In a recent post to his blog, “Uncommon God, Common Good,” Paul Louis Metzger asks in the title “Should Ethics Be ‘Biologicized’? What Might that Mean for Eugenics?” It’s a good question. But even for those of us who understand that ethics involves determining what is good or bad and what our moral obligations are, grasping the idea that they could be “biologicized” would require a careful reading of Dr. Metzger’s post (which I recommend, and it can be found here). For now, I hope only to discuss, as briefly as possible, the challenges posed by eugenics, especially with regard to my particular ministry context.
“Eugenics” is a term coined in 1883 to describe (according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary—Eleventh Edition) the “science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed.” In some instances, as with
Germany in the
late-1930s and early-1940s, eugenics sought to improve the human race as noted
in Webster’s definition: by controlling who was allowed to procreate with whom.
This selective breeding was enforced by prohibiting intermarriage between
various groups in order to maintain purity in the traits identified as
belonging to the Aryan race.
Others more recently have identified as eugenics a practice of unnatural selection subsequent to mating, but prior to the birth of a child. It is becoming more common to abort pregnancies when particular traits are identified as potentially diminishing the quality of the child’s (or parent’s) life. The range of factors seen as being sufficient to warrant these actions include not only what some call “birth defects,” but also the selective elimination intended to provide a couple with either a male or female child as they prefer.
In my ministry context, however, what is more often discussed is not the question of significantly improving the quality of life in the coming generations. Among hospice personnel, we face challenges from those who would define what constitutes an insufficient quality of life in members of the current generation. We do not tend to identify this as eugenics, though, even though the proponents of pre-emptively ended the lives of human persons intend to elevate us to a “good race” (with eu = Greek for good, and genea = Greek for race or generation), at least for those of us with sufficient “quality of life” to survive. Instead, those promoting the removal of living human persons claim to be motivated by a vision for euthanasia: ensuring a good death for those adjudged to be living a bad life.
Whether ostensibly prohibiting procreation by outlawing certain marriages, or preempting pregnancy’s natural outcome by killing unborn human persons, or prematurely ending the lives of the infirm, ill, injured, or otherwise disenfranchised, there are two key prerequisites to enacting effective eugenics outside the ethical considerations that constrain science to be practiced for the common good.
First, we would have to accept the dangerous optimism of democratically-governed science. We would have to believe that the majority of voting citizens were well-informed enough to look beyond the corporately-sponsored marketing messages and exercise some control over otherwise unabated experimentation. Only then could we do as Metzger’s subject, Dr. Edward O. Wilson recommends and remove ethics “temporarily from the hands of philosophers” to be “biologicized.” Eugenics necessitates that we allow those who can (or are willing to try) to do as they wish, without interference from society’s professional thinkers, but still under the influence of our nation’s diminishing ranks of voters.
|"They told us to just sit back and watch what happens."|
Second, for eugenics to be enacted effectively, we would have to continue to promote the fantasy that love and hate are merely emotional conditions and thus uncontrollable responses for which we bear no personal responsibility or obligation. That way, when we find that we do not have a fond sense of affection toward total strangers who would be eliminated from society, we can excuse our hateful acts of willful indifference as having just as little effect as our sentimentality would. Somehow we would have to allow our hatred to still remain an action, while our love became an even greater illusion. But we have managed it so far.
What would be the results of this unrestrained experimentation and willful indifference toward others? Eugenics seeks the elimination of those unfit to reproduce, or whose mothers are unwilling to nurture them until birth, or all of us who will eventually be in a position to continue usurping resources from the healthier members of the population. If more effectively pursued than is currently the case, then we would be left with an ever-increasing percentage of society for whom anything less than robust health, strength, wealth, and youth would put them at risk. But since that last category ebbs-away from each of us even now, perhaps we might want to steer a better course while there are still enough of us to object to eugenics.