Narcissism, Narcissists, and Abusive Relationships - Epistolary Dialog

Letter I

Letter II

Letter III

Letter IV

Letter V

Letter VI

Letter VII

Letter VIII

Letter IX

Letter X

Letter XI

Letter XII

©Stephen McDonnell and Sam Vaknin

All text is copyrighted and is published here with the permission of the authors.

Malignant Self Love - Buy the Book - Click HERE!!!

Relationships with Abusive Narcissists - Buy the e-Books - Click HERE!!!

Thursday, February 27, 2005, Letter Eleven to Sam Vaknin from Stephen McDonnell

A little Evil will go a long way or Frienemies

Dear Sam

As a well-known expert in personality disorders, I would like to know where you would put 'toxic friend", also known as the 'underminer', the 'frenemy', alias the friendly purveyor of Schadenfreude? In one of the movies up for an Academy Award this year, Sideways, there is a perfect depiction of one, the buddy who greases the sidewalk under his friend's feet. Jane Greer, a New York psychologist wrote a book called 'How Could You Do This To Me?' labels them "a narcissistic personality who present as looking out for you but who're really out for themselves." Sounds familiar? The man or woman who is all smiles and good cheer, seductive and complimentary, and then they say 'the most undermining thing' to you, according to Mike Albo. He wrote "The Underminer or The Best Friend who Casually Destroys Your Life", a book narrated by such a character. In the animated movie "The Incredibles" he makes his appearance once again as Mr. Underminer. They are ancient characters who go way back to Ancient Greece, witness Theophrastus who wrote of them in his work Characters.

I found the previous information in an article in the Boston Globe, where Joseph P. Kahn writes how 'downers are up'. I believe that Shakespeare immortalized the frienemy in his play Othello. Yago spreads salacious gossip about Othello's wife. Moliere often uses the undermining servant to upbraid the master in his plays. We laugh - as we cry - because we know them well. They are the well meaning friend, the pal who lets slip a confidence, the well intentioned goody-goody two shoes who are part and parcel of our lives. They view themselves as upright citizens out to help their friends with 'honesty' when silence would be the better part of valor. But a gossip thinks a word not said is a word wasted ­ not understanding the African proverb that information is like water, once it has been spilled on the sand, it can't be picked up. The telling is the joy for the frienemy ­ they love to see the look on the other person's face when they tell their juicy tidbit! Gossip circles love to stir up a fuss - as long as they are not the target. I remember one fellow who used to sneak into the men's room to lock himself into a stall, stand on a toilette, and listen to what people were saying so he could tell our boss!

On a sliding scale of one to ten, these people are minor annoyances but given the chance they want to be big fish. They are the people who Hannah Arndt said practice the 'banality of evil'. Most never make it past standing on their local soapbox spouting their theories, but they actually believe they can change the outcome of other people's lives. I have heard the story of someone who gave a friend a record of piano playing and it ruined his friend's interest in playing the piano - he says. They give themselves too much credit - but that doesn't stop them from trying. Like Sisyphus, they keep pushing the rock of good intentions up the hill then let it roll back onto to their friend's lives. They are why we have the expression, 'with friends like these who needs enemies?'


Wonderfully put (tongue firmly NOT in cheek). Frienemies! I love this coinage!

"Who's the fairest of them all?" – asks the Bad Queen in the fairy tale. Having provided the wrong answer, the mirror is smashed to smithereens. Not a bad allegory for how the narcissist treats his "friends".

Literature helps us grasp the intricate interactions between the narcissist and members of his social circle.

Both Sherlock Holmes and Hercules Poirot, the world's most renowned fiction detectives, are quintessential narcissists. Both are also schizoids – they have few friends and are largely confined to their homes, engaged in solitary activities. Both have fatuous, sluggish, and anodyne sidekicks who slavishly cater to their whims and needs and provide them with an adulating gallery – Holmes' Dr. Watson and Poirot's poor Hastings.

Both Holmes and Poirot assiduously avoid the "competition" – equally sharp minds who seek their company for a fertilising intellectual exchange among equals. They feel threatened by the potential need to admit to ignorance and confess to error. Both gumshoes are self-sufficient and consider themselves peerless.

(continued below)

This article appears in my book, "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"

Click HERE to buy the print edition from Amazon (click HERE to buy a copy dedicated by the author)

Click HERE to buy the print edition from Barnes and Noble

Click HERE to buy the print edition from the publisher and receive a BONUS PACK

Click HERE to buy electronic books (e-books) and video lectures (DVDs) about narcissists, psychopaths, and abuse in relationships

Click HERE to buy the ENTIRE SERIES of sixteen electronic books (e-books) about narcissists, psychopaths, and abuse in relationships




Follow me on Twitter, Facebook (my personal page or the book’s), YouTube


The Watsons and Hastings of this world provide the narcissist with an obsequious, unthreatening, audience and with the kind of unconditional and unthinking obedience that confirms to him his omnipotence. They are sufficiently vacuous to make the narcissist look sharp and omniscient – but not so asinine as to be instantly discernible as such. They are the perfect backdrop, never likely to attain centre stage and overshadow their master.

Moreover, both Holmes and Poirot sadistically – and often publicly – taunt and humiliate their Sancho Panzas, explicitly chastising them for being dim-witted. Narcissism and sadism are psychodynamic cousins and both Watson and Hastings are perfect victims of abuse: docile, understanding, malignantly optimistic, self-deluding, and idolising.

Narcissists can't empathise or love and, therefore, have no friends. The narcissist is one track minded. He is interested in securing Narcissistic Supply from Narcissistic Supply Sources. He is not interested in people as such. He is incapable of empathising, is a solipsist, and recognises only himself as human. To the narcissist, all others are three dimensional cartoons, tools and instruments in the tedious and Sisyphean task of generating and consuming Narcissistic Supply.

The narcissist over-values people (when they are judged to be potential sources of such supply), uses them, devalues them (when no longer able to supply him) and discards them nonchalantly. This behaviour pattern tends to alienate and to distance people.

Gradually, the social circle of the narcissist dwindles (and ultimately vanishes). People around him who are not turned off by the ugly succession of his acts and attitudes – are rendered desperate and fatigued by the turbulent nature of the narcissist's life.

Those few still loyal to him, gradually abandon him because they can no longer withstand and tolerate the ups and downs of his career, his moods, his confrontations and conflicts with authority, his chaotic financial state and the dissolution of his emotional affairs. The narcissist is a human roller coaster – fun for a limited time, nauseating in the long run.

This is the process of narcissistic confinement.

Anything which might – however remotely – endanger the availability, or the quantity of the narcissist's Narcissistic Supply is excised. The narcissist avoids certain situations (for instance: where he is likely to encounter opposition, or criticism, or competition). He refrains from certain activities and actions (which are incompatible with his projected False Self). And he steers clear of people he deems insufficiently amenable to his charms.

To avoid narcissistic injury, the narcissist employs a host of Emotional Involvement Prevention Measures (EIPMs). He becomes rigid, repetitive, predictable, boring, limits himself to "safe subjects" (such as, endlessly, himself) and to "safe conduct", and often rages hysterically (when confronted with unexpected situations or with the slightest resistance to his preconceived course of action).

The narcissist's rage is not so much a reaction to offended grandiosity as it is the outcome of panic. The narcissist maintains a precarious balance, a mental house of cards, poised on a precipice. His equilibrium is so delicate that anything and anyone can upset it: a casual remark, a disagreement, a slight criticism, a hint, or a fear.

The narcissist magnifies it all into monstrous, ominous, proportions. To avoid these (not so imagined) threats – the narcissist prefers to "stay at home". He limits his social intercourse. He abstains from daring, trying, or venturing out. He is crippled. This, indeed, is the very essence of the malignancy that is at the heart of narcissism: the fear of flying.


In my life I have developed a moral Teflon (a la President Reagan) that I use when I feel as if some one is trying to get their tender hooks into me ­ the frienemy has a Velcro soul. If this makes me less sympathetic so be it. As my mother used to tell me, 'burn me once fooey on you, burn me twice fooey on me.' A wise woman told me that when we not only see but also start avoiding the manholes in the road of life, then we are wise. Ever so often we have to scrape off the barnacles of frienemies who attach themselves to us. Life is not hermetic, so in the social discourse we give and take, which is normal. But when a vampire tick attaches themselves to you, in whatever form, then you have to be careful. The best way is to apply a lit match to their body and that will make them release their head that is embedded in your skin. Without becoming cynical, I can recognize true friendliness that is not exploitive.


Back to pathological narcissism (I am afraid to veer too off course...)

I compare Narcissistic Supply to drugs because of the almost involuntary and always-unrestrained nature of the pursuit involved in securing it. The narcissist is no better or worse (morally speaking) than others. But he lacks the ability to empathise precisely because he is obsessed with the maintenance of his delicate inner balance through the (ever-increasing) consumption of Narcissistic Supply.

The narcissist rates people around him according to whether they can provide him with Narcissistic Supply or not. As far as the narcissist is concerned, those who fail this simple test do not exist. They are two-dimensional cartoon figures. Their feelings, needs and fears are of no interest or importance.

Those identified as potential Sources of Narcissistic Supply are then subjected to a meticulous examination and probing of the volume and quality of the Narcissistic Supply that they are likely to provide. The narcissist nurtures and cultivates these people. He caters to their needs, desires, and wishes. He considers their emotions. He encourages those aspects of their personality that are likely to enhance their ability to provide him with his much needed supply.

In this very restricted sense, he regards and treats them as "human". This is be his way of "maintaining and servicing" his Supply Sources. Needless to say that he loses any and all interest in them and in their needs once he decides that they are no longer able to supply him with what he needs: an audience, attention, and witnessing his accomplishments and moments of glory (to serve as his external memory). The same reaction is provoked by any behaviour judged by the narcissist to be narcissistically injurious.

The narcissist coldly evaluates tragic circumstances. Will they allow him to extract Narcissistic Supply from people affected by the tragedy?

A narcissist, for instance, will give a helping hand, console, guide, and encourage another person only if that person is important, powerful, has access to other important or powerful people, or to the media, or has a following - in other words, only if the bereaved, one recovered, can provide the narcissist with benefits or narcissistic supply.

The same applies if helping, consoling, guiding, or encouraging that person is likely to win the narcissist applause, approval, adoration, a following, or some other kind of Narcissist Supply from on-lookers and witnesses to the interaction. The act of helping another person must be documented and thus transformed into narcissistic nourishment.

Otherwise the narcissist is not concerned or interested in the problems and suffering of others. The narcissist has no time or energy for anything, except for obtaining next narcissistic fix, NO MATTER WHAT THE PRICE AND WHO IS TRAMPLED UPON.


Sam, I appreciated your comments on evil and morality in your last answer to my letter. Let me reiterate the definition of harm done by downers.

Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important.
They don't mean to do harm - but the harm does not interest them.
Or they do not see it, or they justify it
Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.

By T. S. Eliot

When you wrote, "Indeed, morality and possessing a moral sense are not possible without empathy!" I felt we were in synch. Then you wrote:

"The "Oxford Companion to Philosophy" (Oxford University Press, 1995) defines it thus: "The suffering which results from morally wrong human choices."

To qualify as evil a person (Moral Agent) must meet these requirements:

1.That he can and does consciously choose between the (morally) right and wrong and constantly and consistently prefers the latter;
2.That he acts on his choice irrespective of the consequences to himself and to others

Clearly, evil must be premeditated. Francis Hutcheson and Joseph Butler argued that evil is a by-product of the pursuit of one's interest or cause at the expense of other people's interests or causes. But this ignores the critical element of conscious choice among equally efficacious alternatives. Moreover, people often pursue evil even when it jeopardizes their well-being and obstructs their interests. Sadomasochists even relish this orgy of mutual assured destruction."

And you found the The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1999 edition) definition of empathy as:

"The ability to imagine oneself in anther's place and understand the other's feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. It is a term coined in the early 20th century, equivalent to the German EinfΈhlung and modeled on "sympathy." The term is used with special (but not exclusive) reference to aesthetic experience. The most obvious example, perhaps, is that of the actor or singer who genuinely feels the part he is performing. With other works of art, a spectator may, by a kind of introjection, feel himself involved in what he observes or contemplates. The use of empathy is an important part of the counseling technique developed by the American psychologist Carl Rogers."

My own experiences

In my class a psychiatrist told us that to treat the mentally ill one has to have compassion. To have compassion you must feel empathy and for those who suffer from personality disorders this is difficult if not impossible because they have to put themselves in another's shoes (theory of mind). A student said he looked at life choices as a balance sheet of good and bad outcomes, where the bottom line influenced the decision-making. I feel that these two views are diametrically opposed. In many cases the financial outcomes may outweigh the moral decisions that we should make as human beings. Slavery was one of the choices made based on economic outcomes, as is our love of the internal combustion engine and resulting pollution. If we take someone and turn him or her into a commodity ­ an object ­ then we no longer have a balanced standard to judge. If the bottom line of a company counts more than the people working in the company, then the stockholders are the winners, and the jobs will go elsewhere. Ultimately the companies will be foreign owned with foreign workers, and the stockholders may lose their controlling interest to foreign stockholders. I wonder if economics has any morality?

The objectification of a person or of a world - put company in their place- has led us to where were we are now. When Professor David Suzuki gave a lecture to the intellectual elite of the United States, where I was a bystander, he elucidated the problems facing humankind. He came to the conclusion that the study of the brain and why it makes decisions would be the factor that would save or doom us. If we do not understand the wellspring of our decisions then we are no longer masters of our ship - we are like the captain of the Titanic. Why would the most powerful country in the world, under president Ronald Reagan, embark on a self gutting of resources and embrace some lame brain theory of trickle down economics? The net result of this policy is that there are richer people in the United States, and that most of the manufacturing jobs are being outsourced. The trickle down effect was to encourage third world countries to improve their education and skills, so they could obtain contracts for manufacturing, while the funding for education in the United States has languished. The near sighted and self-serving policies of Republican administrations (as well as Democratic ones) have resulted in a country that is fat and happy and waiting to be butchered by leaner hungrier and smarter wolves. What does this have to do with evil? You may ask.

If we only look at the surface, therefore reacting to perceptions and not to facts, then we will be lured by the Pied Pipers of fast profit, forgetting how the piper was paid in the fairy tale. Evil thinks it can get away with anything. I will give you an example of Evil on a major scale.

In one of my alternative lives, I was a TV news cameraman in Lafayette, Louisiana, learning all about human foibles and follies. Once I was elected - no other camera man wanted the job - to go on a shoot where they had busted a huge swingers club and I looked a table full of photographs of naked bodies in all sorts of positions. People like to document their madness. So it was not a surprise to learn of a murder trial where the victim was not dead. No, she had been awarded a death sentence because she had been infected with HIV and Hepatitis C viruses. She had no idea where or how she was infected other than blaming her former lover, the doctor in question. Now he swore he was blameless. On TV he came across as a well-groomed and manicured physician of the highest repute, married and all. He also struck me as arrogant, lacking compassion. I wonder if those who want to be physicians, or psychiatrists, are sometimes mentally sick and really want to control and hurt other people?

Janice Trahan reported that her ex lover showed up one night to inject her with vitamin B-12. In the court proceedings, the samples of HIV were sent to be analyzed. The genetic imprint lead to the possible conclusion of deliberate infection, collaborative evidence showed that another one of Dr. Schmidt's patients also had Hepatitis C. The good doctor, in his arrogance, had kept the records for both the HIV and Hepatitis C patients ­ like medical pornography ­ and thus sealed his fate. Phylogenetics saved the day. Here is more:

Evolutionary biology to the rescue: uncovering a physician's biowarfare against his mistress

Molecular epidemiology is the science of figuring out the source of infectious agents by using their DNA (genome) sequences. If you were unlucky enough to get infected with hepatitis B, molecular epidemiology might help you figure out who gave it to you ­ a person with whom you had a sexual encounter? a blood donor? a medical tech? someone else? These methods are often studies in (short-term) evolution, because the DNA sequences of the virus or bacterium infecting you will no longer necessarily be the same as the DNA sequences of the virus in the person who gave it to you. A Darwinian tree showing the relatedness among different viral isolates allows you to make inferences about where your virus came from.

A sensational case of HIV molecular epidemiology led to a criminal case in Lafayette, Louisiana. A physician was accused of injecting his former mistress with blood containing HIV. He had been giving her vitamin B injections (to boost her sex drive), and it was supposedly the final injection in August of 1994 that contained the blood with HIV ­ just before this injection, she had indicated that she was terminating their relationship. When the woman was diagnosed with HIV and hepatitis C in December, 1994, she suspected the physician's injection as the source; at the time of a blood donation in April, 1994, she had been negative for both viruses. This case was unusual in that the person infecting the woman (the physician) was not himself infected, so it was necessary both to locate the patient whose HIV infected the woman and to demonstrate that the physician had access to this patient's blood. Records were discovered in the physician's office indicating that blood had been drawn from two patients during the week in question; one patient was previously known to be HIV+ and the other positive for hepatitis-C. Phylogenetic analyses (Darwinian "trees" of the virus sequences) showed that the HIV sequences of the ex-mistress clustered within those of the patient with HIV, supporting her story (State of Louisiana Criminal Dockett # 96CR73313, D. Hillis, personal communication). The physician was convicted of attempted second-degree murder and sentenced to a 50 y term in prison in this first use of phylogenetics in U.S. criminal court.


The doctor appealed his verdict to the state supreme court and this was the verdict in 30 page pdf file:

My comments on this

Can we label this as 'evil'? I think most sane people would. In the Bible Luke 2:23 it says, "Doctor, heal thyself." Perhaps we should say to the evil, cure thyselves? What if they know not what they do?

(continued below)

This article appears in my book, "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"

Click HERE to buy the print edition from Amazon (click HERE to buy a copy dedicated by the author)

Click HERE to buy the print edition from Barnes and Noble

Click HERE to buy the print edition from the publisher and receive a BONUS PACK

Click HERE to buy electronic books (e-books) and video lectures (DVDs) about narcissists, psychopaths, and abuse in relationships

Click HERE to buy the ENTIRE SERIES of sixteen electronic books (e-books) about narcissists, psychopaths, and abuse in relationships




Follow me on Twitter, Facebook (my personal page or the book’s), YouTube


They do evil and wicked deeds but like the Pharisees, they are think themselves innocent and powerful, sitting in the front pews, like ducks in a row, smug and almighty, fearing no god, or God, then how can we cure them? Are they like Gyroscopes that keep on their paths, never wavering from their truth? How many truths are there, you may well ask? How many people are there on the earth? And in each brain how many different possible truths? An infinite number! How many will come out and claim victory? The loudest one, the one that repeats itself over and over? Certainly the National Socialists took this route, as have many before and after. Keep repeating the same thing and maybe your audience will be broken into believing it, if no other voices speak out. Of course, people will ask uncomfortable questions, maybe these are like Jesus' parables, obscure and difficult to understand. Maybe a question will be like a stone in a shoe, hurting the walker to the point where their gait changes, likewise their thinking? The Irish have a prayer to God that asks Him to punish their enemies, or at least make them limp to identify them.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, "What is in a name, that you call evil by another name, would it stink the same?"

That evil exists in our world is a given. That evil men and women are evil is sadly true, but what breaks one's heart is that evil needs a few people who let it go by, ignore it, and refuse to see it or label it as such out of self interest or ignorance. Hitler came to power carried on the shoulders of the German people because he embodied their blood lust and violence as a vengeful hero. Evil needs the company of the fear full masses. Good deeds are done by the solitary brave soul who confronts the dragon. But what if the damsel in distress is in cahoots with the dragon?

As to your comment:

There was one man who dedicated his life, both figuratively and literally, to the study of narcissism as the moral future of mankind. His name was Friedrich Nietzsche.

Friedrich Nietzsche 's uberman of smacks of the NPD, doesn't it? Certainly the National Socialists thought so, they embraced his ideas and see what they did...


Is there any necessary connection between our actions and the happiness of others? Disregarding for a moment the murkiness of the definitions of "actions" in philosophical literature - two types of answers were hitherto provided.

Sentient Beings (referred to, in this essay, as "Humans" or "persons") seem either to limit each other - or to enhance each other's actions. Mutual limitation is, for instance, evident in game theory. It deals with decision outcomes when all the rational "players" are fully aware of both the outcomes of their actions and of what they prefer these outcomes to be. They are also fully informed about the other players: they know that they are rational, too, for instance. This, of course, is a very farfetched idealization. A state of unbounded information is nowhere and never to be found. Still, in most cases, the players settle down to one of the Nash equilibria solutions. Their actions are constrained by the existence of the others.

The "Hidden Hand" of Adam Smith (which, among other things, benignly and optimally regulates the market and the price mechanisms) - is also a "mutually limiting" model. Numerous single participants strive to maximize their (economic and financial) outcomes - and end up merely optimizing them. The reason lies in the existence of others within the "market". Again, they are constrained by other people’s motivations, priorities ands, above all, actions.

All the consequentialist theories of ethics deal with mutual enhancement. This is especially true of the Utilitarian variety. Acts (whether judged individually or in conformity to a set of rules) are moral, if their outcome increases utility (also known as happiness or pleasure). They are morally obligatory if they maximize utility and no alternative course of action can do so. Other versions talk about an "increase" in utility rather than its maximization. Still, the principle is simple: for an act to be judged "moral, ethical, virtuous, or good" - it must influence others in a way which will "enhance" and increase their happiness.

The flaws in all the above answers are evident and have been explored at length in the literature. The assumptions are dubious (fully informed participants, rationality in decision making and in prioritizing the outcomes, etc.). All the answers are instrumental and quantitative: they strive to offer a moral measuring rod. An "increase" entails the measurement of two states: before and after the act. Moreover, it demands full knowledge of the world and a type of knowledge so intimate, so private - that it is not even sure that the players themselves have conscious access to it. Who goes around equipped with an exhaustive list of his priorities and another list of all the possible outcomes of all the acts that he may commit?

But there is another, basic flaw: these answers are descriptive, observational, phenomenological in the restrictive sense of these words. The motives, the drives, the urges, the whole psychological landscape behind the act are deemed irrelevant. The only thing relevant is the increase in utility/happiness. If the latter is achieved - the former might as well not have existed. A computer, which increases happiness is morally equivalent to a person who achieves a quantitatively similar effect. Even worse: two persons acting out of different motives (one malicious and one benevolent) will be judged to be morally equivalent if their acts were to increase happiness similarly.

But, in life, an increase in utility or happiness or pleasure is CONDITIONED upon, is the RESULT of the motives behind the acts that led to it. Put differently: the utility functions of two acts depend decisively on the motivation, drive, or urge behind them. The process, which leads to the act is an inseparable part of the act and of its outcomes, including the outcomes in terms of the subsequent increase in utility or happiness. We can safely distinguish the "utility contaminated" act from the "utility pure (or ideal)" act.

If a person does something which is supposed to increase the overall utility - but does so in order to increase his own utility more than the expected average utility increase - the resulting increase will be lower. The maximum utility increase is achieved overall when the actor forgoes all increase in his personal utility. It seems that there is a constant of utility increase and a conservation law pertaining to it. So that a disproportionate increase in one's personal utility translates into a decrease in the overall average utility. It is not a zero sum game because of the infiniteness of the potential increase - but the rules of distribution of the utility added after the act, seem to dictate an averaging of the increase in order to maximize the result.

The same pitfalls await these observations as did the previous ones. The players must be in the possession of full information at least regarding the motivation of the other players. "Why is he doing this?" and "why did he do what he did?" are not questions confined to the criminal courts. We all want to understand the "why's" of actions long before we engage in utilitarian calculations of increased utility. This also seems to be the source of many an emotional reaction concerning human actions. We are envious because we think that the utility increase was unevenly divided (when adjusted for efforts invested and for the prevailing cultural mores). We suspect outcomes that are "too good to be true". Actually, this very sentence proves my point: that even if something produces an increase in overall happiness it will be considered morally dubious if the motivation behind it remains unclear or seems to be irrational or culturally deviant.

Two types of information are, therefore, always needed: one (discussed above) concerns the motives of the main protagonists, the act-ors. The second type relates to the world. Full knowledge about the world is also a necessity: the causal chains (actions lead to outcomes), what increases the overall utility or happiness and for whom, etc. To assume that all the participants in an interaction possess this tremendous amount of information is an idealization (used also in modern theories of economy), should be regarded as such and not be confused with reality in which people approximate, estimate, extrapolate and evaluate based on a much more limited knowledge.

Two examples come to mind:

Aristotle described the "Great Soul". It is a virtuous agent (actor, player) that judges himself to be possessed of a great soul (in a self-referential evaluative disposition). He has the right measure of his worth and he courts the appreciation of his peers (but not of his inferiors) which he believes that he deserves by virtue of being virtuous. He has a dignity of demeanour, which is also very self-conscious. He is, in short, magnanimous (for instance, he forgives his enemies their offences). He seems to be the classical case of a happiness-increasing agent - but he is not. And the reason that he fails in qualifying as such is that his motives are suspect. Does he refrain from assaulting his enemies because of charity and generosity of spirit - or because it is likely to dent his pomposity? It is sufficient that a POSSIBLE different motive exist - to ruin the utilitarian outcome.

Adam Smith, on the other hand, adopted the spectator theory of his teacher Francis Hutcheson. The morally good is a euphemism. It is really the name provided to the pleasure, which a spectator derives from seeing a virtue in action. Smith added that the reason for this emotion is the similarity between the virtue observed in the agent and the virtue possessed by the observer. It is of a moral nature because of the object involved: the agent tries to consciously conform to standards of behaviour which will not harm the innocent, while, simultaneously benefiting himself, his family and his friends. This, in turn, will benefit society as a whole. Such a person is likely to be grateful to his benefactors and sustain the chain of virtue by reciprocating. The chain of good will, thus, endlessly multiply.

(continued below)

This article appears in my book, "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"

Click HERE to buy the print edition from Amazon (click HERE to buy a copy dedicated by the author)

Click HERE to buy the print edition from Barnes and Noble

Click HERE to buy the print edition from the publisher and receive a BONUS PACK

Click HERE to buy electronic books (e-books) and video lectures (DVDs) about narcissists, psychopaths, and abuse in relationships

Click HERE to buy the ENTIRE SERIES of sixteen electronic books (e-books) about narcissists, psychopaths, and abuse in relationships




Follow me on Twitter, Facebook (my personal page or the book’s), YouTube


Even here, we see that the question of motive and psychology is of utmost importance. WHY is the agent doing what he is doing? Does he really conform to society's standards INTERNALLY? Is he GRATEFUL to his benefactors? Does he WISH to benefit his friends? These are all questions answerable only in the realm of the mind. Really, they are not answerable at all.

Back to friendship:

What are friends for and how can a friendship be tested? By behaving altruistically, would be the most common answer and by sacrificing one's interests in favour of one's friends. Friendship implies the converse of egoism, both psychologically and ethically. But then we say that the dog is "man's best friend". After all, it is characterized by unconditional love, by unselfish behaviour, by sacrifice, when necessary. Isn't this the epitome of friendship? Apparently not. On the one hand, the dog's friendship seems to be unaffected by long term calculations of personal benefit. But that is not to say that it is not affected by calculations of a short-term nature. The owner, after all, looks after the dog and is the source of its subsistence and security. People – and dogs – have been known to have sacrificed their lives for less. The dog is selfish – it clings and protects what it regards to be its territory and its property (including – and especially so - the owner). Thus, the first condition, seemingly not satisfied by canine attachment is that it be reasonably unselfish.

There are, however, more important conditions:

  1. For a real friendship to exist – at least one of the friends must be a conscious and intelligent entity, possessed of mental states. It can be an individual, or a collective of individuals, but in both cases this requirement will similarly apply.
  1. There must be a minimal level of identical mental states between the terms of the equation of friendship. A human being cannot be friends with a tree (at least not in the fullest sense of the word).
  1. The behaviour must not be deterministic, lest it be interpreted as instinct driven. A conscious choice must be involved. This is a very surprising conclusion: the more "reliable", the more "predictable" – the less appreciated. Someone who reacts identically to similar situations, without dedicating a first, let alone a second thought to it – his acts would be depreciated as "automatic responses".

For a pattern of behaviour to be described as "friendship", these four conditions must be met: diminished egoism, conscious and intelligent agents, identical mental states (allowing for the communication of the friendship) and non-deterministic behaviour, the result of constant decision making.

A friendship can be – and often is – tested in view of these criteria. There is a paradox underlying the very notion of testing a friendship. A real friend would never test his friend's commitment and allegiance. Anyone who puts his friend to a test (deliberately) would hardly qualify as a friend himself. But circumstances can put ALL the members of a friendship, all the individuals (two or more) in the "collective" to a test of friendship. Financial hardship encountered by someone would surely oblige his friends to assist him – even if he himself did not take the initiative and explicitly asked them to do so. It is life that tests the resilience and strength and depth of true friendships – not the friends themselves.

In all the discussions of egoism versus altruism – confusion between self-interest and self-welfare prevails. A person may be urged on to act by his self-interest, which might be detrimental to his (long-term) self-welfare. Some behaviours and actions can satisfy short-term desires, urges, wishes (in short: self-interest) – and yet be self- destructive or otherwise adversely effect the individual's future welfare. (Psychological) Egoism should, therefore, be re-defined as the active pursuit of self- welfare, not of self-interest. Only when the person caters, in a balanced manner, to both his present (self-interest) and his future (self-welfare) interests – can we call him an egoist. Otherwise, if he caters only to his immediate self-interest, seeks to fulfil his desires and disregards the future costs of his behaviour – he is an animal, not an egoist.

Joseph Butler separated the main (motivating) desire from the desire that is self- interest. The latter cannot exist without the former. A person is hungry and this is his desire. His self-interest is, therefore, to eat. But the hunger is directed at eating – not at fulfilling self-interests. Thus, hunger generates self-interest (to eat) but its object is eating. Self-interest is a second order desire that aims to satisfy first order desires (which can also motivate us directly).

This subtle distinction can be applied to disinterested behaviours, acts, which seem to lack a clear self-interest or even a first order desire. Consider why do people contribute to humanitarian causes? There is no self-interest here, even if we account for the global picture (with every possible future event in the life of the contributor). No rich American is likely to find himself starving in Somalia, the target of one such humanitarian aid mission.

But even here the Butler model can be validated. The first order desire of the donator is to avoid anxiety feelings generated by a cognitive dissonance. In the process of socialization we are all exposed to altruistic messages. They are internalized by us (some even to the extent of forming part of the almighty superego, the conscience). In parallel, we assimilate the punishment inflicted upon members of society who are not "social" enough, unwilling to contribute beyond that which is required to satisfy their self interest, selfish or egoistic, non-conformist, "too" individualistic, "too" idiosyncratic or eccentric, etc. Completely not being altruistic is "bad" and as such calls for "punishment". This no longer is an outside judgement, on a case by case basis, with the penalty inflicted by an external moral authority. This comes from the inside: the opprobrium and reproach, the guilt, the punishment (read Kafka). Such impending punishment generates anxiety whenever the person judges himself not to have been altruistically "sufficient". It is to avoid this anxiety or to quell it that a person engages in altruistic acts, the result of his social conditioning. To use the Butler scheme: the first-degree desire is to avoid the agonies of cognitive dissonance and the resulting anxiety. This can be achieved by committing acts of altruism. The second-degree desire is the self-interest to commit altruistic acts in order to satisfy the first-degree desire. No one engages in contributing to the poor because he wants them to be less poor or in famine relief because he does not want others to starve. People do these apparently selfless activities because they do not want to experience that tormenting inner voice and to suffer the acute anxiety, which accompanies it. Altruism is the name that we give to successful indoctrination. The stronger the process of socialization, the stricter the education, the more severely brought up the individual, the grimmer and more constraining his superego – the more of an altruist he is likely to be. Independent people who really feel comfortable with their selves are less likely to exhibit these behaviours.

This is the self-interest of society: altruism enhances the overall level of welfare. It redistributes resources more equitably, it tackles market failures more or less efficiently (progressive tax systems are altruistic), it reduces social pressures and stabilizes both individuals and society. Clearly, the self-interest of society is to make its members limit the pursuit of their own self-interest? There are many opinions and theories. They can be grouped into:

  1. Those who see an inverse relation between the two: the more satisfied the self interests of the individuals comprising a society – the worse off that society will end up. What is meant by "better off" is a different issue but at least the commonsense, intuitive, meaning is clear and begs no explanation. Many religions and strands of moral absolutism espouse this view.
  1. Those who believe that the more satisfied the self-interests of the individuals comprising a society – the better off this society will end up. These are the "hidden hand" theories. Individuals, which strive merely to maximize their utility, their happiness, their returns (profits) – find themselves inadvertently engaged in a colossal endeavour to better their society. This is mostly achieved through the dual mechanisms of market and price. Adam Smith is an example (and other schools of the dismal science).
  1. Those who believe that a delicate balance must exist between the two types of self-interest: the private and the public. While most individuals will be unable to obtain the full satisfaction of their self-interest – it is still conceivable that they will attain most of it. On the other hand, society must not fully tread on individuals' rights to self-fulfilment, wealth accumulation and the pursuit of happiness. So, it must accept less than maximum satisfaction of its self-interest. The optimal mix exists and is, probably, of the minimax type. This is not a zero sum game and society and the individuals comprising it can maximize their worst outcomes.

The French have a saying: "Good bookkeeping – makes for a good friendship". Self-interest, altruism and the interest of society at large are not necessarily incompatible.

Continue to letter XII