Herbert Spencer, Animal Justice, and the Irrationality of Morality

As Hume pointed out long ago, moral emotions are not derived by reason. They exist a priori. They belong, not at the end, but at the beginning of reason. They are not derived by reason. Rather, they are reasoned about. Given the variations in the innate wellsprings of morality among individuals, huge variations in culture and experience, and the imperfections of human reason, the result has been the vast kaleidoscope of human moralities we see today, with all their remarkable similarities and differences.

Most of us understand the concept Good, and most of us also understand the concept Evil. Good and Evil are subjective entities in the minds of individuals, not fundamentally different from any of our other appetites and whims. However, unlike other whims, such as hunger or sexual desire, it is our nature to perceive them as things, existing independently of our subjective minds. We don’t imagine that, if we are hungry, everyone else in the world must be hungry, too. However, we do imagine that if we perceive something as Good, it must be Good for everyone else as well. That’s where reason comes in. We use it in myriad variations to prop up the delusion that our Good possesses independent legitimacy, and therefore applies to everyone. Familiar variations are the God prop, the “Brave New World of the Future” prop, and the “human flourishing” prop. We commonly find even the most brilliant intellectuals among us attempting to hop over the is/ought divide in this way, differing from the rest of us only in the sophistication of their mirages.

Consider, for example, the case of Herbert Spencer. According to his Wiki entry, he was “the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century”. He “developed an all-embracing conception of evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies. He was ‘an enthusiastic exponent of evolution’ and even ‘wrote about evolution before Darwin did.’” Unfortunately, there was a problem with his version of the theory. He could never come up with a coherent explanation of what made evolution work. His attempts were usually based on Lamarckian notions of use-inheritance, but he was no more successful than Lamarck in coming up with an actual mechanism for use-inheritance – something that would actually drive the process. When Darwin came up with the actual mechanism, natural selection, Spencer grasped the concept immediately. It certainly influenced his later work, but could not destroy his faith in evolution as a “theory of everything.” For him, evolution was the mystical wellspring of “progress” in all things. Morality and ethics were no exception.

It’s a testimony to the power of the delusion that the truth was actually staring Spencer in the face. Consider, for example, his comments on what he referred to as “animal ethics.” Like Darwin, Spencer was well aware of the analogs to human moral behavior in animals. He wrote about them in the first two chapters of his Justice, published in 1891, long before such ideas were dropped down the memory hole by the Blank Slaters, and more than a century before they were finally disinterred by the animal behaviorists of our own day. Pick out a paragraph here and a phrase there, and Spencer comes across as a perfectly orthodox Darwinian. For example,

 Speaking generally, we may say that gregariousness and cooperation more or less active, establish themselves in a species only because they are profitable to it since otherwise survival of the fittest must prevent establishment of them.

For the association to be profitable the acts must be restrained to such extent as to leave a balance of advantage. Survival of the fittest will else exterminate that variety of the species in which association begins.

Thus then it is clear that acts which are conducive to preservation of offspring or of the individual we consider as good relatively to the species and conversely.

In the third chapter of his book, Spencer makes the obvious connection between sub-human and human morality, pointing out that they form a “continuous whole.”

The contents of the last chapter foreshadow the contents of this. As from the evolution point of view human life must be regarded as a further development of sub-human life it follows that from this same point of view human justice must be a further development of sub-human justice. For convenience the two are here separately treated but they are essentially of the same nature and form parts of a continuous whole.

In a word, Spencer seems to realize that morality is an artifact of evolution by natural selection, that it exists because it enhanced the probability that individuals and their offspring would survive, and that its innate origins manifest themselves in sub-human species as well as human beings. In other words, he seems to have identified just those aspects of morality that establish its subjective nature and the absurdity of the notion that it can somehow transcend the minds of one individual acquire independent legitimacy or normative power over other individuals. The truth seems to be staring him in the face, and yet, in the end, he evades it. His illusion that his version of human progress, formulated long before Darwin, really is the Good-in-itself, blinds him to the implications of what he has just written. Before long we find him hopelessly enmeshed in the naturalistic fallacy, busily converting “is” into “ought.” First, we find passages like the following that not only have a suspicious affinity with Spencer’s libertarian ideology, but reveal his continued, post-Darwin faith in Lamarckism:

The necessity for observance of the condition that each member of the group, while carrying on self-sustentation and sustentation of offspring, shall not seriously impede the like pursuits of others makes itself so felt where association is established as to mould the species to it. The mischiefs from time to time experienced when the limits are transgressed continually discipline all in such ways as to produce regard for the limits so that such regard becomes in course of time a natural trait of the species.

A little later, the crossing of the is/ought Rubicon is made quite explicit:

To those who take a pessimist view of animal life in general contemplation of these principles can of course yield only dissatisfaction. But to those who take an optimist view or a meliorist view of life in general, and who accept the postulate of hedonism, contemplation of these principles must yield greater or less satisfaction and fulfilment of them must be ethically approved. Otherwise considered these principles are according to the current belief expressions of the Divine will or else according to the agnostic belief indicate the mode in which works the Unknowable Power throughout the universe, and in either case they have the warrant hence derived.

It’s not that Spencer was a stupid man. In fact, he was brilliant. Among other things, he analyzed the flaws in socialist theory and predicted the outcome of the Communist experiment with amazing prescience long before it was actually tried. Rather, Spencer didn’t see the truth that was staring him in the face because he was human. Like all humans, he suffered from the delusion that his version of the Good must surely be the “real” Good, and rationalized that conclusion. It continues to be similarly rationalized in our own day by our own public intellectuals, in spite of a century and more of great advances in evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and understanding of the innate wellsprings of both human and non-human behavior.

I suppose there’s some solace in the fact that, as Jonathan Haidt put it, the emotional dog continues to wag its rational tail, and not vice versa. It certainly lays to rest fears that some fragile thread of religion or philosophy is all that suspends us over the abyss of moral relativism. We will not become moral relativists because it is not our nature to be moral relativists, even if legions of philosophers declare that we are being unreasonable. On the other hand, there are always drawbacks to not recognizing the truth. We experienced two of those drawbacks in the 20th century in the form of the highly moralistic Nazi and Communist ideologies. Perhaps it would be well for us to recognize the obvious before the next messiah turns up on the scene.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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