Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: eugenics (page 1 of 2)

Assisted Dying or Nazi Eugenics

Spot the difference.

Here are the words of the Assisted Dying Bill 2 which is currently being promoted by Rob Marris MP in the UK Parliament:

Subject to the consent of the High Court (Family Division) pursuant to subsection (2), a person who is terminally ill may request and lawfully be provided with assistance to end his or her own life. Subsection (1) applies only if the High Court (Family Division), by order 5 confirms that it is satisfied that the person:

  1. has a voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish to end his or her own life;
  2. has made a declaration to that effect in accordance with section 3; and
  3. on the day the declaration is made: (i) is aged 18 or over (ii) has the capacity to make the decision to end his or her own life; and (iii) has been ordinarily resident in England and Wales for not less than one year.

Susanne E Evans, in her book Forgotten Crimes wrote:

“…a [Nazi] Ministry of Justice Commission on the Reform of the Criminal Code drafted a similar law sanctioning “mercy killing” of people suffering from incurable diseases. The law read, in part:

Clause 1 Whoever is suffering from an incurable or terminal illness which is a major burden to him or others, can request mercy killing by a doctor, provided it is his express wish and has the approval of a specially empowered doctor.

Clause 2 The life of a person who because of incurable mental illness requires permanent institutionalisation and is not able to sustain an independent existence, may be prematurely terminated by medical procedures in a painless and covert manner.”

We are not quite at the point where most people agree with Clause 2. However the proposed Assisted Dying Bill proposed by Lord Falconer is essentially identical to Clause 1 of the Nazi Bill described by Suzanne Evans and which was the first stage in the legitimising the T-4 Action (which killed over 100,000 people with disabilities). The gas chambers which had been used to kill people with disabilities were then disassembled and taken to concentration camps and used on the Jews.

The connections between euthanasia, eugenics and the Holocaust are profound. Either life is sacred and its dignity should never be undermined or all is relative and we will leave the powerful to decide who counts as important and who doesn’t.

If someone really believes their life is worthless they are just wrong.

Dr Andrew Lucas and Perpetual Life – A Film

I awoke this morning from my dreams with the idea for a film in my head. I am no script-writer and I will never find time to complete this project, so I share it here. If you want to turn it into a film or something else then please be my guest.

A shot of London – subtitle: Year 2166

We pan over London which now appears even shinier, and the streets are full of people celebrating the victory of England in the World Cup. An open top bus (suitably modernised) floats through the crowd. On the top are many familiar faces, including Wayne Rooney and many other members of the current England team.

Now cut to inside St Paul’s Cathedral, where there is a celebratory service going on, again we see the heads of Rooney and his team mates, we also see that the audience is full of beautiful young people, happy and genuinely attentive. They watch a young and handsome Archbishop of Canterbury who is giving a sermon.

Archbishop:

“How great is Great Britain! Yet again we are victorious at football. Yet again we prove that, truly, we are building Jerusalem here, in this green and pleasant land.

“And it is here in Britain that the great discoveries have been, the great steps forward in human progress. 400 year ago St Adam Smith uncovered the workings of the market. Only then did men come to understand that progress depends upon selfishness. This revelation then opened up the age of progress, industry and happiness.

“300 years ago St Charles Darwin uncovered the true workings of nature. Now we understand that we are not, directly, creatures of God, but of evolution, and that progress comes from the on-going battle of the strong to overcome the weak.

“Then, just 150 years ago, our living saint, Dr Andrew Lucas, made the next great British discovery.

Cut to an earnest young man sitting amidst the congregation who nods and smiles modestly in recognition of the Archbishop’s comments. Cut back to Archbishop who is continuing with his sermon.

“Dr Lucas has discovered the essence of life itself, the life force, the vital link between physics, chemistry and biology. Lucas has discovered that element of our life blood which makes life possible. Using his discoveries Britain then began its programme of extending Perpetual Life to everyone. The doors of heaven are now truly open.

“All these great discoveries have had to be matched by an evolution in our religion. Today the New Church of England has managed to uproot the heresy of life after death. We’ve gone back to the Bible and demonstrated the real meaning of Christ’s sacrifice. It was not some mysterious life after death that he was offering us – instead it was a message about the real possibility of heaven on earth. Today more and more people are taking advantage of the opportunities of Perpetual Life, as Dr Lucas and his team work to make this new technology available to everyone.

“So, let us thank God for England’s victory in the World Cup. Let us thank God for Dr Lucas and his brilliant discoveries that have made all this possible. And let us thank God for Great Britain, the country that has opened the doors of heaven.”

Congregation enthusiastically clap the Archbishop. The Camera pulls back from St Paul’s and pans to St Thomas’s hospital which is now one of the grandest building along the Thames. We are in a teaching theatre, where junior doctors are being educated, and are being addressed by a beautiful young (female) professor of medicine.

Professor of Medicine:

“Welcome everyone to your first course in the medicine of Perpetual Life. As trained doctors you will already know much of what I am about to show you; but it is always helpful to be reminded of the foundations, that underlie our vital science. So let us begin by watching this short film.”

We now watch the first scenes of an introductory teaching film on Perpetual Life. Suitable documentary images accompany the narration.

Film narration:

“In 2016 UK Parliament began the process of legalising euthanasia (or as it is now called Happy Death). The first step towards Happy Death was to allow people the right to end their life, under medical supervision.

“It was then that a brilliant young doctor, Dr Andrew Lucas, decided to specialise on end of life medicine. At first his programme focused on helping people be genuinely happy as their life ended, new drugs were developed and the process was made not just painless, but pleasurable.

“However, naturally, Dr Lucas also began to wonder whether there might not be other advantages to the Happy Death programme. A dead body can teach us much, a dying body can give up its organs to help others. But what if a living body could give up it’s very life force? What if life itself could be transferred from one individual to another?

“It was this profound insight that opened up the field of Perpetual Life (or PL). Today a willing patient can transfer their life force to another person, to extend their life and even to maintain them in state of perpetual youth and health.

“Dr Lucas himself, as a brave pioneer, first began to carry out these experiments upon himself and so he became the first person to benefit from PL. Then of course he turned to the leading minds of the time to win support. If it was not for the support of Heaven TV and the vision of its owner Mr Rupert Murdoch then his discoveries may have gone to waste. But after joining the PL Programme Mr Murdoch became its primary patron. Leading politicians joined him on the programme, and so his support grew. Today all our leading writers, scientists, film stars and sporting heroes are proud participants in the PL Programme – staying young, living longer and working to build a better world for everyone.

“Of course there are still mysteries to uncover; for just as it took many years to discover DNA, and so explain the truth behind Darwin’s theory of evolution, so we have not yet fully understood the mechanism by which the life force exists.

“Dr Lucas is continuing to work on the development of an artificial version of the life force. He will be successful; but until that time the PL programme must continue to exist in partnership with the Happy Death programme. We still need some people willing to give up their lives, in order to extend the lives of the best, the beautiful and the successful.

“We are also still limited by the constant of life – the 70 years rule. For while the life force can be transferred, the transfer value of life is set at a maximum of 70 years, and varies in accordance with how much life has been sacrificed. Life is extended by 70 minus the years already lived. So this means the most useful lives are those of the youngest.

“So while everybody wants to join the PL Programme we are not yet able to offer everyone the joys of the programme. Instead we must appeal to those who are ill, who are disabled or unhappy. We must offer them the chance to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Fortunately the technology of Happy Death has so improved that many more people are willing to step forward and offer their lives in sacrifice. For many people a few months of extreme happiness is well worth the loss of many years of life.

“Today the systems of Quality Adjusted Life Prices (QALPs) enables people to evaluate their options and to choose to trade in their life for a Happy Death. This is a independent, market-based system, all carefully overseen by NICE (the National Institute for Care Excellence).”

“Life and death has always seemed like a lottery. The best of humanity can be unfairly struck down, while the worst can hang on for decades. Today, thanks to the expertise of doctors like you, thanks to the patronage of Mr Murdoch and Heaven TV and thanks to the good people at NICE, death is being tamed. Death is now fairer and perpetual life is possible for the brightest and the best.”

At this point the film could develop in a number of different ways. Here are three options:

  1. We follow Dr Lucas becoming angrier with himself and with the system he has created, as he discovers, yet again, that he cannot overcome the life constant or develop the life force artificially. The film follows his efforts to pull down the system around himself and the way in which powerful forces within the media, politics and economics will not allow him to do so. [or]
  2. We follow the story of one of the members of the PL community who is finding that they can no longer earn the money necessary to stay on the programme. They become convinced that the high price and limited supply of PL is a plot to enrich the rich. However, by exploring what really happens to those outside the programme, and those on the Happy Death programme he discovers that in fact everything possible is being done to extend PL to as many people as possible (e.g. people are encouraged to give up their babies for HD at birth, people are being paid to join the HD programme, their family are being assured places on the waiting list for the PL programme, mental illness and suicide are being encouraged in low income families.) He then tries to share what he’s learned – but he is discovered and he is forced to join the HD programme himself. [or]
  3. We focus on a revolutionary movement, perhaps based in the North of England (say Sheffield), where people organise to overcome the powerful forces of the PL programme. This could involve a love interest story, where there is love between someone on the PL programme, perhaps in a position of influence, and a terrorist trying to tear the system down. This could also build on the idea that heretical religious groups continue to exist underground, who continue to spread their belief that life is sacred and that everyone is of equal value.

You may have much better ideas about where to take this story. But if you decide to make a film, book or play from this idea, don’t worry I promise not to sue you. However, if you do make any money please donate some to the disability campaigners who are fighting the Assisted Dying Bill:

http://www.notdeadyetuk.org

Why We Mustn’t Murder Beethoven (or Anyone Else)

One doctor asks another:

“About the termination of pregnancy – I want your opinion. The father was a syphilitic, the mother tuberculous, of the children born the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth was tuberculous. What would you have done?”

“I would have ended the next pregnancy.”

“Then you would have murdered Beethoven.”

Story from Maurice Baring

The power of this story is twofold. First the story reminds us that our genetic pedigree is a poor basis for predicting talent. The doctor thinks he knows the likely outcome of the pregnancy, but he does not. Life and nature is still, thankfully, too unpredictable for such doctors to be able to predict such things.
But much more importantly the story asks us to examine our values. What if this young Beethoven had not been the great composer, but had been a child with disabilities. The doctor would have been just as wrong to end the pregnancy. The real arrogance of the doctor was to presume to judge the value of a human life, in advance and without being able to appreciate that person’s own story.

The Self-Sacrificing Gene

I am no expert in biology but something struck me recently. As I understand it there is a natural process of change which goes by the name ‘evolution’. It is by this process of evolution that plants and animals change from generation to generation and how new kinds species come to exist – new kinds of being.

It also is by this same process that some kinds of being stop existing – become extinct.

For many hundreds of years human beings have realised that evolution is real – but in more recent years we have started to believe that we have now come to a deeper understanding of how this process works.
The survival of the ‘fittest’

Darwin proposed that organisms compete for resources. Organisms – are deemed successful if they can find a way of surviving in any given environment. This process can even be imagined as a kind of competition. For resources are finite and some organisms seem to be more effective at seizing these resources: light, minerals, water, vegetables, meat. [Although, interestingly, ‘taking’ is actually a process of transformation into food, energy, growth – not taking to hold.]

However to call this a competition is peculiar; for the goal of this supposed competition is not to win anything, not even to survive, but merely to generate others beings who are as similar to yourself as possible. An ape that has become extinct on the way to creating humanity is deemed to have failed; while humanity, who so far has only evolved into more of humanity, is deemed to be a success.

So, paradoxically, this means that success in these terms means not evolving – just outlasting other kinds of organisms

Genetics
More recently scientists have identified a certain molecule that exists in all living organisms – DNA. This molecule is very important because it seems to hold the information which defines what kind of organism it will go on to create.

As far as I can understand it there seem to be a number of ways in which DNA and the genetic information it holds can change over time. But all of these seem to involve the destruction of the original molecule. Not just evolution, but life and growth, all seem to depend on a process of destruction, of the very materials from which it starts.

So, again, it is somewhat strange that a term like the ‘selfish gene’ has become so dominant. For it seems rather that it is a process of dramatic self-sacrifice that underpins life – not the selfishness of the gene. Similarly, while we might say we have children in order that we can somehow, reproduce ourselves – in fact we are not reproducing ourselves at all. We are creating something new and different – and where sex is involved we are creating something which is inevitably different because it is also going to be like our partner.

Metaphor

As I write this I can almost hear all true scientist groaning at my seeming incomprehension:

Of course this is not really ‘competition’. Of course this is not really ‘selfishness’. These are just metaphors – we are appealing to concepts with which people are familiar in order to explain complex natural phenomena.

But it is surely worth asking why these metaphors were chosen. Darwin could have talked about the Christian nature of reality –  life being intimately bound up with love, self-sacrifice and rebirth. Or he could have taken a more pagan perspective – the fragility and creativity of life, creating new and diverse forms of life out of the old. Similarly, Dawkins could have talked about the heroically altruistic gene – an object that destroys itself for the sake of others.

As Hegel, Lewis and many others have noticed – all language is in fact rooted in metaphor – strange as that seems. There is no pure non-metaphorical language, and how we choose to describe reality is important and reflect our underlying values and assumptions. The wonderful writer, Marilynne Robinson writes of this issue:

The notion of “fitness” is not now and never has been value neutral. The model is basically physical viability, or as the political economists used to say, physical efficiency. 

She goes on to cite Darwin:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There’s reasons to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who from a weak constitution would formally have succumbed to small pox. Thus the weak members of civilised society propagate their kind. No one who attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but expect in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Robinson demonstrates that, contrary to many modern accounts, eugenics – the barbaric notion that human beings should be bred towards some madman’s notion of perfection – was always part of Darwin’s thinking. It was not just the result of the twisted thinking of Francis Galton – Galton was just putting Darwinism into practice.

I have written elsewhere of the dangers of eugenics – and of how likely we are to see its resurgence. I will not repeat these warnings here. Instead I’d just like to offer the thought that we don’t need to reject evolution in order to reject the metaphorical (and metaphysical) wrappings provided by Darwin, Galton and Dawkins. Again Marilynne Robinson’s observation is acute:

The Creationist position has long been owned by the Religious Right, and the Darwinist position by the Irreligious Right. The differences between these camps are intractable because they are meaningless. People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of “to him who asks, give,” or “sell what you have and give the money to the poor.” In fact, their politics and economics align themselves quite precisely with their adversaries, who yearn to disburden themselves of the weak, to unshackle the great creative forces of competition. The defenders of “religion” have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor. The defenders of “science” have imputed objectivity and rigour to an account of reality whose origins and consequences are indisputably economic, social and political.

Those of us who care about justice and truth – whether or not we are Christian, atheist or of some other faith – do not need to pick between the idiocies of the “Religious Right” or the “Irreligious Right”. We are beings whose essence is love, and who must live together with love, if we are to live at all. We are beings whose essence is dependence, and who must respect the world from which we draw life, and which demands our attention and care. We are beings who are wonderfully diverse in our being, and who must celebrate and nurture that diversity within ourselves and others.

Instead of rejecting evolution we must treat it as an aspect of the moral universe in which we live.

Who is Strong and Who is Weak?

This week I was lucky enough to be invited to hear Jean Vanier speak. For those of you who do not know of Vanier, he is the founder of the L’Arche movement that encourages people with and without learning disabilities to live together as equals. He is also a Christian philosopher and he was joined on the platform by Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Archbishop Justin Welby.

The title of the talk was “Living together for the common good: why do the strong need the weak?” and the event was sponsored by Together for the Common Good – an ecumenical movement to advance social justice.

However Vanier’s starting point is not ‘What makes us strong?’ instead he asks ‘What makes us human?”

He reflects on the Enlightenment account of humanity, with its ideal of the rational, competent and goal-achieving human. This ideal is central to modern thinking about the self, morality and politics – it is the all-important ‘rational I’. But he observed how self-defeating this ideal becomes. The more an individual advances, the more he must leave others behind; the more we worship such individual striving, the more people we must condemned to be left behind. We think we are building, while we’re merely destroying.

Instead, for Vanier, we must begin with acceptance and love as St Paul understands it:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” [1 Corinthians 13:4-7]

For me this was one of the most memorable points in the evening, where Vanier – using a text that is so often rushed – points out that what comes first is patience. The modern view of love so often misses this point – it slips into that dangerous Enlightenment mode where all the focus is on what we do in the name of love. Love becomes another badge that we try to award ourselves.

We strive to do, to change, to improve – yet so often we fail to just be with each other, to meet each other and to accept each other. Movingly, Vanier told the story of a male prostitute in Australia, who, dying in the arms of a member of L’Arche, said:

You’ve always wanted to change me; but you’ve never met me.

In the process of fixing others we lose sight of our very humanity – our essential fragility, our need for love, for belonging and contribution. Humanism becomes inhuman.

This reminded me of my first experience of people with learning disabilities, in an institution in the south of England. The place and the behaviour of the staff, struck me with horror, but the more important experience for me was that it offered me a different way of being human. I was a highly competitive young man, with some modest academic abilities, and a raging desire to work, to achieve and to win. Yet, here were people taken out of that rat race, and yet fully human. Here was goodness, calmness, dignity, care, curiosity, play, challenge, suffering, and fear. Here were people who were certainly different, but wonderfully so.

For me this experience challenged my notion of who I was and what was the purpose of my life. However, paradoxically, it also turned into a mission which, for better or worse, has driven most of my decisions over the last 25 years. So I worked to help people leave institutions, take control of their lives, make friends, contribute to community – to become full citizens. It became a project – and in the light of Vanier’s critique I can see that this project is also full of dangers. It can lead one into a feeling of self-importance and it tempts one to see others as the means by which your goals can be achieved.

Vainer’s approach is different. As he put it, the mission of L’Arche is less about what it achieves (although it achieves a lot) but more about the message that is inherent in its way of being – that we must meet together as fellow humans. For in the meeting of the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ each are transformed. The weak may be supported, but the strong also get the chance to find out what really matters and who they really are.

In fact nobody is really ‘weak’ or ‘strong’. Instead the desire to be amongst the strong, and to avoid the weak, is just a symptom of a society’s failure to welcome all and to comprehend the true value of each individual. We are like little kids wanting to be picked for the team we think will win – and so we allow ourselves to be judged by the wrong values. We even score ourselves by these distorted values – forgetting what is really important to us, focusing instead on what is important to ‘them’.

The discussion after Vanier’s talk was also fascinating – less for its content, more for the tensions and paradoxes it revealed.

The setting was important. We were tucked away in a corner of the Houses of Parliament, surrounded by images of splendour and power. The room was packed with famous faces – journalists, Lords, politicians and others from amongst the powerful. The discussion was led by Sarah Montague – of Radio 4’s famously combative and Westminster-centric Today Programme – who, revealingly, said she thought she knew most of the people in the room (although she certainly didn’t know me, and I met one Lord who certainly didn’t know her). In other words, we were at home, amongst the strong.

Montague then endeavoured, with minimal success, to play devil’s advocate and to encourage a lively discussion in the normal style. However the Philosopher, Cardinal and Archbishop all refused to play along. Instead they reflected on the need for time, discussion and humility in the political process.

Vanier refused to play ‘political advisor’ or ‘expert’ and in this refusal he lived his principles. Yet for Montague, and I think for some others in this room, this seemed deeply disappointing and frustrating. They wanted answers, solutions and policies. They were the strong and they wanted something to give them more strength – whether it was food they could consume (the latest good idea) or at least a good argument, a test of strength.

For modern politics demands that the powerful are constantly mindful of their appearance in the media and they must, at all times, maintain the illusion that they are competent to solve any problem. The powerful are caught in an impossible trap – for they must present themselves as the answer to any question we might ask. They are the folk who stand atop the crazy pinnacle of the world that Vanier wants us to reject: a world where one can only advance by standing on the back of the other.

It is important to note that Vanier is far from attacking government, the powerful, the professional experts or the policy-makers. He is not saying they are wrong, stupid or evil. Instead he is acting out the very issue he wants people to understand: we must meet each other; we do not need to use each other.

For myself the event also cast some light on my own dilemmas. I set up The Centre for Welfare Reform in 2009 with the goal of creating an independent community to develop positive and just solutions for the problems of the welfare state. I wanted to protect and support the social innovators who were often squeezed and abused by a political system that doesn’t know how to respect the integrity of things. Yet, it has been much harder to do this than I expected.

Instead, since 2010, my work has been dominated by a goal that I certainly didn’t want – to campaign against the injustice of the current UK Government. I expected others to do this – yet I’ve found that there has been no significant defence against cuts and policy changes that target and abuse disabled people – including people with learning disabilities – even though disabled people are the number one target for cuts by Government. I wanted to be developing better solutions; instead I’ve found myself more often simply defending basic rights.

I’m not sure what this means for me personally, but the image of Vanier reminded me that the world is not a puzzle to be solved. We must live and act with integrity and love. We cannot hope to be the answer to every question. We must be true to our own gifts and find the role that is right for us.

If I had one frustration in all of this it was simply that it was so hard to challenge the rather strange assumption in the home of the powerful that that it was they – the powerful – who could be trusted to act in the best interests of people with learning disabilities.

Does it makes sense to assume the abuser will reform himself?

Today I am working as hard as I can to develop Learning Disability Alliance England – a campaigning group that brings together all the key organisations for people with learning disabilities. I do this because I feel that it is not enough to offer Government good ideas. It is not enough to wait for the powerful to want to do what is right.

I do not have enough faith that the powerful, on their own, can learn the necessary humility to transform themselves. I feel that those of us who are weak must organise ourselves to demonstrate that we are not irrelevant, redundant or unworthy. I remember the words of Rebbe Shmelke who said:

The rich need the poor more than the poor need the rich. Unfortunately, neither is conscious of it.

I do believe the ‘strong’ need the weak, but I also believe the weak need to find and express their strength – a strength which is greater than the strength of the strong if it is a strength founded in love, community and justice.

I think that Vanier’s challenge is right – his thinking and his actions maintain integrity in their humility and their orientation to the actual meeting of humans. But I also feel that the ‘weak’ cannot afford to wait for the ‘strong’ to wake up to their true needs. Mental handicap ‘hospitals’, like the one I visited, and which as Vanier rightly said “crush disabled people” had to be closed. The reason they were closed was because families, disabled people and their allies came together to work and to lobby to bring about their closure. It did not happen by accident or because of some politician.

Sometimes we do need to lobby, to organise and to join the political process. It may be dysfunctional and confused – but unless disabled people and families are present in that process too – just as they should be present at every other level of community life – then they will not be able to defend their rights or interests. The presence of people with learning disabilities within the political process may even bring some honesty and humility to that strange world.

One final thought: if you read this before 11th February 2015 please complete our survey to Quality Check Government. [Now closed]

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.

Measurements

There was a man of Cheng who was going to buy himself shoes. First he measured his foot; then he put the measurements away. When he got to the market he discovered that he had left them behind. After he found the shoes he wanted, he went home to fetch the measurements; but the marketplace was closed when he returned, and he never got his shoes. Someone asked him: “Why didn’t you use your own foot?” “I trusted the measurements more than my foot,” he replied.

Han Fei Tzu

This Chinese story reminds me of how often we find ourselves measuring things that don’t need to be measured. Instead of giving people choice and control we measure their satisfaction or their outcomes. So we exercise a subtle act of power – invalidating their choice and validating our own right to determine what we count as valuable.

Measuring has always been political. It was considered sacrilegious to carry out a census, precisely because such a census (which could then be used to levy taxes) was a way of giving power to the measurer – in this case the king.

Today we are more relaxed about measurement. We measure ourselves, take surveys, monitor our health and subject ourselves to a battery of bureaucratic measurements and assessments. But do we know why? Have we subjected ourselves to the measuring state in the hope that it will thereby take care of us?

As genetic controls increase such measurements will take on a new dimension – they will start to determine our credit scores, our suitability as a parent, the cost of our insurance. We may start to feel much less relaxed about giving up so much information about ourselves.

The First Welfare State

Moreover, philanthropy was an obligation too, since the word ‘zedakah’ meant both charity and righteousness. The Jewish welfare state in antiquity, the prototype of all others, was not voluntary; a man had to contribute to the common fund in proportion to his means, and this duty could be enforced by the courts. Maimonides even ruled that a Jew who evaded contributing according to wealth should be regarded as a rebel and punished accordingly. Other communal obligations included respect for privacy, the need to be neighbourly (i.e. to give neighbours first refusal of adjoining land put up for sale), and strict injunctions against noise, smells, vandalism and pollution.

Communal obligations need to be understood within the assumptions of Jewish theology. The sages taught that a Jew should not regard these social duties as burdens but as yet more ways in which men showed their love for God and righteousness.

Paul Johnson in A History of the Jews (1987)

Paul Johnson’s description of the Jewish Diaspora’s welfare system as the first welfare state may seem unwarranted. All societies are welfare societies – in the sense that all societies involve some kinds of interaction which benefit the welfare of some – if not all. In fact Herodotus describes a wide range of welfare system in his The Histories and The Bible also describes welfare systems that are at least 3,000 years old.

However, while I think that his claim may be hard to prove, it is certainly plausible, because it is based on two essential features of a welfare state – in its full and proper sense – both of which exceed earlier welfare systems.

First a proper welfare state must be built into the fabric of the community’s laws and must distinguish both rights and duties for all citizens. It must not be merely a system of state philanthropy or a system of mutual assistance. It must be underpinned by Law.

Second a proper welfare system must be inspired by Justice. By this I do not mean merely to repeat the first point. Justice excludes eugenic, elitist or discriminatory goals. Justice recognises the innate worth of each individual, in all their diversity. Justice demands deep respect for each individual. This is why the nineteenth century Poor Laws, and the eugenic welfare measures of Hitler do not qualify as welfare states, at least in the sense I am using the term here. In a sense they are anti-welfare states, because they deny the value of each human life. Instead they seek to promote the interests of an elite, a class, a race or some other group.

This explains why the Jewish Diaspora could well have created the first welfare state. For it was a society built, not on power, but only on the Torah – a combination of law and moral vision – united in one religion. Respect for the individual flowed naturally from the worship of God and the acknowledgement of God’s creation of Man ‘in his image’. And paradoxically, as the Diaspora lacked ‘a state’ it could only institute its measures through legally defined and prescribed communal practices – not through mere state coercion.

What can we learn from this?

If we see the ideal welfare state as a communal effort to ensure that each member of the community is bound together in their commitment to safeguard each other’s welfare and to respect each individuals’ worth and potential, then the Jewish example is inspiring. But its challenge is twofold:

If people do not believe that each human being is sacred then the kind of welfare we may seek to advance may not be respectful of human diversity, but may be eugenic, promoting some class, race or other utopian category of conformity. Can secular categories defend what is valuable in human diversity?

If we live with in a society dominated by a powerful state, one where the Law is seen to flow from the state – rather than fixing and limiting the state’s role – then we may find ourselves in a welfare system where those who run the state shape and determine what counts as welfare. Can we run a welfare state without a proper respect for Law?

Arguably this is what we do have: not a welfare state governed by a respect for human rights and Justice; not a welfare state organised to respect those rights and protect the interests of all. Instead we have a welfare state that is too often the tool of a state that doesn’t recognise rights and which pursues its own elitist, and often eugenic, dreamings.

This is not a counsel of despair. People of many religious views and none are capable of respecting human diversity. Societies are capable of respecting Law and protecting themselves from the abuses that flow form the concentration of political power. But we should not be naive. There is nothing ‘natural’ about the welfare state – and if we want the right kind of welfare state we will need to work hard at protecting both the values that underpin it and the institutions that make it possible.

Dog Fox Field

These were no leaders, but they were first
into the dark on Dog Fox Field:
Anna who rocked her head, and Paul
who grew big and yet giggled small,
Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans
who knew his world as a fox knows a field.
Hunted with needles, exposed, unfed,
this time in their thousands they bore sad cuts
for having gazed, and shuffled, and failed
to field the lore of prey and hound
they then had to thump and cry in the vans
that ran while stopped in Dog Fox Field.
Our sentries, whose holocaust does not end,
they show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.

Les Murray, Dog Fox Field

This poem by the Australian poet Les Murray builds on the fact that in Hitler’s Germany the test for determining whether you could avoid the first gas chambers – which were built for disabled people – was whether you could construct a sentence from the words: dog, fox & field.

Some people know that disabled people were killed during the Holocaust. Few seem to know that they were the first and leading victims of the Holocaust. The technologies of death were developed on them and only later extended to Jews and many others.

I explore some of these ideas in my book The Unmaking of Man and I explore the parallels between our time and the years that led up to the Holocaust where the intentional scapegoating of disabled people, Jews and others flowed from economic anxieties, state and professional power and the abandonment of core moral values.

Disabled people, especially people with severe learning difficulties, are our moral guardians – they “show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.”

Complicity and the Cuts

I know a wise old Buddhist monk who, in a speech to his fellow countrymen, once said he’d love to know why someone who boasts that he is the cleverest, the strongest, the bravest or the most gifted man on earth is thought ridiculous and embarrassing, whereas if, instead of ‘I’; he says, ‘we are the most intelligent, the strongest, the bravest and the most gifted people on earth’ his fellow countryman applaud enthusiastically and call him a patriot.

E H Gombrich from A Little History of the World

Our own vanity, our own desire to be on the inside of the club, is one of the most dangerous human tendencies. It turns out that we will sell our souls very cheaply, as long as we feel we are inside the in-group.

There often seems to be a difference between doing evil and standing back and letting someone else do evil – one is the sin of commission, the other the sin of omission. But both are sins, and the difference between these two kinds of sin can be very fine indeed. In fact, sometimes, not to resist evil is to join in with evil – to be complicit.

For example, currently in the UK, we are seeing the most significant direct attack on the rights and conditions of the poor and of disabled people. By 2015 spending on services for disabled children and adults will have been cut by 33% and the government hopes to cut benefits by £22 billion – about 20% of the current spending on benefits.

You can read more about this in our report – A Fair Society? how the cuts target disabled people.

This is in a country that is already the third most unequal developed country in the world. This is a policy which is far more extreme and far more negative than anything for which Margaret Thatcher is blamed.

Yet, many of the organisations that one would expect to stand up to government, to point out the error of its ways, are silent. A Labour politician justified their own muted response to the cuts by observing that none of the big charities had really come out against the cuts – and the MP is right. Where are the big charities and advocacy organisations and why have they not stood up to government, carried out the necessary research and organised effective PR?

It is impossible to know for certain why so many organisations are so quiet. There are many possible reasons:

  • Some may be focusing on getting themselves ready for the storm – cutting posts, saving money.
  • Some may be worried that they will lose lucrative central government funding if they become too challenging.
  • Some may feel that they must be nice to government in order to negotiate with it – to get on the inside track and to reduce any harm it intends.
  • Some may seek the honour of peerages, knighthoods, awards and all the other trappings of status that are so keenly distributed by our leaders.

Perhaps some do not even understand how bad things are, and how much worse they are going to be. In 2010 the Campaign for a Fair Society published data showing that social care would be severely cut. Not only was this not picked up by the media, it was not even picked up by many in the mainstream of the disability movement. Many seemed to accept the false claim that social care had been ‘protected’ simply because this is what the government had said.

For more information on the statistical manipulations behind all this read this article in the Guardian.

Personally I have been particularly upset by how the organisations that are supposedly in the ‘vanguard’ of reforming social care – e.g. Think Local Act Personal (TLAP), In Control and Helen Sanderson Associates – barely mention the issue of cuts or the injustice of current government policy. For example, In Control’s website talks about:

With significant resource constraints and demographic growth, there are major challenges ahead.

“Significant resource constraint” hardly does justice to severe cuts that target disabled people. You cannot advocate the increased empowerment of disabled people through personalisation, while ignoring a 33% cut in social care funding.

There is one other very worrying reason why some organisations may be silent; and that is that some in the voluntary sector may even be seeking to benefit from these cuts, from the increased poverty and from the erosion of public services. This may seem an extreme statement – but it is interesting to look at the recent letter which was sent by leaders of the voluntary sector to government:

You can read their letter here.

The letter pleads that the voluntary sector be given the opportunity to take over public services and in addition it says:

Thirdly, as the Government’s welfare reforms take effect, we know that some of the most vulnerable people in our country will be affected – including children. Our sector will be at the frontline – helping individuals and families prepare for and manage change.

So, instead of arguing against the injustice of these reforms, the voluntary sector offers to pick up the pieces – on the government’s behalf – to help people “prepare for and manage change” – the change of having your income severely cut. This is a dreadful state of affairs. It’s as if, frightened of being steamrollered or forgotten, these groups have now chosen to join the powerful and to abandon the weak.

It is this kind of complicity that makes so many of us frightened for the future. It reveals the true nature of our current social situation. It seems we are no longer a society that believes in equality, citizenship or mutual support. We are a society where the powerful trample on those beneath them. For those of us in between – neither powerful nor weak, neither rich nor poor – then this is the time for making critical moral choices.

We must become complicit or we must resist – there is no room left to claim that this has got nothing to do with us – that it is someone else’s problem.

One strategy, one that has been used in the past, is to make complicity more expensive for those who lack moral fortitude. For instance, it may be possible to name, shame or boycott organisations that are becoming directly or indirectly complicit with government. These policies may seem extreme or divisive – but the risk of inaction is that fewer and fewer individuals and organisations will be left who have not succumbed.

The more of us who are caught up in the implementation of these dreadful policies then the more likely it is that they will succeed.

Thankfully the National Coalition of Independent Action has collected together the signatures of many other organisations who do not accept the approach set out in the ‘voluntary sector’s letter’ to government. If you are interested in supporting this approach you can contact NCIA:

Open Letter from NCIA

Death Comes Softly Shod

The law’s been passed and I am lying low
Hoping to hide from those who think they are
Kindly, compassionate. My step is slow.
I hurry. Will the executioner
Be watching how I go?

Others about me clearly feel the same.
The deafest one pretends that she can hear.
The blindest hides her white stick while the lame
Attempt to stride. Life has become so dear.
Last time the doctor came,

All who could speak said they felt very well.
Did we imagine he was watching with
A new deep scrutiny? We could not tell.
Each minute now we think the stranger Death
Will take us from each cell

For that is what our little rooms now seem
To be. We are prepared to bear much pain,
Terror attacks us wakeful, every dream
Is now a nightmare. Doctor’s due again.
We hold on to the gleam

Of sight, a word to hear. We act, we act,
And doing so we wear our weak selves out.
We said “We want to die” once when we lacked
The chance of it. We wait in fear and doubt.
O life, you are so packed

With possibility. Old age seems good.
The ache, the anguish – we could bear them we
Declare. The ones who pray plead with their God
To turn the murdering ministers away,
But they come softly shod.

Euthanasia (1980) by Elizabeth Jennings

The poem imagines the psychological damage done by permitting euthanasia: the old and infirm now realise that the role of the doctor is not just to protect them from death. Suddenly – with kind and good intentions – the doctor has turned into a murdering minister.

And of course, we are all old and infirm (only not just yet) and so we all begin to realise that our life is suddenly going to be much more conditional on the judgement of these compassionate professionals. Certainly, important rules will be put in place to keep us safe (or so they say): (a) we must really will our own death, and (b) there must be no hope of recovery. We can even hope that these new rules will be followed – most of the time.

But this new right – the right to be hurried to death – completely changes our moral status. We used to be sacred beings. It was wrong for others to kill us and it was wrong to kill ourselves. But in this new world we will merely be containers for experiences – shopping bags, ready to be filled with a variety of goods – of varying quality. Too many low grade experiences and we will be ready for death, but if we can maintain our experiences at a sufficiently high grade – well we have nothing fear – at least not yet.

Who judges the quality of these experiences? Well I am sure we still be allowed at least one vote on this; but it seems that others will now be asked to decide whether we are having ‘a life worth living.’ And if we are a little confused, if we lack capacity to cast our own vote, then what happens to our vote? Can we be out-voted? It would seems so irrational to protect the irrational from the fair and pleasant death that is now on offer – and after all – by definition such a life is hardly worth much. [Although again the question of whose definition does not always seem to get raised by the euthanasia enthusiasts.]

There is no recovery from life. Death is where we are all going – so what is wrong with hurrying things along a little when things get difficult? And although you may be happy now, you may be sad tomorrow – and vice versa. Nothing removes uncertainty like death.

In this new world death will come softly shod – but it will change everything.

How Euthanasia leads to Eugenics

…a [Nazi] Ministry of Justice Commission on the Reform of the Criminal Code drafted a similar law sanctioning “mercy killing” of people suffering from incurable diseases. The law read, in part: 

“Clause 1 Whoever is suffering from an incurable or terminal illness which is a major burden to him or others, can request mercy killing by a doctor, provided it is his express wish and has the approval of a specially empowered doctor. 

“Clause 2 The life of a person who because of incurable mental illness requires permanent institutionalisation and is not able to sustain an independent existence, may be prematurely terminated by medical procedures in a painless and covert manner.” 

From Forgotten Crimes by Susanne E Evans

Notice that the first clause is almost exactly what those seeking to advance euthanasia in the UK are putting forward as a reasonable legal measure. And notice the easy and natural step to by-passing the question of voluntary choice for those who might be deemed lacking mental capacity.

There is hardly a break between euthanasia and eugenics – the first creates the licence to ignore the dignity of human life, the second gives others the duty to ignore it.

The Rich need the Poor

The Scotsman reported on 3rd February 2012:

High-earning migrants and promising student entrepreneurs will find it easier to work in Britain as the coalition aims to ensure only “the right people are coming here”, the Immigration Minister has said. Damian Green, a Conservative MP, said middle managers, unskilled labourers and benefit seekers would be kept out as the coalition seeks only migrants who “add to the quality of life in Britain.”

When politicians tell us that the only immigrants that will be welcome are those who will make a positive contribution and then goes on to exclude ‘middle managers, unskilled labourers and benefit seekers’ I am left wondering:

Does Damian Green believe that the millions of existing citizens in the UK who are middle managers, manual workers (I will drop the term ‘unskilled’ as nobody is unskilled) and people who rely on benefits (and there goes another tale) don’t add to the quality of life in Britain?

Together these groups represent more than half of the UK population. So, on this basis, Damian Green believes that most people in the UK don’t add to the quality of life. I hate to think where he would put disabled people or people with poor health.

The prevalent philosophical belief – rampant in all political parties – is in meritocracy: that the best should rule. They are the best (in their own heads at least) and the rest of us should be grateful for the great efforts they make on our behalf. In their imaginings: they contribute, we take.

Of course we are left with the paradox faced by all meritocrats – they need us to rule over and they need us to do all the things they think are beneath them. At its worst such thinking leads to eugenics – and we are certainly slipping down that slope.

I am reminded of a thought by someone much wiser, Rebbe Shmelke, who said:

The rich need the poor more than the poor need the rich. Unfortunately, neither is conscious of it.

The Medicine We Bring

I believe what Native Americans believe: that every person born to this earth is born with gifts. It’s totally impossible to be born without them. No one’s birth was a mistake. We all come here with something to give. And it is in the giving that these gifts become medicine, for the world, for the tribe, for the family the school, the agency. The health and the wholeness and the vitality of any community requires 100% participation of every member of that community. 

Denise Bissonnette from Citizenship and Person-Centred Work

This is a hard truth. It demands that we ask ourselves what has been lost and what will be lost every time a child with a disability is terminated before its birth, or killed just after its birth. What is lost every time an older person or a person with disabilities is ‘hurried towards death’ or is just left, segregated, within a care home.

It seems that society doesn’t always want to take its medicine.

We are choosing to be the kind of society that only values the shallow and the temporary. We want to be happy, at any price; but we don’t want to have to show love, pay attention or take care. Perhaps we think we already have all that it takes to be human within ourselves – we just don’t need other people. Or perhaps we only value the famous, the rich and the powerful.

But, if this is so, we are on a long journey to deep disappointment.

True value cannot be found within inevitably scare and fleeting moments of celebrity or in the enjoyment of rare pleasures. True value lies all around us – in every moment, in every person – but it can only be found in love – not self-indulgence.

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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