Liberty Matters

Spencer’s Defense of the Poor


In my last comment I noted that Spencer’s remarks on charity in Social Statics, while not saying what his critics represent them as saying, do come across as harsh and unsympathetic.  To judge Spencer’s attitude toward the needy by these passages alone, however, would be unfair.  For in the very same book we find the following spirited censure of those who lack empathy of the struggles of the poor:
It is very easy for you, O respectable citizen, seated in your easy chair, with your feet on the fender, to hold forth on the misconduct of the people; – very easy for you to censure their extravagant and vicious habits; – very easy for you to be a pattern of frugality, of rectitude, of sobriety. What else should you be? Here are you surrounded by comforts, possessing multiplied sources of lawful happiness, with a reputation to maintain, an ambition to fulfil, and the prospect of a competency for your old age. A shame indeed would it be if with these advantages you were not well regulated in your behaviour. You have a cheerful home, are warmly and cleanly clad, and fare, if not sumptuously every day, at any rate abundantly. For your hours of relaxation there are amusements. A newspaper arrives regularly to satisfy your curiosity; if your tastes are literary, books may be had in plenty: and there is a piano if you like music. You can afford to entertain your friends, and are entertained in return. There are lectures, and concerts, and exhibitions, accessible if you incline to them. You may have a holiday when you choose to take one, and can spare money for an annual trip to the sea-side. And enjoying all these privileges you take credit to yourself for being a well-conducted man! Small praise to you for it! If you do not contract dissipated habits where is the merit? you have few incentives to do so. It is no honour to you that you do not spend your savings in sensual gratification; you have pleasures enough without. But what would you do if placed in the position of the labourer? How would these virtues of yours stand the wear and tear of poverty? Where would your prudence and self-denial be if you were deprived of all the hopes that now stimulate you; if you had no better prospect than that of the Dorsetshire farm-servant with his 7s. a week, or that of the perpetually-straitened stocking-weaver, or that of the mill-hand with his periodical suspensions of work? Let us see you tied to an irksome employment from dawn till dusk; fed on meagre food, and scarcely enough of that; married to a factory girl ignorant of domestic management; deprived of the enjoyments which education opens up; with no place of recreation but the pot-house, and then let us see whether you would be as steady as you are. Suppose your savings had to be made, not, as now, out of surplus income, but out of wages already insufficient for necessaries; and then consider whether to be provident would be as easy as you at present find it. Conceive yourself one of a despised class contemptuously termed “the great unwashed;” stigmatized as brutish, stolid, vicious; suspected of harbouring wicked designs; excluded from the dignity of citizenship; and then say whether the desire to be respectable would be as practically operative on you as now. Lastly, imagine that seeing your capacities were but ordinary, your education next to nothing, and your competitors innumerable, you despaired of ever attaining to a higher station; and then think whether the incentives to perseverance and forethought would be as strong as your existing ones. Realize these circumstances, O comfortable citizen, and then answer whether the reckless, disorderly habits of the people are so inexcusable.How offensive is it to hear some pert, self-approving personage, who thanks God that he is not as other men are, passing harsh sentence on his poor hard-worked heavily-burdened fellow-countrymen; including them all in one sweeping condemnation, because in their struggles for existence they do not maintain the same prim respectability as himself. Of all stupidities there are few greater, and yet few in which we more doggedly persist, than this of estimating other men’s conduct by the standard of our own feelings. There is no more mischievous absurdity than this judging of actions from the outside as they look to us, instead of from the inside as they look to the actors; nothing more irrational than to criticize deeds as though the doers of them had the same desires, hopes, fears, and restraints with ourselves. We cannot understand another’s character except by abandoning our own identity, and realizing to ourselves his frame of mind, his want of knowledge, his hardships, temptations, and discouragements. And if the wealthier classes would do this before forming their opinions of the working man, their verdicts would savour somewhat more of that charity which covereth a multitude of sins.[104]
This passage (which, needless to say, is studiously ignored by Spencer’s critics) appears to excoriate precisely the unfeeling attitude that the previously cited passages appear to express.  Yet Spencer wrote both.  The unavoidable conclusion is that Spencer is a complex thinker whose ideas contain both sympathetic and unsympathetic strands; to judge him solely by either without the other would be to distort him.
[104.] Social Statics, ch. 20, § 6.  </titles/273#Spencer_0331_486>