Psychic Found Guilty Of Fraud: Did She Know This Would Happen?

gypsy-fortune-teller2Now 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.”

[You can access the various Ethics Alarms posts involving the strange and wonderful topic of paranormal ethics here, here, here, here, here and here. I just know you’ll enjoy reading them…]


Pointer: Althouse

Facts: New York Times

19 thoughts on “Psychic Found Guilty Of Fraud: Did She Know This Would Happen?

  1. Rick Santorum in a recent speech called not just for freedom of religion, but freedom of worship. To be able to put into practice one’s religious beliefs, without let or hindrance.

    I assume he didn’t mean to include such religious practices as human sacrifice, but that’s what he was calling for.

    The dividing line is not based on words, but actions. An action that would be illegal if not performed as part of a religious ceremony does not become legal when wrapped in the trappings of religion.

    • You actually wanted him to include the disclaimer “as long as nobody breaks any laws, assuming that those laws are just and not just there to restrict said freedom of religion?” I think you are being obtuse, because I’m sure you are not dumb.

      • It’s a ridiculous tactic. It’s an attempt at reductio ad absurdum by taking comments made in good faith that have unspoken and reasonable assumptions with them and pretending like those upspoken and reasonable assumptions do not exist.

        You are correct: no reasonable person acting in good faith would expect someone to attach a list of caveats and disclaimers to every assertion they make.*

        *unless their assertion is a dissertation, in which they of course must provide support for the general assertion and explanation of exceptions to the assertion

        *unless the original comment does not have any clear understood assumptions associated with it

        *unless the original comment is obviously absurd**

        **but then it would be argued on those merits, not the unspoken assumptions

        • Your reactions, Isaac and Tex, reflect mine. I get a little (a lot, actually) sick of these same sort of attacks on Christianity from the same old sources. For people whose religion is depravity, there can be no co-existing with those who profess to Jesus.

          • Ignoring the offensive (and hopefully accidental) implication that Judeo-Christianity is the only non-depraved religion, who gets to decide where the line is? You?

              • My real point is that depravity is a gray area. You can’t fight for religious freedoms that lie on your side of the line, because you’re implicitly saying that you’re then the authority on where the line should be. I happen to find the act of convincing populations decimated by AIDS not to use condoms depraved while I’m sure many religious folk would argue otherwise.

                • No, it’s not “gray”, James- unless you’re a practitioner of moral relativism. Most questions of morality are pretty evident if you have any moral basis at all. This “condoms” stuff you’re spouting is (as Tiggy would say) a strawman.

                  • Would you call every example of moral ambiguity a strawman argument? You need to drop the blinkers and realise that Christians are not the arbiters of morality (nor are they able to more easily spot moral corruption). The fact that this discussion is happening at all is proof that there’s a gray area.

                    Back on topic, I don’t think anyone should be able to say “You can’t use your beliefs to excuse breaking the law or acting in an immoral way unless your beliefs happen to match mine because my beliefs are right”.

                    • Most moral issues, as I said, are pretty straightforward calls for anyone of any faith. I suspect that all this other stuff you’re on to is some irrational dread of “dominionism” that the atheists and their allies like to spread. Sorry, but I’m not going to renounce my faith for you, James. The Christian gospel is at the heart of this nation. Get used to it.

                    • At the heart of -your- nation. Remember there are other countries as well as other faiths. And moral issues are straightforward calls for nearly everyone, religious or not.

                      I’m not trying to get you to renounce your faith; I’ll defend your right to have it. But don’t say how sick you are of attacks on Christianity while you sit atop your imaginary, and demonstrably inaccurate, moral high-ground and hurl insults at those of other faiths or no faith; Whether those insults are accidental, borne of arrogance, or borne of ignorance.

      • Well, the requirement for employers without religious missions to cover women’s birth control prescriptions [which is what Santorum talks about in Zoe’s YouTube link] was not created in order to restrict religious freedom, but is he opposed to people breaking that law? Doesn’t sound like it. OTOH, whether that falls under “religious practice” is debatable. But based on Zoe’s YouTube video, I suspect Santorum considers that part of religious practice.

      • Jack, I know this is an old post. However I must object to your statement that “All organized religions creep perilously close to fraud for profit. . .” This statement ignores the fact that many churches and temples do a lot of good for “the homeless”, the destitute, and many of them do not require these people to become tithing members. Even amongst the televangelists there are some that help people realize that their lives are not hopeless and good can come out of very tragic situations.

  2. I agree with you Jack, on principle. I think someone who is acting as one at a carnival or fair is obviously an entertainer and I have no problem with that. But I think people who set up shop are frauds (in the legal sense in my opinion) to the extent they are taking money from people — whether it be $5 or $10,000. All those small amounts in the aggregate is serious. Education to solve problems is always a good idea (it has helped with smoking and drunk driving), but I wonder if most people who are conned out of money are those with an inferior education or are from the more vulnerable rungs of society. (Nancy Reagan being an obvious exception.)

  3. Jack, just an FYI..”Praying” has to do with offering up a prayer. In this context (first paragraph) the proper spelling is “Preying”.

    Unfortunately, in order to make this stick, at least for me, the State of New York is going to have to prove that psychic phenomena do not exist, or at the very least, that this particular psychic, Sylvia, does not have such a talent. I doubt that she does, but then I’m not a big believer. Some people are, and if they can afford to give away that kind of money to stay happy, more power to ’em. If, however, they are being defrauded out of the grocery money, that’s a different story.

  4. I’m curious as to how we can combat such people with education and enlightment, given their customers are clearly unconcerned with evidence in the first place.

  5. IMHO bring belief into is the wrong approach. The question is: Can she do the service she claim to be able to do? Some well designed scientific tests would show that one way or another. If she can’t do it, regardless of what she believes, she’s a fraud.

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