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Progress and Evil


TERRY MORAN: Let's open it up with a very general question. You're a child of Holocaust survivors and a public intellectual in the best sense of that word and tradition. This is an exhibit that shines a light on intellectuals. How do you.. Well, just in general, what are you...

LEON WIESELTIER: Yeah, I thought—thanks, Terry—I thought I would just say a few general things first. I'm not a scientist, I'm not a doctor, I'm a student of Jewish history and Judaism and American-born son of Polish Jews. And I had a few general thoughts about this extraordinary and deeply sickening exhibition. First one is this and I've had this thought before, but his show really brought it home with some force, which is, I'd say, the older I get and the more I ponder what happened, the less I understand how it could have happened. It becomes not more clear, but less clear to me. The more—I mean, I've studied the various explanations that have been given, the economic explanations, the ideological explanations, the cultural explanations, mono-causal, multi-causal, structural, functional and so on, I have to say that the more I regard what happened to the Jews in Europe and the more I regard what happened to Germany, what the Germans did to Germany and then to other people in that period, the more stupid and speechless I feel. And the more convinced I become that—I come away with, I have to say, not with any brilliant ideas except a very blunt experience of the sheer facticity of evil. I don't know how else to put it, but the fact that this happened becomes—looms for me now more and more over all the explanations for the fact and, you know, going through this show, I mean, these were people—this was not mass murder of a certain kind, these were people looking other people in the eyes and killing them. First, dehumanizing them and then killing them. So my first observation is actually a very lumpy one, which is that I don't understand how this was possible. I don't understand how this was possible. The second thing that happened when I went through the show, the exhibition, was that I was—suddenly found myself ceased by two diametrically opposed impulses. The first one was to defend science against this. That is to say, my first response was that one must remember that this is not science, that this is not reason, that this is the debasement of science and that the degeneration of reason and that the debasement of science must not be mistaken for science and that one should be very, very weary of, you know, slippery slope arguments or hysterical arguments of any kind that science does good and reason - that the world never suffers from a surfeit of reason, ever, and that this should not—what happened here, what this show documents must not become a pretext for a new enthusiasm for unreason or irrationalism or laudism [ph] or, you know, that was my first impulse. My second impulse, as I say, was exactly the opposite. Which is that every single suspicion that has ever been voiced of reason and science is correct, is correct. That this is in fact was one of the consequences of the reasoning mind and one of the consequences of the scientific mind and that there's no point in denying it, that science puts powers in human hands that far exceeds so far—how should I put it—that our research ability so far exceed our ethical abilities. And that we have been given powers for which we are not prepared and may never be fully prepared. And I came away deeply anxious, deeply anxious about the ... if you will, that was behind all of these atrocities, and I came away thinking—this is I say the opposite impulse was to think, No, the slippery slope argument is exactly the right argument, because there are grounds for worry and one thing does lead to another and the only way to get from A to Z is by going from A to B and B to C, and C to D, and so on. So I was torn when I saw this show. I mean, I literally didn't know what were the philosophical conclusions that could be drawn from this. And so the only conclusion that I could draw from it, I think, was first that both impulses were absolutely correct. And therefore I came away the first time I saw it—I've seen it a number of times—really wanting to think more about the morally neutral character of scientific knowledge, the morally neutral character of technology, or the fact that science will always be available both for good and for evil, that there is nothing within the scientific mind just as there is nothing within the technological mentality that is either intrinsically good or intrinsically evil, but that science must itself be directed, must itself be directed by extra-scientific ideas- and I'll get to that in a moment - and whereas I've always had a deep antipathy to slippery slope arguments, because I've always found them profoundly anti-intellectual, they really are a way of just shutting down discussion, it should be possible to control - to manage the limits of certain things and so on, whatever the merit of a slippery slope argument is, it's certainly true that this exhibition and the precedent, the historical precedent of what is in this show, should make us vigilant about science to the point of sleeplessness, to the point of sleeplessness. Especially now, for obvious reasons. But really to the point of sleeplessness. And then the third theme, if you will, or the third cluster of thoughts that were in my mind when I saw this show was that I began to think that [cell phone ring]—oh, sorry—I began to think that perhaps one of the lesson of this horror is to encourage a stricter and more strenuous reflection about what in fact is the place of science and our notions of a good life and a good society, and our notions of a good life and a good society. And I think there are a number of things that can be said as one emerges from this show. The first one is that the problem that we must think about is not only science but scientism. In other words, what I come away with is I come away with a deep weariness of the idea that there are scientific answers to non-scientific questions. Or that there is— —Cause what this show documents, I mean, eugenics, this kind of twisted biology, certainly then the euthanasia program and others, this was all an attempt—this was all based on the belief that there were scientific solutions to what certain people regarded as moral or political, or social problems. That that's what was really happening here. That that's what was really happening here. And that it was scientism and not just science that had to be very carefully watched for. And, again, the contemporary analogies and, again, I'm very weary of contemporary analogies, because you have to mutate so many [ph] mutanda when you see something like this and yet it is also impossible to see something like this and not think of a host of contemporary bioethical questions, and I'm sure if we speak about it, then I'm gonna speak, it is impossible not to speak sloppily, I mean, you know, blue in the face, I was trying to say, of course, excusing for the differences and so on, but—The other thought I had was it's important to understand when one considers these questions that the question of what the place—what is the place of science in life is not a scientific question. It's not a scientific question. Science has no authority to tell us what the place of science in human life is. That is a philosophical questions and a moral questions about which scientists may provide useful information and advice and so on, but it is not a scientific matter. It's an extra-scientific matter. And if we get it right, it will be because we approve it to be morally and philosophically sound, not because we ... scientifically sound or even brilliant. And the third thing I came away was, again, looking at the analysis of human life that was—upon which all these horrors were based, is again—and this is something I worry about a lot—is, again, yet another warning, but an especially chilling warning, against a purely scientific or materialistic analysis of the individual. That is to say, you know, the question—you know, this notion that these monsters had about who was fit for living or which human lives were worthy, these were people who analyzed human lives in inhuman ways because they analyzed in completely materialistic ways. These were—this was an analysis of human beings that did not see the spirit in them, that did not see the spirit in them, and that used scientific or pseudoscientific expertise of various kind as an excuse for not recognizing what the real obstacle to any such analysis was and that is—I don't mean to sound religious, but the existence of the non-material in every human being, the piece of the human being that cannot be scientifically analyzed correctly or incorrectly, correctly or incorrectly. And, you know, when you come away from this, you think that there is no greater danger for any culture, not just to succumb to a certain kind of scientific mentality or to accord science too much prestige or the wrong kind of prestige, there is no greater danger than allowing a culture's understanding of human life to sink into the swamp of pure materialism. And to lose sight of what it is in every human being that makes—that really is—that is the real bar against the—I mean, these were just—so these were the general thoughts that I had, coming away from this. As I say, the implications for today—I'm a little bit nervous and we have to talk about them obviously, but there are—blah, blah, blah—anyway, that's ...

TERRY MORAN: That's a lot to work with and that's good, but let me challenge you a little bit on that. The sense one has in going through this exhibit that we're out of the realm of brutality, which is where we so often are, almost comfortably, if one can use that word in dealing with the Holocaust, gassing and bullets and fire and all that stuff, that's just beastly and we all know the beastly part of ourselves is something to be restrained in cabin, and in some ways the most—one of the most eloquent objects that I found in exhibit was that white lab coat, which is also beautiful and beautifully lit, but I wonder you desire, it seems, to set science aside from our judgment, our morality, isn't it—aren't we—I mean, this was a progressive enterprise - wasn't it?—eugenics, this was part of the hopeful movement in intellectual life a hundred years ago, that just as socialism could create a better, more just, more permanently equitable society, technology would bring comfort and sustenance, eugenics was going to make the species better, too, and that's tied up - isn't it? - with our face in science.

LEON WIESELTIER: Well, I think—but I think the fundamental error was to believe that nature is a source of moral guidance. In other words, the idea that we will be better morally if we behave more in conformity with nature. It's an old idea and I think it's a deeply mistaken idea, a deeply mistaken idea. I mean, there are many—many arguments have been made to this effect, this is not an original notion of ... knows, but, you know, the fact is that what we mean by moral behavior, the aspiration to ethical perfections of various kind that we express, there is nothing like this to be found in nature, which murders regularly and starves regularly, and, you know, that every moral doctrine that use nature as a model was a brutal doctrine, was a brutal doctrine, and was a doctrine that justified hierarchies and domination and, in certain cases, outright violence, the outright violence. And, you know, there is in our own country, there are people who do believe in the wisdom of nature and I guess nature has something like a wisdom, though I'm not sure what a wisdom is without—I'm not sure it is wisdom unless it is brought to self-consciousness and only human beings can bring wisdom to self-consciousness, we are the only self-interpreting beings in creation that we so far know of, and so I think that the basic error, the basic error was to think that nature would tell us what the good is. I think that that is a monumental error.

TERRY MORAN: But that way it is—is that really the complete source of authority that that white lab coat has in that culture, in our culture, that one of the striking things about this is these are doctors and professionals, researchers, they have a status and is it only derived from those who have faith that nature has all the answers?

LEON WIESELTIER: Well, I think that, you know, we know that the two greatest sources of certainty in human life have been religion and science. If you wish to feel certain about something, there are two ways to do it: one is to find a religious justification for it, the other is the scientific justification for it. Most people like to live with certainty, most people do not like to live in inconclusive uncertain worlds. Most people do not like the idea that the way they live is not an inevitable outcome either of God's will or natural selection. Most people really do not wish to take full moral and intellectual responsibility for their moral and social order and they would much prefer to find some extra-human source of certainty, as Americans like to say, a validation, and the two great sources historically have been religion and science. And what the lab coat does, it takes this despicable analysis and calls it certain, and calls it certain, and confers upon it a certain—a particular intellectual prestige, and a particular immunity from doubt, a particular immunity from doubt that made this—this was one of the things that made it possible. This is one of—And, again, I guess, if you wanna get more concrete about it, then the lab coat also had the effect of persuading people, ordinary people insofar as ordinary Germans, and I'm sure there were many, wished to resist this analysis that it was simply their ordinary opinion against the expertise of, you know, of specially trained and specially qualified individuals. I mean, you know, the scientization of prejudice, the medicalization of prejudice, the biologization of—I hate these words, they're very hard to pronounce—but the biologization of prejudice, this is all just another elaborate justification for prejudice. And I think that's a—I think part of it is the need for, you know, the pathetic need for certainty that most people or many people feel about the way they live.

TERRY MORAN: Let me ask you the question that I think we all have when we confront something like this. For ordinary people it may be that the lab coat helps us or helps them, us, accept, obey whatever, and so many Germans, Poles and Frenchmen, and others had the excuse, they were obeying orders at the end of the day. For the person wearing the white coat, what's their motivation, why did—who - was Eugen Fischer obeying orders or...

LEON WIESELTIER: I mean, one has to assume that Eugen Fischer was motivated both by a traditional love of scientific knowledge and by a highly non-traditional desire to be superman. One has to assume that both of these motivations were present. The chilling thing about these scientists is that they were not cynics. This was not an elaborate scientific hoax; these people actually regarded what they were doing as genuine scientific progress in some way. I mean, not in some way, they regarded it as science. And early on, you know, it wasn't just Eugen Fischer, I mean, I had occasion recently and, again, mutating the mutanda, et cetera, et cetera, to read Holmes's opinion in Buck v. Bell, it doesn't read well. I have to tell you, I mean, that sentence, three—what is it?——Three generations of imbeciles are enough,—that sentence, it is, you know, when you read and read it and wonder how an American and et cetera, et cetera —

TERRY MORAN: 8 to 1.

LEON WIESELTIER: 8 to 1, exactly.

TERRY MORAN: ... Supreme Courts.



Well, that's a good point actually. That's a good point.


That's a good point. So I think that the force of what we see in this show is the fact that these people were not quacks and they were not impostors, and this was, in the way they practiced it, it was false science, but it wasn't pseudoscience.

TERRY MORAN: What were they? One of the most depressing for me, having covered a lot of war crimes issues and, and such, displays in the exhibit is that final panel of all these men—Fischer and the others—and their postwar carriers; they all died in their beds. Say you can't make—you know, what is justice for these—for the intellectual crime, if that's what is, say, you can't make a specific case, evidentiary case tying Fischer and the others to a specific atrocity.

LEON WIESELTIER: I think, look, the—The intellectual responsibility of these men is clear. The—and, again, in the case of crimes—of scientific crimes, intellectual responsibility is in fact a very substantial responsibility. The fact that they died in their beds comes as no surprise, considering how few of the perpetrators of what happened in that war died in their beds generally. The really important—it's their science that should be punished, if they can't be punished. That is to say, the really important action against those individuals is not just—is the continual delegitimation of what they did. The continual examination of the premises of their research and of their sense of science, and of their sense of society and of their sense of the world, and the constant repudiation, you know, the nipping it in the butt wherever you see it, nipping it in the butt wherever you see it, and, you know, sometimes—and, you know, and again, we are a society right now owing to the really dizzying acceleration of progress in biology and genetics, we are a very disequilibrated society morally on this question, we don't have our balance yet, we don't have our balance yet, and for perfectly understandable reasons. We have been given the power to do so many things that we know nothing or morally that we know nothing or very little about, and there- you know, you read books and you read newspapers and sometimes people write and say the strangest things these days. And...

TERRY MORAN: And they reach the bestseller lists.

LEON WIESELTIER: Well, sometimes, sometimes, you know, sometimes you read the strangest things and the important thing is you punish these scientists by leaping with full vehemence all over every trivial expression, every premonition, every premonition of this worldview, it has to be instantly delegitimated.

TERRY MORAN: That gets us to, what are the tools that you use to defend yourselves, to defend ourselves from this trend? And doctor ... he's gotta think about, you mentioned something about the vigilance and the source of it is our commitment to an awareness that we are, in addition to being material beings, something else. How does—How do you make public policy out of that? In a diverse country, how do you make public policy out of that?

LEON WIESELTIER: I think that the—you being with what in fact is the cornerstone of most public policy in the United States, I have to say, which is the axiom of human dignity. There's a certain analysis and I don't mean to sound dogmatic or apologetic, I don't mean to sound like a reverend of some kind here, but there is at the heart of the democratic analysis an analysis of the person according to which every human person has an irreducible dignity. Now, there are secular and religious versions of this idea. The religious versions is obviously that we're all made in the image of God. But there are secular versions of this idea, too. I mean, Kant had this idea, other philosophers had this idea, and the Founding Fathers had this idea either as deists or some kind of advanced esotericist, philosophical Christians or whatever they were, whatever they were—I know that they were neither Jews nor evangelical Protestants, that I know...


...but whatever they were, they also had this idea of the irreducible dignity of the person. And that is not just a homiletical statement or a political statement, or a statement with which to raise campaign money or get the support of the Congress for something, that is a philosophical proposition, that is something in which one must believe as an—I mean, it is a sort of philosophical—you know, it is part of a worldview, it's not part of a politics only. So you begin with that, you begin with that. And if you believe that then you already have begun the philosophical struggle, you've already built one philosophical fence around the problem, around the problem. Now, in Nazi Germany, to put it mildly, there was no such belief. I mean, remember, the shocking thing about anti-Semitism and racial prejudice in Nazi Germany, and in other countries in Europe, but we're talking about Germany now is not just that they existed, but that they enjoyed legitimacy and prestige in their cultures. The prejudice exists everywhere, prejudice exists everywhere. There is racism in this country and there is anti-Semitism in this country, but there is no legitimacy to racism or anti-Semitism in this country, because prejudice in this country, even though it is an empirical fact and a social fact, is a philosophical and a political disgrace. And so you can argue against the prejudice of this society in the name of the values of the society. Now, in Germany the exact opposite was the case. In order to argue against prejudice of this kind in Nazi Germany, you had to move outside the society, physically or intellectually; you had to make yourself an outcast and you had to break away from the shared moral and philosophical understandings of the culture in which you lived, which—but as I say, in this country, in other democratic societies, et cetera, et cetera, the point being that there is an analysis of the person upon which we base our notion of the rights that are inalienable from that person. If rights are inalienable from persons, it is not because they are Americans or because there's a certain—because we are Democrats or Republicans or Federalists or Whigs, it is because there is philosophical understanding of the individual at play here, and that I think is the beginning, that's the beginning of the struggle. That's the beginning of this. And that's why, I might add, the debates about bioethical questions and not just about bioethical—about democracy and democratization are important, because what they're about is the continued—not just awareness, but the revitalization within this society, especially at a time of rampant materialism. I mean, American society right now is choking on materialisms of all kinds -biological materialisms, economic materialism, Darwinist materialism - you know, wherever you look, wherever you look, we live in a society now that is, you know, in which the smartest thing you can say about—understand about something is how it works. Right? That's the deepest thing—a kind of analysis you can make, is to figure out how something works, is to game it somehow. Right? These are not—how should I put it?—these are attitudes, orientations, philosophical orientations, even when they're not recognized as such, they are philosophical orientations, these are orientations that constantly have to be resisted, that constantly have to be resisted.

TERRY MORAN: With that principle of the essential dignity of the individual and let me turn the screw a little bit here, is it not true—I think Sherwin Nuland noted it that that principle, that democratic ideology is now being served in remarkable ways by science. If eugenics was the use of science to improve the health of the race, we now have genetic enhancement, designer genes, designer children.

LEON WIESELTIER: Well, I'm not sure what's democratic about that. I mean, I think that—oh, what do you mean that...

TERRY MORAN: Well, if you can be served by manipulating your genetic material...

LEON WIESELTIER: , I mean, who decides who's served and on what grounds? I mean...

TERRY MORAN: The individual.

LEON WIESELTIER: Right, but again, the dignity of the individual is not the same as the omniscience of the individual. In other words, one of the—in fact, it is the consciousness of the dignity of the individual that makes one a little humble about the limitations of human understanding. I—you know, as I say, I'm not - I mean, Leon is here, I'm not—I yield to Leon generally on these questions, but I'm not a bioethicist, the idea of science enhancement, I have to say, repels me, repels me. Because it does put me in mind of the slippery slope, it really—and people who need to change this or people who have not yet understood—they're kind of philosophically idiots in some ways, that they are philosophical idiots in that they don't understand what the challenge of the acceptance of finite, but rich human life really is. And again, in America we know, and again, this goes back to the problem of the materialisms we're choking on right now, every American aspires to nothing more than the perfect customization of every aspect of his or her life. Right? I mean, every American now wants everything to be arranged so that he or she will never be surprised by anything that he or she does not already know and accept. This is the way we arrange everything now. You know, people walk around with iPods, because, God forbid, they might hear some music they didn't wanna hear. Right? And that would act—I mean, right, but that's what an iPod is. That's what an iPod is. People use TiVos right now, because they're in danger of actually being shown something they didn't expect to see or worse they didn't care to see. You know, there is—Americans have no patience any longer with the contingency of human life, they don't have—they don't understand, they have no patience for time, they have no patience for growth—well, they have a lot of patience for growth—I mean, real development, and I think that what you are speaking about is part of this grotesque American notion that we are so the masters of our fate that we can actually customize our fate.

TERRY MORAN: But we're there, scientific...


TERRY MORAN: Is there such a thing then as forbidden knowledge, as things that we shouldn’t...


TERRY MORAN: I think it's not a question...

LEON WIESELTIER: No, no. Look. You can't put the genie back in the bottle, but you can be disgusted by the genie. I mean—And I mean, Leon once wrote something for me that I was afraid that ... about the wisdom of repugnance. I mean, it is—the question is not the suppression of knowledge, censorship, I mean, you know, the rational mind has always run the risk of exceeding the moral and emotional capacities of the reasoning individual. I mean, this has always been a problem. But what matters, as I say, is to recover one's mental and intellectual and philosophical balance towards these things. There are many things that we can do, that we choose not to do. And it would be absolutely pathetic to argue that we should not be able to do many good things because we might be able to do some bad things, because—and that we would be simply so corrupted by the power conferred upon us by the ability to do these bad things that—et cetera, et cetera. So and that's one of the reasons the slippery slope arguments make me nervous, I still actually do believe that a morally sound and rationally operative individual in society can in fact make distinctions and enshrine those distinctions in laws and enforce laws, et cetera, et cetera. I mean, I don't think we simply have to, you know, throw away the key.

TERRY MORAN: Well, we're gonna take questions here in a moment, but I did wanna get to the point you made about worthy and unworthy life and the questions raised about the nature of humanness and what we are and I was struck—yesterday this very hopeful, beautiful article in The New York Times, front page,—New Signs of Awareness Seen in Some Brain Injured Patients.— —Thousands of brain-damaged people, who were treated as if they're almost completely unaware, may in fact hear and register what is going on around them, but be unable to respond.—And I was struck in particular by the remark of doctor Joy Hirsch who did this research and obviously I don't know anything about Doctor Hirsch, I have complete confidence that she is a good person who cares about her patients, in fact you can hear it in her voice, but she said something, which struck me in connection with this. She said, quote,—The most consequential thing about this—her research—is that we have opened a door, we have found an objective voice for these patients, which tells us they have some cognitive ability in a way they cannot tell us themselves,—- so the MRI is speaking for them—Dr. Hirsch said "The patients are—more human than we imagined in the past.”

LEON WIESELTIER: I thought when I, I have to say that there were some photographs in this exhibition, there was that old woman—I don't remember her name—who was sitting on the right of the picture who was one of the first women to be, I think, gassed in the T-4 program, you know that kind of—that sort of chunky Jewish woman in the floral blouse, there's one, and there were a few others and I looked carefully at their photographs and I actually had the thought that those individuals may not have been, might not have been, were likely not as cognitively disabled as their torturers thought they were and a substantial number of those people who were put to death probably knew much more about what was being done to them than certainly the people who put them to death thought they knew. That their experience of the horror was actually greater than the cold clinical diagnosis that one reads, even if it were true, let's say, would lead one to expect. You know, I think that there are times when one visits dying old people, sometimes in much happier ways, when one visits new babies, one can, you know, there are expressions in people's eyes that tell you that they are intensely alive and that tell you that they are aware of the world around them and so on.

TERRY MORAN: Just one historical footnote, Kerry Beldem [ph], woman who was sterilized with the permission of the United States Supreme Court turned out—she was probably institutionalized because she was raped by her father. There was nothing wrong with her at all.

LEON WIESELTIER: So on that cheerier note—I mean, I guess, the point and if you want the best—you can put it this way that the—when one speaks about the dignity of the human person, one is also speaking about the mystery of the human person. That is to say, dignity is not something, of course, that can be quantitatively measured. Never mind with calipers; of course, not with calipers, but in any way, in any way, when one speaks about the dignity of the human person, one is also saying that that is not just an induction that one makes from any empirical evidence about the human person, that is a priori belief in the character of the human person, in the nature of being human, and it leads one—how should I put it?- it... confers upon one a certain sort of epistemological generosity towards all human beings. And that I think is the point. That I think is the point.

Terry Moran of ABC News interviewed Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor for The New Republic, on February 10, 2005.

Wieseltier explores how the history presented in the exhibit Deadly Medicine can help inform contemporary debate about the complex moral and social issues associated with scientific and technological advances.