In Defense of Herbert Spencer


When the second sentence of your essay begins with the phrase "in the interests of historical accuracy," everything that follows really should be historically accurate. Unfortunately for readers of The New York Times, Columbia University philosophy professor Philip Kitcher fails to deliver on his own promise.

Writing in yesterday's Times, Kitcher uses President Barack Obama's recent description of the Republican budget plan as "thinly-veiled Social Darwinism" to offer his own "historically accurate" take on what Social Darwinism is all about. According to Kitcher, the whole ugly business is the fault of Herbert Spencer, a classical liberal thinker "whose writings are (to understate) no longer widely read." Kitcher continues:

Spencer, who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," thought about natural selection on a grand scale. Conceiving selection in pre-Darwinian terms — as a ruthless process, "red in tooth and claw" — he viewed human culture and human societies as progressing through fierce competition. Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak, those people and those human achievements that are fittest — most beautiful, noble, wise, creative, virtuous, and so forth — will succeed in a fierce competition, so that, over time, humanity and its accomplishments will continually improve. Late 19th-century dynastic capitalists, especially the American "robber barons," found this vision profoundly congenial. Their contemporary successors like it for much the same reasons, just as some adolescents discover an inspiring reinforcement of their self-image in the writings of Ayn Rand .

Kitcher, like so many of Spencer's other lazy critics, appears not to have understood what Spencer actually wrote. Yes, Spencer coined the potent phrase "survival of the fittest," which Charles Darwin later added to the fifth edition of his Origin of Species. But by fit, Spencer did not mean brute force or ruthlessness. In Spencer's view, human society was evolving from a "militant" state, which was characterized by violence and coercion, to an "industrial" one, characterized by trade and voluntary cooperation. So not only did Spencer think labor unions could be a useful check on the "harsh and cruel conduct" of employers, he also believed "the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other" to be a necessary and proper element of true liberalism. Indeed, Spencer devoted 10 chapters in his Principles of Ethics to spelling out the importance of "Positive Beneficience," or private charity. So much for not taking "steps to protect the weak."

There are other reasons to still admire Spencer and his work today, including his pioneering support for feminism and women's equality and his principled anti-imperialism (in 1881 Spencer even invited Charles Darwin to join him in supporting Britain's new Anti-Aggression League, which Darwin politely declined.) For more on how this libertarian individualist became smeared as one history's greatest monsters, check out my 2008 article "The Unfortunate Case of Herbert Spencer."