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Eugenics: Totalitarianism Behind Utilitarian Facade

Nazarru Djalu Ulhaqi


Illustration by Mirela Bukała
I

f you are a fan of memorable court dictums, consider adding the following to your collection: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." The declaration was made by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case. The Court proclaimed Buck, her mother, and her daughter as "feeble-minded" and "promiscuous", thus claiming that her sterilization was in the interest of the state.

We are, of course, looking at an example of the practice of eugenics—the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the human race by selective breeding or genetic engineering. It’s a controversial subject, spanning several decades and involving numerous scientific, social, and political factors.

The science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognizance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.❞

— Sir Francis Galton in Hereditary Genius (1869)—

From a utilitarian point of view, “improving stock”—which should mean improving quality of lives, and thus happiness—is easy to sympathize with. However, it doesn’t take too long for the core concept to ring a bell.

Perhaps the most (in)famous example of such a view is Nazi’s promotion of racial purity and the extermination of “inferior” groups. This is based on the pseudo-scientific belief in racial hierarchy. The eugenics movement, then, became associated with racism and genocide. Proponents of this idea might object to this association by noting that extremist fringes exist in every movement, but make no mistake, the nature of this particular movement remains clear: totalitarianism.

In advancing this kind of argument against eugenics, I assume that the readers agree upon one thing: Nazism is bad. However, for clarity’s sake, I shall (very) briefly explain my position. Simply put, I hold that Nazism is bad because of its totalitarian nature. Totalitarianism by its very definition forces a complete control over public and private life. This led to a suppression of free speech, political dissent, and individual autonomy. It was by this very means that the “ideal” world consisting of “ideal” human beings was put forth.

By the prohibition of opposition parties, it purports itself to be immune to criticism. Ideologies can be used to legitimize social structures and institutions, and to justify unequal distributions of power and resources. These ideologies, by means of criticism, can be exposed. Challenging their underlying assumptions, their legitimacy can create the potential for social progress.

One might wonder how this has anything to do with my claim that eugenics is totalitarian in nature. After all, it does not exert control and regulation on people’s public and private life, nor does it outlaw any opposition to its claim. 

I would argue that there is a strong relation between these two characteristics and the practice of eugenics. Those who wish to practice eugenics seek to “improve stock” by relying on the assumption that certain traits are inherently superior to others. This also means that a particular vision of an ideal human being will be imposed. 

This does not only create a hierarchical system based on genetic makeup (akin to my Nazism example), but also violates each individual’s autonomy. Even if one believes that certain traits are superior to an individual’s survival, it does not necessarily mean that those traits are inherently superior. The need for certain traits depends on the environment occupied by the individuals. The other characteristics — shutting down all oppositions — can be easily seen in the fact that eugenics practice seeks to exterminate the individuals who are furthest from the ideal version it stipulates.

Eugenics eliminates the possibility of individual freedom and autonomy. All attempts to manipulate or control the genetic makeup of future generations are a violation to the fundamental values of human lives. It is an irony to call eugenics an improvement to our species as a whole while it takes away the opportunity for the improvement of each.


References

Aultman, J. M. (2006). Eugenomics: eugenics and ethics in the 21st century. Genomics, Society and Policy, 2(2), 28.

Chesterton, G. K. (1927). Eugenics and other evils. NuVision Publications, LLC.

Kuhl, S. (2002). The Nazi connection: Eugenics, American racism, and German national socialism. Oxford University Press.

MacKellar, C., & Bechtel, C. (Eds.). (2014). The ethics of the new eugenics. Berghahn Books.

Sparrow, R. (2014). Ethics, eugenics, and politics. The future of bioethics: International dialogues, ed. A. Akayabashi, 139-153.

Weikart, R. (2016). From Darwin to Hitler: evolutionary ethics, eugenics and racism in Germany. Springer.

Wilkinson, S., & Garrard, E. (2013). Eugenics and the ethics of selective reproduction.


Editor: Fadillah Utami N.

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