George H. Smith discusses Spencer’s theory of social progress, while calling attention to some of its theoretical problems.

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 An Autobiography , Herbert Spencer commented on his “political opinions at the age of 60, considered in contrast with those I held in early days.” Spencer asked: “Have my ideas been modified by the conservatism of advancing years, or by the wider knowledge acquired? or have both operated in causing the change from a sanguine view to a desponding view?”

Spencer continued by saying that “while I have not relinquished my ideal of the future, I have come to see that its realization is far more remote than I had supposed.”

The indignation against wrong, the hopefulness of youth, and the lack of experience, had joined in me, as they do in many, to produce eagerness for political re‐​organization, and the belief that it needed only to establish a form of government theoretically more equitable to remedy the evils under which society suffered. Hence my juvenile radicalism.

By “juvenile radicalism,” Spencer primarily meant his political views during his early and mid‐​twenties, as expressed in The Proper Sphere of Government (1842). By the time Social Statics was published in December 1850 (the first edition by John Chapman gives the year as 1851), the opinions of a thirty‐​year‐​old Spencer had already begun to change.

I had come to see that institutions are dependent on character; and, however changed in their superficial aspects, cannot be changed in their essential natures faster than character changes. It had become manifest to me that men are rational beings but in a very limited sense; that conduct results from desire, to the gratification of which reason serves but as a guide.…

Spencer elaborated on this theme in many different books and articles, in which he denied “the curative effects of teaching.” It is plainly wrong to say that “when men are taught what is right, they will do what is right.” Humans are largely motivated by their moral habits (or “sentiments”), so the effort to improve moral habits through the teaching of moral truths reverses cause and effect. “Were it fully understood that the emotions are the masters and the intellect the servant, it would be seen that little can be done by improving the servant while the masters remain unimproved.”

By all means let us have a tracing down of morals to the laws of life, individual and social, and a continual emphasizing of the truths reached; but it must go along with the understanding that only as the discipline of a peaceful social life slowly remoulds men’s natures, will appreciable effects be produced.

Spencer frequently made the same point by saying that human character, not abstract beliefs, determines the course of social change. Any ethical theory worth its salt must take the factors that influence character seriously into account.

Spencer’s reference to remolding human nature brings us to some difficult and troublesome features of his overall approach. It is always easier, not to mention more pleasant, to explain ideas with which one fundamentally agrees, but I have never agreed with certain aspects of Spencer’s fundamental approach to philosophy and social theory. So let’s get this over with.

Although Spencer never expressly identified himself as a determinist–he tended to shy away from the traditional controversy over free will, largely because he believed that the ultimate nature of reality is “unknowable”–he was a determinist by any reasonable standard. Spencer’s social determinism is evident in many of his sociological writings, and it caused significant problems when he shifted roles from sociologist to moral philosopher.

For example, when Spencer discussed the early stages of social evolution, he would sometimes note the beneficial, if unintended, consequences of various wars and conquests. He regarded such activities as barbaric, of course, but he stressed that barbaric actions are normal in barbaric societies; it would unreasonable to expect anything more.

Consider the point at which conquering tribes, after realizing that more loot could be gotten from the living than from the dead, stopped slaughtering their victims and began enslaving them instead. According to Spencer, this represented an advance in social evolution, as did the later transition from slavery to serfdom.

So how did Spencer, qua moral philosopher, characterize these developments? This is where things get a bit tricky. According to what Spencer called “absolute ethics,” slavery and serfdom are wrong, period. But according to Spencer’s notion of “relative ethics,” such developments were less evil and therefore relatively good when compared to the stages that preceded them.

As Spencer saw the matter, slavery, serfdom, and similar developments were necessary stages in the progress to free societies–or regimes of contract, as he sometime called them. (Spencer borrowed this expression, along with “regimes of status,” from the legal historian Sir Henry Sumner Maine.) When dealing with militant, warlike cultures, it would be absurd to expect free societies to spring up out of nowhere, without the necessary libertarian sentiments and ideas to serve as foundations.

Spencer believed that the beneficial effects of war and conflict were a thing of the past. Europe and America had undergone crucial transitions from “militant” forms of social organization (“regimes of status”) to “industrial” forms of social organizations (“regimes of contract”). The “compulsory co‐​operation” that characterizes militant societies had largely been replaced by the “voluntary co‐​operation” of industrial societies. (When Spencer observed later retrogressions into militant forms of society, he called this disturbing trend the “rebarbarization of Europe.”)

Spencer used the militant and industrial forms of social organization as ideal types, or analytic models, while acknowledging that no society has ever embodied a pure type. But he also believed that the attainment of a purely voluntary society is inevitable, given the deterministic forces of social evolution.

Human nature, according to Spencer, is indefinitely variable and modifiable, so as people adapt to the requirements of voluntary social interaction, their sentiments will change accordingly. In the final stage of social evolution not only will individuals desire justice for themselves but most people will also desire equal justice for others, so they will favor restricting governmental powers to the protection and enforcement of individual rights. (I qualified this statement with “most” because Spencer typically spoke of the “average” sentiments in a given society, while noting possible exceptions.)

In Social Statics, Spencer stipulated that the principles of justice therein explained apply only to the “straight man,” i.e., only to people who have attained the ultimate stage of moral evolution. It is at this stage, and at this stage only, that Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom will become fully applicable: “Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.”

This is why Spencer titled his book Social Statics. His principles of perfect justice were meant to apply to the static, or stationary, stage of social evolution–the ultimate stage in which we will find morally perfect human beings. His principles of justice were not meant to apply, at least not in a strict sense, to the dynamic transition from an imperfect to a perfect society. In the perfect society, in which the sentiments of (most) individuals will correspond to the Law of Equal Freedom, that law will function as a principle of equilibrium and thereby prevent freedom from degenerating into statism.

Consider a chapter in Social Statics, “The Right to Ignore the State,” that has been admired by generations of libertarians. Many libertarians believe that Spencer’s omission of this remarkable chapter from a later edition of Social Statics is the best indicator of his retreat from radicalism in later life. That this is a misleading interpretation becomes clear if we read the last section of this chapter. This section begins:

The substance of this chapter once more reminds us of the incongruity between a perfect law [i.e., the Law of Equal Freedom] and an imperfect [social] state. The practicability of the principle here laid down varies directly as social morality. In a thoroughly vicious community its administration would be productive of anarchy. In a completely virtuous one its admission will be both innocuous and inevitable.

Although the inevitable progress of man’s moral sentiments “will eventually render government impossible,” it is also true that “the tendency to repudiate governments will increase only at the same rate that governments become needless.” Spencer concludes:

Let not any be alarmed, therefore, at the promulgation of the foregoing doctrine. There are many changes yet to be passed through before it can begin to exercise much influence. Probably a long time will elapse before the right to ignore the state will be generally admitted, even in theory. It will be still longer before it receives legislative recognition. And even then there will be plenty of checks upon the premature exercise of it.

Thus, as with other matters discussed in Social Statics, the right of individuals to secede from the jurisdiction of a government will become operative only at the ultimate stage of social and moral evolution. This brings us to an obvious question: What is the point of Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom, if it cannot be applied to one’s current social condition?

Spencer addressed this question not long after the publication of Social Statics, and he repeated the same point at various other times. The absolute principles of justice, he said, are ultimate goals that function as moral beacons. They guide us in the complex world of political activities by highlighting the long‐​range goals we wish to achieve–goals that are too often sacrificed for apparent short‐​term benefits.

If we should keep the demands of absolute justice in mind when evaluating a particular political proposal, we should also understand that a perfectly free society, though inevitable (according to Spencer), lies somewhere in the future. It is absurd to demand that the principles of absolute justice be implemented in the current, imperfect state of society. This is absurd because it is impossible, and it is impossible because our contemporaries have adapted themselves to the imperfect social state in which we currently find ourselves. Consequently, their imperfect sentiments will not motivate them to support the Law of Equal Freedom, however much we may attempt to teach them about the principles of absolute justice.

We may therefore preach to others as much as we like about the value of liberty, but, with the exception of a relative handful of people who understand the importance of ideas, our preaching will fall on deaf ears. Not until freedom has progressed to the point where people can experience the beneficial or harmful effects of their own actions, while understanding that government will neither deprive them of the fruits of their labor nor save them from the folly of their own voluntary decisions, will people fully adapt to the conditions of freedom and develop the moral sentiments necessary to sustain a free society.

All this will take time, of course–and time was the factor that essentially differentiated the early optimistic Spencer from the later pessimistic Spencer. As Spencer put it at the conclusion of the discussion (in An Autobiography) that I quoted at the beginning of this essay:

Human nature must be much better than it at present is before a much higher civilization can be established. Though I believe that, in the words of the song, “”there’s a good time coming,” it now seems to me that the “good time” is very far distant.

Some readers may feel frustrated by Spencer’s theory of social progress–and, if so, I empathize with them — but such is the nature of the beast. The problems in his theory will be apparent to attentive readers. (For instance, why would people with inappropriate moral sentiments pay any more attention to the Law of Equal Freedom as an ultimate goal than they would as a proximate standard of behavior?) I noted earlier the tension between Spencer qua deterministic sociologist and Spencer qua moral philosopher. There is no credible way to resolve this tension–and I say this after decades of searching for a resolution.

There is a ray of light in the theoretical darkness. Like many first‐​rate minds, Spencer’s common sense frequently enabled him to overcome the logical pitfalls of his theoretical system by stepping over them, as if such pitfalls did not exist.

In other words, a great deal that Spencer had to say about the political world and the prospects for liberty can be abstracted from his philosophical and sociological principles and applied to problems that libertarians face today. I shall discuss these more useful points in the remainder of this series.

To be continued.…