Pragmatism, Law, and Morality: The Lessons of Buck v. Bell
European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy, 2011 III 2
24 Pages Posted: 25 Jul 2012 Last revised: 31 Jul 2012
Date Written: July 24, 2012
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. - a founding member of the Metaphysical Club, and traditionally regarded as the first legal pragmatist - would eventually become a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In one of his best-known rulings for the Court, Buck v. Bell (1927), Holmes held that Carrie Buck's constitutional rights would not be violated by allowing the State of Virginia to sterilize her against her will. This disturbing ruling has sometimes been thought to confirm criticism's of Holmes' (alleged) moral skepticism. But this, I agrue, is a mistake: Holmes was no moral skeptic but, like James and Dewey, a moral fallibilist; and his ruling in Buck, misguided as it is, is nevertheless illustrative of his important theoretical point that judges are no less fallible about moral questions than the rest of us, and that it's dangerous for them to imagine otherwise.
Keywords: pragmatism, law and morality, law and science, eugenics laws, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Francis Galton, Henry Loughlin
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