Can Utilitarianism Ground Human Rights?

10. Objection: Minorities

10.4 Nazi Eugenics Programme

Book cover: Ethics Since 1900 by Mary Warnock

In the previous sub-section, I considered the objection that a utilitarian grounding for human rights would have permitted the Roman Empire's persecution of the Christian minority. I now want to consider another paradigm case of the persecution of minorities that is sometimes claimed to be a counterexample to utilitarianism's respect for human rights. This case is the aggressive eugenics programme started in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century and picked up by the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s. The philosophy underpinning the Nazi programme was that physically, mentally and socially undesirable traits (such as epilepsy, blindness, schizophrenia, homosexuality, poverty and delinquency) were due to a bad genetic constitution. Furthermore, they considered races other than Aryan as genetically inferior. In the U.S. and Germany, thousands of citizens were compulsorily sterilized, with the Nazis regressing later to the wholesale murder of those considered genetically weak. (For a brief overview, see Wikipedia contributors [2023i].)

Here, I will deal with two such criticisms of the role of utilitarian thinking in this horror episode in history. First, I will consider the commentary from physicians Chelouche and Brahmer, and then the critique of Catholic theologian LaChat.

Chelouche and Brahmer

Chelouche and Brahmer [2013: 24] draw the link from utilitarianism to the Nazi horrors as follows.

Utilitarian reasoning was the basis of the Nazi eugenic policies. The Nazi physicians in particular, and the Nazi community in general, did not hold to the view that human life should be respected in all cases. Rather the conviction was that only if human life was one of value to society then it should be respected. Such utilitarian arguments are sometimes evident today.

This criticism is a fundamental misconstrual of utilitarian theory and is repeated throughout their piece. For a utilitarian, all human life ought to be respected in the sense that living humans are the possessors of what is intrinsically good (happiness/well-being). Without a life, there is no happiness and well-being. Secondly, the respect for human life derives not from its value to society, but principally from the value it has for the human being living it. If a human life has value for other members of a society, then that just adds to the value it already has in virtue of it being a happy life.

The Nazi regime judged each human being's usefulness to not just any 'society', but to the German state only. Their eugenics programme was driven by a fanatical nationalism masked in the language of pseudo-scientific Social Darwinism. Chelouche and Brahmer [2013: 9–10] indicate early on how 'German physicians began to elevate service to the state above medical ethics well before the Holocaust' and how they 'promoted policies of racial hygiene'.

Chelouche and Brahmer's confusing usefulness to the state in the service of 'producing a pure Aryan race' with the utilitarian's concern for the welfare of all continues [2013: 10]:

German medicine became an arm of state policy. Nazi physicians failed to see themselves as physicians first, with a calling and an ethic dedicated to healing and caring for the well-being of human beings. Instead, they were seduced into believing that the welfare of the state was to take precedence over their patients, and that the extermination of millions of people was considered as "treatment" for the state.

The 'healing and caring for the well-being of human beings', each one of them considered equally worthy of compassion, lies at the heart of the utilitarian ethic. And yet here the authors portray the opposite, an ultimate concern for the disembodied 'welfare of the state', to encapsulate utilitarian values.

This Nazi concept of 'useful' as 'useful to society' is captured well by Chelouche and Brahmer [2013: 21] in their recounting of Dr. Hermann Pfannmuller's 1939 report, which refers to the institutionalized as 'perfectly useless for social membership in the human community by virtue of their illness'.

Let me make the distinction clear. In utilitarian theory, 'utility' is the sum of the intrinsic values of pleasure (or happiness or welfare or well-being) resulting from an act, practice or institution (see Bentham [1823: ch. 1: III]; University of Minnesota [2011]). The usefulness of the latter is the extent to which it enables and promotes pleasure (or happiness or welfare or well-being) for all. For the Nazis, on the other hand, they considered the usefulness of a human being as the extent to which the person promoted or added to the supremacy of the Aryan race over all others. This ultra-nationalist focus on the health of one nation to the detriment of all others is the antithesis of the universalism inherent in utilitarian moral theory. So, it is perplexing how Chelouche and Brahmer can claim the utilitarian ethic of reducing suffering to the maximum extent possible to be the rationale behind the Nazi's 'perverse ideology of death and suffering' [2013: 11].

The Nazi eugenics programme was modelled on the notions of 'racial hygiene', 'purity' and 'disease'; ideas antithetical to the universal welfarist core of utilitarian thinking. That the Nazis were against universal welfarism is again made clear by Chelouche and Brahmer [2013: 23] in their tracing the eugenics programme's guiding philosophy back to developments after the Great War:

After Germany's defeat in World War I, German scientists and policy makers increasingly began to link eugenics with nationalism and the social "health of the nation." Many research centers were founded to study the field of racial hygiene.

There is no doubt that Hitler was completely deaf and blind to the utilitarians' goal of maximizing well-being for everyone. His anti-utilitarian approach is brought to focus in the dying days of the war. As the Allies were fast approaching his bunker, he issued the order (Nero Decree) to destroy Germany's entire infrastructure, leaving its citizens without transport, food, water and power.

That the Nazis saw 'utility' as that which could be put into the service of their cruel, racist ultra-nationalism and not as the 'utility' defined in utilitarian moral theory should now be clear. Chelouche and Brahmer's critique avoided the relevant task of arguing the case that the involuntary sterilizations and killings of thousands of people who the Nazis deemed degenerate resulted in a net increase in utility; that is, that the increase in misery was outweighed by the increase in happiness. Not even the Nazis believed that fiction. As these authors' account [2013: 18] reveals, the Nazis kept the killings secret:

More than 5,000 children were killed in this first phase of the "euthanasia" program. The program, later expanded to include the murder of adults, was known as Operation T-4. . . . This whole operation was to be kept secret. Death certificates were sent to relatives noting causes of death that were in effect fictitious and chosen from a preselected list. . . . Inevitably such an elaborate system of deceit resulted in human errors which were discovered by the families and their priests.

Whatever state resources were saved in giving up care for the institutionalized was either spent on the administration of the killing machine or went into the war effort to bring death and destruction to Hitler's enemies. Here, I will not attempt to draw the ledger on the sufferings on one side and the benefits on the other of the Nazi eugenics programme. One could start with the future happiness lost for those killed, the sufferings endured by the victims before and during the killings, the anticipatory and realized sufferings of the victims' families and friends. I ask that you do those sums also for those involuntarily sterilized. Add the opportunity cost for the vast resources wasted on planning the implementation and managing the administration of the industrial killing and sterilizing machine. And don't neglect to factor in the multipliers discussed earlier: the law of diminishing marginal utility and the asymmetry between pleasure and suffering (see §10.2 above).

Most significant of all, listen to the stories of the victims of forced sterilization and the murdered victims' families as these are now being heard. (See, for example, Weindling [2020].) Weigh the benefits of the Nazi eugenics programme against their pains and sufferings and the loss of their loved ones.

Chelouche and Brahmer [2013: 11] appeal to the 'principle of autonomy' and the 'right of informed consent', as it is enshrined in modern codes of medical ethics, to act as a bulwark against the possibility of the same crimes repeating. Here, we stand together in promoting the basic human right to life and bodily autonomy. In my earlier review of the history of the development of human rights instruments, the psychology of human needs and the results of international happiness surveys, I showed how the need for freedom to make one's own life choices is an essential ingredient of a happy life well lived.

Chelouche and Brahmer [2013: 28] cite how:

The World Medical Association and the International Federation of Health and Human Rights Organizations (IFHHRO) condemned the practice of coerced sterilization as a form of violence that severely harms the physical and mental health of patients and infringes on their human rights.

A utilitarian can add here that it is an infringement of human rights precisely because it is a form of violence that severely harms the physical and mental health of patients. It is important to note here that Chelouche and Brahmer do not advocate a total prohibition on involuntary sterilizations. Along with contemporary utilitarians, they allow it when it is in 'the best interests of the patient' [2013: 28] and where 'the person is unable to make the decision, or has not made prior statements concerning such eventualities'. The evaluation 'should be made by the family or surrogate with input, if requested, from the physician' [2013: 25].

The patient rights enshrined in The Nuremberg Code (1947) (see British Medical Journal [1996]) and the later biomedical rights declarations deriving from this seminal document set the institutional ground rules for the prevention of the egregious harms that eugenics programmes can inflict when they ignore the fundamental needs of human beings.

In summary, Chelouche and Brahmer's critique of the utilitarian ethic mistakenly conflates the Nazi reverence for the German state and anything that furthers its supremacy with the universalist and welfarist moral philosophy of utilitarianism. Their case that the utilitarian ethic permits the wholesale sterilization and killing of the socially and genetically unfit therefore fails.


Book cover: Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights That Made the Modern West by A. C. Grayling

The second critique I will consider advancing the case that utilitarian thinking is insufficient to defend against the persecution of minorities is from Catholic theologian LaChat. LaChat [1975: 15] describes his purpose thus: 'In this essay we wish to show the extent to which utilitarian reasoning, particularly in its cost-benefits formulation, was incorporated into Nazi medical policy.'

LaChat [1975: 22–3] makes the following strong claim for his historical review of the Nazi racial and eugenic laws debated and legislated in the 1930s:

What they do demonstrate is that utilitarian reasoning, especially in its cost-benefits form, was used extensively to justify the legislation . . . But certainly it can be assumed that many of the listeners and perhaps some of the legislators were people of good will who took the utilitarian calculus to be the most reasonable moral track to take.

Now, what does LaChat take 'utilitarian reasoning' to be? After telling us that the 'origins of the philosophical definition of the term, attributed mainly to Bentham and J. S. Mill, have become obscured to such an extent as to make the word almost vacuous in common parlance' [1975: 15], he gives us a 'working definition':

utilitarianism means that right action is determined solely on the basis of the consequences of the action — that is to say, right action is that which produces the greatest balance of good over bad, or "the greatest good for the greatest number."

What LaChat does not tell us is how it is that the classical utilitarians, Bentham and J. S. Mill, wrote so much only some 200 years before to develop the philosophical theory of utilitarianism and yet the origins have become so 'obscured' that the term is now virtually meaningless. What is this 'good' that utilitarians aim for and this 'bad' that they avoid? LaChat neglects to say that it is pleasure and happiness for the former and pain and suffering for the latter. The classical utilitarians further developed the earlier hedonist tradition in value theory. For the classical utilitarians, what is intrinsically 'good' and intrinsically 'bad' is not an optional add-on in the theory, to be filled in with whatever takes the moralist's fancy. This value theory and the principle of universalisation form a core part of classical utilitarianism and its modern revisions. MacAskill et al [2023] identify clearly the four key elements of utilitarianism: consequentialism, welfarism, impartiality and aggregationism. LaChat, singling out in his 'working definition' only the first of these four elements, hands us but a caricature of what is meant by the theory of 'utilitarianism'.

LaChat's obfuscation of the philosophical term, 'utilitarian', will serve LaChat's purpose well as he moulds the meaning of the term to suit his own ends. It is here that we see LaChat adopting the same strategy of equivocation as Chelouche and Brahmer above. LaChat [1975: 17] quotes approvingly of Gasman's summarising of Nazi influencer Haeckel's emphasis on 'the absolute subordination of the individual to the interest and use of the group':

Conversely, the survival of the individual was of no importance. Life itself was only of relative value and depended solely on the usefulness of the individual organism to its own species and to the evolution of life in general. No individual was of unique value in himself . . .

[Gasman 1971]

The utilitarian's principle of impartiality and their upholding of the intrinsic value of each individual's happiness is the direct antithesis of Haeckel's Social Darwinism. The game is given away only a few lines down where LaChat recounts how Haeckel 'raved against bourgeois democratic egalitarianism and liberalism'. Haeckel here is referring to the exact same bourgeois democratic egalitarians and liberals in the likes of Bentham and J. S. Mill, who LaChat [1975: 15] earlier correctly identified as the originators of what they termed 'utilitarianism'.

On the next page, LaChat [1975: 18–19] calls into service the classical utilitarian's appeal to the greatest good to equate it with what he takes to be an example of 'Utilitarian ethical reasoning': 'The Nazis and the proto-Nazis before them were in pursuit, as Gasman noticed, of the "greatest possible biological fitness of the nation . . ."' Again, maximizing the biological fitness of the nation is the principle aim of fanatical ultra-nationalists holding to a 'hygiene' theory of morality, and not that of utilitarians, especially if achieving this 'fitness' entails a world of pain and misery for all except the super race.

This obfuscation continues to the end where LaChat [1975: 29] tries to draw the link between contemporary contributions of utilitarians to modern bioethics to the Nazi eugenics programme. He asks:

Does a purely utilitarian calculus carry within it something akin to a conception of a "perfect man" (or woman) — that is, one of "greatest use" to the community — by which "defectives" are measured and found lacking and therefore unworthy of living?

The answer is: No. Not if one means by 'utilitarian' what is meant in the literature on moral theory from the time of the classical utilitarians in the seventeenth century. Even Chelouche and Brahmer [2013: 12] are careful not to associate any current-day bioethicists with Nazi thinking when they write:

However, we want to emphasize that by analyzing the moral arguments that can be learned by studying the lessons of the Nazi medicine, we are not suggesting that any moral or ethical present day bioethics discourse, or opinion, is in any way morally equivalent to the Nazi doctors.

LaChat has a problem in that the Nazis adopted the commonly accepted philosophical meaning of 'utilitarianism' and expressly rejected it as a moral theory. This does not sit at all well with LeChat's mission to show that the Nazi eugenics programme was motivated by utilitarian thinking.

How does he deal with this problem? LaChat [1975: 16] recognized that 'the Nazis themselves condemned utilitarianism as a rule (usually as being "bourgeois") but had the remarkable and somewhat paradoxical habit of appealing to it fairly often in justifying their own thought'. I suggest that the paradox disappears once one accepts that the Nazis used the term 'utilitarianism' correctly as generally understood.

Further on, LaChat [1975: 23] quotes Nazi Kurt Gauger fuming against 'the liberalistic-materialistic world-view, with its goal of the "greatest happiness for the greatest possible number"'. For this, LaChat [1975: 23] poses a quandary:

If one were not to consider that the Nazis were in some part motivated by utilitarian reasoning one would have to explain a paradoxical fact — namely, that many Nazis who condemned implicitly or explicitly the "Utilitarianism" of the western democracies themselves used the form of ethical reasoning extensively.

Book cover: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

Again, there is no paradox to worry over if one does not accept LeChat's mistaken thesis that the Nazis relied on utilitarian reasoning to justify their programme of eugenics and wholesale murder. It only becomes a paradox for LaChat because he wants to appropriate and warp the term 'utilitarianism' for his own agenda against contemporary utilitarians.

If one were to look for which moral theory lay at the base of the Nazi eugenics programme, there are more fruitful places to look than to utilitarianism.[19] Those familiar with the history of Nazism recognize how central the notions of absolute obedience to the German state and racial purity are in Nazi propaganda. Using Haidt and Joseph's [Haidt 2012: ch. 5] moral foundations theory as a schemata, then, one could easily argue that the Nazi's moral sentiments were much more bedded in the 'loyalty/betrayal', 'authority/subversion' and 'sanctity/degradation' foundations. In the Nazi universe, loyalty to the state and to Hitler is paramount. For support, one can point to Hitler's [1925: 127f] pronouncement that 'the most essential condition for the establishment and maintenance of a State is a certain feeling of solidarity, wounded in an identity of character and race and in a resolute readiness to defend these at all costs'.

Nazi propaganda is replete with references to sanctity and cleansing. On eugenics in particular, Hitler urged that the 'germs' of the 'physically degenerate or mentally diseased' must be eliminated through sterilization [1925: 315] in order to perform the 'most sacred duty' to preserve the 'purity of the racial blood' [1925: 313]. The least significant moral aspect one ought to associate the Nazi eugenics programme with is the utilitarian concern for care expressed in Haidt and Joseph's 'care/harm' foundation. This foundation is far too 'bourgeois', 'liberal' and 'weak' for the Nazi purifying machine.

Nazism is also strong on the moral centrality of duty; the citizen's uncompromising duty to the German State, the duty of parents to bear racially pure children, and so on. With this emphasis on duty, perhaps there is a stronger case for linking the Nazi eugenics programme to deontological ethics than to utilitarianism. In riling against the right of the 'most depraved degenerates to propagate themselves', Hitler appealed to Germans to do their 'most sacred duty [so] that the purity of the racial blood should be guarded' [1925: 313]. He further emphasized the pre-eminence of duty: 'The right to personal freedom comes second in importance to the duty of maintaining the race' [1925: 201]. Again, Hitler makes the duty to produce fit offspring a religious imperative when he appeals to every German citizen's 'bounden duty to give to the Almighty Creator beings such as He himself made to His own image' [1925: 316].

Hitler and the Nazi regime very much emphasized the importance of developing the right virtues in youth through proper education. So, one could also make the case that the Nazi eugenics programme relied on virtue ethics. Again, the inculcation of virtues is placed within a religious frame. Hitler appealed to 'heroic virtues' in ridding the state of 'parasites' [1925: 127f, 323f] and invoked the 'Divine Will' against the 'sin' of allowing the 'weaker' to live [1925: 113, 223f]. Where a Nazi leader expressly complains about one of the moral philosophies I've offered here (deontology, virtue ethics, religious ethics), the critic, in LaChat fashion, can simply generate a 'paradox' requiring more research.

LaChat's favoured moral philosophy is Natural Law theory. Now, one could repeat the above method of analysis to show how the Nazi eugenics programme was driven by this moral theory. One could point to how Hitler emphasized the 'obligations imposed on them by Nature' [1925: 312] and how it is 'the natural law . . . that the stronger must overcome the weaker' and 'be destined to fulfil the great mission' [1925: 274]. Any counterexamples to this conclusion could be deflected again by generating a 'paradox' requiring a future solution.

If LaChat objects that the Nazi notion of 'Natural Law' is very different to LaChat's Thomistic notion, one could retort that the 'origins of the philosophical definition of the term . . . have become obscured to such an extent as to make the word almost vacuous in common parlance' [LaChat 1975: 15]. To remedy this increasing obscurity from the time of Aquinas, one could offer a new 'working definition' that easily encompasses the Nazi's use of the term.

Now, I'm not saying that the Nazi eugenics programme was founded on deontological ethics or virtue ethics or Natural Law theory. What I am trying to show is that it is all too easy for a critic to focus on some central concept in a moral theory, such as 'usefulness', 'duty', 'virtue' or 'natural law', pick out instances where that same term is used in some Nazi speeches and writings and then claim that the classical or modern versions of the moral theory are implicated in Nazi horrors.

What I was expecting in LaChat's essay was some work in showing how applying one or more of the classical or contemporary versions of the utilitarian calculus vindicates the Nazi eugenics programme on a utilitarian's own terms. LaChat [1975: 20] refers to the work of Nazi Professor Fetscher, writing in 1933 of 'a family in which five out of eight children were idiots. They have cost the community more than 58;000 marks ($13,804)'. And in a section titled, Sterilization: The Cost-Benefit Analysis [1975: 21], LaChat recounts how in 1934 the Nazi Federal Bureau of Statistics 'gave an estimate of expenses and savings for the sterilization of men and of women'.

However, LaChat makes no attempt to add into the calculation what any classical or contemporary utilitarian would add in in order to demonstrate the utility or disutility of the Nazi programme. LaChat fails to mention, let alone attempt to quantify, the various significant disbenefits of the programme. He fails to account for the value of the murdered people's lives to themselves, their family and all others impacted. Nor does he attempt to count the significant costs of mistakes, premature deaths, corruption and general fear among the population over whether they will be counted next as genetically or socially unfit. LaChat [1975: 25] does make reference to this general fear of the population, but appears to think it of no relevance to a utilitarian. The omission of these significant disbenefits by LaChat is akin to counting the savings won from the federal government halting its printing of money while ignoring the significant disbenefits accruing from taking money out of the economy.

These overriding disbenefits highlight why the right to life and liberty and the right to bodily autonomy are so crucial to recognize. Once a government can decide who is socially unfit for life and procreation, corruption creeps in with other social groups targeted; political opponents, criminals, sexual 'deviants', and so on. Here again, LaChat [1975: 26] recognizes this scope for corruption and yet does not include this inescapable risk as a disbenefit that utilitarians factor in.

Both Chelouche and Brahmer on the one hand, and LaChat on the other, make no real attempt to link philosophically or ideologically the 'utilitarianism' of the Nazis to what is understood by 'utilitarian' moral philosophy since well before the rise of the Nazi regime. Chelouche, Brahmer and LaChat commit, I think, a serious error of equivocation. In their own ways, they put up a straw man of 'utilitarianism' that they can easily knock down.

Book cover: Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill

Far from utilitarian moral theory encouraging the persecution of minorities, I have tried to show that utilitarianism can provide a thoroughgoing defence of the rights of minorities to the full set of freedoms and social benefits owed everyone else. Historically, utilitarians were at the forefront of campaigning for the rights of minorities and other persecuted groups. As examples, Bentham advocated decriminalizing homosexuality, abolishing slavery and banning the cruel treatment of prisoners and animals. J. S. Mill campaigned resolutely for women's equality and for social welfare for the poor. Sidgwick, another prominent utilitarian, advocated against religious tests for public office and for the admission of women into universities.

J. S. Mill [1863: ch. 5: 60] can be regarded as presaging and pushing back against the Nazi notion of racial priority while appealing to history's longer march towards greater inclusion when he wrote:

The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatised injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of colour, race, and sex.

This tradition of advocating for equal consideration for the disenfranchised continues today with many utilitarians campaigning for penal reform, wage justice for the poor, abolition of factory farms and mitigating the corruption of democracies by populists.


  1. [19] I grant LaChat credit for pointing to the sins of many high-ranking Catholics in supporting the Nazi eugenics and racial purity programme on cost-benefit grounds (LaChat [1975: 18]) and to the easing of restrictions on Catholic nuns assisting in sterilizations on grounds of "expedience" [1975: 27]). However, this Catholic expediency went right to the top with Pope Pius XII's Concordat with Hitler to save the power base of the Vatican and the helping with safe passage to South America of many Nazi war criminals at the end of the war (see, for example, University of Nebraska at Omaha [2023]). I can't help but note the hypocrisy in LaChat's attempts to link Nazi thinking with utilitarian theory.

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