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Aseem Malhotra

The Regret, Repentance, and Redemption of Dr. Aseem Malhotra


Back when the vaccines were being rolled out, the eminent UK cardiologist, Dr. Aseem Malhotra encouraged people to accept them. He was trying to overcome “vaccine hesitancy”—see for example here in November 2020 and here in February 2021. 

Personal loss led to a change. Sadly, his father suffered cardiac arrest and died in July 2021. As told here, here, and here, though a cardiologist with an enormous Twitter following, Dr. Malhotra could not explain the post-mortem findings and started down medical-research rabbit holes he’d not gone down before.

Now, Malhotra says the Covid vaxes (or, at least, the mRNA vaxes) are not known to be safe and calls vax mandates and passports “unethical, coercive, and misinformed”—see the video here and here. Vax rollouts, he says, “must stop immediately.” 

In Part 1 of his recent series in Journal of Insulin Resistance (Part 2 is here), Dr. Malhotra writes:

But a very unexpected and extremely harrowing personal tragedy was to happen a few months later that would be the start of my own journey into what would ultimately prove to be a revelatory and eye-opening experience so profound that after six months of critically appraising the data myself, speaking to eminent scientists involved in COVID-19 research, vaccine safety and development, and two investigative medical journalists, I have slowly and reluctantly concluded that contrary to my own initial dogmatic beliefs, Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine is far from being as safe and effective as we first thought.

Dr. Malhotra’s change of mind is inspiring. An honest change of mind is naturally inspiring. In such a change, a spirit continues and grows while certain beliefs die and their embracer recedes.

Danish authorities, for example, no longer support vaxes for people under 50. Suppose unsafe evidence about the mRNA vaxes keeps piling up, as well as the mounting evidence of vax ineffectiveness and the folly of vaxxing in a pandemic. You would think that someone who had promoted them in public discourse would want to issue some sort of retraction or emendation, just to be on the record about it; just to acknowledge that, at a minimum, he justifiably mistook the knowledge available to him at the time. Beyond the minimum, he might feel a more serious regret, of having erred in his judgment—of having been foolish.

Will people who promoted vaxes emulate Dr. Malhotra? Will they feel regret? 

Such questions are important for all of us, and Dr. Malhotra is merely a touchstone here. I have not found material in which he expresses his feelings about his change of thinking. But at a minimum he has held himself accountable for a mistake.

Allow me to delve deeper, because I think the rubric is worth exploration. 

There are sentiments that go beyond regret: Will people who speak wrongly in some sense repent? Will they express some kind of contrition? 

Can they hope to be redeemed?

Humans have spiritual needs. Those needs are problematic especially for non-theists. They want to feel redeemed, but from whom is redemption sought? To whom is contrition expressed? An inner judge? 

The problems are beyond remorse, apology, and forgiveness. When I do less than justice to my neighbor, I feel regret or remorse, and I apologize to her and seek her forgiveness. If she forgives me and I try to make it up to her and she accepts my restitution, I may feel atonement (at-one-ment).

But suppose I too had an enormous Twitter following and a daily social media presence, like Dr. Malhotra. If I promoted vaxes, which, let us suppose turn out to have been undeniably bad for the vast majority of people they were pushed upon, to whom do I apologize? Of whom do I ask forgiveness?

There is no single human being—the person—to apologize to. The consequent evils are too diffuse and impersonal. And my friends and associates who know and understand my wrongdoing are in no position to forgive me for it. I can express my shame but I cannot offer them an apology, because they are in no position to accept such an apology.

Benevolent monotheism provides the pattern for spiritual health. Apology, it seems to me, is an affair between equals, human to human. Theists ask God for forgiveness, but they do not apologize to God. 

Something like God, maybe a larger, more sublime allegorical animism, is needed, even if only tacit. And a vocabulary to go with it. It begins with regret, but it rises, by knowing one’s smallness, to repentance, contrition, penance, penitence, and redemption. Here’s my stab at such concepts:

  • Repentance is knowing that the regret is not merely a matter of bad luck, but a failing on your part, a failure to see and act upon a superior interpretation of the situation. Repentance is an effort to correct the source of that sort of erring—perhaps a willful deviance—by reforming part of your being.
  • Contrition is the repenter’s humiliation about the wrongdoing, a nakedness, apparent to fellow creatures.
  • Penance is to penitence as a prison sentence is to the serving of that sentence. A penitent is a man in penitence, as a prisoner is a man in prison.
  • Redemption is what you receive when the redeemer communicates to you his judgment that you have succeeded in repenting, that you have rectified error and improved your being.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote:

Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie… It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it.

Often, non-theists, alas, have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Not all non-theists, but some. I mean those who, throwing out any notion of a God-like authority who can make one shudder, have left themselves with thin resources for doing larger renovations or even maintenance. Failing to move upward, they come to systematizing their world in a way that denies the failing and slights true upwardness; they grow stale and bored, and seek diversion after diversion. 

It is a sticky syndrome, but moral resources remain. One may find that something inside of him, or outside, calls to him and prompts a real regret, a humiliation, and a desire to repent and to become something better. 

Without that, however, he is prone to moving downward. Regardless of his accomplishments, man can fall into a downward dynamic.

As editor of Econ Journal Watch, I conducted a symposium on “My Most Regretted Statements.” What prompted the idea was my own feelings of regret over things I had written. But I did not contribute a confession to the symposium. Cass Sunstein confessed, and made the valuable point that if one is active in public discourse and has no regretted statements, he is doing something wrong.

After all, there is a trade-off between saying statements that one will later wish he hadn’t said and leaving unsaid statements that one will later wish he had said, since there is always uncertainty in your future estimation of statements (or would-have-been statements). An analogy is the person who travels a lot by air: If she never misses an airplane, she is spending too much time at airports. 

I agree with Sunstein on the point, and would extend it to the full slate of the penitent’s sentiments. My conscience has gnawed for as long as I can remember. I won’t enlarge here on my own regrets except to say that one is represented by statements on page 26 here and that around the time of symposium I produced this, and that another regret is told of here. As for hunches about the future that turned out wrong, I can think of three, here, here (really don’t know why it stopped working!), and pages 32–33 here. Compared to Bryan Caplan’s track record, my public prognostications have stunk. 

Sunstein puts his point this way:

If an academic has said little or nothing that he regrets, there’s a real problem. A main job of academics is to float ideas and take risks, and if they do not make mistakes, or learn enough to change their minds, well, that’s really something to regret.

It is also a main job of academics to make themselves accountable for what they’ve said. If Adam Smith taught us anything, it is that each of us is the redeemer’s “vicegerent upon earth, to superintend the behaviour of his brethren” and, above all, of himself. “Those vicegerents of God within us never fail to punish the violation of [the general rules of morality] by the torments of inward shame and self-condemnation.” 

Such vicegerency is a job that Dr. Malhotra has fulfilled admirably, by candidly reviewing his own past conduct. May his example be an inspiration.

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  • Daniel Klein

    Daniel Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is also associate fellow at the Ratio Institute (Stockholm), research fellow at the Independent Institute, and chief editor of Econ Journal Watch.

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