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Donald Trump, moral zombies and the uncanny valley


We have all felt a peculiar unease in front of wax figures.  This arises from the insistent ambiguity which inhabits them and which prevents our adopting a consistent attitude toward them.  Treat them as living beings and they mock us by revealing their cadaverous and waxen secrets, yet if we look at them as dolls they seem to protest.  There is no way of reducing them to mere objects.  Looking at them, we become uneasy with the suspicion that it is they who are looking at us. And we end up by feeling loathing towards this species of hired corpses.  The wax figure is pure melodrama.

Ortega y Gasset, “The Dehumanization of Art” (1925)

Yesterday I got into an argument with someone about whether Donald Trump was lying when he said, for the third time in recent months, that his father was born in Germany (Fred Trump was born in New York).   It seemed to me that Trump’s continuing, repeated insistence that his father was German-born suggested that Trump is showing signs of senile dementia.   My correspondent, on the other hand, pointed out that Trump lies about anything and everything, often for no apparent reason, so that it was quite possible and even likely that Trump was well aware that what he was saying was false.

A psychologist friend had this to add regarding Trump’s mental state:

Trump is of course, a textbook example of a narcissist. But that’s not the primary reason why he’s also dangerous. Lots of Hollywood stars and successful people are narcissists, even if perhaps a little more subtle about it than Trump; they may be difficult to live with, but they aren’t usually dangerous.

But Trump also is what is known in the trade as a “Factor 1 psychopath.” Psychopathy has two components. Factor 2 psychopathy overlaps with run-of-the mill criminal personality traits – high need for stimulation, impulsiveness, multiple types of crimes with origins seen fairly early in childhood; social irresponsibility, poor anger management, etc.   Factor 1 is the part most people think of as psychopathy: a persistent con man style of relating to others, high levels of callousness, lack of capacity for remorse, mostly shallow attachments to others, pathological lying even when it isn’t just to avoid punishments, etc.

There’s a “gold standard” instrument for measuring psychopathy. While there is some subjectivity involved in scoring, inter-rater agreements tend to be fairly good. The instrument can also be scored without a personal examination if other sources of information are extensive.

On this instrument (the “PCL-R”), Trump turns out to be quite easy to score: he obtains about the same score as common criminals in general on “Factor 2” – but considerably worse than most convicted felons on “Factor 1,” the con-man etc. part.

Research is somewhat still in its relative infancy, but Trump’s PCL-R score is in a range that has sometimes been associated with qualitative differences in brain structure and function, e.g., evident in MRIs or PET scans during particular cognitive tasks. Among other curiosities, these individuals tend not to process risk like most people.

Irrespective of that, Trump’s PCL-R scores are empirically correlated with increased level of dangerous behavior of various types, especially if under great perceived threat. The one thing you don’t want to say about a person with elevated psychopathic traits is “Oh, I doubt he’d go that far…”

This reminded me of something particularly disconcerting about Donald Trump.  Trump appears to be a moral zombie.  By the term “moral zombie,” I mean someone who interacts with other people in ways that we,  through force of habit, interpret as evidence that the person’s actions are mediated by moral modes of thinking and feeling.  That is, we interpret the person’s behavior as if it reflected actual beliefs about right and wrong, and associated feelings of righteousness, empathy, guilt, shame, etc.  This turns out to be a mistake: despite appearances, the moral zombie is not engaged in such modes of thinking and feeling, and in fact is not capable, or is no longer capable, of doing so.

It’s easier to see what this means in the context of a concrete example.  Normal people are aware that lying is considered wrong absent special circumstances, and they will try to avoid lying, or at least try to avoid being caught lying, because lying is considered shameful.  Trump, by contrast, seems profoundly indifferent to whether what he is saying happens to be true or not. (In this sense Trump is, to use Harry Frankfurt’s well-known distinction, a bullshitter rather than a liar, since a liar has to care enough about the truth to intend to say what is not true.  Trump doesn’t even care enough about the truth to be a liar in the formal sense, because he’s completely indifferent to the truth value of his statements).

Trump, that is, lies in ordinary life in the same way a poker player “lies” when the player bluffs in the context of betting on a hand.  It would be a category mistake to call a poker player’s bluff a lie, even though it’s a  statement intended to deceive others about the true state of affairs, because this sort of “dishonesty” is understood to be a necessary and indeed essential part of the game of poker.

To Trump, accusations that he is lying are as incoherent as accusing a bluffing card player of lying.   Trump lies, or more often bullshits, because he thinks lying will gain him an advantage of some sort, and it’s incomprehensible to him that he – or anybody else — wouldn’t act in whatever way will gain an advantage.  Telling him not to lie, or not to do anything because it’s wrong, makes about as much sense as telling a shark not to eat a seal, or perhaps telling a rock not to roll downhill.

Trump, in other words, is a moral zombie.  Despite our reflexive interpretation of his behavior in such terms, moral – or for that matter immoral – thoughts and feelings are not part of his cognitive apparatus.

To put it in stark terms, the “pure” psychopathic con man is, despite appearances, not really or at least not fully a human being in some important sense, if, that is, we define humanity as requiring some minimal capacity for moral thought and feeling.

Note that this is not the same thing as being an evil person: indeed it is if anything the opposite, just as it’s a category mistake to label predatory sharks and hurtling rocks “evil.”  (To put it another way, Trump was once an evil person, but it may be that he has deteriorated morally to the point where he is in some psychological sense no longer a person in the full sense of that term).

Here are a couple of examples of profoundly evil men who, according to accounts of their behavior, still to the end of their lives retained some signs of the capacity for moral cognition, and, to that extent, did not seem like pure psychopaths in the way that Donald Trump does.

After Stalin subjected his former close friend and comrade in arms Nikolai Bukharin to a show trial on trumped up charges, and then had him sentenced to death, Bukharin sent Stalin a note, just before the execution, reading “Koba, why do you need me to die?”  (“Koba” had been Stalin’s nom de guerre when Stalin and Bukharin fought together as young men at the beginning of the revolutionary period).  Supposedly, this note was found in Stalin’s desk after the tyrant’s death.

In a similar vein, it’s said that when Hitler discovered, in the last days of the war, that Heinrich Himmler had decided on his own to try to negotiate a surrender with the western allied forces, this betrayal by Der Treue Heinrich (Faithful Heinrich, Hitler’s nickname for the man he trusted above all others) was the final straw that pushed the leader of the Nazi regime to kill himself the next day.

Whatever the actual historical facts may be in each of these cases, the point is that it’s not possible to imagine Trump caring enough about a friend to behave in the manner Stalin and Hitler supposedly behaved, because it’s not possible to imagine Trump caring about anyone other than himself, period (Wanting to have sex with his oldest daughter does not count as paternal affection).

Which brings us to moral zombies and the uncanny valley.  The “uncanny valley” is a phrase invented to describe the sensation described nearly a century ago by Ortega y Gasset, in the quote at the beginning of this post.  We enter the uncanny valley when “humanoid objects which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings [begin to] elicit uncanny, or strangely familiar, feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers.”

As a replica of a human becomes more lifelike, the observer’s affinity to it also increases, until the replica becomes too lifelike, at which point feelings of eeriness and revulsion take over, as the observer attempts to navigate the sensations elicited by a non-human object that only appears to be human (The uncanny valley is an important concept in robotics, artificial intelligence, 3-D animation, and related fields).

I suggest that the visceral revulsion Trump elicits in many people has as one of its sources the uncanny valley that opens up beneath us as we undergo the realization, whether conscious or not, that we are interacting with a moral zombie: with someone or something that looks and acts human, but which in some fundamental sense is no longer really a person at all.

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