The meanderings of public discussion here at What’s Wrong with the World have recently turned on disputes over a pair of phrases — Social Darwinism and Social Democracy — that, though similar in appearance, in meaning exhibit a basic antagonism. It’s natural enough that they would be opponents in public disputation.
Now then, let us consider a Social Democrat who feels he has his opponent dead to rights. He’s been arguing with the Social Darwinists for a long time and by golly he’s nailed ‘em.
The next question is, Is he concern with persuasion? He can sit in judgment of his adversary, quietly enjoying the pleasures of smugly self-confidence; Lord knows we all fall into that vice sometimes. It may be the most common sin of the polemist. But let’s stipulate that our Social Democrat, being an earnest and good-willed man, is sincerely concerned with the art of persuading by reasoned discourse.
Our Social Darwinist, meanwhile, is very far from the caricature sketched out by bitter adversaries. “There is not a more perilous or immoral habit of mind than the sanctifying of success,” wrote Lord Acton. The object of his epigrammatic censure was Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, who had abundant success but would never have dreamed of assigning agency for it to his genes, as another picture of the Social Darwinist has it. It is an interesting aside that both the Calvinist and the Darwinist, strictly speaking, would in fact deny any human agency at all; but let’s stipulate that our Social Darwinist is also an earnest and good-willed man. He is no mere sanctifier of success. His scope of approbation is much wider than merely the extant social state.
For instance, our Social Darwinist is perfectly content to allow that altruism is defensible by reason. He was sharp enough to have discovered the telling absence of children in the image of Randian hero — the perfectly free man: he was not burdened by dependent children, or sick aged parents, or imbecile cousins, or crankish and ill-functioning old beloved uncles. It was unthinkable that he would be; reason would not permit it. The novelist’s trick was to simply leave such encumbrances out.
So our Social Darwinist has discerned this weakness in the purely material sanctifying of success. He can see well enough that the wider network of family, neighbor and close friend discloses a legitimate claim of obligation upon the liberty of the individual, and upon the resources generated by his success. He can see this not least because it is apparent to him that his own success is bound up in the success of his immediate fellows.
But the Social Darwinist is far from persuaded that this circle of obligation can so easily be expanded much farther than that. His reasoning does not disclose how distant unsuccessful stranger A makes a legitimate claim upon the liberty and resources of successful strangers B through Z; still less that this obligation is discharged by the creation of vast impersonal welfare bureaucracies.
The Social Democrat’s challenge is before him. It is perhaps no easy task of persuasion, but at least the outline of the means by which it can be achieved is available. He must leave behind this matter of success; he must set aside material conditions in all their particularities for the moment and instead concern himself with a moral or even theological argument. He must show the Social Darwinist that reason discloses obligations potentially compassing the whole nation or even all of mankind. He must actually show that all men are brothers. He must bring persuasive powers to bear, sufficient to convince the fortunate man of his obligation to his unfortunate brothers in distant places.
The Social Democrat must demonstrate that the successful man in Virginia is personally obliged by the penury of the unsuccessful man in California. In short, he must make a passionate and sophisticated moral argument, even a theological argument, for it's implied by the very concept of brotherhood that all men share a Father.
It is a curious Social Democrat indeed who begins this effort at persuasion by abjuring all moral and theological arguments. Unless, of course, persuasion was never his purpose.