Herbert Spencer: Social Darwinist?

Herbert Spencer, the famous 19th century philosopher, is often misrepresented as the father of social Darwinism and a precursor to the Eugenics movement. The idea of social Darwinism claims that Darwin’s theories of biological evolution and natural selection can be directly applied to social organization. Those members of society that cannot survive should not survive, and those members who have what it takes to prosper should prosper. However, Spencer’s actual views were in many ways opposed to those with which he has been besmirched.

Those who want to demonstrate Spencer’s supposedly brutal ideology often quote this passage from his work, Social Statistics: “If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.” However,  it is interesting to note that those who use this passage to sully Spencer’s image neglect to incorporate that which directly follows: “Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated.” Spencer believed that human benevolence could and should alleviate the suffering of those less fortunate, effectively reversing the view he is accused of having.

A huge proponent of individual rights, Spencer did not believe in the right of society to weed out the less fit. It was he that posited a “law of equal freedom” declaring that “every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.” In addition to this, Spencer also supported women’s rights fairly early on in the movement. Far from being a proponent of the rights of the powerful, Spencer was more concerned with those of the individual, and of the less powerful.

 

Herbert Spencer has been smeared as a social Darwinist, promoting the idea that “might makes right.” However, he was more concerned with upholding the right of individuals to operate freely as long as they did no harm to anyone else. He was not a precursor to the Eugenics movement; he was a precursor to the Libertarian movement.

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