What Is Wrong With Social Darwinism? Part 1

As we saw in the previous post describing social Darwinism, it was a disastrous experiment for mankind in the twentieth century, but need it have been?  Certainly some dastardly individuals justified their tyrannical reigns with it, but we must take a sober look at the theory and evaluate its ability to explain the moral truths that were discussed earlier.

The ethics of social Darwinism are largely relativistic and subjective.  Any society could develop an ethical justification for its moral actions by claiming that their goal was the advancement of humankind.  This is a seemingly noble goal, but the definition of the “advancement of mankind” is hardly universal.  Under social Darwinism, each society ultimately chooses its own definition and then forges ahead with its own effectual policies. 

A totally relativistic system such as social Darwinism, however, runs afoul of our innate sense of moral right and wrong.  For example, we intuitively know that murdering innocent people is morally abhorrent.  We know that murdering millions of innocent people is especially horrendous.  Certainly a supporter of social Darwinism could argue that the goal of producing a superior race of humans justifies the means (murdering innocents) of reaching that goal.  This utilitarian view, however, does not escape the basic moral intuition that mass extermination of human life is morally wrong.  The end cannot possibly justify the means and so social Darwinism violates our intuitive knowledge of right and wrong.

Second, moral rules are non-physical entities, but strict adherents to social Darwinism believe mankind evolved by completely natural and material processes.  To a Darwinist there is only time, space, and matter, and therefore everything in the universe must be explained by those three things.  Since our moral intuition is not discovered by our five senses, but by self-reflection, then there must be an immaterial or “soulish” aspect to a human person.  Any ethical theory that denies the existence of non-physical objects seems to contradict our innate ability to know objective, moral truth. 

Third, moral norms are a form of communication between two intelligent agents.  Who are the two agents in social Darwinism?  The ultimate source of morality for the social Darwinist is a random, natural, and unguided process (i.e., Darwinian evolution).   In other words, the transmitter is not an intelligent agent and does not possess any sort of rational faculties.  Therefore, there is clearly no communication happening at all, so again the theory violates our moral common sense criteria.

Much more can be said about social Darwinism and we will continue this analysis in a future post!

  • You wrote, “For example, we intuitively know that murdering innocent people is morally abhorrent. We know that murdering millions of innocent people is especially horrendous.”

    Do we “know” this? A quick perusal of the Old Testament will show that there was a lot of murder of innocents going on, both by the Hebrews and others. The Christian Crusaders perpetrated quite a lot of the murder of innocents as did the Ottoman Empire.

    In both World Wars — but particularly WWII — one strategy that both sides employed was attacking and/or bombing cities filled with young children and senior citizens (i.e., innocents).

    In our current time, all sides in Iraq have been guilty of blowing up schools and hospitals. Again, both such institutions are filled with innocents.

    Consequently, history informs us that the murdering of innocents is morally wrong ONLY when the innocents being slaughtered are on your side. When it comes to the innocents of your adversaries, the so-called moral argument is jettisoned quickly.

    In other words, this “intuition” has proven to be relative.

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  • Bill Pratt

    The fact that people violate objective moral laws in no way proves that they do not exist, or that we do not know them. All you have shown in your comment is that people do bad things. So what? I’m not arguing that people don’t do bad things. I’m arguing that almost everyone knows basic moral truths through intuition, and whether they choose to follow these moral truths is another question altogether. Does the fact that people cheat on their taxes prove that there is no existing legislation that pronounces this a crime? Does the fact that I lie to a pollster asking me about my behavior mean I don’t know that lying is wrong? Of course not.

    What you need to prove is that people don’t intuitively know that murdering innocents are wrong. Based on personal experience coupled with a knowledge of the history of moral legislation for the last 4,000 years, a strong case can be made that every society, in every time period, since the dawn of history, has known that killing innocent people is wrong. In fact, if you can find a group of people who actually believe that killing innocent people is always moral, please let me know. I have never seen such evidence.

  • Based on personal experience coupled with a knowledge of the history of moral legislation for the last 4,000 years, a strong case can be made that every society, in every time period, since the dawn of history, has known that killing innocent people is wrong.

    While it may be true that people believe that murder is wrong, there’s an equally rational explanation for this belief OTHER than morality.

    People have learned that indiscriminate killing tears at the social fabric and cohesion of any given society. It is difficult (if not impossible) to navigate the complex matrix of social relationships IF people are allowed to kill people who irritate them or look at them in the wrong way.

    Consequently, an atheist society would construct the same kinds of prohibitions against murder that a religious society would.

  • Bill Pratt

    I guess Germany under Hitler, Russia under Stalin, China under Mao Tse Tung, and Cambodia under Pol Pot would be exceptions to your theory? All of these were atheist regimes in the 20th century who killed somewhere around 100 million of their own people.

    Having said that, I would agree that almost all atheists do understand murder is wrong, and they do not need religion to tell them this. God gave everyone a moral conscience, even atheists.

  • Religious societies have broken down in bloodshed just as often as the atheist ones have.

  • Bill Pratt

    Seth,
    All kinds of societies break down into bloodshed, but Christian societies have never broken down to the extent of atheist societies. You can add up the Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch trials, and so forth, and you won’t even crack 1 million lives lost. Granted, any life that Christians have caused to end for unjust reaons is terrible, but atheists have far more to explain on this issue than Christians.

  • I guess Germany under Hitler, Russia under Stalin, China under Mao Tse Tung, and Cambodia under Pol Pot would be exceptions to your theory? All of these were atheist regimes in the 20th century who killed somewhere around 100 million of their own people.

    Hitler was Roman Catholic, so you need to remove him from the list. Also, the communism practice by Stalin & Mao was both a political system AND a religious one. So, while not Christian, it would be hard to argue that either was non-religious.

    but Christian societies have never broken down to the extent of atheist societies…

    Explain this nonsensical statement to America’s indigenous people. It is estimated that Christian America exterminated between 65 – 80% of the American Indian population over the course of 250 years. While the total numbers killed pale in comparison to the others listed, the percentage killed is far higher.

    If we add in all the indigenous raped and murdered by Christian nations in Central and South America as well as on the African continent, it’s not a pretty picture at all. Also remember that America’s slavery of blacks was strongly supported by Christian churches, both in the south AND the north.

  • Bill Pratt

    Hitler was a Roman Catholic? In what sense? Did he actively worship Jesus Christ? Did he follow the tenets of the New Testament? Did he love his neighbor? Did he do any of the things that a devout Roman Catholic might do?

    There is overwhelming evidence that the Nazis planned to eliminate Christianity at the end of WWII. In addition, almost every historian agrees that Hitler was not a practicing Christian during his Nazi rule. Maybe he was not a strict atheist, but he was heavily influenced by Nietzsche and Darwin, neither great friends of Christianity.

    I agree that Christians have done horrible things, but my point was that atheist regimes have taken brutality to heights Christians never dreamed of.

    With regard to slavery, it was Christians, namely men like William Wiberforce, who finally convinced Europe and America to stop the slave trade.