Ethics of Mental Health (and Telepathy)

Every once in a while I dream the core of the story and feel a desperate compulsion to flesh it out over a day or two. To the best of my knowledge, they’re not existing stories. A few years ago (during the trip to Maine right after Ellie got out of college, in 2002) the story in question had to do with a society of telepaths who were trying to keep themselves under wraps. A trio of young telepaths new to the society had different ideas. Each believed firmly that they should be using their gifts to aid mankind, and over the course of the first part of the story took over the society and announced themselves to the world.

Each of the three had very different ideas about what should be done with their telepathy, however. The youngest believed that telepathy was mankind’s evolution so that it could freely edit itself. She set herself up like something out of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Would you like a new personality trait? Would you like to delete an old one? Would you like self-discipline to improve yourself? Would you like to be more affable and less shy around strangers? In retrospect I think this particular character and philosophy represented my concerns about the then developing pharmaceutical industry and its immortality in a pill advertisements.

What do people think? Is this really ethical? People are signing themselves up, not their children or minors. No custom-made external validation kids for the upper-classes, but a kind of Gattacca rebirth once you’re an adult (and can obviously afford the not inconsiderable fees). I personally lean towards no. Even if you’re signing yourself up for this treatment, and not someone else, it feels like trading in your true self for a prepackaged manufactured self, but I could understand arguments to the contrary. 

The second believed that telepathy should be used as a law-enforcement method. Telepaths in her society are rigidly screened and are absolutely forbidden from divulging any information not related to the criminal investigation in question, but should either side in a legal proceeding request a telepath to ensure the truth of an accusation, they had the legal right to do so. It turned out that it was far more often the prosecutor wanting to know if they had the right man, rather than defendents seeking to prove their innocence who requested telepathic intervention, but all in all, few telepaths were requested. To make ends meet, her group branched out into corporate business, brokering deals in which one or both sides wanted assurances that the people at the other end of the table were dealing in good faith. I think this one had to do with my concerns about the still relatively recent 9/11 stuff.

If it’s not used for blanket investigations, is this really unethical? I personally lean towards yes because I’m sketched out about the prosecutor requesting it rather than just the defendent. However, by that logic if a defendent doesn’t request a telepath, would that be regarded by the court of public opinion as an admission of guilt?

The third was rigidly opposed to the first two societies and believed that telepathy should be used in the treatment of mental illness. Especially those who had suffered nervous breakdowns or were otherwise non-functional. The telepaths would provide telepathic “crutches”, or false personality traits that would allow the patient to become functional enough to recieve psychiatric treatment. Once the patient was ready, the crutches would be removed and the supressed personality traits would reemerge. Ideally, the patient would still be functional, though would probably still require therapy to be fully healed. This telepath ran his society like a monastary and tended to keep all but a few of his telepaths (those who were particular eruidite and good at public speaking trying to convince the general public to trust his society and not the other two) under wraps and away from the public eye. Is even this kind of thing ethical? I’m not even sure on that one. In some ways I didn’t really develop any of these on my own, I felt a compulsion to loan my brainpower to their development, so I’m not actually sure about any of them. What do people think?


6 Responses to Ethics of Mental Health (and Telepathy)

  1. Dana says:

    Ooooh, interesting ideas here. The one that’s sort of caught my mind the most right now is the second one, about the use of telepathy in law enforcement. (The first one is interesting, too, but I think I’m going to have to ponder that one some more.) My first reaction was actually that I thought it was excellent that the prosecution wanted to make sure they’d gotten the right person. Here in NC, with the Duke lacrosse case just ending, many of us are rather appalled at the way the DA abused his position and the entire law enforcement process. Wouldn’t it be nice if there had been a way to double-check him? I know he wouldn’t have been requesting psychic assistance, but I do think there are prosecutors out there who would like to be sure and who do worry about such things. Plus, the ability for the defendent to call in backup if they were being unfairly accused would be quite valuable. But then, were are the lines drawn, and when does this start verging into Minority Report territory? Maybe there’s less room for weird confusion in this case because it’s not looking into the future, but the past? And in what ways would people learn to play with this system?

    Interestingly, those telepaths’ sideline of verifying business deals was also the sideline of many of the telepaths in B5 (as I’m sure you know), so that made me smile.

    Oh, there’s another B5 thought. The whole “repressing/replacing a personality trait” thing could be abused, like what the telepaths did to Talia Winters, when they forced her to betray all her friends by triggering the erasure of her apparent, up to the that point, personality. That was just creepy. And mean.

    Telepathy really does have a lot of ethical issues around it. Interesting that you linked it to pharmaceuticals. Clearly there’s more to think about here…

  2. TheGnat says:

    Reminds me of issues relating to telepathy and especially mental illness in the Marvel Universe.

    The second one isn’t all that far off from what we do now – polygraph tests. Those get used all the time, and no one bats an eye at it anymore. Would telepathy be all that different?

    I think, in the end, healthy individuals would have decide for themselves whether using telepathy to “fix” things they don’t like about themselves was moral or not. On the other hand, I’d probably be a supporter of the use of telepathy as you described for the mentally ill. Frankly, psychologists mess up as often as they help right now. Wouldn’t the telepathic method result in a happier, healthier individual, who was still very much them”selves”? You wouldn’t be erasing or anything, you’d be healing. It’s like when you put pins or steel plates in people who suffer certain injuries, without them they couldn’t fully heal.

  3. Matthew says:

    Dana – Yeah, I remember the B5 telepaths. I loved that show. I actually thought the telepath stuff they did for the the first two or three seasons was really quite inventive. Eventually it got out of hand, though. I thought the business stuff they did was actually their primary business, that’s why both Talia and Lyta were Commercial Telepaths. They were both ‘resident telepaths’, but I was never entirely clear what that meant. They weren’t part of EarthForce as far as I could tell. The only thing I could really think of was that they were there as a legal requirement for things like the mindwiping stuff they did to capital offenders. Back to the ethics thing though. As I originally envisioned actually in my story, the business side of things was even more morally sketchy than the law enforcement thing.

    I mean, think about it. What is really meant by dealing in good faith. Does that mean the bottom line becomes the opening offer? There are all sorts of things that businesses would prefer not to know about each other, would all that have to come out? What was simply a targeted use of telepathy in the case of the criminal investigation became a blanket investigation of a business for the commercial stuff. In B5 it was basically only used in over-the-table negotiations to make sure no one was out-and-out lying, but since when was lying illegal?

    TheGnat – I never really liked the way mental illness is handled in comic books. In the Marvel Universe especially the place is absolutely packed with telepaths. It is also packed with supervillains with mental aberrations that are no fault of their own. Look at someone like Dr. Octopus, a freak accident warped his brilliant scientist mind into criminal supervillainy. Seems a prime candidate for telepathic rehabilitiation. After his first few hundred kills you’d think that one of the 153 telepaths that seem to live in New York City alone would be able to do something about him. However, that would damage the story. So you think you’d make telepathy rare, or its practicioners particularly reluctant to use their power? Nope! Xavier has a strict code, but when the chips are down he always violates it when he thinks it’s important. None of the other telepaths seem particularly concerned about using telepathy as they please.

    Nobody bats an eye at polygraph tests anymore – but they’re also pretty much ignored now, too. Polygraph tests have proved to be fallible, and it’s becoming almost easy to fool them. We had an experiment in my Intro Psych class in Grinnell on messing with a polygraph test. Furthermore, polygraphs are only really good for the questions they ask. Telepathy would not be theoretically fallible – as long as the telepaths administering the tests were not suspect. Telepaths might also theoretically poke around your head to see what other sins you might have committed. One of the reasons the prosecutor asks for a telepath more than the defendent is that it’s not the prosecutors head being searched, even if the prosecutor has the purest of motives.

    Have a few thoughts on the third thing, but out of time and will have to share them later.

  4. TheGnat says:

    I don’t remember telepaths being *that* rampant in Marvel. Besides, Xaviar and Jean Grey are the most powerful, and most are pretty wimpy. Telepaths don’t show up in Spiderman, which is probably why no one has taken the good Doc in hand. On the other hand, Prof. X attempts to treat both Wilverine and Sabertooth, and fails with the latter entirely, mostly because Sabertooth isn’t interested in being “cured”. Then you’ve got Psylocke, who is considered morally reprehensible. But this is all skittering away from the more interesting dreams at hand.

    I don’t know how to fool a polygraph test. I think most people don’t, even those with criminal inclinations and activities. On the other hand, polygraph tests aren’t really a violation of your mind like telepathy would be.

    ‘Course, I think telepaths would probably go insane and die anyway. I know I would if I knew what everyone was thinking.

  5. Mark says:

    Polygraphs are, sadly, remarkably easy to confuse. It’s much harder to out-and-out deceive them (though this is certainly possible with a little bit of training and a lot of practice), but it is comparatively simple to just make the results inconclusive.

    It might well be true that most people have not bothered themselves with this information, but it’s readily available. Crime doesn’t pay, for the most part, but that’s largely because criminals are dumb. I suspect that many of the people who write or read this blog could make highly successful criminals. Then again, most of us are smart enough that we don’t have to.

  6. Jack Payne says:

    Using telepaths in law enforcement makes sense, to a point. But, I’s say a more practical application would be to use them on politicians, right before a political debate in particular. For all the people whol believe in UFO sightings, JFK assissination plots, Holocaust denial, and truthful politicians, the results could be enlightening, indeed.

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