Social Darwinism: The Unspoken Ethos

12 September 2011

J.P. Morgan once said that a person has two reasons for what he believes: the good reason and the real reason. That seems especially true of those who want to defeat the administration’s jobs plan. They have a good reason for thinking it’s a bad idea to put millions to work and to fund it by ending the Bush era tax cuts for those whose income exceeds a quarter million a year. If we tax the rich, they say, the riches won’t flow down to the rest of us. Only by favoring the wealthy with subsidies and tax policies will we all enjoy the benefits of a thriving economy. That’s called supply side economics, and we know it’s the good reason, not the real reason, because it has never worked as advertised.




The real reason that some want the government to favor wealth and power with special privileges is social Darwinism. This secretive doctrine went underground in the early to mid 20th century, and very few political figures openly espouse it today. The idea is this: Evolution works by natural selection. The weak and poorly adapted die off and leave fewer offspring. The strong and well adapted survive and breed to the betterment of the species. And while Mr. Darwin himself thought this was an idea best limited to biology, some 19th century thinkers thought it made a great social model as well.





The philosopher Herbert Spencer laid down the basic tenets of social Darwinism. Life is an existential struggle in which there are winners and losers. It is morally incorrect, says Spencer, to assist the losers. Why drain resources away from the strong to support the weak? To have compassion on a person weaker than yourself promotes the survival of someone who is fundamentally unfit. No, better for the long term health of society to give to the strong and to allow the weak and the unfit to fail and die.




Social Darwinists have much in common with the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who taught that Christianity, with it’s ethics of compassion and pity, is essentially a morality to appease slaves. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first” is a dangerous idea, says Nietzsche, because it threatens the ultimate emergence of true social greatness as embodied by the new Superman whose might will define right. An admirer of Nietzsche named Adolf Hitler put these guiding principles to the ultimate test in the 1930s. It didn’t work out too well for the Germans, and after that hardly anyone openly embraced social Darwinism.

One current Presidential candidate, Rick Perry, wrote just last year that Social Security does violence to American morals. It is a sentiment shared by many on his side of the political continuum, an ethic that finds it wrong for the government to collect taxes to take care of the elderly or the sick or to create jobs. When such an ethic is encountered in political debate, it would be well to ask whether it comes of a desire to help the disadvantaged to live or to help the disadvantaged to die. Anyone worthy of their overalls knows that compassion, pity and kindness are virtues essential to American greatness.






One comment on “Social Darwinism: The Unspoken Ethos

  1. If I were to criticize my own writing, I’d say that it’s a dangerous thing to assume the worst about your opponent’s motives as I did in calling them secret social Darwinists. The habit gives rise to the most idiotic and vitriolic rhetoric, as when President Obama is called an anti-American Islamic socialist.

    Still, I don’t think I’m being altogether unfair. The Germans have a word we lack in English: “hintergedanke”. A hintergedanke is a thought you suppress because it is too embarrassing or too subversive to admit, even to yourself. The hostility of many conservatives to government “giveaways” reflects a hintergedanke sentiment that helping the poor only strengthens poverty, and that making it hell on earth to be a poor person is the best way to fight poverty.

    There may be some truth to that in a strict analytical sense, but even so; being inhuman is no way to improve human civilization.

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