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Chapter 2. Morals

In 2001, the US Supreme Court decided that walking was not a fundamental part of the game of golf. The justices said that the fundamental thing in golf is trying to get a small ball into a slightly larger hole. Walking, they said, is incidental. This surreal decision was not unanimous — two out of the nine justices dissented. These two judges complained, quite reasonably, that the Supreme Court had no business ruling about whether or not walking was part of the ideal “Platonic” version of golf. The question came before them because of a legal dispute about whether professional golfer Casey Martin should be allowed to ride between holes on a golf cart during competitions.

All his life, Casey Martin had suffered from a circulatory problem in his right leg. Walking around a golf course was for him a dangerous activity, risking internal bleeding, broken bones and maybe even amputation. So he used a golf cart. The Professional Golfer’s Association, or PGA, said that although they let golfers use carts in the earlier stages of their open competitions, they wouldn’t allow them in the later stages. Despite Martin’s other talents for golf, this effectively stopped him following up on his earlier successes. He claimed that this was discrimination, and against the law, since the law said that reasonable accommodations must be made for people with disabilities. And so, eventually, this legal case made it to the Supreme Court.

The PGA wheeled out big names like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus to testify that walking was a key part of the game. They said that it wouldn’t be fair if some golfers could use carts. It would give them an advantage, because fatigue was an important factor, and those who chose to ride would be less tired. Those were the arguments put forward, but if we dig beneath the surface we see that really there was something else at stake.

In his 2009 Reith lectures, Michael Sandel points out that in this case, the legal arguments about fairness obscured the real issue. Casey Martin was not asking for everyone to be allowed to ride in carts, only himself, and as the Supreme Court pointed out, because of his disability he already suffered more from fatigue than anyone else. Sandel explains the real issue:

But if fairness were the only thing at stake, there would have been an easy and obvious solution: let all golfers use carts in tournaments. But this solution was anathema to professional golf, even more unthinkable than making an exception for Casey Martin. Why? Because the dispute was less about fairness than about honour and recognition — specifically the desire of the PGA and top golfers that their sport be recognised as an athletic event.

If all golfers rode around in carts, then the game would be just a little too close to some other games played on a green surface with small balls and slightly larger holes. Games like snooker and billiards, for example. The issue at stake was a moral one, but it was not “fairness.” It was what we will soon recognise as “ingroup/loyalty” — in this case whether professional golfers deserved recognition and respect as members of that group we call athletes.

Most serious arguments, the arguments we care deeply about, are moral arguments like this. But often, as in this case, the true deeper argument is hidden behind a different surface argument. Maybe this is because the surface argument seems easier to win or because it seems more respectable. Often the participants get so wrapped up in the surface argument that they don’t even realise that there is a deeper moral argument.

There seem to be only five or six fundamentally different categories of moral argument. If you understand these categories, you will be able to understand other people’s motivations better and make more convincing arguments yourself. But before we can explore these categories properly, we need to talk about human emotions — and before we can talk about emotions properly we need to understand the “adaptive unconscious.”

The word “unconscious” still carries connotations from Freud: a seething pit of repressed desires, barely held in check, threatening to boil over with untold consequences. But as the saying goes, “There’s only two things you need to know about Freud: he’s wrong and he’s dead.” Freud’s idea of the human unconscious has been comprehensively disproved by modern research. (If he were alive, I’m sure he would be the first to update his theory. Since he isn’t, this makes him an easy target.) note 14

Modern psychologists use terms like “the adaptive unconscious” to distinguish their new understanding from the old ideas. In this new understanding, most of the human mind works automatically, like an autopilot, beneath the level of conscious awareness. Our conscious minds are like airline pilots, eating their lunch and chatting, only alerted to something out of the ordinary by a flashing light on the control panel. Or perhaps we should say that the adaptive unconscious is like several interlinked autopilots, since we know from studies of brain-damaged patients that there are many independent, but rather limited, unconscious abilities. Consciousness on the other hand seems to be one thing, which is either there or not. In contrast, brain-damaged stroke patients can lose their unconscious abilities piecemeal: they may be able to draw an object but not say its name, or to speak but not to sing. Or even more bizarrely, to recognise their family members by appearance, but think that they have been replaced by impostors, because the stroke victim has lost the unconscious feeling of “familiarity” that we have when we see someone we know. They still recognise their family, but in the same way that you would recognise someone from a photograph: consciously and with effort.

A key property of the adaptive unconscious is that it is effortless. It is fast, uncontrollable, concerned with the here-and-now. It tends to jump to conclusions easily, to make quick decisions, but it’s rather inflexible, with “fixed ideas.” It’s really good at spotting patterns, but tends to be confused by patterns that are too complex or subtle. It’s so good at spotting patterns that it even sees patterns in randomness, like seeing faces in clouds. Our conscious minds, on the other hand, are rather slow, after-the-fact plodders, checking whether our gut-feelings are really right. The conscious is more flexible, and takes a longer view. With conscious effort we can see where we have gone wrong and take steps to correct it.

It’s almost as if we were two different people, each barely aware of the other. It’s certainly the case that our unconscious can make a quick decision without our conscious mind being aware of what happened. We are even able to come up with with after-the-fact justifications for our actions, but as experiments with split-brain patients have shown, our conscious explanations for our own actions are not necessarily correct. We don’t get to see behind the curtain, to inspect the workings of the autopilot; we don’t have privileged access to our own unconscious minds. Experiments have shown that we are no better at explaining our own actions than explaining those of other people, and that we are actually worse at predicting what will make us (unconsciously) happy in the future than we are at making predictions about other people.

Psychologist Timothy Wilson, in Strangers to Ourselves, relates how people looking to buy a house can think they know what they want, can draw up an elaborate check-list and try to consciously compare the features of one house against another, but it doesn’t really work. Trying to do this, the buyers become more and more confused about what they really want. Wilson notes that professionals selling houses have a saying: “buyers lie.” Buyers don’t of course lie deliberately: they are just really bad at knowing consciously what their adaptive unconscious will be happy with, before they’ve seen it. So, professional house-sellers pay no attention to what the prospective buyers say, and instead show them a wide range of properties. The house sellers watch their clients’ reactions closely. If they look pleased, that’s a sign that their adaptive unconscious likes this house. A prospective buyer might not consciously notice this themselves, and might even be resistant to it. note 15

Our emotions are a kind of signal from some parts of our adaptive unconscious to the other parts, to our conscious minds and to the wider world. They change how we act and they change how we look. Emotions are like the background music to our conscious thoughts. We often have emotions without being consciously aware of them, but if we pause to listen more carefully, we can get a better idea of what our unconscious mind is really doing, what we really want. But even when we do notice, and try to hide our emotions behind a “poker face,” they still leak out. We read each other’s emotions unconsciously, and someone who seems more empathic has an adaptive unconscious which is better at this, better at picking up and following subtle expressions. (You can also do this consciously, if you learn what to look for.)

It was a surprise to scientists in the late 1960s when psychologist Paul Ekman demonstrated that human emotions are universal — that facial expressions for emotion are the same all over the world. At the time, the respectable academic view was that expressions were socially learned, and varied between cultures, like language. This was Ekman’s own view before he started his work. However, in a series of ingenious experiments between 1965 and 1969 he showed that people from different cultures recognised and reproduced the same basic expressions. The last in this series of experiments took him to the isolated Fore people in New Guinea. Ekman asked them to choose photos that best fit a series of situations chosen to prompt particular emotions, such as “this person’s child has just died.” The results were very consistent with what westerners would choose, and very soon repeated by other researchers.

There was initially a huge resistance from the academic community to this heretical finding. The ruling idea at the time was that all human behaviour was due to “nurture” and none to “nature.” This was practically dogma, and to suggest otherwise was very unpopular. And how, people asked, could Ekman’s findings be reconciled with the fact that different cultures seemed, in similar situations, to show different emotions? Ekman explained this rather plausibly with the idea of “display rules”: different cultures have rules about the management of emotions, and these rules are learned socially. But the emotions themselves, and their expression when not masked, are just the same everywhere. Experiments have shown, for example, that in public the Japanese tend to hide negative expressions with a fake smile, but when they are on their own they have exactly the same expressions as everyone else. They also recognise the same emotions as everyone else.

Nowadays, Ekman’s findings about human emotions and expressions are generally accepted, and it’s even acknowledged that Charles Darwin was right all along when he wrote his book on emotions in 1872. (He said that human emotions and their facial expressions are innate, and to a large extent shared with other animals.) There are seven basic human emotions, and each has a distinctive set of facial expressions:

Remember, these expressions are generated by our unconscious mind. If we try, we can hide them to some extent or fake them to some extent, but many of our facial muscles are not under conscious control. It’s hard to hide emotions and even harder to fake emotions that we don’t feel. These seven emotions are the “atoms” of feeling: in real life they come along in combinations and the expressions flicker across our face in fractions of a second. (Try freeze-framing an emotionally charged live TV show if you want to see this. Don’t try this with a drama programme, though — the actors may not have the right expressions on their faces.)

I give these descriptions to remind you what the expressions look like, but if you don’t already recognise them, my descriptions won’t be much help. If you want to learn how to consciously recognise these expressions, particularly in their subtle forms, you will need to read a book like Emotions Revealed by Paul Ekman, or look at his web-site. With a lot of practice you could learn to be an expert, a “human lie detector” like Ekman himself. note 16


But you don’t need any practice to understand how the emotions relate to moral arguments. The key point here is that moral arguments and their underpinning moral values are driven by emotions. Like emotions, moral values are also largely “built-in,” not learned. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has investigated how people reach moral judgements, using stories like the following one: note 17

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?

Most people say “no.” But that’s not the point. The point is to find how people try to justify why it is wrong. Haidt found that people say that incest is bad because any children would suffer from genetic problems. Or they say that Julie and Mark will regret it and be traumatised. But neither of those reasons apply in this case: the story says that they used two forms of contraception and they were both happy about it afterwards. Haidt found that people don’t change their minds, they reach for other reasons, and then yet other reasons to justify their gut reactions. Eventually they end up with something like “it’s just wrong” or “it’s disgusting.” And far from being a cop-out, this last reason actually is the real reason. People find it disgusting. The moral value tested by the story is based on an emotion, and the emotion is disgust.

Haidt has found five moral values which seem to exist independently in people. In organising these moral values, I find them easier to remember and understand when I relate them to each of Ekman’s emotional categories. (Although my arrangement seems quite plausible, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether it has anything more than mnemonic significance.) Here are Haidt’s five moral values:

Perhaps the first question in your mind is “why five, when there are seven emotions?” In fact, for a while Haidt had only the first four — ingroup/loyalty was added more recently. If, along with me, you believe that each moral value corresponds to an emotion, that means we must be missing two more. What might they be? Here are my suggestions:

We’ve now covered enough ground that you can see for yourself, from first principles, what the argument between the golfer Casey Martin and the PGA was really about. The PGA tried to make an argument based on fairness/reciprocity, an argument that said individual golfers would get an unfair advantage if they could use golf carts — these individuals would suffer less from fatigue. The Supreme Court didn’t buy that argument, saying that Martin already suffered more from fatigue anyway, even when he used his golf cart. As Sandel pointed out, the real argument was about something else. It was about ingroup/loyalty. The professional golfers thought of themselves, and wanted the public to think of them, as members of a fraternity of professional athletes. They saw themselves being expelled from this group, in the minds of the public, when a picture on TV showed a chap with a bad leg cruising up to the tee in his golf cart. (We might also add a touch of purity/sanctity to the mix — moral arguments are seldom absolutely clear-cut.)

When we understand the moral values and their emotional basis, then we can better understand other people’s points of view. We can avoid getting trapped in pointless arguments and we can address the fundamental issues that motivate people. We can also know when to give up! For example, I was once discussing the precise limits of their new diet with a recent convert to vegetarianism. They were explaining their decision in terms of environmentalism and treating animals fairly. I wondered what this person thought was fair and unfair — where did he draw the line? Clearly he thought that keeping cows for milk was unfair, but what about bees? Was it unfair to keep bees? We need them to pollinate fruit trees, but was it okay to eat their honey? He had until that time been eating honey. I regretted asking the question, because afterwards he decided to stop eating honey, and at the time I couldn’t really work out why.

Now, in retrospect, it’s clear. Although he described his reasons for becoming a vegetarian in terms of fairness/reciprocity and harm/care, that wasn’t his real motivation at all. His real motivation was purity/sanctity. (His simultaneous decision to stop smoking might have given me another clue, if I’d known back then about this classification of moral values.) When he thought about bees more closely, it must have struck him that honey was really bee-spit. He realised that honey was disgusting, and he couldn’t eat it any more. No argument based on fairness/reciprocity or harm/care would have changed his mind. Even if I had known his real reasons, it would have been rather hard to change his mind about the purity of honey. Better to just let it go.

Because the adaptive unconscious quickly jumps to conclusions and then sticks to them, it can be very hard to change existing views. It’s rather easier to influence views on a new topic, where someone’s mind is not already made up. To do this, you need to use images and thoughts that are strongly charged with the relevant emotion. Dan Gardner, in his book Risk says “humans are good with stories and bad with numbers.” Telling someone that there are a million starving children in a third-world country won’t touch the adaptive unconscious where their emotions arise. But showing them a picture of just one starving child will.

Descriptions can be just as compelling, but they have to be vivid. More detail makes them more convincing. Stories, made up or hearsay, can be just as potent as direct experience, but the descriptions have to be viscerally compelling — if it’s a struggle to imagine something it will seem less plausible. So: use novel metaphors, rhyming and alliteration; read poetry for inspiration; learn to write poetry; avoid tired old clichés. The initial feelings we have for something tend to stick, and with a strong enough emotion, people don’t stop to wonder how likely it is. Instead they feel certainty.

As an example, consider the current British anxiety about paedophiles, stirred up by the popular press. This campaign has successfully employed all five of Haidt’s moral values: we are encouraged to be angry because of the harm that might happen to our children. We are told that someone in authority needs to make sure that perverts from outside don’t come and defile our loved ones. Stepping over the issue of why the newspaper owners want to wind people up in this way, notice that the numbers carry a different message. The numbers say that for almost all children the risk of abuse is very low indeed, a lot lower than other risks that we accept without thinking. Where there is a risk it comes overwhelmingly from men already close to the child: family members, friends, and so on. Not outsiders. But the adaptive unconscious is not very good with numbers.


Do all people feel that each of these moral values is equally important? Or do some values come out ahead of others? Haidt made the interesting discovery that in the USA, people think that some values are more important than others, but not everyone has the same ranking. Haidt found that there was a correspondence between people’s political views and how they rank the different moral values. People who identified themselves as “liberal” or “progressive” gave much more importance to fairness/reciprocity and harm/care than to the other moral values. note 18

Moving across the political spectrum, Haidt found that this relative importance gradually changes. With “conservatives,” authority/respect rose to join fairness/reciprocity and harm/care at the very top, but ingroup/loyalty and sanctity/purity were also close behind. So when you are having a discussion with a “conservative,” you can use all of the moral arguments with some success. On the other hand, “liberals” will usually only be persuaded by arguments based on fairness/reciprocity or harm/care. (Though they might still find honey disgusting.)

Although Haidt looked only at Americans, we might suppose that people in other parts of the world could be even further along this spectrum than the American conservatives. For example, from what little I know about life in the mountain villages of Afghanistan, I would say that authority/respect is their highest value, followed by sanctity/purity and ingroup/loyalty. The primary liberal values of fairness/reciprocity and harm/care seem to be relegated to last place. note 19

Haidt’s findings certainly explain the character of conservative and liberal political arguments, and particularly the way people on opposite sides can talk past each other, never really understanding the other side. But how do people come to prioritise their moral values this way in the first place? Perhaps the answer is the same as with emotions: although emotions are built-in and the same everywhere, there are socially-learned “display rules” about what emotions we can show and what we should hide. Display rules are learned in childhood and vary from culture to culture. Moral values are built in, but perhaps as children we learn which ones are important and which ones aren’t.

This idea is supported by the findings of cognitive scientist George Lakoff. He also wanted to explain the different world views of liberals and conservatives. He realised that as a liberal, he couldn’t understand the arguments of conservatives. Why did people at conservative political rallies cheer after particular lines in speeches? And why did they support clusters of apparently unrelated ideas — why were these people against gun control but for tort reform? He just didn’t get it. He found this particularly embarrassing because as a linguist and a cognitive scientist it was his job to understand that kind of thing.

Lakoff eventually came up with an explanation. His theory is that we learn to express moral values differently based on our early experience in our families. According to Lakoff, our adult views on government and how we should organise our whole society are forged by the experience of “governance” that we see in our childhood families. Lakoff describes two contrasting models of American family life: the conservative “strict father” model and the liberal “nurturing parent” model. This is how he caricatured the “strict father” model in a talk at Berkeley:

“The idea is this. You need a strict father in a family, assuming that there’s also a mother, for certain reasons: namely, there’s evil out there in the world and he’s got to protect the family from evil and mommy isn’t strong enough to do it. There’s competition in the world; he has to win those competitions, to support the family. Mommy can’t do that. And, kids are born bad. They’re born bad in the sense that they just do what they want to do — they don’t know right from wrong. They have to be taught right from wrong, and the assumption is, there’s only one way to teach them: punishment, when they do wrong. So if they’re punished when they do wrong, they will try to avoid the punishment, but because of that the punishment must be painful. The punishment must be painful enough that the kids will try to avoid doing wrong and do right, and that’s the only way people will ever become moral.” note 20

You can see that Lakoff himself doesn’t think much of this way of raising children. But it’s undeniable that this way has been very popular throughout history, and is still very popular amongst the right-wing Christian fundamentalist part of American society. Today, an influential organisation called “Focus on the Family” promotes discipline by corporal punishment as a key practice in child rearing. The idea is that through discipline enforced by physical punishment, children will learn “right from wrong” and will grow into adults with self-discipline — self-reliant and successful. Lakoff rather pointedly explains the further assumption of this model that those people who are not able to be self-reliant — the poor — therefore have only themselves, or their parents, to blame. Their failure is explained by their lack of self-discipline. Success is regarded as the reward for being moral; failure is the punishment.

Lakoff describes his alternative “nurturing parent” model more sympathetically:

“You have two parents who are equally responsible. Their job is to nurture their children, and to raise their children to nurture others. (The second part’s very important.) What is nurturing? Two things: empathy and responsibility — for others and for themselves. For empathy, you have to know what all those cries mean. When your kid cries, you have to be able to tell what your kid needs. You have to be able to have a connection to your kids, so they can talk to you, tell you what’s wrong. In addition to that, you have responsibilities. You have to take care of yourself — you can’t take care of someone else if you’re not taking care of yourself. But, you also have responsibilities to others. And you raise your children to both care about other people, be empathetic, and be responsible for themselves and responsible for others.”

From these descriptions, it seems obvious that the “nurturing” liberal parents are emphasising what we have been calling fairness/reciprocity and harm/care while down-playing the other moral values. In contrast, the “strict” conservative parents don’t seem to be emphasising any particular moral value, except perhaps authority/respect. (Remember that corporal punishment generates fear, which I suggested was the emotion behind authority/respect.) So Lakoff’s ideas mesh very well with Haidt’s findings. Of course, these are very broad-brush models, and many questions remain. Two questions that immediately strike me are firstly, how much are these models really used nowadays in the USA? And secondly, is one model really any better than the other?

Lakoff points out that Americans live in a culture where everyone knows both of the models. People apply one model in some parts of their lives and the other model in other parts of their lives. For example, a nurturing liberal father might go out sailing with his family, and in that setting turn into an authoritarian martinet. The sea is dangerous, with injury and death always only moments away. To be safe, the crew of a boat have to obey orders immediately and without question. They have to trust the captain to look out for them, to keep the boat and crew safe. But back on shore, things can be quite different.

So people can and do use both models to some extent, depending on the particular group and the situation. But people have a preference, reflected in their political preference, and presumably learned in early childhood along with the “display rules” for expressing emotions. When we look at Americans and their political preferences, when exactly was that childhood? Most politicians are quite mature, maybe in their fifties or older. Older citizens certainly form the most active part of the electorate. When these people were being raised, in the 1960s or earlier, both of Lakoff’s models were accurate descriptions of family life. Two parents, a mother and a father. The mother stayed at home and cared for the children. The father went out to a job and brought home a wage. Whether the model was “strict father” or “nurturing parents” it really was like that then. But it isn’t like that now.

In the USA today, it is nearly impossible to maintain a middle-class lifestyle without two incomes. Both parents must go out to work. A mother today with a 6 month old child is more likely to go out to work than a mother with a 16 year old child was in the 1970s. So for modern children, a large part of their early care is in the hands of other people, usually groups of women. Add to this the fact that a large fraction of marriages end in divorce. Add also the fact that women of all but the upper classes are enthusiastically abandoning marriage, and unmarried couples split up even more frequently than married couples. Many, perhaps most, children are being raised by an assortment of women with only minimal input from their fathers. note 21

Despite the popularity of organisations like “Focus on the Family,” which encourage the “strict father” model, I find it hard to believe that this model is really being applied to modern children as often as it was 50 years ago. Is it even possible to live out the “strict father” model when the father is absent? note 22

It appears to me that, placed in the hands of a sequence of women carers, today’s infants are more likely to see something like the “nurturing parents” model than the “strict father” model, but I fear that many children will see neither. In the past, children mostly had one closest carer in their early childhood. For most children this was their mother or maybe their grandmother; for the upper classes a long-term nanny. Nowadays it often isn’t any one person at all, but rather a series of day-care workers, too busy to give each child very much time or attention. What moral priorities are being learned here? What exactly is the new model of family life? This unusual experiment may, in fifty years time, have the effect of changing the political landscape of the USA. But should we worry? After all, is any model of family life fundamentally better than the others?

To explore that question further, we need to look more closely at a particular small fraction of the population. Yes, almost everyone has the emotions that I have described, almost everyone has the moral values. Recent research has shown that even infant children do have a moral sense, and can express it. For the most part, children do “know right from wrong,” and the models of family life merely set priorities, they do not install moral values from nothing. Almost everyone has built-in morals. But not absolutely everyone. We need to look more closely at psychopaths. note 23


There are two small groups of people who are different emotionally from the rest of the population. Each group consists of around 1 in 100 people. If you don’t know the difference, you could easily be confused between them, because they have a superficial similarity: they can both appear to lack sympathy for other people. But they are fundamentally very different and you need to understand the difference. This is important because one group is mostly harmless, but the other is very dangerous. Before we look at the psychopaths, let’s take a brief detour and look at the mostly harmless group: people with autism or Asperger’s syndrome.

True autism is a disability, suffered by about 1 in 1000 people, but Asperger’s is much more widespread and not so much a disability as a difference. Autistic spectrum people find socialising difficult, because they find the rules of social behaviour hard to understand. Experiments with brain-scanners have shown that they don’t use the usual parts of their brains to recognise expressions. This explains a large part of their difficulty with other people: their adaptive unconscious doesn’t recognise other people’s emotions. Although they have emotions themselves they don’t intuitively recognise the emotions of others. From their point of view, it’s as though ordinary people are mildly telepathic and can effortlessly read each other’s minds, but they can’t. note 24

So, people with Asperger’s find it hard to make small talk and can be rude without intending it. They have unusually strong, narrow interests and they can focus on these interests for very long periods. They like systems and rules. They are happy to tell you about their interests ad nauseam, and don’t notice the look of boredom and irritation on your face. They are apt to take things literally, rather than getting an intended metaphor. They like to do things in a repetitive, inflexible way. They find it hard to make friends.

When you look at an Asperger’s child you might notice that they have poor coordination, find it difficult to see where other people are pointing, or are prone to frustration and angry outbursts. (The number-one diagnostic check for Asperger’s children is: do they ever point at things?) Many more boys than girls are diagnosed with Asperger’s, but in part this is because the girls tend to show different symptoms: autistic spectrum girls, obsessed with systems and rules, tend to find rules governing food particularly attractive, and so they often suffer from anorexia. (And this is particularly difficult for them to get out of because starvation physically changes the brain — it makes people prone to focus on only one thing at a time and also reduces their ability to unconsciously read other people’s minds.)

Clinical psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen thinks that around 1 in 300 people might be formally diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but there are many more who have some of the traits. (Like me.) He suggests that people from this autistic spectrum may have a form of “extreme male brain,” since men in general are less empathic than women. Although there’s a lot of overlap between the sexes, men are mostly better with activities that involve systems and rules; women are mostly better at reading other people’s minds. Men can do it, they are just not so good. Autistic spectrum people are really bad at it. To get along socially they have to learn how to consciously read other people’s expressions. This is hard work but better than being completely mystified in social situations. It should be no surprise that they are attracted to careers in maths, computing and engineering where interacting with people is less important.


So, although autistic spectrum people can come across as unsympathetic, they are emotionally just like regular people, which makes them mostly harmless. Psychopaths, on the other hand, can be poisonously dangerous. Their brains are also different from those of regular people, but this time the difference is that they don’t seem to feel emotions. This is almost impossible to imagine, but it’s been demonstrated to be true in experiment after experiment. Regular people have measurable physical reactions when presented with emotionally charged images and words. Psychopaths don’t. Regular people anticipating a mild painful electric shock sweat more in anticipation. Psychopaths don’t. A psychopathic rapist explained his puzzlement about his victims: “They are frightened, right? But, you see, I don’t really understand it. I’ve been frightened myself, and it wasn’t unpleasant.” note 25

The term “psychopath” was coined at the end of the nineteenth century. (Up until then, the condition had gone under other names, such as “moral insanity.”) Although the term caught on, and was joined by the synonym “sociopath” in the 1930s, it wasn’t until psychologist Robert Hare created a diagnostic check-list in the 1980s that it took on an objective meaning. Hare’s PCL-R check-list is still used in research, clinical diagnosis and prison parole decisions. A person’s PCL-R score is based on interviews with psychologists, backed-up by documentary evidence. (The main fact to remember about psychopaths is that they are compulsive and talented liars, so you shouldn’t believe anything they say unless you can verify it.) The maximum PCL-R score is 40 and a normal person scores around 5. A score of more than 30 earns a clinical diagnosis of psychopathy. Hare found that in the USA, about 1 in 5 prison inmates were clinical psychopaths, and that these were precisely the people most likely to re-offend when released — they caused over half of the violent crime. A study in 2000 found that the average PCL-R score for male prisoners in the USA was over 23.

But, as with autism, there’s a spectrum. Hare suggests that there is a huge population of “subclinical” psychopaths outside prison, around 1 in 100 of the general population. These “successful psychopaths” are con-men, unscrupulous business men, white-collar criminals and so on. They will never be violent criminals, but they can still be dangerous. They can read other people’s emotions perfectly well, even though their own are flat-line. They have no anxiety, so they are smooth and believable liars. When they are caught out in a lie they have no embarrassment, and can pick up again without losing a beat. If you wired them up to a “lie detector” they would pass, because a “lie detector” doesn’t actually detect lies, it detects stress, and they are perfectly relaxed when they lie. Although they are unemotional, they can be talented actors and they do still have other physical urges, for example for sex. They are often thrill-seeking, with a pathological desire to win and an inclination to hurt people.

How can you spot them? It can be difficult. Very difficult. Perhaps their cold “goats” eyes might give them away, with their piercing stare, or (despite their glib, confident “gift of the gab”) their careless use of language — confusing similar words, ploughing past inconsistencies. Maybe they need more “beats” of hand movement while talking about emotions, because that’s like a foreign language to them. Perhaps if you are very empathic, or have learned what to look for, you might notice the wrongness of their micro-expressions even as they smile and reassure you. Or maybe not. Hare describes how he and all his fellow researchers get taken in from time to time, despite their years of experience.

However, with that huge disclaimer, here are some key indicators, taken from Hare’s books. Psychopaths tend to be: note 26

It’s a also bad sign if they are unable to:

“Successful psychopaths,” the ones who don’t end up in prison, will not show all these indicators. In particular they may not seem irresponsible, impulsive or negligent. They may in fact appear competent and disciplined, striving for success. “Winning,” however they define it, is their key aim. They can seem to quickly change their feelings about people, but this is because they never really had those feelings to start with, just strategies for getting what they wanted.

Psychopaths also tend to treat you differently depending the role you play in their schemes. They see some people as pawns to be manipulated, others as patrons to be flattered. Some are patsies to be exploited, others are regarded as “police,” to be guarded against. Your view of a psychopath can be very different from someone else’s: you might see them as an unreliable colleague, while your boss might see them as a trusted worker. You might be able to work out the truth by taking views from different places in a hierarchy, but it might be hard to convince anyone else.

How significant is the impact of psychopaths? Only a professional could offer a diagnosis of psychopathy, and when we look at stories from history we are not likely to have the benefit of such a professional opinion. Probably the best we can do is to keep our checklist at hand when we read stories from history and try to make our own minds up. For example, here’s a recent story from journalists John Goetz and Bob Drogin about an Iraqi code-named “Curveball.” See what you think. note 27

Rafid Ahmed Alwan arrived in Germany in late 1999. He applied for political asylum at Zirndorf, a refugee camp near Nuremberg. The BND, Germany’s intelligence service, learnt that he had helped to run a secret Iraqi biological weapons programme. Over the course of the next 18 months Alwan provided sketches and details of the mobile germ labs that he had built to grow anthrax and other bio-weapons. A BND officer noted that “He was understated. He was the opposite of a braggart, and that was impressive.” In the USA, the CIA embraced the revelations of this defector whom they codenamed “Curveball,” and in his 2003 State of the Union speech, President Bush declared that he was certain that Iraq had mobile germ factories. Colin Powell showed diagrams based on Alwan’s eyewitness sketches to the UN Security Council when he made his case for the war on Iraq. note 28

In 2004, a year after the invasion of Iraq, the CIA concluded that Iraq had abandoned its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs after the 1991 Gulf War. The CIA declared that Alwan was a liar. The mobile germ factories had never existed. What happened?

Alwan had studied chemical engineering at university in Baghdad. He graduated in 1990 with a poor grade — his best subject was the “culture and history of Iraq”— but in 1994 he got a job as site engineer at Djerf Nudaf, a warehouse complex 10 miles from Baghdad. His boss, Hilal Freah, was a friend of Alwan’s mother. Freah later recounted how “Rafid told five or 10 stories every day. I’d ask ‘Where have you been?’ And he’d say ‘I had a problem with my car.’ Or: ‘My family was sick’ But I knew he was lying.” Freah said he had a gift for it, and was unembarrassed when caught in a lie. Freah sacked him in 1995 for stealing.

Despite this, Freah and two friends then joined Alwan in a business to sell locally made shampoo. Alwan overcharged his partners for the shampoo bottles and the business collapsed. Alwan’s mother paid her son’s debts. Alwan next moved into cosmetics, but this business failed amidst allegations that he had cheated his suppliers. Finally he worked as a technician at Babel, a film and TV company in Baghdad. Alwan fled the country in August 1998, just ahead of an arrest warrant which accused him of stealing camera lenses and selling them on the black market.

And so, he eventually came to be in Germany, a “refugee.” While he was telling lies to the BND, he divorced the wife he had left behind in Iraq and married a Moroccan woman. He got a job at a local Burger King, where he told his co-workers that he worked for Iraqi intelligence. Alwan told the BND that he had worked for Freah until shortly before he fled in 1998, and that some of the sheds on the warehouse site were used for bio-weapons production. Western intelligence agents checked out the story in 2002, before the war. Locals denied the allegations. They said those sheds were used for fumigating agricultural seeds to prevent mould. The agents found Alwan’s version more believable. Journalists Goetz and Drogin wrote in 2008 that Alwan’s “reputation as a disinformation agent remains intact.” What do you think?


So, after that long detour, let’s come back to the question that I left hanging earlier in this chapter: is one model of family life better than the others? Despite being more inclined to the “nurturing parents” model myself, I thought for a long time that the “strict father” model might be better at preventing children with psychopathic tendencies growing up to be serial-killers. If so, it would be the best default model for society to apply, more reliable. But now I’m not so sure.

It’s certainly the case that attempting to nurture adult psychopaths has no effect. For liberals, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, but unfortunately there are some people who simply cannot be redeemed. The “strict father” model acknowledges that “there is evil in the world.” For children who genuinely “don’t know right from wrong” it seems plausible that the “strict father” model could instill in them the habit of following society’s rules even without moral feelings to guide them. Maybe it might work to teach them right from wrong by punishing them when they do wrong.

That seems plausible, but now — because of the work and example of neuroscientist James Fallon — I’m not so sure. Maybe the “nurturing parents” model is best after all. Maybe it depends exactly what we mean by “nurturing.” What exactly makes a psychopath in the first place? Are they always bad from birth? And if not, what makes the difference? Fallon’s research is finally throwing some light on those questions. note 29

Studying the genetics, brain-scans and case histories of psychopaths, Fallon discovered three separate ingredients which must be present for someone to end up as a full-blown psychopath. First, they must have enough genetic traits which predispose them to violence, aggression and risk-taking. We now know of over a dozen of these traits and to be a psychopath an individual would need to have many if not all of these traits.

Second, an individual must have a loss of brain function in the orbital cortex, just above the eyes. This is the area of the brain which is responsible for decisions which we would call “conscience” or “impulse control.” This brain damage might be caused before or after birth, and it might be caused by developmental problems due to genetics, or by their environment. Comparing the brain-scans of serial-killers to those of normal people, Fallon found that the psychopaths had a wide variety of brain damage, but invariably they all had a loss of function in this key area.

The third necessary ingredient is childhood abuse — being involved in some extreme violence at an early age. This might be sexual abuse, it might be family violence, it might be a war rolling through a previously idyllic childhood. But it has to be really traumatic, “not a little stress,” says Fallon, “like being spanked or something.” Exactly when in childhood the violence happens seems to influence what kind of adult psychopath the child grows into.

But what makes James Fallon uniquely informative is that he himself has the first two ingredients. And yet he is not — quite — a psychopath. As he rather poignantly says in an interview:

“I’m right at the edge! But I’m not there — I’ve never been a criminal, never been in jail, and I’m generally considered a nice guy. But there are some deep flaws and I have a lot of flat affect. I don’t really care about people, frankly, especially if they are close to me. I care about people generally, society in general, but you don’t want to be married to me or be my mother. I’m kind of a disappointing person to be close to.”

Fallon’s path to self-discovery started when he had his own brain scanned as part of an unrelated experiment and was surprised to find that his scan was identical to the serial-killers. “What was disturbing,” says Fallon, “was no activity in those areas of the brain that process pleasure, ethics, morality, social interactions — there was nothing there.” But, as Fallon points out, a brain-scan can’t tell you that someone is certainly a psychopath. It can tell you that it’s consistent with being a psychopath, but it’s also consistent with being a hyper-maniac or bon-vivant. “And I’m certainly that,” says Fallon.

As part of a different experiment, Fallon also had his genes checked for a range of genetic traits, and to his surprise discovered that he had all 15 of the known genes for behavioural problems. The geneticists said that they had never seen so many high-risk genes in one person. Around the same time, Fallon also discovered an unusually large number of murderers amongst his ancestors: not only was he related to axe-murderer Lizzie Borden, but on his father’s side there were eight other known murderers, going back to the first recorded killing of a mother by her son in the American colonies. Which makes us all want to ask the question posed by an interviewer: “How come you are not in prison yourself?”

Fallon previously thought that genetics would mostly determine behaviour, but in his case it obviously hadn’t worked out that way. He describes how he had a very nurturing, positive childhood, where he was “really taken care of and loved a lot.” He says that “all this love and protection and nurturing must have somehow offset those genes.” We know that abuse can crystallise incipient psychopathy, and maybe Fallon is right that the reverse is also true: that a loving, nurturing childhood could be protective. (Of course, there’s no reason to suppose that it would always make a difference.)

So, as far as achieving the best outcome for incipient psychopaths, which is better: the “strict father” model or the “nurturing parents” model? One example, even an extraordinary example like Fallon, is not enough evidence to settle the matter either way, but it is enough to make me doubt that the “strict father” model has more going for it. Provided that children are protected from abuse and violence, maybe it doesn’t matter whether the model is “strict father” or “nurturing parents.”

However, what about the new “day-care” model which many parents are forced to apply these days? I’m less optimistic that this will work out well in the end. There just isn’t enough love and attention to go around. Will the potential psychopaths amongst these children be able to reflect in later life that they were “really taken care of and loved a lot”? Or will they be in prison?


Once adults are psychopaths there is no evidence that they will ever “get better,” and nurturing them with that hope appears to be a waste of time, even counter-productive. Modern treatment programs for psychopaths in prison apply something like the “strict father” model, reminding prisoners that they are being punished for their own actions, and if they don’t want to go back to jail they will have to act differently in future. It seems to work, to change their behaviour, at least to some extent. If psychopaths make it into their 40s without turning into serial-killers, the danger seems to recede. They may be unpleasant in various ways, but they can also be productive and not generally dangerous.

But outside of prison treatment programmes, the “nurturing parent” model may ultimately be a stronger and more effective defence for the rest of society, if it leads people to resist the psychopaths who inevitably make it into positions of power. Psychopaths have many of the qualities valued in a leader. They are confident, full of themselves, dominant and assertive. Although psychopaths can’t easily form a team, they can easily manipulate people into following them. In the face of crisis they are always calm. To be promoted, often all you need is to look busy and to have good hair and teeth. Psychopaths are masters at claiming success for themselves while dumping the blame for failure on others. So of course they will win their way to the higher reaches of companies and government. Winning is what they live for. Although the figure of 1 in 10 is disputed, there seems to be broad agreement amongst psychologists that psychopaths are over-represented in the upper ranks of corporations and government. This is not good news.

When the authority figure in a “strict father” government is a psychopath, it starts to look an awful lot like Stalinist Russia. (Don’t be fooled into thinking the USSR was a “nurturing parent” country just because it called itself “Communist.”) The “strict father” model relies ultimately on the father figure being trustworthy, and if he isn’t there is no other defence. The model just implodes. On the domestic level we are left with a superficially respectable family where the husband beats his wife and abuses their children, propagating this pattern into the next generation. On the level of government we are left with corrupt communism and crony capitalism. At least in the “nurturing parent” model, everyone sees it as their duty to look out for other people, to see that justice is done, to resist the tyrant, even at great personal cost. There’s a time to follow and a time to strike. You don’t have a duty to support a tyrant who abuses your trust, you have a duty to foment rebellion.

The most important thing is to judge people on what they actually do. Not what they say, not what they promise. What they do. We need to see the truth and act on it. Which brings us to the subject of the next chapter: truth.


< Chapter 1. Body Contents Chapter 3. Truth >


Version: DRAFT Beta 3. Copyright © Stuart Wray, 29 December 2011.