The Nativist-Utilitarian Revolution: An Analysis of Moral Change in the American Eugenics Movement
Date of Award
Union College Only
Bachelor of Science
eugenics, utilitarianism, forced sterilization, moral change, immigration
The American eugenics movement of the early 20th century represents one of the largest-scale human rights violations in the nation’s recent history. A societal attempt to improve the genetic fitness of the population, eugenics resulted in the legalization of forced sterilization in 33 states. Through the 1970s, tens of thousands of poor, mentally handicapped, and immigrant-Americans were forced to undergo invasive operations to render them incapable of procreating. While the underlying rationale for eugenics was nativist prejudice, a widely-accepted justification was that of nativist utilitarianism. Nativist utilitarianism is the pseudo-utilitarian paradigm that perceived societal benefit justifies severe harms to minority groups, namely immigrants, without regard for utilitarian protections against majority tyranny.
This thesis will provide a historical account of the American eugenics movement and its subsequent rejection, following the realization of German human rights violations during the Second World War. Additionally, this paper will examine the adoption of nativist utilitarianism among the American population during the American eugenics movement. While much of the population gradually came to reject nativist utilitarianism, it remains a common appeal in defense of draconian anti-immigrant policies. Evidence suggests that a subset of the white protestant population never rejected nativist utilitarianism, explaining the sustained appeal of such policies in current US politics.
Moore, Arnold, "The Nativist-Utilitarian Revolution: An Analysis of Moral Change in the American Eugenics Movement" (2020). Honors Theses. 2458.