Thinking in Absolutes: Healthier Than You Realize (Part 2 of 3)

Mencken writes: ‘What is the chief mark of such a good man? That he cannot differentiate rationally between sin and sin—that a gnat gags him as badly as a camel. So with poor Gray. His initial peccadillo shocked him so vastly that he could think of himself thereafter only as a sinner unspeakable and incorrigible.’

It’s impossible to know if this was Henry Judd Gray’s exact psychological state, but it’s highly plausible. Mencken is right that not everyone who does something criminal is necessarily a criminal personality or a sociopath. Essentially, a sociopath is someone who has no conscience and no sense of right or wrong. A genuine criminal suffers from a lack of any all-or-nothing thinking, any remote concept or sense of principled behavior.

Criminal mentalities are philosophical pragmatists who sneer at the virtue of integrity, or of holding to principle. A person who is not a sociopath is capable of doing something horrendously wrong and evil, as Henry Judd Gray did—but it doesn’t follow that his psychological context is anything like that of a career criminal.

We hear of people who shoot others—and then turn the gun on themselves. There could be many explanations for this, but one plausible explanation is that the killer is revolted by his own actions and can no longer stand living because of them. In a bizarre sense, one might call it a final act of justice on the part of the killer: ‘If I did this, I don’t deserve to live. There’s nothing redeemable about me.’ Others might call it an act of cowardice—to avoid facing punishment. Either way, you would not find this motivation in a career criminal or genuine sociopath. The sociopath would do everything possible to evade punishment and would only feel guilty if he got caught—because getting caught would represent a personal failure to achieve what he wanted to achieve as a criminal.

What’s particularly interesting about Mencken’s assessment of the ‘otherwise moral’ criminal is the nature of the error such a person makes: ‘That he cannot differentiate rationally between sin and sin.’ In other words, all-or-nothing thinking. This psychological error has implications not just for a Henry Judd Gray, who failed to distinguish between the bad judgment of an affair with a married woman and the horrendous crime of killing an innocent person. People fail to make rational distinctions all the time. They experience outrage at a minor injustice, while experiencing little or no anger at betrayal. They feel like a small misstep is a catastrophe from which they will never recover, while a major evasion of reality or responsibility is chalked up to ‘having a bad day.’ Some people are too hard on themselves, which is one form of failing to make rational distinctions—since every single error one makes, no matter how small, is seen as a disaster. Other people, while not necessarily sociopaths, seem to bedevoid of even rational anxiety—feeling no concern if they get pulled over for drunk driving or don’t get their bills paid on time. These kind of people fail to make rational distinctions between breaches in personal responsibility and minor oversights, like forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning.

Children who grow up in verbally or physically abusive families understand the failure to make rational distinctions. They speak of fathers who throttle them for refusing to clean their rooms, while ignoring them when they are suspended from school. They talk about mothers who condemn and punish them for cursing or telling a lie, while completely ignoring or denying solid evidence of sexual abuse.

Many different explanations are given for the lack of rational distinctions. The most common one today is that of brain physiology. I maintain that such an explanation is vastly oversimplified. On top of it, the explanation does little good because, aside from mood stabilizers for manic-depressives (a small minority of people who don’t make rational distinctions), there’s no pill to change one’s basic thinking habits or personalities. Looking at the issue rationally, it appears reasonable to conclude that this cognitive ‘pathology’ of all-or-nothing thinking comes from a lack of objectivity. Objectivity and critical thinking are human potentialities that must be learned and cultivated.

Concluded in Tomorrow’s Column