- Equal Freedom and Utility: Herbert Spencer’s Liberal Utilitarianısm by David Weinstein
Herbert Spencer, though influential and widely read in the nineteenth century, has been largely neglected by contemporary philosophers. David Weinstein argues that this neglect is unjustified, and that Spencer’s moral and political thought deserves the same attention that has been afforded to Spencer’s contemporary John Stuart Mill. The comparison with Mill is particularly important for Weinstein. Indeed, he claims that, like Mill, Spencer was a liberal utilitarian who attempted to preserve a place for strong moral rights within a broadly utilitarian framework.
A large part of Weinstein’s study is devoted to delineating the precise nature of Spencer’s utilitarianism. Weinstein argues that Spencer is both more consistently utilitarian and more systematic than has often been alleged. In the first two chapters he discusses Spencer’s utilitarianism in relation to his metaphysical principles and his account of moral psychology. Weinstein convincingly demonstrates that Spencer’s liberal utilitarianism follows from his views on social evolution. Spencer viewed evolutionary processes as leading to increasing differentiation among phenomena, which implied for Spencer a trend towards greater individuation of persons as societies evolve. Evolutionary principles also led Spencer to view happiness as largely dependent upon the exercise of faculties. Together, these views lend support to what Weinstein sees as the centerpiece of Spencer’s liberal utilitarianism, his principle of equal freedom, or the claim that “each shall have as much liberty to pursue his ends as consists with maintaining like liberties to pursue their ends by others” (38). The increasing individuation of individuals coupled with the dependence of happiness upon the free exercise of our faculties guaranteed for Spencer that the greatest happiness will be generated through the adoption of the principle of equal freedom.
Weinstein’s central argument is that Spencer’s moral philosophy offers a distinctive version of indirect utilitarianism. In chapters 3 through 5 he outlines the main contours of Spencer’s liberal utilitarianism and its relevance to contemporary discussions, maintaining that Spencer accepted the utilitarian principle as the ultimate criterion of actions. However, much like Mill, and in reaction to Bentham, he argued that any direct pursuit of the greatest happiness is self-defeating. Spencer’s indirect utilitarianism sought to promote the conditions upon which happiness is founded through the principle of equal freedom. Moral rights were for him merely corollaries of the principle that flesh out its empty formalism, providing the basis for deliberation. Concrete moral rights such as property rights, contract rights, and exchange rights are therefore the basis for our primary obligations and yet find their ultimate justification in the principle of utility.
Spencer’s two-tiered account of our moral obligations is thus remarkably similar to Mill’s account of moral rights in Chapter 5 of Utilitarianism. The difference between them concerns the stringency of moral rights. While Mill saw moral rights as important, but ultimately defeasible, Spencer viewed them as indefeasible. While Mill’s position seems more plausible from the utilitarian perspective, Weinstein shows that Spencer’s stronger position must be judged in terms of his beliefs about the exercise of human [End Page 685] faculties. Weinstein correctly shows that if Spencer is wrong, it is not because, as critics have charged, his position is logically inconsistent, but because he held mistaken views about human nature and society.
While the heart of Equal Freedom and Utility concerns the relation between utility and moral rights in Spencer’s work, the final two chapters are devoted to metaethics and applied ethics respectively. Weinstein marshals strong textual support to show that Spencer never simply defined the good as happiness and that G. E. Moore’s use of Spencer in Principia Ethica as an example of someone who committed a glaring version of the naturalistic fallacy was not justified. Spencer simply avoided prolonged treatments of such metaethical concerns. In the last chapter Weinstein argues that Spencer’s evolving views on land nationalization reveals both the general nature of Spencer’s derivation of moral rights from the principle...