Stanley Fish, once again, gets it wrong. He starts off alright by criticizing the urge to get potential candidates for the US presidency to let us know more about who they really are. That seems good; there are large and important problems facing American citizens and it is far from clear that we should be paying much attention to candidates’ private lives. But Fish goes much farther. Fish thinks that moral character is actually close to irrelevant to someone’s candidacy. Moral goodness, he declares, is not going to solve the gigantic problems that a US president needs to address. It is, of course, important that the public respect the president and think their leader is a person of honour, but the way to achieve that is to fake it. Thus Fish finds Machiavelli’s idea of the Prince very attractive. Does anyone see a problem with this? It sounds awful to me, but it is worth thinking about what is wrong. In fact it is hard to believe the article is serious. One reason is that the current crew in the White House are very bright and they are presenting themselves as morally upright. The problem is that they haven’t pulled it off, and they are widely reviled by huge segments of the US population, not to say of the world. And this raises the question: what more do you need to be a successful Machiavellian besides being very smart? And that also raises the question: Can a Machiavellian be successful? Is “successful Machiavellian” psychologically realizable? For sure, you might be a Machiavellian and just be lucky, so you are never caught out. Perhaps, for example, the lack of wit in those around you provides you protection. But the cynicism in the United is very thick just because so many of these self-styled honorable people have been found out. And there are many, many of them, from the Enron bright boys to the gay religious homophobes to the members of Congress who, like our Democratic leader, Pelosi, apparently knew about government torture and did nothing to stop it. And a lot of them are very bright. One thing we might want to say is that the understanding one needs as a leader requires more than being very smart. Perhaps, then, it just is not generally true that one can understand enough to be a good leader while being a bad person. What might be of interest here is the fact that recent neuroscience delineates one important way in which the immoral person is set up for failure. Let me simplify: Lying, deceiving and otherwise harming other people feels bad for most of us because we mirror others emotions. If we imagine someone feeling very unhappy, we do not feel very happy, with some notable exceptions, including revenge. That is because we mirror others emotions. Have someone in front of you who is upset and angry and you’ll tend to pick up their feelings. Those feeling are not fun to have.
This effect is present in a number of species, and it is thought to be the reason why rodents typically get upset at signs of other rodents being upset. In experiments, rats (not human rats) will not seek pleasure if it causes other rats pain. This is one of the breaks most of us have on being really bad people. Of course, not everyone is like this; at least many people with autism and people with alexithymia do not mirror emotions like this. (This is not to say that they are in some sense morally lacking; there are other routes to a moral life.) And perhaps one can block the feelings. But those without the feelings, we now see, will not be very good at attributing them to others. And that means they move through a social world they fail to understand. And that means they get found out.
Alexithymics, who lack a conscious experience of much emotion, are the true Machiavellians, a recent article argues. They find it hard to imagine anyone feeling hurt, themselves or others Hence, while they can feel shame at a loss of power, they do not feel guilt at causing harm. They may well be able to fake honour on a small scale, but we probably do not want one to be in charge of a large country during a time of crisis, to say the least. (Wastell and Booth 2003)
Wastell, Colin, and Alexandra Booth. 2003. Machiavellinism: An Alexithymic Perspective. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology 22 (6):730-744.