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Without Civilizational Taboos, Eugenics and Cannibalism Are Simply Matters of Opinion

Slowly then suddenly (courtesy Wikipedia)

Crossing the first red line is always harder than the second. Victoria Taft’s article notes how the promotion of assisted suicide in Canada is moving its rationale from alleviating the suffering of the dying to providing human spare parts for the seriously ill and provides a clear example of a cascading collapse of restraint.

The Ottawa Citizen newspaper puts some pretty, pretty pink lipstick on the correlation between doctors committing “assisted suicide” and the sudden plethora of spare human body parts for those needing organ transplants.

The headline tells it all: “Medically assisted deaths prove a growing boon to organ donation in Ontario.”

The phenomenon is known as the slippery-slope effect, often derided as illusory. But “in China, it’s possible to pre-book an organ transplant, something that would be impossible under a voluntary donor system – raising suspicions of widespread organ harvesting,” says the Sydney Morning Herald. So it’s not illusory if it’s part of a plan. One survivor of a China organ farm recalled a conversation with a guard:

In the years following, he often thought back on the X-rays and blood tests. He thought about when the prisoners were instructed by the guards not to injure his organs. Though he had heard whispers of prisoners being killed for their organs, he had always found it hard to believe. Then he remembered one particular day, in 2007. He had been in his cell when a senior guard, named Li Wei, came to see him privately. “He bent down so we were almost face to face, and said, ‘Nothing is impossible!’

The phrase comes from one of Mao Tse Tung’s poems celebrating revolutionary freedom from conventional restraint. “We can clasp the moon in the Ninth Heaven and seize turtles deep down in the Five Seas: we’ll return amid triumphant song and laughter. Nothing is impossible if you dare to scale the heights.” To dedicated Communists, if there is no natural order, one can remake man, change the calendar, restart history at the year zero or save the life of a Chinese Einstein with organs from a criminal. The Maoist “nothing is impossible” is the corollary of “nothing is forbidden.”

“Nothing is forbidden” puts us squarely in an ancient human dilemma. Throughout history, societies have signposted perilous paths with taboos that have in turn been challenged by those who aspired to build a pillar to the stars as symbolized by the Tower of Babel. “The typical anthropological argument is that the origin of taboos is a cultural experience.” In fact, much of our notion of the sacred and the profane comes from the cultural experience of some ancient disaster. But with the eradication of the past by millennial ideologies comes the abolition of taboos. Chesterton famously warned, “don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.” The Nazi eugenics program of the last century was big on taking down fences in the name of their own Tower of Babel, the thousand-year Reich.

Those humans targeted for destruction under Nazi eugenics policies were largely living in private and state-operated institutions, identified as “life unworthy of life” (German: Lebensunwertes Leben), including prisoners, “degenerates”, dissidents, people with congenital cognitive and physical disabilities (including people who were “feeble-minded”, epileptic, schizophrenic, manic-depressive, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, deaf, blind) (German: erbkranken), homosexual, idle, insane, and the weak, for elimination from the chain of heredity. More than 400,000 people were sterilized against their will, while up to 300,000 were killed under Action T4, a euthanasia program.

Though the Nazis may still be taboo today, their disrespect of limits is ironically in vogue. Ethicist Peter Singer for one can find nothing wrong with killing impaired babies. Modern public policy ethicists would struggle to explain why Nazi eugenics was intrinsically reprehensible — or not — beyond its association with Hitler.

Q: You have been quoted as saying: “Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all.” Is that quote accurate?

Singer: I did write that, in the 1979 edition of Practical Ethics. Today the term “defective infant” is considered offensive, and I no longer use it, but it was standard usage then. The quote is misleading if read without an understanding of what I mean by the term “person” (which is discussed in Practical Ethics). I use the term “person” to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future.

But nothing can be effectively forbidden by mere political consensus. Without a civilizational taboo, eugenics and cannibalism are simply matters of opinion. Vice recently interviewed author Bill Schutt on cannibalism and he regarded it as a prejudice, neither good nor bad:

I’m not so sure it’s innate. It’s deeply ingrained in Western culture. We’ve been reading this memo since the time of the ancient Greeks. From Homer and Herodotus through the Romans and then Shakespeare and Daniel Dafoe and Sigmund Freud, the snowball kept growing. You’re talking over 2,000 years. Cannibalism, to these writers, was the worst taboo. Add that to Christianity and Judaism where it’s important to keep the body intact and you get the knee-jerk reaction to the very mention of the word we have right now. … But there are other cultures [such as the pre-20th century Wari’ of western Brazil] where they’d be just as mortified to learn we bury our dead as we would be to learn that they eat their loved ones. … I’ve done a lot of work on this over the last couple of years to put this book together, and I just don’t see it becoming something that is culturally acceptable, mainly because of this deep-seated taboo.

But if taboos are not knee-jerk prejudices but serious signposts that some horror lies beyond, then by disregarding them humanity would be like horror-movie characters who laughingly enter a creepy basement whose door opens by itself. The argument against the slippery-slope warning crucially depends on a reasonable expectation that such fears are unfounded because most basements are actually empty of malevolence.

The other assumption of Mao’s dictum that “nothing is impossible” is not only “nothing is forbidden” but “there is no monster in the basement.” We can foresee events, and we know we can manage unintended consequences. But as civilization advances deeper into the 21st century and the global world becomes ever more complex, the ability of great states to foresee events and control the future is ever more in doubt.

We can break taboos but we may not know what happens next. We can go down into the creepy basement whose door opens by itself but there’s no guarantee we’ll ever come out of it.

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