The concept of eugenics is a fraught one, especially since the Nazis took to it with such murderous zeal. This has effectively poisoned the word for all uses now. However, this has not stopped humanity from having to deal with the moral and practical issues around eugenics. It's a debate that is going on all around us, but mainly by stealth, or by proxy. Because it's a really unpalatable subject for many and not often conducive to modern notions of political correctness.
Could be time we had more of a public chat about it all though, to lay all the ideological cards on the table.
What is eugenics? You may be asking at this point. the word has had its meaning shift a little since the height of its usage in the early 20th century, but broadly we can define eugenics as (thanks wikipedia)
"...the study and practice of selective breeding as applied to humans with the aim of improving the species."
Easy enough then. In practice in its ideological heyday, this meant not just policies designed to have "superior specimens" breed on at a high rate, but also to prevent "inferior or defective" specimens from breeding at all. Just like you'd do in a herd of domesticated animals. Improve the breed.
Certainly couldn't improve the cuteness factor here.
Now, once we get to the definitions of superior, inferior, defective, and improve, we're already in murky water. Sweden (for example) carried out over 60,000 mainly 'voluntary' sterilizations of people between 1934 and 1975, targeting mentally ill and 'deviant' people in the main. Versions of eugenic practices and policies were embraced and enacted by the governments of many countries in the 20th century including Britain, USA, Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, China, Sweden, Norway, France, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Switzerland and Singapore (that I am aware of at least, there are certainly more) and of course any sort of 'ethnic cleansing' counts too. As we all know, in some countries it went way beyond sterilization into mass killing. Economically a very effective use of and savings in resources. Why sterilize and continue to feed? If it were a herd, we'd just eat the cull, yes?
Eugenics as a modern concept fits into a wider areas of Utilitarianism and Utilitarian Bioethics. Don't be afraid of the nasty academic words, we'll chunk 'em down together. Utilitarianism is essentially a school of philosophy about making choices based on doing "the greatest good for the greatest number of people", or in a slightly more recent sense 'Negative' Utilitarianism aims to "prevent the greatest amount of harm/suffering for the greatest number of people." The addition of the 'bioethics' tag takes this stuff straight into the worlds of the biosphere, medicine, health, and reproduction. Hence the eugenics crossover.
Think of the arguments currently about 'curing' asperger's syndrome and autism, and how that would rob their 'sufferers' of something special that the rest of us cannot experience but also may need, as a society?
When you go to the emergency room with an injury or illness, you are triaged. This means that the first person to see you will make a recommendation about the urgency with which you should be seen by a doctor based mainly on the severity of your apparent condition and its probable prognosis. Heart attacks get seen pretty fast, and small flesh wounds further down the chain. You might have seen a variation on this theme many times in M*A*S*H when the choppers and ambulances bring in more wounded than they can handle. This triage is different in that they are first looking to rule out those who almost certainly won't make it anyway, medicate them as best as possible, and get them out of the way of those who probably will make it if treated.
Triage in war. Decisions people never want to have to make.
I so don't fancy making those sorts of decisions, do you? But I can fully appreciate their necessity. It is eugenics in a short-term small-population scenario. Resources are scarce. Spend them where they'll do the greatest good. Bad luck for those who require too much looking after, or who have a small chance of survival (or of 'meaningful' life beyond surviving). We accept this as necessary, in general. So we subsume our claimed 'rights' to be treated equally to a notion of resource deployment for the common good, in these sorts of situations.
Oh, by the way, I don't have any answers to this stuff. I'm just trying to lay it out so we can all see it. Or so I can, at any rate. Because there's a big personal question coming.
Despite our acceptance of emergency triage, seen from a wider perspective we as a society (I'm talking about the monetarily affluent Western world here) have a real problem with this deployment of resources for the "best outcomes for our species into the future." It gets all tangled into the 'sanctity of life' stuff from religious and spiritual viewpoints, and the 'equality of rights' from libertarian political thought. We spend the vast bulk of our health resources on economically and genetically non-productive members of our society. The elderly, the disabled, the chronically ill. We do our damnedest in so many cases to ensure the survival of the weakest, most defective babies and damaged adults who will require constant lifelong care.
Is this just social selfishness on behalf of the society of 'haves?' We can do it, so we should?
So, my big question: do I continue to 'deserve' to live?
As an aside, here's an interesting set of conundra, to do with the conservative Republican movement in the USA. They tend to go for things like Right To Life (ie anti-abortion) which means in some cases carrying to term and caring for resource-depleting high-needs babies, which of course also take an otherwise productive parent/s and/or carer out of the economy too. They also opposed mandatory health insurance and especially opposed a form of public health insurance, preferring instead that the market mechanism stealthily 'weeded out' those people who had proved their inferior worth to society by not having been able to afford adequate health cover. So they force life on the helpless on one hand, and deny it cruelly on the other.
Well, am I a valuable and contributing member of society? Is a heavily resource-dependent special-needs child likewise valuable? Or are these questions irrelevant, and if so, why? The common answer to this last question is where we get stuck. It tends to go along the lines of
"God says all life is sacred, ergo we should always protect it at all costs."
I would say that then it logically follows that our emergency room triage system goes against God's apparent will. Because we are judging worthiness. We are taking chances with people's lives. My headache (low urgency) may well be an aneurysm just about to go whose swift diagnosis and treatment may save my life. Oops. I played God and had that broken finger seen to first.
I don't have a solution, as I said. But I can see where part of the issue lies, and that's in the attempt to systematise stuff. There can really be no authoritarian response that respects individuals' choices while attempting to muster resource usage for the common good. People just won't fit that box easily. We can only find out how we feel, how we would act.
OK, so I'm going to go hypothetical.
We all live in a valley village ecosystem, with a fairly stable and sustainable life. But it's only sustainable as long as each member of our village can contribute in a practical way to the work of our survival. I now have an injury or illness that presently and for the future prevents me from doing so, and furthermore requires that I have a carer, who would be taken out of the production cycle too. My valley village does not judge me badly, and will of course (they say) support me in my needs. We are all family as it were. It's just going to be harder on everybody. What do I do? Another simple one: same village, ultrasound and genetic tests confirm a seriously defective fetus in my womb (assuming I had one), which will most certainly die young and be extremely impaired in life whilst requiring full-time care. What do I do?
Do shared resources mean shared responsibility?
Impossible to say, because all the infinite variables of human existence and experience come in to play. But there will be extreme situations that arise where my decision would be social euthanasia, rather than knowingly condemning my fellow villagers to severe hardship or danger of starvation. If it happened a lot, the village would over time develop a history of experience of this, and may become proactive. It's happened all over the world that we've made population control decisions, and not just with reproduction, but with the elderly and infirm. We have responded as other species do to their environment. We accept when it cannot sustain us.
I'll recall just one small example. A certain indigenous tribe in rainforested South America somewhere, living as they had for centuries. Spanish or Portuguese slavers discovered them, and would make raids to round them up and sell them. They started killing the very young children. Because the adults could only run effectively with one child apiece.
Now, get big. 6 billion big. 2 to 4 degrees celsius bigger. Scale up this thinking and ponder the choices ahead if (when) environmental or other resource-pressure shit hits the fan.
Is this why we're not talking openly about it? We don't want to have to make choices to not have babies or allow chronically ill people to die sooner but perhaps better? We just want a magic alpha-male figure to do all the hard stuff for us?
That's what armageddon is all about, abdication of responsibility. Letting it happen to you through some arms-length agency beyond your influence entirely. Not having to face the fundamental truths of your own volition, and your own mortality. Procrastination about suffering. Would we rather not go through the pain of being honest about death being everywhere all the time, and suffering being inevitable in life, and it all being outside our controllability, for as long as possible?
So I don't know, is Eugene coming, or going? Are we headed for some big global (or lots of small local) conversations about all this stuff? Or are we just letting it be subsumed in proxy talk of religious fundamentalism, carbon trading and GM crop organisms?
People are angry, all over. And many of them don't really know exactly what they're angry about. There is a deep frustration and fear. We feel strapped in to this hurtling thing, and many of our fellow travellers seem hell-bent on making a total hash of any attempt to steer a half-decent course. All in? Or every man for himself?
I don't know. What do you think?
I know many of my readers have situations that in some ways mirror my own, or harder still, care for those with extra needs. Please know I am making no judgements on the decisions made by anybody. My exploration has been about the Utilitarian ethic only as it applies to eugenicist and bioethical questions.
My personal conclusions (for now) are that one size may truly fit all, from a Utilitarian point of view. But that only those for whom a Utilitarian ideal is right and true can make such decisions for themselves and their unborn. I resist the notion that any authority can tell us what we should do about our lives, and their continuance. Regardless of whether I agree that such a directive makes sense to me, it may not to another. If I do not respect that, I would have no reason to expect my desires to be respected either.
Here endeth the rant. Please accept these flowers for peace and make happy.
Eugene? Are you there, Eugene?