Is Curing Sybil Murder?

Sybil supposedly had sixteen distinct personalities.  “Curing” such patients by eliminating or merging their personalities isn’t obviously good:

The cognitive fragmentation that characterizes DID [Dissociative Identity Disorder] far outstrips … self-deception and akrasia.  Indeed, … it becomes difficult not to regard each alter as a distinct locus of experience, thought and agency.  As Wilkes points out with respect to the Beauchamp case,

[Prince] firmly (for example) ticked Sally off for her tricks follies, and would lecture her sternly; he criticized or approved of B4’s plans for finding a job, or for taking a holiday; and he commended B1’s sweet and self-sacrificing nature. All the alternate personalities were thus treated as moral and prudential agents, with respect to other people, with respect to each other, and with respect to their own selves. Prince is by no means alone in taking such an attitude to the diverse personalities of a patient – it is practically impossible to avoid.

There are two standard therapeutic approaches to DID. … [Restoration] involves the installation of a particular alter as the unique `owner’ of a body.  … An alternative … [is] integration of the various alters into one self, a single agent with a (unified) stream of consciousness and a unified psychological profile. …

Assuming the strong model of DID and a psychological account of full moral status, restoration would seem to involve the involuntary elimination of an entity with a right to continued existence. (I assume that – as is in fact often the case – the alters in question do not want to be eliminated. …). Restoration may not amount to murder … but it would seem to involve an act of comparable moral gravity. …

Enforced integration does not appear to be as wrong as restoration, but it does seem to be deeply problematic nonetheless. It is not clear that integration should be thought of as the `elimination’ of an alter, but it may well approach that (especially as the number of alters that are integrated increases).

More here and here.  Our future will contain a much wider range of creatures, and we will have to decide when it is good or bad to create or destroy them.  We should at least prepare by coming to terms with the creatures we have today.

Added 18Mar: The fictional Borg merged humans into a larger more-integrated collective mind.  If merging alters is good, why isn’t a Borg better?

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  • Steven Schreiber

    So… if each “person” is not a locus of experience itself, but generally shares in common experience, then shouldn’t we be arguing that people should be made disintegral because it will mean that each experience of each person would impact more than one person?

    In fact, insofar as this kills the person who was once integral, we should be campaigning for outright psychic genocide, yes?

  • Very hard question.

    My instinct is to say “Yes it is murder”

    However, I wonder about the notion of the Society of the Mind. I believe it is accepted among cognitive psychologists that their are competing mini-personality modules with in us with conflicting drives. Our unified self is then a post-hoc illusion generated after a module has won on a particular issue.

  • Robert Koslover

    This isn’t my field, so I’ll take a simplistic view here. If you can cure the split personality disorder without destroying brain tissue and without losing memories (or at least, not a lot of memories) then I don’t think it’s murder. Especially if the resulting person is happy. A split personality is not truly multiple people in one body, in my view, but rather a mind with multiple presentations (most commonly due to having suffered tremendous trauma/abuse, if I recall correctly). To bring them into one sane and reasonably-well mind is to make the person healthier, and thus a good thing. Just my humble opinion.

    • jonas

      I agree.

      • jonas

        These: Materialism ; Antithese: Non-Materialism , Synthese

    • loqi

      So you declare that this isn’t your field, then assert that split personalities can’t possibly count as people. Assuming your concept of “person” has any grounding in empirical reality, how do you know? You appear to be deciding a serious moral question via surface similarities and appeals to a very specific definition of “person”. It all looks pretty monstrous to me.

      In fact, I’d say it’s a sign that you’re pathologically unconcerned with the well-being of minds with novel encodings, a tragic but common disorder. Maybe some day we’ll invent a pill or some kind of neurosurgery that would force you to hold the correct opinion. After all, to make you into a sane and reasonably-decent mind is to make you healthier, and thus a good thing. Just someone’s humble opinion.

      • Steven Schreiber

        If you’re a materialist, then there isn’t anything but surface similarities.

        I accuse you of nascent vitalism, sir. Choose your weapon.

      • Robert Koslover

        1. Is it your field?
        2. It isn’t Robin’s field either. So should he not have it on his blog?
        3. Would you have preferred that I (falsely) claimed to speak authoritatively, rather than honestly state that this was not my area of expertise?
        4. Do you disagree with the specifics of my assertions? If so, what?
        5. BTW, while we are on the question of counting the number of people within one brain: Should those with this disorder be entitled to more than one vote in an election? Also, should they receive additional tax deductions, specifically for having more dependents?

      • loqi


        1. No. But notice that I refrained from playing word hopscotch to convince myself that I somehow still have a meaningful opinion on the matter backed by sound reasoning.

        2. Notice also what Robin refrained from doing.

        3. ???

        4. There are no “specifics” to your assertions. You just glued “skull packed with brain tissue” and “person” into one concept, and casually tagged “appearance of a single personality” with some unknown amount of positive affect via an appeal to “health” that I find wholly vacuous. If you’re asserting that “they’ll end up happier” is sufficient justification for thwarting a person’s will, then I certainly disagree.

        5. Those are good questions, but they’re difficult to answer even apart from this particular edge case. Assuming we agree on what constitutes a person, I still don’t think we can make much progress on the first without a solid answer to the question “Should each person be entitled to one vote in an election?”. The second would probably depend on the rationale for the tax break – clearly the extra personalities aren’t extra mouths to feed.


        I’m not quite sure what your initial claim is even supposed to mean. But what the hell: If you’re a materialist, then you know that understanding a complex system often requires more than a simple catalogue of surface similarities. I accuse you of nascent behaviorism, sir.

  • You might be interested in the novel Blindsight by Peter Watts. He makes exactly the point that integration is murder.

    The book itself is an exploration of various types of intelligence. Science fiction as written by a philosophy professor, perhaps, except that it’s actually good.

    • On your advice, I just finished reading this novel, and was pleased with it. Thanks!

  • I haven’t read Derek Parfit’s book, but I believe he argues that an individual is in reality split up into many persons across time. “Sybil” was simply less consistent/stable. We are not “murdering” anyone, just making her more consistent (perhaps against her will). One could also argue that by stealing portions of her life a la the Yithians from Shadow Out of Time (their lifespans do not add to hers when the same body is shared, after all) her alters have killed her a little. Removing them prevents further theft and gives the baseline personality the rest of her life back.

    I should say that after just reading Elaine Showalter’s “Hystories” I suspect a lot of this multiple personality stuff is bogus, though I was primed for that kind of thing given my Szaszian leanings.

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  • Stuart Armstrong

    Is Curing Sybil Murder?

    It all depends on the details of Sybil. If Sybil is genuinly running sixteen different personalities sequentially, the curing her is of course murder!

    If she’s one personality who likes to role-play a bit, then it isn’t.

    The answer to the question depends not on morality (which tends to be rather universal where killing is concerned, in the broad strokes), but on reality: what is she, really?

    Cue some brain specialists.

  • Violet

    Why not *ask* the different personalities and get them to agree on a solution?

  • Curing would get rid of one or a few ‘partial people’ who occupy part of her brain, but simultaneously turn her brain’s processing power over to running whichever set of personalities triumphs. We should expect the net change in consciousness to be zero, so should be indifferent between curing her or not (assuming no other costs or benefits).

    Whenever a person changes personality over time the previous personality ‘dies’ and the new one supplants it. This does not reduce utility and unsurprisingly is not a concern. The above is just an extreme case of the same.

  • Rob, is it ok to kill someone, depriving them of X future years of life, if that adds more than X years to someone else’s life?

    TGGP, the creation of new alters is often not resisted, but positively welcomed, by previous alters as a way to deal with a stressful situation.

    • jonas

      It is never ok to kill someone. The way of non violence might be a pareto optimum here adding X years to someone`s and someone else`s future years in life.

      x life = y life
      jack = jack
      joe = joe

    • Depends on how much these two different people enjoy their lives, the effect premature death will have on others, how productive they are in society, how much their murder will make everyone else fear for their security, etc.

      But it could certainly be good, yes.

      • Doug S.

        And the trolley problem, once again, rears its ugly head…

  • Pangolin

    Regardless of how much the person may think they are separate people, there is still one mind. Reintegration could only result in healing a fractured mind, and allow it to have complete experience instead of fragmented experience.

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  • I just added to the post.

    • Doug S.

      I suspect that most of the problem with turning people into Borg came from the fact that the Borg were evil, and when people were assimilated, they became evil too. Furthermore, people who were assimilated and then un-assimilated usually report that they prefer the un-assimilated state. The Borg are not a collective I’d like to join, but maybe one with a better marketing department could induce me to sign up. 😉

      • David C

        Now to show off my nerdiness…

        Doug, the Borg were considered evil because they forcefully assimilated people against their will. Prior to the Voyager series, the Borg did not intentionally kill people. They simply forcefully assimilated them, and sometimes people died as a result of their resistance. The Borg prefer it if individuals live. When not assimilating individuals, they don’t attack unless attacked themselves. Since DID probably frequently results in personalities permanently disappearing, this is quite similar. The Borg are DID of the first type because they have a queen. Many alters probably prefer not being integrated.

    • Tim Tyler

      A collective mind *is* better – by a variety of metrics. That’s why humans are currently busy forming collectives.

  • Dre

    This looks like status quo bias, people assuming that having one mind per body must be optimal because its what we have now. I don’t think there’s a proper explanation of why the status quo is the best in the comments saying curing sybil isn’t murder.

    I don’t know the underlying neurology, and it does seem like that is important, but if there were some way to have coordination between the personalities, I might consider getting some myself. It would open up interesting possibilities for comparative advantage within my brain.

  • Proper Dave

    What about split brains, where the corpus callosum has been severed, I believe there are two distinct personalities in some persons. What if there is some way to cure severe epilepsy in the future and a way to reconnect the two hemispheres(and personalities)? Would that be murder?

    In this case we actually have very good evidence for two persons in one rather than the very flaky case of “Sybil”.

    • I hadn’t heard there were split personalities in that case, more “left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing”.

      Dre: We might also regard property rights as status quo bias. I framed things in terms of “theft” and “stolen”, where the original personality has primary rights to brain-time. In my view entities which are yet to exist have less ass-kicking ability, and that is the determining factor.

  • Proper Dave

    “left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing”.
    And why is that? 🙂

    Sounds like there is two independent controlling entities then…

    There is actually physically two brains. Is the one conscious and the other one just is? They obviously have to work together to maintain motor function though (through the senses mostly)
    Also in very young patients both brains can develop speech abilities and there is sometimes quite apparently different personalities.
    In adult patients the one brain cannot communicate much because speech is localized in one of the hemispheres and is very hidden.

    This has MUCH more evidence than DID which some claim have distinct persons, which experience consciousness etc.

    Is it because they are conscious at the same time and the personalities is very similar twins and hidden, but definitely distinct, that they are somehow one?

    This does not hold if you think about it.

  • It might be illuminating to ask each persona: if you could be transferred into a separate body, would you go?

  • Anonymous

    All this seems to assume that a person is defined by their personality- that if you eliminate a personality you kill somebody (as opposed to destroying a brain). Is there actual evidence for this?