Kevin Dutton’s “The Wisdom of Psychopaths” is a strange, ultimately disconcerting book. Dutton is erudite and obviously fascinated with his subject—psychopaths. He references some cutting edge research and had access to many heavy hitters in the field of psychopathy experts.
Yet in the end, I find his book very troubling. His thesis is basically what the book’s subversive title suggests—that psychopaths have qualities of “wisdom.” That is, psychopaths, he asserts, have certain admirable, enviable and distinguishing qualities in greater volumes than non-psychopaths, qualities the non-psychopath could benefit from in greater quantity so long as (unlike psychopaths) the non-psychopath can regulate and express these “psychopathic qualities” appropriately, in the appropriate contexts.
Dutton seems to be suggesting that psychopaths (or many of them) are, by virtue of possessing these “psychopathic qualities,” in some respects advanced in their psychological, temperamental and even spiritual evolution. Audaciously, he draws analogies between psychopaths and the most evolved monks and Buddhist masters.
Dutton finally specifies what he regards as enviable, advantageous psychopathic qualities, the only caveat being that they should be expressed in good, balanced measure. They are ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness, and the propensity to action/decisiveness.
When he describes psychopaths as being endowed with high levels of “mindfulness,” he is referring to what he alleges is their capacity to be present in the moment of whatever they are endeavoring. He asserts that psychopaths possess a distinct capacity to tune-out all sorts of inconvenient distractions such as depression, anxiety, fear, guilt, and anticipated remorse to achieve their ends with unique focus.
Even if this is the case, what Dutton fails spectacularly to appreciate, it seems to me, is the extent to which psychopaths deploy this alleged quality, and several of the other qualities he gushes over, in the service of exploiting, not enhancing, others. This is what, in essence, makes them psychopathic.
The psychopath is, at bottom, an exploitive, transgressive personality, a remorseless violator of others’ rights, boundaries and dignity. If you are not this, then you are not a psychopath.
But Dutton seems to be arguing that the key to being optimally adapted to our world is to master the capacity to be what he calls a “method psychopath,” meaning to develop and channel all the psychopathic qualities necessary to succeed in the particular contexts requiring them.
He then confuses, continually, the examples he gives of “method psychopaths” by basically referring to them as “psychopaths.” But they are not necessarily psychopaths at all—many of the men he describes may merely be endowed with certain of the “psychopathic qualities” he outlines, and deploy them in the service of performing jobs that require, for instance, fearlessness (or the successful suppression of fear), perhaps ruthlessness, certainly unblinking, sustained concentration under duress, and possibly a suspension of guilt.
He may be right that psychopaths are better suited for these jobs than non-psychopaths, but this doesn’t implicate all those who do these jobs well or even brilliantly as psychopaths. Yet this implication permeates the book, corrupting its discourse.
Dutton describes a brain surgeon who describes his work with chilling detachment and compartmentalization; thereby, on this apparent basis alone, he dubs him a psychopath. He describes men in the British Special Forces who undertake daring, violent work from which most of us would cringe or break, yet these men embrace their work with a rare coolness, and, apparently by virtue of their capacity to handle the intense risks and stresses involved in their missions without reflecting signs of disabling anxiety, agitation or guilt, Dutton regards them as “functional” or “method” psychopaths.
But a glaring question is left unexamined: Are these same men, in their personal lives, the cold, calculating clinicians, surgeons, rescuers or assassins that their jobs require them to be? (And incidentally, none of them are committing crimes: the surgeon is saving lives as, arguably, are the warriors he profusely admires.)
If the answer to the above question is “no,” as may be the case, then these men are not psychopaths. They are non-psychopaths with nerves of steel. But this basic question isn’t even addressed, superficially.
Dutton references research suggesting that psychopaths might be more likely to act heroically than non-psychopaths in certain dangerous situations. But even if this is the case, so what? So what if, in the event your house is burning down and there are two individuals on the street watching, the psychopath might be more inclined to run in and pull you out of the inferno than the non-psychopath? That may be true, and we can imagine reasons this might be the case.
But again, he’s not a psychopath unless he’s exploiting others audaciously and shamelessly in his life. Otherwise, he’s just a hero with nerves of steel. And if he is a psychopath, then his fearlessness, or lust for risk, in instances like these, confers a small benefit to humanity, which we will take without undo gratefulness given the incalculable suffering he imposes on humanity in the greater arena of life.
Dutton cites research suggesting psychopaths can feel empathy, maybe even more empathy than non-psychopaths. But the very concept of empathy is confusing and, to my mind, muddles the issue of psychopathy. What psychopaths really lack is “compassion” for their victims. Forget about empathy and how we define it. They lack compassion–real, true compassion. Compassion should be the benchmark measure here, not empathy. (My next article on Lovefraud will address “compassion” as the far more telling, missing deficit in sociopaths than “empathy.”)
And “victim” needs to be stressed in a book where it is woefully, incredibly under-stressed in Dutton’s need to virtually idealize psychopaths. Psychopath=Victims (that is my formula!). Psychopaths victimize people unconscionably. Psychopaths are victimizing, exploitive personalities. If you are dealing with an individual who is not remorselessly exploitive, you are not dealing with a true psychopath (or sociopath).
And Dutton pays scant attention to qualities like emotional shallowness and deep loyalty. The psychopath is a disturbingly shallow, disloyal individual. This surely doesn’t equate with spiritual advancement, yet Dutton absurdly seeks to find commonalities between Tibetan monks and psychopaths. He aims to recast psychopaths as misunderstood rebels, perhaps overly adapted to the exigencies of modern society.
Dutton writes, “…the problem with psychopaths isn’t that they’re too chock-full of evil. Ironically, it’s precisely the opposite: they have too much of a good thing…The car is to die for. It’s just too fast for the road.” (p. 186).
This gives you the flavor of the need Dutton has throughout his book to reframe psychopathy as a virtually enviable condition that is “too much of a good thing.” The chasmic inattention given, as noted above, to the immeasurable suffering psychopaths inflict on their victims is itself almost glib and callous.
One senses that Dutton is just a bit too enamored of the psychopath and too desperate to rehabilitate the psychopath’s well-earned reputation as an exploitative, emotional cipher to do real justice to his subject.
Which is to say that psychopaths, in the end, really have no wisdom to impart to us. As entertaining as his book is, neither, I’m afraid, does Dutton.