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Another great dickh**d of history

By Gummo Trotsky - posted Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer (1820-1902)

Thanks to the internet, the ideas, and reputation, of Herbert Spencer have been enjoying a modest revival recently. According to Damon W.Root, at Reason On-Line (hat tip to Jason Soon), Spencer's reputation as the father of Social Darwinism is undeserved - Spencer was fitted up by ideological opponents who misread and misquoted his works, particularly his first book Social Statics: or, The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed.


Social Statics begins with a rebuttal of Jeremy Bentham's utilitarian philosophy - that the basis of morality, and law, should be to secure the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Spencer produces some astute, and telling, criticisms of Bentham's philosophy then begins expounding his own theory of morality:

There is no way of coming at a true theory of society, but by inquiring into the nature of its component individuals. To understand humanity in its combinations, it is necessary to analyze that humanity in its elementary form - for the explanation of the compound, to refer back to the simple. We quickly find that every phenomenon exhibited by an aggregation of men, originates in some quality of man himself ...

This fact, that the properties of a mass are dependent upon the attributes of its component parts, we see throughout nature. In the chemical combination of one element with another, Dalton has shown us that the affinity is between atom and atom. What we call the weight of a body, is the sum of the gravitative tendencies of its separate particles. The strength of a bar of metal, is the total effect of an indefinite number of molecular adhesions ...

This consideration, though perhaps needlessly elaborated, has an important bearing on our subject. It points out the path we must pursue in our search after a true social philosophy ... it hints that the first principle of a code for the right ruling of humanity in its state of multitude, is to be found in humanity in its state of unitude - that the moral forces upon which social equilibrium depends, are resident in the social atom - man; and that if we would understand the nature of those forces, and the laws of that equilibrium, we must look for them in the human constitution. (Social Statics, Introduction: “The Doctrine of the Moral Sense”.)

After examining the human constitution, Spencer concludes that each of us - each “social atom” - is endowed with a “moral sense”. The way to a happy society lies in each man pursuing his own happiness, according to the dictates of his moral sense and reason. If each pursues his own happiness in this way, the happiness of society as a whole is guaranteed. Unhappiness is nature's punishment on those who do not live according to the dictates of good moral sense and sound reason. Later, Spencer devotes a whole chapter (Chapter 2: “The Evanescence of Evil”) to elaborating this idea with illustrative examples, without adding much to it, beyond the complacent assurance that, in the long run, nature will find a way to get rid of those of defective moral sense and reason.

The conclusion of Spencer's musings on morality is that the only morality worthy of the name is the morality of the perfect man:

... the moral law must be the law of the perfect man - the law in obedience to which perfection consists. There are but two propositions for us to choose between. It may either be asserted that morality is a code of rules for the behaviour of man as he is - a code which recognises existing defects of character, and allows for them; or otherwise that it is a code of rules for the regulation of conduct amongst men as they should be.

Of the first alternative we must say, that any proposed system of morals which recognises existing defects, and countenances acts made needful by them, stands self-condemned; seeing that, by the hypothesis, acts thus excused are not the best conceivable; that is are not perfectly right - not perfectly moral, and therefore a morality which permits them, is, in so far as it does this, not a morality at all.

To escape from this contradiction is impossible, save by adopting the other alternative; namely, that the moral law ignoring all vicious conditions, defects, and incapacities, prescribes the conduct of an ideal humanity. Pure and absolute rectitude can alone be its subject matter. Its object must be to determine the relationships in which men ought to stand to each other - to point out the principles of action in a normal society.

By successive propositions it must aim to give a systematic statement of those conditions under which human beings may harmoniously combine; and to this end it requires as its postulate, that those human beings be perfect. Or we may term it the science of social life; a science that, in common with all other sciences, assumes perfection in the elements with which it deals. (Social Statics, Chapter I: “Definition of Morality”.)

Spencer's morality of the perfect man has one first principle “the law of equal freedom”:


Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man. (Social Statics, Chapter VI: “First Principle".)

This is similar to the definition of liberty given by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty but Mill's topic in that essay was political, or civil liberty, not morality. At first sight, Spencer's “law of equal freedom” - do what you want, so long as you leave others free to do what they want - doesn't look like much of a basis for a moral system.

Suppose I get up one day and take it into my head that it would be a good day to wander the streets, kicking random strangers in the testicles. Would this violate Spencer's law of equal freedom? Not as long as I am prepared to accept the possibility that others might exercise their equal freedom by kicking me in the testicles. True, that would have incapacitating results, leaving me unable to pursue my freedom to kick others in the testicles, but that incapacity would only be temporary - there would be nothing to prevent me, at a later date, from seeking out my attacker and returning the kick.

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First published in Tug Boat Potmekin on August 5, 2008. This article has been judged as one of the Best Blogs 2008 run in collaboration withClub Troppo.

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About the Author

Gummo Trotsky, owner of Australia’s greatest wasted intellect, first dipped his toe into the waters of the blogosphere - as a commenter and using his real name - in October 2002. He very quickly decided that it would be prudent to adopt a pseudonym for further online discussion.

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