Buck v Bell: A Musical Performance
On March 1st, the first public performance of a new choral work, Buck v Bell, provided the rare moment for music, law, and ethics to come together to address concerns about eugenics, the public good, and the rule of law.
The piece was performed by the SCU Chamber Singers for an audience of students, faculty, staff, and the community. The stunning performance was followed by small group discussions led by Law School students with input from choir members on the experience of singing troublesome words. The event ended with a conversation between the audience and the composer, Scot Hanna-Weir, Law Professor Michelle Oberman, and Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies and Associate Director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Margaret McLean.
In the 1927 Buck v Bell decision, the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia law that provided for the involuntary sterilization of people considered “unfit.” Scoring the piece for choir, piano, marimba, and string quartet, Hanna-Weir set the text of the decision penned by one of the luminaries of the court, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Hanna-Weir’s musical setting casts the troublesome nature of the decision in light of the popular opinion at the time that it was the right thing to do: “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 . . . in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence.”
“Buck v Bell” not only raises troublesome questions about our past decisions but also—and perhaps more importantly—sets the stage for our consideration of current possibilities for eugenics and the role of sound ethical thinking and the force of law in preventing harm.
At its heart, ethics is about questions—about who asks, what they ask for, and how we are to respond. Both the Buck v Bell case and the musical setting raise serious questions about who we are and what we do, and about what it means to learn from the past in order to better the future.