Furious Debate: Edwin Rutsch and Sam Vaknin on Empathy

Uploaded 7/13/2013, approx. 24 minute read

See the world through other people's eyes.

Now, empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.

Hi, it's Edwin Rutch from the Centre for Building a Culture of Empathy, and today I'm here with Sam Vaknin, and Sam is a diagnosed psychopathic narcissist and an expert on narcissism, and we're going to be talking about how we can build a culture of empathy.

So thank you very much, Sam, for joining me.

Thank you for having me.

Would you like to introduce yourself a bit more, you know, talk a little bit more about yourself and your background?

Well, I have different hats. I'm an economic advisor to governments, I'm editor-in-chief of Global Politician, and so on and so forth, but I think what's relevant to this program is the fact that, as you've said, I've been twice diagnosed with malignant narcissism, pathological narcissism, and that I've authored a series of books and e-books about personality disorders, the most notorious of which is malignant self-love, narcissism revisited.

Okay, so, you know, what I'm really working on is through the Centre for Building a Culture of Empathy, is exactly what the title is of our organization, is how we can increase the level of empathy within society, and, you know, the narcissists and the psychopathy are kind of conditions that are known for kind of a lack of empathy, and you've been exploring the topic of empathy, you've written about it and have a web page, and how would you, you know, to start with, how do you personally define empathy?

Well, there's a serious debate, still ongoing, started 100 years ago, more than 100 years ago, and still ongoing, strong, whether empathy is a learned, learned thing, whether it can be inculcated, can be acquired, or whether it is innate, inborn.

We know that infants and even infants, let alone children, display empathy in a variety of settings.

So that would seem to indicate that people are born with empathy.

On the other hand, we know that full-fledged empathy, which I will discuss in a minute, is an integral part of the social process of socialization.

In other words, it is acquired.

So there seem to be arguments in favor of this version or that version.

Empathy has two components. The first component is what I call cold empathy. It is known in philosophy as intersubjectivity. In other words, the ability to identify moods, emotions, feelings, effects in other people.

This component, the intersubjective component, is utterly cold in the sense that it has no emotional complement. It's merely the process of identification, merely the process of labeling what we see, classifying it, a taxonomy.

This is the first element.

The problem with the intersubjective element or cold empathy is that when we watch someone and we say, this guy is sad or this woman is happy, we cannot be sure at all that what we label as sad, that sadness as we perceive it and as we had experienced it introspectively is the same emotion that the other person is experiencing.

So the problem with the intersubjective element is that we are using unclear, ambiguous, arguable terminology. We cannot agree on a common dictionary because we have no access to the mind, psyche and soul of other people.

We have access only to ourselves, known as introspection.

So this renders the intersubjective element of empathy very and highly dubious.

Then we have a second element and that is the element of emotional arousal.

When we have identified, when we have labeled, when we have recognized what's happening to someone else, we very often react emotionally.

So if we realize that someone is sad or depressed, we become sad and depressed. If we realize that someone is happy, we may become happy or be happy for them for being happy and so on and so forth.

So we have an emotional arousal. We have an emotional reaction component.

Now the emotional reaction component is in all probability innate, in all probability learned because we know for instance that infants smile at their mothers and we know that children between the ages of four and six display similar behaviors. They are sad when others around them are sad and they are happy, when others around them are happy and so on and so forth. That's probably an innate thing.

The intersubjective agreement, the aforementioned part which is as I said depends on a common dictionary which cannot be verified, cannot be falsified, cannot be proven. That part is probably learned, probably acquired and is part of the socialization process.

We learn to identify and label things and we do it almost automatically.

Stan, can I just reflect what I'm hearing so far?

You're saying that there's kind of two parts to empathy. There's kind of a cognitive part and then an emotional part, right?

And then there's also kind of you've heard of debates of whether empathy is innate, that we're born with it or that we learn it, nature and nurture.

And it could be a combination of both but I think that's you know really.

That's my view. My view is that it is a combination of both.

The intersubjective agreement is learned and the emotional arousal aspects is innate.

The intersubjective thing is problematic as I've just said.

We cannot be sure that the other person is said as we are said. It depends heavily on introspection.

We attribute to other people what's happening inside ourselves and this is called projection in psychology.

It is actually considered as a pathological defense mechanism.

So, there is a pathological element in empathy.

When I say, if I...

Some of these words are, what do you mean by pathological? What is that mean?

I will explain.

If I were to meet you and I were to watch you and say Edwin, you must be said. That would have meant that I attribute to you what I know as sadness because I cannot access your mind, soul or psyche. I cannot enter your brain. I cannot ascertain that what you feel as sadness is exactly what I feel as sadness.

So, I'm projecting onto you my introspective experience of sadness. That's the only way. There's no objective lab exam, lab test, which can tell me that your happiness amounts to exactly what I would call happiness.

We can't even agree on colors. I don't know if what you see as red is what I see as red. I know that there is a frequency of red, light, lightweight frequency of red but I don't know if you experience this frequency the same way that I experience this frequency.

So, we are locked inside our minds forever. We don't really communicate. Communication is utterly impossible.

Wittgenstein, the famous philosopher said that we all have private languages and we pretend that we have a common language known as empathy but it's fake. It's utterly fake.

What we do is we project our own experiences and emotions onto each other assuming implicitly that we all share the same pool of experiences and emotions that have been utterly unprovable propositions.

Well, you had mentioned how the emotional and effective empathy and as I understand it, that kind of happens through mirror neurons.

As we do an action or see an action, we have the same neurons firing in our body. I'm actually looking at your picture here of you with your hand, your chin on your hand and holding your glasses and according to the mirror neurons is that as I understand it how that works is when I see you having your chin on your hand and when I do it myself that the same neurons fire in myself. This is an action.

This is not an emotion.

Empathy is putting yourself in someone else's shoes emotionally. Actions are actions. A robot can mimic me. That has nothing to do with empathy.

Yeah, but there's feelings associated with that with the position, the hand, the arm.


How do you know what I felt when this photograph was taken?

Well, I know I'm doing it myself right now.

The answer is that you do not.

Everything else you say is pretentious. You do not know what went through my head, how I was feeling at the time the photograph was taken.

You can assume you can presuppose or suppose you can speculate. You cannot know.

Moreover, even if you do speculate correctly, for instance, you say Sam, I think you were said when the photograph was taken and I confirmed to you that I and I want to confirm to you that I was said.

Still, we don't know that what you define an experience of sadness is what I defined an experience of sadness.

My sadness is not necessarily your sadness.

A non-probability is not.

Yeah, it seems like the mirror. I mean, you're familiar with mirror neurons and the research behind that where it's kind of like that we kind of simulate the other person within ourselves through the mirroring of motor actions.

Edwin, there is no objective way to prove that what I feel is what you feel. There is no way known to humanity right now, maybe in 2000 years. Right now, there is no way to prove that what I feel as sadness is what you feel as sadness.

No amount of words and mimicry and gimmickry will change this fact. It's a fact.

When you are happy and I am happy, there is no way to prove that my happiness is your happiness or vice versa.

I label my emotion happiness, having experience introspection, looking inwards. I label my emotion happiness. You look inwards and label your emotion happiness and we have no way on earth to know that what you experience is happiness is what I experience in happiness.

Well, how about the studies with pain where they do these fMRI studies where they have one person.

That's a very old hat. It's a debate that's been going on since the 17th century. It's known as dualism.

Whether physical or physiological phenomena associated invariably with reports of emotions actually are these emotions.

In other words, if people report pain and at the same time there is a certain fMRI phenomenon and this fMRI phenomenon occurs all the time together with pain.

Can we say that what we are seeing in the fMRI picture is the pain? Can we say that it causes the pain or is it caused by pain or is it completely?

We say in philosophy that correlation is not causation. We can correlate phenomena but we have no idea what's happening. We cannot link them in a meaningful way.

Whenever there is pain, yes, there are some biochemical and electrical and magnetic changes in the brain. I don't know how these phenomena are connected to pain. I don't know if they cause the pain or are caused by the pain or how they are linked to the pain at all.

I don't know if my pain, if the way I experience and feel pain, is the way you experience and feel pain even if we have the same magnetic phenomena in the brain.

You're talking about 100% the sameness, right? You can have a good general.

100% every 10% would be 100.

You've heard the studies in Parma, Italy where they had a specific neuron wired, electronic with electrodes or whatever, where when that neuron fired, it was a motor neuron. When that neuron fired, it set off a sound that they could know.

Edwin, Edwin, you are confusing two issues and we are running in circles, I'm afraid.

We are beginning to repeat ourselves.

The first issue you are confusing is between physical phenomena, objective physical phenomena, which happen and are reported by people to cause certain feelings, emotions and so on.

We have no way of proving that these physical phenomena that happen together with the pain, for instance, or together with happiness or together with hunger or together with whatever. We have no way of proving that these physical phenomena cause these emotions, are caused by these emotions or are anyhow linked to these emotions.

We just know that they co-occur. That's all we know at this stage. There's nothing else we can say with certainty about any of this.

The second confusion is that when you are using the word pain and I'm using the word pain, when you are using the word hunger and I'm using the word hunger, when you're using the word happiness and I'm using the word happiness, we have no way of proving that you and I are experiencing the same things because I have no access to your mind and you have no access to my mind and all minds are completely distinct.

I don't think anyone would argue with it. I don't know how you feel hunger. I don't know what you hunger for. I don't know how you feel hunger. I don't know what's going on in your mind when you feel hunger and so on and you don't know anything about me.

We are using the word hunger to describe an agreement regarding a certain emotion, but this agreement is non-verifiable, non-falsifiable and not objective by any stretch of imagination.

My understanding with the mere neurons is that you can kind of test what's going on with the individual neurons in our brain and you can see how they're firing and see kind of similarities.

If the macaque monkey that they were using, whenever it raised its arm or reach, actually it was kind of reaching for whatever it was reaching for to hear different stories about what it was reaching for, it would fire a neuron, a motor neuron and that time the monkey saw someone reaching for the peanut and when they reached for it themselves that same neuron fired.

This shows kind of a simulation that we have inside of ourselves that the same neuron is firing and that's kind of been extended to humans as well as I understand.

I see that as kind of like the main grounding of mere neurons and how empathy works at kind of maybe the affective level.

The next question?

The next thing would be, one thing I'd like to do is look at metaphor.

Empathy is often described as standing in someone else's shoes and looking through someone else's eyes.

For me, empathy is like a cornucopia in the sense that it creates kind of this richness of experience, just like a cornucopia, the horn of plenty that is a Norse legend.

I was wondering, do you have a metaphor for those two types of empathy that you talked about, the cognitive and the emotional affective?

Well, called empathy is like a library. It's like a classifying, like a labelling classifying, the dewy system, the dewy method of the dewy system of emotions. We watch them, we make certain assumptions, then we classify them, we label them, put them on the shelf.

That's the cold element, the cold component. The emotional arousal part, there is a debate.

There was a psychologist by the name of Carl Rogers. He thought that we react emotionally to what we see in other people because we have been taught to react that way. He believed, for instance, that we would not inflict pain on someone else because then we would feel guilty. So it's not that we empathize with that person. Carl Rogers says that. It's not that we empathize with this person, it's just that we want to avoid pain in ourselves. We want to avoid the pain of feeling guilty and feeling blameworthy. So that's why we don't hurt other people, not because we empathize with them, not because we understand them, but because it's a selfish thing. That's one approach.

I would say that emotional arousal is mirroring, indeed. I think emotional arousal is mirror and the intersubjective part is a library.


Well, that's a great metaphor. I hadn't thought of that library part.

From what I've been hearing about psychopathy is that people who are psychopaths have the library way of seeing the world but don't have the mirroring part. Does that resonate with what your experience is?

Yes, that's absolutely true.

Narcissism and psychopaths, the two mental health disorders that are characterized by the absence of empathy, actually, it's not true to say that narcissism, the current orthodoxy, is that narcissism and psychopaths do not have empathy at all. In my view, that is completely wrong. I think both narcissists and psychopaths are actually hypersensitive, hyperintuitive, and they perceive other people very deeply and very thoroughly, and therefore, I think they have what I call cold empathy. They have the library function. They're able to watch a person and then catalog that person, bisect and catalog the person and classify the person's emotions and so on and so forth. They do have cold empathy.

What they don't have is the emotional complement. They are not aroused emotionally by someone else's plight, by someone else's predicament, by someone else's emotions, facial cues, body language. They lack the emotional arousal component.

Yes, you're right. In my view, that's the way it is.

Okay, and that's your experience. I mean, as a person that's been diagnosed with psychopathy, you're kind of like an embodiment of that? I mean, you're kind of living that experience.

Yes, I've been diagnosed with borderline conditions like psychopathic narcissism. I'm not a full fledged psychopath, but yes, I do experience it this way.

I see someone. I size that person up. I analyze the person's... I'm mainly interested in the person's vulnerabilities, in the chinks, in the person's armor, in how to penetrate, in how to manipulate via intimate resonance with the person's emotions and so on. I'm more interested in the utilitarian side of getting to know the person intimately than in the person himself.

I definitely do not have any trace of emotional arousal, emotional resonance, emotional recognition, let alone the sympathy that is implied in the term empathy. I have none of this.

As far as I'm concerned, people are instruments of gratification, extensions of myself, tools or venues to obtain benefits and so on. I need the user manual. I need to learn how to manipulate a given person to obtain the given utility that I believe that person can grant me. I garner utility by getting to know people. People are what is called the sources of narcissistic supply in the discipline of psychology. Narcissistic supply is the fuel. I'm a drug addict, a junkie, and I consume narcissistic supply, which in narcissistic supply is actually attention. I consume narcissistic supply from people in order to regulate my sense of self-worth and my grandiose fantasies.

To extract narcissistic supply from people, to force them to pay attention to me in a positive or a negative way, I have to learn how to manipulate them. I have to learn what makes them tick and then I have to make them tick. I do not think that this would be possible without a modicum of empathy.

To recognize what makes people tick, one needs to know to empathize with these people, but in a cold way, as a librarian would with books or digital records. Not in a hot, not in a warm, emotional way.

Emotions have no utility for me.

That's why I don't use them.

There's a couple of things here.

One is, what is the difference between narcissism and psychopathy?

For me, it's kind of experientially unclear about that.

Yeah, well, you're right to be unclear about that.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Committee, which is right now writing the next version of the DSM, also thinks the distinction is unclear. They are contemplating to abolish it.

I would say that the psychopath is an extreme form of narcissist.

Where the narcissist lacks empathy to a certain degree, the psychopath lacks empathy completely. Where the narcissist is more restrained as far as antisocial activities and behaviors are concerned, the psychopath is utterly unconstrained and so on and so forth.

It's like an extreme form of narcissist.

What I'm hearing here about the psychopath is that you're wanting to delve into the experience of someone else and you're trying to kind of extract something from them.

What is it that you want to extract? What is it you want to kind of gain from the other?

Well, it depends.

Narcissists want to extract something called narcissistic supply. Narcissistic supply is a pompous term for attention. Narcissists need attention because it is with this external attention that they regulate their sense of self-worth and support their grandiose fantasies.

Psychopaths need material tangible benefits. Psychopaths usually want money or power, so they are more utilitarian in their behavior. They're not so concerned with attention, adulation, admiration. They're not really after that.

The narcissist is more concerned with his... Narcissist is a bit hermetically enclosed in his universe. Narcissist has this image of himself as omnipotent, omniscient, perfect, brilliant. He needs people to tell him all the time, yes, you are brilliant. Yes, you are perfect. Yes, you are omniscient and omnipotent and so on. He needs to force people to tell him that, to confirm to him, to affirm, to support, to buttress his totally unrealistic self-image.

What he does, he converts people, he coerces them into becoming sources of narcissistic supply. To do that, he needs to understand people. If you don't understand people, if I, as a narcissist, was utterly unable to understand people, I would not be able to convert anyone to my cause. I would not be able to make anyone tell me that I'm brilliant, great, perfect, omniscient, omnipotent.

It is this ability to know people and to convert them to my cause that I call cold empathy. I need that.

If I were a total alien, if I were so flawed that I could have been compared to an alien from outer space, I would not have been able to interact with people to the degree that I am.

I must have some modicum of empathy. Same goes a narcissist, a conman, a conartist, a scammer. If a scammer or a conartist is utterly unable to understand people, then how can he defraud them?

You need to understand people to pull a first one on them, over them.

Yeah, it kind of feels like there's a sense of control in there. It's like you want to go into the psyche, into the being of the other and kind of control kind of their emotions or...

Yes, there is an element of body snatching if you wish. Yes, of course.

The narcissist and psychopath are control freaks. They're control freaks because their life depends on it. A narcissist who is unable to garner a narcissistic supply, crumbles, disintegrates because he can no longer support his self-image and he falls apart. It's a life and death situation.

I need to be able to control my sources of supply, but we're discussing empathy, not control and not narcissism.

The only way I can make people do what I want is by understanding them. If I do not understand people, how can I make them do what I want?


The same with the psychopath. I gave you an example of a fraudster, someone like Bernie Madoff. If Bernie Madoff had no inkling of what it is to be human, if he was utterly devoid of empathy, how was he able to con hundreds of people?

He must have some resonance with humanity. He must have a modicum of empathy in order to be able to manipulate people to do his bidding.

This modicum of empathy is what I call cold empathy because he has no emotions evidently. He did what he did. He's a totally unemotional person. There's no emotional element, but there is definitely a cognitive element of empathy in the narcissist and in the psychopath.

That's where I think the diagnostic and statistical manual is mistaken.


It's like they're in the library and they're seeing everyone as just a cold book that could be organized and moved around.

Yes. It's like a text.

Everyone is like a text, but if you are deprived of reading skills, you cannot read text.

What the diagnostic and statistical manual says is that narcissists and psychopaths are illiterate. They cannot read texts.

I don't think so. I think narcissists and psychopaths can read these books, can read people, but they don't care. They have no emotional response.

What I'm looking at is how do we build the culture of empathy? That's why I'm so interested in these in psychopathy and narcissism because I always see in the articles and the books they talk about narcissism and psychopathy, lack of empathy.

To really understand what's going on with that and then to see how do we go about creating a culture of empathy.

You've talked about psychopaths being aliens. It kind of sounds like it's a hopeless cause.

Are there ways that we can promote empathy within this community?

Empathy with human empathy with psychopaths and narcissists.

How do we build a culture of empathy?

With these people with narcissists and psychopaths?

No, that's a hopeless case. That's a hopeless case because they are structurally defective.

These people, narcissists and psychopaths, are beyond redemption, if you wish, as far as empathy goes. You cannot generate in them emotional arousal because their emotional apparatus, their equipment has been damaged beyond repair at a very early stage. There's nothing you can do about it.

What you can do is you can teach them, you can modify their behaviors, their antisocial behaviors to the extent that they don't cause damage or damage limitation or something, damage control.

But you cannot do much to alter them, to change them. They are beyond developing empathy skills.

If you allow me one more second.

Moreover, many scholars and public intellectuals such as Christopher Lash and Theodore Millon and others say that society at large, especially Western society, but not only Western society at large, is becoming more and more narcissistic and psychopathic.

The narcissist and the psychopath have no incentive to change. Society is adapting itself to their values, their scale of lack of emotion and so on. Why change? It pays to be a narcissist and a psychopath in modern Western society. It's a winning, adaptive proposition.

Yeah. For example, when businesses say the sole value of business is to make more money, it's like promoting psychopathic values in a way of being.

Exactly. There are studies by Thayer and others who these people, these psychologists demonstrated that the business environment nowadays is utterly psychopathic. In the financial industry, in business at large, in the army, in foreign affairs, in the United States. The whole thing is becoming more, all of human society, human culture is at least the Western part, but I think the East is closing the gap. I think the East is becoming more and more Westernized.

We have succeeded to develop an utterly narcissistic and bordering on psychopathic realm, civilization.

So, psychopathic narcissists are incentivized not only to continue with their misconduct and so on and so forth, but to develop it into an art form.

Yeah, because they have societal support, in a sense.

Yeah. Societal support and absolutely.

Well, you did mention, you said that this happened at an early age and that it's been developed in the psychopath and the narcissist from an early age, but that kind of implies that there was a time, if society was supporting a culture of empathy, that a lot of the psychopathy and the narcissism could be headed off at an early age by supporting empathy training perhaps and a cultural value of empathy from an early age.

Yes. At least as far as narcissists are concerned, that will be true.

Psychopaths are a different story because there have been numerous studies demonstrating that psychopaths have...

See the world through other people's eyes. Now, empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.

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