Saturday, May 17, 2008

When scientists turn

The renowned psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton will be the speaker tomorrow at Stonehill's commencement. The most recent of his books I have read is The Nazi Doctors (Basic Books, 1986), an account of the the Nazi perversion of medical science during the middle of the past century, It is a book that every scientist (indeed, evey human) could read with profit as a cautionary tale.

Not that many of us are likely to turn science to such evil purpose. In the face of the Nazi medical atrocities the mind recoils, stunned, revolted, unbelieving. The German "mad scientists" do not fit the usual hero/anti-hero dichotomy. They carried the arts of healing into inversions so terrible as to seem beyond the bounds of human good and evil.

How could "civilized," well-educated scientists have gone so far off the rails? Lifton proposes that the Nazi scientists managed to cope with their crime by a process he calls "doubling" -- the division of the self into two functioning wholes, so that a part-self acts as an entire self: "The Nazi doctor needed his Auschwitz self to function psychologically in an environment so antithetical to his previous ethical standards. At the same time, he needed his prior self in order to continue to see himself as humane physician, husband, and father." Each self disavowed the other. The Auschwitz self repudiated the normal meaning of murder; the prior self remained detached from anything done by the Auschwitz self.

Doubling, as Lifton defines it, is not schizophrenia. The Nazi doctors cannot be judged "not guilty" on account of insanity. Doubling is a sane person's way of evading moral responsibility, not of eliminating it.

It is this last insight that makes Lifton's book valuable cautionary reading for any scientist or medical researcher whose work has any sort of antisocial or antienvironmental potential, no matter how trivial by the ghastly standard of the Nazi death camps. Doubling is a psychological maneuver we can all employ to deal with moral contradictions; in the camps, the maneuver was carried to unparalleled extremes.