March 3, 2024

Old generalizations never die

The best-known words of America’s World War II hero, General Douglas MacArthur, could be usefully paraphrased for bioethics: old generalizations never die; they just promise to return. Take eugenics. Nowadays coercive eugenics is universally reviled (although the consumer-driven kind probably has a bright future). Nonetheless, as if law-enforcement officials had never heard of the Nazis or compulsory sterilization campaigns in the US, there are constant reports of prosecutors using sterilization in plea bargains. 

Or take the notion of “born criminals”, people whose biology destines them for a life of social deviance. That is the repudiated theory of Cesare Lombroso and other 19th century criminologists. They detected criminal tendencies in sloping foreheads and left-handedness. But the idea keeps bobbing to the surface, this time (as we report below), repainted as a genetic predisposition to sex-offending.

I suppose that another reason why bioethicists need a clear philosophical framework. Otherwise they will scud before the prevailing breeze. 

Michael Cook
Myths die hard.