WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: They walk among us, and we let them

Conscience is an internal moral compass, defining for us our sense of right and wrong. Hare is right that it is colored by emotion. Humans dichotomize good and bad in terms of attraction and revulsion. For some, right and wrong are gauged by gut feel. Some things feel right and some things just feel wrong. Intuiting the feel often goes before we put the logic or reason to the emotion, and that is if we ever take the time to find it.

Developmental psychologists suggest humans are not born with moral reasoning. Conscience is imbued in socialization. As the developing child is given instructions on what he is allowed to do and what he is not allowed to do, he internalizes these rules and begins to use them with increasingly accurate judgment to regulate his own behaviors. Experts look to the crucial factor of mother-child bonding in terms of the implications of its lack in putting the child at risk of developing psychopathy.

Hare says one percent of the population is psychopathic. Combat psychologist Dave Grossman implied that it could be higher at two percent, but maybe he was referring to a special population.

How many people do you get to be within reach everyday? Seriously. Try to count. Let's see, I live with five people, talk to four on my way to the street corner, wait with eight for public transport, ride with 12, walk in step with 15 to the gate, say hi to 12 more on the way to my office. That's just the first half-hour to my day.

One out of every hundred out there is potentially someone who could hurt you and watch you die without remorse. True psychopaths are indifferent to the suffering they cause others. They may even revel in it.

It's a point of confusion for me, however, whether what shows up as psychopathy – or sociopathy, as some experts call the condition – is in fact just a massive dose of selfish egocentrism that does not allow the person to see his actions from the perspective of others. For most of our young lives, we were egocentric. Some of us never outgrow it or feel the need to do so. Still, if it's merely a form of emotional retardation, perhaps something can be done to get the person past it enough to develop impulse control and empathy.

But my opinion seems to be in the minority in the light of popular expert advice on psychopathy. Conscience, according to Harvard professor Martha Stout, is something you have or don't have. In which case, if you don't have it, you'll never have it. The only way to get psychopaths to do the right thing is when they can see the right path working to their benefit. That means external controls have to be pretty tough to get them to toe the line, and what kind of society would be possible when people are incapable of exercising an internal locus of control?

We'll have a society where the life of a 9-year-old girl is sacrificed for front page material in the propaganda wars in ideology-backed armed conflict; where election riggers run for elective post; where people parade their selfish egocentrism – the evidence of their infidelity to their wives, their shameless looting of public funds, their barefaced lies and their abuse of authority – for the glorification of the lashcurler brigade in the media; where kids are hostaged by a grenade-wielding madman ostensibly for love and for his ardent desire to secure their future. We'll have a society where the parents would rather forgive the madman than bring him to account for threatening the lives of their children.

Hey. That doesn't sound hypothetical, does it? 

Oh, mother. Mother, come home.

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to [email protected] "Send at the risk of a reply," she says.)

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