Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) is typically, though quite wrongly, considered a coarse social Darwinist. After all, Spencer, and not Darwin, coined the infamous expression “survival of the fittest”, leading G. E. Moore to conclude erroneously in Principia Ethica (1903) that Spencer committed the naturalistic fallacy. According to Moore, Spencer’s practical reasoning was deeply flawed insofar as he purportedly conflated mere survivability (a natural property) with goodness itself (a non-natural property).
Roughly fifty years later, Richard Hofstadter devoted an entire chapter of Social Darwinism in American Thought (1955) to Spencer, arguing that Spencer’s unfortunate vogue in late nineteenth-century America inspired Andrew Carnegie and William Graham Sumner’s visions of unbridled and unrepentant capitalism. For Hofstadter, Spencer was an “ultra-conservative” for whom the poor were so much unfit detritus. His social philosophy “walked hand in hand” with reaction, making it little more than a “biological apology for laissez-faire” (Hofstadter, 1955: 41 and 46). But just because Carnegie interpreted Spencer’s social theory as justifying merciless economic competition, we shouldn’t automatically attribute such justificatory ambitions to Spencer. Otherwise, we risk uncritically reading the fact that Spencer happened to influence popularizers of social Darwinism into our interpretation of him. We risk falling victim to what Skinner perceptively calls the “mythology of prolepsis.”
Spencer’s reputation has never fully recovered from Moore and Hofstadter’s interpretative caricatures, thus marginalizing him to the hinterlands of intellectual history, though recent scholarship has begun restoring and repairing his legacy. Happily, in rehabilitating him, some scholars have begun to appreciate just how fundamentally utilitarian his practical reasoning was.
The history of political thought is forever being rewritten as we necessarily reinterpret its canonical texts and occasionally renominate marginalized thinkers for canonical consideration. Changing philosophical fashions and ideological agendas invariably doom us to reconstructing incessantly our political philosophical heritage. For instance, Isaiah Berlin’s understandable preoccupation with totalitarianism induced him to read T. H. Green and Bernard Bosanquet as its unwitting accomplices insofar as both purportedly equated freedom with dangerously enriched, neo-Hegelian fancies about self-realization. Regrettably, this ideological reconstruction of new liberals like Green and Bosanquet continues largely unabated (see Skinner, 2002: 16). But as our ideological sensitivities shift, we can now begin rereading them with changed prejudice, if not less prejudice. And the same goes for how we can now reread other marginalized, nineteenth-century English liberals like Spencer. As the shadow of European totalitarianism wanes, the lens through which we do intellectual history changes and we can more easily read our Spencer as he intended to be read, namely as a utilitarian who wanted to be a liberal just as much.
Like J. S. Mill, Spencer struggled to make utilitarianism authentically liberal by infusing it with a demanding principle of liberty and robust moral rights. He was convinced, like Mill, that utilitarianism could accommodate rights with independent moral force and yet remain genuinely consequentialist. Subtly construed, utilitarianism can effectively mimick the very best deontological liberalism.