Evil, sociopathic and sociable

This is a response to Cat Faber’s song “Sociopaths,” on her new album The King’s Lute. I recommend the album, especially the title song, the very funny “All Your Songs Are Belong to Us” with Mary Crowell’s unmistakable touch on the piano, the 3-against-2 counterpoint of “Common Ground,” and the calm affirmation of “Atheist’s Anthem.”

It’s not that I dislike “Sociopaths,” but it’s an excellent springboard for discussion, and I hope there will be some. The song (which can be found in full in the PDF lead sheet songbook) begins:

Emotions are catching, I’m sad when you cry,
You’re cheered by the joy in a sparkling eye.
Sympathy sways us like music so clear,
That four in a hundred can’t hear.

So they no more can share in your pain or your glee
Than a deaf child can hear or a blind child can see.
Human their seeming, their speaking, their stride,
But they’re not really human inside.

The song goes on to compare such people to the Fae, the version of the “fair folk” who live by their glamour and have no sympathy for humans. There are certainly people who by the makeup of their brains are much less empathetic than most of us, perhaps not at all. But such people are nonetheless human and can’t be exempted from moral responsibility.

Conversely, destructive behavior isn’t proof of that condition any more than illiteracy is proof of a reading disorder. The last lines give these three signs of a sociopath: “Duty neglected, however it cries — Promises broken, and lies.” These, though, usually are just the signs of someone who’s trying to live by getting away with deception. It’s a learned approach to life, born of a desire for the unearned, emulation of bad examples, or refusal to acknowledge the consequences of one’s actions.

Few people are born as inhuman monsters. Many learn to ignore the reality of what they’re doing. Many populations in history, not just the “four in a hundred,” have learned to accept huge evils without blinking. Even if Hitler was a sociopath, he would have been just another beer hall bully without the support of millions of “normal” people. The contagious of emotions also applies to hostile ones, and if people follow them without thinking, they can become a destroying mob. When evil becomes socially acceptable, it may be the person who is less swayed by others’ emotions who recognizes what’s wrong.

The positive side of this is that people can make others better by the examples they set; doing good is also contagious. Every example of integrity and honesty can encourage the people who see it to do the same. When a bit of nonsense is repeated over and over, one person saying “no” to it can have an impact. If you assume that the people who do bad things are inherently not human, then there’s no redeeming them, but people always have a choice, even if it’s harder for some than for others to recognize what they’re doing.

5 Responses to “Evil, sociopathic and sociable”

  1. Cat Faber Says:

    I wrote this song about a book called _The Sociopath Next Door_. Neither the book nor the song was intended to suggest that only sociopaths do bad things. Rather the song was intended to reframe the argument in the book–that some small proportion of people do not feel sadness or remorse when they hurt even people they would ordinarily love, like their mother or their child. They have no internal desire to make other people feel good, or at least to refrain from making other people feel bad, so all kinds of actions are open to them that other people would never consider.
    Certainly ordinary people can do astonishingly bad things, either driven by fear or when persuaded to see their victims as somehow not human, or when carried away in the heady sense of being part of something larger than they are. Obviously just doing bad things does not make someone a sociopath.
    Whether experiencing empathy makes it more likely someone will be swept up in a social movement with bad consequences, I have no idea. While there is an emotional component to such movements, self-interest also plays a role, and someone who does not experience empathy would not be immune to self-interest. Furthermore often such movements involve blaming innocents for some bad condidition, and there’s nothing that says that empathy is necessary to hate, or to blame people for things that aren’t their fault. Rather the opposite, I should think.

    • Gary McGath Says:


      Thanks for your thoughtful response. My primary concern was with mass action, which can happen with good or bad consequences. When people are swept up by mass emotion, self-interest often disappears, replaced by a drive to achieve whatever the group or the leader wants.If empathy means sharing what another feels, then the driving force here is a sort of empathy, but not a kind and gentle sort.

      Identifying with one person or group can preclude sympathy for another. My thoughts keep coming back to the Milgram experiments. By encouraging the test subjects to identify with the experimenter, to share the (feigned) desire to carry out the experiment, the subjects were persuaded to discard all sympathy for the feigned victim.

      Blaming people for things that aren’t their fault is very often a rationalization more than a cause of irrational hostility. Some of the comments by test subject in Milgram’s Obedience to Authority illustrate this.

  2. Cat Faber Says:

    I am unaware of any work showing a general correlation between tendency to empathize and tendency to submit to authority, which is what Milgram was measuring. Do you have something in particular in mind?

    Sociopath as couragerous defier of commands to hurt others is not intuitively obvious to me, though if there is experimental evidence for it I am willing to consider the idea.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      I think I see what point we may have been talking past each other on. I think that the significant majority of people who act dishonestly and cruelly are not sociopaths, in the sense of being people who are incapable of normal emotional responses to people. I grant the possibility and even likelihood that such people exist, but I don’t know what reliable measurements have been done to measure their prevalence; not being a psychologist, I don’t even have a good sense of what kind of tests would be done. It strikes me as something harder to test people for than, say, a reading disability.
      The extent to which people take on the emotions of those around them is different in an important way from the extent to which they can sense and are affected by those emotions. A person for whom emotions are highly “contagious” would tend to respond to an angry mob (if that person doesn’t feel like the target of the anger) by joining in the anger. An independent but empathic person could be frightened by the anger, perhaps appreciating the source of the feeling or perhaps being horrified by it. A sociopath would presumably be indifferent to the anger as such, being concerned only with the actual danger posed or perhaps with the opportunity to manipulate the mob.

      While I don’t know of any studies to back it up, I’d expect a psychopath would accept authority when it was convenient, but would have no loyalty when it ceased to be useful or necessary.

  3. filkferengi Says:

    Thoughtful discussion!

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