Robert D. Hare: Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us

Robert Hare is a psychologist who has worked with inmates in Canadian prisons for a considerable period of time and estimates that as many as 25% of inmates are psychopaths (basically interchangeable with sociopath), though most psychopaths aren’t necessarily convicts.  One thing I’d never considered is that prisons are the only place a psychologist will get to work with adult psychopaths since, unlike most other psychological problems, psychopaths are quite comfortable in their own skin and would never see a need to seek help or try to change.  Why would they? They experience minimal anxiety, do whatever they want without regret and have little fear of social judgement or even physical harm. It’s like a robot wanting to see a shrink.

Hare uses his own experience working with and observing psychopaths in prisons to write this book. The verdict is bad: there is no effective treatment, the cause isn’t fully understood, they never change (aside from mellowing out in old age), have no conscience or moral center and enjoy lying, defrauding, conning and risky behaviour.  They do all this as expert chameleons, deftly able to read people and act in whatever way gets them what they want (money, sex, power etc.).

One cliche I’ve often heard is that psychopaths would make excellent businessmen, spies or militants as their lack of conscience would enable them to do a better job than their hesitant normal human counterparts. This isn’t accurate though as Hare explains that they also have no attention span and are unable to commit to any form of long-term planning. Their appetite for taking extreme risks will also sabotage their own work. It’s more likely that they won’t do any actual work, ruin a project and then leave a job to do the same thing elsewhere.  Same goes for relationships.

From my own personal experience I’ve encountered one individual that I’d wager a lot of money is a psychopath. This was a co-worker who was extraordinarily charismatic, capable of turning on extreme levels of charm in virtually any setting. Others admired him because he was able to go to a meeting while knowing next to nothing whatsoever and spin a bunch of bullshit convincingly. On the flip side his decisions often made zero sense, he would gladly destroy subordinates if it helped him, was involved in petty criminal activities (which he often bragged about) and had no hesitation to lie or cheat to help himself out, including launching fake accusations at others. Even knowing all that many people still liked him because of said charm.

Another guy I knew was eerily similar in the charisma department.  However, he was a habitual liar, engaged in petty frauds that weren’t necessary and was ultimately fired from his job, though he didn’t tell his wife for months on end, pretending to go to work every day while defaulting on his mortgage. None of it seemed to bother him too much.

Both of the above individuals ended up in senior positions at their companies, but were inconsistent, devious and left their jobs in a shit storm of their own making. They seem to fit with Hare’s description of a psychopath.

Personally I think the ideas in this book are essential for everyone to read and understand. It is the only real protection against people that are human zombies that look like us, talk like us, often seem better than us, but will happily destroy your life without hesitation.  There are some people who are beyond redemption, treatment and will never change.  The more that this affliction is understood the better others can identify it and stay far far away. A similar book in this genre is the popular Confessions of a Sociopath, which gives a glimpse into a psychopath’s internal logic. It’s a sickening read, though that’s kind of the point.  The book Columbine is another detailed profile of a psychopath and enters the psyche of spree killer Eric Harris via his own words care of a journal he left behind. Harris fooled psychologists, his parents and judges as he was able to read them, tell them what they want to hear and get them off his back. Lying wasn’t hard for him, like a normal person, he enjoyed it. In an ideal world his parents or the police might have understood that he was a textbook psychopath. There wouldn’t be anything they could do to fix this, but they wouldn’t have been played for suckers and taken actions to correct his behaviour that had literally zero chance of succeeding. What to do with psychopaths, especially child psychopaths, is a thorny ethical conundrum with no obvious answer.


George Monbiot: Heat

George Monbiot is a writer I’ve sadly only discovered recently; but that’s fantastic as it means I’ve got an extensive back catalogue of excellent writing to work through. I liken it to my belated discovery of Game of Thrones and the Sopranos this past year.

I’ve chosen Monbiot’s Heat (2006) as a starting point for this site as climate change seems timely given that my own province is in the thrust of skyrocketing electricity costs related to renewable energy and as President Trump has just withdrawn from the Paris Accord, proclaiming climate change a GIANT BIG FAT HOAX.

Monbiot’s Heat takes for granted that climate change is real and tries to figure out how we can go about fixing the problem, using the UK alone as his petri dish. It’s an interesting and near impossible exercise, but Monbiot deserves credit for taking a crack and coming up with, theoretically, a workable solution.

I won’t go into the fixes he suggests as I’m no expert on these subjects and as a lot has probably changed since 2006, but he finds the required reduction of emissions through a mixture of energy efficient homes, better public transit, renewable energy and buried carbon dioxide.

All of this is wonderful, but it doesn’t get to the Faustian pact that Monbiot uses as a theme throughout the book. If Faust could agree to damn himself in exchange for temporary worldly delights, what chance is there that humans wouldn’t choose these same delights in exchange for damning someone else? The damned aren’t “us” they are our grandchildren, people in very hot or low lying places, and of course, the poor.

I see no chance of this, not because Monbiot’s proposals would take us back to the stone age, but because the level of privation proscribed would still be deemed unacceptable to those who won’t personally feel the impact of climate change.

To get a glimpse at human nature, look no further than the world’s most powerful man. He’s an unmitigated narcissist, unable to even momentarily consider someone other than himself. A powerful nation, with more information available to it than at any other time in history, freely chose him as their representative.

Monbiot’s riddle is theoretically solvable, but I’m afraid humanity’s is not.

As an aside I thank Monbiot for identifying other environmentalists as part of the problem. Many do wish to see a return to the stone age, which I consider inadvisable – others are hypocrites who enjoy luxuries they wish to deny others. Some, like Paul Ehrlich, ply fictions as fact in exchange for prestige and notoriety. In my own province the Government has transferred billions in exorbitant contracts to specific companies building windmills as, for all intents and purposes, these politicians and companies are one and the same.  Meanwhile the elderly go without heat and people lose their homes as their money is transferred to the wealthy.

Human nature will damn us all to hell it seems and this is a far more intractable riddle than the one Monbiot solves in this book.

As with all of Monbiot’s work this book is extraordinarily well written and researched. He does an impressive job of taking a massive complicated mess of a problem and breaking it down into manageable parts. Most of all I appreciate that he comes off as sincere and well meaning.