File this under Evil, or The Dignity of the Human Person, and wince while you read this horrific story brought to you by David Mills, over at First Things:
Dr. John C. Cutler was a monster. A monster who died after a long and successful life in government and academia, with scholarships and lectures created in his memory. As readers may know, in the mid-1940s he experimented upon poor Guatemalans, including mental patients and orphans as young as nine, trying to find a cure for syphilis. The most horrifying example, already much posted on the web (I quoted it on “First Thoughts” a few days ago), is “that of a mental patient named Berta.”
I had missed the story in the New York Times, but after reading Mill’s piece, I had no head to go over there and read it, as well. Mills takes a look at the kind of “story” one must tell oneself in order to justify the things Cutler did:
Cutler, and the consequentialists and utilitarians today . . would read the story differently, or perhaps tell a different one. He would have had to tell himself some justifying story, and I am fairly sure it would have gone something like this: syphilis is a brutal disease that had to be cured, because it caused so much suffering.
Perhaps corners were cut and mistakes were made, but they were cut and made in an urgent cause, by men who desperately wanted to save lives. Life isn’t black and white, and sometimes a few have to be sacrificed for the many. Someone has to be willing to make the hard decisions. People decades later shouldn’t judge him from the safety of a world he helped save from the effects of syphilis.
As stories go, it’s just as good a story as the one Arras presents. It makes sense of all the facts, it orders them to a moral and a dramatic end, it offers both a clear morality and an understanding of complexity. Without some fixed criteria for judging between the stories, it is as good a story, and therefore as effective a justification for acting as he did, as Arras’s story is—absent a fixed belief in the dignity of the human person—a reason for condemning it.
And yet Cutler’s story justified a man inserting pus from a male gonorrhea victim into the eyes, urethra, and rectum of a dying woman. Because in that story, in what we can guess was Cutler’s story, the victims were not men and women endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them the right not to be treated like rabbits, but mere “material” for his research.
Read the whole awful thing — it’s important to read it — if only to be reminded that human beings are not things, and that our capacities for self-delusion can corrupt our hearts until we do not even realize the monster we have become.
And then, if you need a palate cleanser, or a reminder of the human potential for good: