Oddly enough, the other side of the psychopath is the one that seems to do good for others. You’ve heard of the psychopath test about the train track and flicking the switch, I’m sure, but just to quickly recap: you’re the engineer of a train with 200 people on it. Ahead of you the track forks into two. On one side is a break in the tracks that will cause the train to derail and all the passengers to die. Flicking the switch sends the train to the other track where a person is standing (why a person would simply be standing on a track with nothing better to do, they don’t tell you…perhaps they’re on a Russian Roulette scavenger hunt). The dilemma of course, is do you flick the switch and save 200 lives or do you stay on the same route and save the one life on the track? The moral difficulty here is that flicking the switch is a premeditated decision to “kill” a person in order to save several others. The emotional conflict lies in conducting an act that takes the life of another person.
My first thought when confronted by this question was “who is the person on the track?” Does that matter? Most definitely. If it’s Nietzsche, we’re all doing to die. It it’s Hitler, we will live to see another day. That makes sense to me. 200 lives or not, Nietzsche is more valuable. Assuming he is still spewing out his pearls of philosophical wisdom, the world needs him more than he needs me or you. A grey area perhaps, but nothing is black and white, including this oddball question.
In this video, the story premise is the same but the numbers are different. There are 5 people on the track instead of one (they must be drunk or lost). There is one person on the other track. Either way someone is going to die and most people have no problem with flicking the switch (I revert to my same reasoning – who is standing on the track)? Another, supposedly more complex situation is offered in this story. 5 people are on the track, but there is no fork in the road. Instead, you are now standing on a bridge above the speeding train and no longer the engineer (just as well since I don’t have my engineer’s license and would have killed anyone had I been driving the train with or without that weirdo standing on the track). A large, burly man is standing in front of you and by pushing him off the bridge he will fall in a certain manner that will stop the train and save 5 lives (somehow without sending the train off the tracks and into oblivion). Now the dilemma, of course, becomes more personal for most people. Do you push the stranger ahead of you onto the tracks or do you light up a cigarette, look around, and pretend not to notice?
Again, I say it depends on who the big, burly stranger is in front of me. Here is yet another dimension to this question: imagine if the stranger wasn’t a person of any importance, but somehow when you went to push him he was strong enough that he didn’t go over the side and when he gathered himself to his feet again, he was understandably pissed? The next question I suppose would be more along the lines of physics: how fast could you run to save your own life if you wore Nikes, ran at a speed of .05 km an hour and had to maneuver against rush hour traffic ? My personal reaction to this question is if the burly stranger is no one in particular I’d have no problem shoving him over the tracks (hopefully he’d be one my of my ex’s, then I’d give a good, hard push and quite enjoy it). There is no option about throwing oneself over the bridge, which is just as well. That wouldn’t cross my mind.
What does all this have to do with the psychopath (no, I’m not referring to me). The interesting thing is that the psychopath wouldn’t hesitate to save 5 lives. She would simply push that stranger over the side, enjoy the “hero” medal she would receive from city hall, then go home and have a bowl of Cheerios without another thought. This seems very humane on the part of the psychopath, doesn’t it? It is and it isn’t. Here’s the creepy reason: fMRI’s (magnetic resonant imaging) compared the brains of non-psychopaths (as far as scientists could tell, anyway), with that of psychopaths. When posed the same question about the big stranger and the 5 lives, non-psychopaths showed an emotional reaction in the amygdala (almond shaped nuclei deep within the medial temporal lobes, responsible for emotional regulation). They chose the same action as the psychopath (push the big fat guy), and exhibited considerable activity in the amygdala. When the psychopath chose to push the stranger, there was no reaction in the amygdala. There was no circuitry and no reaction. Just push away. Yeee-ha. Score one for me.
The researcher in the video doesn’t make a moral statement about the psychopath in this situation and that’s just as well. We need psychopaths who are able to murder without hesitation. We need our president or prime minister or fraudulent leader. or what have you, to make life-saving and life-destroying decisions without excess emotional baggage and without hesitation if necessary. Think of the military. They do a lot to save our countries and maintain our freedom. If they had a hard time pulling that trigger, many of their own troops could die; much of our own freedom would be lost. That becomes betrayal, not empathy. Admittedly, the majority of psychopaths in this country probably don’t operate for defensive reasons and to save the lives of millions of people (or one person, for that matter), unless there is something in it for him or her. They tend to operate for selfish reasons and to manipulate others to their own advantage. In that situation, psychopaths suck. In other situations, they don’t. We need them, like it or not.
A closing thought: I witnessed a sign the other day that stated “We would rather serve 10,000 Al Qaeda terrorists, than one Canadian soldier.” Does that upset you? It should. Now I shall put it in context and for all you non-psychopaths, help your amygdala to return to normal: the sign was in front of a funeral home.