Sunday, May 13, 2012

In Defence of Psychopaths

This is a story about a 9-year-old whose bratty behavior (temper tantrums, manipulation, lies) earns him not a spanking but a medical diagnosis and a 24-pages-long feature in the NYT. It turns out that Michael is not merely a bad boy but a "C.U." ("Callous-Unemotional") child, the latter being part of a new diagnostic methodology that not only labels children as young as 5 "psychopaths" but supports the view that "psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition".

This instantly calls to mind a horrifying image of a juvenile Ted Bundy luring playmates into the basement and dismembering them at leisure. But it turns out that Michael's behavior, while  unpleasant, is not exceptionally violent or cruel.  Rather, he is an odd child: cold, manipulative, angry, jealous and unloving. These are not winning traits. But are they a disease?

The story of Michael strikes me as another example of the growing medicalization of behavior, in which a narrow band of human responses and emotions is defined as "normal", while everything outside it becomes a subject of therapeutic intervention. Besides the obvious dangers of overmedication, I find this ethically and politically problematic. There is no tyranny like the tyranny of normalcy; no dictatorship like the dictatorship of mediocrity. Behind the story of Michale lurks the cardboard image of the suburban American family: and whoever does not fit into the Procrustean bed of their shallow happiness is "sick". But what about rebels, nonconformists, eccentrics or misanthropes? Are these human types to be declared "neurological conditions" in need of cure?

But, many will object, are not psychopaths dangerous? According to the article, more than 50% of adults diagnosed as psychopaths are guilty of no criminal behavior and many of them become highly successful, especially on Wall Street (I realize that this is a strong argument in favor of incarcerating them while still in diapers). Psychopaths are not incapable of moral reasoning; they are deficient in empathy. But the two are not the same. You can do the right thing for any number of reasons and it is not society's business to question the motivation, only to monitor the behavior. Otherwise, we end up in the world of "Clockwork Orange" (as pointed out by some comments on the article, the therapeutic "boot-camp" where Michael's family is sending him is uncomfortably close to the dystopian movie). By arguing that children like Michael need to be "taught" empathy, we miss the more important lesson of freedom and responsibility. Paradoxically, by trying to make psychopaths more humane, we destroy their humanity.