Quickpost – A perfect paramoralism

I’m trying something new here – writing a very brief post. Some ideas don’t need explication and elaboration; they can be simply stated and quickly read. I would be very pleased to hear any comments from readers on this format. (Additional query: do I post too often for your tastes?)

On his very first day as a sole – and very green – psychologist at a maximum security prison, Robert Hare encountered his first client, ‘Ray’. It went something like this:

Ray: Doc, I want to discuss a problem with you.
Hare: Sure, tell me about it.
Ray pulls out a knife. Hare decides not to press the alarm button.
Ray: I’m going to use this on an inmate who’s been making moves on my punk.

That’s it. A perfect paramoralism.

It has the emotional discombobulation: from gratification to fright to relief. It has the double-bind which leads to intellectual confusion: do I tell the authorities and ruin my trust among the inmates or do I not tell them and so break a professional rule and possibly get someone killed? And it has the moral corruption.

Someone has been ‘killed off’ – Hare himself. The psychologist may as well pack his bags and go home – no matter which of the two paths he takes he has been completely morally compromised.

A paramoralism has two goals: to get something and to erode another’s moral thinking. Here we see that for the psychopath the second of these goals – destruction of another person – is far more important that the first.

(This was long before – and one of the reasons why – Robert Hare went on to become the leading authority on psychopathy. For a good summary of his work see here.)

13 thoughts on “Quickpost – A perfect paramoralism

  1. I think with a little creativity there are lots of places to go. Each of them means engaging with the moral dilemma instead of just being stuck with it.

    The psychologist in this situation could: explore ethics, deal with anger, expose the process.

    I think this guy lacks imagination.


  2. I agree with Evan that there are other possibilities. The lose-lose aspects of the double-bind rule only so long as its existence goes unrecognized and the people involved think happy outcomes are the expected result of resolving conflicts. You’re in a double bind with appendicitis, you don’t want surgery, nor do you want a ruptured appendix. So you take the lesser evil/loss and get the surgery. The same thing is true of love relationships where, as Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson observe (Pragmatics of Human Communication) the double bind, (in the form of the paradoxical command: Be spontaneous!) is the paradigm that rules the relationship. Assuming both people want the relationship, they must give up the rather egocentric need to be spontaneously loved for the realism of problem-solving.

    In this case, there’s not supposed to be an affective bond between the transactors. So Hare says, “Ray, you’re not going to make me a silent partner in murder. My ethics don’t run that way. Your mistake. Too bad.” Also, I think the loss here is of a trust that shouldn’t exist in the first place–the trust of the con in the therapist’s collusion rather than in the therapist’s professionalism. Hare should have got that straight at the outset, and if he did, there’s no bind.

    No, you don’t post too much; types like me do.
    And, and in that role, I think the short stimulus post is good

  3. evan – Ah yes, but the fact is that he was unable to think of any path but those two! How come? Because of of ‘Ray’s’ behaviours, etc. before and during the event and the emotions and confusions evoked in himself. (I puposely left out Hare’s description of ‘Ray’s’ aura and unwavering gaze, for example.)

    The psychologist lacked imagination – you’re right. But this was the case all kinds of reasons. Knowing the work Hare has gone on to do, I doubt that he is deficient in imagination. One of the reasons I think he lacked imagination then is that as a regular member of society he simply could not imagine a human like the one before him.

  4. dumaurier-smith – Absolutely right. The trick, though, is to see what’s happening and that where the psychopath can easily bamboozle the greenhorn psychologist. (As the world’s top authority Hare says that he can still be caught out today, if only for a short while.)

    I like the romantic relationship example.

    Thanks for the feedback re posting. (Incidentally, do you have a blog? “Types like me do [post a lot]” suggests you do. No link comes up over your name, though.)

  5. I agree with Smith, there should be no quandry. The shrink has a duty to report threats of this nature if he can’t talk the prisoner out of his plan of action, period end of story.

  6. mnwhr5 – I guess that’s right. Except for the “period, end of story’ bit which suggests that t’s obvious. In the clinical situation it often doesn’t seem so obvious which is why New York state (to name just one place) has made it the legal obligation of the clinician to report any threats of harm to self of others by the patient. No need for the law if it’s self-explanatory.

    Incidentally, have a look at Hare’s book to see what he did in the case of ‘Ray’.

  7. Yeah, I found this story interesting about the inmate situation.
    Thing is, if Hare had integrity, and was true to himself, at that time, the choice would be clear. I think therapists are prone to forget that in a fit of a type of co-dependent desire to “do their job”.

    I’ve known a couple of psychologists & social workers who’ve worked in prisons more recently than that Hare story, and both of them said they went through a pretty comprehensive screening course of some type that goes over all sorts of ways prisoners will try to trick & morally or criminally compromise staff.
    Including some pretty scary tricky manipulative ways inmates find out personal details from staff workers. And stories about how prisoners have managed to threaten families of staff members to the point of making prison guards & psychotherapists into black market item suppliers.

  8. chloe – True, there’ no way Hare would make that mistake now.

    I suppose that one problem is that we’re always in a non-figured-out place about something or other. I mean we have different goals and everything is hunky-dory until one day these become conflicted. Now suddenly one is unsure again. Maybe integrity and being true to oneself is developmental. One of the ways it develops is working one’s way through difficult situations.

  9. No, of course Hare wouldn’t behave like that now, he got his priorities straight, as they say.
    But I still say someone with a healthy sense of self, boundaries, and integrity, wouldn’t need that prison-trick-info-training.
    I think it’s only developmental in the sense that some people learn earlier in life than others. Probably because some parents don’t let their kids make mistakes or learn from mistakes in the small harmless ways, so they have to go out as adults and make bigger ones! And some barely do their whole lives. And some never do.

    But I think the knowledge not-figured-out, only applies to those people with trouble in that area. In a sense, that prison-trick-info-training is just there to MAKE SURE everyone was parented properly, and is ready, and if they’re not, scare the poopy out of them so they’re vigilant about themselves & don’t compromise the institution.

  10. Did I say they were? Do you think you’re telling me something I don’t know? LOL
    I daresay nobody was parented anything like really well. And I never asserted otherwise.

    And obviously there’s more involved than just parenting.

    But let’s face it. Everyone has integrity problems starting out in childhood. The first big parenting struggle is the child’s transition from dependent & self-centered, to gaining autonomy & learning to share. That sort of thing.
    It’s normal for a 4 year old to exhibit narcissistic traits.

    Most people have a plethora of integrity problems they struggle with in adolescence. Many people have integrity problems well into their 20s. And I think that’s normal, frankly.

    BUT, I also know there’s people out there, that, well into their 40s, have serious integrity problems to the point where they would argue that Hare was right to put his relationship with the inmates above all else, and they’d wonder what the hell is wrong with that.

    I think my point is proven by the fact that LONG before there was ever that prison-trick-info-training, there were professionals in the prison staff who didn’t succomb to prisoner manipulation, and maintained their integrity.

    If everyone did succomb before when it was “non-figured-out”, the prison institutional system would’ve never worked in society at all. It would’ve been far more corrupt than it is, or ever has been.

    Granted I think it’s improved greatly since the days of dungeons & swift public hangings. But there were people who didn’t fall for the sociopath’s wiles long before psychology was a broadly known of science.

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