Dec 1, 1978

Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?

“To some modern academics…a person intellectually committed to uncompromising liberty and justice is inconceivable.”

“I HAVE HAD much experience in controversy,” wrote Herbert Spencer, “and … my impression is that in three cases out of four the alleged opinions of mine condemned by opponents, are not opinions of mine at all, but are opinions wrongly ascribed by them to me… .” If this was true of Spencer’s contemporary critics, it is even more true of later commentators. Probably no intellectual has suffered more distortion and abuse than Spencer. He is continually condemned for things he never said—indeed, he is taken to task for things he explicitly denied. The target of academic criticism is usually the mythical Spencer rather than the real Spencer; and although some critics may derive immense satisfaction from their devastating refutations of a Spencer who never existed, these treatments hinder rather than advance the cause of knowledge.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, a leading Victorian scholar with a splenetic hostility to libertarian radicals, regards Spencer’s system as “a parody of philosophy.” Spencer—“the dilettante whose writing was as facile as his thinking”—was “amateurish and self-taught,” his “image … comic and pathetic.” Harry Elmer Barnes, who at least gives Spencer his due in some areas, nevertheless attributes Spencer’s anti-statism to “the traits of his neurotic constitution.” Spencer, writes Barnes, had “an extreme ‘anti-authority complex’,” and his “persistent and ever growing resentment against the extension of governmental activity probably was personally motivated by a subconscious neurotic reaction.”

This pseudo-psychology is bad enough, but it is mild compared to Richard L. Schoenwald’s psychoanalytic rape of Spencer in the Summer 1968 issue of Victorian Studies—an event that is surely the low point in the history of that otherwise reputable journal. Spencer, Schoenwald informs us, was “an adult whose development had undergone severe twisting.” Specifically, “Spencer’s self-esteem had been undermined hopelessly in the oral and anal stages of his development; he could commit himself only to paper, not to a woman.” It seems that the infant Herbert reveled in his ability to “create” feces, and he bitterly resented the effort of his parents to curb “the anal freedom in which he had gloried.” Spencer interpreted his parents’ toilet-training efforts as “a fearful attack from behind,” and his “once loving parents [were] now revealed as devilish obstructors of the path of glory.” This, we are to believe, was the basis for Spencer’s hostility to the State. Note well the marvelous explanatory power of this “theory.” Why, for instance, did Spencer oppose governmental sanitation regulations? Because he “saw in sanitary reform an attack on his magical anal producing powers… .”

Such assertions would be comical if not for their appearance in a leading academic journal. Spencer’s contemporaries at least dealt with him on the intellectual plane, criticizing those ideas they believed him to hold. To some modern academics, however, a person intellectually committed to uncompromising liberty and justice is inconceivable, so the psychological axe must be unsheathed.

Although Spencer is grudgingly conceded to be a major intellect of the nineteenth century, whose impact rivaled that of Darwin and Marx, he is usually treated as an historical relic who made a presumptuous and wrong-headed attempt to construct an all-embracing philosophical edifice. Spencer is commonly branded a racist, an enemy of the poor and disadvantaged, an apologist for a ruthless “law of the jungle,” a conservative defender of the status quo, and so forth. The myths surrounding Spencer’s name are so numerous that they cannot all be discussed in a single article. This essay is but a small step in Spencer revisionism, in which we shall consider four of the most common myths about Spencer.

Myth #1: Spencer was a “Social Darwinist.”

The most serious misconception about Spencer’s purported “Social Darwinism” concerns the “survival of the fittest” doctrine, which we shall discuss shortly. First, however, we must correct some common errors about Spencer’s theory of evolution.

Although Spencer was a pioneer in evolutionary theory, he was not a Darwinist. He originated his theory before Darwin, and Darwin borrowed the famous phrase, “survival of the fittest,” from Spencer’s writing.

Moreover, Spencer was a Lamarckian rather than a Darwinian. He was firmly convinced that acquired characteristics are transmitted to later generations. Although he accepted natural selection, he viewed it as only one aspect of the evolutionary process. It was Spencer’s Lamarckianism that led to his belief in the inevitability of human progress. The adaptations of one generation that enabled it to survive are transmitted to the next generation, thus giving it superior capabilities, and so on into future generations, until a perfect equilibrium is achieved between the environment and an organism’s ability to survive.

An important point to remember about Spencer’s theory of evolution is that it is primarily cosmological, not biological, in nature. For Spencer, the laws of evolution, such as the trend from homogeneity to heterogeneity, pertain to all of existence, not merely to living beings. Biology is but one manifestation of the evolutionary process.

Finally, we must note that Spencer did not belief that society is an “organism,” as is often claimed. The many biological parallels affixed to his arguments about social development were intended to illustrate his general evolutionary principles. Spencer believed that certain parallels exist between a living entity and a society, but that these similarities pertain to underlying laws of development—laws common to all of existence. By providing biological illustrations in conjunction with his sociology, Spencer hoped to clarify the working of natural law—specifically, the law of causation.

Myth #2: Spencer championed a ruthless “survival of the fittest.”

More than any other of his ideas, Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” doctrine has been used as a smear against him. The recent BBC production of John Kenneth Galbraith’s “Age of Uncertainty” gave us a pallid Spencer citing a passage about survival of the fittest (suitably ripped from its context to make it appear reprehensible) against a background of a jungle and wild animals. The message, in Galbraith’s characteristic style, was crude and grossly inaccurate: Spencer allegedly glorified the “law of the jungle” where the strong prey on the weak.

The “survival of the fittest,” as presented by Spencer, and the “survival of the fittest,” as presented by Spencer’s critics, bear little resemblance to each other. The traditional interpretation of Spencer on this point is so fundamentally wrong—in fact, Spencer explicitly repudiated it on many occasions—that one must wonder if any of Spencer’s critics bother to read him.

Spencer regards the “survival of the fittest” as a law of existence applied to life. It is a formal statement of a necessary condition for the existence of life. To be “fit” is to be adapted to the conditions of survival in a given environment. This is a description, not an evaluation. Spencer does not say that the fit “ought” to survive, or that it is “good” that the fit survive; he says simply that the fit do survive, whether one likes it or not.

“Fit,” in Spencer’s usage, is a formal, value-free term. He emphatically denies that it implies a particular trait, such as strength or intelligence, or any degree of approval or disapproval. This doctrine “is expressible in purely-physical terms, which neither imply competition nor imply better and worse.” Furthermore, writes Spencer, “survival of the fittest is not always the survival of the best.

“The law is not the survival of the ‘better’ or the ‘stronger’… . It is the survival of those which are constitutionally fittest to thrive under the conditions in which they are placed; and very often that which, humanly speaking, is inferiority, causes the survival.”

One necessary condition of life is the adaptation of a living entity to its external environment. The prospect of continued life for an individual or a species is proportionate to the degree to which an individual or a species can adapt to surrounding conditions. Persistent failure to adapt must ultimately lead to death or to a diseased, unhealthy state of life. To be “fit,” according to Spencer, is to be adapted to the requirements of survival, whatever those requirements may be.

In a social context, the “fit” are those persons who adapt to the survival requirements of a given society. If, for instance, a society executed all redheads, then it follows that the persons best fitted for survival in such a society would be non-redheads. And the redheads who would stand the best chance of survival would be those who adapted themselves to the conditions, e.g., those who dyed their hair another color. One can state this “survival of the fittest” principle without condoning the penalty against redheads, and without regarding non-redheads as superior people. It is a simple fact: if a society kills redheads, then (all other things being equal) one has a better chance to survive—one is more “fit”—if one is not a redhead.


Similarly, in a primitive, savage society, the physically strongest or the most ruthless may have the best chance to survive. In an authoritarian society, the meek and submissive may live the longest. In a free, industrial society, honest, innovative and energetic individuals will fare best.

Of course, one’s moral evaluation of a ruthless person will differ tremendously from one’s evaluation of an honest person. But the fact remains that some kinds of social organization favor the survival of the ruthless, whereas other kinds favor the survival of the honest. If a society penalizes industry and rewards indolence, then one will see a decline of industrious persons while the indolent thrive. The “fittest” (in this case the indolent) will tend to survive at the expense of others. This is the meaning of Spencer’s oft-quoted remark, “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.”

Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” doctrine, therefore, refers to the need of an organism to adapt to the conditions of existence if it is to live. If this sounds tautological, Spencer would agree. He regards this formal, value-free law as “almost self-evident.”

When Spencer applies his “survival of the fittest” principle to a free, industrial society, he reaches a conclusion radically different from the one usually foisted upon him by his opponents. True, the sacrifice of one individual for the benefit of another is the general rule for lower life forms. And it is equally true of the lower forms of human society—militant, authoritarian societies (which Spencer calls regimes of status). But with the evolution of peaceful societies—in which voluntary contract and the division of labor replace coercion and the regime of status—there also develops a harmony of interests, through Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand” process.

In a free society, each person is free to pursue his own interests as he sees fit, provided he respects the equal liberty of others. Cooperation replaces exploitation, and the “fittest” survive, not by exploiting others, but by assisting others through the mechanism of a market economy. One “survives” here by providing others in society with desired goods and services (unless, of course, one wishes to live as a hermit). By pursuing one’s own ends, and by observing the principle of justice, one unintentionally benefits others.

Here as elsewhere the “survival of the fittest” is an iron law, but it is clear that the “law of the jungle” image conjured up by Spencer’s opponents is far removed from his actual conception. On the contrary, it is precisely in a free society that the “law of the jungle” does not apply, because only in a free society is cooperation rather than exploitation the standard of “fitness.”

But what of the poor, disabled, and disadvantaged? Was not the grim Spencer an implacable foe of altruistic aid to others? Did he not prefer to see them die off to make room for the “fit”?

This common distortion of Spencer is perhaps the most vicious and inexcusable. The last 100 pages of The Principles of Ethics are devoted to the subject of “Positive Beneficence,” the phenomenon in the highest form of society of “spontaneous efforts to further the welfare of others.”m2

Spencer opposed coercive, state-enforced charity, but he favored charity that is voluntarily bestowed. As a matter of justice, one cannot be forced to help others; but as a matter of ethics, one may be obliged to help others. Spencer viewed his system as “more humane” than those which involve State interference, because under State charity many industrious men are “compelled to pay rates and starve their children, that the idle might not be hungry.”

Spencer was amazed that his views brought on him “condemnation as an enemy of the poor.” In one essay, for instance, he pointed out that it was becoming more common for the rich to contribute in time and money to the “material and mental progress of the masses.” This he commended was “the latest and most hopeful fact in human history”; it was a “new and better chivalry,” and it “promised to evolve a higher standard of honor” through the eradication of sundry evils.

This scarcely fits the picture of Spencer devoid of humanitarian concern who anxiously awaited elimination of the poor. But one must read Spencer’s extensive treatment of this subject to appreciate fully the flagrant lies perpetrated by his critics. That he was grievously offended and hurt by such lies is dramatically illustrated by the fact that he broke off a close friendship of some forty years with Thomas Henry Huxley when Huxley wrote that, according to the Spencerian individualists, a poor man should be left to starve because charity interferes “with the survival of the fittest.” In reply to Huxley’s accusations of “reasoned savagery,” Spencer pointed out that “for nearly fifty years I have contended that the pains attendant on the struggle for existence may fitly be qualified by the aid which private sympathy prompts.” So inexcusable did Spencer, consider Huxley’s misrepresentation that, even after Huxley’s apology, it took several years for the breach to heal.

Myth #3: Spencer was a conservative apologist for the “capitalist class” and the status quo.

To deal with this myth adequately would require a lengthy essay dealing with many different facets of Spencer’s philosophy. Here we can only highlight a few major points.

Spencer, even in later life, was never a conservative defender of the status quo, nor was he so viewed by many of his contemporaries. Consider, for example, the anarchist Kropotkin’s remark that Spencer has “profound ideas about the role and importance of the State; here Spencer is a continuator of Godwin, the first advocate of … anarchism.” One must also remember Spencer’s radical legacy, typified in England by Auberon Herbert (a radical individualist who championed “voluntary taxation”), and in America by Victor Yarros, co-editor for two years of Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty—the great individualist-anarchist periodical. (In fact, Spencer’s influence on the American anarchist movement was profound, especially in regard to his “law of equal freedom.”)

One simply cannot understand the mind of Herbert Spencer unless one understands that the predominant concern throughout his intellectual life was the principle of justice. From his twelve articles on “The Proper Sphere of Government” that appeared in Edward Miall’s The Nonconformist in 1842 (when Spencer was twenty-two), until his death in 1903, justice and its foundation in natural law were the threads that held together the complex fabric of his philosophy. Although he was inconsistent at times, Spencer applied the principle of justice with remarkable integrity and courage, without regard to whom he might offend or alienate.

Those socialists who see Spencer as a lackey for the capitalists will read with considerable discomfort his essay on “The Morals of Trade.” Here Spencer bitterly attacks the corruption of English trade and commerce which, he argues, is permeated with fraud, misrepresentation, and cheating. He calls the commerce of his day “commercial cannibalism,” where the law of survival is “cheat or be cheated.” What was the basic cause of this corruption? Note well the response of this alleged defender of the “robber-barons”: “The great inciter of these trading malpractices is, intense desire for wealth. And if we ask—why this intense desire? The reply is—it results from the indiscriminate respect paid to wealth.” The “blind admiration which society gives to mere wealth, and the display of wealth, is the chief source of these multitudinous immoralities.”m3

If he thought “this gigantic system of dishonesty” was bad in England, Spencer had even harsher words about some aspects of commerce in the United States. The Americans are worse than the English in their “worship of the ‘almighty dollar’,” and this “vicious sentiment” calls for “vigorous protest against adoration of mere success.”

Of course, Spencer had no objection to “wealth rightly acquired;” it was his passion for justice which prompted his ruthless denunciation of the injustices committed by the “capitalist class” of his day. Justice is justice, and it applies with equal force to every individual, regardless of class distinctions.

If justice is no respecter of class, neither is it a respecter of country. Spencer’s consistent regard for justice is further illustrated by his intransigent opposition to militarism and British imperialism (with the unfortunate exception of Irish Home Rule). He despaired of the regimentation that “is another aspect of that general retrogression shown in growing imperialism and accompanying re-barbarization,” and he opined that the increased militarism “is carrying us back to medievalism.”

Spencer was among the few intellectual leaders to condemn Britain’s role in the Boer War—a war that was quite popular among the rank and file. In his magnificent article on “Patriotism,” Spencer lambastes the motive of patriotism, which he calls a “sentiment … of the lowest.” “To me the cry—‘Our country, right or wrong!’—seems detestable.” When Spencer was confronted with the charge that he dishonored the British soldiers who were dying for their country, he gave a reply that rivals in terseness and clarity any argument of modern opponents of the Vietnam War: “When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves.”

Spencer’s opposition to war and militarism was in the grand tradition of British libertarian thought, as exemplified by Richard Cobden, Henry Thomas Buckle, and John Bright. Unfortunately, many libertarians of today fail to grasp the profound radicalism of the libertarian principle of nonaggression, but the implications were clear to our predecessors of a century past. Justice, not “national interest,” was to be the guiding light in foreign affairs.

Myth #4: In later life Spencer abandoned his defense of pure liberty.

This, properly speaking, is not so much a myth as a bundle of partial truths. Spencer was less consistent in later life, but many aspects of his mature theory are significant improvements on his earlier writing. Spencer’s views changed in several ways, some for the worse and some for the better. But it is flatly incorrect to hold that he abandoned a natural rights defense of liberty, and it is equally incorrect, though common, to blame his later weak spots on his sociology.

In his first and most famous political work, Social Statics, the young Spencer, coming as he did from a tradition of Protestant dissent, placed his defense of natural rights on an essentially theological foundation. “God wills man’s happiness,” he wrote, and “God intends he should have that liberty” essential to the pursuit of happiness. But Spencer became dissatisfied with this deus ex machina, especially as his agnosticism solidified in his later years, and he set out to provide a solid ethical underpinning for the doctrine of rights and the law of equal freedom. Indeed, to place ethics on a scientific footing was Spencer’s “ultimate purpose, lying behind all proximate purposes” in writing his formidable ten-volume Synthetic Philosophy. And the defense of rights he presented in The Principles of Ethics, with its remarkable integration of cosmology, biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics, far surpasses the treatment in Social Statics. It is unquestionably the most ambitious defense of liberty and rights ever attempted by a libertarian theorist.

Hence Spencer did not abandon natural rights for sociology; instead, his sociology was one facet of the naturalistic foundation from which he constructed a theory and justification of rights. Contrary to popular opinion, Spencer’s sociology did not corrupt his dedication to liberty, but rather strengthened it philosophically. One need only consult his magnificent discussion of the “militant” and “industrial” forms of social organization in The Principles of Sociology to verify the truth of this claim.

Nevertheless, Spencer did adopt several anti-libertarian positions in his later writing, such as his defense of military conscription if it became necessary to fight a defensive war. And there is the irksome omission of “The Right to Ignore the State” from later editions of Social Statics. To what can. we attribute these and other curious regressions in Spencer’s thought?

Spencer’s basic problem was in his ethical theory.

“Spencer actually became more radical as he aged. He eventually came to see that political change is meaningless without a corresponding social change—a change in the attitudes and habits of persons in society.”

He was unable to derive a consistent theory whereby abstract ethical principles could be applied to concrete situations without vitiating those very principles in the process. This conflict was evident in Social Statics, and it became progressively severe in his later writing. The ethical code elaborated in Social Statics was said by Spencer to apply only to the “perfect” or “straight” man—i.e., to man at the highest stage of evolution, which Spencer believed to be inevitable. But since “perfect” individuals do not yet exist, Spencer was faced with the sticky problem of how imperfect humans were to employ a moral code that did not apply to them. (Admirers of “The Right to Ignore the State” often overlook Spencer’s remark at the end of the chapter that the ideas presented there will not apply for a long time to come.)

This dichotomy in Spencer’s ethics was later transformed into a full-blown theory of “absolute” versus “relative” ethics. The maxims of absolute ethics—where no coercion whatever was permitted—applied only to a perfectly evolved and permanently peaceful society. During the transition, however, when coercion and barbarism were still present, it was often necessary to forego an absolutely right course of action in favor of an alternative that is “least wrong.” Thus does Spencer slip in taxation and conscription—such coercive actions, while not absolutely right, are the least wrong in an imperfect society.

This confusion in Spencer’s ethical theory was an unmitigated disaster, but it is important to realize that this confusion was with Spencer from the beginning and that it only worsened with time. It had nothing to do with his sociology. In short, the early Spencer was not as “pure” as some libertarians think, nor was the later Spencer as “impure” as they sometimes claim.

Finally, we should mention Spencer’s disillusionment and pessimism in later years. These were partially spawned by a more realistic judgment concerning the mechanism of social change. Spencer attributed his “juvenile radicalism” to the belief that it was necessary only “to establish a form of government theoretically more equitable, to remedy the evils under which society suffered.” Later he concluded that a change of government is in itself superficial and will invariably result in “replacing the old class-legislation by a new class-legislation.” Political change is thus meaningless without a corresponding social change—i.e., a change in the attitudes and habits of persons in a society. Hence, “governmental arrangements can be of use “only in so far as they express the transformed nature of citizens.”

In this respect Spencer became more radical as he aged. He became convinced that those who fight for liberty by political means are essentially wasting their time. He turned down a request to run for Parliament because “far too high an estimate” was made of the influence of politicians, and he “should not gain influence, but rather lose influence” by running for office.

Thus we leave Herbert Spencer, brilliant and cantankerous to the end. If there is any intellectual justice in the world, Spencer deserves a place among the intellectual giants. Libertarians would do well to take a closer look at this phenomenal mind in their midst, and a necessary first step in placing Spencer in critical perspective is to revive his works and to read them first-hand. With a few exceptions, secondary accounts of Spencer should be avoided like the plague.

George H. Smith is the author of Atheism: The Case Against God. He is currently a research fellow for the Center for Independent Education, and is working on a book on voluntary education.