Herbert Spencer: The Defamation Continues

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has long been open season on Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). Perhaps
because he was the 19th century’s most prominent defender of individual
liberty and critic of the violence of the state, Spencer has always
been the object of hatred and distortion; indeed, it sometimes seems
that no accusation is too bizarre to be leveled against him. (George
H. Smith has cited some of the more egregious smears in his article
“Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?,” in Atheism,
Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies
, Ch. 13.)

The latest dishonor to Spencer’s memory turns up in War
Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master
, a new book by Edwin Black (best known as the author
of IBM
and the Holocaust
). Black’s subject is the American eugenics
movement, which in the heyday of its influence was responsible for
the forcible sterilization of thousands of Americans, and which
also contributed, ideologically and sometimes financially, to the
rise of Nazism in Germany. It’s an ugly and important story that
needs to be told.

But what should rouse the ire of any intellectual historian is Black’s
outrageous attempt to treat the campaign for compulsory sterilization
as a natural outgrowth of Herbert Spencer’s philosophy. Spencer,
of course, was a radical liberal, steadfastly opposed to all coercive
state control over the individual; associating Spencer with compulsory
sterilization, or indeed compulsory anything, is ludicrous.
As Spencer wrote in his 1851 classic Social

The desire to command is essentially a barbarous desire. … Command
cannot be otherwise than savage, for it implies an appeal to force,
should force be needful. … Command is the foe of peace, for
it breeds war of words and feelings – sometimes of deeds.
It is inconsistent with the first law of morality. It is radically
wrong. … “You must do not as you will, but as I will,” is the
basis of every mandate, whether used by a planter to his Negro,
or by a husband to his wife. (pp. 144–5)

Voluntary cooperation, Spencer held, is in the nature of things
both more just and more efficient than force and intimidation. Accordingly,
Spencer condemned slavery, imperialism, sexual inequality, censorship,
economic regulation, and every other violation of his 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.” (p. 95) (Spencer
would go on to elaborate and develop the radical antistatism of
Social Statics in such later works as The
Principles of Sociology
, The
Principles of Ethics
, and The
Man Versus the State

So what common ground could there be between Spencer and the eugenicists?
Both, to be sure, were “Social Darwinists,” if that means that both
thought there were important sociopolitical lessons to be drawn
from evolutionary biology. But Spencer and the eugenicists drew
opposite lessons. For the eugenicists, the moral of evolutionary
biology was that the course of human evolution must be coercively
managed and controlled by a centralized, paternalistic technocracy.
For Spencer, by contrast, the moral was that coercive, centralized,
paternalistic approaches to social problems were counterproductive
and so would tend to be eliminated by the spontaneous forces of
social evolution, which would instead favor a system of fully consensual
human relationships.

Admittedly, industrialist Andrew Carnegie was an admirer of Herbert
Spencer, and the Carnegie Institution appears to have played an
important role in the eugenics movement. But so what? I do not know
how far Carnegie himself personally supported the tyrannical policies
that Black discusses, but suppose he supported them up to the hilt;
if Carnegie said nice things about Spencer, but also supported policies
antithetical to everything Spencer stood for, this can hardly be
laid at Spencer’s door. In short, there are no grounds for
linking one of the great libertarian heroes of the 19th century
with one of the great statist evils of the 20th.

With Charity Toward None?

On what basis, then, can Black associate Spencer with compulsory
sterilization? Black’s answer lies in his peculiar synopsis of the
argument of Social Statics:

In the 1850s, agnostic English philosopher Herbert Spencer published
Social Statics, asserting that man and society, in truth,
followed the laws of cold science, not the will of a caring, almighty
God. Spencer popularized a powerful new term: “survival of the
fittest.” He declared that man and society were evolving according
to their inherited nature. Through evolution, the “fittest” would
naturally continue to perfect society. And the “unfit” would naturally
become more impoverished, less educated, and ultimately die off,
as well they should. Indeed, Spencer saw the misery and starvation
of the pauper classes as an inevitable decree of a “far-seeing
benevolence,” that is, the laws of nature. He unambiguously insisted,
“The whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, and to make
room for better. … If they are not sufficiently complete to
live, they die, and it is best they should die.” Spencer left
no room for doubt, declaring, “all imperfection must disappear.”
As such, he completely denounced charity and instead extolled
the purifying elimination of the “unfit.” The unfit, he argued,
were predestined by their nature to an existence of downwardly
spiraling degradation. (Black, p. 12)

From declaring that the unfit should be allowed to die off, Black
suggests, it is only a short step to declaring that they should
be forcibly sterilized, if not killed outright.

That something is awry in Black’s synopsis is already evident from
its opening sentence, which describes Social Statics as the
work of an “agnostic” who rejected the “will of a caring, almighty
God” in favor of the “laws of cold science.” Contrast this description
with what we actually find in the pages of Social Statics:

[T]here are few if any among civilized people who do not agree
that human well-being is in accordance with the Divine will. The
doctrine is taught by all our religious teachers; it is assumed
by every writer on morality; we may therefore safely consider
it as an admitted truth. … Starting afresh, then, from the admitted
truth, that human happiness is the Divine will, let us look at
the means appointed for the obtainment of that happiness and observe
what conditions they presuppose. … Now if God wills man’s happiness,
and man’s happiness can be obtained only by the exercise of his
faculties; then … it is man’s duty to exercise his faculties,
for duty means fulfillment of the Divine will. That it is
man’s duty to exercise his faculties is further proved by the
fact that what we call punishment attaches to the neglect
of that exercise. … But the fulfillment of this duty necessarily
presupposes freedom of action. … He has Divine authority, therefore,
for claiming this freedom of action. God intended him to have
it; that is, he has a right to it. (Social Statics,
pp. 61, 67–69)

could any reader of this passage take Social Statics to be
a book committed to theological agnosticism and the rejection of
a benevolent deity? Obviously, no reader could; and Black’s description,
I therefore infer, is not based on a reading of the book Social

What is it based on? Well, as a matter of fact Spencer eventually
did adopt an agnostic position, which he defended in First
(1860–62); in his subsequent ethical writings
he accordingly dispensed with the theological underpinnings of Social
Statics, instead defending the same normative conclusions on
purely secular grounds. (In effect, Spencer came to treat “human
happiness is desirable” as a basic premise rather than, as in Social
Statics, as a deduction from “God wills human happiness.”) My
hypothesis, then, is that Black has relied on background information
about the later Spencer and then mistakenly assumed that the early
Spencer’s position was the same. Black cites Social Statics
in his footnotes; but he clearly has not read it.

What, then, about the main charge: that Spencer “completely denounced
charity” and advocated allowing the unfit to die off? This accusation
is impossible to square with the text of Social Statics (or
with any of Spencer’s other writings, for that matter). In referring
to the process by which nature weeds out the unfit, Spencer wrote
that “in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by
the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that
it should be mitigated” (Social Statics, p. 340); in short,
Spencer endorsed charity. Such sympathy is to be condemned,
he maintained, only when it either “prompts to a breach of
equity” and so “originates an interference forbidden by the law
of equal freedom” (p. 340) – i.e., Spencer was condemning state-enforced
charity, not voluntary (“spontaneous”) charity – or else when it
gives rise to those specific forms of charity that encourage
dependence and reward idleness and folly.

Now it is only against this injudicious charity that the foregoing
argument tells. To that charity which may be described as helping
men to help themselves it makes no objection – countenances it,
rather. … Accidents will still supply victims on whom generosity
may be legitimately expended. Men thrown upon their backs by unforeseen
events, men who have failed for want of knowledge inaccessible
to them, men ruined by the dishonesty of others, and men in whom
hope long delayed has made the heart sick may, with advantage
to all parties, be assisted. Even the prodigal, after severe hardship
has branded his memory with the unbending conditions of social
life to which he must submit, may properly have another trial
afforded him. (Social Statics, p. 291)

Spencer also maintained the same pro-charity position throughout
his later works – devoting, for example, ten chapters of the final
volume of Principles of Ethics (published in 1893) to the
subject of “Positive Beneficence.” If there is a deficiency of charity
here, it is on Black’s part, not Spencer’s.

Spencer praises the “far-seeing benevolence” of evolutionary selection,
not because he wants to see the unfit weeded out, but because past
selection has led to the emergence of beings with a moral sense
advanced enough to moderate the operation of evolutionary selection
now. In Spencer’s eyes, charity (at least of the judicious and voluntary
kind) represents not a transgression against evolution, but rather
a transcendence of one form of evolution in favor of a higher form:
“And although by these ameliorations the process of adaptation must
be remotely interfered with, yet in the majority of cases it will
not be so much retarded in one direction as it will be advanced
in another.” (Social Statics, pp. 291-2)

But didn’t Spencer regard the mental and moral inferiority of the
lower classes as the cause of their poverty? On the contrary, to
those who maintained such views Spencer replied with asperity:

It is very easy for you, O respectable citizen, seated in your
easy chair, with your feet on the fender, to hold forth on the
misconduct of the people – very easy for you to censure their
extravagant and vicious habits …. It is no honor to you that
you do not spend your savings in sensual gratification; you have
pleasures enough without. But what would you do if placed in the
position of the laborer? How would these virtues of yours stand
the wear and tear of poverty? Where would your prudence and self-denial
be if you were deprived of all the hopes that now stimulate you
…? Let us see you tied to an irksome employment from dawn till
dusk; fed on meager food, and scarcely enough of that …. Suppose
your savings had to be made, not, as now, out of surplus income,
but out of wages already insufficient for necessaries; and then
consider whether to be provident would be as easy as you at present
find it. Conceive yourself one of a despised class contemptuously
termed “the great unwashed”; stigmatized as brutish, stolid, vicious
… and then say whether the desire to be respectable would be
as practically operative on you as now. … How offensive it is
to hear some pert, self-approving personage, who thanks God that
he is not as other men are, passing harsh sentence on his poor,
hard-worked, heavily burdened fellow countrymen …. (Social
Statics, pp. 203–5)

Are these passages buried somewhere in Spencer’s text so that Black
could easily have missed them? On the contrary, most of them are
located on the very pages that Black cites. (My page references
are to the same edition of Social Statics that Black cites:
Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, New York, 1970.) Once again, Black
is confidently citing and describing a book he apparently has not

This is rather embarrassing for an author who begins his book with
the assertion:

Every fact and fragment and its context was supported with black
and white documents, then double-checked and separately triple-checked
in a rigorous multistage verification regimen by a team of argumentative,
hairsplitting fact-checkers. (Black, p. xxii)

Obviously the hairsplitting fact-checkers were napping over Black’s
synopsis of Social Statics.

and the Supreme Court

Later in War Against the Weak, Black asserts that “Spencer
argued the strong over the weak.” (p. 119) This too is grotesquely
false (or would be if it were grammatical). In fact Spencer maintained
that “forcible supplantings of the weak by the strong” belonged
to a relatively primitive phase in the development of human civilization,
one that was beginning to wane, and deserved to wane, in favor of
an “advanced social state” based on mutual respect and mutual benevolence.
(Social Statics, pp. 374–5) Heaping scorn upon British
attempts to “justify our colonial aggressions by saying that the
Creator intends the Anglo-Saxon race to people the world” (p. 142),
Spencer condemned the “piratical spirit” (p. 322) of European imperialism,
with its “deeds of blood and rapine” inflicted on “subjugated races”
by “so-called Christian nations” (pp. 328–29). When Spencer
says that the ill-adapted must give way to the well-adapted, part
of what he means is that social systems involving the oppression
of the weak are ill-adapted and must give way to a more sophisticated
social system enshrining equal justice for all.

a particularly surreal section, Black blames Supreme Court Justice
Oliver Wendell Holmes’ decision in Buck
v. Bell
on Holmes’ alleged admiration for Herbert Spencer.
This is the famous case in which Holmes ordered the compulsory sterilization
of a mentally impaired woman, on the grounds that “Three generations
of imbeciles are enough.” If “the public welfare may call upon the
best citizens for their lives” (e.g., in time of war), all the more,
Holmes reasoned, may it demand “lesser sacrifices” from “those who
already sap the strength of the State.”

Attributing Holmes’ decision in Buck v. Bell to an admiration
for Herbert Spencer is bizarre for two reasons. First, nothing could
be more antithetical to Spencer’s outlook than the notion that the
State has the authority to require sacrifices of any sort from its
citizens. The fact that the woman in question was mentally impaired
would be of little relevance from Spencer’s point of view, since
he always argued strenuously that inferiority of intellect is no
ground for restriction of liberty; from the fact that A’s faculties
are inferior to B’s, Spencer pointed out, it would be a non sequitur
to infer that A should be prevented from exercising such faculties
as A does possess. (Social Statics, pp. 141, 156)

Second, Holmes’ attitude toward Spencer was famously one of antagonism,
not admiration. In his oft-quoted dissent in Lochner
v. New York
, Holmes, defending governmental interference
with private contracts, contemptuously dismissed Spencer’s Law of
Equal Freedom:

The liberty of the citizen to do as he likes so long as he does
not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same, which
has been a shibboleth for some well-known writers, is interfered
with by school laws, by the Post Office, by every state or municipal
institution which takes his money for purposes thought desirable,
whether he likes it or not. The Fourteenth Amendment does not
enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics. … I think
that the word liberty in the Fourteenth Amendment is perverted
when it is held to prevent the natural outcome of a dominant opinion.

Historians have sometimes puzzled over how to reconcile the “progressive”
character of Holmes’ dissent in Lochner with the “reactionary”
character of his decision in Buck. But Spencer would not
have been puzzled; he would have recognized that both of these Holmesian
positions emanated from the same fundamental contempt for individual
autonomy, and so from a sociopolitical perspective that was the
antipode of Spencer’s own.

Black goes on to quote various fascistic-sounding opinions of Holmes
with the suggestion that Spencer would agree: that the notion of
inherent human rights is “intrinsically absurd,” that truth is “the
majority vote of that nation that could lick all others,” that “force,
mitigated so far as it may be by good manners, is the ultima
ratio,” and that “the faith is true and adorable which leads
a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted
duty, in a cause he little understands, in a plan of a campaign
of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see
the use.” (Black, pp. 119–120) (Ironically, the one opinion
Black praises Holmes for (p. 119) – his famous “shouting fire
in a theatre” dictum – comes from Schenck
v. United States
, a case in which Holmes ruled that war
protestors have no right to free speech; one suspects (hopes?) that
Black did not check the context of that quote either.)

Each of these opinions would be anathema to Spencer. Spencer despised
forcible compulsion, and devoted an entire essay (“The Great Political
Superstition,” in The Man Versus the State) to denouncing
the identification of truth with majority vote. Far from admiring
the blindly obedient soldier praised by Holmes, Spencer angrily
wrote: “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.” (“Patriotism,” in Facts
and Comments
, Ch. 20) As for the notion that Spencer rejected
inherent human rights, the barest glance at the table of contents
of Social Statics or The Principles of Ethics will
demonstrate its absurdity. Holmes’ credo was that might makes right;
Spencer’s was that might must yield to right.

I doubt that Edwin Black himself harbors any particular animus against
Herbert Spencer. (His smearing of today’s genetic scientists as
mere crypto-eugenicists is perhaps less innocent, but that’s a separate
issue.) Black simply retails what has become the standard textbook
caricature of Spencer. But that caricature is false from beginning
to end, and is easily seen to be false by anyone who will take the
trouble to read Spencer rather than relying on canned summaries.
As George Smith wrote in 1978:

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.
(Smith, p. 293)

In any case, Black is perpetuating, whether through malice or through
laziness, an injustice against one of history’s most liberal and
humane philosophers. And the inaccuracy of his discussion of Spencer,
in what Black claims is a thoroughly researched and painstakingly
triple-checked book, casts doubt on all the rest of Black’s research.
If War Against the Weak is this wrong about Spencer, one
has to wonder: what else is it wrong about?

28, 2003

T. Long [send him mail]
is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auburn
; author of Reason
and Value: Aristotle versus Rand
; Editor of the Libertarian
Nation Foundation periodical Formulations;
and an Adjunct Scholar of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute
. He maintains the website Praxeology.net,
as well as the web journal In
a Blog’s Stead


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