A Journal for Western Man




Herbert Spencer on Liberty and

Human Progress

Dr. Edward W. Younkins

Issue LX- May 26, 2006



Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), British philosopher and sociologist, was a prominent late 19th-century defender of individual freedom and critic of state violence and coercion. A Lamarckian, rather than a Darwinian, pioneer in evolutionary theory, Spencer believed in inevitable human progress that develops naturally when people are free. He contended that well-being flourishes in moral societies where equal freedom is the ultimate principle of justice. According to Spencer, moral rights to life and liberty are requirements to happiness. It follows that people in societies in which moral rights are protected are happier and more successful. He held that to flourish there must entail as few unnatural restrictions on individuals as possible. Progress is attained only through the free use of human faculties. This implies that the only legitimate function of government is the policing and protection of individual rights. The sole purpose of the state is to protect its citizens against external and internal aggression. Spencerís ideas are developed in a number of works including Social Statics (1851), Principles of Psychology (1855), Principles of Biology (1864), The Study of Sociology (1873), The Man Versus the State (1884), and The Principles of Ethics (1892).

Spencer explains that human nature, the sum of menís sentiments and instincts, adapts over time to the conditions of social existence. His idea of human nature involves the adaptation of menís faculties to their organic, social, and psychological needs. His progressive adaptation involves an increasing adjustment of inner subjective relations to outer objective relations.


According to Spencer, a person cannot know the nature of reality in itselfóthere is something essentially unknowable. He says that we can know that the real exists but that we cannot know its nature nor have definite knowledge of its attributes. Spencer does not make any metaphysical commitment regarding the nature of reality. His theory of ďtransfigured realismĒ merely holds an objective existence as separate from, and independent of, subjective (i.e., phenomenal) existence.

Despite the fact that Spencer states that menís knowledge is phenomenal and applies only to appearances, he does not maintain that such knowledge is unreliable. Explaining that appearance without reality is inconceivable, he states that phenomenal knowledge is produced by external forces and is not created by a personís mind. For Spencer, reality is evidenced via persistence in consciousness. If the relation between oneís mental states and objective reality is consistent, persistent, and invariable, then a person has justified beliefs. For Spencer, ďpersistence in consciousnessĒ is the judge by which a person differentiates between the real and the unreal. This is Spencerís theory of indirect correspondence.

It follows that Spencer does not, and cannot, hold a true doctrine of natural law although he says that society should be organized in accordance with the laws of nature, that individuals have rights based on a law of life, and that justice has its foundation in natural law. In fact, his ethics and political philosophy actually depend on a somewhat truncated theory of natural law. For example, Spencer believes that people have rights that are recognized by ďa priori cognitionĒ or ďa priori intuition.Ē His earlier writings positioned his defense of natural rights on a theological foundation. Later, he became a dissatisfied deterministic agnostic who defended his notion of natural rights and his normative conclusions on totally secular premises.

Spencerís Evolutionary Individualism

Spencer was a Lamarckian who believed that acquired characteristics are transmitted to later generations. This means that the adaptations of a generation that permitted it to survive are transmitted to the succeeding generation, thus equipping it with superior capabilities. Lamarck held that evolutionary change takes place through the transmission to offspring of all changes undergone by the parent generation. Spencer says that hereditary transmission pertains to psychical traits and characteristics as well as to physical ones.

Spencer maintained that intuitions are biologically inheritable and therefore intuitions increase in following generations. Adopting a Lamarckian-style evolutionary theory, Spencer contended that characteristics acquired by parents via education can be inherited by their children. He saw an inextricable linkage between biological theory, social theory, and political theory.

Spencer has been inaccurately described as a ďSocial Darwinist.Ē He was strongly committed to Lamarckian evolutionary thought which rejects the notion of random variation that is critical to Darwinian theory. Spencerís biological and social evolutionary synthesis emphasized Lamarckian evolutionary principles. More specifically, Spencer explains that evolutionary change takes place through the shift from the homogenous to the heterogeneous, from the similar to the dissimilar, from the simple to the complex, and from the undifferentiated to the differentiated.

Spencer considers the ďsurvival of the fittestĒ as a law of existence applied to life. Life is the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations. For Spencer, the phrase, ďsurvival of the fittest,Ē is descriptive rather than evaluativeóit describes a value-free evolutionary process. To be fit is to be adapted to the conditions of survival in a given environment.

He explains that pleasure-producing activities create biologically inheritable associations between feelings and ideas. Spencerís theory of the association of ideas holds that ideas become pervasive and connected when people experience the causes producing them as repeatedly occurring together. The results of repeated occurrences accumulate in successions of individuals and are transmitted as modifications of the nervous system.

Reason (i.e., intelligence) is an adaptive mechanismóit is a means of promoting a personís life-sustaining activities. Spencer explains that persistent impressions change the nervous system underpinning intelligence. Those resulting modifications are passed from one generation to another. The characteristics of the real (i.e., noumenal) world establish corresponding relations in consciousness through alterations of the nervous system. External relations affect consciousness thereby causing particular internal relations to develop into persistent features of thought. According to Spencer, multitudinous experiences of human beings have altered the structure of manís nervous system.

Habitually repeated, life-affirming actions generate feelings of pleasure and life-negating actions generate feelings of pain. Life-sustaining activities tend to be habitually repeated when pleasure becomes associated with them and life-negating actions tend to be avoided when pain is associated with them. Spencer explains that this pleasure-pain response is an element in lifeís adaptive mechanism. Pleasure makes life valuable and supplies the motivation to take part in life-advancing activities. Pleasure is the cause of action and is the motive for actions. Life-affirming activities must give pleasure in order to elicit more activities of the same type and life-negating activities of the same type must yield pain in order to discourage habits that lead to failure. He states that, wherever utility becomes intuitive, societies tend to be more vibrant and better able to thrive.

Happiness, the excess of pleasure over pain, is what an individual seeks. Spencer thought that a form of hedonism explains the behavior of human beingsópleasure itself is the value. It is the connection between pro-life activities and pleasure that makes life valuable. Habits are produced through the repeated association of actions and pleasure. According to Spencer, these habits become organic via hereditary transmission. He states that people become fit through the evolution of mainly intellectual and moral characteristics. It follows that human beings supply evolution with intellectual and ethical checks. Ultimately, people are able to consciously acknowledge and intentionally refine the utility of their inherited moral intuitions. Spencerís fusion of science and ethics led him to advocate egoism and rational, utilitarian, moral theory. He says that social improvement depends upon ethical improvement in individuals.

New emotions adapted to new environments evolve. Spencer teaches that the evolution of moral sentiments is an essential component of manís evolutionary development. Moral sentiments and social conditions are inextricably connected, constantly interact, and influence one another. For Spencer, men are primarily motivated by moral habits that largely stem from moral sentiments. It thus appears that reason is less important than emotions for Spencerís explanation of human action. In the end, it is pleasure that is the standard of moral phenomena. Pleasure and value are connected in a personís moral consciousness.

Life and happiness are a personís proper goals that can be attained solely by the use of a personís faculties. Happiness can be achieved only if an individual is permitted to express his right of freedom to do all that his faculties drive him to do. A manís freedom is restricted only by the equal freedom of others. Spencer says that persons must be free to adapt to changing circumstances. All humans have the moral right to exercise their faculties with the freedom of each individual bounded by the like freedom of others. Spencerís equal-freedom doctrine states that the freedom of each person is limited to the degree that the freedoms of others are not impinged upon.

The law of equal freedom states that every individual has the freedom to do as he wills as long as he does not infringe upon the equal freedom of any other person. If given adequate room for making decisions, individuals thus learn the value of equal freedom and equal rights. Specifically, the law of equal freedom leads to rights of speech, private property, press, religion, and so on.

Human progress develops naturally when people are free. Spencer contends that when individuals are free to adapt to changing conditions, progress becomes inevitable. He maintains that social evolutionary advancement requires the freedom of actions of autonomous individuals. The voluntary action of self-interested individuals provides force to positive social evolution. Progress derives from individual motivations, ingenuity, and efforts to adapt. It is apparent that Spencerís case for freedom rests on the grounds that evolutionary progress requires it. He says that, as society evolves, voluntary cooperation will become the dominant form of interaction. With the evolution of societies based on voluntary contract and division of labor, there will develop a harmony of individual interests. If voluntary cooperation is to evolve, persons must be free to experience the consequences of social cooperation.

Militant Society versus Industrial Society

Spencer explains that persistence of force is a principle of nature that cannot be produced artificially by the state. It follows that the best government is the one that interferes least in the lives of its citizens. Spencer disdains the state that decides who deserves what. State interference with the natural evolutionary processes is immoral and dangerous. In the natural evolutionary process the individual is integrated by adaptation in accordance with the functions he is required to execute. Government attempts to speed up the process will have the result of restricting individual freedom and dynamism. Voluntary cooperation is by its very nature more efficient and more just than state force.

According to Spencer, social order does not require deliberate design for its emergence. Order arises spontaneously through the workings of natural laws. Anticipating the writings of F. A. Hayek, Spencer explained that spontaneous market activity is responsible for menís achievements. Man, as a social being, can achieve individual happiness only within a social framework provided by competitive market forces and ethical principles. Spencer distrusted the use of government power to regulate market forces thereby constraining the social and intellectual development of man. He was against the impersonal and dehumanized controlling state that wanted to direct individual interests according to government plan.

Spencer classified the two chief modes of social organization as militant and industrial. The militant way operates through compulsion and is oriented toward conflict and the industrial manner is characterized by voluntary cooperation and peaceful exchange. Spencerís goal is to replace the militant method of social organization with the industrial approach. He explains that it is natural for society to evolve from a militant to an industrial form of social organization. Voluntary contractual society evolves from a society of status. People will learn progressively and gradually the superiority of non-legal social controls over state coercion, and cooperation will replace exploitation. Spencer points out that industrial civilization emerged despite the existence of legal obstacles. He adds that coercive centralized approaches to social problems are counterproductive and are likely to be dispensed with by the spontaneous forces of social evolution. Whereas the militant social structure is a hierarchy in which each person obeys those above him, industrial society is regulated by competitive market forces and ethical principles.

Spencerís evolutionary synthesis explains the change from a homogenous social structure to a heterogeneous social structure. He explains that an enduring militant society would tend to hinder differentiation and social evolution. However, homogeneous structures are unstable and ultimately progress to more complex forms. As society evolves, persons become more individuated; at the same time, they become more voluntarily associated. In a free society, honest, innovative, and industrious people prosper and advance by providing others with desired goods and services. Spencer notes that an increasingly libertarian society becomes increasingly more industrial and less militant. The natural course of social evolution is one of increasing heterogeneity. Contributing to the evolutionary trend from homogeneity to heterogeneity is the multiplication of effects.

Spencer is against government interference in the lives of persons. His concern is that a political community could violate the law of equal freedom. Spencer explains that the state was founded to reduce disorder by defending individuals against one another and by protecting each society from attack by others. It is not within the jurisdiction of the state to administer education, charity, or religion. Critical of undue state authority, regulation, and interference, Spencer surmises that the collective wisdom of the state should not be trusted. He does not want political power available to certain people who would enrich themselves at the expense of others.

Opposed to coercive, taxpayer-funded, state-enforced charity, Spencer favored charity that was voluntarily conferred. It is unjust for one to be forced to help others, but ethically a person may be obligated to do so. He says that non-interference is the essence of justice but that ethics involves positive beneficence. Voluntary charitable assistance should have the goal of helping the recipient become productive and should not lead to dependency. According to Spencer, when the state takes from some to give to others, society is made weaker. He says that the state thereby supports the survival of the unfittest. Government interference with the adaptation of individuals serves as a regressive force. With lessening of the role of government, men will learn to govern themselves so that coercion can be decreased.

Spencer maintains that the state should not interfere with the relationship between causes and consequences of human action. A person should be free to experience the natural good or bad consequences of his own actions. By so doing, sentiments congruent with voluntary cooperation will evolve over time. If the causal relationship is dissociated, then moral sentiments unsuitable to progress will develop, and the evolutionary process will be hindered. Spencer strongly emphasizes the importance of preserving the relationship between conduct and consequence. State co-optation of nature would produce more pain in the long run than would have occurred if well-intentioned state officials had restrained the desire to intervene with the competitive sector of human society.

Spencer proposed abolishing government welfare, all trade restrictions, government education, government church subsidies, medical licensing, the government postal monopoly, the central bank, legal tender laws, overseas colonies, and non-defensive wars. He also condemned imperialism, slavery, censorship, and sexual inequality. Generally against the majority imposing its will on the minority, Spencer said it was permissible only when matters fall under the stateís proper jurisdiction, which is the protection of individual rights.

Against the idea of ďnational interestĒ and aggressive warfare abroad, he explained that foreign expansion leads to domestic tyranny. The warring state stifles change from the similar to the dissimilar and paves the way for the government to dictate the interests of its citizens. War is a path of societal devolution. Furthermore, it is difficult, if not impossible, to respect the individuality and autonomy of people while proclaiming that they owe their lives to the state. Spencer dreaded expansion of the role of government at the demands of the military or others, because it would hamper the achievement of Spencerís utopian society.

Egoistic Ethics

Spencer holds a fundamentally egoist ethics, although he does argue that life with and among others is important. People have mutually compatible self-interested goals. Spencerís egoistic ethics increases the chances of the compatibility of interests among intelligent and virtuous people whose actions gain benefits when they are principled and rational. He says that by pursuing oneís own ends, while adhering to the principle of justice, a person unintentionally benefits others. When properly understood, human interests are so interdependent that a person cannot truly pursue his own welfare without giving others their due.

Spencerís optimal development path is the one that progresses toward a world where peopleís conduct is regulated primarily by competitive market forces and by ethical principles. For Spencer, the evolutionary process is progressive in a moral sense. Of course, the progress of moral sentiments, like all progress, is conditional. Moral sentiments are subject to evolutionary progress if suitable conditions are sustained. As societies become more specialized and differentiated, voluntary cooperation and exchange become necessary for human survival, and sentiments appropriate to such activities will also evolve.

In Spencerís ethical naturalism, ethical propositions are descriptive propositions with respect to causal relations. Spencerís ďoughtsĒ possess a suppositional or hypothetical character. He would say that, if a person values his life and believes that life results in greater pleasure than pain, then he should be concerned with rules of conduct by which life is maintained and advanced. Spencerís goal was to make ethics into a science and to be able to deduce moral rules from the causal laws of life.

He contends that there is an innate and evolving moral sense by which people access moral intuitions and from which laws of moral conduct can be deduced. The principles of human moral sense are the accumulated effects of inherited or instinctual experiences. The accumulated responses of past generations result in moral sentiments. His moral science doctrine provides an example of Spencerís notion of the persistence of force.

Spencer explains that sentiments develop that induce people to respect othersí natural rights and, at the highest level of social evolution, to voluntarily advance the welfare of other individuals. He says the people demonstrate a natural concern and sympathy toward one another and that compassion and altruism, apart from the family, evolved only recently. Spencer recognized the importance of altruism in human evolution and politics and the interrelationship between social evolution and moral evolution. He maintains that people need to develop higher emotional sentiments such as positive beneficence and says that those sentiments will evolve if given the chance. Positive beneficence, an occurrence in the highest form of society, involves spontaneous efforts to advance the welfare of others.

Only when the individual is free to live under the law of equal freedom can social and moral evolution reach its highest level. Spencer explains a free individual society of mutual non-interference among its members is necessary in order to develop the moral sentiments including the sentiments of justice. The sentiments of justice include both egoistic and altruistic elements.

Spencer discussed both an absolute ethics and a relative ethics and stated that absolute ethics pertained only to perfectly evolved peaceful society. The absolute ethical code thus only applied to man at his highest stage of evolution and not to imperfect man. In effect then he is saying that natural rights do not take full effect before the appearance of the total development of society and human nature. He says that, because of the highly developed sense of justice of perfected human beings, the state will ultimately not have many functions to perform. In his absolute ethics no coercion at all was allowed. Of course, the implication is that during transition from relative ethics to absolute ethics, some state coercion such as taxation and conscription may be permissible.

Unfortunately, Spencerís idea of universal causation prompts him to dismiss any theory of free will in human beings. He says that men have the illusion of free will because of the observable absence of consistency in human action. Because he rejects the notion of freedom of the human will, Spencerís theory of ethical egoism must be viewed as flawed. His determinism eliminates the possibility of true human choice.


Despite his errors, Spencer continues to be read today. He was a systematic thinker who had a utilitarian perspective on rights and who believed that utility and liberty were compossible. Spencer optimistically held that the long-run direction of social evolution is toward industrial civilization but was pessimistic regarding the near future as the world was moving toward militarism, centralization, and regulation. He witnessed public opinion increasingly in favor of government intervention during the late 19th century. Throughout his lifetime, Spencer saw society moving far away from his evolutionary synthesis as public opinion had accepted the positive view of freedom.

Dr. Edward W. Younkins is Professor of Accountancy at Wheeling Jesuit University. He is the author of Capitalism and Commerce: Conceptual Foundations of Free Enterprise [Lexington Books, 2002]. Many of Dr. Younkins's essays can be found online at his personal web page at www.quebecoislibre.org. You can contact Dr. Younkins at younkins@wju.edu.

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