Avoiding Moral Fads?

(content warning: murder, medical abuse)

A few years ago, my old middle school and another school in its district were renamed; they had originally been named after once-esteemed educational figures who were now in disrepute thanks in large part to their links to eugenics. I believe at the time I may have thought that it was odd that the schools had not been renamed sooner—eugenics had already been discredited for decades at that point.

But at the time that these men lived, eugenics was not discredited. In fact, it was extremely popular. While eventually things changed, much of society was taken in first—with terrible consequences. Unjust laws were passed based on eugenic principles in many nations, perhaps most notably in Nazi Germany. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed under government eugenics programs while hundreds of thousands more were involuntarily sterilized. Nowadays these acts are widely viewed as murder and abuse, but it took society some time to reach that conclusion and in the meantime things went pretty badly.

Worse still, eugenics is not the only such disgrace. You may well have heard of the lobotomy, an invasive medical procedure that is now widely viewed as destructive and abusive. However, when the lobotomy was first developed, its creator was not condemned as a medical abuser and removed from his position—in fact, he received the Nobel Prize for his creation! Tens of thousands of people were lobotomized before lobotomies became viewed as abusive and were banned or greatly restricted in many jurisdictions.

Similarly, there was an extended period in the 1980s and 1990s where many scientists and media figures believed that techniques known as “recovered memory therapy” were helping people recover suppressed memories of abuse they had actually suffered as children—now the general view is that this therapy was creating false memories, not bringing hidden true ones to the surface. Unfortunately, before recovered memory therapy was discredited its “revelations” led to many people being falsely accused of child abuse and in some cases even Satanic activity, and some had their reputations destroyed or were unjustly imprisoned on the basis of these “recovered” memories.

All three of these cases—eugenics, lobotomies, and recovered memory therapy—are instances where bad moral and medical thinking led to grave abuses. Worse still, all of them were popular within the last hundred years—one doesn’t exactly have to go back to the days of bloodletting and trepanation to find these sorts of errors.

To me, this seems to suggest a worrisome problem. How are we to know that we aren’t making similar errors today? What can we do to try and protect ourselves from these sorts of mistakes?

There is a famous work called “Who Goes Nazi” that asks one to consider who among one’s acquaintances would be likely to support the Nazi regime. (It was written in 1941 when this was very much a live concern.) I don’t think rationalists or Effective Altruists would have been taken in much by the Nazis, but I worry that when it comes to whether we would have supported eugenics, many of us might have failed the test—after all, this was very much scientific and medical orthodoxy at the time.

To put things another way, I think a lot of us wouldn’t be fooled by demagogues but that scientific/​medical misconduct might be something else. I’m curious whether anyone has especially good ideas or suggestions as to how best to think about these things—ideally I would like to be able to say “EA is the kind of movement that wouldn’t have supported eugenics even when many scientists and doctors did”, but I don’t feel confident in that statement at this time.

(I should clarify also that this is not meant as an insult, but rather as a case for moral examination and reflection.)