Thoughts on the James Arthur Ray trial

I have just learned that James Arthur Ray, the new-age motivational trainer who was brought to trial for the deaths of three people in his sweatlodge on Oct. 8, 2009, has been found guilty of three counts of negligent homicide.

Read some more about the verdict here.
(With thanks to Jason for drawing my attention to it.)

I think that negligent homicide is the correct verdict in this case. I’m sure Mr. Ray did not intend that anyone should die. But it is clear to me that he did intend to create the physical conditions that caused the three deaths. It’s also clear that he did nothing to alter or alleviate those conditions when participants became violently ill, and he took no responsibility for the consequences of his actions, however unintended they might have been. This is a straightforward example of negligence. You really can do wrong, in law and in morality, by failing to act.

Some people, perhaps the sweatlodge participants themselves (prior to 8th October 2009, of course) might justify Ray’s “heat endurance test” for a reason like this one. Tough spiritual exercises are intended to help people “break out of their comfort zones” and find “their highest good” (phrases that new-age gurus often use), and do something amazing that they thought they could not do. Afterwards they could justifiably feel stronger and more confident, better able to handle other problems in their lives. Let us suppose we took that claim at face value. Is it justifiable to expose someone to potential death as a means to that end? The answer is no. It is simply false, in cases like this one, that the ends justify the means. And there are limits to what you can ask people to do.

As the prosecuting lawyer said, “We don’t quibble with the notion that Mr. Ray used death as a metaphor. But when you deliberately confuse a metaphor with reality, it is no longer a metaphor.”

In addition to the physical environment of the sweatlodge (i.e. the heat), let us look at the social and psychological environment that Mr. Ray created. The prosecuting lawyer’s closing remarks drew attention to this when she said: “Mr. Ray intentionally used heat to cause these extreme altered mental status changes in his participants.” Another way to put this is to say that Mr. Ray’s sweatlodge was a mind control device. Along with the heat, he also used shame, peer pressure, lack of privacy, interruption of normal routines, the nearly $10,000 price tag for the event (because the more money the participants invest, the higher their expectations and level of commitment), and various preparation exercises (such as getting participants to write obituaries for themselves), to secure the participants obedience. Thus he was able to keep people in the tent far longer than was healthy or sane, against what would have been their better judgment, had they been in their right minds.

Now it would be one thing to say that the participants should have known what they were getting into, or that they should not have let Mr. Ray have so much power over them. Some people did attempt to leave the tent (and were chastised my Mr. Ray for doing it). But a charismatic and confident leader really can undercut your reason and lead you to suspend your good sense, and a talented one can do this to you without your conscious awareness and consent. Mr. Ray was, on that day, just such a charismatic and confident leader. I think it would be wrong to say that the participants are at fault for consenting to the situation.

Again, let us ask the moral question: is it possible that a spiritual leader can justifiably undercut someone else’s reason in the service of a goal like spiritual empowerment? Again, the answer is no. It is never in anyone’s “highest good” to take away that person’s free mind, no matter what benefit is offered in return. In fact I shall be bold and say that there is no goal, no cause, and no ‘end’ which justifies the subversion of rationality as a ‘means’ to that end. Remember your Kant: your free rational mind is your most intimate and most important possession. Indeed it is not really a ‘possession’. It is who you are, it is your humanity, it is your very soul. A person whose mind is controlled by another is not empowered. Instead, he or she is effectively enslaved. And it is a slavery so subtle and so insidious that the slaves might believe themselves free.

Pagans should think carefully about the James Arthur Ray trial. For many pagan initiation ceremonies involve trust exercises, and difficult physical ordeals. But there really are limits to what an initiator can ask a postulant to do, both in terms of safety, and in terms of morality. And there really are certain lines that should not be crossed.

I’m aware that this conclusion may seem controversial. Many pagans like to believe that there is no such thing as a universal moral truth, and many recoil at the use of the word ‘should’. James Ray’s sweatlodge puts that kind of relativism to a life-and-death test.

As a final remark, my friends, may I say that you do not need to undergo a heat endurance test to the death in order to know that you are strong in spirit.

(Postscript: My books cost way less than $10,000, and reading them won’t kill you. Just saying.)

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2 Responses to Thoughts on the James Arthur Ray trial

  1. Pingback: The Wild Hunt » Reactions to Ray Verdict from Native Voices, Victim’s Families, and Pagan Community

  2. John Beckett says:

    Excellent commentary, Brendan. Teachers – particularly those who push students beyond their comfort zones – have an obligation to know the difference between discomfort that can be overcome and serious problems that require stopping. James Ray failed his students, fatally.

    Ultimately, though, we are all responsible for our own lives. If we never do anything dangerous we’ll never accomplish much. The key is to face those dangers wide awake.

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