Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Date: 19th May 2014

The Eugenic Fallacy

The contemporary philosopher, Peter Singer, is not the only modern thinker who thinks ‘the handicapped baby should die’. Eugenics is not dead, it is just in hiding. Singer is just more outspoken than most.

But he, like other eugenicists, is guilty of a fallacy. His views may seem obviously wicked to some of us; but to many others they are quite tempting. Yet they are also deeply illogical – as I will attempt to show – and it is logic by which philosophers like Singer must live or die.
To begin with, let us acknowledge, even if we know that we  disagree with the eugenicist, that their  arguments do build on some kind of distorted truth.
Humanity is varied (as it should be) and, of course, part of that variability means that there are some of us who are weaker than others. [Although the concept of weakness is quite ambiguous concept, but we’ll leave that for another day.] This weakness, for example, might mean that I might need help to eat or to thrive; and this help can be treated as a cost – not just a financial cost – but as a cost in the lives of others. 
The eugenicist then demands that we put aside compassion, sympathy or love and instead we judge ‘honestly’ and examine the ‘burden’ that love or morality seems to demand: all the feeding, the caring, or the helping. At some point, they argue, we must recognise that this burden just becomes ‘unreasonable.’ And, of course, there is a genuine temptation here. Most of us might resent the care that we must take of others – all of us can imagine something else that we might do that would be more fun, pleasurable, relaxing, creative, productive etc. [Here we can each choose our own utilitarian poison.]
But how can there be an end to this. Each time we destroy the weakest a new weakest must emerge. Those who were second from last will now become last. There will always be someone with less, who needs more, it is a fundamental aspect of the human condition. The eugenic knife must keep on cutting – once we’ve decided that we are at liberty to destroy the weak we will find new people who are weak – and who must therefore be destroyed.
There can be no end to the destruction. And as the process destruction begins there must therefore appear two classes, those who destroy and those to be destroyed. We may feel that we will not belong to either class, but ultimately we must choose – there is only the illusion of a middle ground. If we are silent while the destruction goes on then we are complicit with destruction. If we resist then we stand with those who they wish to destroy.
Eugenics always opens this gulf within humanity – it is profoundly inhuman because it forgets that diversity and weakness is of our very essence. But it is profoundly illogical because it forgets that eugenics changes everything, for all of us. The eugenicist argues as if the act of genocide is merely some neutral act of science. But always there will be those who wield the knife, inject the toxin or turn on the gas. We must become killer or victim. And as the victims pile up the killers must turn on each other. Eugenics is pragmatically self-contradictory – it cannot be sustained (which is not to say it cannot happen – it is happening now).
Eugenics is a particularly tempting philosophy for those who are powerful or wish to be amongst the powerful. In the nineteenth century, as Arendt argued, it was a critical element in the thinking of al the competing elites – liberals, progressives, imperialists and racists:

Darwinism met with such overwhelming success because it provided, on the basis of inheritance, the ideological weapons for race as well as class rule and could be used for, as well as against, race discrimination. Politically speaking, Darwinism as such was neutral, and it has led, indeed, to all kinds of pacifism and cosmopolitanism as well as to the sharpest forms of imperialistic ideologies. In the seventies and eighties of the last century, Darwinism was still almost exclusively in the hands of the utilitarian anti-colonial party in England. And the first philosopher of evolution, Herbert Spencer, who treated sociology as part of biology, believed natural selection to benefit the evolution of mankind and to result in everlasting peace. For political discussion, Darwinism offered two important concepts: the struggle for existence with optimistic assertion of the necessary and automatic “survival of the fittest,” and the indefinite possibilities which seemed to lie in the evolution of man out of animal life and which started the new “science” of eugenics. 

The doctrine of the necessary survival of the fittest, with its implication that the top layers in society eventually are the “fittest,” dies as the conquest doctrine had died, namely, at the moment when the ruling classes in England or the English domination in colonial possessions were no longer absolutely secure, and when it became highly doubtful whether those who were the “fittest” today would still be the fittest tomorrow. The other part of Darwinism, the genealogy of man from animal life, unfortunately survived. Eugenics promised to overcome the troublesome uncertainties of the survival doctrine according to which it was impossible either to predict who would turn out to be the the fittest or to provide the means for the nations to develop everlasting fitness. This possible consequence of applied eugenics was stressed in Germany in the twenties as a reaction to Spengler’s Decline of the West. The process of selection had only to be changed from a natural necessity which worked behind the backs of men into an “artificial,” consciously applied physical tool. Bestiality had always been inherent in eugenics, and Ernst Haeckel’s early remark [1904] that mercy-death would save “useless expenses for family and state” is quite characteristic. Finally the last disciples of Darwinism in Germany decided to leave the field of scientific research altogether, to forget about the search for the missing link between man and ape, and started instead their practical efforts to change man into what the Darwinists thought an ape is.

Hannah Arendt from The Origins of Totalitarianism 

Today we have our own ‘neoliberal’ version of eugenics. ‘Let the market do the work of the eugenicist. Let those who are unworthy fall aside. Greed is natural and good. We are powerful, rich and strong because we are the best. We should survive and thrive, they should fail.’
This road to Hell has been trod before. The fact that it is all illogical nonsense does not stop it from growing in strength. Its strength is rooted, not in truth, but in fear and in our natural desire not to find ourselves on the losing side – the side of the weak. 
The only thing that will stop it before it destroys everything is that either when the weak themselves resist or that those who have not yet been marked out as weak choose to stand beside them. 
The trial lies before us now, but we close our eyes and hope it will go away of its own accord. This never works.

Weil’s or Pascal’s Wager

Here is Pascal’s famous wager, which proposes the absolute rationality of believing in God: 

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is….

“God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. 

A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. 

“That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.

Blaise Pascal, Thoughts

Pascal appeals to our reason, by asking us to recognise that reason itself has come to its limits. Instead we must make that great existential choice – we must commit ourselves. But to choose not to believe is to risk everything – an infinity of happinesses.

There is a power to this argument, but it is also fraught with problems. In particular, as Simone Weil recognised, its very logic is inconsistent with true faith.

Here is an alternative wager, put forward by Weil:

If we put obedience to God above everything else, unreservedly, with the following thought: ‘Suppose God is real, then our gain is total – even though we fall into nothingness at the point of death; suppose the word ‘God’ stands only for illusions, then we have still lost nothing because on this assumption there is absolutely nothing good, and consequently nothing to lose; we have even gained, through being in accord with truth, because we have left aside the illusory goods which exists but are not good, for the sake of something which (on this assumption) does not exist but which, if it did exist, would be the only good… 

If one follows this rule of life, then no revelation at the the moment of death can cause any regrets; because if chance or the devil governs all worlds we would still have no regrets for having lived this way. 

This is greatly preferable to Pascal’s wager.

Simone Weil, Gateway to God, p. 44 

The attraction of Weil’s wager is that she refuses to separate truth and goodness. If God exists then we have truth – even without Paradise or any eternal happiness – even if we crumble away into nothing. We had faith in truth, even if that truth turns out to be inconsistent with our eternal happiness.

And, if God does not exist, we also lose nothing, because we have not deluded ourselves with meaningless goods. She will not allow Pascal’s easy separation of a good that may be false.

Weil’s is the harder road, but it is the better road. Faith in God cannot be a gamble on a free ride to Heaven. And belief cannot mean just the mouthing of words or the holding of ideas. Belief is our commitment – belief is an action of the will – the very essence of our being.

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