It has become increasingly obvious that morality is lacking at the heads of power in America and elsewhere. While unethical behavior has existed throughout history it perhaps has never been so rewarded as it has in recent decades, as individuals with low moral integrity, but with aggressive and charismatic personalities have climbed to the top in government, entertainment and big business. If we think of American government over the last couple hundred years, for example, we have seen the transition from leaders who were more concerned about serving the public than the power, money and influence that their positions would provide. In recent political elections, the outcome of elections seem to be more important for what they mean to the career of a particular candidate, rather that what he or she would do for the electorate.
Along the emotional spectrum from narcissism to sociopathy to psychopathy there is generally decreasing concern and empathy for others, remorse for wrongdoing combined with increasing aggressiveness, tendency to lie, deceive and use others to get what one desires. While the percentage of individuals labeled psychotic is relatively low (about 1%, but much higher among certain groups), a much large percentage of individuals have anti-social personalities or are low in empathy, which allows immoral tendencies to increase given the right circumstances. The result is a large percentage of people that are not good at recognizing immoral or corrupt behavior in others, or resisting it, especially when it is wrapped with power. We see this often as large segments of the population celebrate, support and excuse unethical or immoral behavior in the powerful, especially when it serves their self-interest.
According to PsychCentral, both sociopaths and psychopaths fall under the same diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. Rather than indicating an inability to get along with others (such people are often quite charming and charismatic), the antisocial aspect of such a personality more correctly indicates a decreased ability to empathize with others. For such an individual, others merely become obstacles to control to get what he or she desires. And because of their generally aggressive and uncaring nature, these people are often “successful” in careers such as business, finance, entertainment or politics. In these fields the qualities of psychopathy – including callousness, manipulative tendencies, lack of remorse or empathy, pathological lying, and with elevated levels of egotism – are often beneficial to career advancement. Psychopaths and sociopaths can be very charismatic con artists who are very successful at influencing those around them. And just because they have limited remorse or empathy for others doesn't mean they aren't good at pretending they do.
A study more than 20 years ago in Scotland looked at the psychopathic qualities of long-time offenders in a prison. Perhaps not surprisingly, the population had a higher than average tendency to be considered psychopathic (defined by 20 qualities such as callousness, pathological liar, user of others, “parasitic” lifestyle, shallowness, a socially deviant lifestyle). By these standards, of the 105 inmates, nearly half (50) were labeled as a psychopath. That compares to an estimate of just 1% of the general population considered to be psychopathic. (Estimates vary, but about 4% of the population is considered to be sociopathic.)
Besides ordinary criminals, the psychologist and author of this study also noted that people in certain occupations were also much more likely to be considered psychopathic (and sociopathic) than the general population. That included politicians and certain financial professions. And since the criminal justice system tends to punish those with low intelligence, psychopathic individuals with low intelligence usually wind up in prison (it's estimated that as much as 25% of the prison population could be labeled psychopathic), while those with psychotic tendencies, but higher intelligence, often wind up in positions of power, where they can use their intelligence, aggressiveness and disregard for others to acquire increasing influence and power.
Politicians aren't the only profession that tends to attract those with below average moral integrity and empathy and above average levels of selfishness and egotism. According to Oxford psychologist Kevin Dutton, those on the top 10 list of professions with the highest percentage of psychopaths include corporate CEOs, lawyers, those in media (TV & radio), journalists, surgeons and government employees. And generally those at the top of these professions, the most successful, will be the most likely to exhibit psychotic tendencies. Of course the majority of people in these industries probably would not be correctly labeled as psychotic, yet these fields are more heavily weighted with such individuals, as well as less extreme forms of anti-social personality disorder, especially at the highest levels of power. For example, it's estimated that as many of 10% or more of CEOs could be labeled psychotic. An even larger share of CEOs would therefore fall somewhere on the anti-social spectrum.
It is interesting then, that in general, these are the people that are influencing the popular culture, our laws and the products and services we use. Traditional media and Hollywood assign themselves as purveyors of truth and morality despite their lack of it. Politicians have also appointed themselves as agents of morality. These are people who are, on average, high on the scale of sociopathy and psychopathy who wish to dictate to the population how to live. (Regarding the tendency for psychopathy, there does not seem to be much difference whether those in power call themselves Democrats or Republicans. It is the nature of the occupation and the thirst for power that attracts and molds immorality.)
“For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Timothy 6:10, King James Bible)
“And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24, King James Bible)
Perhaps not surprisingly, the occupations listed as high on psychopathy levels also tend to have wide income ranges, with the potential to be extremely high. For example, there is relatively little variability of incomes among nurses, but very wide income disparities among individuals in politics, big business and entertainment. The potential for ever higher incomes, including hidden money and gifts from lobbying, skimming, under the table kickbacks, and outright cheating, would seem to allow the most ruthless and immoral antisocial (yet intelligent) individuals to achieve the greatest success. Intelligence combined with egotism and an unfeeling heart is often the right combination for success in these areas.
But it's not just money, of course. The love of power can be seen in big business, on Capitol Hill, and the entertainment industry where both money and power are lures to the most ruthless and void of morality. In recent years we have seen big business and big finance become increasingly intertwined with government as former champions of the free market use government protections to reduce competition and secure monopoly-like profit margins. Author Clive Boddy theorizes that it was the increasing rise of corporate psychopaths into positions of high power that led to the 2008 financial crisis. Immorality and corruption have likewise extended throughout the entertainment industry (disgustingly, often while teaching morality). While not everyone in these areas have been engaged in evil and immorality, to protect their own livelihood, most have been willing to look the other way on their own path to personal gain.
It has been said that there are three groups of people who will rarely, if ever, hear the truth about the ethics of their behavior: the rich, the powerful and the beautiful. A potential mate or suitor to a beautiful young woman will usually not want to introduce any lapses in her ethical behavior for fear of losing out on potential intimacy or reproductive opportunities. Similarly, the powerful and/or rich will not often hear of personal ethical breaches from those around him or her. Either one is already close to or dependent upon the rich and powerful for their own income or status or one hopes to ride their coattails into a higher station in life. In either case, one has to be very careful with honest discussions of morality around the rich and powerful unless one is indifferent to potential personal gain from that person. Most will simply look the other way and excuse the unethical behavior of those who might deliver personal financial or other benefits. We continue to see this familiar pattern where individuals come forward with accusations of wrongdoing only after the offender no longer has the power to offer benefits they once could.
What are consequences for the rich, powerful and beautiful when they receive little or no correcting behavior from people around them? If one is allowed to increasingly act without moral guidance or limitations then one will likely continue to act with increasing immorality and lack of concern for others. In this way, power, wealth, fame and beauty (especially female beauty), become destructive to our own ethical judgments. When people around us excuse our immoral behavior, or even reward it, we have no reason to maintain an ethical standard and will simply act in ways that bring us the most personal rewards.
Aside from psychopaths, who many believe are inherently born with a lack of empathy, the tendency for corruptibility will vary dependent on personal circumstances and personality traits. A study a few years ago from professors at the University of Toronto found that giving people more power didn't necessarily lead them to corruption. What they found is that increased power tends to heighten already existing “ethical tendencies”. Those participants whose moral identities were deeply centered on compassion to others, caring, fairness and generosity, did not abuse power given to them. Instead, those individuals with the highest “moral-identity” scores used to their power to look to solutions that would benefit everyone in the community. Conversely, the participants with inherently lower morality identities tended to use their increased power to enrich themselves and further their own power.
The study found that when individuals with lower moral-identity scores were combined with more assertive personalities, they were particularly prone to immoral behavior, such as cheating their employer within the previous week. Those with low morality scores, but with more passive personalities, tended to behave in more moral ways.
While the Toronto University experiment may reveal that a large segment of the population will not use increased power for corruption, but instead for cooperation, it does not reveal what happens to people in real life, who are connected to powerful corrupting people of influence. Even individuals on the higher end of the morality spectrum can and are regularly influenced by others in authority, whether those higher-ups are moral or not. Even those not motivated by the desire for an easier path to wealth, fame or power can be easily influenced by those in authority. When confronted by those in authority, whether those in power are acting ethically or not, we tend to subvert our own standards of morality.
Many are aware of the famous Stanley Milgram experiment performed at Yale University in the early 1960s. In return for their time and a modest amount of financial compensation, participants were (unknowingly) tested on their willingness to follow orders from those in authority, even when their actions would cause suffering on their fellow man. The participants believed they were delivering electric shocks (there actually were no electric shocks) to other participants (actors, actually) who would respond with increasing levels of pain response as the experiment continued. Although as the experiment progressed and as individuals seemed to be delivering increasingly powerful electric shocks with increasing distress by those who appeared to be receiving the shocks (the actors would scream in pain), a majority of the participants (26 out of 40) continued to deliver what they thought were electric shocks at the highest level, a potentially fatal 450-volt shock. (At the higher levels of electric shocks, the shock-receivers, the actors, were convincingly screaming and crying causing great distress to many of the participants on the giving end of the experiment.)
The experiment was written about by Milgram a couple years after in an article, “The Perils of Obedience”. What the world essentially realized at that point (although, in reality, it was on display often in past history, particularly during wartime), was that average people would go so far as to willingly torture or kill an innocent person when they were ordered by an authority to do so. In that article, Milgram wrote this, “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” (emphasis added)
The thirst for money, power and fame are all incredibly powerful motivators, especially among those with lower moral standards or an anti-social personality. Evil and immorality have deeply infiltrated government, academia, Hollywood, big business, big finance, big pharma and traditional media, We need to recognize that these people do not think like us with moral absolutes and values like empathy, fairness and generosity. According to psychologist and therapist Perpetua Neo, those with one of the “dark triad” personality traits – narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy - “do not have and will not develop a sense of empathy, so they can never really love anyone.”
Research shows that psychopaths tend to have been raised in unhappy childhoods, with poor parenting and weak emotional boundaries. Without love in their lives, and holes in their heart, these individuals will look to increasing power and control to give themselves a sense of self-worth. Feeling that they will not be loved for their own inner values they look to money and power to impress others and prove their worth as individuals. In their futile efforts to achieve peace they make ever more desperate efforts for power and fame. In the process they will also continue to subjugate any remaining morality within and take advantage of the average person's weakness to immorality, especially when it is wrapped in an envelope of authority.
People generally want power, money and fame to control others and bring themselves personal benefits. Instead of idolizing such people we should be especially wary of their ethical behavior and skeptical of their intentions. Instead of assuming that the powerful are acting with the best of intentions until proven otherwise, we should assume they are acting with their own self-interest at heart, until proven otherwise. People have been fooled a long time by hucksters and con-men. It's time people exercise their own morality and recognize the lack of it in others.