Ethics of the Past, Present, and Future: The Dangerous History of Eugenics

Ethics of the Past, Present, and Future: The Dangerous History of Eugenics

How do we apply ethics historically? This question, perhaps one of the most important in modern times, forces us to look at history through two opposing lenses. On the one hand, there is a strong desire to detach oneself from a historical narrative and present it as objectively as possible—as if the characters were in a play. On the other hand, there is an equally strong desire to compare cultures and ethics from the future to the past, from continent to continent, world to world. This is especially true when dealing with overwhelming pain and tragedy in the history of particular people or culture. For example, to speak historically of the African diaspora or the Holocaust today, one must accept the moral responsibility that genocide and human enslavement are never acceptable, despite culture, history, or language.

When dealing with these extreme events, however, gray areas are unavoidable—when do the crimes of the African diaspora, the first enslavements and objectifications, begin? How many people were truly responsible for the Holocaust, and when does this responsibility, if ever, end?

This work becomes even more challenging once we turn to questions of science, that particular aspect of human society inherently focused on practical, measurable progress. Thousands of scientific and technological advancements from 1500 until the present day were due directly to stolen labor and stolen lands, whether from enslaved Africans, indigenous peoples, or women. For example, one of the central goals of Nazi death camps was scientific advancement achieved through nonconsensual experimentation. This ethical situation becomes so challenging, so context dependent, and so disheartening that there is an impulse to retreat back either to a problematic historical objectivity (understand but don’t judge) or a wholesale condemnation of the past (burn it all down and start anew). Both impulses are, eventually, doomed to failure. Historical objectivity means that we can never take moral lessons from the past, and wholesale condemnation ignores the fact that our judgement may be affected by the same philosophies that condemned the past.

This historical ethical question must be the starting point for any conversation on eugenics. The word “eugenics” (Greek for “well bred”) was first coined in 1883 by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, the father of modern statistics and inventor of the standardized intelligence test. The basic idea of eugenics was that humans had a responsibility to take control of their own evolutionary future. Two decades prior to Galton, Charles Darwin argued that evolution was largely driven by a seemingly random force known as natural selection. This force applied to human evolution as much as to any other animal or plant.

Eugenicists like Galton took Darwin’s theories and applied them to society as a whole. If we can breed cows for meat, chickens for eggs, and horses for speed, why not control the future of humanity and make purposeful what had been random? For the next 60 years, eugenics went from an applied scientific theory to a widespread cultural phenomenon, enchanting scientists, politicians, and everyday people throughout the world—from North America to Europe to Brazil to China to Australia—with promises to rid humanity of disabilities, to create more intelligent children, and to perfect the human race.

The scientifically supported eugenics movement and its desire for human perfection caused a cascade of devastating global effects on human dignity. As a movement easily hitched onto cultural biases like racism, misogyny, antisemitism, ableism, and xenophobia, eugenics became the tipping point for decades of laws aiming for population control through often brutal methods like forced sterilization, abortion, and anti-miscegenation. Eventually, the eugenics movement was adopted by Adolf Hitler and other leaders of the Nazi movement with tragic consequences: scientific experiments and death camps filled with Jewish men, women, and children, as well as Black, disabled, LGBTQ, and other so-called imperfect individuals. The ultimate desire, in Germany as in the rest of the world, remained the same: human perfection, individually and culturally.

As a popular movement, eugenics lasted until the end of WWII, when the death camps shocked the world into at least a partial realization of outcome of this way of thinking. The word eugenics almost entirely disappeared from mainstream publications, and people in power throughout the world quickly rebranded any related scientific studies with other titles and motives. In short, the world tried to move on without any clear sense of culpability beyond those directly responsible for the most horrific actions.

Decades later, we are still trying to pick up the mess and understand why. Why did eugenics grab the public imagination so strongly? What were the conditions that made the widespread acceptance possible? How can we look at all the scientific and technological progress during those years in light of the ties to eugenics? Furthermore, how might this understanding of eugenics force us to understand our ethical responsibility towards scientific, technological, and political theories today?

We will always be tempted, of course, to retreat back to historical nihilism—to cast aside everything and start with a new Adam and Eve. But what if our own perception of reality is still based on some of the same corrosive philosophies that created the conditions for eugenics itself, not to mention other biases? What then can we do? And how do we prevent this all from happening again?

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Dr. John Slattery is the Director at Grefenstette for Ethics in Science, Technology, and Law at Duquesne University, and was visiting scholar-in-residence at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, OH, holding two talks on April 28th and April 29th – “Science Then: Ethically Considering an Unethical Past” and “Science Now: The Rise and Fall… and Rise… Of Eugenics,” where he discussed the underlying philosophies of eugenics, ethical approaches to history, and the value-laden nature of science itself).


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