What is Social Darwinism?

No, I am not playing Jeopardy, I’m considering the phrase Barack Obama used to characterize the recent House budget proposal.  I thought I had a good idea of what he meant:  survival of the fittest, applied to human endeavors.

I learned a lot more from an article in a New York Times opinionater blog post written by Philip Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia.  In his article, “The Taint of ‘Social Darwinism,'” Kitcher credits the birth of the concept to 19th century philosopher, Herbert Spencer, who first talked of “survival of the fittest.”  The phrase was never used to describe evolution but survival in the human jungle.  Kitcher characterizes the Social Darwinist view:

“Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak, those people and those human achievements that are fittest — most beautiful, noble, wise, creative, virtuous, and so forth — will succeed in a fierce competition, so that, over time, humanity and its accomplishments will continually improve. Late 19th-century dynastic capitalists, especially the American “robber barons,” found this vision profoundly congenial. Their contemporary successors like it for much the same reasons.”  http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/08/the-taint-of-social-darwinism/?src=me&ref=genera

I can’t help thinking of Charles Dickens’ London, where “the fittest” is the pre-repentant Ebenezer Scrooge.

One not so grand irony is that many of our latter day Social Darwinists were born into wealth and opportunity, while truly self-made men and women, like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, understand the value and necessity of supportive social structures.  In Kitcher’s words, “Horatio Alger needs lots of help, and a large thrust of contemporary Republican policy is dedicated to making sure he doesn’t get it.”

I urge everyone who has a stake in this debate – meaning all of us – to give Philip Kitcher’s article a read.

7 thoughts on “What is Social Darwinism?

  1. In Kitcher’s words, “Horatio Alger needs lots of help, and a large thrust of contemporary Republican policy is dedicated to making sure he doesn’t get it.”—Truer words were never spoken, but the question now becomes, “How do you get the average American Voter to understand this so he or she does not vote against their own best interests and have to suffer the pains of buyers remorse a little later….like the Wisconsinites, for example?


    • That’s a huge question when there’s so little real debate and discussion of real issues in contemporary politics. When so many people think Fox is real news; when many still think Obama is a Muslim; when the majority of Tea Party voters are seniors who don’t understand that social security and medicare are the “empowerments” that the candidates speak of scaling back. When no candidate who voices bad news can expect to be elected.

      I think we just keep doing what we are doing in trying to voice truths as we understand them. What is the alternative?

      Again, thanks for stopping by this blog!


  2. Great commentary, Morgan. I had read the Kitcher’s article, and thought it excellent. Your comment about insight and broader understanding from the true self-made people (Winfrey, Gates, etc.) is really important and hasn’t been noted before that I’m aware of. Might make for a good NYT op-ed.


    • I have a bad habit of not noting the source of interesting stats I come upon, but what I’ve heard is that only 2% of the wealthiest 1% got their by their own efforts.

      Yesterday, I stopped into a rural market where a conservative talk show host was talking about “class warfare.” I agree, but not in the sense he meant it…


      • If you Google “what percent of millionaires inherited their money” you will find the consistent answer is 18-20%. About 80% of millionaires are first-generation millionaires who earned it on their own, usually with businesses they have built. That’s a far cry from the 2% you stated.


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