I’m talking about the case Gould discusses in the video, Buck v. Bell. I assumed that it would be fresh in people’s minds after having seen the video.
Buck v. Bell is famous as the case where Holmes announced that “three generations of imbeciles are enough,” as he (and seven fellow members of the Court) authorized State-compelled sterilization of a woman who was deemed to be mentally deficient and who had given birth to a child (also deemed mentally deficient) out of wedlock. The people responsible for this scheme had, of course, only a rudimentary grasp of heredity and they were driven by social prejudices as well, regarding the “promiscuity” of Carrie Buck as an important indicator of mental deficiency – it appears that she was of ordinary intelligence and was the victim of rape, though of course we get those facts not from the Court’s decision but from later investigation.
Buck v. Bell is not about race, but its lesson to us is about the related question of how to use, and how not to use, science to inform ethical judgments. If we have proper respect for the boundary between “is” and “ought,” we understand that even if the facts as reported in the decision were accurate, the existence of possibly-heritable mental deficiency does not, in itself, give the community an ethical basis to sterilize people by force.
The opinion is chilling, and the usual short quote doesn’t do it justice:
We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts 197 U.S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
It is of course fair to say that the “science” behind this was rather dodgy. This was a strange era in constitutional law, when the Court was reluctant to look beyond legal formalism, at least in the service of individual rights. Today we have crafted – though it is in grave threat! – a conception of due process which recognizes not only the procedural issues in taking so much from vulnerable people, but also some substantive limits to the extent to which the State may invade the individual’s autonomy. But in the 1920s, the picture was very different, and the Courts held to the kind of majoritarian, authoritarian view which, alas, is now again on the rise.