Quotes of American History: William Graham Sumner on Natural Rights

Quote Quota Man, February 2 2013

William Graham Sumner was a professor at Yale University.William Graham Sumner was a professor at Yale University (click to read Folkways)

"Before the tribunal of nature a man has no more right to life than a rattlesnake;" - William Graham Sumner

William Graham Sumner was a well-known professor at Yale University from 1872-1909, becoming a pioneer in the fields of economics and sociology. He was a key intellectual defender of the laissez-faire ideal. He also developed sociology terms such as "ethnocentrism" which became pillars of the field.

Sumner was also associated with Social Darwinism (nearly always pejoratively, by his opponents), as evidenced by the quote above (taken from Earth-hunger and other essays). He believed that sentiment for the plight of the poor was potentially dangerous for the long-term survival of humanity, to the extent that it allowed weak, stupid, and unfit people to reproduce. Sumner did not believe that people had natural rights which entitled them to a minimal standard of living, but rather that their own poverty indicated that they were less fit to survive and reproduce than the more successful classes.

While Sumner's ideas on economics have become unpopular over the years, his legacy in the field of sociology survives in more positive form. He extensively defined and promoted the term "ethnocentrism" to describe a view of the world filtered through one's tribe or ethnic group. He advocated the idea that scientific objectivity was compromised by ethnocentrism. The term has survived and is still used in modern sociology.

Finally, Sumner also built a reputation as an Anti-Imperialist. He was a vocal critic of the Spanish-American War and wrote an anti-war book afterwards with the ironic title, The Conquest of the United States by Spain.

Related Topics

Social Darwinism

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