Did People Really Practice Eugenics?
Eugenics (including positive eugenics which breeds traits, and negative eugenics which prevents breeding) has been practiced since the Greeks but rose to popularity in the west starting in the late 1800’s. Likewise, “forced” eugenics and “elective” eugenics have also both been historically practiced and were popular in that time period.
Before we get started, it is important to note that eugenics describes everything from using a condom and sex education (good things in most of our minds) to Hitler’s extermination of the Jews and creation of super soldiers (bad things in most of our minds).
You can probably intuitively guess all this article will show, that morally: elective positive eugenics and some elective negative eugenics are good, or if not good at least a person’s right, and forced negative and positive eugenics are in most cases either complex or downright evil.
The problem with discussing eugenics in general is that all types of eugenics saw a rise in popularity starting in the late 1800’s and its hard to separate the Religious Right’s anti-abortion message, from the intellectual’s Darwinian theories, from Margaret Sanger’s founding of Planned Parenthood, from the discussion of assisted suicide, from the genocidal theories and actions of tyrants like Hitler.
It isn’t just hard to separate these in modern times theoretically, it is hard because when Eugenics was popular many otherwise respectable people had questionable theories, supported questionable policies, and made bedfellows with questionable allies.
This isn’t a left-right issue, or a populist-elitist issue, or a conservative-liberal issue, this is a complex issue that saw the very moral and religious standing next to the amoral and immoral in their progressive action. In other words, one should seek to understand the complexity and avoid walking away with a simple answer.
Still, all of that up-front complexity noted, none of that speaks to the correctness of elective eugenics like elective birth control. Just because a past figure conflated good theories and bad theories in practice doesn’t speak to the correctness or incorrectness of all eugenics (especially elective eugenics).
It is sad that the types all got conflated historically, but that is just the nature of things.
So keeping in mind the discussion is necessarily nuanced, and that certain ideologies arguably purposefully confuses the types today to paint them all as “evil” or to fit a political narrative (such as when Alex Jones decides this is a liberal conspiracy or when the extreme religious right decides birth control is the same as genocide), we present the history of modern Eugenics theories below.
“…all being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…” – John Locke explaining everything you need to know for a moral foundation, the rest is a matter of learning history and debating complexities.
Harm, Non-Aggression, and Utilitarian Principles Regarding the Morality of Eugenics
The above John Locke quote gives us the logic to understand why we can consider some eugenics programs moral and ethical (like sexual education), others (like genocide) immoral and unethical, and others (like abortion and selective breeding) complex.
It doesn’t matter who held what theory, correctness isn’t bound to people, it is a philosophical concept that is higher than a given politician or popular figure (as one can affirm by works like the U.S. Constitution).
All forced eugenics violates the non-aggression principle, so it is immoral from an empirical moral philosopher’s viewpoint.
The subject of elective abortion is complex, as the woman’s rights are inalienable. Philosophically, it is an act of aggression for anyone to take away a woman’s liberty. However, at some point, the child’s rights can be considered to be inalienable too. We also need to realize that making abortion illegal criminalizes it but doesn’t stop the act.
As with prohibition, we get a topic too complicated to address here.
However, before moving on I’ll note that John Stewart Mill’s utilitarian and harm theories can contribute much to the conversation like Locke’s theories, and they can also hint as to why thinkers like Malthus were mislead in their eugenic theories.
See a nuanced discussion of the types of utilitarianism if you are having trouble understanding why forced negative eugenics is not a means for creating “the greatest happiness” for the most people.
War on the Weak: Eugenics in America.
TIP: For another insightful and balanced article on the matter see PBS’s Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics programs in the United States (throughout history).
TIP: I think people shy away from this difficult topic because 1. Eugenics cannot be discussed without including sexual education and reproductive rights and 2. it cannot be discussed without pointing to dark American history in both political parties. Thus liberals shy away to avoid bringing up abortion, while other shy away from the nuanced truth for political expedience. That is my theory. Still, I think the refusal to discuss the subject produces a petri dish for conspiracy theories. We should attempt to discuss history honestly and set the record straight as the PBS article does.
From the Greeks to the U.S. to Hitler: A Brief History of Eugenics
Abortion and birth control have been practiced on an individual level in some form in almost all cultures of which we are aware.
In Western culture, Plato was among the first of the famous thinkers to suggest selective breeding. Sparta was said to have practiced both positive and negative eugenics.
Although sterilization and castration were common punishments in early European history, and still are in some countries outside the West today, it would be difficult to argue that these penalties constituted government-sponsored eugenics as such.
The modern debate on eugenics began in the late 1800’s when the survival of fittest theory, and new concerns of overpopulation due to industrialization, inspired some intellectuals and bureaucrats in Britain and the United States create disastrous eugenics policies.
The United States’ Forced Eugenics Policy Inspired Hitler
When people think of eugenics, they typically think of Hitler’s treatment of European Jews and other groups he considered undesirable. However, in an odd twist of history, it was the Allies and not the Axis to blame for many human rights violations regarding forced negative eugenics.
Hitler didn’t invent Negative Eugenics, although he used it despotically. Instead, he got the idea from ancient cultures like Sparta and early 20th century practices like those of California, where negative Eugenics was enforced by the state for populations considered “troubled.” These included people considered to be “feebleminded,” criminals, sexually promiscuous, unfortunate out-of-favor races, and impoverished people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“There is today one state,” wrote Hitler, “in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of citizenship] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.” (from The L.A. Times)
Eugenics was practiced in the United States many years before eugenics programs arose in Nazi Germany. The idea didn’t come from racism in the South, although one might argue that Southern law enforced a nasty brand of positive eugenics. Few Americans hindered negative eugenics laws when they came to the U.S. Instead eugenics ideas came from the liberal social science scientists and then were embraced by their economic and political elite brethren thereby fueling a century of conspiracy theories which consistently work against any benevolent intentions these groups might otherwise have.
FACT: Beginning in 1909 and continuing for 70 years, California led the country in the number of sterilization procedures performed on men and women, often without their full knowledge and consent. Approximately 20,000 sterilizations took place in state institutions, comprising one-third of the total number performed in the 32 states where such action was legal. (from The UC Santa Barbara Current)
A Note on Comparing Modern Politics and Modern Eugenics to California’s Eugenics Policy
Before we dig into more history, I want to again speak clearly about the political aspects (especially since we are dealing with California, which today you might think to be “socially liberally progressive“, but is in reality is rather “purple“, where Reagan came from, and notably progressivism comes in both left-and-right forms).
Those tempted to make this an issue of “liberal elites” being “evil”, and then conflating that with socially liberal progressives, should consider: Do you really think a modern social liberal Obama voter would do any of the following:
- Limit the number of children for whom a woman on welfare can get state support,
- Force drug-addicted women to surrender reproductive capacities, or
- Force contraception use as terms of probation.
Probably not right? Those are “progressive social liberal” but “socially conservative” policies aimed at the welfare class. In its day, the left and right supported these policies, but today, if anything, California’s old eugenics policy is more like a solidly conservative state policy (where they do drug tests on welfare recipients for example) than modern socially liberal state policy (where they offer elective abortion alongside more a more robust social safety net).
So, while we shouldn’t make this a left-right issue in general, we also shouldn’t do what some do and try to make all eugenics an ill of the modern liberal Democrat.
The shoe does not fit in this respect, plus while it isn’t the subject of this page “the parties switched” (adding complexity to any quip one can make about the late 1800’s or early 1900’s).
It Isn’t a Conspiracy; it’s More Like Another Failed Theory, The Lobotomy
The reality of eugenics is that, generally speaking, it was less a conspiracy of the elite class and more a popular bad theory shared by many of all political factions and classes.
As with the lobotomy procedure, the need to control people by force was one of those odd theories that were accepted as scientific but turned out to be useless pseudoscience.
Although some conspiracy-oriented minds may not believe it, most purveyors of the theory didn’t have a proven malicious intent. Rather, they believed a collectively accepted “truth” and paired it with different forms of elitism and populism reacting to a fear of future scarcity (some good intentioned, some not).
It reminds me most of the climate-change denial, where, if climate change is true like the research shows, our ancestors will look back with anger at the deniers and be sure that they had nothing but wicked intentions. Talking to them today, we can be sure most are simply believers in Big Oil and talk radio rather than Big Data and NASA. Conspiracy, for 99% of those who toe the line, isn’t the right word.
Who Came Up With This Idea?
The saddest part of all this is that this was not just ANY intellectuals who began the eugenics movement. These were people like Charles Darwin‘s half-cousin Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics, and the great economist Thomas Robert Malthus. At the time, many feared that the world’s population would expand exponentially, cause overcrowding, and resources would become scarce.
An out-of-control population boom would theoretically lead to anarchy and instability. What good is the world if there is chaos for all? Those attracted to the eugenics movement thought it would be better to have stability for a few. They thought that “those few who are to be spared should, of course, be MY family, and those who have to go are of course my out-group.” This was the crux of the problem.
So, the compassionate thing to do, as a believer in this theory, might have been to focus on population control. We would like to believe that a kind, ethical, moral, and honorable believer, would not practice an aggressive form of eugenics such as poisoning the water supply or using the tactics of the NAZIs.
The Types of Eugenics
As noted above, there are several types of eugenics.
- Negative Eugenics where people sterilize by force or incentive. This includes murder.
- Negative eugenics by birth control and sexual education.
- Positive Eugenics where we breed (or incentivize the breeding of) a group that those in power consider to be “the best and brightest.”
In other words there is forced and elective and positive and negative eugenics, but we can’t be so simplistic as to lump all forms that fall under a type together. It is even more complex than that!
All of the above types of Eugenics come with moral and ethical considerations. There are many schools of thought on which of the above are violations of human rights.
Meanwhile, positive eugenics has a slippery ethical slope that has proven inviting to tyrants. Aspects of it seem more ethical than the more drastic negative ones, but we get into a matter of opinions, ethics, and morals.
There is really only a few absolute statements we can make about eugenics, and that is the one that most people will generally agree. That is: Generally speaking, Forced Negative Eugenics has no Place in Today’s World.
Forced Negative Eugenics has no Place in Today’s World.
Forced negative eugenics programs are generally morally repugnant and unnecessary.
Putting aside self defense and executing a serial killer, and putting aside the complexities of abortion, there isn’t much justification for taking a person’s life and liberty.
Overpopulation is developed countries has not yet resulted in the kind of overcrowding feared by those in the early eugenics movement. The population has not increased in the way that was previously theorized in general.
While liberals still advocate for the kind of positive and negative eugenics found in sexual education and elective birth control, the ideas of selective breeding, forced negative eugenics, sterilization, and even mass murder are all things that we hope never to see in our future.
However, if we don’t remain vigilant in education and technological advances, we could find ourselves standing in our predecessors shoes once again and wondering if drastic measures are needed.
Donald Trump: Eugenics? Do some economic and political elite still think this and we-the-huddled-masses are their potential target? I feel like Alex Jones up in here with all this crazy (sorry Alex Jones).
NOTE: I got interested in this when I heard Bill Gates say in an interview [paraphrasing], “I don’t believe in eugenics anymore…” My reaction was, “WHAT?!? What do you mean anymore?” When I did research, I realized that people thought like this at one point. It was not outliers like Hitler and the ever impeachable Andrew Johnson, but a hero of mine Bill Gates. I needed an explanation. In this case, I’m happy to know that minds can be changed as old theories are discarded and better ones come along. Bill’s rationale was that data showed that people would elect to have less kids when they were happier and healthier. In other words, it seems we are hardwired to go into baby making mode when we feel life will be cheap and short. Meanwhile, in the US would-be mothers are delaying the choice to reproduce and the birth rate is falling. Thus, forced negative eugenics does not seem to be necessary like the old Darwinists had theorized. See: Why American women are having fewer babies than ever.
TIP: From my research, I found that the conspiracy theorists are typically wrong. They have many correct facts, but they misunderstand the connections. In this instance, as in others, the theorists have logical reasons for their ideas but do not necessarily make the correct conclusions. I doubt there is always an evil intent, but there are misguided theories, as evidenced by the turnaround of people like Gates. This is like the lobotomy theory, an old, misguided practice that could get ugly again. (That is why we took the time to write about it like PBS did).
Today a new discussion is on the horizon, along with some old like abortion and birth control. Old topics aside, the new eugenics topics have to do with things like gene selection and cloning.
In these new areas of interest, just like with the old ones, the discussion is nuanced. Key things to think about are:
- Is this ethical, or is it a human rights violation? (See Bioethics and the history of human rights documents).
- Does the science back this up, or are we confusing science with faulty logic?
- If an another group of aristocrats, or worse, a tyrannical despot, comes to power, will they be able to use an appealing-sounding pseudoscience-based theory to wreak havoc on our cities, states, nations, world? That is what happened in the past. It solved no problems and did no favors for the reputations of many, and the trust of many more.
Eugenicist Movement in America: Victims Coming Forward.
Scientific Racism The Eugenics of Social Darwinism.
FACT: At its peak of popularity, eugenics was supported by many prominent people, including Winston Churchill, Margaret Sanger, H. G. Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, George Bernard Shaw, and John Maynard Keynes. Even John Rawls’ otherwise beautiful and groundbreaking Original Position thought experiment has been used for the eugenics argument. I reiterate that MOST of these people advocated for birth control and sexual education. This is even true when Margaret Sanger is preaching to the other Democratic Party faction of the time the KKK. See my thoughts on Planned Parenthood here. There were many people like Hitler who thought that forced negative eugenics would lead to a positive social outcome, but this isn’t the ideology of most liberals who support positive eugenics. There is a reason that we have to continue to discuss the topic, part is because right-wing propagandists use it to smear the left, part is because there is a dark history here which the left and right both need to check. We must separate fact from fiction and uphold a strong defense of liberty, personal rights, and non-aggression.