Smith explains Herbert Spencer’s views of the scientific status of sociology, the nature of social laws, and the practical value of social science.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In this essay I explore some of Herbert Spencer’s ideas about sociology—the general science of society that subsumes economics, social psychology, and other social sciences. Although Spencer believed it possible to formulate social laws, and although he believed that the general laws of evolution apply to all natural phenomena, including societies, he was not a “positivist” in the conventional sense. For instance, Spencer believed that “subjective psychology” (as explained in the second volume of The Principles of Psychology) is essential to understanding social interaction. And as we shall see in this essay, his conception of social laws differed substantially from that accepted by most positivists.

Spencer wrote a great deal not only on the nature of social science but on the nature of science generally. Although Spencer’s philosophy of science has not received much attention in modern works, he was, in my estimation, a major philosopher of science. Indeed, some of his theories and arguments, such as his contention that observations cannot be severed from hypotheses, have a distinctly modern ring; and his views on the historical evolution of science, which he discussed in considerable detail, tend to be more subtle and sophisticated than that found in most nineteenth‐​century accounts. Unfortunately, I cannot do justice to Spencer’s philosophy of science in this essay; I can only touch upon a few points in the course of summarizing his defense of sociology as an authentic science. (Most of the quotations are from The Study of Sociology. Others are from various essays, such as “The Genesis of Science” and “The Classification of the Sciences.”)

In An Autobiography, Herbert Spencer recalled that he “early became possessed by the idea of causation.” He learned from his father that “whatever occurred had its assignable cause of a comprehensive kind” and that there is “natural causation everywhere operating.” In an important essay recounting his intellectual development (“The Filiation of Ideas”), Spencer again noted that “ideas of physical causation were repeatedly impressed on me.” By age seventeen the idea of universal causation had become an essential element in Spencer’s worldview.

Natural laws, according to Spencer, refer to the “uniformity of relations” among phenomena, and this uniformity is expressed in terms of causal laws. Causation applies to all aspects of existence, including human thought and action: “to the advanced student of nature, the proposition that there are lawless phenomena has become not only incredible but almost inconceivable.” If sociology and other human sciences do not appear law‐​governed, “the presumption is not that they are irreducible to law, but that their laws elude our present means of analysis.”

Although Spencer was a determinist, he did not think the doctrine of free will, even if correct, would pose a barrier to social science. After all, even an advocate of free volition will concede some degree of regularity in human action: “the simple volitions determining ordinary conduct, are so regular that prevision [or “foresight”] having a high degree of probability is easy.” Spencer gave a number of examples to illustrate his point.

If, in crossing a street, a man sees a carriage coming upon him, you may safely assert that, in nine hundred and ninety‐​nine cases out of a thousand, he will try to get out of the way. If, being pressed to catch a train, he knows that by one route it is a mile to the station and by another two miles, you may conclude with considerable confidence that he will take the one‐​mile route; and should he be aware that losing the train will lose him a fortune, it is pretty certain that, if he has but ten minutes to do the mile in, he will either run or call a cab. If he can buy next door a commodity of daily consumption better and cheaper than at the other end of the town, we may affirm that, if he does not buy next door, some special relation between him and the remoter shop‐​keeper furnishes a strong reason for taking a worse commodity at greater cost of money and trouble.

Suppose I have something I wish to sell, and I get two offers: one from A for $1000 and the other from B for $2000. Although I would normally sell to B, other factors (e.g., a previous promise to sell to A for $1000) might persuade me to accept the lesser amount. Nevertheless, “the unusual motives leading to such an act need scarcely be taken into account as qualifying the generalization that a man will sell to the highest bidder.”

Now, since the predominant activities of citizens are determined by motives of this degree of regularity, there must be resulting social phenomena that have corresponding degrees of regularity—greater degrees, indeed, since in them the effects of exceptional motives become lost in the effects of the aggregate of ordinary motives.

To the objection that the predictions of social science are qualitative rather than quantitative, and that approximate predictions disqualify sociology from being an “exact” science, Spencer had several interesting replies. Most important was his denial that only the so‐​called exact sciences (i.e., those that employ quantitative methods) are genuine sciences. Even though some of the physical sciences, such as meteorology, are not quantitative and cannot give us precise predictions, their approximate predictions are sufficient to make them authentic sciences: “if there is some prevision, there is some science.” (Spencer noted that even the predictions of the exact sciences are approximate to some degree, but I cannot discuss that issue here.)

Thus if the objection to sociology is that it cannot be reduced “to the form of an exact science,” then this objection is irrelevant. Only a portion of the sciences can be expressed in quantitative terms. “In Geology, in Biology, in Psychology, most of the previsions are qualitative only”; but their predictions, however approximate, still qualify as scientific. “It is thus with Sociology.” Sociology deals with complex, contingent, and constantly changing social phenomena, so the generalizations of sociology will never be precise, and there will always remain much that cannot be generalized at all. “But so far as there can be generalization, and so far as there can be interpretation based on it, so far there can be science.” Spencer continued with an important observation:

Whoever expresses political opinions—whoever asserts that such or such public arrangements will be beneficial or detrimental, tacitly expresses belief in a Social Science; for he asserts, by implication, that there is a natural sequence among social actions, and that as the sequence is natural results may be foreseen.

Although there is much in Spencer’s philosophy of science that I cannot discuss here, such as his classifications and subdivisions of the sciences, it is necessary to mention his insistence that scientific knowledge differs only in degree, not in kind, from our ordinary, common knowledge. There is no clear line of demarcation that separates the knowledge gained in everyday life from the knowledge we acquire through science. All knowledge exists on a continuum. Scientific knowledge evolved from common knowledge gradually, over time, as humans advanced from a knowledge of concrete regularities and causal relationships, as perceived directly by the senses, to an understanding of abstract regularities and causal relationships that cannot be discovered by sensory observation alone. In “The Genesis of Science” (1854), Spencer summarized the difference between ordinary knowledge and scientific knowledge as follows:

The difference…is neither in the fundamental character of the mental acts; nor in the correctness of the previsions accomplished by them; but in the complexity of the processes required to achieve the previsions. Much of our common knowledge is, as far as it goes, precise. Science does not increase its precision. What then does it do? It reduces other knowledge to the same degree of precision. That certainty which direct perception gives us respecting coexistences and sequences of the simplest and most accessible kind, science gives us respecting coexistences and sequences, complex in their dependencies, or inaccessible to immediate observation. In brief, regarded from this point of view, science maybe called an extension of the perceptions by means of reasoning.

The nature of a society, according to Spencer, will reflect the nature of those individual human beings who comprise it. Variations in the characters of human beings, especially their recurring emotions and moral sentiments, will therefore produce different types of societies. But certain constants in human nature—constants that are “essential” rather than “incidental”—make possible universal generalizations about all known societies, of whatever type.

It needs but to ask what would happen if men avoided one another, as various inferior creatures do, to see that the very possibility of a society depends on a certain emotional property of the individual. It needs but to ask what would happen if each man liked best the men who gave him the most pain, to perceive that social relations, supposing them to be possible, would be utterly unlike the social relations resulting from the greater liking which men individually have for others who give them pleasure. It needs but to ask what would happen if, instead of ordinarily preferring the easiest ways of achieving their ends, men preferred to achieve their ends in the most troublesome ways, to infer that then, a society, if one could exist, would be a widely different society from any we know….Setting out, then, with this general principle, that the properties of the units determine the properties of the aggregate, we conclude that there must be a Social Science expressing the relations between the two, with as much definiteness as the nature of the phenomena permit.

Even if we agree with what Spencer had to say about sociology, we may still ask: Of what use is it? Spencer addressed this question in the first chapter of The Study of Sociology (“Our Need of It”). After presenting examples of short‐​sighted political thinking by persons who, possessing only a rudimentary grasp of social causation, offer simplistic political solutions for complex social problems, Spencer wrote:

Proximate causes and proximate results are alone contemplated. There is scarcely any consciousness that the original causes are often numerous and widely different from the apparent cause; and that beyond each immediate result there will be multitudinous remote results, most of them quite incalculable.

The basic political lesson to be learned from sociology is that coercive meddling in voluntary relationships will typically generate unforeseen and detrimental consequences, primarily by retarding or reversing the natural course of moral, intellectual, social, and economic progress. Many people are ignorant of physical causation, so it comes as no surprise that even more people are ignorant of social causation, which is “so much more subtle and complex.” And where there is little or no understanding of social causation, “political superstitions” will flourish. Among these superstitions is the belief that government has a special efficacy beyond “that naturally possessed by a certain group of citizens subsidized by the rest of the citizens.” In addition, the “ordinary political schemer is convinced that out of a legislative apparatus, properly devised and worked with due dexterity, may be had beneficial State‐​action without any detrimental reaction.”

In opposition to these “crude political opinions” stands the sociologist: the scientist who understands that causal laws apply as much to society and social interaction as to other phenomena. The sociologist demands that society be studied “as lower phenomena have been studied—not, of course, after the same physical methods, but in conformity with the same principles.” (Here we see a variant of the distinction between epistemology and methodology that I discussed in Part 2.)

An important instance of a causal law applied to social theory is found in what Spencer called “the multiplication of effects,” according to which “the effect is more complex than the cause.” In more technical terms, “when the components of a uniform aggregate are subject to uniform force, they, being differently conditioned, are differently modified.” As the effects of a uniform force become differentiated into dissimilar forces, and as these dissimilar forces impact on still more aggregates, uniform or otherwise, additional differentiation will occur.

As applied to social interaction, the multiplication of effects accounts, in major part, for the evolution of a society toward greater diversity and complexity. An increase in population, for example, intensifies competition for the means of subsistence; and this pressures individuals to confine themselves to a specialized field of labor in which they are better able to compete. The division of labor generates new occupations and more efficient means of production. New and better materials are discovered and are eventually used in areas other than those for which they were originally intended. New products emerge, altering the tastes, customs, and habits of a people. Hence from the initial cause of population growth there emerges a complex social matrix. One change induces many others, and each of those changes in turn becomes a cause of innumerable new effects.

The multiplication of effects also explains the futility of attempting to legislate most social ills out of existence. A piece of social legislation designed to cure a particular social evil will set in motion a complex network of causation with unpredictable consequences. “How, indeed, can any man, and how more especially can any man of scientific culture, think that special results of special political acts can be calculated, when he contemplates the incalculable complexity of the influences under which each individual, and à fortiori each society, develops, lives, and decays?” When we examine a particular social phenomenon—say, the price of cotton—we witness extremely complex and intricate causal relationships that render exact predictions impossible. How much more impossible it must therefore be to foresee the impact of a single law on the whole of society.

We thus see that the “law of unintended consequences” (as it is often called today) was a recurring theme in Spencer’s sociology. Throughout his writings Spencer developed this theme extensively, in depth, and from various angles. I would say, without reservation, that Spencer was the most important theorist of unintended consequences—and their corollary, spontaneous order—in the history of libertarian thought.

Here, having exceeded the usual length of my essays, I must stop, while admitting dissatisfaction with my flyover account of Spencer’s approach to sociology. Not only did Spencer explain and defend the points sketched above in far greater detail than I have been able to present in this essay, but he also wrote detailed replies to some of his critics, and those replies clarified points that were especially vulnerable to criticism. But I think I have covered enough ground to set a context for later essays in this series.