Kitcher on social Darwinism

The distinguished philosopher Philip Kitcher has posted an opinion piece on social Darwinism in today’s New York Times. Carefully distinguishing social Darwinism from (its somewhat distant relatives) eugenics and racism, Kitcher notes that

The heart of social Darwinism is a pair of theses: first, people have intrinsic abilities and talents (and, correspondingly, intrinsic weaknesses), which will be expressed in their actions and achievements, independently of the social, economic and cultural environments in which they develop; second, intensifying competition enables the most talented to develop their potential to the full, and thereby to provide resources for a society that make life better for all.

Kitcher relates social Darwinism to, shall we say, certain political positions but argues that if social Darwinism selects for anything, “the most likely traits are a tendency to take whatever steps are necessary to achieve a foreseeable end, a sharp focus on narrowly individual goals and a corresponding disregard for others.” He argues that a society run on social-Darwinist principles “would almost certainly yield a world in which the gap between rich and poor was even larger than it is now.” Indeed, the money quote is to my mind,

Rather than the beauty, wisdom, virtue and nobility [that Herbert] Spencer [who developed the theory of social Darwinism] envisioned arising from fierce competition, the likely products would be laws repealing inheritance taxes and deregulating profitable activities, and a vast population of people whose lives were even further diminished.

Some commenters have noted the irony that those who reject Darwin’s theory of evolution often embrace social Darwinism with open arms. Surprisingly few of the comments I read were critical; I would like to have seen some cogent counterarguments.

Acknowledgment. Thanks to Douglas Theobald for showing me the article.

Nitpick. “Nature, red in tooth and claw” is Tennyson, not Spencer.