Social Darwinism and Political Debate

Barack Obama recently attacked (Republican House Representative) Paul Ryan’s proposals for cutting the federal budget deficit ‘social Darwinism’, referring to the apparent negative impacts on federal programs aimed at the poorest.  I won’t go into the debate around Ryan’s proposals, as  wish to note the debate spurred round a now little read nineteenth-century political and social thinker Herbert Spencer.  Though as we will see some enthusiasts for market liberalism (that is classical liberalism or libertarianism, which may or may not be be synonyms) have studied Spencer.  At the Financial Times , Christopher Caldwell looks at the historical and intellectual framing in ‘Obama’s traps of social Darwinism is yet to evolve‘.  Caldwell’s account is highly critical of Obama, but he suggests that Obama’s insulting of free marketeers with a supposedly badly thought out reference from intellectual history is no worse than what a lot of right wing politicians say.  Caldwell’s main point is that Darwinism is so pervasive in talking about social phenomena that it is meaningless to associate it with any particular political point of view.  Like some other commentators, he refers to Richard Hofstadter’s book 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought.  A work which appears to have been very influential on American ‘progressives’ (a standard way of referring to the left inclined in the USA)  in defining free market thought as nineteenth century social Darwinism, and as an inappropriate extension of evolutionary theory.

That ‘progressive’ interpretation can be found in the New York Times ‘Opinionator’ comment blog, in an time by well known Columbia philosopher of science, Philip Kitcher in ‘The Taint “Social Darwinism”‘.  This where the attack on Herbert Spencer comes in, though there is precious little sign that Kitcher has read Spencer or thought about his arguments.  I have to concede that I have not read Spencer and  cannot say he is priority for future reading, but I think I can tell the difference between a thoughtful response, and repetition of ‘progressive orthodoxy’, an assumption that Spencer was far from Darwin and Darwinism, and was a believer in violent struggle between humans, and an elitist contemptuous of average humans.

Damon Root’s ‘In Defense of Herbery Spencer’ responds to Kitcher in Hit and Run (blog section  of the Reason libertarian website) referring to Spencer’s advocacy of feminism, pacifism, anti-colonialism, private charity, the evolution of human society towards peaceful co-operation, and Darwin’s use of Spenser’s phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ in the fifth edition of The Origin of Species.  Root also directs his readers to his earlier post ‘The Unfortunate Case of Herbert Spencer‘.

There’s plenty more discussion of all this online, but I’ll finish there.  The important points here are that interpretations of the history of thought are important in politics and that academics can be as irresponsible and superficial as any journalist, politician or blogger when referring to the political aspects of the history of thought.

Good Philosophy Links

1.  Jennifer Lockhart podcast on ignorant knowledge in Kierkegaard (elucidations podcast series).

2.  Ten page abstract of Jennifer Lockhart on Kierkegaard (presumably an abstract of her doctorate)

3. Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi, ‘A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism’ (lead essay in ‘Cato Unbound’ online symposium).

4. Foucault Audio Archive. Foucault lecture in French and in English.

Usually I post recent links, but on this occasion only link 3 is recent.  1 and 2 are new to me, and while I found link 4 some time ago, it’s always a good time to publicise a link to Foucault speaking.


On 1 and 2, very interesting reading of Kierkegaard with regard to a soft analytic approach to epistemology, or that seems to me to be the best way to describe it.  Good work though I have some reservations.  Lockhart takes Kierkegaard to be writing in a way which continues a problem noted by Aristotle, that we may say we understand  and respect a moral principle, and we do indeed understand (knowing), but not put this into practice and do not know we are failing to put it into practice (ignorant).  Lockhart takes Kierkegaard’s explanations of Christianity in his ‘pseudonymous’ works to be examples of this, since the invented author explains Christianity without understanding. An interesting framing for Kierkegaard, but his pseudonyms know they do not understand Christianity and say so, even while trying to discuss it.  In addition, I find that Lockhart makes too sharp a distinction between the fully Christian position in Kierkegaard and the pretended non-comprehension in the pseudonymous texts.  We cannot understands the pseudonymous voices without understanding Kierkegaard’s fully Christian message, which has many  non-religious aspects with regard to the nature of subjectivity, universality, infinity, and the absolute .

3.  A good discussion of the regard for the welfare of the poorest in classical liberal and libertarian texts.  A useful distinction is made between classical liberal/neo-classical liberal instrumentalism with regard to property rights as part of liberty and absolutist libertarians (Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard) who make property rights absolute.  One problem is that Zwolinski and Tomasi confuse the issue of public reason and concern for the poorest.  Public reason refers to the way of thinking formed by John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971), in which principles of law and government action can only be justified if they can be grounded on an appeal to what can be justified through public agreement on rational grounds, that is what informed public opinion can support when using reason. Rawls had a famous difference principle, which stated that inequality could be justified if benefits the poorest.  However, there could be public reason which appeals to overall welfare of the whole population, rather than the welfare of the poorest.  Another problem is the non-dstinction between voluntary action to asset the poorest and state action, through the tax and benefit system, and mate additional means.  This is apparent when Zwolinski and Tomasi do not make clear that Smith and Locke favour some non-voluntary pursuit of public goods.   Another problem is that Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand may be influential on libertarian movements (though Rand hated libertarian groups not under her thrall), but they were poor thinkers whose writing does not stand much scrutiny.  Another problem is too sharp a distinction between classical or neo-classical liberalism and libertarianism.  Humboldt and Bastiat are in the classical liberal era, but refer to the rejection of all state action beyond the most strict limitations of the nightwatchman state.  In some ways,  the distinction is not sharp enough, as in the above unclarity about voluntary and state action.

NB for link 4.  Classical liberal means Locke and Smith (and maybe Herbert Spencer). Neo-classical liberal means Hayek, Friedman, Jerry Gaus, David Schmidtz, Charles Griwold, Jason Brennan, and Jacob Levy.

Libertarian means Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand.