Can rich and powerful people be empathetic?

Lately, several things have added up to my asking the question in the title.

On The Daily Show this week, Jon Stewart interviewed the author Jon Ronson, who wrote The Psychopath Test. He avers that a surprising number of CEOs and powerful politicians are successful precisely because they are psychopaths. In other words, they completely lack empathy for anyone else, and thus are able to do whatever is necessary to get ahead. As Booklist says in its review of this book, “those behaviors are found in CEOs who recklessly eliminate jobs while lavishing money on themselves and their friends, as well as in murderously dangerous Mafiosi”.

Tomorrow night my book club will be discussing the 2010 novel The Privileges, by Jonathon Dee. It’s a brilliantly-written depiction a family–husband, wife, daughter, son–who become ultra-rich. The man is very good at his job and makes a lot of money working for a private equity firm, but he feels absolutely entitled to a life of ultimate privilege for himself and his family. So he engages in illegal insider trading, and makes an incredible fortune. The man and his wife are totally narcissistic and lacking in empathy for anyone else outside their 4-person family unit, including their own parents and siblings. They believe that their children should be denied nothing. The results are horrifying.

Meanwhile, our newspapers are filled with stories about how the rich have gotten richer during our current economic downturn. Two days ago, I read this headline in the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “Rich Spend as Everyone Else Scrimps.” I have to wonder if someone who spends $5000 on one handbag, which is just plain ridiculous, can have any empathy for the other 99% of humanity.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” Being born rich has to put you at a remove from ordinary people which would be very difficult to bridge. Does attaining great wealth do the same thing? Or do you have to feel that remove from others in the first place in order to amass a personal fortune.

Of course I am not saying that all rich people and all powerful people lack empathy. Certainly many people, like the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, go into politics precisely because they have great empathy for others, and wish to help them and make the world a better place. And I’m sure some rich people send their kids to public school and do other things to keep their children, and themselves, grounded and in touch with regular people. Prince William flies search and rescue helicopters and hangs out with his RAF crew.

But history is full of people–from the robber barons of the past to Bernie Madoff of today–who are very rich because they are sociopaths who have a talent for taking money from other people in various ways and not caring one tiny bit about those whom they have hurt.

The next book I’m going to read is The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, by Simon Baron-Cohen. If I learn anything therein that helps us know what can be done about rich and powerful sociopaths, I’ll let you know.


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1 Response

  1. Danna says:

    On MPR the other day I heard that although psychopaths are found in approximately 1% of the general population, that number raises to 4% in the business world. Psychopaths are literally fearless and ruthless. But maybe it's better that they fire people instead of murdering them. Still, that's not to say it's acceptable…