By In Ideas, Moral Responsibility Comments (4)

Should We Let Trump Off the Hook?

Donald Trump loves himself. And while professional psychologists and psychiatrists cannot ethically diagnose him, many have made it quite clear that they think Trump has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). George Simon, a clinical psychologist specializing in manipulation, is archiving video clips of Trump “to use in workshops because there’s no better example” of a narcissist in action.

Those with the disorder come across as arrogant, conceited, and self-obsessed, they lie a lot to keep admiration coming, and they cannot stomach criticism of any kind, reacting with rage and often seeking to belittle or get revenge against their critics. The DSM 5 (the bible of mental disorder diagnoses) lists several symptoms of the disorder that should by now feel pretty familiar, including having an exaggerated sense of self-importance, expecting to be recognized as superior, requiring constant admiration, being envious of others and believing them to be envious of you, and being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, or the perfect mate.

NPD is not a mental illness. Instead, it is a personality disorder, which, in general, is something that negatively affects social interactions, relationships, work, and, ultimately, happiness. This is unsurprising. Despite their occasional charms, narcissists are just no fun to be around for very long.

NPD is most fundamentally marked by an almost complete lack of empathy for others. Those with the disorder aren’t emotionally moved by the emotional ups-and-downs of others, and they don’t really understand others’ points of view on their own interests and needs. Further, in clinical presentations, this lack of empathy seems to be not a deficiency but a dysfunction, that is, those with NPD seem to lack the capacity for empathy.

This presidential campaign has revealed that Trump has done lots of nasty things to people. He has mocked a reporter with a disability, talked about (and perhaps performed) sexual assault, called women ugly names, urged violence on protesters at his rallies, and more.

He is also an unrepentant, unremitting liar. It’s of course a political cliché that politicians lie. Indeed, Hillary Clinton has lied many times to the American people. According to PolitiFact, 13.33% of her claims they checked during the campaign were either rated False or Pants on Fire. But by contrast, 60.13% of Trump’s claims were rated False or Pants on Fire. This is a fairly remarkable difference. In fact, only 2.53% of his claims (that PolitiFact checked) were rated true, as compared to Clinton’s 13.33%.

So let’s suppose that Trump has NPD. What would this mean about his responsibility for these actions? Does he deserve blame for them? Many of us would say his NPD doesn’t matter at all, that of course he’s blameworthy. But can we really maintain this view if he is genuinely incapable of empathy, incapable of being moved emotionally by the emotional plight of his victims or incapable of appreciating how his deeds will harm or disrespect them?

We can assume he found his impersonation of the disabled reporter funny. But maybe he thought that there was no reason to think otherwise, because he was incapable of seeing things from the reporter’s perspective, to appreciate how this would hurt him. Or maybe he thinks that women like to be grabbed by the genitals as long as it’s done by a major star like him, and maybe he thinks this because he’s incapable of understanding what it’s actually like for women to have these things done to them, and so sees no reason to refrain.

Perhaps, in other words, his NPD would provide a legitimate excuse for his behavior, something that should get him off the hook for it. This will surely sound outrageous to many people, but it would be consistent with how those on the autism spectrum are treated. Those with autism have for a while now been thought to be incapable of, or deficient in, empathy. Several recent studies are strongly suggesting otherwise; instead, many with autism have alexithymia, a difficulty understanding and identifying one’s own emotions, and it may well be this disorder that generates problems recognizing or responding to the emotions of others (as my former grad student Nate Stout has argued).

But regardless, when those with autism/alexithymia have some social failure, not responding in the way demanded by social or moral norms, they are quite often let off the hook, viewed as undeserving of blame in virtue of their disorder. This is very likely because they are viewed as having some kind of incapacity, whether it’s actually an empathic incapacity or something related that interferes with their ability to see what it is they ought to do. But if we think an incapacity like this should get those with autism off the hook for blame, then why shouldn’t it get Trump off the hook too? If it’s a real incapacity, after all, why wouldn’t it excuse him as well?

Of course, even if he has NPD and so we perhaps shouldn’t blame him for some of the things he does, that doesn’t mean there are no appropriate responses to what he is, for he’s a nasty man. People who enjoy hurting, manipulating, and disrespecting others are the very definition of nasty, with or without the capacity for empathy. Disdain and contempt remain perfectly appropriate for them.

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4 Responses to Should We Let Trump Off the Hook?

  1. This article is just adorable. I’m not even voting Trump, and yet, I cannot help but laugh out loud at the number of individuals claiming special status as “thinkers” and “intellectuals”, who are simply stamping their feet and shouting “Trump is a poopie-head!”

    Yours, though, is the first one where I could not quite tell which candidate you were talking about:

    “…Those with the disorder come across as arrogant, conceited, and self-obsessed, they lie a lot to keep admiration coming, and they cannot stomach criticism of any kind, reacting with rage and often seeking to belittle or get revenge against their critics…”

  2. William Smith says:

    Being an MD, PhD (philosophy) candidate, I’m interested in the reason for the claim that “NPD is most fundamentally marked by an almost complete lack of empathy for others. Those with the disorder aren’t emotionally moved by the emotional ups-and-downs of others, and they don’t really understand others’ points of view on their own interests and needs. Further, in clinical presentations, this lack of empathy seems to be not a deficiency but a dysfunction, that is, those with NPD seem to lack the capacity for empathy.”

    Many are inclined to think of personality disorders as manifesting along significant spectrums of dysfunction. Indeed, many who may not merit a diagnosis of a personality disorder, might nevertheless manifest many “traits” of such disorders without meeting sufficient dysfunctional criteria to qualify for having it. Further, many having the disorder might not manifest some traits and may manifest some traits to far less degrees than other traits (or to far less degrees than other individuals).

    Philosophically, these issues seem important because your argument for excuse seems to depend on a categorical claim (or a threshold claim) about empathy deficits rather than one of degree.

  3. You’re of course right, William. The idea is to get us to think about what we’d say of someone who was in fact dysfunctional, whether that involves complete incapacity for empathy (I doubt it) or someone falling below a significant threshold of empathic impairments. I’m not saying this is the case with Trump, only that his case may get us to think about what we’d say of him were he this way.

  4. Heath White says:

    No I do not think we should let Trump off the hook, because there are very important differences between Trump and, say, an autistic person, even if Trump has no capacity at all for empathy.

    An absence of empathy might explain some tasteless jokes, social gracelessness, or failure to take others’ interests into account. If that is what we were dealing with (and it is when we deal with some autistic people) such actions might be excusable. But an absence of empathy does not explain the positive impulse to be dominant, to dominate others, to lash out and punish critics, or to demean and take advantage of the weak. And it does not explain why someone who is relatively intelligent would not figure out that they were missing some crucial emotional equipment and compensate with learned behavior, as many autistic people report doing. To explain all that, you have to appeal to the fact that Trump positively enjoys hurting, manipulating, and disrespecting others—the nastiness.

    One important (albeit contested) lesson of Frankfurt cases is that it is not whether you could have done something else that determines whether you are blameworthy for some wrongdoing, but the reasons you actually did perform the wrongdoing. When we look at Trump, I don’t think we should look at what he couldn’t have done (say, empathize) but the reasons behind his behavior. It is not merely that he mistakenly thinks certain jokes are funny when they are not, or believes women enjoy his advances when they do not. No, part of his reason is to take what he wants simply because he wants it; to actively establish and enact his dominant position by subjecting others to humiliating treatment. I think he is perfectly aware of what humiliates and objectifies others, and that is part of the point for him.

    So no, do not let Trump off the hook.