Do you watch movies and TV, read fiction, follow politics or like good gossip? If you do, then chances are you’re a lifelong student of Villainology, the study of what makes bad guys bad and mean people suck. Criminology is something else, the study of people who break laws. A lot of the world’s worst villains climb to positions of power without breaking the law.

We start our children into Villainology young with easy detection tests, bad guys who look mean in their black hats and warty furrowed brows. With as much time as we story-lovers spend in the company of bad guys, it’s a fair bet we’re all looking for clues to detecting villains before they do us harm, budding tyrants in the home, at work or in society at large.

So really, how can we tell who’s a budding tyrant?

It matters since we have to nip them in the bud before their tyranny takes hold. These days there are lots of people in politics crying “Tyranny!” Who should you believe? Some say beware the Socialists, Christian Fundamentalists, Communists, Conservatives, Muslims or Libertarians, but you can’t tell budding tyrants by their affiliations. Historically, tyranny has made itself at home in every political, religious, and philosophical movement.

At its heart tyranny is a lack of conscience, and here we can distinguish three forms. First, there are psychopaths who have an organic absence of conscience. They test as having no affect for example when seeing images of gruesome cruelty that would make anyone else’s heart jump.

Second, there’s sociopathy, an extraordinary absence of conscience in one context because conscience is committed elsewhere. The family celebrating the death of their suicide bomber son and his hundreds of victims may seem, like psychopaths to show a complete lack of conscience, but they would insist that they don’t care about the lives lost because they are so conscientious about serving other communities and God. Unlike psychopathy, sociopathy is not a permanent condition but a behavior, one that can only be ascribed relative to some social norm. For example our side’s soldier is trained to show no conscience toward the enemy combatants he kills. To us, he’s not a sociopath; he’s a hero. The enemy’s soldiers are sociopaths because, by our social norms his supposed higher purposes do not justify his lack of conscience toward us.

And then there’s the third form, normal, everyday conscience allocation. Conscience, if it’s more than lip service is expensive. To show conscientious consideration to others means exerting yourself on their behalf. You have finite powers of exertion, and therefore have to subordinate and prioritize whether consciously or unconsciously, where you expend conscientious care.

This is why “Do onto others what you would have them do onto you,” while a lovely sentiment, is impossible to put into full practice. You can’t help disappoint others, doing to them what you wouldn’t have done onto you.

And visa versa. Bosses let us go, partners dump us, friends turn us down, children fail to fulfill our hopes. Sometimes it really hurts. Why would they do such a thing? Most of the time, bless their souls, because they are being conscientious elsewhere, allocating their finite and expensive conscientiousness as they see fit, disappointing though it may be to us.

“Ah,” you might counter, “But that’s just disappointment. That’s not the same thing as cruelty, which is what the Golden Rule is really talking about,” to which I’d say “Exactly. Thank you for taking this where we need to go.”

To tell who’s a budding tyrant in politics but also at home and at work, we need to be able to tell who’s a psychopath, who’s acting sociopathically and who’s just doing normal, everyday conscience allocation.

Psychopaths know how to frame their exclusively self-serving agendas as serving some higher cause. When they’re going to use you, the higher cause is one you resonate with. When they’re going to abuse you, they claim it’s for a cause you should care about but don’t, out of ignorance or your own evil. We can detect psychopaths by their consistent inconsistency, the way they flip inconsistently from one higher purpose to another, but consistently in the service of what they want, at absolutely any expense to others.

Sociopaths are tougher to distinguish. As I imagined you so rightly pointing out a moment ago, where do you draw the line between normal disappointment, and sociopathically-imposed cruelty?

By severity of the suffering? Well, no. Take Somalia’s famine, killing hundreds of thousands if not millions. By allocating our consciences elsewhere, we all have a hand in that severe suffering. If we could draw a clear line between disappointment and cruelty, Somalia is indisputably cruelty, our non-response to the crisis and others like it is clear evidence of non-compliance with the Golden Rule, and we’re all sociopaths.

How about by intention? After all, we don’t intend to hurt anyone in Somalia.

My son used to say “I really want to get good grades!” as though that intention should count for something. What he really meant was that he wanted to have gotten good grades, and though that intention was pure in his proud declaration of it, he was conveniently ignoring that he had other intentions, like to play as many video games as possible.

By the same reasoning, I do not intend to have hurt anyone in Somalia, but that doesn’t count for much once I factor in my conveniently ignored other intentions, like my intention to buy an ipad rather than invest in famine relief.

So how do we draw the line between normal everyday conscience allocation, and the sociopathy that leads to total tyranny?

Well, here’s a solution and it’s a surprising one. Dedication to Sacred Principle. Beware of Singularity of Purpose, a higher purpose held so sacred as to trump all others forever more.

I know that many consider self-certain and absolute morality the highest virtue. Bachman and Perry, for example, both are very proud of their dedication to Absolute Sacred Principles, and huge numbers of us flock to support such singularity of purpose. I’m saying we shouldn’t and no, not because they’re Conservative, Libertarian, or Dominionist. Like I said, it’s not the content of the higher purpose. Tyranny knows no political boundaries. It’s an equal opportunity exploiter. I would guess that by this standard such modern Leftist leaders as Hugo Chavez would also qualify.

Summarizing (and simplifying, leaving a few question for future articles).

Someone who is always touting principle but always self-servingly is a psychopath and a budding tyrant.

Someone who holds or claims to hold one or a few principles as absolutely sacred trumping all others forever more no matter what, is highly susceptible to sociopathic behavior and is a budding tyrant.

The rest of us are engaged in normal everyday conscience allocation, which means we could turn sociopathic but are lower risk than those who dedicate themselves to sacred principles. We normal everyday people don’t factor in huge swaths of sentient beings, but we could. We haven’t armed ourselves with sacred principles that inoculate us permanently against adjusting our allocation of conscience.