So the Internet is all a-Twitter about “the scumbag” (that’s all I generally need to say and folks know who I’m talking about) being arrested for fraud. Martin Shkreli was launched into the headlines last September when he hiked up the price of Daraprim, a drug used by AIDS patients among others, by 5,000% – from $13.50 to $750. He justified it as merely a smart business move. Yes, like Marley, he’s a good man of business. It seems that his schemes have come back to bite him on the backside. (Details here)
To all appearances, Shkreli is a classic case of Machiavellianism, a personality disorder characterized by total lack of empathy, cynicism towards moral or social responsibility, and behavior focused totally on personal gain and power. Psychologists theorize that it may have a neurobiological basis. In other words, an actual miswiring of the brain causes these anti-social behaviors. People with this disorder (what psychologists call the “dark triad”, along with narcissism and psychopathy) see themselves as the center of the universe. The rest of us are just things to be manipulated for their gain and amusement.
Okay, so what this boils down to is a sticky issue in moral philosophy. If people like Shkreli are medically diagnosable with a sickness they have no control over, can they be held responsible for their actions? I’m not suggesting Shkreli be set free with a “Tut, tut, he couldn’t help himself.” Far from it. It isn’t the fault of a rabid dog that he is dangerous. But he can’t be allowed to run free biting people.
My point is that as much as we emotionally react to the Shkrelies of the world with fury and a desire to punish, to “see them get what’s coming to them”, it is not a logical reaction. Understandable, yes. We do feel empathy. We do react in outrage to the needless suffering of others caused by an individual who feels no remorse. This is good and proper. But when it comes to dealing with these rabid individuals, we need to take a deep breath, hold our noses and our anger, and realize that they are very possibly just the products of some toxic mixture of nature and nurture and not responsible for what they do. Punishment is not the appropriate response.
Shkreli has been arrested and does need to face a trial for his crimes. But like a schizophrenic, he should be judged mentally incompetent and sent for treatment, not to prison. At the present time we don’t have a cure for these sorts of disorders, but he could be useful for research purposes. Study him. Put him to good use as a subject for tests.
The next question this begs is, should we intervene when a person like Shkreli shows his colors, before he breaks the law? If we see obviously psychotic behavior in an individual, especially if it tends towards the violent or suicidal, we are justified to intervene. We are obliged to try to help the person before he does harm to himself or someone else. We shouldn’t wait until he goes into the shopping mall with four loaded pistols and an assault rifle. When an individual shows obvious Machiavellian traits, and a willingness to act out of complete self-interest with no regard for the harm it might do to others, should we intervene? Hospitalize them before they have a chance to savage the innocent?
Well, for one thing, our economic system would collapse. Here in the United States, anti-social behavior is not only tolerated, it is honored. The rugged individual who is willing to do whatever it takes to succeed is admired, and the casualties tend to be overlooked. If the rogue pulls off a successful swindle, well, his victims should have been more careful; people need to look out for themselves. Their loss; his gain. As long as his methods aren’t illegal (and here’s where Shkreli made his mistake) he can be as ruthless as he wants and nobody will try to stop him. The poor are blamed for their poverty, the homeless for their homelessness. The wealthy are not condemned for their success, even though their methods frequently have agonizing human consequences. (Acknowledging, of course, that there are the occasional success stories that do not involve climbing to the top at the expense of others, and these business models should be praised, publicized and emulated.)
This is America, where someone as obviously warped as Donald Trump is celebrated and supported as a candidate for president. (Fortunately, by only a small, but very vocal, minority.) Shkreli merely exploited a system tailor-made for him, and no doubt thinks the only thing he did wrong was get caught.