Herbert Spencer: The Defamation Continues

It 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 Race, 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 Statics:

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)

How 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 Statics.

What is it based on? Well, as a matter of fact Spencer eventually did adopt an agnostic position, which he defended in First Principles (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 read.

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.

Spencer 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.

In 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:

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. (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?

August 28, 2003