In a speech widely considered to be his first blow in the general election campaign against likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney, President Obama last week denounced the budget proposal put forth by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. Whereas Romney has described Ryan’s budget as “marvelous,” Obama made his own opinion of the budget clear:
Disguised as [a] deficit reduction plan, it’s really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It’s nothing but thinly-veiled Social Darwinism. It’s antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everyone who's willing to work for it— a place where prosperity doesn’t trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class. And by gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that's built to last—education and training; research and development—it’s a prescription for decline.
Those comments have been a hot topic on the news shows, with Ryan himself weighing in to describe Obama’s remarks as a “verbal tantrum” more petulant than presidential. “He’s trying to use this kind of rhetoric to distort away from his failed record,” Ryan told NBC.
Yet, writing at the NYT blog The Stone, philosopher Philip Kitcher notes that while the common conception of “Social Darwinism” actually has little to do with the ideas of Charles Darwin, the term as generally understood does, in fact, apply to this Republican budget proposal. He outlines the concept’s meaning:
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. It is not entirely implausible to think that doctrines like these stand behind a vast swath of Republican proposals, including the recent budget, with its emphasis on providing greater economic benefits to the rich, transferring the burden to the middle-classes and poor, and especially in its proposals for reducing public services. Fuzzier versions of the theses have pervaded Republican rhetoric for the past decade (and even longer).
There are very good reasons to think both theses are false. Especially in the case of the Republican dynasties of our day, the Bushes and the Romneys, success has been facilitated by all kinds of social structures, by educational opportunities and legal restrictions, that were in place prior to and independently of their personal efforts or achievements. For those born into environments in which silver spoons rarely appear—Barack Obama, for instance—the contributions of the social environment are even more apparent. Without enormous support, access to inspiring teachers and skillful doctors, the backing of self-sacrificing relatives and a broader community, and without a fair bit of luck, the vast majority of people, not only in the United States but throughout the world, would never achieve the things of which they are, in principle, capable. In short, Horatio Alger needs lots of help, and a large thrust of contemporary Republican policy is dedicated to making sure he doesn’t get it.
Second, even if rigorous competition enables the talented — or, better, the lucky — to realize their goals, it is completely unwarranted to suppose that their accomplishments will translate into any increased benefit for the overwhelming majority of those who are less fortunate. The strenuous struggle social Darwinism envisages might select for something, but 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. We might reasonably expect that a world run on social Darwinist lines would generate a cadre of plutocrats, each resolutely concerned to establish a dynasty and to secure his favored branch of industry against future competition. In practical terms it would almost certainly yield a world in which the gap between rich and poor was even larger than it is now.
Late last year we published Kitcher’s The Ethical Project, a bold new approach to the problems of moral philosophy. Rather than attribute the ethical impulse to divine guidance or philosophical contention, he argues, we should see ethics as an evolved characteristic of humanity. So, having also previously published on Darwin, evolution, and faith, Kitcher is especially well-suited to weigh in on this latest star turn for Social Darwinism in our political theater.
Incidentally, another point of Kitcher’s that caught our eye in his post at The Stone was his reflection on each individual’s reliance on public support to reach their potential:
If the vast majority of citizens (or, globally, of people) are to enjoy any opportunities to develop the talents they have, they need the social structures social Darwinism perceives as pampering and counter-productive. Human well-being is profoundly affected by public goods, a concept that is entirely antithetical to social Darwinism or to contemporary Republican ideology, with their mythical citizens who can fulfill their potential without rich systems of social support. It is a callous fiction to suppose that what is needed is less investment in education, health care, public transportation and affordable public housing.
That point, especially given Kitcher’s gesture towards global context, actually neatly echoes the argument put forth by Martha Nussbaum in last year’s Creating Capabilities. Over at our website you can watch a short video of Nussbaum explaining the capabilities approach to human development. Whatever your stance on Republican versus Democratic U.S. budget proposals, Nussbaum’s remarks, coupled with Kitcher’s essay, help to make clear the global ethical implications of an ostensibly national debate.