Social Darwinism, Herbert Spencer, Ethics and Morals Social Darwinism

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Social Darwinism, Herbert Spencer, Ethics and Morals

Social Darwinism is a belief, popular in the late Victorian era1 in England, America, and elsewhere, which states that the strongest or fittest should survive and flourish in society, while the weak and unfit should be allowed to die. The theory was chiefly developed by Herbert Spencer, whose ethical philosophies always held an elitist view.

Spencer and Social Darwinism

Herbert Spencer took "might makes right" sorts of views long before Darwin published his theory. However, Spencer quickly adapted Darwinian ideas to his own ethical theories2. The concept of adaptation allowed him to claim that the rich and powerful had become rich and powerful because they were better adapted to the social and economic climate of the time. The concept of natural selection allowed him to argue that it was natural, normal, and proper for the strong to thrive at the expense of the weak. After all, he claimed, that is exactly what goes on in nature every day.

However, Spencer did not just present his theories as placing humans on a parallel with nature. Not only was survival of the fittest natural, but it was also morally correct. Indeed, some extreme Social Darwinists argued that it was morally incorrect to assist those weaker than oneself, since that would be promoting the survival and possible reproduction of someone who was fundamentally unfit.

Applications of Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism was used to justify numerous exploits that are of dubious3 moral value today. Colonialism was seen as natural and inevitable, and given justification through Social Darwinian ethics – people saw natives as being weaker and less fit to survive, and therefore felt justified in seizing land and resources from them. Social Darwinism applied to military action as well; the argument went that the strongest military would win, and would therefore be the most fit. Casualties on the losing side, of course, were written off as the natural result of their unfit status. Finally, it gave the ethical nod to brutal colonial governments who used oppressive tactics against their subjects.

In its most extreme forms, Social Darwinism has been used to justify eugenics programs4 aimed at eliminating "undesirable" genes from the population; such programs were sometimes accompanied by sterilization laws directed against "unfit" individuals. The American eugenics movement was relatively popular between about 1910-1930, during which 24 states passed sterilization laws and Congress passed a law restricting immigration from certain areas deemed to be unfit. Social Darwinist ideas, though in different forms, were also applied by the Nazi party in Germany to justify their eugenics programs.

Positive Results of Social Darwinism

Though its moral basis is now generally opposed, Social Darwinism did have some favorable effects. Belief in Social Darwinism tended to discourage wanton handouts5 to the poor, favoring instead providing resources for the fittest of all walks of life to use, or choosing specific, genuinely deserving people as recipients of help and support. Some major capitalists, such as Andrew Carnegie, combined philanthropy with Social Darwinism; he used his vast fortune to set up hundreds of libraries and other public institutions, including a university, for the benefit of those who would choose to avail themselves of such resources. He opposed direct and indiscriminate6 handouts to the poor because he felt that this favored the undeserving and the deserving person equally.

The Problem with Social Darwinism

First, it makes the faulty assumption that what is natural equals what is morally correct. In other words, it falls prey to the belief that just because something takes place in nature, it must be a moral idea for humans to follow.

This theory falls tries to derive an ought statement from an is statement. For example, the fact that you did stub your toe this morning does not logically imply that you ought to have stubbed your toe! The same argument applies to the Social Darwinists' attempt to extend natural processes into human social structures.

1 Victorian era = Late 1800s

2 Ethical = theories about right and wrong

3 Dubious = doubtful, questionable

4 Programs sterilizing or euthanizing the weak

5 Wanton handouts = handouts not directed to specific needs

6 Indiscriminate = handouts everywhere and anywhere

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