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 Spencer's 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
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 men's 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. Spencer's 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.
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.
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 state's proper
jurisdiction which is the protection of individual rights.
Against the idea of
"national interest" 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 Spencer's utopian society.
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. Spencer's 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 one's 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
development path is the one that progresses toward a world where
people's 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 Spencer's ethical
naturalism, ethical propositions are descriptive propositions with
respect to causal relations. Spencer's "oughts" 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. Spencer's 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 Spencer's notion of the persistence of
Spencer explains that
sentiments develop that induce people to respect others' 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.
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, Spencer's
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.