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What is social Darwinism? What was its effect on social welfare?

Social Darwinism is a belief, popular in the late Victorian era in England, America, and elsewhere, which states that the strongest or fittest should live and flourish in society, while the weak and unfit should be permitted to die. The theory was chiefly explained by Herbert Spencer, whose ethical philosophies always held an elitist view and received a boost from the application of Darwinian ideas such as adaptation and natural selection.

Social Darwinism was used to justify numerous exploitations:

Colonialism was seen as natural and inevitable, and given justification through Social Darwinian ethics – people saw natives as being weaker and more ill to survive, and therefore felt justified in seizing land and resources.

Social Darwinism applied to military action as well; the fight went that the strongest military would win, and would therefore be the fit. Casualties on the losing side, of course, were written off as the natural result of their unfit status. Finally, it gave the ethical approval to brutal colonial governments who used harsh tactics against their subjects.

Social Darwinism applied to a social context too. It gave a justification for the more exploitative forms of capitalism in which workers were paid at times pennies a day for long hours of backbreaking labor. Social Darwinism also warranted big business’ denial to recognize labor unions and similar organizations, and implied that the rich need not donate money to the poor or less fortunate, since such people were less fit anyhow.


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