Bryan Caplan  

Obituary Hypothetical: What If Mengele Cured Cancer?

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Josef Mengele is one of history's most infamous Nazi war criminals.  A doctor, he notoriously performed grotesque medical experiments on human beings without their consent.  If you're strong of stomach, here's a small sample of what Dr. Mengele did to his victims, many of them children:
Twins were subjected to weekly examinations and measurements of their physical attributes by Mengele or one of his assistants. Experiments performed by Mengele on twins included unnecessary amputation of limbs, intentionally infecting one twin with typhus or other diseases, and transfusing the blood of one twin into the other. Many of the victims died while undergoing these procedures. After an experiment was over, the twins were sometimes killed and their bodies dissected. Nyiszli recalled one occasion where Mengele personally killed fourteen twins in one night via a chloroform injection to the heart. If one twin died of disease, Mengele killed the other so that comparative post-mortem reports could be prepared.

Mengele's experiments with eyes included attempts to change eye color by injecting chemicals into the eyes of living subjects and killing people with heterochromatic eyes so that the eyes could be removed and sent to Berlin for study. His experiments on dwarfs and people with physical abnormalities included taking physical measurements, drawing blood, extracting healthy teeth, and treatment with unnecessary drugs and X-rays. Many of the victims were sent to the gas chambers after about two weeks, and their skeletons were sent to Berlin for further study. Mengele sought out pregnant women, on whom he would perform experiments before sending them to the gas chambers. Witness Vera Alexander described how he sewed two Gypsy twins together back to back in an attempt to create conjoined twins. The children died of gangrene after several days of suffering. [footnotes omitted]

After World War II, Mengele escaped to South America.  He died a free man in 1979.  My hypothetical: Suppose, contrary to fact, that Mengele's experiments led straight to a cure for cancer.  How should his obituary be revised?

In my view, barely at all.  An obituary is a prime opportunity to fulfill Lord Acton's maxim to "suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong."  A man like Mengele, who repeatedly tortured and murdered innocents, is beyond redemption.  Any upside of his atrocities should be (a) mentioned only after enumerating his monstrous crimes, and (b) framed ironically.  I.e., "Through a strange quirk of fate, the Nazi doctor who spend his career taking innocent lives indirectly saved millions."

So what?  Most obituaries for world leaders take the opposite approach.  Instead of vetting their records for capital crimes, and putting any such crimes front and center, the typical piece focuses on leader's "legacies."  Thus, most obituaries for Deng Xiaoping emphasize that he dismantled Maoism and put China on the path of rapid development.  Never mind the half century Deng spent in the Communist Party as Mao's loyal and murderous henchman.  (And even if you discount this as Deng's misspent youth and middle age, what about his key role in the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989?!)  I can see an obituary saying, "Deng was less evil than Mao, the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century."  But to affirmatively praise Deng because, in his old age, he "only" killed people who defied his authority?

You could object that, by my standards, almost every world leader is a monster.  That's not far from the truth.  But either way, you've got to bite a bullet.  You can condemn almost every world leader for their crimes - or condition your condemnation of Mengele on the medical usefulness of his experiments.

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Christopher Chang writes:

Mengele was horrible relative to the marginal doctor, and it is fair to hold him responsible for the full extent of the deviation. Deng, while far from perfect, was actually remarkably good relative to the marginal world leader (or similar equivalence classes). There's nothing wrong with holding him responsible for his crimes, of course (and I have extended family members who'd applaud you for this), but if you honestly think he's a Mengele-level character, I think you're miscalculating.

Of course, your valid overarching philosophy renders this type of miscalculation harmless. I think it's good for a non-negligible fraction of public figures to hold pacifist beliefs similar to yours since it tends to bring the political costs of violence closer to the appropriate range, while not inflicting any real harm.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

It's an interesting thought experiment, but can you name an actual person with this kind of attribute: really bad towards X persons, really good towards 1000X future (unknown) persons?

(Not That) Bill O'Reilly writes:

Mr. Falkenstein,

Of course you can—it's just that the positive benefits tend to be a little more attenuated than "saved everyone who will ever suffer from disease X," which creates an opportunity to avoid all this discomfort by just denying that the awful person did any good.

Stalin, for example, could arguably be credited with saving millions of lives by dragging the USSR into the industrial age; since he murdered millions in the process, though, very few people feel comfortable with crediting him those lives, much less using them as an offset against those he did murder.

Neil writes:

It doesn't seem hard Falkenstein. How about every Founding Father and their attitude toward slavery?

Eric Falkenstein writes:

OK, we have 'Stalin' and 'Jefferson, Washington, Adams, etc.'.

I don't think either of those fit. Stalin didn't improve the lot of the USSR at the expense of a few, it created a 60-year hell-hole for most everyone relative to what went on in Western Europe, and the same's true for Mao: it was all broken eggs, no omelette. The Founding Fathers tolerated slavery, but that was the norm throughout history up to that time.

Glen Smith writes:

Often at a more marginal level, almost every single successful business man has hurt some people to help a lot more people.

Mr. Bojangles writes:

I reckon Deng is worse than Mengele because he murdered many more people. He also made many more suffer than Mengele. Bush and Obama are more evil than Mengele because they also murdered many more people than Mengele. However, Bush and Obama are less evil than Deng and Mao. Most national leaders are more evil than Mengele; it's not an absolute job requirement to be extremely evil but it's highly desirable.

Brian writes:

Mengele was evil and nothing else he could have done would make up for it. One difference, morally speaking, is that no one has a moral obligation to cure disease (especially when we don't know how!), but we do have a moral obligation not to destroy innocent lives.

But the scenario becomes a bit more difficult if you assume that Mengele's horrific experiments were the REASON he was able to cure cancer--that is, assume he learned vital information from these experiments that could not be found another way. And assume he had good reason to think his experiments would lead to a cure. And assume the people were going to be killed anyway.

I think the scenario can be framed in a way to challenge any moral system.

Michael writes:

The Nazi analogy is unfortunate because there are many real life examples of people who would have been considered wonderful people for their discovery except that they were not that good as people. A great example is Fritz Haber - discoverer of the Haber-Bosch process for manufacturing Ammonia. His discovery was every bit as important as a hypothetical cure for cancer: he literally saved the lives of millions of people from starvation. He won the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 1918. He would have been one of the 20th century's greatest people except he was a monster. He was the principle scientist that created chemical weapons for Germany during WWI. And he got great satisfaction from visiting the battlefield and seeing their gruesome effects. Also, he drove his beautiful and brilliant wife Clara to suicide because she realized she married a monster. He shrugged that off and next day went to the Russian Front to kill Russians with his chemicals.

Try to find an article about Fritz Haber that talks only about his Haber Boach process and not about the chemical warfare. History has not been kind to Fritz Haber and nor should it be.

Leaders get a pass on some amount of murder because, like generals, killing people is part of the job. Maybe this shouldn't be the case but most people hold leaders to a different standard. Deng might have been the best China could have had at the time he was in charge. Not many who rise to that level of power become like Ashoka.

Finch writes:

There are at least three distinct standards of morality Mengele could have held himself to: 1) He could have required the informed consent of his experimental subjects; 2) he could have weighed the costs and benefits of his research and made his own decision to maximize welfare; 3) he could do what he did which is to create huge negative welfare for some people without any realistic prospect for commensurate improvement.

By these standards, what people like the Nazi experimenters on cold exposure (*), or people like Stalin (**), did is less bad than what Mengele did, because there was at least some weighing of costs and benefits. If you are trying to do good and you are just bad at it, that seems like it should count for something in your obituary.

If Mengele killed 100 innocent people in a successful attempt to cure cancer, that would be better than if he killed 100 innocent people in an obviously pointless exercise in sadism that through some freak accident cured cancer.

I’d argue that most world leaders are doing 2. The ones who are doing 3 stick out like a sore thumb these days. I don’t think that was always the case.

(*) Who also did terrible, immoral, non-consensual, and horrific things but created a bunch of useful science. I am not well versed in this, but my understanding is it was foundational in the study or hypothermia and the design of survival suits and things like that.

(**) Ignoring scale, for arguments sake, which you should not generally do as other commenters point out.

Pajser writes:

Almost all people are mass torturers and murderers of animals. Humanity is criminal organization.

Charley Hooper writes:

@Glen Smith,

I'm a successful businessman. Who have I hurt?

Capt. J Parker writes:

Fully agree that history should remember Deng and Mengele as horribly and irredeemably evil.

The obituary hypothetical isn’t really that hypothetical. As commenter Finch mentioned, some of the unspeakable Nazi experiments involved inducing hypothermia in prisoners (often to leading to death). These experiments generated data that is quite relevant to modern medicine. Inducing hypothermia in patients who are being resuscitated after a heart attack or who have suffered a stoke is an active area of investigation. Hypothermia is believed to limit the damage caused by free radicals released from oxygen starved tissue. Understanding the limits of the human body’s tolerance for hypothermia is an important part of this medical research. Many in the medical community have concluded that the horrific circumstances under which the Nazi hypothermia data was collected renders modern use of the data immoral and unethical. I fully agree but, I will admit that I have a difficult time responding to this issue with anything other than raw emotion. An editorial supporting the idea that use the Nazi data should be morally forbidden can be found here:
Again a warning. The link contains graphic descriptions of atrocities, many of them similar to those described in Dr. Caplans post.

Charley Hooper writes:


The Founding Fathers didn't create slavery to hurt people. Slavery had existed in America for 250 years before the Declaration of Independence. The Founding Fathers tolerated slavery enough to build a consensus to create a country based on freedom. I know it sounds ironic, but it worked.

Source: Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon’s fleet departed Spain in July 1526 with “…the first black slaves to reach American shores.” Joseph Judge, Exploring Our Forgotten Century, National Geographic, March 1988, pg 337.

John B writes:

And that other question: should a treatment discovered using such brutality and suffering of others, be used?

For example had a drug treatment in crude form been discovered, should pharmas profit from synthesising, developing and selling it?

John B writes:

@Glen Smith.

Voluntary cooperation and exchange always benefits all parties albeit maybe not equally.

We engage in voluntary cooperation and exchange primarily to help ourselves, but as a consequence, not design, we help others.

If we harm others in this process, we lose their cooperation, exchange is not made and we harm ourselves.

Where exchange is not voluntary and cooperation is by coercion, then that is not business, that is Government and it is indeed 'successful' politicians who at all levels harm many to help some.

See, for a ready example, Obamacare.

(Not That) Bill O'Reilly writes:

Mr. Falkenstein,

You merely prove my point. It's a debatable point, whether Stalin materially improved the quality of life of Soviet citizens. Quality of life for non-victims improved dramatically under industrialization, and many more were born and grew to adulthood than otherwise would have; on the other hand, one could credibly argue that collectivized agriculture and industry was actually a worse alternative to an accelerated capitalist development over the same time period. Rather than acknowledge that debate, though, you simply dismissed the possibility that Stalin contributed to any material improvement for anyone, because, hey he was a monster.

Evan writes:

@Capt. J Parker

Many in the medical community have concluded that the horrific circumstances under which the Nazi hypothermia data was collected renders modern use of the data immoral and unethical.

I, on the other hand, would consider failure to use that data to be immoral and unethical. It's bad enough that those people were tortured and killed. If you don't use that data then they were tortured and killed for nothing.

To illustrate how ridiculous the idea that we shouldn't use that data is, imagine a scenario where you discover that one of your close friends was conceived as a result of rape. Should you stop associating with that friend because of the immoral circumstances of his conception? Does enjoying your friend's company somehow make you complicit in the rape of his mother, since the happiness your friend gives you is the direct result of her rape?

Of course it doesn't. Your friend is innocent of any crimes his father inflicted on his mother. He isn't infected with "evil cooties" that will spread their evilness onto anyone he associates with. Anyone can see this obvious fact when discussing a person. Why do we suddenly start messing up when discussing inanimate objects like scientific data? Evil acts don't give everything they're associated with cooties, plain and simple.

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