Liberty Matters

Spencer on Utilitarianism


In The Principles of Ethics Herbert Spencer called attention to the “ultimate purpose, lying behind all proximate purposes” of his life’s work. His ultimate purpose was to establish “for the principles of right and wrong in conduct at large, a scientific basis.”[70] An authentic science, according to Spencer, is created when we are able to move beyond inductive generalizations (based on many empirical observations) to the formulation of fundamental causal laws—laws that will enable us to explain how present phenomena came about and to make reasonably accurate predictions about phenomena that do not yet exist. As Spencer explained:
[T]he method I contend for [in ethics] is that of deducing from the laws under given conditions, results which follow from them in the same necessary way as does the trajectory of a cannon-shot from the laws of motion and atmospheric resistance.[71]
Spencer was commonly accused of being an apriorist in matters of science. He replied that his apriorism applied only after the causal premises of a science have been “positively ascertained by induction.” All “developed” sciences may be called a priori in this sense, since none can rely solely on inductive generalizations if it wishes to make predictions.[72] In other words, a science is a priori only in the sense that its premises, having already been corroborated by many experiences and/or experiments, do not require additional empirical confirmation before being used as a reliable foundation for deduction and “prevision.”
The foregoing background is essential if we are to understand Spencer’s basic objection to what he called “empirical utilitarianism,” or utilitarianism as it is “commonly understood.” Although the utilitarianism of Bentham and his followers relied on causation to some extent, their empirical method was based on an “inadequate consciousness of natural causation.”[73]  
The empirical utilitarian, according to Spencer, frames generalizations by observing that certain kinds of actions are regularly followed by certain kinds of results. He then assumes that the observed patterns between conduct and consequence will also apply to future actions.
But acceptance of these generalizations and the inferences from them, does not amount to causation in the full sense of the word. So long as only some relation between cause and effect in conduct is recognized, and not the relation, a completely-scientific form of knowledge has not been reached. At present, utilitarians pay no attention to this distinction. Even when it is pointed out to them they disregard the fact that empirical utilitarianism is but a transitional form to be passed through on the way to rational utilitarianism.
On at least two occasions[74], Spencer reprinted lengthy extracts from a letter he had written to J.S. Mill on the difference between the empirical utilitarianism of the Benthamites and his own version of rational utilitarianism. Spencer, having read Mill’s recently published “book on Utilitarianism,” was surprised to find himself “classed as an Anti-Utilitarian,”[75] so he wrote a letter explaining his position to Mill. Here is part of what Spencer had to say:
I have never regarded myself as Anti-utilitarian. My dissent from the doctrine of Utility as commonly understood, concerns not the object to be reached by men, but the method of reaching it. While I admit that happiness is the ultimate end to be contemplated, I do not admit that it should be the proximate end. The Expediency-Philosophy having concluded that happiness is the thing to be achieved, assumes that morality has no other business than empirically to generalize the result of conduct, and to supply for the guidance of conduct nothing more than its empirical generalizations.But the view for which I contend is, that Morality properly so-called—the science of right conduct—has for its object to determine how and why certain modes of conduct are detrimental, and certain other modes beneficial. These good and bad results cannot be accidental, but must be necessary consequences of the constitution of things; and I conceive it to be the business of moral science to deduce, 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. Having done this, its deductions are to be to recognized as laws of conduct; and are to be conformed to irrespective of a direct estimation of happiness or misery.[76]
I have only summarized the framework of Spencer’s objections to empirical utilitarianism. More needs to be said, especially about Spencer’s brand of rational utilitarianism, and I hope to do precisely that in a subsequent comment.
[70.] The Principles of Ethics (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1895), I:xiii.,
[71.] Ibid., II:467.
[72.] Ibid.
[73.] “The Great Political Superstition,” in The Man Versus the State,” ed. Eric Mack (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1981), 162.
[74.] See Principles of Ethics, I:57-8. A longer excerpt appears in An Autobiography (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904), II:100-103.
[75.] In his letter, Spencer said that he had been “implicitly” placed by Mill among “the Anti-utilitarians.” (See An Autobiography, II:100.) So far as I know, Spencer is never mentioned by name in Utilitarianism, and I cannot locate the ‘note in question” (as Spencer called it) in which Mill suggested, if only implicitly, that Spencer was in the Anti-utilitarian camp. I hope another participant in this discussion will be able to locate the elusive passage, and then post it.  [OLL Editor's Note: See the letter JSM wrote to Spencer on Feb. 25, 1863 and the Editor's note on this, which states "MS draft and MS copy at Northwestern. Published, except for last sentence, in Duncan, I, 141-42. In reply to a protest from Spencer (letter of Feb. 24, MS at Northwestern) at being classed as an Anti-utilitarian in JSM’s Utilitarianism; Spencer prints most of his own letter in his Autobiography (2 vols., New York, 1904), II, 100-102, and Alexander Bain printed the same passages in his Mental and Moral Science (3rd ed., London, 1872), pp. 721-22."]
[76.] Ibid., II:100-101.