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Is it time to euthanase those Nazi arguments?

Comparisons with Nazi policies are not necessarily "cheap shots", but they often are. How to tell the difference?
Zac Alstin | 11 May 2012

cartoon

Cartoon: xkcd.com

A certain kind of internet warrior would have us believe that making references to Nazism is verboten. As one variant of Godwin’s Law puts it: the first person to mention "Nazis" automatically loses the argument. Surely I’m not the only one who finds such self-righteous attempts at censorship a little bit, shall we say, fascist? Hitler would love that kind of thing.

So when a Vatican newspaper article was reported to have drawn a link between Nazi eugenics and some contemporary proponents of euthanasia and abortion, it was no surprise that a number of people reiterated their own formulation of Godwin’s "rule of thumb" against Nazi references. As one commenter put it:

Does anyone else here wish that some people would stop comparing absolutely anything and everything they find disagreeable to some policy that was dreamed up by the Nazi Party?

While another observed that:

Scaraffia [the author] seriously undermines her position with that lame "Reductio ad Hitlerum" argument.

On one level, the allergic reaction to Nazi references is entirely understandable. In contemporary culture, Nazis are the fully accredited and universally endorsed symbol of evil. It is widely considered a ‘cheap shot’ to invoke a Nazi reference, which is presumably why a number of commenters immediately resorted to their own (inaccurate) ad hominem responses such as:

The Pope would certainly know about Nazi tactics, given that he used to be one.

Some netizen with an apparent interest in the truth attempted to set the record straight:

Pope Benedict was never a Nazi, he was drafted into the Hitler Youth at the age of 14 as were all German males in 1941, the same year that his cousin who was also 14 but had Down syndrome was taken away by the National Socialist regime and killed under German law which governed the ActionT4 campaign of Nazi eugenics.

But the internet is not so easily misled by such appeals to the facts, and a third commenter quickly intervened:

And yet, here he is, putting his seal of approval on a gross distortion of current thought on euthanasia and birth control. And I know lots of people who don't like their cousins.

I needn’t go on. It’s the internet, after all; what else should we expect to read on such a topic?

Nazism evokes, in our morally diverse society, the nearest thing to a moral absolute that most people will agree on. In an age where people squirm uncomfortably at the religiously and culturally loaded term “evil”, the Nazis provide a kind of negative moral compass point, a social taboo that ensures at least some point of moral conformity.

But if Nazism is your devil, then hearing people use it to describe lesser evils or things they simply don’t like would be a cause for concern, especially if the Nazi label is aimed at you. It’s probably not unlike how Catholics feel when labelled “the Antichrist” by certain Protestant sects.

The definitive moral significance of Nazism can be seen in other contexts as well. Many of us have at one time or another employed a crude but effective “Nazi heuristic” or rule of thumb, whereby a person’s moral and intellectual character are immediately cast into doubt upon their utterance of phrases such as: “You know, people don’t realise that the Nazis did a lot of good things…”. I still recall the surreal moment in which an acquaintance, over coffee, attempted to explain how “the Jews really brought it upon themselves”.

Heuristics (rules of thumb) are great; I even have a heuristic about heuristics. My “heuristic” heuristic states that heuristics can’t be trusted. Confused? The reason heuristics cannot be trusted is that they do not constitute actual knowledge. They are, by definition, only approximations, rough guides, educated guesses. At best they are an unconfirmed hypothesis; at worst they are an unexamined prejudice. So even though, as a rule of thumb, you may close your eyes and visualise yourself floating away peacefully in a hot air balloon the moment someone starts saying that Hitler had the right idea about a whole lot of things (“Guy sure could build a fine autobahn!”) you still have to do the patient, careful work of turning the apparent crazy talk, and your instinctive rejection of it, into the kind of sensible argument that could be suitably explained to a five-year- old child.

Let me be clear: you can do this on your own, in the safety of your own home, after having extricated yourself as quickly as you deem appropriate from the awkwardness of a conversation with someone who doesn’t seem to understand (or worse still, does understand yet perseveres anyway) that the redeeming features of the Nazi regime are probably not worth exploring, given the scale and horror of the unredeeming features. The point though, is that you cannot rely on the heuristic alone; you have to follow up with a coherent rational response. You have to be able to defend your position with real knowledge and reason, not with the obvious, knee-jerk, culturally endorsed response that “saying nice things about bad people is weird”. Why? Because the truth is not always obvious, our knee-jerk reactions are often incorrect, and our culturally endorsed responses are only as good as the culture that endorses them. There was a time when a hearty "Heil Hitler" was a culturally endorsed response.

Confucius said: "If a man keeps cherishing his old knowledge, so as continually to be acquiring new, he may be a teacher of others." “Cherishing old knowledge” means that we go over it in our minds. So doing, we find further ideas and implications that flow from the old knowledge into new. In attempting to explain what is wrong with the hunt for Hitler’s redeeming features, we find ourselves pursuing deeper principles and logic that apply more broadly. For example: we note that it is impossible for anyone to be truly 100 per cent evil and corrupted. Evil is parasitic: it requires a host. We should therefore not be surprised that many people who commit terrible crimes and great evils nonetheless also achieve some good things. It ought to be as expected as the observation that people who achieve good things are flawed and may even be responsible for grave evils.

In other words, it is not surprising that Hitler achieved some good things for Germany. Our response to such an assertion should be, “Yeah, so what?” We could go deeper into the question and start calculating the actual “goodness” of an autobahn or an economic recovery. In what sense is an autobahn good? To what degree is it good? How does its goodness compare to the evil of taking human life? What should our sense of proportion tell us about the appropriateness of even mentioning autobahns in the context of one of the most evil regimes in human history?

Knowledge deepens on reflection. But if we take our old knowledge for granted, over time it fades and becomes weak. This is why the Confucian school extolled the cherishing of old knowledge as a part of the ideal human being:

Therefore, the superior man honours his virtuous nature, and maintains constant inquiry and study, seeking to carry it out to its breadth and greatness, so as to omit none of the more exquisite and minute points which it embraces, and to raise it to its greatest height and brilliancy, so as to pursue the course of the Mean. He cherishes his old knowledge, and is continually acquiring new. He exerts an honest, generous earnestness, in the esteem and practice of all propriety.

“Generous earnestness” makes me think of the internet – specifically, why the internet is so lacking in it. At risk of sounding imperious (I am, of course, but don’t want to sound it) one of the few things that truly irritates me, earns my contempt, and encourages a seething hostility toward my fellow humans is the spectacle of a person who, in a spirit of smug self-assurance or vindictive exaltation a) informs you that you are wrong b) is wrong himself, and c) is obnoxiously free from appropriate self-doubt. Into this category, as a rule of thumb, I throw people who say things like, “You just lost the argument!” and every possible permutation of pitifully misplaced self-assurance.

The need to distrust our heuristics in favour of “constant inquiry and study” cuts both ways. Unchallenged heuristics lead to mistakes, and having read the original article from the Vatican newspaper, I can see that the author depended on an heuristic, and accordingly made a mistake. Her mistake was not in pointing out that the rationale of “lives unworthy of being lived” and the idea of the “charitable death” used to justify the Nazi euthanasia campaign are shared by some prominent contemporary bioethicists. Indeed, the notion that “life has value as long as it procures pleasure and is free from pain” is patently utilitarian. No; where the author relied on an imperfect heuristic was in her assertion that:

We therefore see that this book, precisely because of its grimly up to date characters, must strongly embarrass those who champion euthanasia in the belief that it has nothing to do with Nazism.

As a rule of thumb, people are generally embarrassed when they find themselves associated with evil, murderous regimes. But it is a mistake to think that these particular proponents of euthanasia would be embarrassed at all, let alone strongly embarrassed, by the revelation that their ideas have an ancestry that includes the philosophical justification for the infamous Nazi euthanasia program. People who already believe euthanasia to be a good thing will not be embarrassed; any more than a motoring enthusiast would be embarrassed by Hitler’s autobahns.

For the general public the effect of such a revelation is more uncertain. Philosophical and ethical rationales are difficult for people to grasp, and for many the most salient aspects of Nazi euthanasia are that the Nazis left grieving relatives, and wore distinctive uniforms. Find some grieving relatives, or a euthanasia advocate with an extensive collection of Nazi memorabilia, and the embarrassment will be more forthcoming. Otherwise, people are bound to resort to their pre-determined positions: those concerned about euthanasia and abortion of disabled infants will see the Nazi association confirming their fears; those in favour of euthanasia and abortion of disabled infants will see the Nazi association as a cheap slur.

In any case, the astute reader (you know who you are) will by now have realised that this article is not really about Nazi arguments or Godwin’s Law; it’s about the danger of taking heuristics for granted and applying them inappropriately. The internet provides a new medium in which such ill-considered opinions are collected, collated, and presented for our displeasure. We can’t beat them, we can’t fix it, and tackling them head on will only drag us down to their level. The only remaining response is that advocated by Confucius himself:

Even when walking in the company of two other men, I am bound to be able to learn from them. The good points of the one I copy; the bad points of the other I correct in myself.

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | euthanasia, Godwin's law, Nazis
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