I asked several of my trusted acquaintances the following question: ‘How does one know whether they possess a conscience’? The reaction I got was mostly that of a deer in someone’s headlights. Does not everyone possess a conscience?
When we are little, we are taught all people possess good and that conscience is a process that we should obey at all times. You can think of earlier cartoons, such as Tom and Jerry, where conscience is portrayed as a battle between two beings: angel and devil. For the psychopath, there is no angel nor demon, there is only the psychopath herself and the tangibles she wants. This is key to understanding and dismissing a popular misconception of psychopaths. It is not that conscience is one-sided for the psychopath, often believed to be composed solely of the ‘devil’ in the aforementioned cartoon illustration, it is that conscience literally does not exist or exists in such a diminished capacity as to not register. Most psychopaths do not do ‘bad’ things simply for the sake of being bad. They do those things because it was considered appropriate for getting the item that they wanted. Likewise, and a point that many do not wish to acknowledge, a psychopath may do ‘good’. Once again, the good act is not done for the sake of goodness, but because the act was determined to be the easiest or most acceptable route to getting the wanted result.
A confidant of mine remarked in response to the question I posed at the beginning of this post: ‘It is not that you are upset about putting your hand in the cookie jar, you are upset because you got caught’. What they meant is that the determination of whether someone lacks a conscience is quite simple: is the agony or debate as to whether to commit an action based off whether the result would be good or bad for other people and society? Or, is the debate solely due to the fear of getting caught doing something that society would frown upon?
I do not possess conscience. What I possess is a constant set of calculations and recalculations as to what actions for a given situation have acceptable risk and would result in getting me something I desire. If you drop money in a bar and I am certain that I will not get caught, which would be a negative consequence, I will take that money. I have evaluated the risk and the reward and decided that I would have little chance of consequence and an item that I want. If you get hurt in an accident that I witness, I will not stop and call for help – I have my own time to manage and there is clearly nothing in it for me to waste that time on your injuries. As I grow older though, I tend not to steal because I am not so certain that I am clever enough to do so without getting caught. It isn’t about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, it is about that cost/benefit analysis that runs through my mind. Ultimately, our actions are impersonal for you and self-serving for us. We tend to be amoral.
The idea of what a conscience represents puzzles me because it seems so irrational. I do not consider ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with my interactions, only risk and reward. This troubles most people, but I think that it really should not. Whereas many people, including non-psychopaths, can and do bad things out of malice, many psychopaths, especially the more intelligent ones, do not. This is because there is no devil on their shoulder, only their fixation on risk and reward. In today’s prison state, the risk is simply not worth it and many of us move on as a result.
So yes, what you were told as a little one was a lie. Not everyone possesses good in them or a conscience. However, that does not mean that these people are bad. They are, simply, neutral. They are not troubled by irrational notions that all actions must be good or serve society as a whole. They are no devil, but neither are they a saint. I may wrong you as a result of this gamesmanship, but believe me when I say that it is truly nothing personal.