The entwinement of philosophy with heinous acts throughout history stands as a dark testament to the pliability and dual-nature of philosophical doctrines, which have been utilized to both uplift and oppress, to inspire and to terrify. At various junctures in human history, philosophical beliefs, whether manipulated or strictly adhered to, have been leveraged to legitimize actions and policies that have caused immeasurable suffering and loss.
One of the striking instances that mark the intersection of philosophy and atrocity is the appropriation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophies by the Nazis in Germany. Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, or “overman”, which in its original context emphasized overcoming oneself towards self-improvement, was maliciously manipulated by the Nazi regime. They contorted it into a justification for their Aryan supremacy ideology, thereby providing a philosophical smokescreen for the genocide and atrocities perpetrated during the Holocaust.
In a different era, the philosophy of Utilitarianism, which promotes the maximization of overall happiness and often involves calculating the greatest good for the greatest number, has been used to rationalize colonial and imperial endeavors. European imperial powers, for instance, legitimized the exploitation and subjugation of indigenous populations in Africa, Asia, and the Americas through a paternalistic narrative that posited colonialism as a ‘civilizing mission.’ They asserted that they were bringing progress, education, and a ‘superior’ way of life to the colonized, thereby producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
The heinous acts during the era of slavery were similarly philosophically defended. Pro-slavery advocates utilized Social Darwinism, exploiting the misinterpreted idea of “survival of the fittest” to validate the exploitation and subjugation of African populations. This belief was held under the guise of a pseudo-scientific and philosophical stance that suggested that some races were naturally superior and hence, destined to rule over others.
Communist regimes too have sought refuge in philosophical justifications for their oppressive actions. The philosophies of Karl Marx, which sought to liberate the working class through a proletarian revolution, have been harnessed and morphed by some regimes into justifications for authoritarian governance, suppression of dissent, and purging of ‘counter-revolutionaries’. The USSR under Stalin and the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong witnessed famines, purges, and cultural revolutions, with the leaders often utilizing Marxist philosophy to justify their brutal actions as necessary for the attainment of a communist utopia.
In the field of science and medicine, the philosophy of eugenics, which advocates for improving the genetic quality of the human population, has been implicated in numerous atrocities. In the United States, it was used to justify forced sterilizations of those deemed ‘unfit’. In Nazi Germany, it was taken to horrific extremes with the systematic extermination of individuals deemed ‘biologically inferior’ or ‘life unworthy of life’, such as disabled individuals, in pursuit of a so-called ‘master race’.
The historical trajectory of using philosophy to justify heinous acts illuminates a dark and perplexing dimension of human rationale and moral judgment. It exemplifies how philosophical doctrines, often originally formulated to explore ethics, existence, and knowledge, can be perverted and deployed to legitimize and render intellectual weight to acts that starkly contravene moral and ethical boundaries. These instances elucidate the profound importance of critically examining and challenging philosophical appropriations, especially when they seek to legitimize actions that inflict suffering and injustice upon individuals and communities.