Robert A. Wilson


Eugenics and dehumanization are often thought to be closely related because the best-known state-sponsored eugenic program—that of the Nazis, from 1933 until 1945—involved the extreme dehumanization of certain sorts of people, such as Jewish people and people with disabilities (Black 2003: Chs.15—17; Smith 2001). Under the Nazi regime, there was the systematic segregation, internment, sterilization, and murder of such people. This formed part of an explicit program of genocide and extermination of Jewish people and people with disabilities (amongst others), who were subject to such treatment because they were deemed to be less than fully human and, in some cases, had “lives without value” or “lives not worth living” (Binding and Hoche 1920; Proctor 1988;Taylor 2015).They were not merely viewed as different from those that the Nazis envisaged as populating the Third Reich, but they were depicted as inferior sorts of people: Untermenschen (subhumans) or a Gegenrasse (counter-race) who lacked the desired characteristics and abilities to stock future generations (Stone 2010; see Steizinger, this volume).Thus, we find the standard tropes of dehumanization—assimilating Jews to vermin and social diseases, comparing disabled people to burdensome animals—in Nazi propaganda and in public forms of state communication.

These dehumanizing depictions were sufficiently extreme in nature that the Nazi state apparatus, with the support of the German volk, could see itself justified not simply in protecting the German nation from the concocted threats posed by such sorts of people, but as dutifully eliminating those threats from present and future generations altogether. In the name of eugenics, between 70 000 to 100 000 German citizens with disabilities (Weindling 2014) were systematically murdered by the Nazis through the Aktion T4 euthanasia program early in the Second World War; approximately 6 000 000 Jews were murdered during the more temporally and geographically expansive genocidal Holocaust that was the culmination of the Nazi enthusiasm for “racial hygiene,” or eugenics.

Recognition of the dehumanizing nature of these genocidal and murderous laws and policies is often thought to have been important in the ending of what 1 have called the “short history” of eugenics (Wilson 2018a: Ch.2), that being a history that runs for the 80 years between Gallon’s early thoughts about eugenics in 1865 and the end of the Second World War in 1945. What about eugenics itself? Is there something about the very idea of eugenics itself that is dehumanizing or, instead, should we properly reserve that judgment about eugenics for extreme implementations of the practice of it, such as one finds in Nazi laws and policies?

Addressing these questions will involve shifting from contexts of mass violence to those in which dehumanization operates in more subtle ways (High 2015; see Milam, this volume).The question is neither rhetorical nor merely what is sometimes called (disparagingly) a “matter of academic interest,” for two reasons.

Contemporary philosophers and bioethicist have explored forms of eugenics in a more favorable light under the headings of utopian eugenics (Kitcher 2000), liberal eugenics (Agar 2004), and moderate eugenics (Selgelid 2014). Here, their discussions link directly to social policies and norms governing our thinking about biotechnological advances, such as those concerning “procreative beneficence” (Savulescu 2001; Savulescu 2008; Savulescu and Kahane 2009).These explorations might be seen as aiming to sift the worthy wheat at the core of eugenics from the dehumanizing chaff that is mixed together with it as a result of the association of eugenics with what might be thought of as its “Nazification.” As Selgelid says, circumspectly, “The fact that the previous practice of eugenics was bad does not imply that eugenics, per se, is necessarily an altogether bad thing or that a better future eugenics would not be possible” (Selgelid 2014: 6).This note of inferential caution about “eugenics, per se” is well-taken. I would issue my own caution about signaling the possibility' of a “better future eugenics,” however, in light of a second reason for viewing the question of whether eugenics itself is dehumanizing as more than merely academic.

From the standpoint of many people with disabilities, eugenics does not feel that distant from their lived experience (Garland-Thomson 2012; Kafer 2013; Wilson 2018b). Whether or not Selgelid himself intends to convey a more enthusiastic view of a possible eugenic future, from the perspective of those with disabilities, especially disabilities that were the focus of past eugenic policies, practices, and laws, even signaling the possibility-' of a brighter eugenic future functions as a red flag. Since eugenics viewed from such a standpoint seems very much a project aimed at eliminating people like them, identifying a possible “better future eugenics” exemplifies the eugenic logic (Garland-Thomson 2012) that they are all too familiar with.

Be that as it may, to address further the question of whether eugenics in and of itself is dehumanizing, one needs to understand both the context in which Nazi eugenics developed and the general ideas at the heart of eugenics. First, consider the context.

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