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On Being Silenced in Germany

  1. Quote a few passages from Practical Ethics selected so as to distort the book’s meaning.

  2. Express horror that anyone can say such things.

  3. Make a sneering jibe at the idea that this could pass for philosophy.

  4. Draw a parallel between what has been quoted and what the Nazis thought or did.

But it is also essential to observe one negative aspect of the formula:

  1. Avoid discussing any of the following dangerous questions: Is human life to be preserved to the maximum extent possible? If not, in cases in which the patient cannot and never has been able to express a preference, how are decisions to discontinue treatment to be made, without an evaluation of the patient’s quality of life? What is the moral significance of the distinction between bringing about a patient’s death by withdrawing treatment necessary to prolong life and bringing it about by active intervention? Why is advocacy of euthanasia for severely disabled infants so much worse than advocacy of abortion on request that the same people can oppose the right even to discuss the former, while themselves advocating the latter?

The irony about the recent publications, of course, is that even those who are highly critical of my own position do, by publishing their books and articles, foster a climate of debate about the topic. Even Franz Christoph, despite chaining his wheelchair to the offices of Die Zeit because they published reports of my views on euthanasia, has now published his own book on the topic. At the outset he protests vigorously that his book is not a contribution to the debate about euthanasia, but a book against this debate; it is self-evident, though, that one cannot publish a book on whether or not to have a debate on euthanasia without stimulating thought among one’s readers and reviewers about the issue of euthanasia itself.18

The negative aspects of these events are, unfortunately, probably more weighty. Most threatening of all are the incidents described at the beginning of this essay, and the atmosphere of repression and intimidation that they have evoked. Anyone who offers a course based on Practical Ethics in Germany now risks the same protests and personal attacks that Professor Kliemt faced in Duisburg. One Berlin philosopher told me recently that it is not possible to offer a course in applied ethics in that city—whether or not it makes reference to my book—because such a course would be bound to be disrupted.

A sinister aspect of this atmosphere is a kind of self-censorship among German publishers. It has proven extraordinarily difficult to find a publisher to undertake a German edition of Should the Baby Live?, the updated and more comprehensive account of my views (and those of my coauthor Helga Kuhse) on the treatment of severely disabled newborn infants. In view of the current controversy, there seems no doubt that a German edition of the book would have good commercial prospects. Yet one after another, German publishers have declined to publish it, even after it had been recommended by editors whose advice they normally accept without hesitation.

For those interested in studying or teaching bioethics or applied ethics in Germany, the consequences are much more serious still. Because he had invited me to lecture at the University of Dortmund, Professor Christoph Anstötz became the target of a hostile campaign aimed at having him dismissed from his teaching duties. Petitions were circulated and letters written to the minister of science and research for the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen, in which Dortmund is situated. These letters were signed by both teachers and students in special education. Although Professor Anstötz has a tenured position from which it would scarcely be possible for him to be dismissed, the government took the complaints seriously enough to ask him to explain why he had invited me, and what implications he drew from my ethical position for his work in special education.

Throughout this campaign, the rector of the University of Dortmund and his office remained silent. The highest officers of the university took no action to indicate their concern that threats of protest had forced an academic lecture to be canceled; nor did they come to the defense of one of their professors when he was under attack for inviting a colleague to give a lecture on the campus of the university. That was typical of the reaction of German professors. There was no strong reaction among them on behalf of academic freedom. With a handful of exceptions, Anstötz’s colleagues in special education either joined the campaign against him, or remained silent. A number of philosophers signed declarations of support for the principle of free debate, and one of these was published in the Berlin newspaper taz.19 At Professor Meggle’s instigation, 180 members of the German Philosophical Association signed a similar declaration, but the association has since failed to publish the list of the signers, despite giving an undertaking to do so.

All this does not augur well for the future of rational discussion of controversial new ethical issues in Germany and Austria. Outside the German-speaking nations, study and discussion of bioethics is expanding rapidly, in response to the recognition of the need for ethical consideration of the many new issues raised by developments in medicine and the biological sciences. Other fields of applied ethics, such as the status of animals, questions of global justice and resource distribution, environmental ethics and business ethics, are also getting much attention. In Germany and Austria, however, it now takes real courage to do work in applied ethics, and even more courage to publish something that is likely to come under the hostile scrutiny of those who want to stop debate. Academics who do not have a permanent university position must fear not merely personal attack, but also the diminished opportunity to pursue an academic career. The events in Hamburg cast a cloud over the prospects of university posts opening up in these fields. If there are no posts to be obtained, graduate students will avoid working on questions of applied ethics, for there is no sense in studying matters that offer no prospect of employment. There is even a danger that in order to avoid controversy, analytic philosophy as a whole will suffer a setback. At the present time, a large number of new university positions are being created in the universities of the former German Democratic Republic. Philosophers interested in analytic philosophy are concerned that these positions may all go to philosophers working on less sensitive subjects, for example, to those who concentrate on historical studies, or to followers of Habermas who have generally kept quiet about these sensitive ethical issues and about the obstacles to debating them in Germany today.

Germans of course are still struggling to deal with their past, and the German past is one which comes close to defying rational understanding. There is, however, a peculiar tone of fanaticism about some sections of the German debate over euthanasia that goes beyond normal opposition to Nazism, and instead begins to seem like the very mentality that made Nazism possible. To see this attitude at work, let us look not at euthanasia, but at an issue that is, for the Germans, closely related to it and just as firmly taboo: the issue of eugenics. Because the Nazis practiced eugenics, anything in any way related to genetic engineering in Germany is now smeared with Nazi associations. This attack embraces the rejection of prenatal diagnosis, when followed by selective abortion of fetuses with Down’s syndrome, spina bifida, or other defects, and even leads to criticism of genetic counseling designed to avoid the conception of children with genetic defects. It has also led to the German parliament unanimously passing a law that prohibits all non-therapeutic experimentation on the human embryo. The British parliament, by contrast, recently passed by substantial majorities in both chambers a law that allows nontherapeutic embryo experimentation up to fourteen days after fertilization.

To understand how bizarre this situation is, readers in English-speaking countries must remind themselves that this opposition comes not, as it would in our countries, from right-wing conservative and religious groups, but from the left. Since women’s organizations are prominent among the opposition to anything that smacks of eugenics, and also are in the forefront of the movement to defend the right to abortion, the issue of prenatal diagnosis gives rise to an obvious problem in German feminist circles. The accepted solution seems to be that a woman should have the right to an abortion, but not to an abortion based on accurate information about the future life-prospects of the fetus she is carrying.20

The rationale for this view is, at least, consistent with the rationale for opposition to euthanasia: it is the idea that no one should ever judge one life to be less worth living than another. To accept prenatal diagnosis and selective abortion, or even to select genetic counseling aimed at avoiding the conception of infants with extreme genetic abnormalities, is seen as judging that some lives are less worth living than others. To this the more militant groups of disabled people take offense; it suggests, they maintain, that they should not have been allowed to come into existence, and thus denies their right to life.

This is, of course, a fallacy. It is one thing to hold that we may justifiably take steps to ensure that the children we bring into the world do not face appalling obstacles to living a minimally decent life, and a quite different thing to deny to a living person who wants to go on living the right to do just that. If the suggestion, on the other hand, is that whenever we seek to avoid having severely disabled children, we are improperly judging one kind of life to be worse than another, we can reply that such judgments are both necessary and proper. To argue otherwise would seem to suggest that if we break a leg, we should not get it mended, because in doing so we judge the lives of those with crippled legs to be less worth living than our own.21 For people to believe such a fallacious argument is bad enough; what is really frightening, however, is that people believe in it with such fanaticism that they are prepared to use force to suppress any attempt to discuss it.

If this is the case with attempts to discuss practices like genetic counseling and prenatal diagnosis, which are today very widely accepted in most developed countries, it is easy to imagine that the shadow of Nazism prevents any rational discussion of anything that relates to euthanasia. It avails little to point out that what the Nazis called “euthanasia” had nothing to do with compassion or concern for those who were killed, but was simply the murder of people considered unworthy of living from the racist viewpoint of the German Volk. Such distinctions are altogether too subtle for those who are convinced that they alone know what will prevent a revival of Nazi-like barbarism.

Can anything be done? In May this year, in Zurich, I had one of the most unpleasant experiences yet in this unhappy story; but it gave, at the same time, a glimmer of hope that there may be a remedy.

I was invited by the Zoological Institute of the University of Zurich to give a lecture on “Animal Rights.” On the following day, the philosophy department had organized a colloquium for twenty-five invited philosophers, theologians, special educationalists, zoologists, and other academics to discuss the implications for both humans and animals of an ethic that would reject the view that the boundary of our species marks a moral boundary of great intrinsic significance, and holds that nonhuman animals have no rights.

The lecture on animal rights did not take place. Before it began, a group of disabled people in wheelchairs, who had been admitted to the flat area at the front of the lecture theater, staged a brief protest in which they said that, while it was all the same to them whether or not I lectured on the topic of animal rights, they objected to the fact that the University of Zurich had invited such a notorious advocate of euthanasia to discuss ethical issues that also concerned the disabled. At the end of this protest, when I rose to speak, a section of the audience—perhaps a quarter or a third—began to chant: “Singer raus! Singer raus!” As I heard this chanted, in German, by people so lacking in respect for the tradition of reasoned debate that they were unwilling even to allow me to make a response to what had just been said about me, I had an overwhelming feeling that this was what it must have been like to attempt to reason against the rising tide of Nazism in the declining days of the Weimar Republic. The difference was that the chant would have been, not “Singer raus,” but “Juden raus.” An overhead projector was still functioning, and I began to write on it, to point out this parallel that I was feeling so strongly. At that point one of the protesters came up behind me and tore my glasses from my face, throwing them on the floor and breaking them.

My host wisely decided to abandon the lecture; there was nothing else that could be done. But from this distressing affair came one good sign; it was clear that the disabled people who had made the initial protest were distressed with what had happened afterward. Several said that they had not intended that the lecture should be disrupted; they had, in fact, prepared questions to ask during the discussion period that would have followed the lecture. Even while the chanting was going on, some attempted to begin a discussion with me; at which point some of the able-bodied demonstrators (presumably well aware of the way in which in Saarbrücken a discussion had broken through the initial hostility toward me) urgently remonstrated with them not to talk to me. The disabled, however, clearly had no power to do anything about the chanting.

As already noted, my views in no way threaten anyone who is, or ever has been, even minimally aware of the fact that he or she has a possible future life that could be threatened. But there are some who have a political interest in preventing this elementary fact from becoming known. These people are now playing on the anxieties of the disabled in order to use them as a political front for different purposes. In Zurich, for instance, prominent among the nondisabled people chanting “Singer raus” were the Autonomen, or “Autonomists,” a group that affects an anarchist style but disdains any interest in anarchist theory. For these nondisabled political groups, preventing Singer from speaking, no matter what the topic, has become an end in itself, a way of rallying the faithful and striking at the entire system in which rational debate takes place. Disabled people have nothing to gain, and much to lose, by allowing themselves to be used by such nihilistic groups. If they can be brought to see that their interests are better served by an open discussion with those whose views they oppose, it may be possible to begin a process in which both bioethicists and the disabled address the proper concerns of the other side, and move to a dialogue that is constructive rather than destructive.

Such a dialogue would be only a beginning. To heal the damage done to bioethics and applied ethics in Germany will take much longer. There is a real danger that the atmosphere of intimidation and intolerance which has spread from the issue of euthanasia to all of bioethics, and with the events in Hamburg, to applied ethics in general, will continue to broaden. It is essential that the minority that is actively opposing the free discussion of academic ideas be isolated. Here too, what happened in Zurich may serve as an example for other German-speaking countries to follow. In sharp contrast to the silence of the rector of the University of Dortmund, or the fatuous claim that “We didn’t know at all who that was” of the dean of medicine at the University of Vienna, Professor H. H. Schmid, rector of the University of Zurich, issued a statement expressing the university’s “outrage over this grave violation of academic freedom of speech.”22 The professors of the Zoological Institute and the dean of the Faculty of Science have also unequivocally condemned the disruption, and the major German-language newspapers in Zurich gave objective coverage to the events and to my views.23

Meanwhile Germans and Austrians, both in academic life and in the press, have shown themselves sadly lacking in the commitment exemplified by the celebrated utterance attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” No one has, as yet, been asked to risk death in order to defend my right to discuss euthanasia in Germany, but it is important that many more should be prepared to risk a little hostility from the minority that is trying to silence a debate on central ethical questions.


Academic Freedom in Germany October 24, 1991

  1. 18

    See, for instance, the way in which Rudi Tarneden, a reviewer from an association for the disabled, and very sympathetic to Christoph’s position, is drawn in the course of his review to raise such questions as: “Aren’t there in fact extreme situations of human suffering, limits to what is bearable? Am I really guilty of contempt for humanity [“Menschenverachtung,” a term often used in Germany to describe what I am supposed to be guilty of—PS] if I try to take this into account?” Rudi Tarneden, “Wo alles richtig ist, kann es auch keine Schuld mehr geben” (a review of Franz Christoph, Tödlicher Zeitgeist and Christoph Anstötz, Ethik und Behinderung), Zeitschrift für Heilpädagogik Vol. 42, No. 4 (1991), p. 246.

  2. 19

    taz (Berlin), January 10, 1990.

  3. 20

    German feminists who read Franz Christoph’s recent book (see note 17, above) may reconsider their support for his position; for he leaves no doubt that he is opposed to granting women a right to decide about abortion. For Christoph, “Abortion decisions are always decisions about whether a life is worthy of being lived; the child does not fit into the woman’s present lifeplans. Or: the social situation is unsatisfactory. Or: the woman holds that she is only able to bear a healthy child. Whether one likes it or not: with the last example, the woman who wants an abortion confirms an objectively negative social value judgment against the handicapped” (p. 13). There is more along these lines, all in a style well-suited for quotation in the pamphlets of the anti-abortion movement.

    This is, at least, more honest than the evasive maneuvering of Oliver Tolmein, who states in the foreword to his Geschätztes Leben that to discuss the significance of the feminist concept of self-determination in the context of prenatal diagnosis and abortion would take him “by far” beyond the bounds of his theme (p. 9). Odd, since the crux of his vitriolic attack on all who advocate euthanasia (an attack that includes, on the very first page of the book, a statement that it is necessary to disrupt seminars on the issue) is that those who advocate euthanasia are committed to valuing some human lives as not worth living.

  4. 21

    R.M. Hare makes a similar point in a letter published in Die Zeit, August 11, 1989.

  5. 22

    Zur Sprengung einer Vortragsveranstaltung an der Universität,” Unipresse Dienst, Universität Zurich, May 31, 1991.

  6. 23

    See, for example, “Mit Trillerpfeifen gegen einen Philosophen,” and “Diese Probleme kann and soll man besprechen,” both in Tages-Anzieger, May 29, 1991; “Niedergeschrien,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, May 27, 1991; and (despite the pejorative headline) “Ein Tötungshelfer mit faschistischem Gedankengut?” Die Weltwoche, May 23, 1991.

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