In defense of Herbert Spencer.

AuthorHocutt, Max
PositionCONTROVERSY - Essay

In 1978, Liberty Fund published nineteenth-century intellectual giant Herbert Spencer's Principles of Ethics in two volumes, with an introduction by Tibor R. Machan. Spencer's magnificent tome is full of wisdom and will be read with profit for generations. Machan's brief introduction is more questionable. Calling it "Herbert Spencer: A Century Later," Machan begins with some biographical details. Then, instead of proceeding to inform us about Spencer's views and his reasons for holding them, he immediately starts to criticize them. In the course of doing so, he objects to Spencer's rejection of the doctrine of free will, his advocacy of altruism, his endorsement of utilitarianism, and his evolutionary ethics. Machan's objections, however, are wrong or misplaced in all four cases.

Machan was much younger in 1978 and has subsequently written a great deal for publication. Perhaps in his later writings he has renounced some of his criticisms of Spencer, but whether he has done so does not matter here. What Machan published then remains in print now and should not stand unchallenged. Respect for fairness and regard for historical accuracy require a due appreciation of why Spencer held the views that Machan deems wrong-headed. Furthermore, although the issues Machan raises are ancient, they are still very much alive; and the mistakes he makes have been made previously and will be made again, especially if they go uncorrected. Therefore, showing precisely where Machan went wrong will not be an exercise in raking dead coals.

Free Will versus Freedom

Machan's first complaint is that Spencer accepted a "determinism of the sort that excludes the very possibility of genuine human choices" (Machan 1978, 13). In Machan's opinion, Spencer thereby created "a distorted idea of human freedom" that renders meaningless "the ideal of political and economic liberty" to which Spencer also subscribed (17). Except to say that you cannot make free choices if you cannot make choices, Machan does not develop this criticism; he merely asserts it, as if its truth were self-evident. For him, free will is an axiom and essential to liberty, so Spencer is wrong to deny it.

The truth is more complicated. According to the philosophical doctrine that Spencer rejected when he accepted the "law of universal causation," men have free will not merely in the sense that they make choices, as Machan so casually puts it, but also in the more pregnant sense that nothing causes them to make these choices, including in particular their own desires. In other words, free-will choices are made ab initio, without causal antecedents. As Roderick Chisholm, who accepted this idea, used to explain it, what philosophers call freedom of will is the power of a "prime mover unmoved" (1989, 12), a godlike ability to make choices that have no explanations because they have no prior determinants. (l)

This obscure idea was inspired by the ancient Greek poet and philosopher Plato, who defined free choice as the action of a Will guided not by base bodily Desire, but by Reason, a more noble faculty of mind. According to Plato, a man who does something because he wants to do it is a slave to his passions--a metaphor that Plato appears to have taken quite literally, to the eternal detriment of the topic. In a colossal non sequitur, Plato concluded that freedom belongs only to the man who does something for no other reason than that he knows it to be right. In other words, freedom is transcendence of desire for the sake of duty. The Stoics, St. Augustine, and Immanuel Kant--the most influential ancient, medieval, and modern expositors of the doctrine of free will--all followed Plato in holding that being free means doing not what one desires, but what God commands.

Spencer, a scientific man without known religious commitment, wanted to understand why people make the choices they make. In his carefully considered view, the metaphysical idea of a transcendent will was not scientific, but mystical--in other words, unintelligible--and the political idea of freedom as obedience was not sensible, but oxymoronic. Therefore, he rejected both ideas. Spencer, however, would have been astonished to be told that he had thereby denied the reality of the choices that he wanted to explain. He would also have regarded as absurd the proposition that his embrace of scientific determinism undermined the personal freedom he wanted to foster.

Furthermore, he would have been entirely right in these reactions. As the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner used to urge, to define freedom as choice-without-cause is to represent it as a miracle--something that, in the nature of the case, cannot be comprehended. In simple language, it is to proclaim that we can never understand why anybody chooses to do one thing rather than another. Spencer knew that if anything is essential to a scientific mind, it is the presumption that something can be understood by reference to its causes, which we may hope to discover by empirical means. Belief in godlike powers to act in ways that are wholly independent of the natural order is therefore not science; it is mysticism.

It is no answer to say that because human beings are goal-seeking animals, explanations of their behavior have to be teleological rather than mechanistic. The premise is true, but the conclusion posits a false dichotomy. Purposive behavior is not an exception to the law of universal causation; it is a special case of it. As Skinner also showed, "operant [that is, voluntary] behavior" is distinguished from "respondent [that is, reflex] behavior" by being subject to the law of effect--the principle that a form of conduct is conditioned by its consequences. In other words, you are more likely to choose to do again what had the desired result in the past. Knowing this fact enables us to understand why people choose to do what they expect to be pleasurable and to avoid what they expect to be painful. Can anyone really believe that anything is explained by positing a power of choice not covered by this law?

There are, of course, good reasons to doubt the truth of the minute determinism that prevailed in the nineteenth century when Spencer wrote. Since the advent of quantum physics, the development of methods of statistical analysis, and the formulation of sophisticated theories of probability, acceptance of irresolvable indeterminacy, or chance, has become an ineradicable feature of respectable science. This fact has, however, no implications whatsoever for the present issue. It is certainly not a reason to believe in a transcendent will. That sometimes "the atoms swerve," as Epicurus held, does not mean that men are ever "prime movers unmoved." Indeterminacy is not a proof of miracles.

Fortunately, belief in miracles is not essential to personal freedom, which is neither metaphysical nor theological, but social. As Thomas Hobbes made amply clear in the seventeenth century and David Hume reiterated with even greater clarity in the eighteenth, what is needed for liberty is not absence of causation by circumstances, but absence of restraint and coercion by other persons. Consider a common example. Imagine that I give a bandit my money because he is holding a gun to my head. I then have acted under coercion, and what I do is not done of my own free will. (2) Now imagine, by way of comparison, that I eat my breakfast because I am hungry. I do so not as a result of coercion, but of my own free will, without any diminution of personal liberty--a completely different situation.

The two situations are admittedly alike in one respect: In each case a choice is made, and in each case there is a cause for the choice. There is, however, loss of liberty because there is coercion only in the first case, when there is a gun to my head. In the second case, where I eat because I am hungry, I do what I do of my own free will because I act without coercion even though I do so in satisfaction of my desire for food. As Simone de Beauvoir famously remarked in commentary on free-will apostle Jean Paul Sartre, being free does not require that you cease to wish for things. It requires only that you not be compelled by threats to...

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