Tuesday, August 1, 2017

'Permitting the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life': Brief Excerpts and Remarks on Scale and Scope

Binding and Hoche's book was a seminal work. It placed the question of life and death in a scientific, legal, and political contexts. But the concept of 'life unworthy of life' is normative and is broader and deeper than the medical context to which they applied. The NSDAP and the SS extended and expanded the concept beyond Binding and Hoche's medical scenarios. This greater scale and scope was and remains legitimate.

Binding and Hoche's book, Permitting the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life, was published in 1920 following Binding's death, examines the theoretical, legal, and medical contexts of the question: "When is the state justifiably engaged in the ending of life?" Their answer: When it involves a life that is not worth living. An unworthy life, in their view, is one that burdens both the individual and his community: It involves a forfeiture or a loss of a will to live that is combined with a grave medical affliction or condition, along with the burden it imposes on family and society. In such situations, ending life is praiseworthy. To this end, the state must act to render the desirable possible and feasible.

Binding and Hoche restricted the concept of 'life unworthy of life' to medical contexts, but in particular, cases of terminal illness. They saw the consequences of World War I everywhere in society, including the fatally crippled and terminally ill. Their book proposes cautious and systematic medical review of such cases, and they concluded that the state was saddled with the responsible of carrying out killing when physicians concluded it was necessary. The idea of 'life unworthy of life' was as much informed by the weal and quality of life for society and surrounding individuals as it was of the individual whose life would be under review: A large amount of legal, scientific and psychiatric review.

The scope and scale of the notion of 'life unworthy of life' was extended and broadened by the National-Socialist German Worker's Party, the NSDAP, and by the Schutzstaffel, or S.S. In fact, the use of the concept by the NSDAP and the S.S. offended Hoche, who held that it should only be extended to a careful range of medical cases. Scores of postwar writers in the Anglo-American academic community have given the world limitless commentary on the extent to which the believe that 1) Binding and Hoche themselves embraced a flawed notion and injuriously extended it to medicine, and 2) the NSDAP and S.S. deepened this flawed concept.[1] This view is now almost universal.

A statement can be descriptive or normative. Descriptive statements tell us about the state of the world: What is. Normative claims tell us what ought to be the state of the world: What should be. When we say that a given human life is a 'life unworthy of life,' we are making a normative claim. But normative, or "ought," claims are based on descriptive claims. We see the world has a certain structure, and we rightly infer that some "ought" claims are better than others, in the sense of having better support from the facts. Leftist thinkers have never tired of claiming science cannot give us values and that facts about the natural world cannot provide a basis for political and social "ought" claims.

The reality is that the left, especially the self-described "anti-fascist," is awash in normative, or "ought," claims that are based on a jumble of factual and nonfactual claims. To provide an example, since World War II, the left has based its worldview on a rejection of the reality of race and ethnicity. While supporting liberal immigration to white countries, they argue for the preservation of nonwhite peoples. Vying in favor of their "diversity," they claim that race and ethnicity are only "social constructs." This is only one of many examples that show how distorted their reasoning is. And even still, they demand of the right that it hold itself to a standard that the left, itself, does not even practice.

Every unique people has been given by nature and endless years of struggle distinct ethnic identity that is grounded in a racial constitution. The diversity that we see on Earth grew out of a determination by different peoples to 1) maintain its own homogeneous composition and 2) expand by displacing others and gaining for itself new living space. In natural history, we see a mirroring of this human reality: Species give birth to other species by producing subspecies, and these subspecies become species in their own right if they maintain their own distinctiveness. A natural extension of the evolutionary struggle between biological types is an internal or external willingness to kill.

The extension of the concept of 'life unworthy of life' follows not from the inner validity of its medical scope, but from the primordiality of the concept. Despite their careful restriction of the scope and scale of the concept, Binding and Hoche end with:
There was a time, now considered barbaric, in which eliminating those who were born unfit for life, or who later became so, was taken for granted.
If peoples will rise and fall, some suffering quiet retreat into diminution, countless dying for invisible reasons from industrial to medical to outcomes of market consumption, then we should at least get hold of death and will it on grounds that we have gathered by support of scientific knowledge. It is hypocritical, bizarre, and wretched to face a world in which human unchecked demographic expansion and accept it, knowing that this is causing global, systemic collapses of ecosystems and the disappearance of whole species. We have come to accept it as an axiom that the market will rule our lives and deaths, while dispelling willful encapsulation of death using science and technology.

Source: K. Binding und A. Hoche, Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens (Leipzig, Felix Meiner Verlag: 1920). German here. [1]

Dr. Karl Binding (1841-1920)

Dr. Alfred Hoche (1865-1943)

... Should permissible taking of life be restricted, except in emergency situations, to an individual's act of suicide as it is in current law, or should it be legally extended to the killing of fellow human beings, and under what conditions?

To what extent, then, is killing humans allowed today, again apart from emergency situations, and what is to be understood by this? Recognizing a right to kill would be the opposite of "allowing."


Are there human lives which have so completely lost the attribute of legal status that their continuation has permanently lost all value, both for the bearer of that life and for society?

Merely asking this question is enough to raise an uneasy feeling in anyone who is accustomed to assessing the value of individual life for the bearer and for the social whole. It hurts him to see how we handle the most valuable of lives (filled with and sustained by the strongest will to live and the greatest vital power), and how much labor, power, patience, and capital investment we squander (often totally uselessly) just to preserve lives not worth living - until nature, often pitilessly late, removes the last possibility of their continuation.

Reflect simultaneously on a battlefield strewn with thousands of dead youths, or a mine in which methane gas has trapped hundreds of energetic workers; compare this with our mental hospitals, with their caring for their living inmates. One will be deeply shaken by the strident clash of the sacrifice of the finest flower of humanity in its full measure on the one side, and by the meticulous care shown to existences which are not just absolutely worthless, but even of negative value on the other.

It is impossible to doubt that there are living people to whom death would be a release, and whose death would simultaneously free society and the state from carrying a burden which serves no conceivable purpose, except that of providing an examples of the greatest unselfishness. And because there actually are human lives, in whose preservation no rational being could ever again take any interest, the legal order is now confronted by the fateful question: Is it our duty actively to advocate for this life's asocial continuance (particularly by the fullest application of criminal law) or to permit its destruction under specific conditions? One could also state the question legislatively, like this: Does the energetic preservation of such life deserve preference, as an example of the general unassailability of life? Or does permitting its termination, which frees everyone involved, seem the lesser evil?


But I cannot find the least reason - legally, socially, ethically, or religiously - not to permit those requested to do so to kill such hopeless cases who urgently demand death.


Despite everything, this new question allows only a very slowly unfolding process of change and adjustment. The consciousness of the meaninglessness of merely individual existence when compared with the interests of the whole; the feeling of one's absolute obligation for integrating every available power and discarding all useless tasks; the feeling of being a totally responsible participate in a difficult and painful undertaking: these must all become part of the common understanding to a much greater extent than today before any of the ideas presented here can receive complete recognition.


... Goethe originated the model for how important human questions evolve. He saw them as a spiral. The core of this model is the fact that at regular intervals a spiral line rising in a particular direction perpetually returns to the same position relative to the axis crossing it but each time a step higher.

Eventually, this image will be apparent even in connection with the cultural question we have been discussing. There was a time, now considered barbaric, in which eliminating those who were born unfit for life, or who later became so, was taken for granted. Then came the phrase, continuing into the present, in which, finally, preserving every existence, no matter how worthless, stood as the highest moral value. A new age will arrive - operating with a higher morality and with great sacrifice - which will actually give up the requirements of an exaggerated humanism and overvaluation of mere existence. ...

[1] A good example is "Binding and Hoche's 'Life Unworthy of Life': An Historical Analysis," by Howard Brody and M. Wayne Cooper. They regurgitate the Allied claim that the NSDAP and SS pirated Hoche and Binding's already pseudo-scientific concept.
[2] The English excerpts that I include in this post are cross-referenced with the translation of the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent & Disabled, published in Issues in Law & Medicine, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1992: 231-265.