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”):
|Adolf Hitler accepted idea I.Therefore, I must be wrong.||The Nazis accepted idea I.Therefore, I must be wrong.|
|Hitler was in favor of euthanasia.Therefore, euthanasia is wrong.||The Nazis favored eugenics.Therefore, eugenics is wrong.|
|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.