serve as the privileged frame of reference. They delimit and
constrain the set of possible states - pragmatic and moral. No
moral, aesthetic, or hedonistic principle or rule can defy, negate,
suspend, or ignore the Laws of Nature. They are the source of
everything that is "good" and "right". Thus,
the language we use to describe all instances of "good"
and "right" is "natural". Human choice, of
course, does not exist as far as the Laws of Nature go.
Nature is beautiful - symmetric, elegant, and parsimonious.
Aesthetic values and aesthetic judgements of "good"
(i.e., beautiful) and "right" rely heavily on the attributes
of Nature. Inevitably, they employ the same vocabulary and syntax.
Aesthetics is the bridge between the functional or correct "good"
and "right" - and the hedonistic "good" and
"right". Aesthetics is the first order of the interaction
between the WORLD and the MIND. Here, choice is very limited.
It is not possible to "choose" something to be beautiful.
It is either beautiful or it is not (regardless of the objective
or subjective source of the aesthetic judgement).
The hedonist is primarily concerned with the maximization
of his happiness and pleasure. But such outcomes can be secured
only by adhering to aesthetic values, by rendering aesthetic
judgements, and by maintaining aesthetic standards. The hedonist
craves beauty, pursues perfection, avoids the ugly - in short,
the hedonist is an aesthete. Hedonism is the application of aesthetic
rules, principles, values, and judgements in a social and cultural
setting. Hedonism is aesthetics in context - the context of being
human in a society of humans. The hedonist has a limited, binary,
choice - between being a hedonist and not being one.
From here it is one step to morality. The principle of individual
utility which underlies hedonism can be easily generalized to
encompass Humanity as a whole. The social and cultural context
is indispensable - there cannot be meaningful morality outside
society. A Robinson Crusoe - at least until he spotted Friday
- is an a-moral creature. Thus, morality is generalized hedonism
with the added (and crucial) feature of free will and (for all
practical purposes) unrestricted choice. It is what makes us
There was one man who dedicated his life, both figuratively
and literally, to the study of narcissism as the moral future
of mankind. His name was Friedrich Nietzsche.
Allow me some extensive quotes from "Thus Spake
Zarathustra" and "Ecce Homo"
(translated by Walter Kaufmann):
"I teach you the overman. Man is something that
shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
All beings so far have created something beyond themselves;
and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go
back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape
to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall
be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment...
Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the
meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be
the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain
faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to
you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they
know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned
themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.
Once the sin against God was the greatest sin; but God
died, and these sinners died with him. To sin against the earth
is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of
the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth...
What is the greatest experience you can have? It is
the hour of the great contempt. The hour when your happiness,
too, arouses your disgust, and even your reason and your virtue.
The hour when you say, 'What matters my happiness? It
is poverty and filth and wretched contentment. But my happiness
ought to justify existence itself.'
The hour when you say, 'What matters my reason? Does
it crave knowledge as the lion his food? It is poverty and filth
and wretched contentment.'
The hour when you say, 'What matters my virtue? As yet
it has not made me rage. How weary I am of my good and my evil!
All that is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.'
Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman - a rope
over an abyss...
What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not
an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and
a going under...
I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself
to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you
still have chaos in yourselves.
Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give
birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is
coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold,
I show you the last man.
'What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What
is a star?' thus asks the last man, and blinks.
The earth has become small, and on it hops the last
man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable
as the flea; the last man lives longest.
'We have invented happiness, 'say the last men, and
they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live,
for one needs warmth. One still loves one's neighbor and rubs
against him, for one needs warmth...
One still works, for work is a form of entertainment.
But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One
no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion.
Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.
No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same,
everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily
into a madhouse.
'Formerly, all the world was mad,' say the most refined,
and they blink...
One has one's little pleasure for the day and one's
little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.
'We have invented happiness', say the last men, and
On the Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit
Of the three metamorphoses of the spirit I tell you:
how the spirit becomes a camel; and the camel, a lion; and the
lion, finally, a child.
There is much that is difficult for the spirit, the
strong, reverent spirit that would bear much: but the difficult
and the most difficult are what its strength demands.
What is difficult? asks the spirit that would bear much,
and kneels down like a camel wanting to be well loaded. What
is most difficult, O heroes, asks the spirit that would bear
much, that I may take it upon myself and exult in my strength?
Is it not humbling oneself to wound one's haughtiness? Letting
one's folly shine to mock one's wisdom?...
Or is it this: stepping into filthy waters when they
are the waters of truth, and not repulsing cold frogs and hot
Or is it this: loving those that despise us and offering
a hand to the ghost that would frighten us?
All these most difficult things the spirit that would
bear much takes upon itself: like the camel that, burdened, speeds
into the desert, thus the spirit speeds into its desert.
In the loneliest desert, however, the second metamorphosis
occurs: here the spirit becomes a lion who would conquer his
freedom and be master in his own desert. Here he seeks out his
last master: he wants to fight him and his last god; for ultimate
victory he wants to fight with the great dragon.
Who is the great dragon whom the spirit will no longer
call lord and god? "Thou shalt" is the name of the
great dragon. But the spirit of the lion says, "I will."
"Thou shalt" lies in his way, sparkling like gold,
an animal covered with scales; and on every scale shines a golden
Values, thousands of years old, shine on these scales;
and thus speaks the mightiest of all dragons: "All value
has long been created, and I am all created value. Verily, there
shall be no more 'I will.'" Thus speaks the dragon.
My brothers, why is there a need in the spirit for the
lion? Why is not the beast of burden, which renounces and is
To create new values - that even the lion cannot do;
but the creation of freedom for oneself and a sacred "No"
even to duty - for that, my brothers, the lion is needed. To
assume the right to new values - that is the most terrifying
assumption for a reverent spirit that would bear much. Verily,
to him it is preying, and a matter for a beast of prey. He once
loved "thou shalt" as most sacred: now he must find
illusion and caprice even in the most sacred, that freedom from
his love may become his prey: the lion is needed for such prey.
But say, my brothers, what can the child do that even
the lion could not do? Why must the preying lion still become
a child? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning,
a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred "Yes."
For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred "Yes"
is needed: the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had
been lost to the world now conquers the world."
Nietzsche's Overman is a challenge to society as a whole and
to its values and value systems in particular. The latter are
considered by Nietzsche to be obstacles to growth, abstract fantasies
which contribute nothing positive to humanity's struggle to survive.
Nietzsche is not against values and value systems as such - but
against SPECIFIC values, the Judaeo-Christian ones. It relies
on a transcendental, immutable, objective source of supreme,
omniscient, long term benevolent source (God). Because God (an
irrelevant human construct) is a-human (humans are not omniscience
and omnipotent) his values are inhuman and irrelevant to our
existence. They hamper the fulfilment of our potential as humans.
Enter the Overman. He is a human being who generates values in
accordance with data that he collects from his environment. He
employs his intuition (regarding good and evil) to form values
and then tests them empirically and without prejudice. Needless
to say that this future human does not resort to contraptions
such as the after-life or to a denial of his drives and needs
in the gratification of which he takes great pleasure. In other
words, the Overman is not ascetic and does not deny his self
in order to alleviate his suffering by re-interpreting it ("suffering
in this world is rewarded in the afterlife" as institutionalized
religions are wont to say). The Overman dispenses with guilt
and shame as anti-nihilistic devices. Feeling negative about
oneself the pre-Overman Man is unable to joyously and uninhibitedly
materialize the full range of his potentials. The ensuing frustration
and repressed aggression weaken Man both physically and psychologically.
So, the Overman or Superman is NOT a post-human being. It
IS a human being just like you and I but with different values.
It is really an interpretative principle, an exegesis of reality,
a unified theory of the meaning and fullness of being human.
He has no authority outside himself, no values "out there"
and fully trusts himself to tell good from evil. Simply: that
which works, promotes his welfare and happiness and helps him
realize his full range of potentials - is good. And everything
- including values and the Overman himself - everything - is
transitory, contingent, replaceable, changeable and subject to
the continuous scrutiny of Darwinian natural selection. The fact
that the Superman does NOT take himself and his place in the
universe as granted is precisely what "overcoming"
means. The Overman co-exists with the weaker and the more ignorant
specimen of Mankind. Actually, the Overmen are destined to LEAD
the rest of humanity and to guide it. They guide it in light
of their values: self-realization, survival in strength, continual
re-invention, etc. Overcoming is not only a process or a mechanism
- it is also the meaning of life itself. It constitutes the reason
Paradoxically, the Superman is a very social creature. He
regards humanity as a bridge between the current Man or Overman
and the future one. Since there is no way of predicting at birth
who will end up being the next Man - life is sacred and overcoming
becomes a collective effort and a social enterprise. Creation
(the "will's joy") - the Superman's main and constant
activity - is meaningless in the absence of a context.
Even if we ignore for a minute the strong RELIGIOUS overtones
and undertones of Nietzsche's Overman belief-system - it is clear
that Nietzsche provides us with no prediction regarding the future
of Mankind. He simply analyses the psychological makeup of leaders
and contrasts it with the superstitious, herd-like, self-defeating
values of the masses. Nietzsche was vindicated by the hedonism
and individualism of the 20th century. Nazi Germany was the grossly
malignant and narcissistic form of "Nietzscheanism".
Thank you, Stephen, for this particular dialog.
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Last updated September 25, 2006