By deprogram, I mean an attempt by ethical means to alter someone’s beliefs (for example, therapeutic conversations).

“Cult” is not well-defined, which I see as a flaw in the question, but which it is necessary to accept (it doesn’t disqualify the question).

The question touches on aspects of personal freedom. If a person says they are happy, but are being treated in a way you feel is wrong or horrible, to what extent should you strongly strive to intervene, and alter their beliefs, to be in accordance with your own?

  • 1
    to play the contrarian, some cults have been historically important, not obviously evil, and the foundation of contemporary world religions
    – user71083
    Jan 19 at 20:52
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    @user66697 Some?? More like all!
    – Rushi
    Jan 20 at 3:18
  • There's a big problem about defining "cult", so I think an ethical decision would turn on a) what harm is being done to the person and b) whether the person is distressed in any way. Actually, you are unlikely to succeeding in "deprogramming" anyone who doesn't want to be "deprogrammed" and, on the whole, I would think it is unethical to try to do that, except in co-operation with the subject.
    – Ludwig V
    Jan 20 at 12:29
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    I would be very careful. There was a time when homosexuals were "deprogrammed" by family members. Alan Turing chose deprogramming over incarceration which included chemical castration. Turing experienced side effects such as gynecomastia (breast enlargement)[and bloating of the physique. He died two years later, with the inquest returning a verdict of suicide. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. Feb 23 at 3:08
  • He probably would have been better off incarcerated. Somehow, saving civilization is not enough for some folks, they have to probe into very personal matters.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 21 at 2:14

2 Answers 2


Concerning the ethical aspect of a possible intervention I consider the basic question: Am I responsible for the affected person?

If the affected person is an adult and if I am not the guardian of the person I am not on duty to intervene and I do not have the right to intervene.

Nevertheless I would ask myself: Why do we both make such dissenting assessment of the specific cult? Is all relevant information already on the table? Or do I know much to less about the cult under consideration?

Depending on how close we are to each other, I would engage myself to get my dissenting point of view to the affected person. If we do not come to a consense, I would no longer insist. In the worst case I would accept to end our contact. I would not act against the decision of an adult person who is not my ward in the juristic sense.

Note: I am well aware that each point of my statement can be put to question by imagining a situation which needs further investigation.


One major argument for help is universal for helping others in general: one cannot be happy when others are sad. This is the literal meaning of the Zulu word ubuntu, and there are similar words in other pre-civilization languages.

A major argument against helping is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. "Deprogramming" poses significant challenges. The whole field of psychology/psychotherapy is dedicated to this problem and even when it's done professionally the success if far from assured. We can harm others by trying to help if we don't know what we are doing.

One good place to start, I think, would be researching the person-centered approach to therapy. I also find this piece quite enlightening.

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