The sympathetic psychopath

So, there was a bit of a dust-up yesterday after Amanda Marcotte posted about an article on children and psychopathy on Twitter. I’m not going to get into that argument here (Short version: the condition was compared to autism, a comparison which is unfortunately both common and damaging for autistics), but I do want to address her underlying point: why don’t psychopaths get sympathy if they really ‘can’t help it’? While I can’t speak for others, the point for me is very simple:

Sympathy for psychopaths is dangerous.

Psychopaths don’t have the moral conscience that most of us possess. While most people feel sympathy for at least some other people, psychopaths don’t–they are in effect a nexus of self-centered-ness. They are adept at reading and manipulating people, and because of that trait, being sympathetic to them opens one up to being used by the psychopath. One of the issues with trying to treat psychopaths is that, because of their nature, trying to ‘help’ them usually winds up doing so in the opposite way than intended–it gives them better skills to use others. Showing sympathy is, to them, a weakness to be exploited.

(Which isn’t at all to say that I think they don’t need to be understood and treated if possible, but the nature of the condition makes treatment very tricky.)

Another factor, however, is that while many people with different neurologies do suffer as a result (either as an intrinsic part of it or because of a mis-match with society’s expectations), I’m not aware of any reason to believe that’s true of psychopaths. It’s a pretty old trope in fiction that good is hampered by its desire to protect others, while evil is free to create havoc because it simply doesn’t care. Lacking an ability to care about what happens to others, morality goes out the window–the only question is how to attain ones goals. Trying to do what’s ‘right’ is just an arbitrary limitation, or at best a useful smokescreen. As Machiavelli said, the best thing is to appear just but be unjust.

Pretty hard to feel sympathy for someone who isn’t suffering. Especially when that person has absolutely none for you.


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