Guilt and Optimism

Guilt and optimism can be good things. Only the psychopathic mind feels no guilt at all, and when we do wrong, that wrong is mitigated if we can feel some guilt over our actions. Guilt can make us do things differently, and channel us into making reparations for our wrong-doing.

Likewise, most of us will take actions with a sense of optimism. How else can one explain the widespread sale of lottery tickets? We all hope that, against the impossible odds, we will succeed. It’s a pleasant little daydream to think we can achieve huge success with little effort, but we still indulge ourselves.

But however we choose to act as individuals, as a society we shouldn’t have guilt or wild optimism at the heart of our decision-making process.

However that’s the only conclusion we can draw from the recent disclosure that Health Service Executive (HSE) funds have been used to provide ‘angel healing’ to the group ‘Positive Action‘ – funds that come from the public purse.

The treatment of women in Ireland who were infected with Hepatitis C following the administration of contaminated blood by the Irish Blood Service was poor, to say the least. A reluctant government took a long time to admit that the State had been at fault, and in some cases, fought some of the infected women in the Courts to the bitter end.

Finally, the group ‘Positive Action’ was set up to provide support to the infected women, funded by the Department of Health. And there is no doubt that this action, and subsequent actions, were motivated by the collective guilt felt by many at the State’s actions. It had made people sick through incompetence and neglect. It made this profound error even more egregious by refusing to admit that it had been wrong, and by contesting the women’s claims in the Courts.

But now it has been revealed that Positive Action has used some of the money it has received for dubious purposes, including ‘angel healing’ and card readings. There were other examples of money being spent in a questionable fashion – €104,000 on travel to conferences, €86,781 on dining and €202 on a courier to transport dry cleaning.

They wouldn’t be the first Quango to spend money lavishly on themselves, and that is an issue in itself, but spending money on ‘angel healing’ and card readings is inexcusable. Positive Action have defended this practice by saying that it gave consolation and comfort to some of the victims.

Possibly. But does that justify spending money on placebos? Where do we draw the line on spending State money in health?

This money was poorly administered, that’s for sure. And given what had happened, it’s probably true that the State and the bodies responsible for infecting the women felt some guilt over what had previously happened, and didn’t want to get involved in another row with them. But even so, the State has a responsibility to safeguard our money. In the area of health, this means only spending money on actual medicine, not quackery. And ‘angel healing’ is quackery so profound that even ducks are embarrassed.

Angel therapy is based on the idea that our ‘guardian angels’ can help us achieve better health and happiness. Needless to say, there is no proof and never has been (or, I would venture, ever will be) that angels exist, or that there is such a thing as a ‘guardian angel’. Equally, of course, I have no proof that angels don’t exist, but, as Christopher Hitchens argued during his life, that’s not the point. There is no need to prove the non-existence of something that doesn’t exist in the first place. We don’t need prove that, say, dragons or fairies don’t exist, until some case has been made that they possibly might. In the same way, anyone who advocates something like ‘angel therapy’ has the onus on them to prove it’s not hocus pocus or the imaginings of a deluded mind.

That might seem harsh on women who have suffered by being poisoned by the State, but the principle remains the same. We can’t take money out of a pot marked for actual medicine and give it to silliness masquerading as medicine. To do so would mean that the health budget could never match expectations as everyone would want their own cure – administered by their own quack.

In this case, it also turns out that the husband of one of the women was also hired to sing several times at events. That gives us a clue. This was a scheme where the people involved thought it was okay to siphon off money for their friends and relations. For whatever reason, they thought that was their right.

But everyone has rights here. That vast majority of people who depend on a State-funded health system have a right to know that the money they contribute isn’t being wasted on fakery, delusions and slight-of-hand tricks. Medicine is something that has been proven to work in curing people and alleviating pain. Alternatives therapies are just that. Alternatives to medicine that haven’t yet been proven to work. (And in my view, some never will be.)

I would be quite happy if there were guardian angels (though somewhat disturbed since I’ve lived a full life without seeing any proof of their existence, so it would be strange that they showed up now) and happier if they spent their time curing people. But I don’t have to prove they don’t exist to make a valid point about not funding people who profit from supposedly channeling them to help people. Until they can prove the existence of angels, nobody else should have to pay for the delusion of any patient, no matter how deserving.

What they do, of course, with their own money, is entirely a matter for themselves.

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