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"Corporpathology": A New Type of Collective Psychosis?

Corporpathology: A New Type of Collective Psychosis?
Do corporate ethics fit somewhere between psychosis and psychopathy?

Possibly, this re-rejoinder is a first on Psychology Today's blogsite. It's a response to a response on a post by David Niose called "Why Corporations Are Psychotic."

Niose's excellent essay rightfully questions the notion of "corporate personhood" (which was affirmed by the Supreme Court's anti-democratic Citizens United decision to allow corporations to make unlimited campaign contributions). He argues that it's the profit motive--and only the profit motive--that governs large corporate decision-making today. And he contends that corporations, so far from being identifiable as humans, "have no innate moral impulses" [which, to be precise, would make them less immoral than amoral--i.e., without any sense of moral responsibility].

Despite Niose's being "spot on" in so much of his writing, he unfortunately makes an imprudent word choice when he refers to the alarming ethical insensitivity of corporations as "psychotic". Such a designation inadvertently, but implicitly, insults those who in fact have been afflicted by such a serious mental disorder. And in his brief rebuttal, "Psychotic Is Not the Same as Psychopathic," Scott Barry Kaufman justifiably takes issue with Niose for this misleading label. Kaufman makes the important point that it's simply wrong--and unfair--to intimate that psychotic individuals are immoral.

What I'd like to do here (by way of analogy) is to suggest a middle ground for looking at the excesses--or major ethical failings--in our corporate system today.Over 30 years ago, when I was still an English professor, I wrote an article (later republished in two books) entitled, "Milo's 'Culpable Innocence': Absurdity as Moral Insanity in Catch-22." At the time I believed that, in coming up with the term "moral insanity," I'd coined a new phrase (though since then I've encountered it several times--without, unfortunately, ever being cited!). I employed this appelation primarily to refer to Milo Minderbinder, the squadron's mess officer portrayed so incisively in Joseph Heller's most famous novel. And I defined moral insanity as "a curiously innocent perversion of reason so total as to blind the actor from any meaningful recognition of the moral components of his (or anybody else's) behavior." I also quoted Heller directly, who in an interview following the book's publication characterized his work as "a moral book dealing with man's moral dilemma. People can't distinguish between rational and irrational behavior, between the moral and the immoral. . . . It's insane."

Treated comically, yet also satirically, Milo--who lacks any moral compass whatsoever--is the exemplar of all that's wrong with capitalism. He's simply incapable of realizing how his single-minded, self-interested pursuits might negatively affect others (particularly since he regards everyone in his unit as owning a share in his M&M Enterprises). At one point he even arranges to bomb and strafe his own base because he's just completed a tremendously profitable deal with the Germans to do so (!). Curiously, he's treated in the novel as somehow "innocent," for he really doesn't bear ill will toward anyone. As weird as it might seem to use the word, his intentions are "pure".Yet, because his corporate principles are so amoral, it's obvious that they're--well--unprincipled.

 Both technically and diagnostically, Kaufman's criticism of Niose is correct. The behavior that Niose describes really isn't psychotic at all. And I think, at bottom, Niose knows this (i.e., he was probably just looking for an attention-grabbing title!). In the post itself he explicitly refers to corporate behavior not as psychotic but as pathologically narcissistic. True, the term psychopathy would more accurately depict the corporate practices he delineates. But still, there's a considerable overlap between narcissistic personality and psychopathic personality disorders. They're both characterized by lying and equivocation, callousness and a lack of empathy, poor boundaries, and a perception that their actions (frequently vindictive) are somehow legitimate. For they simply don't view themselves as having to conform to the same societal standards, or constraints, as everyone else does.

Anyhow, I see my notion of "moral insanity" as possibly helping to "split the difference" between Niose and Kaufman (and I believe that, besides the choice of nomenclature, their differences are pretty much non-existent). On an aggregate level, my notion of "moral insanity" is virtually synonymous with what I'll now designate "corporpathology," by which I mean a combination of "corporation" and "psychopathology" (and yes, it's not a word you'll find in any dictionary--at least not yet!).

NOTE 1: After my Catch-22 article was published, I received a letter from Heller himself. Thanking me for the publication, he talked about "the philosophy of moral insanity [that Milo] embodies," going on to say that he "knew [Milo] was likable [but] had forgotten how much more villainous that innocent likability made him."

NOTE 2: This "reply-reply" would be incomplete if I didn't point out a carelessness in Kaufman's language that goes, I think, far beyond Niose's. He writes: "Without psychosis, art would suck and imagination would run dry." It may be true that psychotics--perceiving things "outside the box," as it were--can be unusually creative. But the way Kaufman puts it, it would seem that losing touch with reality is a prerequisite for art. And such an implication is even more inaccurate (not to say, insulting to artists!) than regarding corporations as literally psychotic.

 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

This post is a response to Psychotic Is Not the Same as Psychopathic by Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.
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