What makes someone worthy of our admiration? A life committed to helping others? Perhaps an act of unexpected selflessness and generosity, or a personal sacrifice that resulted in the betterment of many?
I’d like to think that these are the traits we value most, but it’s become increasingly obvious that isn’t true. It’s clear to me that our modern heroes need not display any compassion or even basic decency. Instead, we’ve chosen to admire anyone who is effective, regardless, or perhaps especially, when they have shown their prowess through manipulation and deceit. Our entire society has become enchanted by sociopaths and most of us don’t even realize it.
Americans have always prided themselves as a nation of rugged individualists, pushing forward to victory, consequences be damned. When expressed in that way, it sounds wonderful. But taken to an extreme and untempered by any conscience or sense of obligation and the relentless pursuit of victory becomes the justification of sociopathy.
It’s easy to admire sociopaths. After all, in a world driven purely by economic self interest, having a conscience is a hindrance. Without a conscience to hold them to obligations, sociopaths appear bold and uncompromising. Their me-first guiltless manipulation of other people seems like a strength. We admire their individuality and lack of inhibition. Without scruples to hold them back, they often have a seductive aura of spontaneity and daring. In the realm of business and entrepreneurship, sociopaths are unburdened by the need to make compromises with their conscience and can pursue their goals without concerning themselves with collateral damage. It is the ultimate in personal liberation.
Of course, it comes at a price. For those who choose to engage with a sociopath, make no mistake that you are playing with an uncontrollable fire that will ultimately burn you. I’ve personally made this mistake and seen many others think they can work with a sociopath and “use them for what they’re good for,” and I can assure you, anyone with a conscience will lose this gamble.
As much as being the victim of a sociopath is painful, those who seek to emulate one lose so much more. Living without a conscience ultimately deprives you of both meaningful work and close personal relationships. When everything is a game and everyone is a pawn, nothing really matters.
But we’ve chosen to ignore the personal costs and discount the idea that anything counts besides results. In the process, we’ve elevated the sociopath to a position of admiration and we cheer their gains regardless of who they’ve hurt through their unconscionable acts. Everywhere you turn people are admired for their ruthless cunning and relentless pursuit of power.
Many have confused being a difficult jerk with being effective, or even that being an asshole is a sign of genius. I know a successful entrepreneur who is notorious for being an abrasive, back-dealing megalomaniac, and yet he still has a nation of fanboys because he’s good at bringing attention to himself. Other people write books proudly bragging about how they got ahead by lying and the accolades pour in.
Perhaps there really is no place for conscience in the modern world. Recently, I was explaining to a friend that I thought certain political ideals left no room for moral decency. I wasn’t talking about religion or god, just basic altruism for our fellow man, when she caught me off guard by asking me, “What is moral?” I had always assumed that humans had a baseline sense of decency and pointed out that even monkeys showed a penchant for enforcing fairness when presented with blatantly unfair scenarios. But my friend didn’t seem to have a core set of moral parameters, at least not one that she had considered.
It made me think about a comment my friend Joe Stump made a few weeks ago. He Tweeted, “Shocking how many people who, ‘just want to work with great people’ somehow manage to include sociopaths under the mantle of ‘great.’”
I think Joe might be a bit naive. When you think about what we’ve come to value and what we’ve come to devalue, unfortunately it isn’t shocking at all.