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Herbert Spencer and Social Statics

September 15, 2008

When initially beginning this week’s reading it became evident that the incorrect book had been obtained, to wit: Social Statics: Abridged and Revised; Together with The Man versus The State (Spencer 1892).  This work was originally published in 1851 as Social Statics: or, the Conditions essential to Human Happiness specified, and the first of them developed (Spencer 1892:3).  Following the production of the third edition and expanded sales in America Spencer concluded that parts of the original work was both outdated by organizational and institutional changes as well as in need of further qualification.  Moreover, Spencer came to a better understanding of his work and realized that certain portions needed modification and/or change.  Almost forty years after the original publication Spencer modified his work, adding Part IV of The Principle of Ethics – Justice and giving particular qualification to other principles of the work.

            In an effort to better understand Spencer’s discussion of the organic social and social evolution of society an effort was made to look at the revised volume.  Nevertheless, the primary reading comes from the first edition of Social Statics: or, the Conditions essential to Human Happiness specified, and the first of them developed (Spencer 1851).


Happiness is a definition of the individual.  Government is an institution, constructed of various organizations that propose and implement policy and law which effect individual behavior.  Hence, government is an outside force, which by its formation and operation both indirectly and directly interferes with individual human happiness.  Spencer’s statement and later examples regarding attempts to manage idealist happiness going awry seem to support his proposition that the individual should largely be independent of government (Spencer 1851:8-10).  The various examples he delivers to support his point are noteworthy.  Examples such as the attempt to end the slave trade, to end marriage between impoverished people, and establishing a minimum wage paint a vivid picture of government’s unhappy guesses and unsuccessful attempts to fix happiness through a maximization of laws and regulations (Spencer 1851:10).

            In addressing the failure of government to legislate control and happiness

Spencer gives three fallacies of government, they are 1. faulty as indicated above by example, 2. incapable of legislating happiness because happiness is an individual determination of each person, 3. not eternal, but rather a transitory necessary evil to be endured until society matures beyond a lower state of morality (1851:13,14).  Spencer’s statement in which he elucidates about each new term of parliament passing new laws that are appropriately entitled “An Act to Amend…” is hilarious, but for the fact that the scenario is accurate.  By comparison, to our own times his statement is a timeless statement (1851:11).   His statement of expediency, or perhaps better referred to as his question is “what is best for the greatest number of people”.  Government may offer expediency, however it is not in reality the best for all.  True, in an ideal sense social law may be best for a proportion, but can the greatest number of humankind be happy in the real sense by regulation?

            In reflecting on the above, a question comes to mind.  Can morality be governed?  Spencer says humanity is the highest conceivable level of perfection (1851:15).  In other words, society has not culminated to the highest level yet, so in its imperfection it seeks to establish moral precepts and behavior leading to order and happiness through central government as the most ideally expedient modus operandi.  This is not good because government is ironically made up of humans in their imperfect state; hence, government is imperfect albeit perhaps necessary as the best current alternative for happiness and order.  In time, will society evolve and no longer need government?  Spencer seems to say yes, because of the natural laws of nature.  This seems similar to Comte, however not the same.  Comte saw social order maximized in law and government of the whole organism.  Spencer seems to say that as society progresses less government is better government.  In essence, society is best understood in relation to the individual not the whole.


Is it futile to attempt to construct a moral philosophy of right and wrong?  Is there a definite rule of right or reality hidden within the uncertain, unique and capricious human element?  True, this is a weakness of humankind.  However, this weakness is not detrimental to the individual being of primary value in establishing order in society.  To explain this Spencer relates a discussion of logic (1851:29,30).  Certain truths (axioms) allow the establishment of certain basic principles upon which people all think alike.  Although Spencer draws an analogy between primary laws of quantity and mathematics and the moral sense to moral axiom his meaning is unclear at this point.  Perhaps he is establishing a natural law as part of his proposition. 

            Much thanks to Mr. Spencer for briefly reviewing the argument of a universal physical and ethical law  periodically, this allows better reflection upon his thought process(1851:50, 51).  He makes a quantum leap in his assumption, however provided the reader could imagine that leap he argues his point well.  In so making this statement he brings us back full circle to his discussion of the fallacy in seeking expediency.



Spencer repeats several statements regarding the perfection of humankind in relation to its moral code.  First, humanity is the highest conceivable level of perfection, second, society has not culminated to the highest level yet, and third, the moral law must be the law of the perfect man (1851:15, 55).  He also makes a conclusion that morality is a code of rules for behavior of man; it either recognizes man’s imperfection and makes allowances, or it is based upon man in his perfect state (Spencer 1851:55).  In so coming to this conclusion it is evident that in his mind that a code of morality must be based upon the idyllic concept of the perfection of man, rather than the realistic state of humankind.  In this way, the science of social life is alike to the other sciences.  Consistent is the argument that expediency creates a pool of turbulence in the social order.


Spencer begins that “all evil results from, the non-adaptation of constitution to conditions” (1851:59).  This statement remained unclear and mystical for a great deal of this reading.  Ultimately, it appears that what he is relating is the natural order of the social and the environment.  Though he does not use this exact terminology, it appears he is saying that the disturbance of the social equilibrium leads to disorder and disorder brings ill effect to conditions of the social.  Inevitably, the system is capable of adaptation and as such heals itself.  This in turn is an example of universal law and order.

            In furthering his position Spencer expands upon human adaptation (perhaps it could be called social evolution) and poses the question as to why man is unsuited to the current social environment (1851:63).  Here he almost sounds as if he is implying that the human exhibits biological instinct and it is this “hold over” instinct from predatory times that causes man not to be able to function well and fully adapt to the current social state.  There is in effect a cultural lag in man’s social adaptation and this lag transcends time and will do so for an unforeseeable future, but will eventually lead to human perfection.  This is in effect his point in explaining his universal law of perfection.  He lists six points to illuminate this precept (Spencer 1851:64).  This is progress, that over time imperfection will disappear.  Spencer admits later that this evolution is a slow process that is fraught with obstacles (1851:414).  In other words, there is a battle between social advancement of natural law and social morality against the reality of humankind’s world in which human against human and beast struggle for dominance.  His example of the wildflower seed and the plight of the human existence are well taken in the context presented (1851:415).  In his six-point analysis, the use of faculties causes them to modify and grow and disuse will bring their loss.  This part of Spencer’s argument seems weak, primarily because of his specific examples in the paragraphs that follow in the text, to wit: the laborer’s hand grows thick, the blacksmith’s arm large and the sailor’s eye long-sighted.  Yes, use does lend itself to development, but not in the degree that Spencer seems to want the reader to believe.  Perhaps he is speaking in the ideal rather than the real.   It is the advancement to perfection that Spencer later defines as social dynamics (1851:409).

Survival of the fittest?

In reading Part IV, it almost seems that Spencer is proposing a concept of survival of the fittest in explaining how humankind must, if it remains in its existent state, be conquered (1851:416).  The individual is supreme, perfect in concept and maturity, but yet immature, ever changing, modifying, clarifying and eventually evolving into the model perfection consistent with science in general.  It is consistent that groups of people do not all progress at the same speed.  What is important is that the order of the people remains in its natural state.  Accordingly, if some groups are disproportionately behind another group in maturity to perfection they may be subordinated or taken advantage of by those groups that continue to progress.  In keeping with his precept selection of the fittest leads to natural progression of humankind.


The premise here is that each organ has its own function.  The physical organ tends to its own particular function.  The social organ in turn tends to its own function.  An organ functions well within its defined realm and does not function outside of its realm.  Hence, as the heart or lungs, social organs such as government must stay within its respective defined realm.  Spencer again will analogize this, but what he says is that government and other social institutions are specially adapted to particular means and ends and must remain segregated to those means and ends (1851:275).  Not only should the populous not invite government to take on new additional functions, but also government should be proactive to refuse additional functions.  Government is in effect a voluntary association for the purpose of protection.  Beyond this basic duty the goals and functions become germs for schisms between groups such as party affiliation, for example the Democrat and the Republican.  This schism in turn detracts from or weakens the function to protect.  The debate between the parliamentarian and the citizen on page 277 is a very strong point to support the concept Spencer proposes.  This is much like the acceptance of federal aid by school districts for the purchase of books.  Once money is accepted, certain books are eliminated from the purchase list.

            Accordingly, the government that goes beyond its limited role hinders and actually retards social growth and progress.  Spencer mentions several special areas of concern in which government oversteps its limits.  These are trade and commerce, religious establishment, welfare or poor laws, national education, governmental colonialism, sanitary supervision and several miscellaneous interferences including currency and the postal system.

            He concisely addresses the opposition that the aggression of government is beneficial because with one restriction upon the populous comes a benefit that would not otherwise be accessible to the public (Spencer 1851:279).  In essence, he responds that government can create no new provision for the public rather all government can do is redistribute what is already in existence.  Thus in reality the public only loses.


In turning to consider the cumulative effect of Herbert Spencer, it must be concluded that his course was to satisfactorily explain the social state by universal principles.  In so explaining the concept, the individual is supreme, perfect in design and will be perfect in maturity.  However, human societies are not yet mature.  But consistent with his conclusion the social is ever changing, modifying, clarifying and eventually to evolve into perfection consistent with science in general.  It is therefore, consistent that groups of people do not all progress at the same speed.  What is important is that the order of the people remains in its natural state.  Accordingly, if some groups are disproportionately behind another group in the order of maturity they may be subordinated or taken advantage of by those groups that advance.  Since it is the human organism that determines use and non-use of faculties, it is hence the ultimate concept of the social to remain in control without outside influence such as government and law.  These external expediencies only lead to corruption and evil and therefore interfere with social evolution.  In short, humankind left to its own method and speed of progression complements and preserves the natural and effective order of society.

            What an enjoyable writing style.  The various dialogs carried on between characters add a dimension of realism and helps to draw the reader into the scenario as presented.  Perhaps this is why this work sold so many copies in America. 


Spencer, Herbert. 1851. Social Statics: or, the Conditions essential to Human Happiness specified, and the first of them developed. London, UK:John Chapman. Retrieved September 5, 2008 (,M1).

——. 1892. Social Statics: Together With Man versus The State. London, UK: D. Appleton and Company.

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