Liberty Matters

It’s All There in Social Statics


George Smith challenges us to help solve, to use David Hart’s lovely phrase, Das Herbert Spencer Problem.  Coming from an authority of his stature, how could anyone resist!  I will urge that before we make Spencer coherent, we need to make his texts more complicated. By this I mean only that we ought to think of how his texts fit into the contemporary discussions of political economy and utilitarianism.  To make the argument, I’ll give some evidence that what Smith sees as a puzzle in Spencer’s life’s work, the relationship between sociology and morality, is all there in Social Statics but expressed in terms of utilitarianism and what we now see as collective-action problems.
Political economy.If there is one thing that the ordinary reader “knows,” it is Spencer’s role in the foundation of eugenics. This is, of course, only another illustration of Josh Billings’s dictum (often cited by Frank Knight) that it isn’t so much what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, but what we know that isn’t so.  In fact, Spencer did seem to have an important role to play in that Social Statics was credited by A. R. Wallace as influencing  his 1864 paper at the Anthropological Society that human sympathy for the less able turns off natural selection. As natural selection had attained a normative status, the response to Wallace’s argument was to deaden sympathy to allow natural selection to work its progressive magic on humanity. Hence, the “science” of eugenics.[52]
Spencer? Here’s what Wallace wrote in the final footnote on the 1864 paper:
The general idea and argument in this paper I believe to be new. It was, however, the perusal of Mr. Herbert Spencer’s works, especially Social Statics, that suggested it to me....[53]
Earlier that year (January 2, 1864) Wallace had written to Charles Darwin urging him to look into Spencer’s work on political economy:
I am utterly astonished that so few people seem to read Spencer, & the utter ignorance there seems to be among politicians & political economists of the grand views & logical stability of his works. He appears to me as far ahead of John Stuart Mill as J.S.M. is of the rest of the world, and I may add as Darwin is of Agassiz.[54]
So if we are looking for the foundations of evolutionary political economy, Social Statics needs to be considered.
Utilitarianism. Here’s is where we can directly address the question of the stability of Spencer’s philosophy. Did Spencer’s 1852 glance at natural selection or Darwin’s full-dress exposition in 1859 lead Spencer to abandon all his teachings in Social Statics?  Spencer’s argument in Social Statics is enormously important because it raises the question whether utilitarians haven’t implicitly assumed that all men have an equal right to happiness.[55] 
But it is amusing when, after all, it turns out that the ground on which these philosophers have taken their stand, and from which with such self-complacency they shower their sarcasms, is nothing but an adversary’s mine, destined to blow the vast fabric of conclusions they have based on it into nonentity. This so solid-looking principle of “the greatest happiness to the greatest number,” needs but to have a light brought near it, and lo! it explodes into the astounding assertion, that all men have equal rights to happiness—an assertion far more sweeping and revolutionary than any of those which are assailed with so much scorn.
This drew a note in J.S. Mill’s 1861 Utilitarianism, which I quote from the Toronto – Liberty Fund edition that notes the changes in the 1863 printing:
This implication, in the first principle of the utilitarian scheme, of perfect impartiality between persons, is regarded by Mr. Herbert Spencer (in his Social Statics as a disproof of the pretensions of utility to be a sufficient guide to [61 be the foundation of] right; since (he says) the principle of utility presupposes the anterior principle, that everybody has an equal right to happiness. It may be more correctly described as supposing that equal amounts of happiness are equally desirable, whether felt by the same or by different persons. This, however, is not a presupposition [61, 63, 64 presupposition]; not a premise needful to support the principle of utility, but the very principle itself; for what is the principle of utility, if it be not that “happiness” and “desirable” are synonymous terms? If there is any anterior principle implied, it can be no other than this, that the truths [61 rules] of arithmetic are applicable to the valuation of happiness, as of all other measurable quantities
This prompted a letter to Mill from Spencer that is acknowledged in the 1863 printing of Utilitarianism.  I quote the first part of the note:
[63] Mr. Herbert Spencer, in a private communication on the subject of the preceding Note, objects to being considered an opponent of Utilitarianism, and states that he regards happiness as the ultimate end of morality; but deems that end only partially attainable by empirical generalizations from the observed results of conduct, and completely attainable only by deducing, from the laws of life and the conditions of existence, what kinds of action necessarily tend to produce happiness, and what kinds to produce unhappiness. With the exception of the word “necessarily,” I have no dissent to express from this doctrine; and (omitting that word) I am not aware that any modern advocate of utilitarianism is of a different opinion.
The Toronto Liberty Fund edition gives Spencer’s 1904 Autobiography as source of Spencer’s letter, but it doesn’t tell the reader what Spencer said about the letter.  Spencer seems not to have realized that Mill responded by taking back the substantial criticism!
Mr. J. S. Mill had just published his book on Utilitarianism. In it, to my surprise, I found myself classed as an Anti-utilitarian. Not liking to let pass a characterization which I regarded as erroneous, I wrote to him explaining my position—showing in what I agreed with the existing school of Utilitarians, and in what I differed from them. The essential part of this letter was published by Professor Bain in one of the closing chapters of his Mental and Moral Science; but it is not to be found anywhere in my own works. As it seems unfit that this anomalous distribution should be permanent, I decide to reprint it here; omitting the opening and closing paragraphs:— …
If nothing else this shows that memory needs to be controlled by manuscript even if the manuscript in question in the 1863 printing of Utilitarianism.
From this episode is it I think safe to read Spencer from Social Statics onward as a utilitarian. If he’d changed his mind, then why wouldn’t he tell this to Mill? Or mention the change in Autobiography?
Of course we are to deal with the “necessary” move, but that I consider in due course. Spencer described utilitarianism, seeking for the greatest happiness of an empirical basis, as a philosophy of expediency.
Das Adam Smith Problem. Spencer’s Social Statics ought to be famous in the Adam Smith literature as emphasizing the importance of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the sympathetic principle.[56] I quote the beginning of a long argument:
Seeing, however, that this instinct of personal rights is a purely selfish instinct, leading each man to assert and defend his own liberty of action, there remains the question—Whence comes our perception of the rights of others? The way to a solution of this difficulty has been opened by Adam Smith in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments.” It is the aim of that work to show that the proper regulation of our conduct to one another, is secured by means of a faculty whose function it is to excite in each being the emotions displayed by surrounding ones—a faculty which awakens a like state of sentiment, or, as he terms it, “a fellow feeling with the passions of others”—the faculty, in short, which we commonly call Sympathy. As illustrations of the mode in which this agent acts, he quotes cases like these:—…
There is an argument in Social Statics that speaks to Spencer’s disagreement with Mill over the role of necessary truths. He cites as one necessary truth the proposition that humans are mortal and argues for another:[57]
Thus the ultimate development of the ideal man is logically certain—as certain as any conclusion in which we place the most implicit faith; for instance, that all men will die. For why do we infer that all men will die? Simply because, in an immense number of past experiences, death has uniformly occurred. Similarly then as the experiences of all people in all times—experiences that are embodied in maxims, proverbs, and moral precepts, and that are illustrated in biographies and histories, go to prove that organs, faculties, powers, capacities, or whatever else we call them, grow by use and diminish from disuse, it is inferred that they will continue to do so. And if this inference is unquestionable, then is the one above deduced from it—that humanity must in the end become completely adapted to its conditions—unquestionable also.
Spencer writes in Social Statics a good deal about the perfect man. The “straight man” about whom George Smith expresses reservations seems to be simply one in whom consideration of the rights of others has been fully internalized.  “Right,” Spencer defines in terms of “straight.”
I quote a passage in which the “absolute” is laid out in terms of geometry. Supposing that Spencer was thinking of geometry in terms of necessary truths, then his moral argument concerning the “straight man” is an exercise in modal logic.  Spencer’s “absolute” might be helpfully read as “necessary”
No conclusions can lay claim to absolute truth, but such as depend upon truths that are themselves absolute. Before there can be exactness in an inference, there must be exactness in the antecedent propositions. A geometrician requires that the straight lines with which he deals shall be veritably straight; and that his circles, and ellipses, and parabolas shall agree with precise definitions—shall perfectly and invariably answer to specified equations. If you put to him a question in which these conditions are not complied with, he tells you that it cannot be answered. So likewise is it with the philosophical moralist. He treats solely of the straight man. He determines the properties of the straight man; describes how the straight man comports himself; shows in what relationship he stands to other straight men; shows how a community of straight men is constituted. Any deviation from strict rectitude he is obliged wholly to ignore. It cannot be admitted into his premises without vitiating all his conclusions. A problem in which a crooked man forms one of the elements is insoluble by him. He may state what he thinks about it—may give an approximate solution; but anything more is impossible. His decision is no longer scientific and authoritative, but is now merely an opinion.
A real world problem. Where does utilitarianism fit into Spencer’s theme in Social Statics? It gives us a guide to government before we have (fully) adapted to the social state:
Although the adaptation of man to the social state has already made considerable progress—although the need for external restraint is less—and although consequently that reverence for authority which makes restraint possible, has greatly diminished—diminished to such an extent that the holders of power are daily caricatured, and men begin to listen to the National Anthem with their hats on—still the change is far from complete. The attributes of the aboriginal man have not yet died out. We still trench upon each other’s claims—still pursue happiness at each other’s expense. Our savage selfishness is seen in commerce, in legislation, in social arrangements, in amusements. The shopkeeper imposes on his lady customer; his lady customer beats down the shopkeeper Classes quarrel about their respective—interests;—and corruption is defended by those who profit from it. The spirit of caste morally tortures its victims with as much coolness as the Indian tortures his enemy. Gamblers pocket their gains with unconcern: and your share-speculator cares not who loses, so that he gets his premium. No matter what their rank, no matter in what they are engaged—whether in enacting a Corn Law, or in struggling with each other at the doors of a theatre—men show themselves as yet, little else than barbarians in broadcloth.Hence we still require shackles; rulers to impose them; and power-worship to make those rulers obeyed. Just as much as the love of God’s law is deficient, must the fear of man’s law be called in to supply its place. And to the extent that man’s law is needful there must be reverence for it to ensure the necessary allegiance. Hence, as men are still under the influence of this sentiment, we must expect their customs, creeds, and philosophies to testify of its presence.Here, then, we have a rationale of the expediency-idea of government.
Later in the text, he expands upon the theater-door reference:
And yet, whilst in some cases it is scarcely possible to trace the secret channels through which our misbehaviour to others returns upon us, there are other cases in which the reaction is palpable. An audience rushing out of a theatre on fire, and in their eagerness to get before each other jamming up the doorway so that no one can get through, offers a good example of unjust selfishness defeating itself. 
Collective-action problems plague the aboriginal man. As we develop regard for other’s rights, the chains of government fall away.  This seems a perfectly coherent argument in an economic utilitarian setup.  But that is all there in Social Statics.  
[52.] The first round of work on eugenics that Sandra Peart and I completed is brought together and published in The “Vanity of the Philosopher” (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005).  Over the next decade, we’ve published some specialized studies. “Charles Kingsley and the Theological Interpretation of Natural Selection,” Journal of Bioeconomics 8 (2006): 197-218; “Darwin’s Unpublished Letter at the Bradlaugh-Besant Trial: A Question of Divided Expert Judgment,” European Journal of Political Economy 24 (2008): 343-53; and “Sympathy, Evolution and The Economist,” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 71 (June 2009): 29-36.  We’ve drawn out the critical role of sympathy in a chapter, “Sympathy Caught between Darwin and Eugenics,” in the 2015 Sympathy volume edited by Eric Schliesser for the Oxford Philosophical Concepts series.
[53.] Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of ‘Natural Selection,’” Journal of the Anthropological Society of London 2 (1864):  clxx. As Peart and I point out in “Sympathy Caught,” the acknowledgement is removed in later reprints.
[54.] The Correspondence of Charles Darwin: 1870, ed. Frederick Burkhardt,  James A. Secord,  Sheila Ann Dean, Samantha Evans, Shelley Innes, Alison M. Pearn, Paul White (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010),  p. 5.  As we note in “Sympathy Caught” this letter is helpfully discussed in the Darwin literature. 
[55.] Peart and I discuss this episode in Vanity at some length because speaks to many themes in our book.
[56.] As it isn’t famous, Peart and I have stressed this both in “Vanity” and “Sympathy Caught.” Wallace’s enthusiasm for Social Statics speaks to the question of how the evolutionary biologists at mid-century were so well versed on The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 
[57.] Sandra Peart and I have explored how this necessary truth of the finiteness of life fits into Adam Smith’s argument as well as those from whom Adam Smith learnt modal logic, in “Adam Smith and the State: Language and Reform,” Oxford Handbook on Adam Smith. Ed. Chris Berry, Craig Smith, and Maria Paganelli (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 372-92.