In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 3, 2012, President Obama called a budget proposal of his Republican opponents in Congress "thinly veiled social Darwinism."
What did the president mean by this comment? The budget proposal in question, he claimed, would require drastic cuts in government programs designed to aid the poor. "And by gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that's built to last — education and training, research and development, our infrastructure — it is a prescription for decline." Further, his opponents reject proposals to increase taxes on the rich.
How can anyone favor refusing government aid to the poor and oppose requiring the rich to pay more in taxes? Obama answered that those who think in this way must believe that the welfare of the rich is of primary significance. The poor, and everyone else, must take whatever "trickles down" to them from the rich.
It is this view that Obama had in mind when he spoke of social Darwinism, but the doctrine is usually characterized in a different way. Darwin, it is alleged, has taught us that evolution is a struggle in which the strong overcome the weak. To aid the poor would, on this view, act counter to progress. It would be an attempt to promote the survival of the unfit, rather than the fit. Instead, we should stand out of the way and allow the poor and improvident to suffer the natural consequences of their feckless ways.
Responses to Obama's speech from defenders of the free market have not been slow in coming. The libertarian philosopher and historian George Smith, among others, has noted that Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, usually classed as the main social-Darwinist defenders of the market, believed nothing like the doctrine just described. Spencer approved of private charity and includes in his Ethics a discussion of the duties of "positive beneficence."
Spencer opposed coercive, state enforced charity, but he favored charity that is voluntarily bestowed.… In one essay he observed that it was becoming more common for the rich to contribute money and time to the poor, and he praised this trend as "the latest and most hopeful fact in human history." Moreover, the final chapters in Spencer's The Principles of Ethics are devoted to the subject of "positive beneficence," the highest form of society in which people voluntarily help those in need.
Further, as the political philosopher Larry Arnhart has pointed out, Darwin did not teach that human evolution depends on ruthless struggle. To the contrary, he emphasized the importance of social unity and cooperation. "'Selfish and contentious people will not cohere,' Darwin declared, and without coherence nothing can be effected. If Social Darwinism is all about selfish competition … then Darwin was not as Social Darwinist."
The notion of the struggle for existence as Darwin borrowed it from Malthus is to be understood in a metaphorical sense.… It need not always be a war of extermination such as the relation between man and morbific microbes. Reason has demonstrated that, for man, the most adequate means of improving his condition is social cooperation and division of labor.