Durant 1926: Criticism: Sociology and Ethics (Herbert Spencer)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VIII Section 8.3 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

.

VIII. 3. Criticism: Sociology and Ethics

Magnificent as the Sociology is, its 2000 pages give many an opening for attack. Running through it is Spencer’s usual assumption that evolution and progress are synonymous, whereas it may well be that evolution will give to insects and bacteria the final victory in their relentless war with man. It is not quite evident that the industrial state is either more pacific or more moral than the “militant” feudalism that preceded it. Athens’ most destructive wars came long after her feudal lords had yielded power to a commercial bourgeoisie; and the countries of modern Europe seem to make war with blithe indifference as to whether they are industrial or not; industrial imperialism may be as militaristic as land-hungry dynasties. The most militaristic of modern states was one of the two leading industrial nations of the world. Further, the rapid industrial development of Germany seems to have been aided, rather than impeded, by state control of certain phases of transport and trade. Socialism is obviously a development not of militarism but of industrialism. Spencer wrote at a time when the comparative isolation of England made her pacifist (in Europe), and when her supremacy in commerce and industry made her a firm believer in free trade; he would have been shocked had he lived to see how readily the free trade theory would disappear along with commercial and industrial supremacy, and how the pacifism would disappear as soon as Germany’s assault on Belgium threatened English isolation. And of course Spencer exaggerated the virtues of the industrial regime; he was almost blind to the brutal exploitation that flourished in England before the state interfered to mitigate it; all that he could see “in the middle of our century, especially in England,” was “a degree of individual freedom greater than ever before existed.”* No wonder that Nietzsche reacted in disgust from industrialism, and exaggerated, in his turn, the virtues of the military life.

*The Study of Sociology, p. 335: “The testimony is that higher wages commonly result only in more extravagant living or in drinking to greater excess.”

An industrial state does not necessarily resolve the problem of a militaristic state.

The analogy of the social organism would have driven Spencer into state socialism had his logic been more powerful than his feelings; for state socialism represents, in a far higher degree than a laissez-faire society, the integration of the heterogeneous. By the yard-stick of his own formula Spencer would have been compelled to acclaim Germany as the most highly evolved of modern states. He tried to meet this point by “arguing that heterogeneity involves the freedom of the parts, and that such freedom implies a minimum of government; but this is quite a different note than that which we heard in “coherent heterogeneity.” In the human body integration and evolution leave rather little freedom to the parts. Spencer replies that in a society consciousness exists only in the parts, while in the body consciousness exists only in the whole. But social consciousness—consciousness of the interests and processes of the group—is as centralized in society as personal consciousness is in the individual; very few of us have any “sense of the state.” Spencer helped to save us from a regimental state socialism, but only by the sacrifice of his consistency and his logic.

Spencer helped to save us from a regimental state socialism, but only by the sacrifice of his consistency and his logic.

And only by individualistic exaggerations. We must remember that Spencer was caught between two eras; that his political thinking had been formed in the days of laissez-faire, and under the influence of Adam Smith; while his later years were lived in a period when England was struggling to correct, by social control, the abuses of her industrial regime. He never tired of reiterating his arguments against state-interference; he objected to state-financed education, or to governmental protection of citizens against fraudulent finance ; at one time he argued that even the management of war should be a private, and not a state, concern; he wished, as Wells put it, “to raise public shiftlessness to the dignity of a national policy.” He carried his MSS. to the printer himself, having too little confidence in a government institution to entrust them to the Post Office. He was a man of intense individuality, irritably insistent on being let alone; and every new act of legislation seemed to him an invasion of his personal liberty. He could not understand Benjamin Kidd’s argument, that since natural selection operates more and more upon groups, in class and international competition, and less and less upon individuals, a widening application of the family principle (whereby the weak are aided by the strong) is indispensable for the maintenance of group unity and power. Why a state should protect its citizens from unsocial physical strength and refuse protection against unsocial economic strength is a point which Spencer ignores. He scorned as childish the analogy of government and citizen with parent and child; but the real analogy is with brother helping brother. His politics were more Darwinian than his biology.

Spencer was caught between two eras; that his political thinking had been formed in the days of laissez-faire, and under the influence of Adam Smith; while his later years were lived in a period when England was struggling to correct, by social control, the abuses of her industrial regime.

But enough of these criticisms. Let us turn back to the man again, and see in fairer perspective the greatness of his work.

,

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: