April 2, 2016
Ages ago I read Hare and Cleckley on psychopaths, they then being canonical on the matter. Psychopathy tended to be somewhat vaguely defined but usually included lack of empathy, remorse, conscience, and the like. Today, it seems to be detectable. For example, say, researchers, if you put a normal person on a polygraph and read him words like bread, tree, mountain, torture, dogs, and sidewalk, there will be a sharp response to “torture” but not to the neutral words. Psychopaths don’t have that response. This would seem to tie in with a lack of empathy.
Recent years have seen vast amounts of research into physical correlates of psychopathy as well as non-pathological traits of mind such as conservatism and liberalism. (Actually, I’m inclined to regard both as pathological, but the demands of columnistic solemnity here prevent me from saying so.) One random example from the multitude, here. Further, men’s and women’s brains proved different. The differences are both anatomical, in the size of different parts of the brain, and functional, as shown by fMRI scans.
Supporting the view, though hardly scientifically, is that in some four decades of writing columns of one sort and another, I remember only two or three readers who said that I had changed their minds on a matter of fundamental importance (the righteousness of America’s wars, for example). Columnists are often called “opinion leaders,” but actually our function seems to be to tell our readers what they already believe in stirring prose. Opinions generally are fixed, impervious to fact.
If brain scans can detect psychopathy, or if crazed mass-murderers have distinctive patterns of neural activity, what should we do when we detect such traits? Should we detect them?
Should we routinely screen, say, students in high school? It might prevent some baffled Ritalin-head from shooting half the school. But what do we do with the kid? Put him preemptively in jail? He hasn’t done anything wrong. He might never do anything wrong.
Psychopaths do enormous harm, only occasionally by outbursts of violence, but prophylactic incarceration does not fit well with our notions of how society should be run.
What if research shows that certain people have certain probabilities of antisocial behavior? Little Johnny, age thirteen, has a twenty-five percent chance, or fifty percent, or ninety percent chance of violent criminality. Do we jail him, tattoo his forehead, make him report to a parole officer? If his nature becomes public, it will keep him from being hired or, probably, get married. If the condition is heritable, do we forbid him, or her, to reproduce?
Our legal system relies on the fallacious notion that if a man commits armed robbery, but serves his prison sentence, he is now a normal citizen. To those in law enforcement, it is well known that career criminals are exactly that, and will continue offending until perhaps their late thirties. They commit wildly disproportionate amounts of crime, usually starting around puberty. This underlies the badly-applied three-strikes-and-you-are-out laws.
But if brain scans reveal that some prisoners are highly likely to offend again, and perhaps kill someone, what do we then do? Should we base a life sentence on what a man might do rather than on anything he has actually done? On something that he may not do?
Knowing that a person is disposed to behave undesirably and that the condition is heritable, as twin studies so often suggest, would inevitably lead to thoughts of eugenics. The idea is in bad odor nowadays but might be less so in the case of preventing the production of multiple Teds Bundy.
The implications of genetic determinism for normal people, whatever exactly that means, are considerable. I like to think that I reach my political conclusions through godlike intelligence, unimpeachable logic, and exact information, all bathed in a rich syrup of peerless virtue. Now it turns out that I am just some mutt running a genetic program, probably written in Dartmouth Basic, not under my control. I am no autonomously enlightened than one of those lugubrious twerps at Salon.
The implications for commentators are grim. If we learn that our passionate support for capitalism, or passionate lack of support for it, is no more the product of thought than having blond hair? There go the book royalties. Webmasters could replace us with software.
Genetic determinism, or at any rate predisposition, can have detonative consequences. If the conservative’s tendency toward paranoia and truculent tribalism (as distinguished from the liberal’s characteristic googooing inattention to realty) are innate, we will have wars as long as we have generals. (It would be interesting to do brain scans of four-star generals. I recommend Xanax and a double Scotch before looking at the results.)
The Pentagon is notorious for finding existential threats to the United States everywhere: In Ukraine, in the South China Sea, in Syria, under the bed. Commies, terrorists, Chinamen, Islam, Russia and, off the record, Jews. Since their expressions of concern usually precede the cry, “Send money,” it is easy to dismiss their alarums as budgetary pretexts. But if soldiers are hard-wired to seek wars, what then? Their military decisions will be no more rational than a pit bull’s to bite.
And of course, under brain-scan determinism, there would be fruitful fields for abuse. A Democratic congress would find all Republicans to be potential serial killers and institutionalize them to promote public safety, probably after a forethoughtful sterilization. (Pondering the Senate Armed Services Committee, I can see the attraction of the idea. But that way lies fascism.) (Still….)
I need a Xanax. And a double Scotch.