Pool Filter

In response to yesterday’s item about punitive sterilization, a reader e-mails:

I think maybe the main problems are that it is an extreme punishment, taking away an obviously fundamental “right,” and the irreversibility issue in a world of inaccurate justice. In that regard, it is outside the penal philosophy of “rehabilitation,” … which should be part of any criminal justice system.

I suppose the eugenics problem comes from identifying “bad” genes. … I don’t know that I have any problem with temporary sterilization. I don’t want to take the time to think through the tension between people whose crimes are so bad they’re going to be locked up forever (in which case they wouldn’t seem to need sterilization) and people somehow deserving of being sterilized forever. Probably it requires too fine a moral judgment of the convicted: that they are capable of posing no threat to society, but some combination of their genes and child-raising skills would still result in such danger.

Good comments. Perhaps the topic isn’t as beyond-the-pale as I had thought it was.

It does seem clear enough that problem of who gets to decide what constitutes “degeneracy” is central to the modern rejection of eugenics generally (that and of course the tendency to distance ourselves from anything that the Nazis were enthusiastic about). But it seemed clear enough, though, in the heady early days of Progressivism, that by any measure you chose there were those who fell far short, and whose offspring would do the same — and that for an enlightened humanity to move into what were imagined to be the “broad, sunlit uplands” that awaited it there were a great many people who would, as H.G. Wells put it, “have to go”, lest the intrinsically valuable segments of the human community be outbred by the teeming rabble, and the noble human adventure dragged down by their sheer dull weight.

Well, the breeding part seems to be going along nicely — the world is bursting at the seams — but eugenics is not on either party’s platform this election cycle, as far as I can make out, nor is it likely to be, for understandable reasons. It is simply untenable in the modern moral climate for people in positions of governmental or academic power to arrogate to themselves the authority to judge the reproductive fitness of others, based on nothing more than a perception of inherent inferiority. Things have certainly changed since 1914, when E.A. Ross, a prominent sociologist and economist who saw the various human groups as representing different stages of evolution, wrote the following (as quoted by David M. Kennedy in The Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1996):

Observe immigrants not as they come travel-wan up the gang-plank, nor as they issue toil-begrimed from pit’s mouth or mill-gate, but in their gatherings, washed, combed, and in their Sunday best. . . . [They] are hirsute, low-browed, big-faced persons of obviously low mentality. . . . They simply look out of place in black clothes and stiff collar, since clearly they belong in skins, in wattled huts at the close of the Great Ice Age. These ox-like men are descendants of those who always stayed behind.

But while eugenic sorting and winnowing of the general population may be off the table, punitive sterilization is another matter, if reserved for recidivist or particularly vicious criminals. The very purpose of criminal law is to make objective (we hope) judgments about the accused’s place in society, and it is an uncontroversial fact that the offspring of career criminals are far more likely to end up in prison themselves. We take a chance on such offenders when they are released from prison: rehabilitation, though a noble goal, is an optimistic one. One can make a reasonable case that society has a legitimate interest in limiting the harm such folks can do in future to what they can manage on their own, and in their own lifetimes, rather than being able also to unleash copies of themselves upon the world.

This is a delicate topic, to put it mildly; I think that’s enough for now.

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