Psychic Ethics: Sylvia Browne’s Dilemma

Sylvia Browne, under fire for not being a real psychic by people who should know better.

Sylvia Browne, under fire for not being a real psychic by people who should know better.

Growing up, I knew Sylvia Browne as one of the more colorful friends of my father, who knew her brother in the army. She visited from Kansas City every year or so, and her claims of psychic powers never came up, perhaps because my father didn’t believe in such things. My first inkling of “Aunt” Sylvia’s other life was when she pulled me aside in the fall of 1966, after hearing me bemoan the low state to which my beloved Boston Red Sox had fallen. They were going to finish the season in last place, the team’s vaunted youth movement was a flop, and I was disconsolate. “Don’t tell anyone I said this, ” she told me, “but the Red Sox will be in the pennant race next year to the very end. It will come down to the last two games.”

This seemed incredible to me, but what the heck: when the 1967 season tickets went on sale that winter, I sent in an order for two seats on the third base side for the next-to-last game of the season, against the Minnesota Twins. Baseball fans will recall that the ’67 season featured the closest race in American League history, with four teams, including the underdog Red Sox, staying essentially tied for months, with the pennant decided in the last two days at Fenway Park. Sure enough, Boston swept the Twins twice to make up a one game deficit and go the World Series. Sylvia called it.

During college and law school, Sylvia Browne fell out of my family’s life, but our paths intersected again when she showed up for a surprise visit at our home while I was studying for the Massachusetts bar exam in 1975. My job with the Mass Defenders had fallen through, and I had received an unexpected job offer from my law school to work for the new Dean. It would mean moving to D.C., which I didn’t want to do, and I was torn. This was the big topic of discussion while Sylvia was having dinner with us; my mother was emphatic that I should turn the offer down. For the second time, Sylvia pulled me aside for an unsolicited consultation. “Go to D.C.,” she said. “Your future wife is waiting for you.” I naturally assumed that she meant my current girl friend from law school, who was still in the District. “Not her,” Sylvia said. “Another. This job will bring you together, for good.”

I did take the job, although Sylvia’s advice played no part in it. Indeed, I forgot about the conversation completely until it came back to me right before I proposed to my wife, now my wife of 33 years, who was a work colleague of mine at the law school. Sylvia was two for two, at least where I was concerned.

Why I only had dealings with Sylvia Browne when the Red Sox were destined to go to the World Series I can’t imagine (Boston played Cincinnati in the 1975 classic), but the next time I heard from her was in 2004, the year they finally won it. She called me in my ProEthics office on November 17 of that year, and she was distraught. She was calling me, it turned out, not to give advice, but to receive it. 

After some catching up, she got to the reason for her call. “I am second-guessing myself regarding something I did today that may be very wrong,” she began. “I know you work in the ethics field now, and I thought perhaps you would give me the benefit of your expertise.”

“I’ll pay you,” she added. I told her not be ridiculous; she was a family friend. Then she told me about the appearance on the “The Montel Williams Show” that is haunting her today, in which she told the mother of Amanda Berry, who had been missing for 19 months, that Sylvia’s psychic intuitions indicated that Amanda was dead. I had not heard of the case, and didn’t watch the program.

“I lied,” she said to me. “Her daughter’s alive, but in a horrible place, and she’s going to remain where she is for a very long time…years. And she will be abused terribly. I don’t know if she will be rescued, but if she is it won’t be soon, and her mother doesn’t have long to live herself…maybe a year or two.”

“Jack,” she said, crying now, “I saw that poor woman, and saw what her daughter was enduring, and couldn’t tell her something so awful. So I told her that her daughter was dead, because that has to be kinder than letting her end her life knowing that Amanda is in the power of a monster, and that no one may be able to help her.”

“Did I do the wrong thing? Please tell me what you think,” she begged.

What would you say? I told her it was all too alien for me to analyze conventionally. Yes, what she said may have been kinder, but I think when people seek you out to tell them the truth, you are obligated to do that, not substitute your judgment for theirs. On the other hand, despite Sylvia’s two predictions for me, I didn’t, and don’t, believe in psychic phenomenon, though I am quite certain that Sylvia believes. Whatever she said to Louwanna Miller, Amanda Berry’s mother, would be in essence a misrepresentation, because Miller would believe it was a genuine psychic vision, when in fact it was, like all Sylvia’s predictions, just a guess. How unethical was it for Sylvia to substitute one phony tragic vision (though one she fervently believed herself) for another one? Not very. I just told Sylvia that she made a defensible decision in a difficult situation, and that she shouldn’t feel guilty.

I hadn’t  thought about that strange phone call until this week, when I learned that the social media, radio personalities and others were attacking Sylvia Browne because her psychic message to Louwanna Miller, who did die less than two years later, was untrue. Amanda was alive, and now is free. I have been wondering what they would think if they knew the whole story, and now they do.

But this isn’t the story, of course.

I don’t know Sylvia Browne, and never was aware of her before she became the object of ridicule and condemnation. If she were a real psychic, in some parallel universe where there were such individuals, with real powers of precognition (which she doesn’t have in this reality), that scenario might have occurred. If that happened, and she did lie about her vision to spare Amanda Berry’s mother, she would certainly not deserve the vicious characterizations that are being hurled at her now. She would have had a difficult ethical choice to make, and would have made it, with good intentions and a reasonable analysis. Her critics, in that case, would be both unfair and irrational.

What about the actual case, in the real universe? The actual case shows just how illogical and unfair consequentialism—the practice of judging acts ethical or not according to subsequent events outside the control of the actor— is. Critics are furious, ten years after Sylvia’s appearance on Montel Williams’ show, because she said Amanda Berry was dead, and she wasn’t…but why?  Did anyone sane and reasonable really think she was able to discern such things? Is it because she turned out to be wrong? Why would she be expected to be right? She had no idea one way or the other (whatever she might have thought), because she doesn’t have psychic powers! She might have been wrong and she might have been right, but it was beyond her control in either eventuality. Would she be less of a fake psychic if she happened to be correct? No. Does the fact that her prediction to Miller was incorrect make her a more unethical fake psychic? No! What is her horrible offense, then, that justifies all the abuse? It is that she isn’t a psychic, because there are no psychics...and the time to make that objection was in 2004.

By all means, be critical of any psychic who presumes to counsel the victims of tragedy, regardless of whether their imaginary “second sight” lucks out. Be critical of Montel, too, and his producer, and anyone who puts these false prognosticators in the company of desperate, vulnerable, gullible people. Criticizing the psychic because she didn’t really see into the future accurately, however, is as senseless as it is ethically ignorant. Psychic Sylvia Browne is not, as one overwrought Facebook attacker put it, “evil, evil!” She’s just not an accurate  psychic, because there are no accurate psychics…because there are no psychics.

And we knew that long before 2004.


Sources: Huffington Post, Daily Mail (also Graphic),, ABC

38 thoughts on “Psychic Ethics: Sylvia Browne’s Dilemma

      • Its not weird to be angry at someone who is deceitful.Doesnt matter what the circumstances of the deceit are, what matters is that deceit is wrong.
        And what was the point of the fake story at the start? We don’t need to be thinking of parallel worlds, only the world we are currently aware of.Brown had no right to pass herself off as a psychic.She did harm and that is what matters.

  1. But maybe she has a unique photographic memory, and really good deductive skills that she learned from her detective father? What if she and her quirky black friend just want to pretend that she’s a psychic because that’s the best way that they can use her talents to help people? Hey, it could happen.

        • How can you deceive someone when you tell them the truth immediately? The story was also in italics, which on Ethics Alarms has always meant “Introduction.” Introduction means that something else is coming, and that this is prelude for it.
          It does raise the interesting issue of “flash lies,” where an untruth is exposed the second it is completed. I’ll have to research that…I don’t think I ever read anything about it.

  2. Jack,

    Psychic ability is real. The spirit world is real. The bible speaks of spiritual gifts. Some people have been granted the gift of spiritual discernment. Some have been shown visions of the spiritual realm. It’s a powerful gift. It’s purpose must be carefully and prayerfully discerned. To play with the spirit world yields evil results. Demons reside there. We do not have the power on our own to overcome them. Flee from practitioners of the occult. These gifts glorify God or Satan. There is no middle ground. Using them for fame or wealth is a sure sign of diabolical influence. An aside; I like to believe Amanda’s faithful, loving mother interceded for her daughter.

  3. I don’t know why other critics are angry at Sylvia Browne, but consequentialism has nothing to do with why I’m angry at her. Browne told Amanda Berry’s mother that her daughter was dead when she couldn’t possibly have known that. You ask “Did anyone sane and reasonable really think she was able to discern such things?” Well, I don’t know if the mother was sane and reasonable, but she certainly seemed to believe. Or is your position that she knew Browne was a fake but did the show with her anyway just to create a fun pretend moment about her daughter being dead?

    If you don’t think Browne is evil, then ask yourself, if she had to make up a story, why did she tell Amanda’s mother that she was dead? Because if she told her that Amanda was alive, it would raise hard-to-answer questions like “Where is she?” On the other hand, if she said Amanda was dead, Browne could offer her services as a medium to try to contact her. I don’t know if that’s what she did, but it would be a logical and cold-hearted reason for making up such a lie.

    • That was the point of the imaginary prelude. There are good arguments that “she’s dead” is both the kindest prediction and the one most likely to be true. Having known some individuals who claim psychic powers, I don’t think it can be assumed that Browne doesn’t believe in her own powers. Many do; not everyone is “The Mentalist.”

      But of course it’s consequentialism! Would you be say she was evil if it turned Berry was dead when she told her that? Would anybody?

      • It’s not consequentialism because the criticism is of her making ANY predictions. Her process is bad. We point to the results as (1) evidence that her procedure is bad, and (2) evidence that she causes harm.

          • Yes, I disagree with both of you. There would have been no criticism, presumably, is she were correct, nor if she had said the woman were alive and she had turned up dead. In fact, the accusation that the “psychic” was “cruel” is based completely on the fact that she was wrong. If she was cruel, she was equally cruel regardless of the facts, which she didn’t know.

            • There would have been no criticism, presumably, i[f] she were correct, nor if she had said the woman were alive and she had turned up dead.

              The first case has never happened with Browne. The second case has led to criticism in the past. She has also been criticized in the past for similar claims that someone was dead (who was still alive).

              That Browne is being criticized more now is likely due to how horrible this case was, and how shocking the result was. Most cases that Browne predicts end in a whimper that make local news, or an AP story. This saved kidnapped girls were THE story on cable news for a week.

              In fact, the accusation that the “psychic” was “cruel” is based completely on the fact that she was wrong. If she was cruel, she was equally cruel regardless of the facts, which she didn’t know.

              And, again, while most of us know she was cruel the entire time, not every gets how bad it is (or at all), until Browne’s shown to be wrong.

              • “And, again, while most of us know she was cruel the entire time, not every gets how bad it is (or at all), until Browne’s shown to be wrong.”

                Which is consequentialism! It’s seen as worse because of subsequent consequences outside her control.

                • No! It’s showing that she’s not a psychic and showing what fake psychics cause.

                  It’s proof of the lie, and why the lie is horrible (it sometimes results in things like this).

                  Think of someone who comes forward as a witness to a crime. “The defendent killed X with a knife and hard tarps for hiding the body! I saw it!” 10 years later, when we find that X has been in a coma due to a car accident 3 states away, we learn the witness is a liar.

                  Yes, the witness’s comments were evil and unethical lies when they were told, but it’s not consequentialism to call him evil now.

                  • Bad example. In that case, there was no way of knowing it was a lie until the subsequent result. “I know your child is dead” is equally wrong before or after in the psychic case, but only condemned after. It’s equally wrong whether she is alive or dead. That’s not true of your example.

                    • Yes, I know it’s equally wrong and you know it’s equally wrong, but over half the population believes in psychics! They think she could be right. It needs to be publicized when it’s proven that she’s wrong.

                      And when a psychic is proven wrong in a huge story, it’s right to get that message out.

  4. First of all, if we’re just arguing over the intensity implied by the word “evil,” then I concede that it’s an overstatement. But what Sylvia Browne did wasn’t very nice.

    Consequentialism has nothing to do with it because whether the daughter is dead is beside the point. Browne’s unethical behavior occurred before anybody found out what happened to the daughter, when she claimed to have psychic powers and told a woman that her missing daughter was dead when she couldn’t possibly have known that. Whether the daughter was actually dead or alive was beside the point with regard to the ethics of pretending to be a psychic. And yes, if you’d asked me about this when it happened, I would have said the same thing.

    I will grant you that this is contingent on the factual question of whether or not Browne actually believes she is psychic, since if she was merely mistaken in her honest belief that she knew the fate of of Amanda Berry then she was genuinely trying to help. But for purposes of a comment on a blog post, I am willing to make the assumption that Browne knew she was lying.

    Look, your nice old neighbor lady who thinks she has “the gift” may honestly believe it, possibly fooling herself because being psychic makes her feel special. But Sylvia Browne is in the business of being a psychic. She appears on television regularly, she writes books, and she runs a couple of companies and a church. She’s been caught lying about her prior predictions after it became known that they were wrong. She was convicted of investment fraud. You don’t spend nearly forty years in the business of being a psychic without noticing that your powers don’t actually work. Maybe she believed she had powers at one time, but to keep it up this long, I believe she’s knowingly faking.

    • Like Chief Dan George as “Old Lodgeskins” says at the end of “Little Big Man,” “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.” This theme was rather nicely finessed on “Medium,” about another famed psychic who has sometimes been involved in high profile crimes.

      You and I are the same her—I would have objected at the time of the original “reading”. What she did was exactly as bad then as it is now, and what her vision was is irrelevant. But the public criticism of her now is based on the fact that she was wrong, and that’s conventionalism, by definition.

      • I used to watch “Medium” all the time. It started a little weak but it turned intoa a pretty great show. Allison’s powers actually worked, and that raised a lot of interesting ethical issues, some of which they explored. I was never sure how to think about her violation of other people’s privacy rights.

      • Yes, we should (and do) criticize “psychics” every time they make a prediction, but their credulous followers brush us off as unbelievers. To get to these people, we have to show the lies and their resultant damage.

        • YOU do, I have no doubt, and your criticism is not based in conventionalism. I don’t think you are typical of her critics, at least those coming out of the woodwork now. I could be wrong.

    • Incidentally, Mark, I don’t know why I haven’t included you excellent and frequently ethics-centric blog on the links here. I thought I had. My apologies for the omission—it is certainly a terrific site with excellent writing and analysis, and I fell down on the job by waiting this long to recognize it. My sincere regrets and apologies. That’s Windy Pundit, everybody! Bookmark it.

  5. Of course you stirred the pot – that’s your job. But for my personal entertainment could you please finish the story, I ‘see’ a feel good ending coming and you are a wonderful storyteller!

  6. Psychics and New Agey types are some of the worst kind of people anyway. They prey upon people who are at their most vulnerable. The fact that people are mad at Browne reflects on their willingness to believe the irrational. Can a stranger predict the outcome of someone’s disappearance??? Really?!?!!?

  7. The honest and gullible (naive?) often say things like ‘If she were fake she wouldn’t be on TV/wouldn’t accept money/wouldn’t say those things, would she?’. People grasp at straws, think that people think like they do, and then again a lot of people think that if someone’s on TV, they must be the real deal. It took all the convincing in my power to keep my mother from contacting John Edwards after my father’s death. She wanted to talk to Dad one more time, I guess. The need overwhelms common sense and rationality. People like Silvia Brown prey on people who are desperate and are willing to seek solace anywhere.

  8. Ulrike and Scherie,
    While you may discount the supernatural, billions believe. Scripture speaks of spiritual warfare. It speaks of the spirit world and condemns occultism. My comment was based on Catholic teaching. I would ask the same respect in your replies as I extended in my comment. Thank you in advance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.