PSYCHOPATHY: A Morality Play-Part 2


Psychopathy is a mental disorder that carries with it a lot of baggage because it makes moral judgments about people based on their actions, is ignored as a diagnosis except in cases where the perpetrator comes to the attention of authorities, and because successful treatment does not exist outside of a correctional setting, although correction is not the result of treatment but by letting the environment break the person down, that is, if the “treatment” is to work at all.

DSM-5 says that, based on previous DSM criteria, 0.2% to 3.3% of the population has the disorder.  Especially now, it seems strange to think that this number is so low, given that fairness and honesty are given so little weight in people’s dealings with each other.  In a given day, we find a large number of our public figures being discovered to have bent and broken the rules, hurting others, perhaps hurting us, often without our knowing.  Then, of course, there is lying in the news, news which is supposed to be the bedrock of any democratic system.

Within the past few days, the Brian Williams story broke, in which he lied about being on a helicopter that was hit by a rocket. But, more importantly, there is the following Florida Appeals Court decision in a case in which a Fox affiliate presented disinformation as fact:


FOX asserted that there are no written rules against distorting news in the media. They argued that, under the First Amendment, broadcasters have the right to lie or deliberately distort news reports on public airwaves…

…In a stunningly narrow interpretation of FCC rules, the Florida Appeals Court claimed that the FCC policy against falsification of the news does not rise to the level of a "law, rule, or regulation," it was simply a "policy." Therefore, it is up to the station whether or not it wants to report honestly.

What makes this interpretation narrow is that it fails to recognize the effect that lying has on the people who rely on the information in making decisions. It recognizes the lie and the liar as on equal footing with those who feel a duty to be honest in their dealings with others. This makes lying a norm in both business and human interaction and as accepted as telling the truth. It is equally defensible in the media and in the legal arena, if you can get away with it; and the FOX affiliate did in this case AND thereafter. This leaves us with no standard of performance for news shows, except those that they choose to follow themselves; although in the Brian Williams case, the warning is, don’t make your lie too public if you are a news anchor and certainly don’t repeat it.  Otherwise, you still have deniability by just saying you made a mistake.  In my world, if you repeat the lie, this may indicate psychopathology.

As a tool to diagnose, DSM criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder include “a failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behavior”. Criteria also include deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying for personal profit or pleasure and a lack of remorse.  The FOX affiliate’s actions in this case were in the end made lawful through the Appellate decision.  It takes three of the criteria to diagnose.  The latter two of these three criteria (there are others) were met in the FOX case, lying and lack of remorse.  The first, that is lawfulness, is now covered by the affiliate’s successful appeal, that is, it is no longer unlawful to lie in the media or really to lie anywhere in any situation, including in instances where the recipient of the lie is making financial or other life decisions.  (Caveat emptor! Let the buyer beware! Preserve deniability and you have a defense.)  And this means that diagnostic criterion 2 no longer has any meaning in the eyes of the law or in a practical sense.

“Trust me. I’m a doctor,” is one example.  This car has only 20,000 miles on it and runs like a top. Or, the surgery is merely cosmetic, has a high likelihood of success, and is low risk.  If the salesman or the surgeon didn’t mean to lie, but made promises that were based on the best information available to him/her, is it still a lie? Or even still, wouldn’t it be wise for the one giving misinformation to avoid obtaining new information so that he/she can preserve deniability?  This might be a successful defense in a court of law.  Cross your fingers and it might work. Still, as a pattern of behavior, it may make sense for a mental health professional to diagnose Antisocial Personality Disorder. Unfortunately, you can’t really treat it.  It may no longer be prosecuted. And if the perp stumbles into the best of all possible outcomes, the behavior might be rewarded.

I offer you one case of villainy rewarded.  Here is a link to G.W. Pabst’s Three Penny Opera (1931), filmed undercover in Germany just before Hitler came to power.  See if you can find the criminals and the victims both within the film and in the making of the film itself at a time when Germany was shortly to be under a Nazi regime.

Consider how current behavioral norms and the diagnostic system might apply in that time and in that place.  If the murder of targeted people was not only made common practice, but was sanctioned, organized by the government, and made legal, where does this fit in the diagnostic scheme?  “Killing auslanders (outsiders)? I thought I might not like it, but found that I am not only good at it, but it’s fun.”  We created a treatment for that too in the World Court, unfortunately not in a mental hospital.