The Advantage of Political Psychopathy

Psychopaths would make the best politicians. I believe that Machiavelli, though he may not say so in such blunt or current terms, would actually agree with me.

I’m currently taking Psych 270 (Psychopathology) because of a book I read over the summer called “The Wisdom of Psychopaths” by Kevin Dutton. In this book, Dutton argues that morality is actually standing in the way of human evolution, and that psychopaths are the next step in this evolutionary chain.  Just as super hero movies portray people with special abilities as ‘mutants’, ‘Heroes’ or whatever else you would like to call them, psychopaths could actually be this next evolutionary step. No, they can’t levitate or control objects with their minds, but they could be, according to Machiavelli, the greatest politicians to walk this earth. Think about it, a politician who has a sense of what morality is and knows in theory why it exists, but does not carry his own moral compass could actually have the most valuable asset to help him succeed. He lacks that conscience that stops him from pursuing a greater good, and his own interests drive him beyond those of a normal man. Ethics are a hinderance to what could be a potentially epic political career, as long as our political psychopath adheres to the goals that will eventually attain the greater good.

A psychopath is a method actor, just like a prince or politician. He feigns empathy for revolution, justice for the sake of ethics and humbleness for the sake of religion or propriety. Machiavelli talks about all the deceptive ways a prince can change his image in the eyes of his people, such as politician faking contrition over a cause. He even states that “it is necessary to know how to disguise…and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.” This deception is not only a practical, but also a necessary tool for a politician to have. Psychopaths can use this deception to their advantage by adopting charisma to charm their way into an emotional stratosphere that they will never be able to or need to understand. Why, after all, does a politician need emotion to achieve their goals? Often, pride, obsession, elation, thrill-seeking and morality can handicap a politician to such a degree as to render them useless. Look at Truman dropping the bomb, or Obama’s civilian drone strikes. These are not acts of morality, but rather they are acts that serve a greater purpose. All one would need to do is give our hypothetical psychopathic leader a goal to achieve, and he could achieve it without the emotions that threaten a normal man’s decision-making process. Weberian “dirty hands” would never be a boundary or consideration for a psychopath; there would never be that pause before an action that asks in its silence ‘is this right? Moral? Ethical? Insane?’ He would simply press the button, drop the bomb or pull the trigger that would supersede any moral qualms with its cost-benefit ratio.

As a side note, I do not believe Obama is a psychopath, however this is a particularly compelling media image to support the misunderstanding of what I mean by psychopathic politician

Perhaps we have already had some psychopaths in the ranks of great or infamous politicians. I’m sure no one would have trouble arguing for Hitler’s addition, or Sadam Hussein or adding any other malicious dictator to the budding list. When adding them, one key thing is forgotten though, that they all believed what they were doing the morally ‘right’ thing. Terrorism, freedom fighting or whatever else you want to call it hinges on the very object of a psychopath’s void: moral fervor. No matter what else they have cottoned onto in the colloquial definition of psychopathy, they still lack that moral deficiency that would make a psychopath so effective. Yes, a psychopath could easily become the dictatorial prince of Machiavelli’s vision, or create a genocide, or pull off “dirty hands” to a terrifying degree, but his motivation would always be that he has a goal he has to achieve, and that he has to achieve it for nothing more than some small intrinsic satisfaction. He could easily be a Peace Corps volunteer, or a Utopian leader or President of the USA (which you can slate in either direction), so long as his motivation for achievement is devoid of morality. There are more successful psychopaths than we can measure living in the world today, despite the belief that they are all safely away in mental institutions. If you believe all of them are serial killers whose only goal is to reach the level of obsession that many psychopaths that far along the spectrum display, then you are in for a rude awakening. Your closest friend, your roommate, your neighbor or even your GSI could be a psychopath, and you would never know. Their high-achievement standard will push psychopaths faster and farther than you and your moral baggage could ever go. Machiavellian princes who feign empathy, religion or any other ethical principals in order to achieve their goals could be waiting to spring into office and push forward the evolutionary chain that Dutton believes is inevitable. Whether or not you believe morality should be a politician’s main motivation, it is inherent that he will eventually be driven by nothing more than the achievement standard that all psychopaths already adhere to. Morals may be a necessity of the human condition, but they are becoming less and less applicable to the political one. Perhaps all politicians already have some psychopathy within them that simply requires a nudge in the right direction to come out and play.

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One comment

  1. rplamp · October 14, 2014

    I am very intrigued by this very interesting position on political evolution. I too believe that politicians would be very effective if they did not have to follow any moral grounds but as you also mentioned it could become dangerous if they are following the wrong cause or objective. It is my understanding that one of the original definitions of psychopathy included bold behaviors and actions, which I believe could also further a politician because they would be willing to make a riskier decision in order to further their cause. However, having a leader with as much power as the President who has no moral grounds could turn dangerous because they would not care what the outcome of their decisions would be and just do whatever they want. I do agree with you that Machiavelli would probably find psychopaths to be good politicians; though if they ever got too focused on a negative goal it could become detrimental.

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