Saturday, June 03, 2017

The Darwinian Critique of Trump's Social Darwinism

As President, Barack Obama often criticized the social policies of the Republican Party as based on what he called "Social Darwinism--every man or woman for him or herself."  Now, Obama must see Donald Trump's presidency as continuing in that tradition of Social Darwinism.  After all, Trump has declared: "Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat. You just can't let people make a sucker out of you."

Recently, two of Trump's top advisers--H. R. McMaster and Gary Cohn--have applied this sort of thinking in an article in The Wall Street Journal to explain Trump's foreign policy.  They write: "The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a 'global community' but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage." 

Yesterday, David Brooks wrote an article for the New York Times on the disturbing implications of that sentence: "That sentence is the epitome of the Trump project.  It asserts that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs.  It grows out of a worldview that life is a competitive struggle for gain.  It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath."

McMaster and Cohn might respond to Brooks that he has taken their sentence out of context, and that the rest of their article speaks about "fostering cooperation and strengthening relationships with our allies and partners" and about "reciprocity in trade and commerce" based on the principle that "America will treat others as they treat us."  But, still, that one sentence does seem to emphasize the primacy of selfishness in the competitive pursuit of gain.

That is what Obama has identified as Social Darwinism.  But as I have written in a post responding to Obama, the idea of Social Darwinism as fabricated by Richard Hofstadter is contradicted by the writings of Charles Darwin and Darwinian evolutionary psychologists.  In Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought, he never proves that Darwin himself was a Social Darwinist.  Hofstadter comes close to admitting this when he says that "Darwin himself was not an unequivocal social Darwinist" (238).  Hofstadter offers direct quotations from Darwin's Descent  on only two pages of the book (91-92).  Those quotations suggest that Darwin could not have been a Social Darwinist of the sort portrayed by Hofstadter, because they show Darwin stressing the natural sociality of human beings and their natural moral sense based on sympathy for the needs of their fellow human beings.  "Selfish and contentious people will not cohere," Darwin declared, "and without coherence nothing can be effected."  If Social Darwinism is all about selfish competition, as Hofstadter and Obama would say, then Darwin was not a Social Darwinist.

As Brooks indicates in his article, evolutionary psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have confirmed and deepened Darwin's insight about the evolutionary roots of our natural sociality and morality, which shows that the thinking of Trump and his advisers is based on an error about evolved human nature.  Brooks writes: "The error is that it misunderstands what drives human action.  Of course, people are driven by selfish motivations--for individual status, wealth and power.  But they are also motivated by another set of drives--for solidarity, love and moral fulfillment--that are equally and sometimes more powerful."

Brooks also observes: "Good leaders like Lincoln, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Reagan understand the selfish elements that drive human behavior, but they have another foot in the realm of the moral motivations.  They seek to inspire faithfulness by showing good character.  They try to motivate action by pointing toward great ideals."  Trump and his advisers dismiss this moral realm as a veneer of hypocrisy that hides the reality of life as nothing more than a competitive fight for selfish advantage.  And Trump's bad character--his lack of any moral or intellectual virtues--shows what someone becomes when he believes this.

It is especially troubling, therefore, that Trump has been supported by the Claremont Straussians, who revere the good character of statesmen like Lincoln, Churchill, and Reagan (and perhaps Teddy Roosevelt!).

Nevertheless, the shame that most Americans feel because of the disgusting character that Trump projects to the world and the dishonor that this brings to America is itself a manifestation of that moral sense of our evolved human nature.

I have written a series of posts on the evolutionary moral psychology of Jonathan Haidt (here, here, here, and here). and David Brooks (here, here, and here).


CJColucci said...

It has been a long time since I read Hofstadter, but my dim recollection is that its thesis, whatever else one may think of it, did not depend on whether what has been called "social Darwinism" was a correct interpretation of Darwin by those identified as "social Darwinists." Do I misremember the fact or otherwise miss the significance of whether social Darwinism is, really, Darwinism?

Larry Arnhart said...

I see your point here. But Hofstadter never said that what he was called Social Darwinism had almost nothing to do with Darwin or with Darwinian science.

Roger Sweeny said...

CJColucci, Thomas Leonard, an historian at Princeton, deals with those issues in a good, well written article, "Origins of the myth of social Darwinism: The ambiguous legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought.