Narcissists Understand The Difference Between Right & Wrong
There is a lot of sympathy and support for people with mental illness - and rightfully so. Mental illness can be devastating. Technically speaking, pathologically narcissistic people are mentally ill. They have distorted thinking, impaired perception and many emotional problems, along with whatever other co-morbid (co-occurring) issues they might have, such as substance abuse, depression, and anxiety or eating disorders.
There is often debate about whether someone is responsible for their actions or not when they have a mental illness or disorder. The point of contention is usually whether this person understands the difference between right and wrong and whether or not they are capable of controlling their behavior. This is a summary of how responsibility is determined legally in a court of law: does someone understand that what they did was wrong and were they able to control their behavior?
In the case of the majority of pathologically narcissistic people, the answer to these questions is yes. Yes, they understand what they've done is generally considered wrong. They don't care. Yes, they can control their behavior. They have chosen not to do so. They go as far as they feel they can get away with. For example, in a domestic violence situation, it doesn't usually start out with black eyes and broken bones. It starts out with a push or with throwing something at the victim. The consequences of this behavior are as yet unknown, so the abuser tests the water to see what will happen. When the victim does not end the relationship or impose any real consequences, the abuser becomes bolder and more comfortable with being violent. They will just keep pushing and pushing until either they are hit with serious consequences or the abuser decides it's gone far enough. That could be very far indeed, up to and including the death of the victim.
As with any abuse situation, narcissists blame the victim. They say they were provoked, that they were baited, that they were abused themselves... it is a common defense for a narcissistic abuser to imply - or even flat out say - that they cannot control themselves. This is a way of denying responsibility for their actions by blaming the victim, circumstances or anything other than themselves. For example, an abuser that is forced to confront their own abusive behavior may defend their actions by saying they were mad about something someone else did or said and then took it out on the victim because they "couldn't help it," such as someone who is angry about something that happened at work and takes it out on their spouse or their children. It's funny, because it seems like they controlled themselves just fine with the person they claim to actually be upset with. They waited until they got to their victim to suddenly be unable to control themselves. This is because the consequences of attacking the other person are unknown, but they know there will be no consequences for attacking the victim. It's safer to take their anger out on the victim. There is no risk involved.
This is how we know that the majority of pathologically narcissistic persons can control their behavior: because they do. If they feel they need to control their behavior, they can do it quite well. For instance, if the police are there, or if they are in court, or if there are people around who the narcissist does not want to witness the behavior, the behavior will not occur. Except in cases of very severe stress or upset, the abusive behavior of narcissists will generally only happen when they feel comfortable in the idea that they will not be challenged for it or face consequences. There may be some subtle attempts at covert abuse or manipulation in front of others, but generally we will not see the blatant abuse that narcissists are known for if they feel they are in a position where they cannot get away with it.
But do they know their behavior is wrong? Obviously, if they are trying to hide something, they know that somebody is going to think something is wrong with it. Otherwise, why bother to hide it? If it's not wrong and everyone will clearly agree with you that it's not wrong, why hide what you are doing? But what about in the broader sense? Do pathologically narcissistic people understand the difference between right and wrong?
Yes. Narcissistic people are not psychotic. They understand the difference between right and wrong. They just don't think those same rules apply to them. Yes, it is wrong to steal. It is not wrong for the narcissist to steal. You should stop overreacting, OK, because they really needed that thing - whatever it was. Yes, it is wrong to hit your spouse. It is not wrong for the narcissist to hit their spouse, because it's only wrong to hit a normal spouse, a good spouse that is loving and perfect. You know, like all the other spouses on earth besides you? It's not wrong to hit an evil, manipulative spouse that is trying to ruin your life and provoke you. Anyone would agree with that. Yes, it's wrong to abuse your children. It is not wrong for the narcissist to abuse their children because what they are doing is not abuse. Abuse is hurting a child that doesn't deserve it. An evil, hateful child like you were was not being abused because you deserved it. Anyone would agree with that.
Of course, if they really believed that anyone would agree with that, they wouldn't be so desperate to make sure no one finds out about it. The truth is, they understand the concepts of right and wrong very well. Many consider themselves an authority on what is right, what is wrong, what is fair, what is unfair... They can punish other people for a wrongdoing all day long, and they can go on for days about the many ways they've been wronged in their life. They understand just fine. They just don't think any of it applies to them because they are pretending to be special.
It isn't the rules that pathologically narcissistic people don't understand. It's their own self-importance and their overblown, fictional view of their place in the world that is the problem. There's always an excuse for them, always a justification or a mitigation. There's always a defense and a reason why what they've done is not really wrong. Pretending they can do no wrong is not the same as not knowing what wrong is. Don't let that confuse you. Just because someone doesn't seem to believe they personally did anything wrong does not mean they don't know the difference between right and wrong at all. It means they don't believe they did anything wrong and that's all it means.
Mental illness can be very serious. It can be terrible and tragic. But it is not an excuse to abuse other people. Not when someone understands the difference between right and wrong. It's just not, and that's all there is to it. The only possible exception to this would be if someone is experiencing actual psychosis and literally cannot tell reality from fantasy. Narcissists live in denial and their perception is distorted, but they are not psychotic. They know what they are doing. They just don't care.