CONSIDER PSYCHOPATHOLOGY'S ROLE IN ETHICAL LAPSES SUCH AS TEST CHEATINGOn April 5, 2012, I came across this piece called "Commentary: College test cheating reveals an epidemic of ethical lapses (re-printed from the original here) by Linda L. Campbell of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Having just recently finished my extremely in-depth series regarding a biological basis of evil, the title's reference to an epidemic of ethical lapses grabbed my attention.
In the piece, Campbell talks about kids' cheating behavior in terms of "foibles," "fallibility" and "foolish choices." No doubt, in many cases, these are appropriate terms.
She assigns blame to both the teens and "whoever should have been teaching them right from wrong when they were 6, 7 and 8." In many, if not even most cases, this may also be wholly appropriate.
And she references a proposal to require college freshmen to study ethics, an idea that may have some merit.
However, I found the piece to be a good example of how we rarely even consider the role that psychpathologies play in our society's unethical activities. It seems that, when inquiring into transgressions less shocking than the most heinous rapes and murders - and sometimes even in those cases - psychopathology either doesn't cross our minds or we tell ourselves that it is so relatively rare that it probably plays a miniscule role not worthy of our attention.
I think this is a dangerous oversight. It not only prevents us from sufficiently understanding and addressing many harmful behaviors. But it even encourages us to engage in measures that can counterintuitively exacerbate our problems.
For instance, in researching psychopathy in order to write my page on it, I learned how programs that aim to foster empathy in perpetrators, while sometimes successful in rehabilitating those with a significant capacity for conscience, can actually backfire when applied with those with certain psychopathologies, who exploit the lessons learned in such programs to become even more skilled perpetrators. In light of this, consider how effective ethics classes will be for cheaters influenced by these psychopathologies.
Hoping to share these insights and concerns with the writer, so that perhaps they may influence her future work on important ethical subjects like this one, I was moved to write the following:
I just read your piece about the epidemic of cheating. While I'm sure many, if not most, of the kids participating in such behavior are normal kids, it is worth noting that there is a percentage that are not.
I recently wrote a series of several huge web pages all dealing with the influence of various surprisingly common conditions, including psychopathy and personality disorders, in our world. If you are interested, the (also very long) introduction to it is on my blog here:
The reason I put so much work into this series is that I do not think our society is going to significantly improve in many areas until we come to terms with the lessons of these conditions. For example, while your article promotes the idea of ethics classes, which may be a great idea for many kids, studies show that that kind of approach, when applied with people with serious empathy-reducing conditions, especially psychopathy, can actually make them even more successful at being unethical.
I know it may sound alarmist to bring this up. And I don't want to exaggerate the role these disorders play. But I think we also need to be aware that they play more of a role than we may admit. Some authors have estimated these conditions affect up to 4 or 6% of the population. And that small % is often disproportionately influential. So, consider, for example, how a couple of psychopathic kids may encourage the more submissive friends in their group.
Whenever I see someone who cares about the importance of ethics as I do, I feel it's worth sharing this information. I hope you find it as interesting as me and that perhaps it sheds some light on ethical issues. For me it was mindblowing when I learned about this stuff and read the books I mention in the writings.