During the Gilded Age, wealthy industrialists seemed to welcome the idea suggested by Charles Darwin, referred to as social Darwinism since it favored their stand on wealth and power. However, contradictions arose in putting the idea into practice raising the question, “did wealthy industrialists practice what they preached?”
Social Darwinism is based on the idea that businesses should be given a chance to operate with liberty in a natural environment. In this way, the survival probability of the weaker businesses will be low while that of the strongest businesses will be higher since the stronger businesses will dominate the weaker ones. Basically, it creates a struggle in the business environment and because the stronger businesses have enough resources, the common axiom that “only the strong survive” becomes valid.
The proponent of social Darwinism was a British philosopher called Herbert Spencer and many other scholars, including Andrew Carnegie strongly believed in it. As it seems, there are a number of wealthy industrialists who believed in social Darwinism even though most of them didn’t read about it fully or understood it completely, but most of them would speak about it based on what they heard. This created a state of confusion about the issue whose clarity is evident with both Darwin and Spencer’s works.
In responding to the thesis statement, “Did wealthy industrialists practice what they preached?” This paper will give a critical analysis of social Darwinism in respect to what the wealthy industrialist thought and did in relation to the issue at hand.
As earlier noted, social Darwinism premise was that in a natural environment, where there is a struggle between two species, the stronger one will have an upper hand. In relation to the business environment, well established businesses will dominate over the weaker businesses, only if they are allowed to operate freely and naturally.
In my opinion, the wealthiest industrialists practiced what they preached when it came to social Darwinism only when it favored their self-interests. Based on this, only a few wealthy industrialists acted on it and when some of the supporters, including William Graham Summer, aired their opinion on the best ideals Darwinism as well as laissez faire, the wealthiest industrialists were against them as they saw that some ideals didn’t serve their interests.
The major issues that the paper will look at when it comes to social Darwinism and wealthy industrialists include: the definition and overview, how it began, the wealthy industrialists’ views and whether wealthy industrialists practiced what they preached when it comes to the issue.
Social Darwinism is a theory that was adopted by the wealthy industrialists that states that the individuals perishing in poverty or those struggling in the society, are in those particular positions because of their weaknesses, inability and actions. The theory is based on Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution. In the theory of natural selection, Darwin asserts that only the strong and the fittest species survive in a competition for resources. In this case, the weaker species tend to die and with time vanish. When this happens, the species are thought to have evolved.
In regard to the wealthy industrialists, the theory of social Darwinism was applied with respect to human and the society. As Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher and proponent of social Darwinism put it; the theory of natural selection can be used to explain issues regarding the industries of business and the marketplace.
When the civil war in America, 1861-1865, ended, it marked the beginning of the Reconstruction phase. The North continued with its industrialization while the South which was an agricultural society developed an interest as well in industrialization. The subsequent growth in the industry meant well for the upper class making them wealthier. In this way, they accrued many resources and almost all profits fell on their pockets and their control in the industries became more immense. This situation also meant well to them in the corridors of power as they became more powerful. This was specifically true with the North. In the South, although they were undergoing through industrialization and Reconstruction, they became more conservative and towards the end of the Reconstruction Democrats took control. However, the Panic of 1873 which shook the lives of the American citizens, the Northern industrialists started to develop an interest in what caused instability and poverty. They had to use social Darwinism to explain it.
The wealthy industrialists were of the opinion that all the individuals who were subject to poverty, challenges and instability were in that position because of their weaknesses and actions. The poor were seen as unfit people in the society who were not even worthy to live. In this regard, the wealthy industrialists were referring to the unemployed and the poor population mainly in the North. They stated that any form of protests, labor unions and reform movements waged by them would never succeed.
They used the natural selection theory to explain this assertion stating that they couldn’t do all these because they couldn’t defy the natural law. More so, there was to be no solution to the problems faced by such people and they used social Darwinism to draw this conclusion. They used the term “misfits” to refer to them, adding that they couldn’t compete with the fit. In fact, one Darwinist, William Graham Sumner believed that any attempt to assist the hailing population, the poor and the lower class, meant defying the laws of nature and would add up to the society because it will be like trying to maintain a misfit population.
It is notable that the proponents of social Darwinism opposed any attempt by the government to intervene in both social and economic aspects of the people. They did so because they were afraid that if a law is passed by the Congress then they would lose their wealth through payment of huge taxes. This particular extremism and disregard for the poor and the lack of the will to intervene to save the poor came to be referred to as Laissez Faire. Laissez faire holds on to the premise that individuals should be allowed to operate freely in their own issues without interference. What is notable also is that they celebrated at any support that the government provided for the development of industry and business in the form of grants and even tariffs.
It is evident that the wealthy industrialists practiced what they preached when it comes to social Darwinism. However, it is true to say that they were mainly guided by their selfish interest in doing so. In this case, they can be referred to as typical hypocrites who interpreted the ideals of social Darwinism to coincide with their own interests.
The term “survival for fittest” to the wealthy industrialists meant that the rich will continue to be richer while the poor will stay poorer forever. In this regard, those who are to survive are the members of the upper class who owned the means of production and large businesses. They saw the poor and members of the lower class to be individuals who don’t deserve pity and help. As the theory suggests that only the strong survive, they deemed that helping the poor would mean defying the laws of nature.
It is also evident that the wealthy industrialists practiced what they preach because they didn’t support any government intervention in helping the poor and the lower class. However, when the government tended to provide assistance in terms of grants and tariffs to the businesses and the industries, the wealthy merchants were happy about it. In this regard, it would be true to assert that the wealthy merchants were guided by their selfish interest in practicing what they preached on social Darwinism.
In addition, any force that proved to be against their ideals, especially the proponents of laissez faire economics including William Graham Sumner were ridiculed. Graham did point out that the tycoons of today learned from the mistakes of the Gilded Age industrialists and tend to rally support for tax breaks, less industrial regulation, subsidies and strict trademark laws that benefit them. On the other hand, they oppose with passion social safety net programs which most Americans require for survival. Thus, the advocates of social Darwinism both from the Gilded Age to the present practice what they preach only if it benefits them.
More so, there are some individuals who did not fully understand the ideals social Darwinism and relied on hearsay, but still used it to defend their interests. Some of these individuals, including AndrewCarnegie totally misunderstood the theory, but still believed in it. Andrew interpreted the theory backwards saying that things start from complex to simple which is not the case. Thus, he is a perfect example of ignorant businessmen who were just after serving their self-interests by sticking to the ideals of social Darwinism and interpreting them to suit their needs.
Social Darwinism states that all human beings have a natural right to pursue their own personal agendas without government intervention. It also states that human success highly depends on their strengths and weaknesses. Wealthy industrialists tend to hold on to this in an attempt to help them maintain their status. They do this because they know that when they compete in the industry they are more likely to win and even dominate over the weaker industries. With respect to the middle class people, their view on this is that the proletariat and the peasants will not survive in such a particular environment because they are weak. Thus, this points out also that their interest in putting into practice this theory was to serve their self-interest.
In addition, the tenet of social Darwinism that state that the only point of life is for survival serves the wealthy industrialist interests and that is why they practice it. The tenet holds that one must be able to procreate as much as he/she can and not to worry much about others. When this is put into practice, the poor will actually become poorer because they will not be able to support fully their children. On the other hand, the wealthy industrialists will stay normal and even gain more since they have the resources to feed their children.
In terms of leadership, the wealthy industrialists believed that it was reserved for the economic elite since they were fitter than others. Social Darwinism tended to justify this by creating an assertion that wealth was as a result of a diligent work. Although the wealthy industrialists practiced this and reserved no ruling positions for the commoners, it is true to say that they did so to preserve their status and because it served their interests. Furthermore, it is because such an assertion served their interests and they only ensured this by believing that economic success was a means of survival which is not always true.
In conclusion, the wealthy industrialists truly practiced what they preached when it comes to social Darwinism. Using the USA as a case study, their interpretation of the theory was in a way that it only served their interests and if this was not the case, they would agitate. The wealthy industrialists interpreted and even put into practice the theory only when it favored their own interests and any other interpretation that seemed to interfere with their interests, they stood against it.
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Martin, Michelle E. 2012. “Philosophical and religious influences on social welfare policy in the United States: The ongoing effect of Reformed theology and social Darwinism on attitudes toward the poor and social welfare policy and practice.” Journal Of Social Work 12, no. 1: 51-64.
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Patterson, William R. 2005. “The Greatest Good for the Most Fit?John Stuart Mill, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Social Darwinism.”Journal Of Social Philosophy 36, no. 1: 72-84.
Becquemont, Daniel. 2011. “Social Darwinism: from reality to myth and from myth to reality.” Studies In History & Philosophy Of Biological & Biomedical Sciences 42, no. 1: 12 ↑
LOUIS CARUANA, SJ. 2008. “A NEGLECTED DIFFICULTY WITH SOCIAL DARWINISM.” Heythrop Journal 49, no. 4: 652-658. MARKL, HUBERT. 2010. “Misunderstanding and Misuse of Darwinism.” European Review 18, no. 3: 329-345. ↑
Mullally, John. 2005. “Industrial Darwinism.” MAN: Modern Applications News 39, no. 11: 6. ↑
Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 1993. ↑
Claeys, Gregory. 2000. “The `Survival of the Fittest’ and the origins of Social Darwinism.” Journal Of The History Of Ideas 61, no. 2: 223. ↑
Heyer, P. 1986. Social Darwinism: A Radical Fringe?. Philosophy Of The Social Sciences, 16(2), 233. ↑
Martin, Michelle E. 2012. “Philosophical and religious influences on social welfare policy in the United States: The ongoing effect of Reformed theology and social Darwinism on attitudes toward the poor and social welfare policy and practice.” Journal Of Social Work 12, no. 1: 51-64. ↑
Patterson, William R. 2005. “The Greatest Good for the Most Fit?John Stuart Mill, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Social Darwinism.” Journal Of Social Philosophy 36, no. 1: 72-84. ↑
Crook, Paul. Darwin’s Coat-Tails: Essays on Social Darwinism. New York, NY: Lang, 2007. ↑