Are there pathological do-gooders?

In his book The Mask of SanityDr. Hervey Cleckley depicts psychopaths as individuals lacking a strong internal restraint mechanism. In most humans, this internal check discourages the performance of socially unacceptable actions. Lacking this restraint, psychopaths steal, lie, defraud, brawl, drink to excess, and engage in sexual promiscuity on a whim. Moreover, they perform these actions without any comprehensible motivating factor. The individuals in question do not make significant monetary gains from their thefts. They do not exhibit any anxiety that would drive them to alcoholic escape and do not have overactive sex drives.

Mother Teresa, a pathological do-gooder?

Yet why do the psychopath’s actions always tend toward misdeeds? If they act without any strong motivation, it seems just as likely that they would regularly exhibit kindness, generosity and honesty instead of the opposite. One explanation would be that such pathological do-gooders exist, but are not recognized as such. Those who disrupt the fabric of society are far more noticeable than those who contribute to its smooth functioning. The nightly news is rife with crime, disaster and tragedy, yet the world continues on in a generally positive condition. The balance of good must outweigh these incidents of evil and misfortune on an appropriately large scale, even if we do not consistently recognize good individuals.

A second possibility is that pathological goodness does describe the behavior of those we consider saints. However, describing this behavior as such does not lend itself to encouraging exemplary actions. If we believe Mother Teresa’s charity resulted from a deficiency in restraining her selfless impulses, we cannot admire her virtue or encourage others to adopt her behavior.

On the other hand, a lack of pathological do-gooders would suggest that such selfless behavior runs contrary to human nature. Psychopaths appear to lack the self-restraint exhibited by most members of society. At first glance, there is no reason why this laxity should lead to socially harmful behavior rather than socially beneficial behavior. But if the latter category does not exist, the psychopath’s behavior would have to be such that it furthers his impulses rather than the ends of anyone else. The psychopath may act without any recognizable long-term motivation, but he acts in ways that satisfy his momentary desires.

Without the counterexample of a pathological do-gooder, it seems reasonable to presume that this selfish impulse exists at the base of human nature. Even the psychopath, with his transient impulses and actions, cannot override it. Those of us who can form long-term plans and experience lasting affection have reason to act selflessly, even though we may remain hopelessly self-interested at our very cores.