Now that the required joke is out of the way, I can more soberly state that the New York conviction of psychic Sylvia Mitchell for larceny and fraud opens up a welter of ethical, legal and religious issues. Law prof-blogger Ann Althouse is troubled by the result, writing,
“In my book, this is entertainment and unconventional psychological therapy. Let the buyer beware. Who’s dumb enough to actually believe this? Should the government endeavor to protect everyone who succumbs to the temptation to blow a few bucks on a fortune teller?”
Clearly not, and that’s where courts and states generally land in this matter, as in the case I wrote on three years ago, Nefredo v. Montgomery County. There the courts ruled (in Maryland) that it was an infringement of free speech for Maryland to ban what is, for most, just an exercise in supernatural entertainment. But the New York case involved a little bit more than that: Mitchell apparently bilked some clients out of significant amounts, getting $27,000 from one in an “exercise in letting go of money,” $18,000 from another to put in a jar as a way to relieve herself of “negative energy,” and thousands from other clients to purchase “supplies” for various rituals—what does the eye of a newt go for these days?
Admittedly this seems to cross the line from harmless, if stupid, entertainment into preying on the stupid and gullible, but that doesn’t convince Althouse that the conviction, or the prosecution is a legitimate use of government power. She reminds us about the Supreme Court case of U.S. v. Ballard, in which the Court upheld the conviction of a faith healer for fraud. The SCOTUS majority, headed by William O. Douglas, held that if the faith healer didn’t believe in her claimed powers, then she was a fraud, and thus could be prosecuted under the Constitution if she used a claim of false powers to take money from her clients. In a sharp and thought-provoking dissent, Justice Robert Jackson wrote in part…
“I should say the defendants have done just that for which they are indicted. If I might agree to their conviction without creating a precedent, I cheerfully would do so. I can see in their teachings nothing but humbug, untainted by any trace of truth. But that does not dispose of the constitutional question whether misrepresentation of religious experience or belief is prosecutable; it rather emphasizes the danger of such prosecutions…. The Ballard family claimed miraculous communication with the spirit world and supernatural power to heal the sick. They were brought to trial for mail fraud on an indictment which charged that their representations were false and that they ‘well knew’ they were false. The trial judge, obviously troubled, ruled that the court could not try whether the statements were untrue, but could inquire whether the defendants knew them to be untrue; and, if so, they could be convicted…
“I find it difficult to reconcile this conclusion with our traditional religious freedoms.
“In the first place, as a matter of either practice or philosophy I do not see how we can separate an issue as to what is believed from considerations as to what is believable. The most convincing proof that one believes his statements is to show that they have been true in his experience. Likewise, that one knowingly falsified is best proved by showing that what he said happened never did happen. How can the Government prove these persons knew something to be false which it cannot prove to be false? If we try religious sincerity severed from religious verity, we isolate the dispute from the very considerations which in common experience provide its most reliable answer.
“In the second place, any inquiry into intellectual honesty in religion raises profound psychological problems. William James, who wrote on these matters as a scientist, reminds us that it is not theology and ceremonies which keep religion going. Its vitality is in the religious experiences of many people. ‘If you ask what these experiences are, they are conversations with the unseen, voices and visions, responses to prayer, changes of heart, deliverances from fear, inflowings of help, assurances of support, whenever certain persons set their own internal attitude in certain appropriate ways.’
“If religious liberty includes, as it must, the right to communicate such experiences to others, it seems to me an impossible task for juries to separate fancied ones from real ones, dreams from happenings, and hallucinations from true clairvoyance. Such experiences, like some tones and colors, have existence for one, but none at all for another. They cannot be verified to the minds of those whose field of consciousness does not include religious insight. When one comes to trial which turns on any aspect of religious belief or representation, unbelievers among his judges are likely not to understand and are almost certain not to believe him.”
Add to this several inherent hypocrisies: the state encouraging organized religions of all stripes with tax breaks and lip service though they exploit their faithful to acquire millions in donations and bequests, with no more tangible evidence of divine guidance and beneficence than “The Mentalist” has that he can foretell the future; or operating lotteries on a promise of riches that is at least as cruelly deceptive as what any fortune teller peddles. What emerges is a bright line ethical dilemma. The state may be, beyond question, punishing fraud, but it is indistinguishable from the kind of fraud that much of the public enjoys, wants, and has the right, according to the Founders, to inflict on themselves as one of the benefits, or perils, of liberty.
Psychics and their related purveyors of the supernatural are among the perpetual gray areas of ethics, those “we lie to make people feel better…is that so wrong?” occupations. My view: psychics et al. are unethical (or, in the cases, if any, of those who believe they are psychic, dangerously deluded), but we need to fight them with enlightenment and education, not laws. The state should not be in the business, Justice Douglas, of punishing people’s actions according to what they happen to believe.
Heading down THAT logical slippery slope is how we ended up with laws dictating special punishment for “hate crimes.”
Facts: New York Times