Interview with a Sociopath
Venkatesh Rao writes at Ribbonfarm, and is the author of the book Tempo. He recently went on tour, and did me the honor of visiting me and my friends for an evening. He has a brilliant analysis of the hit TV show The Office, and despite classifying himself as a "sociopath", he's an excellent guest and conversationalist.
You call yourself a sociopath. What do you mean by that?
I've defined it a couple of different ways in my posts, but personally, I simply think of the idea as having a personal sense of morality. I take responsibility for the consequences of acting according to that morality, and don't attempt to justify it to others. There's a broader philosophy behind it that's basically Nietzschean in spirit.
So being a sociopath is like having an enhanced sense of personal responsibility. But when I think "sociopath", I think someone who's manipulative or conniving. Even in this "good sociopathy", is there an enhanced awareness of the effect you have on others? Is there a contemplation and calculation of things that are usually not polite to talk about?
It's a natural effect. When you make up your own morality, you often run up against the morality of others. To do what you think is right without getting into useless morality debates, you often need to behave in ways that may appear conniving and manipulative to others. As I said in one of the issues of my "Be Slightly Evil" list, taking what you consider to be the "straight" path often requires twisting and turning in the real world. Taking the straight-and-narrow path in the real world often means putting your mind through intellectual contortions to rationalize things with respect to your own beliefs.
And yes, there is a lot of contemplation and calculation of things that are not usually considered polite to talk about. Unless you are Genghis Khan and able to impose your morality on the world with a sword, navigating by a personal morality from an average-commoner position of power requires that you think carefully about how to use your limited leverage. Persuasion has no hope of winning against conventional, social moralities unless you want to be some sort of prophet and start a new religion.
You kind of handed that one to me. I wanted to ask you what you thought about Jesus as a sociopath. Obviously, Jesus practiced extreme altruism, but his recommendation about which seat to take in a public setting (take the lower one, so that someone will see how humble you are, and publicly bump you up to a nicer seat) really reminds me of some of the stuff I've been reading from you. Not in its selfishness, but in its incisive awareness of social games.
Do you think this characterizes all great people, good or bad?
Absolutely. I don't know the details of the Jesus story (and it is so long ago that I am guessing the details of his personality are mostly forgotten/poorly remembered), but I've read very similar descriptions of much more recent figures like Gandhi, about whom we have a lot more data. Such people often have the reputation of having done a great deal of good, and extraordinary kindness in their personal actions, but when it comes to pursuing their bigger agendas, they basically practice exactly the same Machiavellian behaviors as effective sociopaths.
That thing about kindness is hugely important though. I do not believe in the notion of being good. But I do believe in the notion of being kind. "Good" is an abstract idea within a moral framework. Some moral frameworks like my personal one lack a good/evil distinction entirely, since the knowledge/ignorance distinction takes its place. "Kind" though, is merely a visible characteristic of default behavior towards others when there are no larger considerations. Some people try very hard to be good, but are not kind at all. I detest such people. On the other hand, people who don't bother worrying at all about good and evil can still be very kind.
It is how you behave when there is no reason to adopt any behavior in particular, that marks you as a kind or unkind person. It can be hard to understand kindness in complicated situations. You may be forced to contemplate ethical conundrums like whether you should torture one person to save millions. But kindness is much simpler, and many people fail the basic kindness test. Their default mode of behavior is cruel.
I like the distinction between "good" as an abstraction (which might be used to label any kind of behavior), and kindness as a concrete thing. We need as much concrete reality as we can get.
But if you see morality as a completely relative thing (individual codes of conduct adopted by specific people), what is the purpose of having a moral code? Why not just do whatever you feel like at the moment? Why not just make decisions as you go?
Absolutely no purpose, and "take it as you go" is exactly the morality many people navigate by. Works for some people. It tends to be short-sighted thought, and if they are unlucky, they can do their one-step-at-a-time groping straight into a moral cul-de-sac where they have no way out.
Morality is actually just another kind of intelligence. As with other kinds, there are short-sighted and long-sighted ways to be moral. The latter tend to be harder to compute with, but pay off over time. Thinking a few moral steps ahead is of the same value as thinking a few moves ahead in chess.
With this kind of an individualized moral code, would there be a purpose for spreading your morals to others? Are you, for example, motivated to persuade other people to adopt your particular moral stance?
No. I merely operate by that morality. If people choose to try and reverse engineer the morality from visibly unique aspects of my behaviors and copy it, that's up to them. Chances are, the very process of reverse-engineering the morality of somebody who interests you will turn you into a personal moralist.
Of course, if your personal morality does not lead to any observable unique behaviors, then it's all angels on pinheads. It doesn't matter.
What is truth?
You don't ask for much, do you? I guess I have a pretty conservative atheist-scientific sensibility on this one and don't operate by any notion of "truth" that humanists or spiritual people would accept. I like John von Neumann's characterization of this the best, in the following quote, "The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construction which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work."
All my writing is basically model-building. Though in my blog and book I don't use mathematics, my approach is basically the same one I adopt for my mathematical modeling work.
To some, this is a very unsatisfying substitute for "truth" because humans seek "meaning" and obsess about the content of their subjective experiences, including mystical ones, which convince them that they've achieved direct experience of The Truth, capitaliized. But they don't ever stop to think hard about what "meaning" and "truth" mean, or take a skeptical look at their own subjective experiences. Such people typically view positions like von Neumann's as very narrowly procedural/bureaucratic/soulless and their own sense of capital T Truth as somehow beyond the purview of such model/falsifiability views of reality.That's a deep mistake because such critics typically haven't ever actually tried operating with a scientific sensibility or gotten around to understanding the deeper metaphysical foundations of this view. To give you a sense of the credibility of this viewpoint, von Neumann, among many other seminal contributions, was the guy who basically explained biological life, including self-reproduction, in mathematical terms. I'll leave your readers to ponder this link:
Anything else you'd like to add, or things you'd like people to know about?
I think I've said more than enough :)