Can We Afford The Banality of Doctors Doing Evil?

We must acknowledge the abhorrent truth of Frank Rich’s report (New York Times, April 26, 2009) that torture was “a premeditated policy approved at our government’s highest levels” during the Bush administration. What is most troubling to me about it all is the fact that “psychologists and physicians were enlisted as collaborators in inflicting pain”. Those individuals trained to reduce pain and suffering nevertheless did not say “no” to torture.

We are all prepared to acknowledge the sad fact that evil exists in the highest levels of even some democratic governments; but I hope I am not alone in shunning the dreadful reality that some members of the helping professions which declare they will “First Do No Harm” have stooped to a partnership in evil. Where I come from, doctors and psychologists don’t use torture for any end, no matter who calls them to duty.

There is a famous experiment designed and carried out by a social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, shortly after the 2nd world war.  Recent studies have repeated Milgram’s design, with predominately the same results: the majority of people asked to press a button to cause an innocent person to feel strong electric shock, carry out the command.  Few refuse at the risk of displeasing the person in charge. These results have been shocking to two generations of readers. Now, in my view, even more shocking is the fragility of the moral principles of some who have taken an oath to do no intentional harm.

Can we bring these facts to the table in admissions committee meetings at Medical Schools and Graduate Schools? Can we hope to give less power to arbitrary standardized tests and more to character assessment?  Can we start, in fact, in preschool, and proceed all the way through the pre-vocational years in order to restrict a caring professional identity to those who cannot be corrupted as the Bush/Cheney physicians and psychologists had been?

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We can't, because character assessment is...difficult. Its much easier to be fooled with that sort of thing, ya know? Its a nice dream, though

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