Social Darwinism and Social Justice: Herbert Spencer on Our Duties to the Poor


Matt Zwolinski

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Herbert Spencer is commonly regarded as a "social Darwinist," who was, at best, indifferent to the suffering of the poor, and perhaps even positively welcoming of it. This paper re-examines Spencer's thoughts regarding obligations to the poor, and argues that the common interpretation is deeply mistaken. Spencer was not a social Darwinist; he was not opposed to charitable assistance to the poor; and he was not even necessarily opposed to what we would now describe as the idea of social justice.

Spencer's theory of justice was a principled libertarian one. And in many ways, the 20th century criticism of and disdain for Spencer’s thought mirrors the academic reaction to libertarian ideas more generally. Understanding where that criticism succeeds, and where it misses the mark, can thus potentially help us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of libertarianism as a contemporary social philosophy.