This article is dedicated to all of my British Libertarian friends.

Herbert Spencer: A Libertarian Prometheus


Every so often a philosopher emerges who has a long-lasting effect on the ideas and concepts of experts and common people alike.  Herbert Spencer is one of those rare individuals who contributed groundbreaking ideas during his lifetime and was forgotten only to emerge again a century later in a new context.  Indeed, Spencer has changed the world in countless ways and seems to have received very little credit.  His contributions in the areas of evolutionary theory, sociology, sociobiology, and the philosophy of science alone, make him an undeniably powerful influence in the formulation of modern thought.  In an unfortunate turn of events, he was later slandered as a eugenicist with a cruel attitude towards the poor, causing many to turn away from him.

Spencer did more than just contribute to scientific advancement.  He also created a unique political and social theory identified by him as ‘Rational Utilitarianism.’  Rational Utilitarianism was at odds with the Empirical Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill.  This difference between Spencer’s political theory and Mill’s go a long way to explaining the chasm between modern liberalism and the classical liberalism of the Libertarians.  This unique political and social theory are at the heart of the modern Libertarian movement, thus making Herbert Spencer possibly first modern Libertarian.

In the early parts of this paper Spencer’s early childhood, family relationships, and education will be discussed.  It is crucial to understand these aspects of Spencer to help place his later years into a clearer context.  His relationship with his mother and father go a long way to explaining why Spencer eventually came to oppose the women’s suffrage movement.  This will be closely followed by Spencer’s initial influences which would help to contribute to his natural philosophy of evolution, and his views on religion.

This will be followed by a look at his Victorian masterpiece A System of Synthetic Philosophy which laid out an entirely scientific and philosophical system designed to replace religion as the center of everyday human thought.  A system which, despite its authors disremembered contributions to modern thought, was highly successful in doing so.  Despite Spencer’s fall from lofty heights, at least some of his contributions still stand the test of time.

The final sections will address the many criticisms leveled at Spencer from colleagues, competitors, estranged disciples, and eventually society at large.  These sections will also address Spencer’s last few years in which his popularity had already begun to wane greatly.  Lastly, an overview of Spencer as possibly the single most important contributor to modern libertarianism, as a primary influence on Karl Menger, Hayek, Rothbard, and Ayn Rand.  His influence, however, was not confined to Libertarianism as he has had a lasting influence on many notable mainstream philosophers and so it ends fittingly with last words from the philosopher and historian Will Durant. The goal of this work is to help reintroduce an entire generation of libertarians to one of the greatest intellectual inheritances of the libertarian tradition.




Section 1.  Herbert Spencer, the man

Herbert Spencer was born in Derby on April 27, 1820.  In his father’s family were several generations of church Anglican non-conformists, and his grandmother on his father’s side was a devoted Wesleyan.  Even though his uncle Thomas was an Anglican clergyman, he was a prominent Wesleyan within the Church.  Spencer’s father, however, was more of a non-conformist than either his grandmother or his uncle.  William George Spencer was the primary source for Herbert Spencer’s strong individualism.  “This drive to heresy became stronger in the father and culminated in the almost obstinate individualism of Herbert Spencer himself” (Durant 144).  George refused to remove his hat in public when in the presence of highly ranked members of society which Herbert mimicked throughout his later life.  At one point, Spencer remarked on the fact that in Britain, people removed their hats in the presence of people of high rank less than anywhere else in Europe. To him, this was a symbol of the kind of freedoms enjoyed by British citizens (Francis 93).

Though Spencer’s family members were people of faith, his father George rarely explained anything within the bounds of the supernatural.  George Spencer preferred mathematics to religion as a means of truth.  Though Spencer himself felt that this was not the case, it appears according to other accounts to be accurate (Durant 144).

Spencer’s grandfather and father were well-known teachers, and because of this, it is rather surprising that he did not complete his education until he reached middle age.  “The father, as well as an uncle, and the paternal grandfather were teachers of private schools; and yet the son, who was to be the most famous English philosopher of his century, remained till forty an uneducated man” (Durant 144).  While many hold that Spencer was a lazy child, this is not likely.  It is true that George Spencer indulged his son until the age of thirteen by not sending him off for education, but this was not caused by the young Spencer’s lack of a diligent attitude.  What is more likely is that Spencer was very attached to his mother and protective of her due to the abuse she sustained at the hands of George (Francis 52).

According to Spencer, his mother Harriet was a soft spoken and kind but mistreated woman.  “According to her son, Harriet was sweet, moderate in temper when irritated, and self-sacrificing to the point of exhaustion.  Since she had married a man who never yielded, Herbert was left with a disaster to chronicle, although his filial sense of duty towards his father led him to do this in such a way as to make the latter appear less culpable” (Francis 52).  It has been noted that his mother was not an educated woman; she did not always speak in proper English, nor was she tactful in her manners.  Apparently, when Harriet spoke to George her informal manner of speaking caused irritation for George, resulting in his dismissal of her as if she did not exist.  “If he did not understand some question my mother put, he would remain silent; not asking what the question was, and letting it go unanswered. He continued this course all through his life, notwithstanding its futility; there resulted in no improvement” (qtd. in Durant 144).

The strong intransigent overbearing, science-minded, non-conformist George Spencer, and the kind, gentle, and meek Christian, Harriet Spencer and the dysfunctional relationship that resulted left Herbert skeptical of relationships.  This situation was a near almost perfect representation of a dialectical dynamic.  The strong versus the weak and the dominated trapped in an oppressive relationship with the dominator.  It is a relationship that would have a lasting effect on Spencer’s views on women, feminism, and evolution for the rest of his life.  While Spencer held a certain amount of disdain for his mother’s weakness he also held her willingness to sacrifice for the betterment of her son in high esteem.  In Spencer’s view, human altruism was the direction of humanities evolution.  In his philosophy, it was women who would one day hold the highest place on the evolutionary ladder of humanity. “Since Spencer thought the future of the human species was one in which altruism would replace competition, he was assigning the highest evolutionary place to women” (Francis 53).  Thus, at 13 years old young Herbert was finally sent to his uncle Thomas Spencer to begin his long overdue tutelage.  It was painful for Herbert to say the least.

George Spencer did have a mental collapse from which he never quite recovered.  Herbert personally claimed this as the reason that he did not receive an education until he was thirteen years old.  For a time, Spencer’s uncle Thomas took the place of George when discipline was to be applied.  Thomas apparently was a stifling paternal figure who regularly intervened on George’s behalf with young Spencer to stave off a rebellion.  “When George’s illness became so severe as to prevent him from exercising his parental duty, he did not rely on his wife as a substitute. Instead, one of his brothers, Thomas or William, would stand in his place, exercising sufficient authority to frustrate rebellion” (Francis 30).  Another indication of the repressive nature of Spencer’s upbringing was a conspiracy between his uncle Thomas and his father to keep him from spending very much time with his mother.  It seems that George and Thomas blamed her for Spencer’s rebellious moments (Francis 30).  From all indications, Spencer was taught to not display his personal emotions, especially in public.  It might be said that emotional outbursts appear to have been considered rebellion.  This emotional repression would bring Spencer anguish later in his life, and lead him to lament his choice to forgo romantic relationships.

Hence, the young Spencer began his academic training.  “Whereas Mill began Greek at the age of three, Spencer admits that at the age of thirteen he knew nothing worth mentioning of either Latin or Greek” (Copleston 122).  By the age of sixteen, however, he became knowledgeable in the application of mathematics.  Thomas whose education was funded by his brother George was tasked with the reformation and refinement of Herbert.  Thomas was a ruthless disciplinarian with Herbert, instilling in him a fear that would only be exhibited in his presence.  “It was imperative to Thomas that the curb on the boy be enforced for a long period. He also strove to alter Herbert’s character, which he saw as being deficient in the principle of fear, by which he meant “both that Fear of the Lord” which “is the beginning of wisdom,” and “that fear of Parents, Tutors, etc.”. Ominously, he recorded that – “after a few struggles” during which he induced this principle – Herbert “entirely surrendered himself to obey me” (Francis 31).  Over a period of three years, Thomas had crushed much of the will out of Herbert, but he had managed to teach him enough mathematics, science and academic subjects that he was able to take a post as the schoolmaster at Derby.  After a few months, however, he took a position as a civil engineer for the Gloucester Railway (Copleston 122).

Spencer would later say that he was not sure just exactly what he had learned during the time he spent at his Uncle Thomas’s house.  It seemed to him he learned very little, and it was the only real serious application of teaching he had ever received in his entire life.  “He says, with characteristic pride: “That neither in boyhood nor youth did I receive a single lesson in English, and that I have remained entirely without formal knowledge of syntax down to the present hour, are facts which should be known; since their implications are at variance with assumptions universally accepted” (qtd. in Durant 144).  It is amazing that Spencer, undoubtedly the greatest philosopher of the Victorian age, the most famous mind in all the world in his own time, should have had little more than three years of formal education.

Even so, this was a dark period for Spencer due to the strict discipline he received at the hands of his family.  When combined with the influence of living in a household with a mentally ill father who was abusive towards his mother, it is a wonder he managed to thrive at all.  Spencer always made excuses for his father’s behavior by placing much of the blame on his mother’s meek Christian values.  He was resentful towards his mother due to her inability to protect him or herself; due to this he rarely mentioned her later in life.  It is, however, these relationships which provide some of his future thoughts about women, authority, and the overall nature of humans.

Spencer did over the years assuage his loneliness with his surrogate family the Potters. He treated them with all the love and respected them as any person would their real family, and they treated him as the well-loved eccentric uncle.  In the mid-1850’s, he suffered a breakdown of his health.   It is primarily attributed to his long hours spent researching and writing, with little or no rest or leisure time.  Some have suggested that Spencer had a nervous breakdown.  Which is quite possible, but for the rest of his life, he made time for recreation.   Spencer was notoriously thrifty with money and a very eccentric character.  It has been said that he was the inspiration for the Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carole.  This notorious claim, however, is wholly untrue.  What is more likely, is that Charles Dickens was demonstrating Spencer’s point that government welfare encouraged the better off to be less charitable and more callous towards the poor and infirm (Wolfram).

Contrary to belief, his political views changed very little in his later years.  The changes that were made were not surprising.  One was Spencer’s position on universal suffrage in his later years.  It can primarily be attributed to his long-standing distrust for socialism, and an increasing belief that women were more likely to support social programs and vote to increase the authority of government (Francis 73).

He was also accused of changing his stance on the nationalization of land.  He denied this claim, and maintained that his stance on property never changed, but was instead misinterpreted.  He was also disparaged by T.H. Huxley for his refusal to remove what Huxley viewed as an appeal to divinity from his A system of Synthetic Philosophy.

Lastly, Spencer refused to edit his works, as the science they were based on, became outdated.  As a result, a great deal of it became irrelevant before the end of his life.  However, his work The Man Versus the State, which was comprised of four essays, was first published in 1884.  It proved to be quite popular, but it also drew the ire of Huxley and other more progressive liberals (Francis 321).  In the last years of his life, Spencer became less and less visible in public and less popular as well.

As he neared the end of his life, he worked to complete his book An Autobiography.  Spencer sought to control what posterity would know about him.  By intentionally not acknowledging his influences, writing his biography and burning many of his personal letters and notes it is obvious he hoped to control the narrative.  On December 3, 1903, Herbert Spencer died at the age of 83.  The greatest philosopher of the Victorian age had already begun to fade away before he was, ironically laid to rest just a few dozen feet from Karl Marx.  A man whose ideology he had argued against most of his adult life.


Section 2. Herbert Spencer’s influences

Spencer did not show interest in a topic until he decided to write about it.  It is one way in which he earned his reputation as an autodidact.  Even then, Spencer often lacked the patience to research his topic fully.  “Collier, one of his secretaries, tells us that Spencer never finished any book of science. Even in his favorite fields, he received no systematic instruction” (Durant 144).  He tried to read Kant, but when he realized that Kant did not see time as an objective feature of the world, he became disgusted and discarded the book.  Regarding the philosophers that came before him, he was not greatly educated.  Spencer spent most of his time focusing on his ideas, and therefore his influences were few.  It might have been just as well, considering the amount of ground that he had to cover over the years writing his giant work A System of Synthetic Philosophy.  There was little time to pursue anything other than the topics for which he was to cover.   “As for the history of philosophy, he knew little about it, except from secondary sources” (Copleston 123).

Most of his influences were from his contemporaries, and from the previous generation of academics or philosophers.  Many were obscure, and have largely been forgotten, and because of this, Spencer’s ideas appear peculiarly unique, but this is not truly the case.  His first exposure to philosophy was probably G.H. Lewes after being appointed to the position of sub-editor to the Economist in 1848.  Lewes became a close friend of Spencer’s, and it is through him that many of his ideas regarding evolution were formulated.  He wrote for Lewes publication the Leader regularly on the subject of evolution.  One such article written anonymously was called The Development Hypothesis, in which a Lamarckian influenced theory of evolution was put forth.

Spencer came about a great deal of his knowledge through his associations with T.H. Huxley, George Eliot, John Tyndall, and of course Lewes.  Much of the grist for Spencer’s ideas can be found throughout the pages of the Leader.  The publication was dedicated to the dissemination of scientific knowledge. However, it attempted to create a quasi-religious foundation based on science to replace Christianity and what were viewed as its contradictions.  This talented group spent time together socially, and they believed they would start something profound.  It was to be a ‘new reformation’ in which religion would be reformed and renewed for the age of industry and science.  Spencer replaced God with the “Unknown Cause” which he was fond of telling his readers from the Leader about, in hopes that they would search for answers that transcended experience.  Spencer said that without transcendence, those who searched for answers would be little more than atheists, and this meant a meaningless and empty universe was waiting for them (Francis 111).  It was almost Emersonian in its proselytization.  Spencer held to his ideas of the Unknown for the rest of his life, and it became a point of contention between him and T.H. Huxley later.

Spencer had primary influences from a few popular philosophers such John Stuart Mill.  Mill who was a friend through most of Spencer’s life became somewhat estranged in later years.  At the time, the philosophical landscape in Britain was sparse.  With the choice falling between Logical Empiricism or ‘Scottish Common Sense’ philosophy, Spencer opted for the latter, even when William Hamilton refused to acknowledge him, and Mill was more than happy to accommodate.

“The choice was philosophically stark: one could follow J. S. Mill and rely on experience without knowledge of a first cause: alternatively, one could uphold the intuitionism of William Hamilton, which would also mean that one truly possessed no knowledge. The second choice was slightly less bleak because a person might feel meaningful responses that indicated there was something out there even if this could not be known. This was Spencer’s solution; he believed that the responses he felt were significant, and on this basis chose to construct his philosophy” (Francis 111).


Spencer had a distrust for pure logic and was unwilling to accept it as the only fundamental aspect of human reasoning.  For Spencer, once a set of first principles had been established then the decisions which followed were a matter of intuition.  While Mills’ work certainly influenced him, he almost always sided with the intuition of Reid when there was a conflict between the two.  “The young Herbert Spencer was typical when he conflated the ideas of Hamilton’s edition of Reid with Mill’s A System of Logic; it seemed permissible to combine the former’s intuitive metaphysics with the latter’s empiricism. Although Spencer usually came down on the side of intuition rather than experience, he believed that he was striking a balance between the two compatible and parallel traditions of British philosophy” (Francis 166).  This influence of Scottish Common Sense philosophy and Mill’s Empirical Utilitarianism resulted in a unique and highly effective hybrid, one which Spencer called Rational Utilitarianism.

Spencer’s unique formulation of utilitarianism meshed very well with natural rights arguments.  While Bentham and Mill could justify, certain actions based on the total happiness of the collective society, Spencer’s system held that consequentialism was not morally justifiable.  It is precisely this belief, in which the common good does not take precedence over the individual which separated Spencer from his fellow liberals.  It combined with his metaphysical first principles, based on the theory of evolution, made him vulnerable to slanderous allegations of being a eugenicist.  His individualism is also a primary reason why his theories became conflated with Social Darwinism.

A major influence upon Spencer was the religious writer F.W. Newman.  Newman was a Christian progressive who espoused a form of Christian utility.  Newman called for such things as universal suffrage, socialism, and other national reforms that many would consider radical for the time.  Newman was also an influence on the editors and writers of the Leader and should be considered important in its formation of ideas on the new reformation.  A great deal of time was spent discussing ideas such as these within that group.  “The author who most completely captured the spirit of this age was F. W. Newman, whose Soul and Phases of Faith were required reading for any self-conscious radical of the mid-century” (Francis 115).  While Spencer was a part of this group and influenced by Newman’s ideas about religion and science, he attempted to conceal it in later years.  One reason for the subterfuge on this matter was his hesitance to be associated with the publication at all, which Spencer claimed was because of the socialist ideas which most in the group held (Francis 112).  What is far more likely is that Spencer held a personal egoistic satisfaction from the idea that his philosophy was a unique formula which he had created entirely from his original thought.  A look at the publications made during the short life of the Leader seems to provide much evidence otherwise.

Herbert Spencer was influenced early on by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  There is some reason to believe that early Spencer had accepted Emerson’s ideas regarding platonic love and beauty.  Initially, Spencer believed in the idea that physical beauty was only a means to bring one closer to the Beautiful Soul as Emerson maintained (Francis 67).  He discarded this idea after his disastrous affair with the writer George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) ended.  Spencer maintained that he was not attracted to Eliot and her intellect was simply not enough for him.  It was because of this incident that he discarded Emerson’s idea of beauty and artwork as well.  “Spencer’s failure to love Eliot had destroyed his soulful imitation of Emerson’s ideal. He was shocked at the discovery that he was on the edge of feeling physical attractions and revulsions that had nothing to do with his estimate of a woman’s intellect or soul. This threw him into a lifelong desire to free his emotions, and his appreciation of art, from the idealistic shackles that imprisoned them” (Francis 67).  He maintained ever after that beauty was a part of evolution and grew critical of Emerson’s philosophy.

Spencer’s core ideas about religion are a direct result of his association with the staff of the Leader publication.  The Leader, in turn, was greatly influenced by F.W. Newman, who was a Christian progressive.  Inspired by these ideas, Spencer planned to create a new reformation based on a religion centered on the Unknown, and science was the motivation to develop his A System of Synthetic Philosophy.  Spencer was influenced by the ideas of John Locke and British Empiricism through the work of his friend John Stuart Mill.  Though Mill should not be considered the primary influence upon him, it is nonetheless important, because for many years he believed he and Mill were in step with each other.

In the end, it was William Hamilton and several of his Students that provided the fundamental basis for Spencer’s views on ethics, politics, sociology and psychology.  Rational Utilitarianism which is based firmly on Thomas Reid’s Theory of Common Sense is not Mill’s Utilitarianism.  It was unique at the time and provided a scientific justification for natural rights and intuition based ethics system.  Both Mill and Spencer had assumed that they were both of the same thought regarding their theories of utility, but in later years Mill came to understand that this was not the case and attacked Spencer for it publicly.  Spencer was not a true empiricist in the strictest sense, at least not regarding the philosophical meaning.  In truth, Spencer was first and foremost an intuitionist, and for this reason, there is little doubt that his primary influence was Scottish Common Sense philosophy.


Section 3. A System of Synthetic Philosophy

Spencer’s A System of Synthetic Philosophy was the primary concentration of his writing efforts starting in the 1850’s.  In 1858, drawing on the idea of the ‘New Reformation’ inspired by his time as an editor at the Leader he began laying out its plan.  “At the beginning of 1858, Spencer drew up a scheme for A System of Synthetic Philosophy; and the prospectus, distributed in 1860, envisaged ten volumes” (Copleston 122).  This massive synthesis of science and philosophy would be his magnum opus.  This philosophical work was known all over the world in English speaking and non-English speaking countries.

Spencer was not a rich man and as a result took to selling subscriptions to his work.  Thus, by doing this, he could earn a living by writing full time.  It later became a problem, after publishing First Principles in 1862 many respected theologians and public figures condemned him loudly.  It caused a financial hardship because many of Spencer’s subscribers were Christians.   Also, those who were in the science field began to condemn the use of the term Unknown as what they considered a reference or substitute for God.  “For a time the evolutionists were severely ostracized by respectable people; they were denounced as immoral monsters, and it was thought good form to insult them publicly. Spencer’s subscribers fell away with every installment, and many defaulted on payments due for installments received” (Durant 147).  When Spencer’s friend and rival J.S. Mill heard that Spencer would be forced to discontinue his work, he offered him financial help which was promptly refused outright.  Not to be discouraged, Mill went to several friends and encouraged them to subscribe at the rate of 250 copies each; Spencer objected to this as well.

Finally, a group of his admirers in the United States purchased seven thousand dollars in securities and made him the beneficiary of the dividends.  With his financial crisis solved, he could finally move forward.  If it had not been for Mill, A System of Synthetic Philosophy might never have happened.  It is interesting that Mill should have put so much effort into saving the philosophical system which was at the time the prime rival to his system.

In Herbert Spencer’s First Principles he lays out the core basis for A System of Synthetic Philosophy’s direction.  First and foremost, it is not an attack on or a confirmation of God.  It is instead a scientific investigation of the same questions, which religion tries to answer.  “Truth generally lies in the coordination of antagonistic opinions. “Let science admit that its “laws” apply only to phenomena and the relative; let religion admit that its theology is a rationalizing myth for a belief that defies conception. Let religion cease to picture the Absolute as a magnified man; much worse, as a cruel and bloodthirsty and treacherous monster, afflicted with “a love of adulation such as would he despised in a human being” (Qtd. in Durant 148).  Reconciliation between science and religion is to be a part of Spencer’s new reformation.

First Principle’s places evolution at the center of existence.  All the energy and all the matter, in both living creatures and throughout the universe, seek and move to achieve equilibrium.  Then after equilibrium comes an eventual dissolution.  One cannot help but see a bit of parallel with Hegel’s Dialectic, but instead of ending in perfection the ending was more suitable to Schopenhauer’s philosophy.  “First Principles is a magnificent drama, telling with almost classic calm the story of the rise and fall, the evolution and dissolution, of planets and life and man; but it is a tragic drama, for which the fittest epilogue is Hamlet’s word—” The rest is silence” (Durant 149).  First Principles served as the forward for a work of philosophy that both defined, and created much of the Victorian age.

Spencer’s views on evolution which were put forth in The Principles of Biology, where he speculated that all organisms started out as relatively simple basic homogeneous structures.   Over time, and through evolution the organisms progress to differentiated structures with compartmentalized specialization and heterogeneity.  Spencer also tried to apply this principle to non-organic structures such as planets, stars, and solar systems.  He believed this to be a universal law.  Spencer was obviously wrong about non-organic structures, but this does seem to fit into evolution in many ways.  Evolution in this system was a matter of equilibrium.  “Life is the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations” (Durant 150).  He was expounding the ideas of evolution for nearly a decade before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was first published in 1859.  Darwin’s term ‘survival of the fittest’ originated during a conversation between him and Spencer.  After Darwin had explained his work, Spencer called it ‘Survival of the Fittest’ and Darwin began to use it continuously ever after (Francis 3).  The Principles of Biology in no way expounds survival of the fittest because, in essence, this was Darwin’s theory, not Spencer’s.

The Principles of Psychology are the least impressive of Spencer’s ten volumes.  While great lengths are taken to expound hundreds of theories on mental categories and other ideas, there is little proof to substantiate it.  Time is taken to discuss in detail, the workings of nerve endings, reflexes, and connective tissues, but noticeably what is missing is the evidence.  What is most impressive is the fact that Spencer attempts a truly modern form of evolutionary psychology.  Through the positing of inheritable traits and instinctual behaviors, he was a full century ahead of his time.  “What strikes us at once is that for the first time in the history of psychology, we get here a resolutely evolutionist point of view, an attempt at genetic explanations, an effort to trace the bewildering complexities of thought down to the simplest of nervous operations, and finally to the motions of matter” (Durant 151).

Herbert Spencer’s work on The Principle of Sociology has been and is still held in high regard.   It was undoubtedly his favorite topic, and it showed, in his first book, Social Statics, to the last fascicle of The Principles of Sociology; over a stretch of almost half a century, his interest is predominantly in the problems of economics and government.  “He begins and ends, like Plato, with discourses on moral and political justice. No man, not even Comte (founder of the science and maker of the word), has done so much for sociology” (Durant 152).  Spencer rejected both Comte’s atheism and his more idealistic notions instead preferring to replace them with his own evolutionary ideas.

Regarding the claims of Spencer’s Social Darwinism, it must be remembered first that he did not advocate Darwinism.  Spencer’s ideas on evolution were primarily based on those of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.  Darwinism was centered on the idea of survival of the fittest.  Spencer’s ideas, as shown through his sociology, were not based on the survival of the fittest which was a reproductive theory.  Instead, as remarked earlier, his views of evolution were that of simple homogeneous structures moving over time to more complex and heterogeneous structures until they reached a point of equilibrium.  Hence, an organism when exposed to external pressures evolves special organs and structures which help to achieve equilibrium with the outside environment.

Spencer viewed society itself as a social organism which was always moving towards heterogeneity, as it looked to achieve equilibrium with pressures from outside its environment. “A social organism is like an individual organism in; these essential traits: that it grows; that while growing it becomes more complex; that while becoming more complex, its parts acquire increasing mutual dependence; that its life is immense in length compared with the lives of its component units;… that in both cases there is increasing integration accompanied by increasing heterogeneity” (Qtd. in Durant 152).  When applied to societies what one finds are that certain specialized institutions, such as religion, appear to help achieve equilibrium in response to outward pressures, such as war or unexplained environmental changes.

Spencer classified societies into two types, militant or industrial.  In his mind, militant societies were less advanced and more savage.  Since all power was focused centrally within a militant society, it was more homogenous, which based on his ideas of evolution less evolved.  Militant societies were marked by less freedom for individuals and a greater propensity for savageness internally, as well as, externally.

As the societal organism, advanced control or power would begin to spread out to other institutions other than the central government, and as these institutions increased so would the heterogeneity and complexity.  “Students of the state habitually classify societies according as their governments are monarchical, aristocratic, or democratic; but these are superficial distinctions; the great dividing line is that which separates militant from industrial societies, nations that live by war from those that live by work” (Durant 153).  All societies would eventually move from militant to industrial in nature, and with greater complexity, more individual freedoms would appear.  The idea would be that eventually as the most advanced society’s evolved; complexity would become such that individual freedom would be absolute and there would be little or no violence or savagery.  Thus, a peaceful anarchism would occur.

One should not mistake this view by Spencer with the idea that he believed society was an actual organism.  At least not in the same sense of a living organism, where all control rests in a relatively small area of the brain.  If one were to believe that this was his intention, it might lead to the conclusion that he was implying that dissolution of intelligence in actual living creatures was preferred and this was not the case.  Spencer was not a proponent of collectivism, or strong centralized authority in society either, and so the analogy did not extend into the ordering of government.  “An enthusiast for the interpretation of political society as an organism might, of course, try to find detailed analogies between differentiation of functions and the organic body, and in society.  But this might lead him into speaking, for example, as though the government were analogous to the brain and as though the other parts of society should leave all thinking to the government and obey all of its decisions” (Copleston 131).

Although Spencer’s views are not based on Darwin’s survival of the fittest, he was attacked in the first half of the twentieth century relentlessly for his adherence to Laissez Faire economics and as being a proponent of Social Darwinism.  Spencer’s philosophy of sociology is the underlying foundation of his views regarding ethics and morals as well.  The logical outcome is that the individual does not exist for the benefit of the collective state, but instead in more evolved societies the state exists for the benefit and protection of the individual (Durant 155).  This is indeed in line with John Locke’s concept of the state only existing to protect men’s rights and property.

The Principles of Ethics comprises the final two volumes of Spencer’s A System of Synthetic Philosophy.  In it, he laid out in full, his ethical theory of Rational Utilitarianism which is not to be confused with the Empirical Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill or Jeremy Bentham.  The core basis for Spencer’s ethics is first and foremost biology, and of course evolution (Durant 155).  This theory has also been explained in Social Statics, nearly a half a century before.  Human beings are organisms, and organisms must exercise the faculties to survive.  The faculties consist of sight, auditory, speech, consumption of food, drinking, socializing, and all another manner of human activity.  Spencer maintains that all organisms, including humans, do not exercise faculties frivolously, and so every action is intuitive, yet rationally calculated move to ensure its survival.  Hence, even recreation and play are necessary for survival. The exercise of faculties is the exercise of life, any prohibition of them is death; partial restriction of the faculties is partial death, and so on.

It can be reasoned from here, that each person then should be allowed to do whatever they must, to achieve as full an exercise of one’s faculties as possible.  The result is The Theory of Rational Utilitarianism.  One might wonder how this differs in respect to Bentham’s version of utility or Mill’s?  Spencer maintains it is impossible to account for what each man needs to find happiness or to define happiness.  Inevitably under Bentham’s system, individuals were hurt because what mattered was that society undertook actions that benefitted the majority, and often this led to an injustice perpetrated on the minority.  Spencer referred to Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism as the ‘Expediency-philosophy’ (Spencer, The Complete Works of Herbert Spencer, Location 39489).  He maintained that instead of trying to figure out what would make the most people happy and then pass the laws for it, that it was better to pass as few laws as possible, thereby letting each person pursue their happiness with fewer barriers.


It led to his maxim of Rational Utilitarianism:

“Mark now, however, that these supplementary restrictions are of quite inferior authority to the original law. Instead of being, like it, capable of strictly scientific development, they (under existing circumstances) can be unfolded only into superior forms of expediency. The limit put to each man’s freedom, by the like freedom of every other man, is a limit almost always possible of exact ascertainment; for let the condition of things be what it may, the respective amounts of freedom men assume can be compared, and the equality or inequality of those amounts recognized. But when we set about drawing practical deductions from the propositions that a man is not at liberty to do things injurious to himself, and that he is not at liberty (except in cases like those lately cited) to do what may give unhappiness to his neighbours, we find ourselves involved in complicated estimates of pleasures and pains, to the obvious peril of our conclusions” (Spencer, The Complete Works of Herbert Spencer, Location 40981)


Spencer found that biological conclusions supported natural law theories, and intuition based morality, which is right in line with Common Sense philosophy.  This put him at odds with Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism, or ‘Expedience-Philosophy,’ which he blamed for transforming classical liberalism into socialism.  In Spencer’s opinion, the ideas of Bentham and Mill had led to the encroachment on personal freedoms in the name of greater happiness for the majority.  Modern Liberalism was a hard pill for Spencer to swallow, and his opposition to the social programs and economic interventions it created, is the single biggest factor in why he was labeled a Social Darwinist by many socialist and utilitarian intellectuals.


Section 4. Was Spencer a Social Darwinist?

There has been some serious confusion regarding Spencer’s views on the poor and the less fortunate in society.  As mentioned earlier, Spencer’s concept of evolution was not based on Darwinism.  Although Spencer often cited Darwin’s findings, he did not necessarily come to the same conclusions.  The second bit of evidence that backs up this claim is that Spencer’s famous term of survival of the fittest was not a description of his system.  While Spencer did espouse a system of evolution for society, it was more of adaptation to outward pressures on that society and not a dog eats dog competition for survival where its weakest members were left to starve to death.  He was a strong advocate of philanthropy, and though he was a notorious spendthrift, he was also famously charitable.  “He was consistent in this position in his later life; when he argued against public assistance, he always supported private or voluntary aid even though he suspected that this too would reduce the quality of the individual’s existence. His belief was that even if charity produced ill consequences, it should be tolerated because the exercise of sympathy towards the worst off would, by and large, be beneficial” (Francis 28).  Spencer had a positive view of charitable works, but he also had a hard spot for those whom he labeled, good for nothings. In other words, those who were perfectly healthy and could work yet chose to drink all day or lay around instead; this was not an uncommon opinion in this time.

There is ample evidence laid out by Mark Francis in his book Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life, that in fact a concerted effort was made by many scholars to pin the uglier aspects of Darwin’s original theory of Survival of the Fittest on Spencer.  It would seem to make sense considering the differences between Spencer’s theories of evolution caused by environmental pressure versus Darwin’s theory which rested on interspecies competition; where the least fit members were eliminated from the gene pool.  It is obvious Spencer, and his ideas were the sacrificial lamb placed upon the altar of science to save Darwin’s reputation.

“Spencer rejected social Darwinism as a justification of the need for aggression in future social change. However, despite this, his theory of evolution has often been confused with Darwinism, especially by popular scientific writers who wish to protect Darwin’s scientific reputation from being stained by racist slurs. They have even suggested that “social Darwinism” be relabelled  [sic] “social Spencerianism”.  Such badge-engineering proposes that while, in the modern era, theories of natural selection were used as doctrines of racial competition, this blemish was not Darwin’s fault. There is a transfer of blame at work here: Darwin is innocent, therefore the fault must lie elsewhere. At this point, Spencer is arbitrarily substituted for Darwin, presumably because he too was well known and, not being a professional scientist, he serves as a more acceptable scapegoat” (Francis 295).


The implication has been that Spencer was a racist, and any person who has ever read Spencer’s work would know this was false.  Many have taken these farcical views a step even further, claiming he was a eugenicist and a racist.  Not only was Spencer anti-racist but he was also anti-colonialism (Francis 295).  Spencer abhorred the way indigenous people were treated at the hands of the British Colonial Authority.

Overall, many of his enemies were of the socialist persuasion and had an interest in misrepresenting Spencer because of his uncompromising views on the subject of Laissez Faire capitalism and socialism in general.  Spencer was neither a ‘Social Darwinist,’ nor a racist eugenicist, and those who suggest it either completely misunderstood him or intentionally sought to slander him for personal reasons.


Section 5. Other criticisms of Spencer

Spencer surprisingly remained very consistent throughout his life in his philosophy and political views.  Two major criticisms seem to boil to the surface when reviewing his work.  While an early proponent of full and equal women’s rights including suffrage, these views changed later in life, because Spencer viewed women as nurturers.  As such, through the years, began to believe that women would by and large vote for more authority and less freedom in the name of social programs to nurture the less fortunate in society.  It is true, that sympathy in Spencer’s mind was the single most important part of justice, but he thought it should lead to philanthropy and not government social welfare (Spencer, The Complete Works of Herbert Spencer, Location 41289).  Spencer believed without any real evidence that allowing a woman the right to vote would result in less overall freedom due to over taxation.

The second area of criticism which has been leveled at Spencer as a social and political philosopher came at the hand of socialists.  Socialists heralded Social Statics as a major work of philosophy which advocated Anarchism.  In Particular, the section that Spencer wrote regarding land ownership.  It was universally misinterpreted by many, and even still to this day is read wrong.  It and other statements published in chapter nine of that work do not advocate the nationalization of land.  It states that land belongs to all humankind and that the need for society at large, in some instances, takes precedent over others.  It is more of a statement against British colonialism and feudalism than a call for land nationalization; an invective against the habit of the Crown to invade and claim the land of other peoples.   For the most part, Spencer is also claiming it is the right of society, in general, to determine how land will be distributed and not the nobility or royalty.

Spencer was advocating ideas similar to those of Thomas Reid here.  That is the idea that society, through its common sense, rightly has the prerogative to distribute the land as it sees fit.  In this regard, Spencer was stating the common sense of society, and its members in everyday dealings, to uphold the ideas of private property, thereby insisting that men were reimbursed for their improvements and years of upkeep on that property.  In Spencer’s view, only society can dictate the rules of ownership, and neither king nor nobleman may lay any more claim to the land than the common people themselves.

In his 1851 book Social Statics Spencer made the following statement:

“Whether it may be expedient to admit claims of a certain standing, is not the point. We have here nothing to do with considerations of conventional privilege or legislative convenience. We have simply to inquire what is the verdict given by pure equity in the matter. And this verdict enjoins a protest against every existing pretension to the individual possession of the soil; and dictates the assertion, that the right of mankind at large to the earth’s surface is still valid; all deeds, customs, and laws, notwithstanding” (Spencer, The Complete Works of Herbert Spencer, Location 41617).


After Spencer published The Man Versus the State in 1884, many socialists and Anarchists felt betrayed by what they saw as backpedaling on the topic of land nationalization.  It was, in fact, a misunderstanding on their part regarding his original position, which has been clarified above.  “Spencer vehemently attacked Henry George and land-nationalizers and was, in turn, attacked for having abandoned his own belief in the societal ownership of land. George in particular criticized Spencer’s alleged apostasy, which seemed to be epitomized by the disappearance of the chapter on “The Right to the Use of the Earth” from the 1892 edition of Social Statics” (Spencer, The Man Versus the State, Location 162).  Never the less, he set the record straight, and this has contributed to Spencer’s unpopularity within the Libertarian left.


Section 6. Spencer the First Modern Libertarian

Herbert Spencer had begun to fade from the view of modern mainstream philosophy, even before his death.  However, in the field of sociology, his ideas have continued to be influential, and his contributions in the area of General Systems Theory and Functional Structuralism are among the very most important.  In particular, Spencer has had a profound impact on the field of economics and political theory.  In the area of sciences, such as evolutionary biology, his work is dated.  His theories on evolution were based on the knowledge of the time, and so the main body of scientific work Spencer produced has fallen to the wayside.  The mainstream view of Spencer, in the mid-twentieth century, has been best summed up by Frederick Copleston.  “Though however, Spencer remains one of the great figures of the Victorian age, he now gives the impression of being one of the most dated philosophers” (Copleston 121).  However, Spencer became very important with a group of economists, known as the Austrian School, whose ideas also fell out of favor with the mainstream thought of economic science.

The founder of the school of Austrian economics was Carl Menger, who like Spencer held an evolutionist view of life.  Spencer’s evolutionist view of society and state institutions had a strong impact on Menger and the Austrians.  Especially, Nobel Prize winner F.A. Hayek and, ‘Mr. Libertarian,’ Murray N. Rothbard.  (Beckert and Zafirovski 404).  Rothbard once said that Spencer’s book Social Statics was the single greatest piece of Libertarian political theory ever written.  “Rothbard become immersed in the libertarian tradition that predated him, which he relied on through the rest of his intellectual life: Mises, Nock, Mencken, Tucker, Spooner, and Spencer (whose Social Statics Rothbard called “the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written”)” (Doherty 246).  It is also well-known that the book, The Man Versus the State and Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, were both listed in the manifest from the estate sale of the late Ayn Rand.

It is not surprising because some of Spencer’s most basic ethical and political theories can be found in both the works of Rothbard and Rand.  Rand claimed to be an Objectivist after the ideology she iterated in her novel Atlas Shrugged.  However, her influence has been primarily that of a libertarian.  The central principle of Rand’s Objectivism is the Non-Aggression Principle.  Murray Rothbard, who is largely regarded as the father of modern day libertarianism founded in North America, also espoused an identical position called the Non-Aggression Axiom.  “The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the “nonaggression axiom.” “Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is, therefore, synonymous with invasion” (Rothbard, For a New Liberty, Location 426).  This creed is the very heart of libertarianism.  If you do not support it, then you are not a libertarian.

The Non-Aggression Axiom is in essence, an updated and trimmer version of Herbert Spencer’s Rational Utilitarianism.  As pointed out earlier in this paper, the first principle of Rational Utilitarianism is, “The limit put to each man’s freedom, by the like freedom of every other man, is a limit almost always possible of exact ascertainment; for let the condition of things be what it may, the respective amounts of freedom men assume can be compared, and the equality or inequality of those amounts recognised.” (Spencer, The Complete Works of Herbert Spencer, Location 40981).  A secondary law of the first principle further limits physical aggression, “It is just as clear, too, that each man is forbidden to deprive his fellow of life or liberty: inasmuch as he cannot do this without breaking the law, which, in asserting his freedom, declares that he shall not infringe “the equal freedom of any other.” For he who is killed or enslaved is obviously no longer equally free with his killer or enslaver” (Spencer, The Complete Works of Herbert Spencer, Location 41541).  Again, what Rand and Rothbard have done is distil Spencer’s Law of Rational Utilitarianism into a briefer principle or axiom.

Spencer also claimed that Rational Utilitarianism promotes ‘rational self-interest.’  Altruism for Spencer was a primary desired trait, and Rothbard agreed.  Rand did as well; however, she changed the terminology which was quite possibly an attempt to hide the fact that she had co-opted Spencer’s rational self-interest.  Rand changes it to selfishness and calls it a virtue.  She blames Altruism, which she conflates with socialism and complete selflessness.  The caveat is that charity is acceptable in Rand’s system because one has a self-interest in helping friends and family.  Essentially, Rand believes in rational self-interest and redefines Altruism to mean absolute self-sacrifice, which Spencer never advocated either.  Spencer, like Rand, advocated charity because it was in one’s rational self-interest, and not as some attempt at total self-sacrifice.  Max Hocutt had this to say on the subject of Ayn Rand’s concept of the virtue of selfishness versus Spencer’s rational self-interest in his paper, In Defense of Herbert Spencer, “As Adam Smith’s wise friend David Hume pointed out, the paradigm of an unselfish man is one who gets pleasure out of doing for others. The selfish man, in contrast, gets pleasure only out of what benefits himself” (Hocutt 437).  It is obvious that if Rand perceives it to be acceptable to help friends and others in need and if this is the case, then she does not have an issue with actual Altruism, but instead some redefined concept of Altruism that allows her to claim her term is selfishness instead of rational self-interest. It is not hard to see that her core ethical philosophy is actually Spencer’s ethical philosophy.

It has been shown that it is very likely the primary ethical ideas and political philosophy of Rothbard and Rand were based (at least in part) on Spencer’s political and ethical philosophy of Rational Utilitarianism.  Because the Non-Aggression Axiom (or Principle) is central to libertarianism as a political philosophy and ethical system, it is clear that Spencer is the starting place for Modern Libertarianism.  It can even be said that Spencer’s belief, that any man who steadfastly followed Rational Utilitarianism would have no need for government at all.  “If every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man, then he is free to drop connection with the state—to relinquish its protection, and to refuse paying towards its support” (Spencer, The Complete Works of Herbert Spencer, Location 43279).

It should not be considered unreasonable to suppose that Spencer’s influence has been around all along; hiding within the sidelined and ignored Austrian school of economics and within the ideology of Ayn Rand.  As the popularity of these libertarian philosophies rises in prestige, so does the underlying foundation laid by the first modern Libertarian Herbert Spencer.


Section 7.  Spencer’s legacy

Herbert Spencer was a complex man with complex ideas.  The philosophy of evolution which he explored to its fullest is no longer on the vanguard of science.  It is still important but only in its value as a precursor to contemporary theories based on new scientific findings.  The acceptance of evolution by society at large is in no small part due to Spencer.  What has remained, are his ideas on the philosophy of social science.  Until recently, there was no other consideration in the mainstream of academia for him.

The emergence of modern American Libertarianism, from what Murray Rothbard once said consisted of seven guys in his living room, has given new life to Spencer’s ideas and those schools of thought influenced by him like the Austrian school of economics.  Inevitably, those interested in libertarian studies will search for the roots of its origin, and this will lead to Herbert Spencer.  While many individuals have contributed to libertarian philosophy, few have ideas as critically important.  Spencer’s Rational Utilitarianism provides the ethical underpinnings of this movement, which is at its essence a new and improved version of enlightenment liberalism.  One that rejects the Empirical Utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill or as Spencer called it, the Expediency-Philosophy.  Libertarians see Bentham and Mill as the Trojan horse that created Democratic Socialism and led to economic disasters such as the recent government debt crisis in Greece; just the type of thing Spencer predicted would happen in places where the Expediency Philosophy is routinely applied.

Spencer’s legacy as the Prometheus of libertarian philosophy is undeniable.  He is clearly, more than any other individual, responsible for the ideas which remain intact within a growing and diversifying political movement; libertarian ideas are now more popular than ever.  In his last few years, he was derided and heckled by his countryman due to his vocal opposition to the Boer War and British colonialism.  Spencer, who stood on his principles against racism, colonialism, and military adventurism got himself into trouble with the Tories of the empire.  It would haunt him for his very last days.  In those last days, he was shunned and ignored much in the same way the great Socrates had been abandoned by the people of Athens.  However, Socrates, unlike Spencer, enjoyed friendship and company until his very last moment.

“The decay of his repute was part of the English-Hegelian reaction against positivism; the revival of liberalism will raise him again to his place as the greatest English philosopher of his century. He gave to philosophy a new contact with things, and brought to it a realism which made German philosophy seem, beside it, weakly pale and timidly abstract. He summed up his age as no man had ever summed up any age since Dante; and he accomplished so masterly a coordination of so vast an area of knowledge that criticism is almost shamed into silence by his achievement. We are standing now on heights which his struggles and his labors won for us; we seem to be above him because he has raised us on his shoulders. Someday, when the sting of his opposition is forgotten, we shall do him better justice” (Durant 161).  Considering the state of public opinion among his countrymen at the time of his death, and the now surging popularity of his ideas hidden within the framework of libertarianism, the words of Will Durant seem both prophetic and highly relevant.



Works Cited

Beckert, Jens, and Milan Zafirovski, eds. International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology. 2011 ed. New York: Routledge, 2011. Kindle file.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Volume VIII Bentham to Russell. Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1966. Print.

Doherty, Brian. Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. 1st ed. New York: Public Affairs, 2009. Kindle File.

Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy: the lives and opinions of the worlds greatest philosophers. 1st ed. Albany, NY: Aristeus Books, 2014. Kindle File.

Francis, Mark. Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2014. Kindle file.

Hocutt, Max. “In Defense of Herbert Spencer.” The Independent Review 12.3 (2008): 433-445. Proquest. Web. 18 Jan. 2016. <>.

Rothbard, Murray. For a New Liberty: A Libertarian Manifesto. 2nd ed. Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2006. Kindle File.

Spencer, Herbert. The Complete Works of Herbert Spencer: The Principles of Psychology, The Principles of Philosophy, First Principles and More. Seattle, Washington: Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2011. Kindle file.

—. The Man Versus the State. 1982 ed. Caldwell, Idaho: The Liberty Fund, 2012. Kindle File.

Wolfram, Gary. “Scrooge and the Welfare State.” The Rational Argumentator: A Journal for Western Man. n.p., 25 December 2010. Web. 17 April 2017. <>.