Our psychopath Congress

Government shutdown, debt crisis reveal how much GOP has in common with other sociopaths…

Is this to be an empathy test? Capillary dilation of the so-called blush response? Fluctuation of the pupil. Involuntary dilation of the iris?

I believe Philip K. Dick had it right in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Technology had, in that not-so-distant future, created androids that were nearly indistinguishable from humans. The one thing people had that the Nexus 6s didn’t, the quality that made them essentially human, was empathy.

“A human being without the proper empathy or feeling is the same as an android built so as to lack it, either by design or mistake. We mean, basically, someone who does not care about the fate which his fellow living creatures fall victim to; he stands detached, a spectator, acting out by his indifference John Donne’s theorem that ‘No man is an island,’ but giving that theorem a twist: that which is a mental and a moral island is not a man.” ― Philip K. Dick, The Dark-Haired Girl

If you’ve seen Blade Runner, the film based on Dick’s novel, you have a sense of what he was getting at. Still, as great as the movie was, it barely scratches the surface. In the novel, empathy is the core principle of Mercerism, the dominant religion of a culture struggling to understand itself in the looming era of posthumanity. In Mercerism, actualization is achieved through empathy, and those who remain on a blighted Earth often practice empathy through animal stewardship. Taking care of an animal is a sacred task, albeit one that’s complicated by the fact that most animals are extinct. All but the wealthiest few must care for android animals. They’re realistic looking enough on the outside, but the adherents know that they’re not actually connecting with a live entity.

The other channel of communion involves the empathy box – again, humanity must pursue empathy, its fundamental quality, via technology.

I’ve been thinking about PKD and empathy a lot lately. From time to time I find myself reflecting on that uniquely human characteristic as I ponder its absence. Consider Michael Vick, for instance. I wrote this, with specific reference to DADoES?, in 2009.

And here’s my biggest problem: what Michael Vick did was simply sub-human. I don’t mean that word in a pejorative, insulting way. Instead, I’m referring to a clear deficit in human empathy. One of our greatest writers, Philip K Dick, in one of his greatest books, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, confronted a world of increasingly human-seeming androids and posed the question: what quality makes us essentially human?

The answer: empathy. In the narrative (upon which the film Blade Runner was based), humans worked hard to cultivate their empathy (which was central to the society’s dominant religious ideology) through the stewardship of animals. A citizen who didn’t have an animal to care for lived a deficient, hollow life, and few sins were more damning than the failure to properly care for one’s animal. In one of the central moments of the novel, one of the replicants kills an animal – something no human could have even contemplated. The lesson is undeniable: only something inhuman could harm an animal.

I called him sub-human and I meant it, and the term applies, to my way of thinking, to all those who abuse animals.

Then, last year, I read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, in which the author explores the idea that CEOs are given to psychopathology. Don’t laugh. Various estimates say that CEOs are anywhere from four to ten times as likely to be psychopaths as average folks, and while I haven’t laid my hands on anything like a definitive study yet, I can’t say that I find the assertion difficult to believe. Once you get past the Hollywood stereotype of psycho/sociopaths as mass murderers (some are, to be sure, but hardly all), it begins to make a lot more sense.

I thought about my own experiences with high ranking business leaders. I don’t know as many as some of my friends and colleagues do – and I’d be interested in their thoughts on this – but I have known a few, and while some have been wonderful people, others would without a doubt have trouble passing Blade Runner‘s Voigt-Kampf test. These are people who can lay off a group of workers, look everyone in the eye and say that it’s not personal, it’s just business, and believe it. They’re doing what’s best for the business, they think (let’s leave the fact that the best they could do for business might really be to resign themselves aside, for a second). No, they didn’t want to can everyone, but they can sleep that night and show up with a genuine smile the next day. Most of us couldn’t.

It was impossible to read Ronson’s book without thinking about Columbine. It now seems evident that Eric Harris, the spark who ignited the tragedy, was a sociopath. That one played out in the fashion that we expect of psycho stories, of course, but again, once you get past the violent cases and look at the underlying personalities tendencies, you slowly come to understand that Eric Harris and Al Dunlap perhaps weren’t as different as we’d like to think.

Then there are the people who run sociopathic companies. I’ve written about certain PR firms, for instance, who seem willing to represent just about anyone if the price is right.

Sen. Roy Baty – (R) TX

Most recently, Americans have been treated to a breathtaking display of empathy-deficit disorder by that close cousin of the CEO, the politician. I’m not here to let anyone off the hook, but it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to look at the government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis of the past couple weeks and understand that most of the blame lies with a certain strain of “conservative” politician. Some think it’s a Republican issue, others argue that it’s specifically the Tea Party wing, and still others tie it all back to the hypercorporatist leanings of the Koch Brothers-Libertarian crowd.

In any case, the truth is that real, honest, hard-working people were out of work. Social support payments that many – including innocent children whose only crime was being born to poor parents – need to survive were in jeopardy. And had the nation defaulted on its debt, even a goodly number of Republicans acknowledge that the results would have been catastrophic, not just for the US but the entire world.

The Congressional reps in question, by and large wealthy, well-connected types, seemed incapable of hearing the cries of their fellow humans. The neo-Liberal, faux-Libertarian ideology driving the Rand Pauls and the Paul Ryans and their Ayn Randite fellow travelers are, above all, social and economic Darwinists. Survival of the fittest. They believe they have earned everything thing they have with no help from anyone else and everyone else is a leech. Sink or swim. I got mine, and the rest of you can die.

That their power depends so heavily on a coalition with people who don’t believe in Darwinism is one of our culture’s most wonderful ironies.

The Republican Party. CEOs. Eric Harris. Michael Vick. PR firms fluffing for brutal foreign dictatorships. Androids.

At its core, I think that’s what sociopathy is – an absence of empathy. Viewed this way, PK Dick and Ridley Scott, director of Blade Runner, weren’t just weaving a tale about the moment in the future when we’d stand face to face with a construct and be unable to tell that it was a machine. More human than human. Even better than the real thing.

They were warning us about the present, about the amorality walking among us today. At the end of BR, in what I think is the most beautiful scene in cinema history, we see one of those machines transcend, attaining the spark of empathy as he dies.

It’s disturbing that so much of the power that shapes our lives and our futures lacks the thing that makes us human. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner are marvelous cautionaries, but the truth is that redeeming a fictitious android character is a very different thing from somehow salvaging the real-life amorality that defines too much of our political and economic leadership.


  • I found this part very interesting, “various estimates say that CEOs are anywhere from four to ten times as likely to be psychopaths as average folks.” I don’t find that hard to believe. I have no direct personal experience with CEOs but I do have with some very successful businessmen. I’ve read they have high rates of Narcissistic Personality Disorder also.

  • Great read. It used to be said that stupidity in the workplace failed upwards, but it has been my experience that sociopathy does also. I think empathy might be a finite or even inversely proportional quality. The more people in the world, the more anonymous we all become, the less empathy to go around.

  • Well said. Best quote I’ve seen about these “leaders”: “We have elected an ungovernable collection of snake-handlers, Bible-bangers, ignorami, bagmen and outright frauds, a collection so ungovernable it insists the nation be ungovernable, too.” _ Charles P. Pierce, Esquire.com

  • Narcissist and psychopaths can be so charming and pretend to be anything we want them to be. They are very good actors.

  • Excellent. Thanks for the food for thought.

  • I was in a grocery store the other day, and overheard a man on the phone. He was discussing that his company was planning on cutting costs, and that he could lose 25% of the people in his department. There were a lot of people who were valuable and he didn’t want to lose, but that’s just the way it is.

    Is this how we are trained to devalue our fellow (workers)? It’s just the way it is?

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