Tag Archives: ethics

The Trolley Problem


The Trolley ProblemI had read about the “trolley problem” in the past, but not given it much thought until recently when I saw Thomas Cathcart’s little book of that name in the philosophy section of an Indigo bookstore. It’s subtitled, “Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the bridge? A Philosophical Conundrum.”

I, of course, was so intrigued I had to buy it. I have read others of Cathcart’s books and liked his work in introducing/popularizing philosophical concepts.

The original trolley problem is a thought experiment that goes like this, as Wikipedia puts it:

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You do not have the ability to operate the lever in a way that would cause the trolley to derail without loss of life (for example, holding the lever in an intermediate position so that the trolley goes between the two sets of tracks, or pulling the lever after the front wheels pass the switch, but before the rear wheels do). You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

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Psychiatric help would be better than exorcism


The ExorcistThe headline reads, “Exorcist Expertise Sought After Saskatoon ‘Possession'” At least the editors of the CBC News story had the good sense to put the word possession in quotes to indicate it is alleged, not a fact. As did the Toronto Star.

However, both news agencies took the story seriously enough to write it up. And then it got picked up by the Huffington Post. Must have been a slow news day (surely there was something about the F35 or robocalls to fill the space…)

Like ghosts, spirits, pixies, goblins and other imaginary beings, demons are figments of our own minds. If people believe they are real and controlling their actions, then they need medical and psychiatric help.

As the Catholic Encyclopedia describes exorcism:

Exorcism is (1) the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice; (2) the means employed for this purpose, especially the solemn and authoritative adjuration of the demon, in the name of God, or any of the higher power in which he is subject.
…exorcism is a strictly religious act or rite. But in ethnic religions… exorcism as an act of religion is largely replaced by the use of mere magical and superstitious means, to which non-Catholic writers at the present day sometimes quite unfairly assimilate Christian exorcism. Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite.

I find it a bit disingenuous to suggest that everyone else’s exorcism is superstitious bunk, but their is legitimate. Outsiders may not see much difference between them. I see this statement as circular reasoning: “…the conclusion of an argument is assumed implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises.”

Sure, an exorcism may have a placebo effect. But like “faith healing” the effect is usually temporary and not a cure. A lot of con artists like this one prey on gullible people by pretending to cure them this way, usually bilking them of considerable cash along the way.

Placebo effects work because people have faith in them, which means that the placebo is as much a part of the problem as the solution. In other words, you can’t get help from an exorcism unless you believe in demons, hell, and all the trappings of the religion in the first place. An atheist cannot be possessed by something he or she does not believe in, any more than a conservative can be possessed by socialism.

The placebo effect itself is problematic. Most studies that have examined it are inconclusive because they begin with the assumption that the placebo itself effected a cure, and other potential causes are ignored. These are “false impressions of placebo effects.” More recent studies have also found “little evidence in general that placebos had powerful clinical effects.” The effect is, at best, inconclusive.

Things like natural regression of a disease, or the “natural history of a disease (that is, the tendency for people to get better or worse during the course of an illness irrespective of any treatment at all)” are overlooked in many studies.

The preconception of a result plays a big part in both placebo and medicine, which is how “faith healers,” palm readers, homeopathists, psychics, crystal “therapists” and other New Age wingnuts manage to con people.

One study of the effect of Prozac concluded that “…the expectation of improvement, not adjustments in brain chemistry, accounted for 75 percent of the drugs’ effectiveness.”

Thus if someone believes he or she is possessed, then he or she will also believe that an exorcism will be a cure because the two are emotionally and psychologically linked in the user in same casual relationship as a painkiller is with pain.

As noted in the Skeptics’ Dictionary article:

A person’s beliefs and hopes about a treatment, combined with their suggestibility, may have a significant biochemical effect, however. Sensory experience and thoughts can affect neurochemistry. The body’s neurochemical system affects and is affected by other biochemical systems, including the hormonal and immune systems. Thus, it is consistent with current knowledge that a person’s hopeful attitude and beliefs may be very important to their physical well-being and recovery from injury or illness. But it does not follow from this fact that if the patient has hope will she recover. Nor does it follow from this fact that if a person is not hopeful she will not recover.

There’s an ethical question here, too. Is it ethical for a doctor to deliberately deceive patients by providing a placebo? If a priest has any doubts about the actuality of demons or possession, is it ethical to perform a medieval ritual as a cure for mental disorders?

I was somewhat mollified to read that the whole thing isn’t just a Hollywood-style exercise in spectacle and ritual, but rather the church has a more cautious approach. Apparently a commission has to first determine “…whether there’s some kind of psychological or psychiatric explanation to a situation.” The commission’ however, remains “open to the possibility of demonic possession.”

Anglican priest Colin Clay told the CBC that “…the topic of exorcism touches on questions that go back centuries. The issues revolve around the nature of evil and how to respond to people who claim they have the devil in them.”

Evil as an external force rather than an internal one is, for me anyway, very problematic. It requires some outside agency to establish what is evil, which therefore implies an outside agency also establishes what is good. And that suggests some absolute good and evil, rather than a situational one: good and evil are not based on our own actions or value judgments, or measured by the circumstances but rather by what an outside force has established a priori to the act.

Let me provide an example. Is is evil to kill a child? Most people would say yes, of course. But is that always true? What if that child is in a hospital full of other children and strapped with enough C4 to kill hundreds of people? Is it evil NOT to kill that child before it pushes the trigger and kills many more people? Are both acts inherently evil? Or is one heroic?

As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, you need to learn to be good or bad depending on the necessity of the circumstances. Good and evil are not simply the creation of external agencies, they are choices we make according to the situation. This has been explored in many great works of literature – Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (when is it right to kill a tyrant?), Les Miserables (is it right to steal to feed starving children?) come to mind.

No one in the article ever seems to ask what the circumstances are that would cause someone to believe in possession so deeply that he acted it out. Let’s face it: if he had not been inculcated with the belief in demons and possession before hand, he would not need an exorcism. The cure is part of the problem.

Clay said some churches will say, “Well that’s the devil, and the devil is at work in the world and we’ve got to deal with it,” while others would say “there’s certainly evil in the world, whether there’s an actual Satan or devil, there’s certainly evil in the world, and it has a terrible effect on people’s lives,’ and so we’ve got to respond to it.”

Yes, by all means respond, if that response is part of a larger program that includes psychiatric and medical help, counselling and observation. If the placebo effect will help the patient, then use it, but not by itself. No “faith healer” has ever cured a broken bone or cancer – it still needs medical treatment and monitoring. By itself, I see exorcism as unethical and deceptive.