Antisocial Character and Behavior: Threats and Solutions - William H. Reid


The costs of chronic and widespread psychopathic behavior are not some nonjudgmental natural phenomena in which the fittest survive. North America is not "nature red in tooth and claw," in which there is no right or wrong in being predator or prey in some oddly natural order of things. We control our social destiny as no animals and no other humans in history have done. We are rational people choosing to deny our own responsibility for personal and social well-being.

I dislike anthropological comments, now pop social science, that compare psychopaths to wolves and speak of some misinterpreted Darwinian survival of the fittest. Such academic wags are engaging in what seems to be the opposite of anthropomorphism. It is tempting to say that our masses have somehow become baitfish for the psychopathic shark, or sheep for the antisocial wolf, but this is not quite the case. In modern society, human predators are not acting out of some instinct, and their prey are not genetically predestined to become part of a figurative food chain. To say that most human predators are acting animalistically, out of some natural but hypertrophied survival or territorial imperative, is to give them more credit than they are due, and to deny them the responsibility that we are entitled to demand for their actions.

I agree that we can see remnants of our phylogeny in our brains and behaviors, but it is a mistake to search there for answers to behavioral questions. Sadistic, amoral, or intraspecies violence (not related to mating contests or, in a few species, competition for food) is not often found in nature. It has little evolutionary value. Thus predatory sexual violence, for example, cannot be correctly termed "animalistic," since no "animals" engage in it. Preying upon the elderly or disabled of one's own species, a hallmark of psychopathic opportunism, has almost no parallel in mammalian nature. Human psychopathy involves human experience and human choice.

If the human predators, psychopaths and others, are not to be seen as "animals," should they be seen as "only human," part of the "human condition"? And should they be treated according to the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"? Should our lofty principles and sense of ethics cause us to treat them with understanding and forgiveness alone? Of course not.


One of the biggest obstacles to finding answers to chronic antisocial behavior and violent crime, and at the same time one of the least appreciated, is our sense of fairness.

Law-abiding citizens are heavily invested in the premise that all people value the tenets of our Constitution. Many go further, and believe that a very liberal interpretation of the Constitution is important to protecting our republic and its representative democracy.

Chronic criminals and psychopaths do not value the same rules and tenets, except for themselves. Instead, they use them against us. Thus they take from us in a very serious way–by turning our deep convictions (and guilts about going against those convictions) to their own ends. We hobble ourselves, but not the crooks, with our rules. In this, one of the most dangerous games, the playing field is wildly tilted in favor of the opponent.

But isn't our sense of fairness in the face of adversity a mark of our civilization? Isn't this what separates us from the animals, and even from the very criminals we seek to control? Don't we need that sense of fairness to keep out society intact?

No. First, life is full of situations in which we need to do something distasteful, try to do it within our rules of law and ethics, and somehow accomplish the goal. Most of us agree that we need to slaughter animals from time to time. We do it as humanely as possible, but we get it done. And we do it in such a way that our needs for food, safety, efficiency, and profit are met. We also agree that some public health needs are important enough to require suspension of some rights of people who have not been convicted of any crime; this suspension is sometimes based merely on the possibility that they may become ill and represent a danger to others. We require that certain people with infections be reported, treated, and in some cases prevented from infecting others (via quarantine or even incarceration).

But we shrink from controlling the criminal or probably criminal, even when the danger is far more obvious. We are so bound by the tenets of fairness and basic equality upon which we have founded systems of Western law (and some, but not all, Western religion) that we steadfastly prevent ourselves from seeing some exceptions to those tenets. We recognize that there are exceptions–for children and a few other groups–but we fail to apply them to psychopaths and other chronically predatory people until the damage has been done.

Firm Action Need Not Threaten Our Democracy or Our Ethics

We wrestle endlessly with the question of who is the greater danger: those who would openly subvert society and overthrow it, or those who we fear would weaken it by suspending our rights, one by one in the name of protecting us from some internal threat. While we have been interminably discussing this weighty issue, the psychopaths, who don't trouble themselves with contemplation, have been gaining ground. It is not just a question of finding a solution that protects us from violence while guarding against the possibility that we will throw the Constitution out with the crooks. Our philosophical struggle with the issues has become truly obsessive. We are frustrated, but complacent. Reformers disagree, obstruct each other's actions, and accomplish virtually nothing in the way of real solutions. If this were an invasion, with clouds of war gathering on the horizon, would we be so complacent?

There is no "if". To fail to act is to make our world even smaller–to give up our streets, parks, stores, and schools to predators who neither believe in nor adhere to the rules we hold dear for ourselves. To fail to act is to continue to limit our freedoms at the hands of those who laugh at our naiveté. To fail to act may be to lose our democracy.

"They" Are Different from "Us"

I have no wish to dehumanize people when I say that those who purposely endanger others in our streets, parks, and schools, even our homes, are qualitatively different from us; the enemy is at our door. Most of our energy must be diverted to immediate defense, not merely to studying his motivations. There is no (reasonable) ethic which requires that we treat him as we treat other adults; indeed, to do so is foolish. If we treat him as if he were like us, we will continue to fail, and he will continue to take from us.

Antisocial Character and Behavior: Threats and Solutions, William H. Reid
Psychopathy: Antisocial, Criminal, and Violent Behavior, Theodore Millon PhD DSc, et al, 2003

William H Reid is a forensic psychiatrist and author of Unmasking the Psychopath: Antisocial Personality and Related Symptoms.
I recommend both books.

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