Chesterton: Eugenics and Other Evils

June 12, 2012

Eugenics and Other Evils
G.K. Chesterton
(Ignatius, 1987) [1922]
123 p.

This short book was written at a time when eugenics was a fashionable idea in progressive circles. It is one of Chesterton’s command performances as a moralist: passionate, probing, and courageous. Knowing, as we now do, where the eugenics movement was headed, we cannot but admire his foresight. The book is a big, beautiful feather in his cap. Yet I am surprised to discover that the force of its arguments, when applied to our contemporary debates, is rather blunted.

At the time, the eugenics programs being proposed, and later practiced, were public, centralized, coercive, and directed (ostensibly) to the common good. They were government programs, intended to improve the health and well-being of the human race — or, at least, that part of it falling within a particular state’s jurisdiction — through selective breeding and sterilization. Today such proposals are rightly viewed with horror.

Horror, yes, but of a complicated sort, for we carry on a rather similar campaign ourselves, quietly eliminating from society certain traits deemed undesirable, not by “improving the gene pool”, exactly, but rather by deploying technologies to identify unborn children with undesirable traits and ending their lives before they see the light of day. One might quibble over whether this is rightly called eugenics; personally I think that the designation is defensible. We practice, to borrow a formulation from Ross Douthat, “the elimination or pre-emption, through careful reproductive planning, of the weaker members of the human species”, which seems to me an apt definition of eugenics.

Yet it must be admitted that the two cases, Chesterton’s and ours, are different in significant respects. Our methods are private, distributed, optional, and individualist. When we consider Chesterton’s specific arguments and their applicability today, these are differences enough to make a difference.

One of the points, for instance, that Chesterton stresses is that a state-run eugenics program strips men and women of the right to manage their own affairs. A successful eugenics program will assert control over who may marry and whom they may marry. It will specify who is and is not permitted to have children. In so doing, government vastly oversteps its proper limits. “Government has become ungovernable; that is, it cannot leave off governing,” he says. Likewise he questions who will exercise the authority to oversee the eugenics project, and foresees that it will tend toward tyranny, putting immense political power into the hands of an elite few.

In our case, on the other hand, there is no overseeing authority. Parents themselves implement the “program”. Far from wresting decision-making power away from parents, our governments cede them a wide latitude, to the point that even if they, discovering some defect or other, however slight, in their unborn child, wish to end his or her young life, the state will not interfere. I do not know if Chesterton ever foresaw such a state of affairs; if he did, he did not write about it here.

He also argued that ignorance of the nature of heredity precluded a eugenics program from being implemented in a responsible way. He accused advocates of eugenics of, in effect, wishing to experiment on the public. Obviously our understanding of genetics and heredity has increased vastly in the meantime, to the point where one could begin to plausibly argue that, contra Chesterton, the thing might be done with reason and a fair degree of efficiency.

Or, again, he argues that eugenics overturns our moral traditions by making us principally responsible for how our actions affect future generations, rather than how they affect those immediately around us. “What can we do for posterity, except deal fairly with our contemporaries?” he asks. But today nobody pretends that we especially care about future generations; our motives are selfish: we do as we do for convenience and on the basis of our personal desires.

Yet there are some respects in which Chesterton’s arguments do bear on the present. For one, he forthrightly denounces eugenics as a war upon the weak and the unwanted. We can certainly do the same, particularly considering the means that we use. He also makes a keen point about the haziness of the guiding idea for eugenics: if we are aiming at “health”, what is health? It is, he says, not really anything in particular at all, but rather a balance of interdependent factors. So too, we do well to ask ourselves whether we are quite sure what we want.

In the end, Chesterton attributed a mean motive to those most involved in promoting the eugenics programs that he knew: to gain control over the family lives of the poor in order to better fit them for the economic and political aims of the elite. He saw it, essentially, as a social engineering program. We have had plenty of that medicine in the meantime, but nothing, I think, quite so bold and monstrous.


A sidelight: Chesterton outlined a taxonomy of those who lent their support to the eugenics movement of his day, and it is too good to pass over in silence. It could be applied with equal aptness to a great many contemporary movements.

First, there are the Euphemists. “Short words startle them, while long words soothe them”. If one says to them, says Chesterton, “It is not improbable that a period may arrive when the narrow if once useful distinction between the anthropoid homo and the other animals, which has been modified on so many moral points, may be modified also in regard to the important question of the extension of human diet”, they may nod placidly, but say to them, “Let’s eat a man!” and they are shocked. I dare say that euphemists are rather thick on the ground today.

Next are the Casuists, the finders of specious analogies. “Suppose I say “I dislike this spread of Cannibalism in the West End restaurants.” Somebody is sure to say “Well, after all, Queen Eleanor when she sucked blood from her husband’s arm was a cannibal.” What is one to say to such people?” The question is rhetorical, but today we would probably say that they should spend less time debating on the internet.

The Autocrats follow. These are the people who suppose that they can control the consequences of the principles they promote and the laws they enact. It is a beguiling fantasy.

Precedenters are those who fail to see radicalism when it presents itself simply because it shares some element in common with past practice. Again, contemporary examples spring readily to mind.

Finally there are those whom Chesterton christens Endeavourers, those souls who believe that good intentions will be enough to ensure a good outcome. It is a lovely thought, is it not?

[How to think about eugenics]
I know that it means very different things to different people; but that is only because evil always takes advantage of ambiguity. I know it is praised with high professions of idealism and benevolence; with silver-tongued rhetoric about purer motherhood and a happier posterity. But that is only because evil is always flattered, as the Furies were called “The Gracious Ones.” I know that it numbers many disciples whose intentions are entirely innocent and humane; and who would be sincerely astonished at my describing it as I do. But that is only because evil always wins through the strength of its splendid dupes; and there has in all ages been a disastrous alliance between abnormal innocence and abnormal sin. Of these who are deceived I shall speak of course as we all do of such instruments; judging them by the good they think they are doing, and not by the evil which they really do. But Eugenics itself does exist for those who have sense enough to see that ideas exist; and Eugenics itself, in large quantities or small, coming quickly or coming slowly, urged from good motives or bad, applied to a thousand people or applied to three, Eugenics itself is a thing no more to be bargained about than poisoning.

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