Nov 05 2009

Preventable Sweat Lodge Deaths: The Ethical and Legal Problems of James Arthur Ray, Self-Help Guru

You may know by now the police are treating the three deaths in the Arizona sweat lodge led by James Arthur Ray as homicides.

Ray is not a licensed therapist of any kind, so he did not have the help of any professional ethical code to guide his behavior.

Whether he will ultimately be viewed as a huckster operating a sweat lodge wildly out of control or a thoughtful professional who led an experience where three people were killed accidentally remains to be seen.

There seems to be a lot of evidence right now pointing to the former possibility. Here are just a few of the ethical principals (see NASW Code Ethics) he may have violated:

  • Helping people in need to solve problems
  • Respect for the integrity and worth of human beings
  • Acting with integrity and competence as a professional

Also, here are a few ethical standards which he may have violated:

  • Commitment to the well-being of clients
  • Provide full explanation of services so client can make an informed decision about their participation
  • Competence in whatever service offered as demonstrated by completion of educational, training, and professional experience

Based on the information gathered from police, participants, James Arthur Ray and his

company, the above principals and standards do not seem to have been met. This leaves Mr. Ray in a very precarious position legally and ethically.

  • Three people died and the information seems to suggest that they did not know they would be in the sweat lodge for so long and may not have been properly hydrated and nourished before the event.
  • The sweat lodge itself was constructed improperly with plastic tarps covering the roof instead of cloth blankets to allow a free flow of air (see second picture above of a traditional sweat lodge.
  • The roof may have only been about three feet high in the highest place, so it looked more like a rectangular box than a domed tent.
  • There were 65 people instead of the customary 10-12 people inside the lodge.
  • There is no evidence so far that Mr.Ray had any training in the proper way to lead a sweat lodge.
  • Traditional sweat lodges do not charge money to participate, while Mr. Ray charged people over $9,000.00.

Mr. Ray faces serious legal and personal liability challenges. He does not appear to have any professional credentials, so it is not likely he will face the ethical scrutiny of any therapy profession.

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