Atlantic Monthly

The Ethics of a Psychologist

In 2002, Seligman spent three hours at Naval Base San Diego, lecturing on torture and interrogation. But his lectures, he protests, were flipped on their head: he told the group of military men and women how to resist torture and interrogation by an unscrupulous foe. According to Mayer, the military used his insights to learn to induce in victims a condition of “learned helplessness” — a type of forlorn passivity that Seligman first observed in randomly electrocuted dogs 40 years ago. He hasn’t collaborated with that group since the lecture, he says, and he strongly condemns torture. “My career has been devoted to finding out how to overcome learned helplessness, not how to produce it.”

It may help hone our moral intuitions to recall the history behind the dog-zapping experiments that made Seligman famous. The setup involved restraining dogs and subjecting them to “50 seconds of severe, pulsating shock” — trauma that lingered as fear, torpor, and depression after the experiments ended. Animal advocates questioned his ethics, rightly, and Seligman defended his work by pointing out, also rightly, that it had illuminated mental illnesses that afflict the lives of millions of humans, at a price of nonpermanent damage to a few dozen dogs. Seligman has since even written a self-help manual, surely one of the most interesting in the genre, that suggests ways readers can use his research to become happier.

The parallels between the logic of human and canine torture — sacrificing the well-being of the few (terrorists and dogs) for the well-being of the many (innocents and depressives) — are worrisomely obvious. What’s less obvious is which way the argument cuts. Seligman, a morally thoughtful man and a self-professed dog lover, condemns torture, yet his experiments suggest a moral calculus that might allow it. If torturing a terrorist to save actual human lives isn’t permissible, then by what logic could he torture dozens of dogs for a smaller — and perhaps less certain — payoff? Today, many universities would, I suspect, reject his experiments (and a lot of other fascinating research) on ethical grounds.

These comparisons are notoriously tricky to deploy in an ethically scrupulous way. In the novel Elizabeth Costello, a poet objects to a comparison between abattoirs and WWII death camps. “If Jews were treated like cattle, it does not follow that cattle are treated like Jews.” Indeed: caution against glib moral comparison seems extremely wise right now, as do hasty condemnation or absolution of anyone involved in the torture controversy. Seligman has already caught undeserved blog-flak because of the reports about Mayer’s book, even though he almost certainly never knowingly abetted torture. Our ethical approaches to each question — whether to torture dogs, and whether to torture people — do seem like they should be related, though. And whatever our conclusions, it seems worth noting, again with worry, that we appear to be doing to people what many have already decided it is wrong to do to dogs.

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