Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: evil

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.

How Do We Defend the Welfare State?

The second principle is that organisation of social insurance should be treated as one part only of a comprehensive policy of social progress. Social insurance fully developed may provide income security; it is an attack upon Want. But Want is one only of five giants on the road of reconstruction and in some ways the easiest to attack. The others are Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

William Beveridge, Social Insurance and Allied Services, p. 6

If we are just interested in defending an existing social institution then we do not need to limit ourselves to any one justification or line of defence. Often it is helpful to have more than one argument, particularly as you will need to find common ground with people with whom you may not agree about everything. You may believe that your justification is the best or the only true justification, but this is not helpful as a defence of the welfare state if most people can’t see the truth of your justification.

For instance, the UK welfare state was largely developed by William Beveridge. But when Beveridge was making the case for his reforms he did not rely on any narrow moral or political theory, rather he tried to outline the central problems for which the welfare state was a solution. These were the the Five Giants: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

Rhetorically, evil can be much more helpful than good. For we can all quickly agree that something like the Five Giants are bad and agree that we will attack them. However we may find that we all define what is good in rather different ways. So while we may agree on the need to attack an evil we may have very different ideas about how to avoid an evil and what we should do instead.

So, from a design point of view, only knowing what you want to avoid is also something of a weakness. If we do not know what the welfare state is for – not just what it is against – then it can be rather hard to design it or defend it. We may find that we are so divided by our different conceptions of the good that we no longer agree on what it is we are fighting for.

In fact I think this is our current predicament. Sometimes critics of the welfare state seem to be against the welfare state, but it often turns out that they are really offering different visions of the welfare state. They still want to attack the Five Giants but they are arguing for different ways of attacking them. This does not make them right, nor does it make their arguments any less dangerous, but it means we are living at a time when it is no longer good enough to simply argue that any proposed policy change is a ‘threat to the welfare state’. Simplistic defences of the welfare state as ‘an obviously good thing’ have become far too weak.

It is no longer good enough to point – however truthfully – that a policy is an attack on the welfare state. The welfare state’s legitimacy has been weakened too much by decades of bad policy-making by Left and Right. Too many people are now convinced that the problems with the welfare state are so grave that they will allow government to fiddle with or undermine it – to their hearts content.

We will have to rethink our approach. We will have to develop a more positive account of what we are defending – one that can unite a wide range of different perspectives – but one that is specific enough to create a real challenge to the great erosion of rights we see today.

This is what the Campaign for a Fair Society is trying to do and why we have published a dynamic Manifesto for a Fair Society setting out key principles – as well as detailed proposals. It is also why we are going to invite anyone who has their own ideas to share those ideas with us. Its early days for this project – but if you think you could help I’d love to hear from you.

Choosing Good

The power of choosing between good and evil is within the reach of all

Origen

The price of this choice can be terrible. In the totalitarian state choosing good may bring death; but the choice remains. The possibility of this choice is the foundation of human dignity; but the decent society is one where the temptation to choose evil is minimised.

Bureaucracy and Evil

I think that office, the KGB, like everything else in the world, is a victim of statistics. That is, the peasant gets to the field, and there’s one strip left to harvest. The worker arrives at his factory, and there’s an order waiting for him. But the KGB people get to their office and there’s nothing there but a portrait of their leader, but they have to do something after all to justify their existence somehow don’t they? This is very often where all these fabrications originate. All this came about largely not because Soviet power was so bad or, I don’t know, Lenin and Stalin were so evil, or some other devil was whirling around somewhere, right? No, it’s just bureaucracy, a purely bureaucratic phenomenon, which, given the total absence of any checks and balances, grows like a weed and gets up to God knows what.

The poet Joseph Brodsky as recorded in conversation with Solomon Volkov

This thought is of course similar to that of Arendt’s analysis – that evil is banal, shallow and spreads like a fungus. Also, like Arendt, Brodsky is particularly sensitive to the especially dangerous kind of power that is inherent in bureaucracy – the power of the bureau, the office, that is, the power of no one.

The evils of the Holocaust and of Soviet Russia are far greater than the evils created by our own bureaucracies. The modern welfare state is subject to many more checks and balances – a little democratic accountability and much more integrity from front-line practitioners: social workers, teachers, doctors, nurses. Most people have not become anonymous cogs in the system. They can still distinguish right from wrong.

However, as we go upwards, up into Whitehall, I am less convinced. When I was much younger I went for a job interview to join the ‘fast-track’ civil service scheme and I got into a heated argument (me, can you believe it?) with the psychologist. He wanted to know whether I would do something I thought was wrong. I said I wouldn’t. He felt that too much guilt was a problem – I thought guilt was incredibly important. Clearly I wasn’t made for the civil service.

Today I can only imagine the conversations going on in Whitehall. I imagine (and hope) that almost all of the civil servants who are enacting the 30% cut in social care services for disabled people and the £18 billion cut in benefits to the poor think that what they are doing is wrong. But I also imagine that they think they’ve got no choice. Their political masters have asked them to make cuts where cuts can be made, without any undue political backlash. As clever civil servants they have done what they were asked to and targeted the very groups a decent society should want to protect. Is this evil? Yes. But it is the particularly shallow and empty kind of evil – where no one can be held responsible – that typifies the modern bureaucracy.

Sufficient unto the Day

Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Matthew 6:34

nolite ergo esse solliciti in crastinum
crastinus enim dies sollicitus edit sibi ipse
sufficit diei malitia sua

Vulgate

I love the phrase from the King James Bible: ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ When things look really black and worries pile high it helps to remember that you only have to focus on what is in front of you now.

Two things are also worth noticing about this saying from Jesus.

First, although the King James translation talks about having ‘no thought for the morrow’ the Vulgate says ‘don’t be worried about tomorrow’ and this seems more realistic. We have to plan – in so far as is reasonable – to avoid any additional evils that the tomorrow may bring. But we don’t have to bear the burden of them as worries.

Second, there is no doubt that tomorrow may bring evil – and this is something to worry about – there and then. Jesus is not a stoic; he is not saying that bad things don’t matter or that they are only a function of our desires and aspirations. For Christians the world should be good and our best aspirations and their fulfilment are also good. Christianity is not nihilistic and it is not interested in annulling our desires.

But this also means that when evil comes then evil must be resisted and overcome – not wished away.

The Survival of Justice

The lucky man’s great good fortune
Ruins his children.
This was old wisdom.
Is it true?
Surely the father who breaks heaven’s law
Ruins his children.
The father who denies heaven’s right
Blinds his children.
The father who forgets to be humble
Crushes his children.
Evil begets evil.
But the children of the man who fears heaven,
They tread with care. They care for the good.
They are rewarded.

Rich pride mounts rich pride
And begets insolence.
Pampered insolence begets
Anarchy.
And anarchy, where every man
Is the tyrant
Of his own conceit,
Begets all-out-war –
Striking at heaven and earth.

Justice lives in poverty.
She survives. She measures
What is necessary.
She honours what ought to be honoured.
She seeks out clean hearts, clean hands.
She knows what wealth and power
Grind to dust between them. She knows
Goodness and the laws of heaven.

From Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, translated by Ted Hughes.

The chorus sing of justice just before Agamemnon arrives, to be slaughtered. They see how the powerful, always believing themselves to be justified, in fact deny justice. And they see how all of this will unravel. Evil begets evil. Justice survives, even as it is ignored – it cannot be eliminated.

On the Mystery of the Incarnation

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

A Poem by Denise Levertov shared by John O’Brien

After two weeks writing about the Holocaust I was grateful to get John O’Brien’s reminder about this poem. The horror of what we have done to each other, and the sure knowledge that nothing has changed and we are still quite capable of every act of evil and more, is hard to accept.

We are not worthy, that is sure, and yet we live in hope that the incarnation was a sign that, despite this, we can still be redeemed.

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