Liberty Matters

Spencer and the Evolution of Morality


One recent Liberty Matters discussion opened with an essay by Don Boudreaux on “Deirdre McCloskey and Economists’ Ideas about Ideas”. Deirdre McCloskey has argued powerfully that at the very roots of what she calls “the great enrichment,” the period of unprecedented growth which started with the Industrial Revolution, are ideas people formed about one another, rather than in some peculiar institutions, capital accumulation, or political stability. To provide a figurative explanation of McCloskey’s thesis that “mass flourishing was sparked by a change in ideas about the dignity of commercial pursuits,” Don Boudreaux speaks of a dishonor tax, traditionally levied on merchants, that was at a certain point eventually repealed in England. For the great enrichment to take off, we needed all efforts variously related to the creation of wealth to become socially appreciated and admired.
Our conversation on Spencer sprang from a profound essay by George H. Smith on Spencer’s sociology of the state. In his comment, Roderick Long has emphasized a quote Smith provided from Spencer’s magnificent The Study of Sociology: “So long as the characters of citizens remain substantially unchanged, there can be no substantial changes in the political organization” (footnote #43). Referencing some of Spencer’s contemporaries who took the anarchist route, Long emphasized that “the free-market anarchist model does not require a transformation of human nature.”
Indeed, Spencer held that an evolution of character, manners, and mores is a crucial part of human evolution. This is perhaps a crucial point that differentiates Spencer from what he called “empirical utilitarianism.”
The following passage from “The Great Political Superstition”, the concluding essay of The Man Versus the State, on the common law, is worth quoting at length:
Bentham and his followers seem to have forgotten that our own common law is mainly an embodiment of “the customs of the realm.” It did not give definite shape to that which it found existing. Thus, the fact and the fiction are exactly opposite to what they allege. The fact is that property was well recognized before law existed; the fiction is that “property is the creation of law.” These writers and statesmen who with so much scorn undertake to instruct the ignorant herd, themselves stand in need of instruction.Considerations of another class might alone have led them to pause. Were it true, as alleged by Bentham, that Government fulfils its office “by creating rights which it confers on individuals”; then, the implication would be, that there should be nothing approaching to uniformity in the rights conferred by different governments. In the absence of a determining cause over-ruling their decisions, the probabilities would be many to one against considerable correspondence among their decisions. But there is very great correspondence. Look where we may, we find that governments interdict the same kinds of aggressions; and, by implication, recognize the same kinds of claims. They habitually forbid homicide, theft, adultery: thus asserting that citizens may not be trespassed against in certain ways. And as society advances, minor individual claims are protected by giving remedies for breach of contract, libel, false witness, etc. In a word, comparisons show that though codes of law differ in their details as they become elaborated, they agree in their fundamentals. What does this prove? It cannot be by chance that they thus agree. They agree because the alleged creating of rights was nothing else than giving formal sanction and better definition to those assertions of claims and recognitions of claims which naturally originate from the individual desires of men who have to live in presence of one another.[77]
Here we see Spencer challenging Bentham as a jurist and, more generally, the legal enterprise Bentham and his followers started. This passage also clarifies Bruno Leoni’s statement that Spencer was the holder of a “new doctrine of natural rights” in which they take “the sociological form of an assessment.” (See note 61 above.)
Spencer clearly gave priority to the spontaneous self-adjustment of cooperation over law, and it thought unlikely that unilateral political action could work for the better. Famously, Spencer read very few books cover to cover—and so George Smith is right: we shouldn’t read Spencer as a careful scholar of his contemporaries. And yet we may find in him a perceptive and thoughtful critic of what we may deem as the “Utilitarian ethos.”
Roderick Long has pointed out that Spencer was no economist. I have quoted Hayek mistakenly considering him a “classical economist.” David Levy mentioned that “George Stigler listed Spencer on the very short list of ‘important English [Language] Economists 1766-1915.’”[78]
Certainly, Spencer took the division of labor seriously. Perhaps it is in the instance of the division of labor that his theory of progress as a movement from the homogenous to the heterogeneous, from the simple to the complex, can appear clearer to the contemporary reader. Let’s read the following beautiful, assessment of an ever more complex division of labor from “Progress and Its Laws”:
It has been an evolution which, beginning with a tribe whose members severally perform the same actions each for himself, ends with a civilized community whose members severally perform different actions for each other; and an evolution which has transformed the solitary producer of any one commodity into a combination of producers who, united under a master, take separate parts in the manufacture of such commodity. But there are yet other and higher phases of this advance from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous in the industrial organization of society. Long after considerable progress has been made in the division of labour among different classes of workers, there is still little or no division of labour among the widely separated parts of the community: the nation continues comparatively homogeneous in the respect that in each district the same occupations are pursued. But when roads and other means of transit become numerous and good, the different districts begin to assume different functions, and to become mutually dependent. The calico manufacture locates itself in this county, the woollen-cloth manufacture in that; silks are produced here, lace there; stockings in one place, shoes in another; pottery, hardware, cutlery, come to have their special towns; and ultimately every locality becomes more or less distinguished from the rest by the leading occupation carried on in it. This subdivision of functions shows itself not only among the different parts of the same nation, but among different nations. That exchange of commodities which free-trade is increasing so largely, will ultimately have the effect of specializing, in a greater or less degree, the industry of each people. So that, beginning with a barbarous tribe, almost if not quite homogeneous in the functions of its members, the progress has been, and still is, towards an economic aggregation of the whole human race; growing ever more heterogeneous in respect of the separate functions assumed by separate nations, the separate functions assumed by the local sections of each nation, the separate functions assumed by the many kinds of makers and traders in each town, and the separate functions assumed by the workers united in producing each commodity.[79]
Another passage from the same essay stresses the role of the steam-engined locomotive in promoting heterogeneity, that is a furthering of the division of labour. Spencer appreciated the different dimensions of progress and how they were strongly intertwined.
Take this other passage from The Study of Sociology:
All this development of mechanical appliances—this growth of the iron-manufacture, this extensive use of machinery made from iron, this production of so many machines for making machines—has had for one of its causes the abundance of the raw materials, coal and iron; has had for another of its causes the insular position which has favoured peace and the increase of industrial activity. There have been moral causes at work too. Without that readiness to sacrifice present ease to future benefit, which is implied by enterprise, there would never have arisen the machine in question,—nay, there would never have arisen the multitudinous improved instruments and processes that have made it possible. And beyond the moral traits which enterprise pre-supposes, there are those pre-supposed by efficient co-operation. Without mechanical engineers who fulfilled their contracts tolerably well, by executing work accurately, neither this machine itself nor the machines that made it, could have been produced; and without artizans having considerable conscientiousness, no master could insure accurate work. Try to get such products out of an inferior race, and you will find defective character an insuperable obstacle. So, too, will you find defective intelligence an insuperable obstacle. The skilled artizan is not an accidental product, either morally or intellectually. The intelligence needed for making a new thing is not everywhere to be found; nor is there everywhere to be found the accuracy of perception and nicety of execution without which no complex machine can be so made that it will act. Exactness of finish in machines has developed pari passu with exactness of perception in artizans. Inspect some mechanical appliance made a century ago, and you may see that, even had all other requisite conditions been fulfilled, want of the requisite skill in workmen would have been a fatal obstacle to the production of an engine requiring so many delicate adjustments. So that there are implied in this mechanical achievement, not only our slowly-generated industrial state, with its innumerable products and processes, but also the slowly-moulded moral and intellectual natures of masters and workmen. Has nothing now been forgotten? Yes, we have left out a whole division of all-important social phenomena—those which we group as the progress of knowledge. Along with the many other developments that have been necessary antecedents to this machine, there has been the development of Science. The growing and improving arts of all kinds, have been helped up, step after step, by those generalized experiences, becoming ever wider, more complete, more exact, which make up what we call Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, &c.[80]
Spencer’s view of how complexity unfolds in society is, then, greatly nuanced and complex itself. He saw moral forces at play in the very development of the Industrial Revolution, which, with the newer appliances and manufactures it brought about, represented a great illustration of his own principle. In this sense, I think Spencer may be an author worth examining for McCloskey and Boudreaux. After all, Spencer envisioned precisely the movement from a society that coalesced around aristocratic and military virtues to one where commerce and voluntary contracts take center stage. In a way this echoes the venerable thesis of doux commerce.
Growing older, he became increasingly disappointed with social progress that did not match the ideal of an Industrial society, pointing out the resilience of aggressive, military-like habits in society, politics, and education. That “re-barbarization”[81] he saw also as a phenomenon that bestowed unduly moral praise (“honor”) on aggressiveness. Such atavism, longing for organization and hierarchy, was instrumental in Spencer’s exploration of the rise of socialist ideas.
I do not want to make extravagant comparisons or to unfairly juxtapose thinkers that belong to different epochs and traditions of thinking. But if we are looking back for authors that saw a change in morality as one of the factors behind the “great enrichment,” I think Spencer can be considered worth exploring.
[77.] Herbert Spencer, The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society, and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack, (Indianapolis, Ind.: LibertyClassics, 1981). </titles/330>.
[78.] For Spencer’s opinion of those who held political economy in contempt, see his The Study of Sociology (London: Henry S. King, 1873) .
[79.] Herbert Spencer, Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative. Library Edition, containing Seven Essays not before republished, and various other Additions (London: Williams and Norgate, 1891). Vol. 1, "Progress: its Law and Cause" (The Westminster Review, April, 1857). </titles/335#lf0620-01_head_003>.
[80.] Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology (London: Henry S. King, 1873)., "Chapter VI. Subjective difficulties—intellectual." </titles/1335#Spencer_0623_244>.
[81.] Herbert Spencer, "Re-Barbarization," in Facts and Comments (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1902), pp. 172-88. Online at Roderick Long's website "" <>.