Ward was born in Joliet, Illinois.
By the early 1880s the new field of sociology had become dominated by ideologues of the left and right, both determined to claim "the science of society" as their own. The champion of the conservatives and businessmen was Herbert Spencer; he was opposed on the left by Karl Marx. Although Spencer and Marx disagreed about many things they were similar in that their systems were static: they both claimed to have devined the immutable stages of development that a society went through and they both taught that mankind was essentially helpless before the force of evolution.
With the publication of Dynamic Sociology in 1883, Lester Ward hoped to restore the central importance of experimentation and the scientific method to the field of sociology. For Ward science wasn't cold or impersonal, it was human centered and results oriented. As he put it in the Preface to Dynamic Sociology: "The real object of science is to benefit man. A science which fails to do this, however agreeable its study, is lifeless. Sociology, which of all sciences should benefit man most, is in danger of falling into the class of polite amusements, or dead sciences. It is the object of this work to point out a method by which the breath of life may be breathed into its nostrils."
Ward theorized that poverty could be minimized or eliminated by the systematic intervention of society. Mankind wasn't helpless before the impersonal force of nature and evolution – through the power of Mind, man could take control of the situation and direct the evolution of human society. This theory is known as telesis. Also see: meliorism, sociocracy and public sociology. A sociology which intelligently and scientifically directed the social and economic development of society should institute a universal and comprehensive system of education, regulate competition, connect the people together on the basis of equal opportunities and cooperation, and promote the happiness and the freedom of everyone.
Ward was a strong advocate for equal rights for women and even theorized that women were naturally superior to men, much to the scorn of mainstream sociologists. In this regard, Ward presaged the rise of feminism, and especially the difference feminism of writer's such as Harvard's Carol Gilligan, who have developed the claims of female superiority. Ward is now considered a feminist writer by historians such as Ann Taylor Allen.
While Marx and communism/socialism didn't catch on in the United States, Spencer and his theories of social Darwinism (note: Ward disliked the term social Darwinism and objected to Darwin's name being applied to theories advocated by Spencer and his supporters. See Discussion page for a quote by Ward on this issue.) became famous: he was the leading light for conservatives and the power elite. Ward placed himself in direct opposition to Spencer and Spencer's American disciple, William Graham Sumner, who had become the most well known and widely read American sociologist by single-mindedly promoting the principles of laissez faire and survival of the fittest. To quote the historian Henry Steele Commager: "Ward was the first major scholar to attack this whole system of negativist and absolutist sociology and he remains the ablest.... Before Ward could begin to formulate that science of society which he hoped would inaugurate an era of such progress as the world had not yet seen, he had to destroy the superstitions that still held domain over the mind of his generation. Of these, laissez faire was the most stupefying, and it was on the doctrine of laissez faire that he trained his heaviest guns. The work of demolition performed in Dynamic Sociology, Psychic Factors and Applied Sociology was thorough."
As a political approach, Ward's system became known as social liberalism, as distinguished from the classical liberalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which featured such thinkers as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. While classical liberalism had sought prosperity and progress through laissez faire, Ward's social liberalism sought to enhance social progress through direct government intervention. Ward believed that in large, complex and rapidly growing societies human freedom could only be achieved with the assistance of a strong democratic government acting in the interest of the individual. The characteristic element of Ward's thinking was his faith that government, acting on the empirical and scientifically based findings of the science of sociology, could be harnessed to create a near-utopian social order. In this sense, his views have been labeled by some conservative critics as a sort of "soft Marxism". However any objective review of Ward's work would show that he had little in common with Marx, other than a concern for the dispossessed. Ward views would be more accurately described as pragmatic: he was in favor of what works, what is effective, and he dismissed socialism's claim that the government should own all means of production as untested and unproven.
Ward is often ignored or marginalized when the history of sociology is taught today, but at the turn of the 19th and 20th century he was well known, widely studied and highly respected (as could be seen when he was elected the first president of the American Sociological Association). Ward's thinking had a profound impact on the administrations of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt and the modern Democratic Party. The liberalism of the Democrats today is not that of Smith and Mill, which stressed non-interference from the government in economic issues, but of Ward, which stressed the unique position of government to effect positive change. In this sense, Ward's thinking typified the idealism of American progressivism at the turn of the last century, and its faith in a scientifically managed, interventionist government.
While Roosevelt's experiments in social engineering were popular and effective, the full effect of the forces Ward set in motion came to bear half a century after his death, in the Great Society programs of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Their ultimate outcome was an inefficient, high tax and unpopular "welfare state" created by politicians who, in an desperate attempt to get elected, pandered to every constituency, especially the powerful ones (i.e. business, the military and various social groups). As Commager put it, "...he [Ward] never fully understood the pressures which in the last analysis control policy. The most penetrating of men, he penetrated to possibilities rather than to actualities; the most rational of men, he made too little allowance for irrationality. Like Sumner he was a product of the age of reason, confident that in the end the reason of man would assure his felicity."
Ward realized that the path to human progress was not easy or smooth and he hoped that the science of sociology, a science which was but in its infancy, would have the ability to learn from past mistakes and creatively, dynamicly and energeticly deal with problems as they develop and advise the government authorities as to the proper way forward in an increasingly complex and interdependent world.
Ward died in Washington, D.C..
"Thus far, social progress has in a certain awkward manner taken care of itself, but in the near future it will have to be cared for. To do this, and maintain the dynamic condition against all the hostile forces which thicken with every new advance, is the real problem of sociology considered as an applied science" --Lester Ward
"And now from the point of view of intellectual development it self we find her side by side, and shoulder to shoulder with him furnishing, from the very outset, far back in prehistoric, presocial, and even prehuman times, the necessary complement to his otherwise one-sided, headlong, and wayward career, without which he would soon have warped and distorted the race and rendered it incapable of the very progress which he claims exclusively to inspire. And herefore again, even in the realm of intellect, where he would fain reign supreme, she has proved herself fully his equal and is entitled to her share of whatever credit attaches to human progress hereby achieved." – Lester Ward
"When a well-clothed philosopher on a bitter winter’s night sits in a warm room well lighted for his purpose and writes on paper with pen and ink in the arbitrary characters of a highly developed language the statement that civilisation is the result of natural laws, and that man’s duty is to let nature alone so that untrammeled it may work out a higher civilisation, he simply ignores every circumstance of his existence and deliberately closes his eyes to every fact within the range of his faculties. If man had acted upon his theory there would have been no civilisation, and our philosopher would have remained a troglodyte." – Lester Ward