Can sociopath be cruel?

We are not cats

Can a sociopath be cruel? The thought arises reading John Gray on cats. Much of the book is illuminating, if familiar. But there is one passage that brought me up short. Gray argues that cats are not cruel because they completely lack empathy for their prey:

“As predators, a a highly developed sense of empathy would be dysfunctional for cars. That is why they lack this capacity. It is also why the popular belief that cats are cruel is mistaken. Cruelty is empathy in a negative form. Unless you feel for others, you cannot take pleasure in their pain. Humans displayed this negative empathy when they tortured cats in medieval times. In contrast, when cats toy with a captured mouse they are not revelling in its torment. Teasing their prey expresses their nature as hunters. Rather than torturing creatures in their power – a singularly human predilection – they are playing with them.”

Gray seems to argue that cruelty is the deliberate relish of another’s pain. It is a property of the actor, not the sufferer. So: cancer tortures people, one can say, but that does not make cancer a torturer, nor cancer cruel. There is nothing in the disease to which one can ascribe a moral nature. To call someone cruel is to make a moral judgment, or at least one which presupposes that they had a choice to act otherwise.

Thus far I think it is a valid distinction, if not a particularly useful one. The personification of natural evil may make it easier for us to marshal resources to fight it it, whether or not it is mistaken. It is perfectly true that cancer doesn’t give a shit about your suffering, but if we are raising funds for cancer research, the language of righteous struggle against evil will probably raise more than the praise of pure research.

But to say that cats cannot be cruel because they lack empathy for their prey seems to me wrong both empirically and analytically.

Empirically, it’s just not true that empathy is dangerous in a predator. On the contrary, the ability to think yourself into the mind of your prey is crucial to success. This applies even when the prey has minds as small as fish. I know as a moderately successful fisherman that the question to ask of any piece of water is “Where would I be if I were a fish and what would I be doing?” and this is much better answered on an unconscious level. [in fact, there is a second-order version of this question, posed by Conrad Voss Bark: “Where would the current take me if I were something a fish could eat?”]

This kind of empathy becomes correspondingly more useful when we are dealing with land animals, which have much greater freedom of behaviour. The more they are capable of responding to the threat of predation, the more important it becomes to the predator to understand the world from their point of view. Those humans are the best hunters who can get closest to animals in their thinking.

There is a distinction here between empathy and sympathy. One is consciousness of another’s distress and close attention to it; the other adds to this awareness the sympathetic quality of sharing it as if it were our own. Gray, if I read him right, does not make this distinction.

“Cruelty is empathy in a negative form”, he writes, and I would rephrase that as “Cruelty is sympathy in a negative form.” In this view, Cruelty is a moral deficit: only creatures who are capable of sympathy can be cruel.

But if cats are not cruel in this sense, neither are many humans. Slave owners do not always derive pleasure from the sufferings of their slaves. They are just rather puzzled by the fuss they make. There is a wonderful passage in one of Gregor von Rezzori’s books (The Death of my Brother Abel, I believe) where guests at a Prussian manor house in 1943 observe with interest and a certain disgust the Russian prisoners of war who are eating grass from the fields because they are being starved to death.

Yet if they were employing them as forced labour, they would take an entirely unsympathetic (they would say “unsentimental”) interest in the state of their slaves’ nutrition and so of their capacity for work.

Quite a number of medical experiments (Tuskegee comes to mind, as well as the experiments in concentration camps) were conducted with this kind of interest combined with an absolute lack of compassion towards the suffering of the subjects. Were they not cruel? Or were the experiments cruel but not the experimenters?

This point holds even more strongly for animal research. Gray is outraged by the cruelties that have been practised on cats for pleasure; but from the point of view of the kitten who has its eyes sewn shut so that vision may be studied in a laboratory, what’s done is just as cruel.

A sociopath, in this scheme, is someone who lacks all sympathy but has plenty of empathy. The example becomes most obvious when we consider those sociopaths whose cruelties are directed at other people’s emotions, rather than their bodies. Martin Shkreli, John Le Carré’s father Ronnie Cornwell, perhaps Mark Zuckerberg, too are obvious examples of this kind of pathology. They understand their victims’ psychologies much better than most, much better, often, than the victims themselves. Yet they feel no compassion whatsoever for the suffering they inflict. They don’t even appear to derive pleasure from it, except in so far as it measures their progress towards other aims.

To this extent such people are indeed cat-like, rather like the elves in Terry Pratchett. But I would hesitate for a long time before acquitting them of a moral flaw because of this. In practice, Gray might, too. But I don’t see that he can do so in theory. Gray rejects explicitly any Aristotelian idea that there is a single proper way for a human being (or the member of any other species) to be. Instead, he sees the purpose of life as living as the best individual you can be. And if that is the case, then we cannot say that the sociopath is a deficient human being. Given the brain defects (or abnormalities) that they have, they can only be what they are. They cannot be condemned for their behaviour, or held to a higher standard. They just have to be the best sociopath they can.

It is wrong to inflict pain on others, and this wrong is distinct from the wrong of enjoying this infliction. Cats are not cruel because they lack empathy. They can’t be cruel because cruelty is something of which only humans are capable. Language and self-consciousness have cut us off absolutely from the animals; our urges may be the same, but the way we understand them, even the ability to understand them, places us in a different universe, one where morality is possible and so becomes obligatory. When we behave as cats do, we are cruel.