Plunging Spencer’s Social Statics

Spencer, Herbert. Social Statics: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed. New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1954.

Spencer begins his polemic on the attack, identifying utilitarianism as one which cannot rationally be taken up in a realm of scientific inquiry, where “agreement as to the meaning of ‘greatest happiness’ [is] theoretically impossible” (10).  Instead of the utilitarian method he points to the “method of nature,” where “we find in ourselves some prompter called desire; and the more essential the action, the more powerful is the impulse to its performance, and the more intense the gratification derived therefrom” (16). Desire for Spencer is the natural drive behind forces human and animal, and if left on its own, will grow to fit “essential action.” Social ways of acting, Spencer shows, are just as natural to our desires as “appetite and parental,” and that a “moral-sense” prompting right actions exists in every human being: “every feeling is accompanied by a sense of the rightness of those actions which give it gratification—tends to generate convictions that things are good or bad, according as they bring to it pleasure or pain” (20). Since this sense is innate and moved by desire, the utilitarian rationalizations need not stuff men into artificial regulations.

It is important to note that Spencer is deriving his social evolutionary philosophy in this book not from Darwin himself (Social Statics was published in 1850, Origin of the Species in 1859) but from Darwin’s predecessor, (xx). Signs of Spencer’s later evolutionary reliance is found most abhorrently in his 1892 footnotes, where he attempts to summarize what appears to be superfluous information:

the fact that some races of men appear to have no consciences at all and that in other races of men conscience gives verdicts quite unlike, and sometimes opposite to, verdicts it gives among ourselves, are not even hinted. The evidence of this were not at that time before me. To prevent misapprehension it may be well here to say that the foregoing views concerning moral sense are applicable only to races which have been long subject to certain kinds of discipline (23-4).

The connections to Darwin naturally do not cease in the footnotes, but are fundamental to Spencer’s overall moral project, where good comes innate to human desires, and “all evil results from the non-adaptation of constitution to conditions” (28). For Spencer the natural desires of mankind creates a “good” harmony, one that can quickly turn to an “evil” when “its organization and its circumstances has been destroyed”—by the very same organism whose desires were good. Spencer utilizes concepts we would now call Darwinian, “fitness for surrounding circumstances,” “law of adaptation,” to show how men who are suffering evils in a state of existence are simply “not completely adapted to such a state” because he “partially retains the characteristics appropriate to an antecedent state” (31). The social state, of course, is reified into a single noun, “state” that “the human faculties [must] be mould into complete fitness for” so that “man [must] become perfect” (32). Which social state is Spencer referring to? “The social state” he seems to say.  His 1892 footnotes are of course revealing about this state: “Various races of mankind, inhabiting bad habits, and obliged to lead miserable lives, cannot by any amount of adaptation be moulded into satisfactory types” (32). Indeed, it was his own social state all along!

It is up to each man then to “fulfil his own nature” (34), but as not to “irritate the abnormal feelings of his neighbors,” though in some cases “it is not his behavior that is wrong, but their characters that are so” (37). This devision between who is right and wrong in these “irritating” circumstances is answered quickly by those more “unfit” for the social state, in this case the offended, because “they ought not to have so tyrannical an intolerance of other opinions than their own” (37). Therefore, to Spencer, the “liberty of each, limited by the like liberties of all, is the rule in conformity with which society must be organized” (45). It takes him many pages to lead up to this point, and even more derivations to repeat this principle with the authority of stating a moral law, one that follows in tandem with “an instinct of personal rights” that “leads him to claim as great a share of natural privilege as is claimed by others” (48). This instinct however is not to be confused with that of “sympathy” outlined by Adam Smith, but is only an instinct of personal rights, and the notion of sympathy as a right to Spencer is “nothing but a sympathetic affection of the instinct of personal rights—a sort of reflect function of it” (50). Spencer’s one and only discovered moral instinct is that of a moral law: “Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man” (55).

As fundamental as this law is to human nature, Spencer seems to assume that only certain races of men are capable of doing it well and within a civilized social state, and for the “uncivilized man, even under the most hypothetical conditions—cannot be made even to recognize those actions [of pure morality] so as to pass any definite sentence upon them” (62). Nature wields a double-standard, or is simply a trickster cartoon character, promising innate sentiment but then taking it back when it comes time to use it, trading it for the lit stick of dynamite, or in the case of European cultural dominance that this book reinforces—cannon balls. Here also one can find the influence of Malthus, when Spencer rages against socialism, positing that the ideas are “correct in theory” but “impracticable,” for “if an equal portion of the earth’s produce is awarded to every man…a breach of equality is committed” (65). If violates the first principle. On the full equality of women, Spencer is much more aligned with today’s standards, that when women have “clear perception of what is due to them, and men to a nobility of feeling which shall make them concede to women the freedom which they themselves claim—humanity will have undergone such a modification as to render the equality of rights possible” (78). Spencer’s liberalism here is accounted for in the hidden complexity of his well-stated principle, and women’s equality is one branch leading from it.                 The inequality of women and slavery of others denotes to Spencer a “low social life,” one that perhaps belongs to the realm of the uncivilized.

The fear of “low social life,” the uncivilized, the barbarians, and the very idea of sympathy, becomes ever more contagious as Spencer finds that assimilation into a social state always works both ways, and that “whoso is placed among the savage will in process of time grow savage too; let his companions be treacherous and he will become treacherous in self-defense” (100). Spencer goes on to say:

Among a people not yet fitted for [a representative form of government], citizens, lacking the impulse to claim equal powers, become careless in the exercise of their franchise, and even pride themselves on not interfering in public affairs…they will watch the passing of the most insidious measures with vacant unconcern. (107)

And yet, “on the other hand, among a people sufficiently endowed with the faculty responding to the  law of equal freedom, no such retrograde process is possible” (107). If “the man of genuinely democratic feeling loves liberty as a miser loves gold,” then the miser, or anyone not of genuine democratic feeling, certainly cannot love liberty, but must, as a type, love something completely different, and therefore cannot assimilate well into a democratic society.

If one is looking through this books for how and why it became such a strong influence in American thought, Spencer’s staunch individualism surely molded well into American ideals, especially I the post-civil war era when reparations to African Americans, as well as total enfranchisement, was stymied by the insistence that they be treated by individual merit, not by social responsibility to the group. Valuing always the individual rather than the group, Spencer opines that “of the many political superstitions, none is so widely diffused as the notion that majorities are omnipotent” (93). The best government for Spencer is that which “places less restraint upon the individual” (106). When the state creates new taxes, they act not the “part of the protector” but that “of an aggressor,” and worse, “retards adaptation instead of hastening it” which we will remember Spencer considers as “all evil” (127).

Perhaps the most shocking result of Spencer’s individualism mixed with evolutionary thought, is his ideas on the reformation of poor-laws, simply that “a poor-law tries to make men pitiful by force,” for it counteracts nature in its competitive form, which provides “merciful provision” and “universal welfare” by ending one’s existence “before it becomes burdensome” and making room “for a younger generation capable of the fullest enjoyment” (149). This type of welfare of course is immediate and pathetic death, one meant to “weed out the sickly, the malformed, and the least fleet or powerful,” making room for what Spencer calls “the ideal man” (149). Realizing this may sound harsh, Spencer doesn’t retract, but softens the blow, promising that “widows” and “orphans”—whom he takes for granted are already the weakest of the social state—would struggle and die “in connection with the interests of universal humanity” (150). For those who disagree, they are merely “disabled” “by their sympathies with present suffering [and]…pursue a course which is injudicious, and in the end even cruel” and that the “spurious philanthropists” “to prevent misery, would entail greater misery on future generations” (151). Spencer continues advising would-be philanthropists and do-gooders:

Blind to the fact that under the natural order of things society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillitating, faithless members, these unthinking, though well-meaning, men advocate an interference which not only stops the purifying process, but even increases the vitiation—absolutely encourages the multiplication of the reckless and incompetent. (151)

To end, Spencer’s moralism and its impulses are made either more complex or simply jarring when he theorizes that one cannot do evil if one is ignorant that what they are doing is evil—i.e. slave owners had no obligation to feel guilt over owning slaves until it was put into public thought (by natural progression) that their practice was abominable. Since amoral action retards growth, those doing altogether disturbing deeds need not be slowed down, for many “have not yet reached a development great enough to be offended by such doings” (240). Spencer explains: “while the injustice of conquests and enslaving is not perceived, they are on the whole beneficial; but as soon as they are felt to be at variance with the moral law, the continuance of them retards adaptation in one direction more than it advances in another” (241). By now it is all too obvious why this text was so appealing not only to Darwin, but to the British empire and to ex-slave owners of the American south.

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