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  • Why Narcissists Are Morally Responsible
  • Aleksandar Fatic, PhD

In his insightful commentary of ‘Narcissism as a moral incompetence,’ Professor Pies proposes several principal objections to my line of argument. First, Pies mentions that I embrace a Platonic essentialism and a ‘binary’ view of narcissism, whilst in fact narcissistic traits present themselves in degrees, within a continuum of pathology.

Let us clarify the meaning of essentialism. When applied to the phenomenology of narcissism, Platonic essentialism would imply that there is an idea, or ideal, of ‘pure’ narcissism, which governs our cognition of narcissistic phenomenology. Without an ‘essentialist’ understanding of what narcissism as a more or less pure phenomenon would look like, it would make no semantic or logical sense to speak of various ‘types’ or ‘degrees’ of narcissism. In the 1940s, in The Concept of Mind, Gilbert Ryle offered the now infamous logical analysis of ‘false’ and ‘true coins’: if there were not true coins of which we had some idea, it would be logically impossible to speak of counterfeit coins (McDermid, 2004; Ryle, 1949, pp. 94–99). There are shoddily produced coins that bear only a vague resemblance to the original idea or mint of the real coin, however, for each we would ultimately have to decide whether the resemblance is sufficient for it to be considered a real coin. Shoddily produced coins represent various ‘degrees’ of resemblance of the idea, or form, of a coin, but to call them coins, and to decide whether they are true coins or not, it is a logical presupposition that we must first have an ‘idea’ of what an ‘ideal’ real coin is like. This, at its core, is essentialism.

There is no escape from this type of essentialism in any rigorous argument, because Platonic essentialism is the foundation of the very meanings of the concepts we use. Plato’s ideas are paradigms, where the particular instantiations of their qualities are called ‘phenomena’ (Sedley, 2016; Taylor, 2016). Thus, the nuanced expression of ideas or forms in their various phenomena is the very substance of the essentialist theory of ideas. It appears that Professor Pies is also a Platonic essentialist, as am I.

So why is it often impossible in clinical practice to ascribe necessary and sufficient conditions to narcissism? Well, let us remember Rosenhan’s experiments (1973). Rosenhan illustrates how the same individuals were diagnosed with very different disorders by different clinicians at roughly the same time, and how healthy individuals, once they had been instructed to ‘fake’ psychotic symptoms, remained under the same or more serious [End Page 177] diagnoses even when they stopped pretending and behaved completely normally. The reason for the arbitrariness of psych-diagnoses is the insufficiency of the psych-diagnostic language, including the actual diagnostic criteria, a kind of Lacanian ‘lack’ that is built into the very structure of psychodiagnostics (Ruti, 2008), and not a metaphysics behind such use of diagnostic language, whether it is essentialist or non-essentialist. Whether a particular patient actually has NPD or not in practice comes down to a consensual judgement—one that has been notoriously lacking in the history of psychiatry (Verhaeghe, 2008, pp. 71–125).

Second, Pies suggests that empathy is ‘a complex, multidimensional construct comprising cognitive and affective components.’ I do not think this is a correct understanding of empathy. In fact, it is a conceptual revision of the original concept of empathy, which is one of a moral emotion (Kauppinen, 2014). What Pies calls ‘cognitive empathy,’ namely the ability to recognize and influence the emotions of others is an entirely different quality capacity that has recently been called ‘emotional intelligence’ (e.g., Conte, 2005). Many Cluster B personality disorders are characterized by an exceptionally high emotional intelligence and an almost complete lack of empathy, which allows them to use their emotional intelligence to manipulate and mistreat others. Surely such emotionally intelligent, but highly malignant strategies would not be considered ‘empathy.”

Relatedly, Pies objects to Slote’s alleged view that only actions arising from factual empathy are morally justifiable. This is a ‘naturalist fallacy’ in reading Slote. The natural fallacy is a confusion between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought.’ Slote actually argues that only actions that are consistent with...