The Power of Prayer

I was lucky enough to have a chance to visit some friends and colleagues in Denmark – partially explaining why I didn’t manage to get a new post up last week – and I’m writing this on my return trip, which happens to have been on a day called “Store Bededag,” or Great Prayer Day, a holiday unique to Denmark (and, according to Wikipedia, the Faroe Islands). The Danes I spoke to about Great Prayer Day seemed to think that few people in Denmark did much in the way of actually praying on Great Prayer Day – unlike, he added in awkward transition – the people who are the topic of my post today, Herbert and Catherine Schaible, of my own current home and destination, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

You might have read about this story already because it was reported in some national news outlets because the Schaibles killed a second child with their prayers. Or, that’s one way to put it. Back in 2009, one of the Schaible’s offspring contracted a case of pneumonia. The Schaibles belong to a religious organization that holds that it is morally wrong to “trust in medical help,” so, instead of committing the sin of getting treatment for their child, they prayed, with the foreseeable effect that the child, Brandon, died. Although it seems easy to argue that the parents caused the death of their child – (“but for” their inaction, the child would be alive today) –  the Schaibles were given the comparatively light sentence of probation.

Last week, it was reported that the Schaibles, presumably not wishing to commit the sin of treating their child, caused the death of another child, this time from what has been described as “diarrhea and breathing problems.”

I have a few points that I thought I would make about this story, though I find it impossible not to begin by saying that I find it deplorable that the criminal justice system in the United States found probation appropriate punishment in the case of Brandon’s death. (There were a number of interesting comments on the pages of sources reporting the story, many along the lines of suggestions that the Schaibles should be jailed without food or water, but permitted to pray as hard as they wished for supernatural room service.)

Keeping you dry... and happy!

Keeping you dry… and happy!

Why was the punishment so lenient? I haven’t studied the prior case, but I can say something about some relevant moral intuitions, which are to some extent reflected in American law. Three come to mind. First, their choice to do nothing was based on a false belief, that praying has effects. Under certain conditions, people find having certain false beliefs exculpatory. (I’m sure this is what the person who currently has my umbrella would say if pressed on what she’s doing with it. Our two umbrellas did, I concede, look similar, which is why I’ve resumed carrying around my Mickey Mouse umbrella. Fashionable, maybe not, but more distinctive than plain black, yes indeed.) Second, the Schaible’s choice to do nothing was based on a moral belief, that applying medical treatment is wrong, though I’m not sure the precise role that moral belief played in the legal transactions. Finally, and probably most importantly, their choice was an omission, as opposed to a commission. For reasons that are still the subject of debate in the relevant literature, holding everything else constant, including intentions and outcomes, people judge omissions as less morally wrong than commissions.

The case makes me think about proposals regarding the function of morality. Take, for instance, Jon Haidt’s well-known work. One function of morality, he has argued, is to facilitate helping kin. He makes this explicit, writing that one function of morality is to “protect and care for young, vulnerable, or injured kin” (Haidt & Joseph, 2007). Cases such as this one are somewhat peculiar, given this view, since it was morality that caused them exactly not to “protect and care for injured kin.” This is consistent with what I and some of my collaborators have found in some experimental work. Morality frequently works against the goal of aiding relatives. If moral judgments are (in part) for helping kin, it seems to botch the job on at least some occasions.

A second thing that this case makes me think about are various proposals about the benefits of false beliefs. I don’t doubt that there are certain benefits to having certain false beliefs. On the other hand, such arguments must, in my view, run uphill. As I’ve written about (at possibly too much) length elsewhere, generally it’s good to have true beliefs, and bad to have false beliefs. Here is a good example of the (very high) cost of a false (supernatural) belief, and such cases I think should be borne in mind when proposals regarding the benefits of false beliefs are made. Whatever their benefits, false beliefs carry costs as well.

And then there is the key issue of omissions. The intuition that omissions aren’t, somehow, so bad, is a strong one. It really doesn’t seem as bad to fail to act compared to acting in a way that leads to the same outcome. The philosopher Peter Singer has tried to push back against this intuition using the typical tool of philosophers, thought experiments. Suppose a baby was about to drown, and you could only save her by wading into the water, ruining your fancy shoes. Would you do it? Not only are your intuitions telling you that you should, but they are also telling you that someone who didn’t was the worst kind of soul.

The principle is that you shouldn’t fail to take an action that is costly if it will save a life. Or, further, that it’s wrong to fail to act if one can to endure a cost to save a life. This principle seems all well and good except, Singer argues, it leaves most of us with a problem. Every day, all of us lucky enough to live in the industrialized West could, if we wished, donate money to a charity that could use the money to save a child’s life. Each time each of us spends money on a dinner out instead of such a charity, we are making the choice equivalent to refusing to save the drowing child. (To his credit, for Singer, these are more than thought experiments. Taking his own line of argument seriously, he practices what he preaches, and gives a quarter of his income to charities that save lives. I don’t usually put media in here, but I’ve tried to put his short video below:)

Am I trying to draw a moral equivalence between dining out instead of donating to child-saving charities and the Schaible’s reprehensible behavior? Only a faint one. Parents have duties and obligations to children. Few would deny this. Individuals’ duties and obligations to our fellow humans is at least arguable, though of course people like Singer argue, correctly, I think, that this is an argument worth having.

To close by returning to the scientific issue, why do we find omissions less morally wrong than commissions? If morality were designed to increase social welfare, one might have thought that our moral intuitions would have been that failing to help others (a lot) at (small) costs would have been seen as among the most morally reprehensible things one might do. The criminal justice system’s response to the Schaible case suggests that we’re surprisingly lenient when it comes to (deadly) omissions.


Haidt, J., & Joseph, C. (2007). The moral mind: How 5 sets of innate moral intuitions guide the development of many culture-specific virtues, and perhaps even modules. In P. Carruthers, S. Laurence, and S. Stich (Eds.) The Innate Mind, Vol. 3. New York: Oxford, pp. 367-391.

Singer, P. (1972). Famine, Affluence, and MoralityPhilosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1(3), pp. 229–243

29. April 2013 by kurzbanepblog
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