The following article is intended to be thought-provoking satire. I was forced to put this disclaimer at the top, because I discovered, unfortunately too late, that it is almost impossible to parody a lot of what goes on and is believed in today's society.
A popular, though inaccurate, interpretation of Godwin's law is that one should refrain from comparing your opponent to Nazis, because this action is so insulting that meaningful debate will be killed off. I want to ask whether this is really true, and whether the Nazis were really as bad as they are portrayed in our media.
One famous Nazi policy was to kill physically handicapped people. Before we react against this, we must remember that the killing of handicapped people can hardly be called barbaric if the Royal Society of Gynaecology (UK) is suggesting that we be allowed do the same thing if they are newly born children. Their arguments for this are pretty sound -- in the words of John Harris, a member of the government's Human Genetics Commission and professor of bioethics at Manchester University: "We can terminate for serious foetal abnormality up to term but cannot kill a newborn. What do people think has happened in the passage down the birth canal to make it okay to kill the foetus at one end of the birth canal but not at the other?". It makes sense in other ways too — for cases where it is easier to detect the condition after birth, it is safer for both the mother and child if the procedure is done after birth, and it's less wasteful as it avoids misdiagnoses.
Actually, the Nazis were more consistent and logical than we are. Our aim, quite rightly, is to eliminate suffering, so we compassionately end the lives of people who are either going to suffer a lot, or cause lots of suffering in other people's lives. We should not be half-hearted about this effort, but follow the noble lead set by the Nazis.
Then there is the issue of how the Nazis segregated the Jews from the rest of society. Racial separation is well known in many parts of the world, and in many cases is not seen to be harmful or undesirable — see the attitude of many of these people regarding their traditional segregated high school proms for example. It is quite natural for people to prefer society that they are comfortable with. In the case of Nazi Germany, the majority of that society did not feel comfortable around Jews, and one can safely imagine that the Jews of this period were not that fond of the Germans. So no-one would have objected to this segregation, which actually promoted a peaceful society by keeping the warring factions at a safe distance from each other.
Some people may still object that when it came to the Final Solution, the Nazis went too far. However, the people of Germany were exercising their democratic rights — Hitler was, after all, democratically elected. Since morality is defined by consensus, it is outrageous for us to condemn this nation for its actions. Also, we should remember that their action in removing Jews from their society once and for all is really just a logical parallel to removing other undesirables such as handicapped people. While we obviously neither share nor applaud these anti-Semitic views (because we have found that, far from being a social pestilence, Jewish people can in fact make a very valuable contribution to society), we must respect the right of a democratic nation to come to its own conclusions about ethics — who are we to enforce our own scruples on others?
In the past, we have suffered a great deal from people imposing their moral opinions on other people, and thankfully many nations are now outlawing this kind of behaviour. For instance, Britain has recently passed a bill making it illegal to refuse services on the basis of sexual orientation. One ramification of this, that certain Christian groups are complaining about, is that private individuals who let out rooms in their houses for Bed and Breakfast (a common practice in the UK) will no longer be able to refuse a double room to a homosexual couple. Similarly, religious adoption agencies will no longer be allowed to refuse their services or discriminate against homosexual couples. In both cases this is, of course, a great step forward in the right direction — we ought to be very intolerant of these groups who would seek to force their moral views on other people, even if until very recently their views have been considered the norm or even enshrined in law. In the same way, we need to learn to refrain from passing judgement and condemning peoples of the past, such as the Nazis, who didn't happen to have identical ethics to our changing standards.
Finally, I want to say something about debates that invoke Nazis not as direct insults, but in 'slippery slope' arguments that take the form "if we do this now, very soon we will be doing X, just like the Nazis (or other bad people)". While these may seem either very powerful or insulting, history has shown that such arguments are actually empty. For example, when abortion law was changed in the UK in the 1960's, I have no doubt that one of the arguments against abortion was that it would lead to selectively terminating people with severe handicaps or disabilities, or even to the killing of infants after birth — certainly I have heard both such arguments within my own lifetime, and the idea that anyone would approve of post-natal terminations sounded ridiculous at the time. But today, we know that it is perfectly reasonable to cull foetuses for these reasons, including post-natal infants, according to the sensible arguments of the Royal Society mentioned above.
Again, when genetic screening for cystic fibrosis and other diseases was introduced, some people complained that this might lead to screening against the mere possibility of a disease. In this article from 1992 about screening and ethics, it states that the guidelines from 1970's handled the ethical problems by stating that "screening was appropriate if the genetic disorder was serious, the test was accurate, and a therapy or intervention was available". The article lists some of the ethically dubious possibilities envisioned, such as: "Women carrying foetuses with genetic abnormalities may be encouraged to abort".
In Britain, aborting because of genetic abnormalities such as cystic fibrosis is old news. Last week, plans for screening against a gene that gives a high risk of breast cancer were announced, which is clearly quite a different matter. The screening is done not against the mother eggs, against the foetuses, and not for the purpose of therapy, but early abortion (i.e. in the context of IVF, as I understand it). Clearly, all but the most heartless of people have applauded this humane step. The very fact that these 'slippery slope' arguments were used in the first place, and the way that people responded to them at the time, shows us that these arguments were thought to be powerful, and the possibilities they threatened were thought to be genuine evils. But in both cases, and surely many others, we now know better. For this reason, we are right to ignore all slippery slope arguments. Eventually, time and the progress of ethics will show that the original moral objections were misguided.
So, to conclude, I am actually in favour of the principle that we shouldn't use the example of Nazis when debating ethics and so, but for different reasons than those commonly cited. The first reason is that when we use the Nazis in this way, we are perpetuating a slur on the reputation of the Nazis that they simply do not deserve — they were a compassionate people, and even if there are some areas where we think they did not act very wisely, or where we would have acted very differently, we are stepping way out of line if we condemn them for their different ethical standards. A second reason stems from the first — it can hardly be either an insult or an argument to make comparisons to such a people, and so the Nazis are somewhat irrelevant to our ethical debates. We should find some other genuinely evil group of people as a reference point, and then pronounce a ban on making comparisons to them instead. And thirdly, all slippery slope arguments can be seen, ultimately, to be vacuous, as society will adjust its understanding of morality and we will come to realise that what we had been afraid of isn't so bad after all.
I already know what the reaction to this essay will be. Half the readers, the Christian fundamentalists, will rant on about this being an example of the disastrous effect of moral relativism, and that in fact Western society is already a long way down the slope to becoming one of the most horrific societies this world has ever known, and the only reason I don't realise it is because I am so desensitised. They will go on to threaten the judgement of God (or George Bush) and other silly things. The other half, the more reasonable half, will complain that this is old news.