Herbert Spencer’s Social Evolution: A Resource for Current Moral Philosophy

By Mark Francis.

Published by The Social Sciences Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Herbert Spencer's sociology can be used to assist moral philosophers in constructing more plausible accounts of values. Instead of reducing the number of values to that which is generic and constant over human history, Spencerian evolutionary theory is sympathetic to the notion that some of these are specifically modern, and not derivatives from those public values which were found in ancient accounts of the republic. In Spencer's eyes, ethics was no longer a response to demands for social and political cohesion.

The argument demonstrates that Spencer, unlike August Comte, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, was not a positivist. In addition, he was not concerned to discover scientifically objective laws of morality. The article shows that Spencer's theory of social evolution did not depend upon subjecting the evolutionary outcomes of humanity to the behavioural instincts or Darwinian strategies that he believed were only formative when human beings were living in early or 'pre-social' groups.

This article distinguishes between Spencer and those 'classical' sociologists who reduced ethics to a set of rules that supported the public good. Contrary to this, Spencer's ethics favoured privacy, increased individual choice and the avoidance of cruelty. The article contrasts the ideas of some current moral philosophers, such as Alan Gibbard and Martha Nussbaum, in order to explain that they resemble objective 'classical' sociologists in preferring antique values over modern ones. It is suggested that moral philosophy would be more valuable if it adopted, and extended, some of the modern norms contain in Spencierian social evolution.

Keywords: Spencer, Herbert, Moral Philosophy, Ethics, Social Evolution, Nussbaum, Martha

The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Volume 2, Issue 5, pp.113-122. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 546.920KB).

Prof. Mark Francis

Professor, School of Political Science and Communication, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

In addition my work as a political theorist I publish in politcal philosophy and in the history of ideas. My chief publications are Governors and Settlers, Images of Authority in British Colonies, 1820-1860 (Cambridge Commonwealth Series,1992); A History of English Politcal Thought in the 19th Century (with John Morrow),1994; and Herbert Spencer, The Invention of Modern Life,2007. This work on Spencer is the first intellectual biography of him in over thirty years, and covers his biological wriitngs, psychology, sociology, and politics. It presents the English founder of social science as an interdiciplinary figure who refused to abandon normative values. I have held the chair in Political Science at the University of Canterbury for five years. I have been the Fowler Hamilton Senior Research Fellow at Christ Church, Oxford and the Leger Fellow in Canada.


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