[Cross-posted from The Faculty Lounge]
Some supporters of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that her recent condemnation of Donald Trump was a justified departure from the usual standards of judicial ethics, explaining that Trump represents a unique threat to democracy that calls for special measures. Justice Ginsburg herself reconsidered, however, and retracted her comments after a few days. “Judges should avoid commenting on a candidate for public office,” she said. “In the future I will be more circumspect,”
Now the same set of issues is playing out among psychiatrists and psychologists.
As reported in the New York Times yesterday, some psychotherapists are pushing to reconsider the decades old “Goldwater Rule,” which says that “it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion [about an individual] unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.” The rule was prompted by events during the 1964 presidential election, when more than 1000 psychiatrists called Sen. Goldwater psychologically “unfit for office.” According to The Times, one doctor branded him “a dangerous lunatic.”
The Goldwater Rule was relatively uncontroversial until this year’s election, as Donald Trump has proven to be a “seemingly irresistible” target for some psychotherapists who are appalled at the prospect of his election. One mental health specialist referred to Trump’s “malignant narcissism,” and over 2000 mental health specialists have signed a Manifesto Against Trumpism. (The Manifesto does not offer a diagnosis.)
According to Dr. William Doherty, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota,” the departure from the Goldwater Rule is justified by the circumstances. “Yes, for me this is an exception,” he told The Times. “What we have here is a threat to democracy itself.”
This is an unfortunate trend. As much as I hope that Donald Trump loses the election as thumpingly as possible, I also believe that the Goldwater Rule serves an important ethical principle that should not be compromised. Remote and second-hand diagnoses are unreliable and potentially harmful, and they are just as likely to be informed by political preferences as by clinical judgment. It turned out, for example, that Barry Goldwater was quite stable, and he ended his career as a champion of gay rights within the Republican Party.
And of course, the tables can be turned. Donald Trump has recently challenged Hillary Clinton’s mental health. Conservative websites, including the Drudge Report, have diagnosed her with everything from depression to Parkinson’s disease, with support from Dr. Mark Siegel of NYU, who watched a videotape of Clinton slipping on some stairs and suggested that she suffers from “post-concussion syndrome.”
And let’s not forget Dr. Bill Frist who, when serving as Senate Majority Leader, diagnosed Terry Schiavo on the basis of a videotape.
I am not saying that physicians should stay out of politics. Many have shown significant leadership – from Howard Dean to Rand Paul to Jill Stein. I just don’t want to see Ben Carson claiming that Hillary Clinton has shown the symptoms of a cerebral aneurism or a subdural hematoma.
Professional ethics exist for reasons that have nothing to do with politics, and they should therefore be respected without regard to partisan advantage. Once the ethics rules are abandoned – even in what is seen as a compelling case – both sides will feel free to weigh in, and the only result will be damage to the ethics standards themselves. We would not want to see lawyers disclose confidences, or priests violate the sanctity of the confessional, simply because they think a particular election is uniquely important. That is why federal judges need to stay out of politics and doctors need to reserve their diagnoses for people whom they have actually examined.
The American people are capable of making electoral choices without the extramural political opinions of judges or the second-hand diagnoses of psychotherapists.