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The Historical Roots of "Evolving Standards of Decency"

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Anyone conversant with the Supreme Court's death penalty jurisprudence is familiar  --  too familiar  --  with the phrase, "evolving standards of decency."  It first appeared in a 1958 citizenship case, Trop v. Dulles, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren.  Justice Brennan, being no dummy, quickly saw its potential as a way of equating "decency" with "abolition of capital punishment," and, more broadly, of equating fidelity to the written Constitution with primitivism.


George Will now delves more deeply into the origin of this sort of thinking.  He links "evolving standards of decency" to the broader theme of Wilsonian progressivism.  I had thought that invoking the word "progressivism" was merely a tool to allow our opponents to call themselves anything other than "liberal," a term the public has figured out means bad news for the country.  Either that, or a tool the Left fashioned to simply expropriate the idea that they represent "progress," and everybody else is a troglodyte.


Will has a deeper understanding.  As he explains, "The name 'progressivism' implies criticism of the Founding, which we leave behind as we make progress. And the name is tautological: History is progressive because progress is defined as whatever History produces. History guarantees what the Supreme Court has called "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."  

Will's essay is short and very much worth the read.

1 Comment

"Evolving standards of decency," means "my personal preferences and biases, which have no validation outside of the guns of Army Airborne. The lawyer hierarchy's preferences and biases happen to always increase procedures, and to generate lawyer jobs.

Here are two other phrases, rent seeking, and conflict of interest. Because these are synonyms for armed robbery, there is good justification to arrest the lawyer hierarchy, have an hour's fair trial, and then execute them in the basement of the courthouse for their insurrection against the constitution. There would be no collateral corruption gotchas. The sole evidence would be the content of their appellate decisions.

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