Friday, September 28, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 18

Chapter 18 (pages 254-273): "Eugenics"

There are some passages in this (and the previous) chapter when I feel almost sorry for Russell, when his views seem both wrong-headed and dangerous -- though that verdict is reached in light of post-1929 horrors, and Russell himself senses the dangers, too.

Russell opens Chapter 18 by noting that the idea behind eugenics, drawn from Darwinism, is that humans can be improved by deliberate policies aimed at their genetic characteristics. Proponents neglect the roles of the environment and education in forming human character, but then the opponents of eugenics often neglect the genetic factor. Russell thinks that the truth lies in the middle. Surely people can be ruined by poor education; indeed, most people are so ruined. But “there is a native aptitude which causes education to produce better results than it does with average material [pp. 255-256].” Russell claims that “one can generally tell whether a man is a clever man or a fool by the shape of his head, which can hardly be regarded as a characteristic conferred by education [p. 256].” And even devoted opponents of eugenics recognize that idiocy involves a congenital factor.

Russell stipulates that people differ in congenital mental capacity, and that it is better to have clever people than slow ones. These stipulations provide the foundations for eugenics – so the program of eugenicists is not self-evidently wrong, even if some of the detailed positions are unconvincing. But many eugenicists superadd to this biological substrate some doubtful sociological claims (page 257): (1) “that virtue is proportional to income”; (2) that poverty inheritance “is a biological, not a legal phenomenon”; and, (3) that if the rich breed while the poor do not, everyone will be rich. The eugenicists seem very concerned that the poor breed more than the rich, but Russell is indifferent: he isn't convinced that the rich are any better examples of humanity than the poor. But if barriers are placed to the acquisition of birth control information, then those who are least likely to overcome those barriers will be of below average intelligence. Soon, however, everyone will be able to access the information, or procure abortions.

Positive eugenics seeks to encourage “good stocks”, and negative eugenics to discourage bad stocks. Negative eugenics is currently more practicable, and Russell supports efforts such as forced “sterilization of the unfit [p. 258].” The feeble-minded have many children, “wholly worthless to the community [p. 259]” – but these kids are not really desired by the feeble-minded. There is the danger that forced sterilization of the feeble-minded could lead down a slippery slope to a point where any government opponents are sterilized, but the risk is worth running to try to reduce the number of imbeciles. Russell’s support for sterilization applies only to mental defectives, and does not extend to those with physical disabilities, and certainly not to such vague categories as those in Idaho’s law (page 259), of “moral degenerates” and “sex perverts.” Such a law “would have justified the sterilization of Socrates, Plato, Julius Caesar, and St. Paul [p. 260].” Only mental deficiency is “sufficiently definite to be safely made the subject of legal enactment in this region [p. 260],” though perhaps scientific advances eventually will support other objective categories. “[I]t is very dangerous for a community to allow its moral reprobations to masquerade in the guise of science…[p. 261].”

“Positive eugenics consists in the attempt to encourage desirable parents to have a large number of children. At present the exact contrary is general [p. 261].” A clever boy will become a professional and not marry until he is in his thirties, whereas those less gifted will marry earlier. One solution would be to subsidize the education, through university, of the kids of gifted individuals: scholarships provided on merit, but on the merit of the parents, not on the merit of the student! Russell believes that this measure would also stem “cramming and overwork, which at present causes most of the cleverest young people in Europe to be intellectually and physically damaged by too much strain before they reach the age of twenty-one [p. 262]” But positive eugenics is based on the notion that people are unequal, and so it will not make much headway in democracies, which are based on the opposite understanding. The majority will not object to the notion, however, “that there is a minority of inferior people such as imbeciles [pp. 262-263]” – though they will object to the claim “that there is a minority of superior people [p. 263].”

Though now “it may be difficult to determine who constitutes the best stocks [p. 263],” science will progress. The selective breeding of domesticated animals shows the sorts of improvements that humans could undergo through similar methods. “It is, of course, much more difficult to determine what we desire in human beings [p. 264].” And there are likely to be trade-offs, of which we are uncertain; so, the time is not yet ripe for substantial movements in the direction of positive eugenics. But maybe within 100 years, we might be able to breed a superior human race – one that everyone would agree is superior.

Any such program of positive eugenics would require a revolution in the institution of the family. All but two or three percent of males would be sterilized at puberty, and most of the women (perhaps 75%), too. Fatherhood would be like that with bulls or stallions (that is, minimal), and motherhood would be a specialized profession. Russell finds the whole idea repugnant, even though it “might produce remarkable results [p. 265].”

What if the Japanese tried this, and within a few generations all Japanese were super strong and super smart? The Japanese, who would procure men of other countries as soldiers, would be militarily dominant, and it would be easy to instill in Japanese kids “blind devotion to the State [p. 265].” Isn’t such a development possible?

Russell turns to race eugenics, noting how it is always the race of whomever is doing the writing that is conceived to be superior. He laments the political propaganda that goes hand in hand with race eugenics, but wants to look at the intellectual merits of race eugenics itself. He accepts that in some cases it is clear that one race is superior to another. His brief comments on blacks [which I believe he later retracted or clarified, and even eliminated in subsequent editions of Marriage and Morals – RBR] don’t bear repeating, but he thinks that “bad science” and “political prejudice” would need to be paired to discriminate within the “races of Europe” and between Europeans and the “yellow races”.

Russell notes some demographic projections that have the east (Russia, Japan, China) overwhelming the west, but he doesn’t accept them. He argues that those eastern countries will industrialize (if they are to be militarily formidable), and the industrialization process will lead to smaller families. So, either the east will not dominate the west, or it will not be a bad thing if it does.

Russell again calls for a world government to replace “international anarchy [p. 268].” Science is progressing, but science turned to bad ends is horrific. To reduce hate, we need an improved sexual ethic – it is a vital need.

A scientific approach to sexual ethics would place eugenic considerations at the forefront. Procreative sex would only be undertaken by adult couples after consideration of “the probable value of their progeny [p. 269],” where that valuation [presumably – RBR] is undertaken in social, not private, terms.

With the dwindling of fatherhood, there would be little reason for a woman to choose the man she loves to be the father of her children; she could choose the father for eugenic reasons. Men could even more easily choose the mothers of their children out of such considerations. Now, virtuous childbearing is considered to be that which takes place within marriage. Russell foresees (and seems to support) a time when virtuous childbearing is that which is likely to result in “desirable children [p. 271].” If science could identify the likelihood of desirable kids with more certainty, “the moral sense of the community may come to be more exacting from a eugenic point of view [p. 271].” Besides shortcomings in science, the institution of marriage has made it seem impractical that parents should be chosen for eugenic reasons – but moral strictures will shift from marriage to procreation as fatherhood declines and contraception diffuses. Russell foresees tax and subsidy schemes that will try to encourage the production of desirable children, and discourage the production of undesirable ones.

Allowing science to interfere in such personal matters as childbearing “is undoubtedly repugnant. But the interference involved would be much less than that which has been tolerated for ages on the part of religion [p. 272].”

“I foresee the time when all who care for the freedom of the human spirit will have to rebel against a scientific tyranny. Nevertheless, if there is to be a tyranny, it is better that it should be scientific [p. 273].”

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