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Herbert Spencer Contribution To Sociology Essays Online

For other people named Herbert Spencer, see Herbert Spencer (disambiguation).

Herbert Spencer

Spencer at the age of 73

Born(1820-04-27)27 April 1820
Derby, Derbyshire, England
Died8 December 1903(1903-12-08) (aged 83)
Brighton, Sussex, England
Era19th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolEvolutionism, positivism, classical liberalism

Main interests

Evolution, positivism, laissez-faire, utilitarianism

Notable ideas

Social Darwinism
Survival of the fittest


  • Charles Darwin, Dhondo Keshav Karve, Henry Sidgwick, William Graham Sumner, Murray Rothbard, Émile Durkheim, Henri Bergson, Charles Sanders Peirce, Auberon Herbert, Yan Fu, Jack London


Herbert Spencer (27 April 1820 – 8 December 1903) was an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberalpolitical theorist of the Victorian era.

Spencer developed an all-embracing conception of evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies. As a polymath, he contributed to a wide range of subjects, including ethics, religion, anthropology, economics, political theory, philosophy, literature, astronomy, biology, sociology, and psychology. During his lifetime he achieved tremendous authority, mainly in English-speaking academia. "The only other English philosopher to have achieved anything like such widespread popularity was Bertrand Russell, and that was in the 20th century."[1] Spencer was "the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century"[2][3] but his influence declined sharply after 1900: "Who now reads Spencer?" asked Talcott Parsons in 1937.[4]

Spencer is best known for the expression "survival of the fittest", which he coined in Principles of Biology (1864), after reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.[5] This term strongly suggests natural selection, yet as Spencer extended evolution into realms of sociology and ethics, he also made use of Lamarckism.[6]


Spencer was born in Derby, England, on 27 April 1820, the son of William George Spencer (generally called George). Spencer's father was a religious dissenter who drifted from Methodism to Quakerism, and who seems to have transmitted to his son an opposition to all forms of authority. He ran a school founded on the progressive teaching methods of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and also served as Secretary of the Derby Philosophical Society, a scientific society which had been founded in 1783 by Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin.

Spencer was educated in empirical science by his father, while the members of the Derby Philosophical Society introduced him to pre-Darwinian concepts of biological evolution, particularly those of Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His uncle, the Reverend Thomas Spencer,[7] vicar of Hinton Charterhouse near Bath, completed Spencer's limited formal education by teaching him some mathematics and physics, and enough Latin to enable him to translate some easy texts. Thomas Spencer also imprinted on his nephew his own firm free-trade and anti-statist political views. Otherwise, Spencer was an autodidact who acquired most of his knowledge from narrowly focused readings and conversations with his friends and acquaintances.[8]

Both as an adolescent and as a young man, Spencer found it difficult to settle to any intellectual or professional discipline. He worked as a civil engineer during the railway boom of the late 1830s, while also devoting much of his time to writing for provincial journals that were nonconformist in their religion and radical in their politics. From 1848 to 1853 he served as sub-editor on the free-trade journal The Economist, during which time he published his first book, Social Statics (1851), which predicted that humanity would eventually become completely adapted to the requirements of living in society with the consequential withering away of the state.

Its publisher, John Chapman, introduced Spencer to his salon which was attended by many of the leading radical and progressive thinkers of the capital, including John Stuart Mill, Harriet Martineau, George Henry Lewes and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), with whom he was briefly romantically linked. Spencer himself introduced the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who would later win fame as 'Darwin's Bulldog' and who remained his lifelong friend. However it was the friendship of Evans and Lewes that acquainted him with John Stuart Mill's A System of Logic and with Auguste Comte's positivism and which set him on the road to his life's work. He strongly disagreed with Comte.[9]

The first fruit of his friendship with Evans and Lewes was Spencer's second book, Principles of Psychology, published in 1855, which explored a physiological basis for psychology. The book was founded on the fundamental assumption that the human mind was subject to natural laws and that these could be discovered within the framework of general biology. This permitted the adoption of a developmental perspective not merely in terms of the individual (as in traditional psychology), but also of the species and the race. Through this paradigm, Spencer aimed to reconcile the associationist psychology of Mill's Logic, the notion that human mind was constructed from atomic sensations held together by the laws of the association of ideas, with the apparently more 'scientific' theory of phrenology, which located specific mental functions in specific parts of the brain.[10]

Spencer argued that both these theories were partial accounts of the truth: repeated associations of ideas were embodied in the formation of specific strands of brain tissue, and these could be passed from one generation to the next by means of the Lamarckian mechanism of use-inheritance. The Psychology, he believed, would do for the human mind what Isaac Newton had done for matter.[11] However, the book was not initially successful and the last of the 251 copies of its first edition was not sold until June 1861.

Spencer's interest in psychology derived from a more fundamental concern which was to establish the universality of natural law.[12] In common with others of his generation, including the members of Chapman's salon, he was possessed with the idea of demonstrating that it was possible to show that everything in the universe – including human culture, language, and morality – could be explained by laws of universal validity. This was in contrast to the views of many theologians of the time who insisted that some parts of creation, in particular the human soul, were beyond the realm of scientific investigation. Comte's Système de Philosophie Positive had been written with the ambition of demonstrating the universality of natural law, and Spencer was to follow Comte in the scale of his ambition. However, Spencer differed from Comte in believing it was possible to discover a single law of universal application which he identified with progressive development and was to call the principle of evolution.

In 1858 Spencer produced an outline of what was to become the System of Synthetic Philosophy. This immense undertaking, which has few parallels in the English language, aimed to demonstrate that the principle of evolution applied in biology, psychology, sociology (Spencer appropriated Comte's term for the new discipline) and morality. Spencer envisaged that this work of ten volumes would take twenty years to complete; in the end it took him twice as long and consumed almost all the rest of his long life.

Despite Spencer's early struggles to establish himself as a writer, by the 1870s he had become the most famous philosopher of the age.[13] His works were widely read during his lifetime, and by 1869 he was able to support himself solely on the profit of book sales and on income from his regular contributions to Victorian periodicals which were collected as three volumes of Essays. His works were translated into German, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, Japanese and Chinese, and into many other languages and he was offered honours and awards all over Europe and North America. He also became a member of the Athenaeum, an exclusive Gentleman's Club in London open only to those distinguished in the arts and sciences, and the X Club, a dining club of nine founded by T.H. Huxley that met every month and included some of the most prominent thinkers of the Victorian age (three of whom would become presidents of the Royal Society).

Members included physicist-philosopher John Tyndall and Darwin's cousin, the banker and biologist Sir John Lubbock. There were also some quite significant satellites such as liberal clergyman Arthur Stanley, the Dean of Westminster; and guests such as Charles Darwin and Hermann von Helmholtz were entertained from time to time. Through such associations, Spencer had a strong presence in the heart of the scientific community and was able to secure an influential audience for his views. Despite his growing wealth and fame he never owned a house of his own.

The last decades of Spencer's life were characterised by growing disillusionment and loneliness. He never married, and after 1855 was a perpetual hypochondriac who complained endlessly of pains and maladies that no physician could diagnose.[citation needed] By the 1890s his readership had begun to desert him while many of his closest friends died and he had come to doubt the confident faith in progress that he had made the center-piece of his philosophical system. His later years were also ones in which his political views became increasingly conservative. Whereas Social Statics had been the work of a radical democrat who believed in votes for women (and even for children) and in the nationalisation of the land to break the power of the aristocracy, by the 1880s he had become a staunch opponent of female suffrage and made common cause with the landowners of the Liberty and Property Defence League against what they saw as the drift towards 'socialism' of elements (such as Sir William Harcourt) within the administration of William Ewart Gladstone – largely against the opinions of Gladstone himself. Spencer's political views from this period were expressed in what has become his most famous work, The Man Versus the State.

The exception to Spencer's growing conservativism was that he remained throughout his life an ardent opponent of imperialism and militarism. His critique of the Boer War was especially scathing, and it contributed to his declining popularity in Britain.[14]

Spencer also invented a precursor to the modern paper clip, though it looked more like a modern cotter pin. This "binding-pin" was distributed by Ackermann & Company. Spencer shows drawings of the pin in Appendix I (following Appendix H) of his autobiography along with published descriptions of its uses.

In 1902, shortly before his death, Spencer was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. He continued writing all his life, in later years often by dictation, until he succumbed to poor health at the age of 83. His ashes are interred in the eastern side of London's Highgate Cemetery facing Karl Marx's grave. At Spencer's funeral the Indian nationalist leader Shyamji Krishnavarma announced a donation of £1,000 to establish a lectureship at Oxford University in tribute to Spencer and his work.[15]

Synthetic philosophy[edit]

The basis for Spencer's appeal to many of his generation was that he appeared to offer a ready-made system of belief which could substitute for conventional religious faith at a time when orthodox creeds were crumbling under the advances of modern science. Spencer's philosophical system seemed to demonstrate that it was possible to believe in the ultimate perfection of humanity on the basis of advanced scientific conceptions such as the first law of thermodynamics and biological evolution.

In essence Spencer's philosophical vision was formed by a combination of deism and positivism. On the one hand, he had imbibed something of eighteenth century deism from his father and other members of the Derby Philosophical Society and from books like George Combe's immensely popular The Constitution of Man (1828). This treated the world as a cosmos of benevolent design, and the laws of nature as the decrees of a 'Being transcendentally kind.' Natural laws were thus the statutes of a well governed universe that had been decreed by the Creator with the intention of promoting human happiness. Although Spencer lost his Christian faith as a teenager and later rejected any 'anthropomorphic' conception of the Deity, he nonetheless held fast to this conception at an almost sub-conscious level. At the same time, however, he owed far more than he would ever acknowledge to positivism, in particular in its conception of a philosophical system as the unification of the various branches of scientific knowledge. He also followed positivism in his insistence that it was only possible to have genuine knowledge of phenomena and hence that it was idle to speculate about the nature of the ultimate reality. The tension between positivism and his residual deism ran through the entire System of Synthetic Philosophy.

Spencer followed Comte in aiming for the unification of scientific truth; it was in this sense that his philosophy aimed to be 'synthetic.' Like Comte, he was committed to the universality of natural law, the idea that the laws of nature applied without exception, to the organic realm as much as to the inorganic, and to the human mind as much as to the rest of creation. The first objective of the Synthetic Philosophy was thus to demonstrate that there were no exceptions to being able to discover scientific explanations, in the form of natural laws, of all the phenomena of the universe. Spencer's volumes on biology, psychology, and sociology were all intended to demonstrate the existence of natural laws in these specific disciplines. Even in his writings on ethics, he held that it was possible to discover 'laws' of morality that had the status of laws of nature while still having normative content, a conception which can be traced to George Combe's Constitution of Man.

The second objective of the Synthetic Philosophy was to show that these same laws led inexorably to progress. In contrast to Comte, who stressed only the unity of scientific method, Spencer sought the unification of scientific knowledge in the form of the reduction of all natural laws to one fundamental law, the law of evolution. In this respect, he followed the model laid down by the Edinburgh publisher Robert Chambers in his anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). Although often dismissed as a lightweight forerunner of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, Chambers' book was in reality a programme for the unification of science which aimed to show that Laplace's nebular hypothesis for the origin of the solar system and Lamarck's theory of species transformation were both instances (in Lewes' phrase) of 'one magnificent generalisation of progressive development.' Chambers was associated with Chapman's salon and his work served as the unacknowledged template for the Synthetic Philosophy.


Spencer first articulated his evolutionary perspective in his essay, 'Progress: Its Law and Cause', published in Chapman's Westminster Review in 1857, and which later formed the basis of the First Principles of a New System of Philosophy (1862). In it he expounded a theory of evolution which combined insights from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's essay 'The Theory of Life' – itself derivative from Friedrich von Schelling's Naturphilosophie – with a generalisation of von Baer's law of embryological development. Spencer posited that all structures in the universe develop from a simple, undifferentiated, homogeneity to a complex, differentiated, heterogeneity, while being accompanied by a process of greater integration of the differentiated parts. This evolutionary process could be found at work, Spencer believed, throughout the cosmos. It was a universal law, that was applying to the stars and the galaxies as much as to biological organisms, and to human social organisation as much as to the human mind. It differed from other scientific laws only by its greater generality, and the laws of the special sciences could be shown to be illustrations of this principle.

However, as Bertrand Russell stated in a letter to Beatrice Webb in 1923, this formulation has problems: 'I don't know whether [Spencer] was ever made to realise the implications of the second law of thermodynamics; if so, he may well be upset. The law says that everything tends to uniformity and a dead level, diminishing (not increasing) heterogeneity'.[16]

Spencer's attempt to explain the evolution of complexity was radically different from that to be found in Darwin's Origin of Species which was published two years later. Spencer is often, quite erroneously, believed to have merely appropriated and generalised Darwin's work on natural selection. But although after reading Darwin's work he coined the phrase 'survival of the fittest' as his own term for Darwin's concept,[5] and is often misrepresented as a thinker who merely applied the Darwinian theory to society, he only grudgingly incorporated natural selection into his preexisting overall system. The primary mechanism of species transformation that he recognised was Lamarckian use-inheritance which posited that organs are developed or are diminished by use or disuse and that the resulting changes may be transmitted to future generations. Spencer believed that this evolutionary mechanism was also necessary to explain 'higher' evolution, especially the social development of humanity. Moreover, in contrast to Darwin, he held that evolution had a direction and an end-point, the attainment of a final state of equilibrium. He tried to apply the theory of biological evolution to sociology. He proposed that society was the product of change from lower to higher forms, just as in the theory of biological evolution, the lowest forms of life are said to be evolving into higher forms. Spencer claimed that man's mind had evolved in the same way from the simple automatic responses of lower animals to the process of reasoning in the thinking man. Spencer believed in two kinds of knowledge: knowledge gained by the individual and knowledge gained by the race. Intuition, or knowledge learned unconsciously, was the inherited experience of the race.

Spencer in his book Principles of Biology (1864), proposed a pangenesis theory that involved "physiological units". These hypothetical hereditary units were similar to Darwin's gemmules.[17]


Spencer read with excitement the original positivist sociology of Auguste Comte. A philosopher of science, Comte had proposed a theory of sociocultural evolution that society progresses by a general law of three stages. Writing after various developments in biology, however, Spencer rejected what he regarded as the ideological aspects of Comte's positivism, attempting to reformulate social science in terms of his principle of evolution, which he applied to the biological, psychological and sociological aspects of the universe.

Given the primacy which Spencer placed on evolution, his sociology might be described as social Darwinism mixed with Lamarckism. However, despite its popularity, this view of Spencer's sociology is mistaken. While his political and ethical writings had themes consistent with social Darwinism, such themes are absent in Spencer's sociological works, which focus on how processes of societal growth and differentiation lead to changing degrees of complexity in social organization [18]

The evolutionary progression from simple, undifferentiated homogeneity to complex, differentiated heterogeneity was exemplified, Spencer argued, by the development of society. He developed a theory of two types of society, the militant and the industrial, which corresponded to this evolutionary progression. Militant society, structured around relationships of hierarchy and obedience, was simple and undifferentiated; industrial society, based on voluntary, contractually assumed social obligations, was complex and differentiated. Society, which Spencer conceptualised as a 'social organism' evolved from the simpler state to the more complex according to the universal law of evolution. Moreover, industrial society was the direct descendant of the ideal society developed in Social Statics, although Spencer now equivocated over whether the evolution of society would result in anarchism (as he had first believed) or whether it pointed to a continued role for the state, albeit one reduced to the minimal functions of the enforcement of contracts and external defence.

Though Spencer made some valuable contributions to early sociology, not least in his influence on structural functionalism, his attempt to introduce Lamarckian or Darwinian ideas into the realm of sociology was unsuccessful. It was considered by many, furthermore, to be actively dangerous. Hermeneuticians of the period, such as Wilhelm Dilthey, would pioneer the distinction between the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). In the United States, the sociologist Lester Frank Ward, who would be elected as the first president of the American Sociological Association, launched a relentless attack on Spencer's theories of laissez-faire and political ethics. Although Ward admired much of Spencer's work he believed that Spencer's prior political biases had distorted his thought and had led him astray.[19] In the 1890s, Émile Durkheim established formal academic sociology with a firm emphasis on practical social research. By the turn of the 20th century the first generation of German sociologists, most notably Max Weber, had presented methodological antipositivism. However, it should be noted that Spencer's theories of laissez-faire, survival-of-the-fittest and minimal human interference in the processes of natural law had an enduring and even increasing appeal in the social science fields of economics and political science, and one writer has recently made the case for Spencer's importance for a sociology that must learn to take energy in society seriously.[20]


Spencer's reputation among the Victorians owed a great deal to his agnosticism. He rejected theology as representing the 'impiety of the pious.' He was to gain much notoriety from his repudiation of traditional religion, and was frequently condemned by religious thinkers for allegedly advocating atheism and materialism. Nonetheless, unlike Thomas Henry Huxley, whose agnosticism was a militant creed directed at 'the unpardonable sin of faith' (in Adrian Desmond's phrase), Spencer insisted that he was not concerned to undermine religion in the name of science, but to bring about a reconciliation of the two. The following argument is a summary of Part 1 of his First Principles (2nd ed 1867).

Starting either from religious belief or from science, Spencer argued, we are ultimately driven to accept certain indispensable but literally inconceivable notions. Whether we are concerned with a Creator or the substratum which underlies our experience of phenomena, we can frame no conception of it. Therefore, Spencer concluded, religion and science agree in the supreme truth that the human understanding is only capable of 'relative' knowledge. This is the case since, owing to the inherent limitations of the human mind, it is only possible to obtain knowledge of phenomena, not of the reality ('the absolute') underlying phenomena. Hence both science and religion must come to recognise as the 'most certain of all facts that the Power which the Universe manifests to us is utterly inscrutable.' He called this awareness of 'the Unknowable' and he presented worship of the Unknowable as capable of being a positive faith which could substitute for conventional religion. Indeed, he thought that the Unknowable represented the ultimate stage in the evolution of religion, the final elimination of its last anthropomorphic vestiges.

Political views[edit]

Spencerian views in 21st century circulation derive from his political theories and memorable attacks on the reform movements of the late 19th century. He has been claimed as a precursor by libertarians and anarcho-capitalists

[This essay is excerpted from the original published by the Libertarian Alliance.]1

Last year marked the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin. But this essay is not about Charles Darwin. It is about a contemporary of his, Herbert Spencer, who was developing a theory of evolution before Darwin and is credited with coining the phrase "the survival of the fittest." His books sold in huge numbers during his lifetime and he was almost certainly the most famous philosopher of the Victorian age. Charles Darwin referred to him as "our great philosopher."2

While most philosophers fail to achieve much of a following outside the academy of their professional peers, by the 1870s and 1880s Spencer had achieved an unparalleled popularity, as the sheer volume of his sales indicate. He was probably the first, and possibly the only, philosopher in history to sell over a million copies of his works during his own lifetime.3

The only other English philosopher to have achieved anything like such widespread popularity was Bertrand Russell, and that was in the 20th century.

In the mid-to-late 1800s Herbert Spencer was as famous as Darwin and was acquainted with many of the leading intellectuals of his day: John Stuart Mill, Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Thomas Henry Huxley ("Darwin's bulldog"), and George Henry Lewes, to name just a few.

Darwin's theory was primarily biology centered, concentrating on flora and fauna, and expressing his original idea of the mechanism by which evolution operates, namely natural selection; whereas Spencer's work was much wider ranging, covering biology, psychology, sociology, ethics, and politics, as well as philosophy.

So I think it is interesting to look at why, more than 100 years on, Charles Darwin is so much better known than his illustrious contemporary, Herbert Spencer, who is almost forgotten today.

The reason Herbert Spencer has fallen from grace is largely due to the label that has been attached to him, a label that oddly enough bears Darwin's name, and that is "social Darwinist." The implication is that Spencer took Darwin's theory and applied it to social evolution in human societies.

A Social Darwinist?

The responsibility for the besmirching and virtual destruction of the reputation of Herbert Spencer can be laid the door of one man, the author of Social Darwinism in American Thought 1860-1915, Richard Hofstadter. His book, a hostile critique of Spencer's work, published in 1944, sold in large numbers and was very influential, especially in academic circles. It claimed that Spencer had used evolution to justify economic and social inequality, and to support a political stance of extreme conservatism, which led, amongst other things, to the eugenics movement. In simple terms, it is as if Spencer's phrase, "the survival of the fittest," had been claimed by him as the basis of a political doctrine.

But there's a problem with Hofstadter's celebrated work: His claims bear almost no resemblance to the real Herbert Spencer. In fact, as Princeton University economist Tim Leonard argues in a provocative new title "Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism," which is forthcoming from the Journal of Economics Behavior and Organization, Hofstadter is guilty of distorting Spencer's free market views and smearing them with the taint of racist Darwinian collectivism.4

And yet Hofstadter's influence remains pervasive. His view of Spencer is often repeated in academic books, as Roderick T. Long points out:

Textbooks summarize Spencer in a few lines as a "Social Darwinist" who preached "might makes right" and advocated letting the poor die of starvation in order to weed out the unfit — a description unlikely to win him readers.5

These comments are grossly unjust, as Long explains:

The textbook summary is absurd, of course. Far from being a proponent of "might makes right," Spencer wrote that the "desire to command is essentially a barbarous desire" because it "implies an appeal to force," which is "inconsistent with the first law of morality" and "radically wrong." While Spencer opposed tax-funded welfare programs, he strongly supported voluntary charity, and indeed devoted ten chapters of his Principles of Ethics to a discussion of the duty of "positive beneficence."6

I think it is useful at this point to look at Hofstadter's background and bias. Hofstadter was born in 1916 in the United States, graduated from Buffalo University, and went on to receive his PhD from Columbia University. He joined the Communist party in 1938 and, although he became disillusioned with the Marxists, he still continued to oppose the free market, saying, "I hate capitalism and everything that goes with it."7 He was an historian very much in sympathy with the American Left during the New Deal era of American politics. Subsequently many left-liberal writers have quoted Hofstadter's references to Spencer without troubling to study Spencer's original work, thus perpetuating the misrepresentation.

As George H. Smith points out,

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.8

The most frequently quoted passage of Spencer's work, by Hofstadter and others wishing to smear Spencer's reputation, is

If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.9

This does sound harsh, but what the Spencer-knockers fail to quote is the first sentence of the very next paragraph, which transforms its meaning:

Of course, 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.10

Thus his argument is that the mitigation of natural selection by human benevolence trumps the benefit resulting from the death of the unfit. In other words it is better to respond to our natural sympathy and save the unfit rather than let them die. This then conveys quite a different meaning from the original sentence when quoted on its own.

It is not surprising then that since the tarnishing of Spencer's reputation (unjustly in my view), he is not regarded with the same respect as he was in his own day, and indeed is rarely studied in universities today. The most damning criticism of all is that his ideas led to the eugenics movement, which again is absolutely untrue.

As Damon W. Root explains,

Eugenics, which is based on racism, coercion, and collectivism, was alien to everything Spencer believed.11

Internet sites too, often give Herbert Spencer a bad name. On a website devoted to explaining evolution, and described by Richard Dawkins as "deeply impressive", names Herbert Spencer as the "father of Social Darwinism as an ethical theory."12 It goes on to describe the applications of Social Darwinism:

Social Darwinism was used to justify numerous exploits which we classify as of dubious moral value today. Colonialism was seen as natural and inevitable, and given justification through Social Darwinian ethics — people saw natives as being weaker and more unfit to survive, and therefore felt justified in seizing land and resources. Social Darwinism applied to military action as well; the argument went that the strongest military would win, and would therefore be the most fit. Casualties on the losing side, of course, were written off as the natural result of their unfit status. Finally it gave the ethical nod to brutal colonial governments who used oppressive tactics against their subjects.

This is what Herbert Spencer has to say about colonialism:

Moreover, colonial government, properly so called, cannot be carried on without transgressing the rights of the colonists. For if, as generally happens, the colonists are dictated to by authorities sent out from the mother country, then the law of equal freedom is broken in their persons, as much as by any other kind of autocratic rule.14

It is clear from this statement that Spencer is opposed to colonialism.

He also compares the militant type of society (based on war) and the industrial type of society (based on trade), criticizing the former for its emphasis on authoritarianism and praising the latter because it is conducive to individual freedom.

This is what Spencer has to say about militant type of society:

Briefly, then, under the militant type the individual is owned by the state. While preservation of the society is the primary end, preservation of each member is a secondary end — an end cared for chiefly as subserving the primary end.15

And this is how Spencer compares the two types of society:

In a society organised for militant action, the individuality of each member has to be subordinated in life, liberty and property, that he is largely, or completely, owned by the state; but in a society industrially organised, no such subordination of the individual is called for.16

These are not the words of a man promoting military action on the basis of "might makes right." What he is concerned about is individual rights and he sees colonialism and the militant society as conditions which undermine individual rights.

The website referred to above is yet another example of the often-repeated claim that Herbert Spencer was a social Darwinist, which on the basis of their definition is completely false.

Libertarian Prophet?

Despite the fact that in Herbert Spencer's day the term libertarian did not exist, I think Spencer can be classified as an early spokesperson and visionary of the libertarian movement — or, to use Roderick T. Long's expression, he can be described as a "Libertarian Prophet." I believe that Spencer not only expressed libertarian ideas succinctly but also presented a libertarian vision for the future. I will give some examples.

In ethics Spencer derived a "law of equal Freedom," which states that

every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.17

This is pure libertarianism. Roderick T. Long elaborates,

Spencer proceeded to deduce, from the Law of Equal Freedom, the existence of rights to freedom of speech, press, and religion; bodily integrity; private property; and commercial exchange — virtually the entire policy menu of today's libertarians.18

Spencer's view on taxation is also very libertarian, as this passage demonstrates:

For the implied address accompanying every additional exaction is — "Hitherto you have been free to spend this portion of your earnings in any way which pleased you; hereafter you shall not be free so to spend it, but we will spend it for the general benefit." Thus, either directly or indirectly, and in most cases both at once, the citizen is at each further stage in the growth of this compulsory legislation, deprived of some liberty which he previously had.19

When considering the proper sphere of government, Spencer asks, what are the requirements of a community for a naturally formed government?

What, then, do they want a government for? Not to regulate commerce; not to educate the people; not to teach religion; not to administer charity; not to make roads or railways; but simply to defend the natural rights of man — to protect person and property-to prevent the aggressions of the powerful upon the weak — in a word, to administer justice. This is the natural, the original, office of a government. It was not intended to do less: it ought not to be allowed to do more.20

This coincides with the view of many present-day minimal-statist/minarchist libertarians.

Another interesting fact is that Spencer argued in favor of women's rights long before they became legally established. For example, in his Principles of Ethics, with its chapter on "The Rights of Women," he stated that:

Hence, if men and women are severally regarded as independent members of society, each one of whom has to do the best for himself or herself, it results that no restraints can equitably be placed upon women in respect of the occupations, professions, or other careers which they may wish to adopt. They must have like freedom to prepare themselves, and like freedom to profit by such information and skill as they acquire.[21]

This again accords with the libertarian view.

Herbert Spencer's significance to libertarianism has been recognized by Tibor R. Machan:

What Spencer did for libertarianism is what Marx did for communism — provide it with what was to be a full-blown scientific justification, on the model of proper science prominent in his day.22

But he reflects that

neither thinker succeeded. But while Marx is hailed everywhere as a messiah (in secular garb) — even as his theories are being patched up desperately to fit the facts — Herbert Spencer, a better scientist, and in his moral and political theory more astute than Marx, is widely dismissed as a foolhardy fellow or crude Darwinian.23

What Spencer did recognize was that many Liberals in his day were abandoning their principles — so much so that he called them the "New Tories." He noted that

they have lost sight of the truth that in past times Liberalism habitually stood for individual freedom versus State-coercion.24

Little did he know that these "New Tories" would become the new "Liberals," and that the original or classical Liberals would need a new name to identify them — that name was to be "libertarians."

Spencer was prophetic in that he saw the coming of a militant era of governments, which would lead to war and collectivism. The advent of Nazism and Communism in the 20th century proved his fears to be well founded.

However, Spencer's long-term optimism for the future, in which he believed that the industrial society, one based on voluntary cooperation and peaceful exchange, would eventually prevail, still provides hope, and indeed a positive vision for the future, to inspire libertarians today.


Herbert Spencer is often misrepresented in textbooks and websites as a "social Darwinist," but these claims describe a mythical Spencer that never existed. The real Spencer was quite different. The real Spencer often expressed views quite similar to modern-day libertarians, and indeed his long-term optimism for the future of the world based on voluntary cooperation justifies his epithet of "libertarian prophet."

This essay is excerpted from the original published by the Libertarian Alliance.

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