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Getting Spencer straight

April 4th, 2008 · No Comments

Herbert Spencer Anti-Defamation League (Part 423 of ???)

First, Spencer was not a “Social Darwinist.” He was not, in fact, a Darwinist at all; he published his most famous work on evolution and society, Social Statics, in 1851, eight years before Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. His ideas about evolution, especially as applied to society, were Lamarckian, rather than Darwinian; which is not ultimately that surprising, since he came up with them independently of Darwinian evolutionary theory, and before that even existed in published form.

Second, Dawkins is completely wrong about Spencer’s radical political views, which bear virtually no resemblence to the belligerent Rightism and economic royalism of Thatcher, Bush, Nixon, or Rockefeller. Spencer was in fact a feminist, a labor radical, and a vehement critic of European imperialism (which he described as bearing “a very repulsive likeness to the doings of buccaneers”). Contrary to the most popular, and most wildly inaccurate, caricature of his social views, Spencer did not believe in cutting off charitable relief to, or mutual aid among, the poor, sick, or other folks whom the powers that be might marginalize and dismiss as “unfit,” in the name of “survival of the fittest.” (That is his phrase, but it is being misapplied.) Spencer opposed government welfare programs — because he opposed all forms of government command-and-control — but he believed that voluntary charity and mutual aid were not only a positive moral obligation, but in fact were features of the highest forms of social evolution (Social Statics, pp. 291-2), as the old “militant mode” of hierarchy and command was supplanted by the new “industrial mode” of solidarity and voluntary co-operation. Spencer devoted ten chapters of his late work, Principles of Ethics, to the duty of Positive Beneficence. He advocated the organization of voluntary labor unions as a bulwark against exploitation by capitalist bosses, and favored an economy organized primarily in free worker co-operatives as a replacement for the “slavery” of capitalist wage-labor.. For those — like the cartoon “Social Darwinist” that Spencer is so often portrayed to be — who advocated indifference or harshness towards the poor and blamed poverty on the ignorance, folly, or vices of the poor people themselves, Spencer himself had nothing but contempt

Tags: Evolution

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