The Collected Thoughts and Musings of an Aspiring Political Philosopher

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Social-Darwinism and Catastrophic Human Events: Buddha Might Have Had Something There

Share This

John S. Cline
December 19, 2008


What drives recurring, preventable, human-caused catastrophic events in society? Are they inevitable, a part of human nature, or are they rooted in some unconscious mentality which can be changed? Why are the responses to those who experience or witness catastrophic human events typically ones of shock, communality, and altruism? Social Darwinism was a 19th Century social philosophy which dignified and lionized the weak vs. strong argument, summarized by the concept of “survival of the fittest”, and though discredited formally, still pervades society today. To answer these questions, I will scrutinize Social Darwinism, define catastrophic human events, and then examine the phenomenon of “shared humanity” that arises during and after such events. Finally, I will show that compassion, not competition, is the natural “ground state” for humanity.


According to The Buddha, a life of self-interest is a life of suffering. However, he also said “With our thoughts we make the world”, implying that our suffering is self-inflicted (Byrom, 1976). For thousands of years, humans have believed that the strong hold power over the weak. As long as there has been this intrinsic belief in the inequality between the strong and the weak, there has been a corresponding stream of catastrophic events inflicted upon society’s weakest (see Appendix, Timeline 1). It is during and after such catastrophes that the veneer of self-interest is stripped away, resulting in a natural outpouring of compassion and communality towards those most harmed. Therefore, despite strongly-held belief in the “survival of the fittest”, humanity’s most authentic responses to others are those of empathy.

Survival of the Fittest and Social Darwinism

Mankind’s shared belief, that the strong naturally hold power over the weak, and that the weakest will die off to leave the strong to survive and reproduce, is derived from observing nature and our own lives. This “common knowledge” was framed as a social theory in the mid-19th Century with the advent of Social Darwinism. Broadly, Social Darwinism can be defined as an application of the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) formalized as a set of socio-economic principles (Wright, 2003). Promulgated primarily by Darwin’s contemporary Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who coined the term “survival of the fittest” (usually abbreviated SOTF)[*] and sought passionately to apply evolutionary concepts to socio-economic and ideological realities, Social Darwinism became hugely popular in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries (Weikart, 1998). Although roundly discredited today (and even in its heyday (Ritchie, 1891)) as an overall theory of socio-economic reform, SOTF in the form of strict utilitarianism still pervades societies across the world, especially among the political far right (Wright). Some of the more controversial and often damaging aspects of strict utilitarianism SOTF include laissez-faire capitalism in the form of unregulated free markets, social engineering ideas such as eugenics efforts involving the forced sterilization of mental patients, and ethnic cleansing or genocidal efforts such as the Holocaust or Darfur (Social Darwinism, 2008; Wright). Laissez-faire capitalism is the basis of the conservative United States Republican Party official platform, despite repeated evidence that under-regulated capitalism creates self-destructive markets and harms society (Krugman, 2008; Free and Fair Trade, 2008). Because SOTF principles are often taken for granted as “the way things are” and are seldom consciously considered, they often form a foundational basis for disparities within society, often with catastrophic effects for certain vulnerable groups (Wright). In essence, then, SOTF is the concept that cruelty, greed, and domination, however mild or extreme, are the natural and necessary states of humanity, and that teleological concerns about duty and morality are between individuals, not society or government as a whole, and in either case should be strictly limited.

[*] For reasons of brevity and clarity, both the terms Social Darwinism and “survival of the fittest” will be referred to collectively as SOTF throughout most of this paper.

Catastrophic Human Events

For the purposes of this paper, a catastrophic human event is any otherwise preventable human-caused event which, either directly or indirectly, by design or by negligence, causes wide-spread suffering, deprivation, anxiety, or death. Examples of this include: wars; economic collapses; discrimination; ethnic cleansing, eugenics efforts; disparities in the ability to create wealth or acquire education; famines; pollution; inadequate healthcare. These are not necessarily isolated events; in many cases, they interrelate and amplify one another, such as the 2008-2009 financial crisis. In the United States, we have wealth disparity as great as any since the Great Depression, combined with rising healthcare expenses, two major wars paid for with deficit spending instead of tax increases, deep cuts to social “safety-net” programs, restrictions on bankruptcy protection, and overextended consumer credit, all mixed in with unregulated financial markets and a “housing bubble”. When the unstable housing market collapsed, the entire global economy, which depends heavily on the United States economy, went into free-fall as well (Gross, 2005; Klein, 2007; Krugman, 2008). Most hurt in the collapse are those in the middle and lower classes whose social safety-nets were cut, or who lost their homes, or who had to declare bankruptcy due to enormous medical bills (Effects, 2008; Americans Rank, 2008). Those in the upper class who are most responsible for the collapse are simply restructuring their portfolios, collecting huge bonuses, and asking for government bailouts, meanwhile blaming it all on unforeseeable market forces and the burdens imposed by labor unions (Pearlstein, 2008). For every example given here, there is at least one distinct sub-set of humanity (not necessarily a minority; think Pareto’s “80/20” Principle) which experiences suffering and other distinct sub-sets of humanity which remain largely unaffected or even benefit from the suffering of others (Weikart, 1998; Klein, 2007; Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF), 2003; Wright, 2003).

Connections and Consequences

It may seem common sense to believe that when selfishness, greed, and amorality are institutionalized in societal policy, there would be great outrage and immediate changes would occur. Contrary to common sense, however, most societies have these traits fundamentally ensconced in an almost invisible “normality”. SOTF principles are interwoven throughout public policy, models of group behavioral dynamics, and conscious or unconscious interactions between individuals, corporations, and nations, with sometimes healthy, usually unhealthy consequences (Young, 1985). Businesses operate through SOTF principles; competition is not only the norm, it is the primary means of growth and innovation (Gilbert, 2007). However, when these principles are unrestricted, as in monopolization or cartelization, corporate growth becomes cancerous (Kaplow & Shapiro, 2007). The same can be said for governmental policy; limiting access to certain social programs helps society in general by eliminating wasteful spending (Greenburg, 1992). However, “purist” Social Darwinism would eliminate all social welfare programs, leaving millions of people vulnerable to poverty, disease, and homelessness (Ritchie, 1891, p. 59; CRF, 2003).

Although any socio-economic or cultural shift can bring about catastrophic human events, the guiding principle behind SOTF is that inequality and struggle are good for a society; they are engines for social dynamism and improvement. To a Social Darwinist, a society of equals is stagnant and dying (Weikart, 1998). When societal ethics are warped into a consequentialist “ends justify the means” paradigm, the delegitimization or dehumanization of entire sectors of society occurs, often followed by severe repercussions (Klein, 2007). Businesses free from restrictions use barbaric tactics which may include sweatshops, child labor, poverty wages, and even enlisting soldiers to protect their interests (Bananas!, 2007). When enough people are faced with the consequences of unfettered business practices, outrage and empathy for the victims result in massive reforms in trade policies, child labor and wage laws, and restrictions on products made with prison or slave labor (Roosevelt Approves, 1907; Goodson, 2008). Nazi fascism placed SOTF at the foundation of its governing methodology, leading directly to the horrific events of the Holocaust (Holocaust, 2008, pp. 495-496). These atrocities caused such worldwide revulsion that floods of financial and other aid flowed to victims, immigration restrictions were eased, and the modern state of Israel was created (Aftermath, 2008). Despite the lessons of history, we still see SOTF principles at work in gender and racial discrimination, school vouchers, healthcare access, and the 2008-2009 financial crisis (Konner, 1999; Degler, 1991; Kaiser, 2005; Asma, 1993; Krugman, 2008).

Collective Compassion: Universality of Humanity

In times of large-scale or sudden strife, an effect is observed in which the population undergoing the most suffering reacts with what has been described as “collective shock”, in which it is vulnerable to any number of radical changes (Klein, 2008, p. 17). It is during these times when humans reach out to one another across streets, across nations, even across tense battlefields (Tran, 2006, p. 9; Suro, 1992; Rees, 2004). One example is the collective sympathy expressed across the world, even in countries that were considered potential enemies, immediately following the events of 9/11. For just a few days or weeks, people from around the world shared in America’s grief and pain (Wall, 2001; Ranjan, 2008). Another example would be the first Christmas in the trenches of WWI Europe. All up and down the trench-lines, soldiers on both sides began singing Christmas carols, exchanging gifts, and even playing games together. An informal truce was declared, not by the leaders of the various armies, but by the soldiers themselves. One soldier who was there, Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons, recorded in his diary: “The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvellously [sic] wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time” (Rees). Largely due to the efforts of senior officers and political figures on both sides, who recognized the danger such brief but touching breaks in the fighting had on their efforts to paint the enemy as inhuman and monstrous, the Christmas Truce was, with minor exceptions, never repeated again during the war (Rees). What is important is that it happened, even if only once. It was a moment of clarity, when soldiers who had been viciously killing one another for months and were freezing in blood-soaked trenches on opposite sides of a bomb-blasted landscape realized they shared a common belief in the sanctity and peace of Christmas, and were moved to embrace each other’s common humanity.

Psychologists, sociologists, philosophers and theologians give varied answers to why compassion and a shared sense of community arise during crisis. All make teleological arguments, ranging from the economic to the moral. Harvard economists Louis Kaplow and Steven Shavell argue that acts of compassion are motivated by self-interest to avoid a sense of moral guilt or to draw approbation (2002). Australian philosopher John Wright shows that although compassion violates natural laws, it demonstrates our humanity. He writes, "As TH Huxley remarked, doing the morally right thing often consists of doing the precise opposite of what nature demands. Kindness, charity, forgiveness and a concern for justice are often precisely the opposite of that which most increases the chances of survival in nature, or success in the free market" (2003, p. 137). Yet another perspective comes from Mark Collier, University of Minnesota professor of philosophy, who explains how a shared sense of humanity comes about. “Even though we do [not] actually feel the pain of those remote from us, in other words, we can infer that we would share their feelings if we found ourselves in their circumstances” (2008). Essentially, most would agree on simple human empathy; feeling what others are going through because they either remember or can imagine themselves experiencing the same thing, and responding by expressing compassion and a sense of “oneness” towards total strangers (Fox, 2006; Heim, 2003; Peart & Levy, 2004).

Empathy at the Core

Empathy, and its related social emotions of compassion, love, altruism, and selflessness, acts like a social reset button. Social, political, economic, and cultural change occurs when these emotions are expressed through individual and collective action. During catastrophes, vulnerable groups tend to gather together for protection, protest, and occasionally, revolution; outside groups tend to reach out to those affected with charitable giving, activism, joint protest, or actively joining or supporting a revolt (Groves, 1995; Sinclair, 1996).

If the mechanism driving collective altruistic action is usually reactive, how can it be elicited proactively? Many charitable and activist organizations have social outreach programs, including elementary and secondary school teaching modules, which help to instill a sense of shared humanity in current and future generations (Lester, Ma, Lee, & Lambert, 2006). In addition, government social programs and policies help to reduce disparity and encourage community involvement (Klasen, 2008).


Social Darwinism, despite being officially discredited as a viable social theory, is alive and well, although the same cannot be said for societies deeply affected by its principles. Even when only mildly applied, disparity is created: winners vs. losers, rich vs. poor. These disparities often grow until the worst-affected sectors of society experience some form of catastrophe, resulting in a rebound effect of an outpouring of compassion and a collectivist communality, either within the immediate society or sometimes internationally as well. This leads to efforts to ameliorate the worst effects of the catastrophe, and sometimes to individual, educational, social, economic, cultural or governmental changes in an attempt to reactively or proactively prevent future similar occurrences. Throughout history, this rebound has, to varying degrees, been the natural effect of experiencing or witnessing tragedy. It would seem that despite the “common sense” belief that struggle is the natural state of humanity, when faced with pain, an even more natural state is in fact exposed: compassion. Or, as The Buddha put it, “Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.”


Aftermath of the Holocaust, The. (2008, December 4). United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Holocaust Encyclopedia. Retrieved December 10, 2008 from

Americans Rank Health Care Near the Top of Their Economic Woes, New Poll Finds. (2008, April 29). News Release. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved December 19, 2008 from

Asma, S. (1993, September). The New Social Darwinism: Deserving Your Destitution. Humanist, 53(5), 10-12. Retrieved December 5, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.

Bananas! How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World. (Brief article)(Book review). (2007, Oct 1). Publishers Weekly, 254(39). p.45(1). Retrieved December 04, 2008, from Academic OneFile via Gale.

Byrom, T. (Ed.). (1976). Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF). (2003, Spring). Social Darwinism and American Laissez-faire Capitalism. Retrieved November 27, 2008 from (2008). Retrieved December 3, 2008 from

Collier, M. (2008). Hume’s Theory of Moral Imagination: Sympathy, Compassion, and the General Point of View. Academic Paper in Progress. Online (PDF). University of Minnesota Morris. Retrieved December 4, 2008 from

Degler, C. N. (1991). In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought. New York : Oxford University Press.

Effects of the financial crisis on small business. (2008, November 20). Testimony by Federal Reserve Governor Randall S. Kroszner before the Committee on Small Business, U.S. House of Representatives. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Retrieved December 19, 2008 from

Fox, M. A. (2006). “Boundless Compassion”: The Contemporary Relevance of Schopenhauer's Ethics. The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms, 11(4), 369-387. Retrieved December 05, 2008, doi:10.1080/1084877060076608

Free and Fair Trade. (2008). 2008 Republican Platform. Republican National Committee. Retrieved December 19, 2008 from

Gilbert, R. J. (2007, January 27).Competition and Innovation. Competition Policy Center. Paper CPC07-069. Retrieved December 4, 2008 from

Goodson, S. (2008). Turn-of-the-Century Reform Movements: The Populists and the Progressives. Retrieved December 10, 2008 from

Greenberg, D. H. (1992). Conceptual Issues in Cost-Benefit Analysis of Welfare-to-Work Programs. Contemporary Policy Issues, 10(4), 51. Retrieved December 4, 2008, from Research Library Core database. (Document ID: 319066).

Gross, D. (2005, May 8). The Perfect Storm That Could Drown the Economy. The New York Times. Retrieved December 19, 2008 from

Groves, J. (1995, August). Learning to feel: the neglected sociology of social movements. Sociological Review, 43(3), 435-461. Retrieved December 5, 2008, doi:10.1111/1467-954X.ep9508225681

Heim, M. (2003). The Aesthetics of Excess. American Academy of Religion. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 71(3), 531-554. Retrieved December 5, 2008, from Humanities Module database. (Document ID: 404218511).

Holocaust, The. (2008). In William Darity, Jr. (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 3(2), pp. 494-498. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved December 04, 2008, from Gale Virtual Reference Library via Gale.

Homer-Dixon, T. (2006). The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Washington: Island Press.

Kaiser, D. (2005, April 23). Social Darwinism Again. History Unfolding. Blog. Retrieved December 5, 2008 from

Kaplow, L. & Shapiro, C. (2007, January 16). Antitrust. Competition Policy Center. Retrieved December 4, 2008 from

Kaplow, L. & Shavell, S. (2002, February). Human Nature and the Best Consequentialist Moral System. Academic Paper. Online (PDF). Retrieved December 3, 2008 from

Klasen, Stephan (2008). The Efficiency of Equity. Review of Political Economy, 20(2), 257-274. Retrieved December 05, 2008, doi:10.1080/09538250701819719

Klein, N. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt.

Konner, M. (1999, July). Darwin’s Truth, Jefferson’s Vision. The American Prospect, p.30. Retrieved December 04, 2008, from Academic OneFile via Gale.

Krugman, P. (2008, October). The International Finance Multiplier. Online (PDF). Retrieved December 4, 2008 from

Lester, B., Ma, L., Lee, O., & Lambert, J. (2006, March 18). Social Activism in Elementary Science Education: A science, technology, and society approach to teach global warming. International Journal of Science Education, 28(4), 315-339. Retrieved December 5, 2008, doi:10.1080/09500690500240100

Olansky, M. (2006, August 14). Acts of God, or Acts of Reckless Man? Human Events, 62(27). Social Science Module p. 14.

Peart, S. J.; Levy, D. M. (2004). Sympathy and its discontents: ‘Greatest happiness’ versus the general good’. The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 11(3) 453–478. doi: 10.1080/0967256042000246502

Pearlstein, S. (2008, December 10). A Perfect Storm? No, a Failure of Leadership. The Washington Post. Retrieved December 19, 2008 from

Ranjan, A. (2008, August 7). Rep. Moore Introduces Resolution Concerning U.S. International Diplomacy. US Fed News Service, Including US State News. Wirefeed. Retrieved December 3, 2008, from General Interest Module database. (Document ID: 1526786221).

Rees, S. (2004). The Christmas Truce, 1914. Retrieved December 2, 2008, from

Ritchie, D. G. (1891). Darwinism and Politics: With Two Additional Essays on Human Evolution. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co.

Roosevelt Approves the Consumers' League. (1907, February 1). The New York Times. Retrieved December 10, 2008 from

Social Darwinism. (2008). Science Encyclopedia, The History of Ideas Vol. 5. Retrieved December 3, 2008 from

Sinclair, U. (1996). The Cry for Justice (Rev. Ed.). New York, NY: Barricade Books.

Suro, R. (1992, September 3). AFTER THE STORM; Overwhelmed by Kindness, Louisiana Begins Rebuilding. The NewYork Times. Retrieved December 3, 2008 from

Tran, E. (2006, March 22). Community Recovery from Political Violence: Ethnography of Social Trauma. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Town & Country Resort and Convention Center, San Diego, California, USA. Online (PDF). Retrieved December 3, 2008 from

Wall, J. (2001, September). Eyes to see, ears to hear. The Christian Century, 118(26), 45. Retrieved December 3, 2008, from Humanities Module database. (Document ID: 83671032).

Weikart, R. (1998, February). Laissez-Faire Social Darwinism and Individualist Competition in Darwin and Huxley. European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms, 3(1), pp. 17-30. Retrieved December 1, 2008, doi:10.1080/10848779808579861

Wright, J. (2003). The Ethics of Economic Rationalism. Sydney, N.S.W., Australia: University of New South Wales Press Ltd.

Young, R. M. (1985). Darwinism is Social. In David Kohn (ed.). The Darwinian Heritage. (pp. 609-638). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Timeline 1.