Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Value of Social Darwinism

Can an immoral philosophy lead to a just law?

A professor today pointed out that Justice Holmes was a Social Darwinist. Such a philosophy had neferious consequences in at least one of his more famous cases, Buck v. Bell, where Justice Holmes declared--allowing Virginia to keep sterlizing those who were "feeble-minded"--that "Three generations of imbeciles is enough." Generally speaking, the tenets of social darwinism (that human interaction mirrors the process of natural selection) have been discredited.

But -- for free speech liberals, social darwinism (an objectively immoral philosophy?) is a great good. Witness Justice Holmes' explanation of the meaning of free speech:

Every idea is an incitement. It offers itself for belief and if believed it is acted on unless some other belief outweighs it or some failure of energy stifles the movement at its birth. The only difference between the expression of an opinion and an incitement in the narrower sense is the speaker's enthusiasm for the result. Eloquence may set fire to reason. But whatever may be thought of the redundant discourse before us it had no chance of starting a present conflagration. If in the long run the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way.

- Gitlow v. New York

These thoughts, which found even more eloquent expression in Holmes's dissent in Abrams v. United States, eventually carried the day in First Amendment Free Speech jurisprudence. And they were born out of, and reflect, a social darwinist frame of mind.


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