Eugenics and the “Hitler Card”

Anthony S. Layne

Taxonomy of the “Hitler Card” Fallacy

The Fallacy Files website, which is devoted to exploring and exploding errors in reasoning, gives the following forms for “the Hitler card” fallacy (also called the “ad Hitlerum” or “ad Naziarum”):

Forms
Adolf Hitler accepted idea I.Therefore, I must be wrong. The Nazis accepted idea I.Therefore, I must be wrong.
Examples
Hitler was in favor of euthanasia.Therefore, euthanasia is wrong. The Nazis favored eugenics.Therefore, eugenics is wrong.
Counter-Examples
Hitler was a vegetarian.Therefore, vegetarianism is wrong. The Nazis were conservationists.Therefore, conservationism is wrong.

The author of the blog puts the fallacy as a sub-category of the “guilt by association” fallacy, and explains, “Some instances of the Hitler card are factually incorrect, or even ludicrous, in ascribing ideas to Hitler or other Nazis that they did not hold. However, from a logical point of view, even if Hitler or other Nazis did accept an idea, this historical fact alone is insufficient to discredit it.”

Certainly, comparisons to Adolf Hitler and the crimes of the Third Reich get over-played. For example, I recently saw a meme in Facebook which compared side-by-side quotes from Hitler and Hillary Clinton on the need for an authoritative government. However, you can pull similar quotes from many people whose goodness was unquestionable, or who were at least no better or worse than the rest of us. If you doubt me, check out Romans 13:1-7 — if that isn’t giving a full-throated approval of a strong governor, nothing is.

Getting the Anti-Eugenics Argument Backwards

If all contentions, which invoked Hitler/the Nazis, argued to the wrongness of a specific position from the support of Hitler/the Nazis for that position, I would have no qualms with this taxonomy. The “broken clock” maxim applies as much to psychopathic dictators as it does to anyone else. However, in the case of eugenics and euthanasia, our logician is committing a fallacy — specifically, a straw man.

“A straw man argument,” he explains, “occurs … when one side attacks a position ― the ‘straw man’ ― not held by the other side, then acts as though the other side’s position has been refuted.” But this description doesn’t give us the full wicked glory of the straw man as we find it in the wild. No, the straw man we normally encounter superficially resembles the opponent’s argument, and for that reason is harder for people unfamiliar with the issues to detect than is a thorough fabrication.

The error lies in supposing that we argue to the evil of eugenics and euthanasia using as our baseline the evil exemplified by Hitler and the Nazis. Rather, it’s a stern reminder of an historical fact: one reason we judged Hitler and the Nazis evil was, and remains, their pursuit of genetic purity by killing victims of genetic defects.

The Limits of Legitimate Killing

“You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13 NIV) Murder is closer to the sense of רְצָח, ratsach (Septuagint φονεύω, phoneuō) than is the more common kill. It’s always been understood — or at least, it was understood until the last century or so — that the Fifth Commandment didn’t exclude self-defense, just war, capital punishment for grave crimes, or hunting and fishing for food.

What the Law of Moses did, as well as other systems such as the Code of Hammurabi, was to establish an idea of wrongful death; they established clear lines beyond which not even the government could rightfully take a person’s life. And we can be certain that the concept of wrongful death did not just magically appear a mere three or four thousand years ago, that it’s been a feature of most if not all societies, especially societies that became civilized (i.e., that formed villages, towns and cities).

The idea of wrongful death, however, implies that people generally don’t deserve to be killed, and that therefore they ought to not be killed unless: 1) self-defense or the defense of others makes it absolutely necessary; or 2) they’ve done something so terribly evil that the only commensurate punishment is death. In fact, the old rule “an eye for an eye” did not mandate revenge; rather, it encapsulated the principle that the punishment should be proportionate to the crime.

The killing of children, living metaphors of innocence, is the least acceptable. People who deliberately harm children are universally hated, even by hardened criminals. Of all the sins attributed to the Canaanites and Phoenicians, the worst sin was the worship of Moloch, who required child sacrifices. Although there is some doubt as to whether Moloch was truly a god in the Canaanite pantheon, his name remains a byword for unspeakable evil.

The “Can-Must” Quandary

Now, the eugenics advocate faces a quandary similar to David Hume’s “is-ought problem”. C. S. Lewis explains the “is-ought problem” for the non-philosopher:

From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. (The Abolition of Man, p. 22)

The “can-must quandary” is similar: we can do this doesn’t necessarily lead to we are morally obligated to do this. Most people will agree that finding a cure for genetic disorders is, on the whole, a good idea. But even on utilitarian grounds, you would have to create a convincing case that letting the genetically-impaired live would result in much greater evil than would a course of “genetic cleansing”.

As a counter-example: We can reduce our spending on social safety-net programs by herding the homeless, the poor, the aged, and illegal aliens into gas chambers. But age, poverty and homelessness aren’t crimes; death is too severe, too disproportionate, a punishment for illegal immigration. Killing these people isn’t obligatory simply because it may be a solution — dare we say, a final solution?

Similarly, we can minimize the occurrence of genetic diseases by aborting children with genetic defects. But genetic disorders simply do not pose a credible threat to our society — certainly not so great a threat that such drastic a measure needs to be taken. Furthermore, a genetic affliction is a misfortune, not a crime.

“Life Unworthy of Life”

The eugenics advocate tries to dehumanize or depersonalize the victims to deny their rights: compare and contrast “clump of cells”, for instance, versus lebensunwertes Leben (“life unworthy of life”) — a term, incidentally, that was adopted by, but did not originate with, the Nazis. Neither designation is scientific; they are what Richard M. Weaver, in his classic book The Ethics of Rhetoric, called “devil terms” — emotionally manipulative words intended to spin the debate in a particular direction. Morally, there’s no real difference between “a life not worth living” and lebensunwertes Leben; or, if there is a difference, it’s not sufficient to justify this ostensible coup de grâce.

For most people, the temptation to do evil for its own sake is not nearly so strong as the temptation to do evil in order to achieve some good end. But one of the fatal flaws of consequentialism is that evil means have a distressing proclivity to become ends in themselves. Taking the life of an innocent person is objectively evil; the benevolence or malevolence of the motive is irrelevant.

No More Human Sacrifices

It’s been quipped that “everybody will be Hitler for fifteen minutes.” Certainly, the overused, inappropriate references to Hitler and the Nazis are regrettable. However, when the topic is eugenics or euthanasia, such comparisons beg to be made; when Peter Singer and his ilk proclaim that we owe it to ourselves to create a better, more perfect set of human genes — Man 2.0 — it’s almost impossible not to think in response of words like Übermann (another Nazi subsumption) and “master race”.

There are other ethical problems with eugenics, or “conscious evolution”, that are worth discussing. Chief among these is the matter of who decides what “features” Man 2.0 would have. Can we really trust the scientific community with the power and tools to make our successors? By creating a “master race”, of which by definition we won’t be part, would we remnants of Man 1.0 unintentionally make of ourselves a race of slaves — an Untermensch? Or, having been made obsolete, will we be simply obliged to go quietly into oblivion?

These are all questions for another time. What we do here is draw a clear, unmistakable line: there is no “duty to evolve” that makes the murder of innocents legitimate, let alone necessary. Man 2.0 is not a Moloch to which we must offer human sacrifice.

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18 thoughts on “Eugenics and the “Hitler Card””

  1. “There are other ethical problems with eugenics, or “conscious evolution”, that are worth discussing.” AL
    You did put these two phenonoma in the same class. Don’t make Wickipedia the strawman.

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  3. ” There are other ethical problems with eugenics, or “conscious evolution”,

    Conscious evolution refers to the claim that humanity has now acquired the ability to choose what the species Homo Sapiens becomes in the future, based on recent advancements in science, medicine, technology, psychology, sociology, and spirituality. Conscious evolution assumes that human beings may be positioned at the crest of the ongoing evolution of the universe. Wickapedia

    Please Anthony, let’s not mix apples and oranges. We can impute the same pejoratives to the birth
    of science, which has been acclaimed by some to have been the the Catholic church’s baby. In that
    case, Galileo led to the atomic bomb which was dropped on humans in both anger and retribution as
    well as to test its destructive properties..

    Now, the real issue of the latter movement is Rome’s concern that :

    “The fundamental theses of conscious evolution are opposed to Christian Revelation and, when taken unreflectively, lead almost necessarily to fundamental errors regarding the omnipotence of God, the Incarnation of Christ, the reality of Original Sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ in the Paschal Mystery.”[1] Wickapedia

    Way off base. Talk about strawmen. Case in point – a few months ago a long distance swimmer off
    the coast of Australia was attempting to cross a channel salted with great whites. Even though he
    was paced by a motor boat it took a pod of dolphins to figure out that this silly human was being
    closely followed by said “Jaws”, at which point they surrounded him – white’s don’t attack dolphins
    in pods. Now, evolution purports that these intellitgent creatures have been around humans long enough and in commuication with our species long enough that they have taken a liking to us. As God is cited as especially protective of drunks and fools, so too these ( some idiots would say ‘souless’ mammals ) sentients were covering his ‘six’. If animals can aspire to be like us then we
    can aspire to reach the next stage of our evolution.

    1. James — “Wikipedia”. Unless you’re referencing an ongoing joke of which I’m unaware …?

      I said that “conscious evolution” is “a question for another time”. Implication: separate issue, not connected with the problem of Hitler, the Nazis, and murder in the pursuit of the perfect gene. No apples and oranges being mixed. If I tried to address every problem with eugenics in one post, it would be intolerably long.

  4. I think that sounds right. I mean, Hitler used a lot of conservative, pro-family, pro-nation rhetoric to get into office – and that isn’t unusual!

    The question I always ask is, “Does this analogy involve part of the reason we view Hitler and the Nazis as bad?” In other words, Hitler was a vegetarian, but that really has nothing to do with why his reign is remembered in history. So unless you’re making some sort of novel argument that his diet led to his evils, then it is irrelevant.

    On the other hand, if I’m advocating invading Poland and you point out that Hitler did that, it seems insincere for me to come back and say, “Oh, sure! Play the Hitler card! I suppose he’s a reason for me not to be a vegetarian, too!”

    It seems to me that eugenics and euthanasia is a legitimate parallel, though, and involves the value placed on life. But use the parallel with caution, you know?

    I try to stay away from Hitler comparisons in general. Mostly because I believe that were Hitler were around today, he’d make Hitler comparisons: “You know that new law? That sounds like something I would do!”

    1. Katy-Good point re how Hitler got in office – and the people ignored the “nonnegotiables” and the intrinsic evils he and the Nazi Party advocated, promoted, and had paid for with tax dollars, but the trains ran on time and children, if Aryan blond blue eyed, were valued. Subhuman children were not and by law them and their parents did not have the status of legal persons. “Use the parallel with caution”? Tell that to 6 million Jews who lived in Germany and 56 million babies who were warm and cozy in their mamas’ wombs in the USA. No caution should be used with our current Party of Death Democrats or regarding our current WH Tyrant. If you doubt this and still want to proceed with caution, go to http://www.SinVoteDemocrat.com or http://www.PecadoVotarDemocrata.com. “Caution?” We should all pray as Paul requested in Ephesians 6 – that God open our mouths and give us speech so that we can fearlessly make known the mystery of our faith. No meniton of caution in this. Guy McClung, San Antonio ps: why not move 20 miles west and be “Katy from Katy”?

    2. I read through my prior comment and I am quite happy with what I said. If I had it to write over again, I might change “Use parallels with caution” to “Use sparingly.”

      I encourage you to go re-read that prior comment, because I don’t think you quite understood my point. There is a big difference between invoking Hitler when discussing genocide or invasion and using him when discussing (to use my example) vegetarianism.

      It appears that you believe that ANY parallel honors the Jews (and somehow involves the modern democratic Party), but I strongly disagree that invoking Hitler for everything with which one disagrees does anyone any good. In fact, I would argue it undermines our perception of the evil he did do.

      Oh, and a great as “Katy from Katy” would be to say, it would mean I’d have to live in Katy, and that’s simply too high a price! 🙂

  5. Regardless of the semantics and rhetoric of Logic 101 it still results in subjective conclusions because it focuses upon the always uncertain meanings of language and ideas; which are in fact always open to interpretation according to the perspective of both the conveyor and the listener. Linguistic logic cannot offer definitive conclusions and create the illusion as if it carries the power of mathematics and physical sciences although these too can never offer absolute accuracy due to the ever-present degree of mathematical error inherent in all science and mathematics. So much greater the degree of potential error and misconceptions when using indeterminate language which has serious limitations by way of conveying even the illusion of absolute accuracy. Therefore, one would do well to avoid investing a great deal of faith in the precision of linguistic logical theory because of its inherent ambiguity. Indeed, all of verbal language will by its very nature being largely and arguably interpretive primarily and influenced by a myriad of cultural, linguistic, perceptual, and sociological factors always have limited value in proof algorithms because it falls infinitely short of the coldly logical numerical evidence in terms of its relative precision. Therefore, language is many times used in a generalizing way to convey shades of meanings whereas a comparison between ISIS, for example, to Nazism is both fair and effective in terms of communicating the gross evil nature of both ideologies. This means of approaching meaning linguistically is often both effective and appropriate in spite of what may be perceived as logical fallacies which is an enormous stretch given the huge limitations of any linguistically based analysis of propositions. In short, I propose that the usage of various historical and ideological comparisons via language are both appropriate and effective when attempting to approach the nuances and subtle shades of meaning that are often very necessary in communicating a very important message by means of language. Linguistic communication will always fall short of grasping the subtleties of the mind and spirit of very unreliable human beings and even more unpredictability of human nature.

    1. “Regardless of the semantics and rhetoric of Logic 101 it still results
      in subjective conclusions because it focuses upon the always uncertain
      meanings of language and ideas; which are in fact always open to
      interpretation according to the perspective of both the conveyor and the
      listener.”

      “Always uncertain”? “Always open to interpretation”? I disagree, precisely because communication does take place. While there are many words that have many subtle distinctions of meaning, others are limited; many simply cannot be misunderstood. A word’s meaning is objective precisely to the extent that it’s agreed
      upon by the people who speak the language; only when disagreement takes
      place can a meaning be truly said to be subjective. We have to be careful to avoid the philosophical error which holds that we’re all essentially locked inside our own heads; if that were true, communication as such would be not just difficult but truly impossible — you and I would be simply babbling incomprehensibly at one another.

      More to the point, though: having studied both formal and informal logic, I can tell you it’s less concerned with the meaning of individual words than it is with the structure of reasoning. For instance, you read people who write, “Correlation isn’t necessarily causation”; a logician would write, “That’s a cum hoc fallacy” (from cum hoc, ergo propter hoc: “with this, therefore because of this”). A line of reasoning is said to be circular, not because a word’s meaning has been changed or misunderstood along the way, but because the conclusion is the same as the initial premiss. A false dilemma presents only two outcomes when more are possible; it isn’t explained away by differences of interpretation.

      The textbook I used in college drew quite a few examples from Lewis Carroll, who wrote some interesting chains of enthymemes using nonsense words; in fact, the poem “Jabberwocky” illustrates how sentence structure can convey meaning even when made-up words are inserted here and there (“The mome rath hasn’t been born yet that could outgrabe me.”—Sir Nicol Williamson). Only a small handful of defined informal fallacies depend on a shift of meaning or emphasis.

      I would say that overuse of the “Hitler card” has made comparison to Nazi Germany functionally useless, no matter how justified by the facts of a particular case, precisely because it’s been overused. Godwin’s Law has essentially given people permission to ignore the comparison and dismiss the person who trips the wire. My post here is pretty much a cri de coer bemoaning its overuse, because there’s no subject about which the comparison is more apposite than the modern eugenics proponents such as Pete Singer. Nevertheless, if we’re going to be taken seriously enough to argue with, we have to avoid Third Reich references like Clinton dodging the draft.

    2. Analogies are always helpful to make a point. It is never precise or even close, coming from a math/science background that has always been obvious to me. If it helps to make the point then it is useful. Many would agree that particularly the English language is ambiguous and this point has been made by many who use language as a trade and has probably caused wars, divorces, murders, etc. that if language was not so inefficient could have been avoided. So, let us not get too particular with logical fallacies and the like when it usually falls on deaf ears anyway. Generally speaking people react and respond to personalities,

  6. Godwin’s law (or Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies) is an INternet adage asserting that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1—​
    that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on
    long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something
    to Hitler or Nazism.” Sometimes the comparison is spot-on. To say that “the USA’s current tax-funded Democrat-promoted-enacted executive-order-enforced RETA policy is like the Nazis policy regarding the Jews” is a correct comparison. And BTW, these are two intrinsic evils that the bishops have said are not and can never be morally trumped by other considerations when one votes. And note the Democrat presdient is much more powerful than Hitler ever dreamed of. Guy McClung
    RETA = Racially Eugenic Targeted Abortion

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  8. Playing the Hitler Card demonizes opponents in debate by associating them with evil, and almost always derails the discussion. People naturally resent being associated with Nazism, and are usually angered. In this way, playing the Hitler Card can be an effective distraction in a debate, causing the opponent to lose track of the argument.

    There has been many a time that my ideas have been compared to those of Hitler or the Nazis. The pro-life movement is famous for doing this.

    1. The pro-life movement, the anti abortion with no exception movement, is notorious for playing the Hitler card or the Action T-4 card. Both are an attempt to demonize discussion and curtail debate under any circumstance.

    2. The one point in common between the pro-abortion movement and the Nazi eugenics programs is the reduction of the intended victim to a sub-human “un-person”, to evade the proscription against taking innocent human life. I didn’t bring up Amanda Marcotte’s vile “clump of cells” image just for kicks.

      That’s not to say you’re totally wrong, Phil. But consider this: The average German underling who participated in Action T-4 or the death camps wasn’t a psychopath or sociopath. They were “regular guys” who had been taught to see something less than human in the Jews, Gypsies, gays and other people they put to death. Under the right conditions, nominally good people are capable of committing profound evil … especially when they’re convinced they’re doing something for the greater good.

      I guess my point here is that telling people that they’re evil is no way to bring them around to your point of view. But buried underneath the demonization is a very valid point of contact, which ought not be dismissed out of hand. Taking innocent human life is objectively evil; if that’s the only way in which the US and Nazi Germany are alike, it’s still one way too many. But we shouldn’t end abortion-upon-request merely to avoid being compared to Nazis; we should end abortion-upon-request because it’s morally wrong.

    3. I actually disagree with Dawkins that it is specifically “immoral” to not abort a fetus with Down Syndrome. I would instead suggest that it is not immoral to do so. We should all try to refrain from proclaiming too many things as immoral. That applies also to Dawkins.

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