Social Darwinism is a theory that uses the concept of Natural Law to justify the suffering of the weak. This is viewed as moral, as it serves the greater good of a stronger society. Both are flawed concepts that have been used as grounds for committing crimes against humanity and other acts that are clearly in violation of the intentions of the underlying tenets of Natural Law as well as Darwin’s biological theory of evolution.
There are some flaws with this concept of Natural Law, as it makes the assumption that humans are directed towards truth and goodness. Natural Law also cannot be objective and universal, as it has been used both for and against slavery. Natural Law also has little application to the evolutionary struggle, and daily struggle for food and survival, of wild animals, yet these ideas, in conjunction with the idea of a moral, objective and universal law, gave rise to Social Darwinism.
The relationship between Natural Law and Social Darwinism should not be a surprise to anyone. Natural Law believes that moral values are objective and universal, and directed towards “human flourishing” (MacKinnon, & Fiala 2014, 58). In Social Darwinism the biological theory of evolution is applied in the case of power and societal relations. Losers, whether in battles of might or chance, represent that which takes away from society as a whole simply because they have lost. This then justifies morally a range of behaviors.
Nature is seen in this paradigm as the ultimate proof of a moral law, and Social Darwinism is a reflexive use of Natural Law based on Darwin’s concept of struggle between species. Those that survive give the best chance of survival to future generations. This also justifies disposing of the weak, or treating them as lesser beings. The rich industrialists saw this as having further application in a capitalist world, giving the right to the economically powerful to take exploit the economically disadvantaged to serve the goals of the capitalist elite (MacKinnon, & Fiala 2014, 59). The rich had no responsibility for the less fortunate, as it was part of the natural order and hierarchy with which one should not interfere. The greater good replaced goodness, and the greater good was served by the stronger power.
Darwinism and racism are a natural fit; it provides a ready justification for aggression against another group, or taking their assets and resources from them. Social Darwinism was a justification for colonialism of so called less civilized societies, and this continued until used by the Nazis of Germany in World War II to justify the attempted genocide of the Jewish population.
Just from the name, Social Darwinism, one can assume that the strong and powerful would use it for their own purposes. The concept of race included a hierarchy of those that were considered primitive races, such as Africans who lacked industry, and those that were considered advanced races , due to culture, technology and advanced military power (QuistAdade 2006).
It is no surprise that it could be used to justify eugenics and other racist and unjust programs. It is inherent to the theory that winning requires strength and control of other groups to the benefit of one’s own group. Social Darwinism seems to purport that morality is weakness, at least to the extent it involves not harming others if a personal benefit can be gained from doing so; in fact it seems to demand it and justify it. Morality is no more than a lottery which sacrifices the weak to the strong.
This is fundamentally counter to natural rights as individual birthrights. Further, the existence of Social Darwinism and the extent to which is spread throughout the west in the 19th century is on its own proof that all of human nature is always directed towards truth and good. Sometimes, intentionally or not, it is greedy, protective and harmful towards others. Further, a basic tenet of the theory is simply wrong. All people belong to the same species, and there are no separate races (QuistAdade 2006).
Social Darwinism uses the idea of Natural Law to provide moral justification for uneven treatment of humans and disparity of conditions. Despite the concept of Natural Law and natural rights as those which provide protection for every human life, in the most extreme form of racism the concept has been used as a justification for genocide. Despite the ideals of Natural Law and rights such free will and choice, and even though those truths were held to be self-evident and became the basis of the American constitution, it was simultaneously underlying the concept Social Darwinism as justification for slavery.
Natural Law and natural rights make assumptions about the inherent goodness of humans, while its opponents, such as Hobbes, refer to the innate nature of humans as greedy, evil and power hungry. Through modern psychology we know that human are much more complex than either simplistic view. Many factors influence our moral decisions, such as the context, what others are doing and the extent to which there are cultural norms. It is not simply inherently good or bad.
The concept of Social Darwinism is has been the theoretical basis and justification for the exploitation of others and other, even more tragic outcomes. It represents a misuse of Natural Law that does not serve the intent of Aristotle and others. Further, it makes clear that Natural Law cannot be universal moral objective that it is claimed to be, as it is open to interpretation and can be morally flexible enough to accommodate greed and injustice.
- MacKinnon, B., & Fiala, A. (2014). Ethics: Theory and contemporary issues. Cengage Learning.
- QuistAdade, C. (2006). “What is ‘race’ and what is ‘racism’?”. New African. .447 (Jan. 2006): p68.