What Happens When Moral Monstrosity Is Socially Approved?

(Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Ruth Marcus’s defense of aborting children with Down syndrome shows the danger of appeals to the majority consensus.

In 1961, Stanley Milgram of Yale University came up with an idea for an experiment. The purpose: to determine how many law-abiding, civilized people would torture their fellows simply in order to follow basic orders. Here’s how the experiment worked. Milgram chose pairs of participants; one would randomly be chosen to become a “learner,” the other a “teacher.” Milgram set up the “random” drawing so that volunteers always became teachers, and learners were actors working for Milgram. Learners were taken into a room and hooked up to electrodes supposedly buzzing with electricity. Teachers were brought into a room containing a switch that could shift that electric level from 15 volts all the way up to 450 volts. Teachers were then informed by researchers that it was their job to shock learners for making errors in a word game. The researchers would remain in the room and push the teachers to shock the learners, telling them to continue.

According to Milgram’s experiment, two in three teachers shocked the learners all the way up to 450 volts, even as the actors begged for mercy; all of the teachers shocked the learners up to 300 volts. Milgram concluded, “Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.”

How much farther would the teachers have gone if they’d had a personal investment in pulling the switch?

Such questions come to mind after reading Ruth Marcus’s astonishing piece defending the abortion of babies with Down syndrome in the pages of the Washington Post. Marcus champions her own moral autonomy as a would-be agent of death: “I can say without hesitation that, tragic as it would have felt and ghastly as a second-trimester abortion would have been, I would have terminated those pregnancies had the testing come back positive. I would have grieved the loss and moved on.”

This is a confusing statement. First off, if Marcus believes, as abortion advocates do, that fetal life isn’t human life, where exactly is the tragedy? Why the grief? Nobody mourns the removal of a polyp or an ovarian cyst. Why, then, should Marcus consider the killing of the unborn painful, except that she realizes deep down that she is ending a human life?

And the truth is that Marcus does realize that. She’s just willing to end that life because she doesn’t believe such lives should exist. She rails against the government’s “compelling a woman to give birth to a child whose intellectual capacity will be impaired, whose life choices will be limited, whose health may be compromised.” In these words, one can hear the regretful tut-tutting of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Buck v. Bell (1927), the Supreme Court case approving state laws forcing sterilization on the “unfit”: “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

In the end, she admits why she would truly abort the baby: convenience.

Marcus takes solace in her immorality by citing that of others — “I am not alone. More than two-thirds of American women choose abortion in such circumstances.” But immoral behavior isn’t made moral by its commonness. Slavery was once common. That did not make it any more justifiable.

And in the end, she admits why she would truly abort the baby: convenience. “I’m going to be blunt here: That was not the child I wanted,” she writes. “You can call me selfish, or worse, but I am in good company.” It is not merely selfish to murder an unborn child for the crime of having a low IQ. It’s monstrous. But such monstrosity becomes common when we believe that others have signed off on our vice. Marcus keeps emphasizing the fact that others believe as she does, just as Milgram’s teachers likely pointed to the researchers who kept ordering them to increase the voltage.

Evil lives among us. It’s in our own hearts. We can all become Milgram’s torturers; we can all become Holmes’s sterilizers; we can all become Marcus’s abortionists. All it takes is an ounce of social approval and a heap of righteous indignation. Human beings are self-absorbed things; we’d rather pull the switch on an innocent than inconvenience ourselves. Until we recognize our own frailties, we’re always in danger of slipping back into the moral morass.

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