Nice guys

The phrase “survival of the fittest” usually gets associated with Darwin, at least from my experience. But the guy who actually coined the phrase was Herbert Spencer. I’m reading a book for class that has to do with whether or not justice should require that governments try to eliminate poverty. Spencer is included in the history of the debate over this, as a person who was strongly – vehemently, even – opposed to the idea.

Whether or not you think that it’s the State’s responsibility to help the poor, Spencer’s views are absolutely shocking. His argument is that the poor should be eliminated altogether, since they are unfit to survive:

“Why the whole effort of nature is to get rid of such – to clear the world of them, and make room for better…. Beings thus imperfect are nature’s failures, and are recalled by her laws when found to be such…. The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many ‘in shallows and miseries’, are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence.” Under “the natural order of things”, society will “constantly excrete its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating members” (Social Statics 379, 380, 324).

Wow. Just wow. He’s also against public schooling. Oh and of course “breeding of the poor” should be kept to a minimum. In no way should “multiplication of the reckless and incompetent” be encouraged. He figured that ideally, the whole class would just die out in a generation or two.

It’s amazing to think that a concept that gets referenced so much today was originally part of a theory as mind-bendingly cold as that.

Speaking of really nice people, I also never knew that Jean-Jacques Rousseau sent each of his five children to an orphanage at birth. We translated a couple of his passages in my French class this past summer, and I had never come across a more pompous author in my life. ┬áMuch of what he’s cited as proposing in this book is a lot more kind and noble than all of that, though, so at least that was a happy surprise.