Chapter 2

Interpreting Godwin

The previous chapter argued that a successful modern anarchist theory will need to unite empirical facts (such as those discussed by Taylor) with a detailed theoretical justification for the basic goals of anarchism. This chapter begins that task by examining the theoretical justification developed by the most philosophically astute of the classical anarchist writers, William Godwin. With a few modifications, Godwin's theory can serve as a basis for a distinctive modern social and political theory.

My first task will be to present a brief outline of the fundamental features of the theory. The remainder of the chapter examines Godwin's central principle of private judgment. I try to explain just what the principle prescribes, and also try to evaluate Godwin's rationale for adopting that principle. I defend the recent interpretation by Mark Philp that the principle is not, as is sometimes thought, grounded in utilitarianism. Rather, it is part and parcel of a view of human flourishing that is probably best described as perfectionist. Finally, I examine Godwin's value theory. Godwin's reputation as a fervent utilitarian is not entirely undeserved, but I demonstrate that his use of utilitarianism and his value theory are more subtle than is generally appreciated.

The fundamentals of Godwin's theory

Godwin's theory covers a great deal of ground, ranging from abstract epistemological and metaphysical concerns to detailed discussion of moral issues of the day such as dueling. Although Godwin is sometimes inconsistent and difficult to interpret, his theory warrants consideration as a unified whole. The central tenets of his ethical and political theory are relatively few:

The last two principles, which are necessary for Godwin's defense of a completely stateless society, are considerably more dubious than the other principles. The thesis which I develop later in my dissertation does not rely on the last two principles, and hence retains a legitimate role for the existence of a state. The first five principles, however, stay with us (though in slightly revised form). This chapter and the next examine Godwin's own statement of these principles.

A fundamental question-perhaps the fundamental question-in any social or political theory is the proper source of social order and stability. If order and peace were the inevitable result of people's "natural," pre-social tendencies and desires, there would be no need for political or social strictures. But this is clearly not the case. Human beings must be educated, socialized, and encouraged in a multitude of ways if they are to avoid conflict and discord. No sensible political thinker, Godwin included, has ever claimed the contrary. Indeed, the main difference between rival traditions of political thought is in their account of the ordering mechanism that is best. Anarchism, despite caricatures of its position, is not the doctrine that no social ordering mechanism is necessary. What, then, is the Godwinian social ordering mechanism, and why is it preferable to others? The following thumbnail sketch will serve as an introduction to the more detailed discussion that follows.

Godwin asserted that human beings are able and morally obliged to govern their behavior on the basis of the dictates of their own reasoned judgment, which he sometimes called 'conscience'. Ultimately, with the removal of the social and political conditions that are currently responsible for ignorance (and hence for irrational behavior), there will be no further need for the intrusive and inherently undesirable influence of law or punishment. Since the state depends on law and punishment for its very existence, its nature is inherently tainted; and since the state would no longer be necessary in a condition of universal enlightenment and rationality, it is ultimately dispensable. It may be helpful to think of the Enquiry as largely concerned with three basic questions related to this thesis:

Godwin's answer to question i is deceptively simple: reason demands solely that one's actions be just.[1] Justice is determined by the criterion of universal benevolence.
...let us next enquire into the degree in which we are obliged to consult the good of others. ...here... it will follow that it is just that I should do all the good in my power. Does a person in distress apply to me for relief? It is my duty to grant it, and I commit a breach of duty in refusing... [T]he same justice which binds me to any individual of my fellow men binds me to the whole.
(Book II, Chapter II; Penguin Enquiry, 174)
I say that this criterion is "deceptively simple" because the details of what Godwin considers the highest good for humanity are far from clear. Although his doctrine of right action seems, prima facie, to be utilitarian, I argue that this appearance is misleading. His value theory is considerably more complex than an initial acquaintance might suggest. And his theory of right action depends crucially upon the free exercise of private judgment. This principle is so central to Godwin's theory that I postpone discussion of it to later in the chapter, in order to do it justice.

Godwin's answer to question ii-his account of how rational self government is possible-covers a great deal of intellectual territory. He attempts to demonstrate:

These topics occupy hundreds of pages of the Enquiry and are largely outside the scope of the present work. My interest is primarily in ethical and political theory, and my conclusions do not depend on resolving these metaphysical questions in detail. Some of them arise in the course of my discussion, but they are not my primary concern.

Lastly, there is question iii: why rational self-government is preferable to other alternatives. Godwin uses his fundamental principles of private judgment and universal benevolence to demonstrate the inherent harmfulness of all forms of coercion, particularly law and punishment. He also considers the effects of many different social institutions upon the development and exercise of private judgment; among the institutions he criticizes are those of monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, political parties, organized religion, private property, and marriage. While many of the arguments on these topics are worth examining, they are inferred from the essential principles mentioned above. This chapter, therefore, concentrates on clarifying those fundamental principles. Chapter 3 examines several of the subsidiary principles.

Private judgment

Even a superficial acquaintance with the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice will suggest the importance of private judgment. It is clearly one of the central principles in the book, and apparently the ultimate justification for anarchism. But the exact role that private judgment plays in the theory is not transparently clear. There has been considerable debate and apparent confusion about its importance. Some commentators assert that it is derived from utilitarian considerations; yet there is considerable textual evidence to the contrary. Also, Godwin frequently speaks of the right to private judgment, while introducing it in a chapter whose main thesis is the non-existence of rights. Finally, private judgment is variously treated as a right, a duty, and an end of intrinsic worth. This section will clear up some of these puzzles.

The clearest statement in the Enquiry of the right to private judgment is found in Book II, Chapter V, "Of Rights." As was just mentioned, the main thesis of this chapter is that there are no rights; or, rather, no active rights.

The real or supposed rights of man are of two kinds, active and passive; the right in certain cases to do as we list; and the right we possess to the forbearance or assistance of other men.
     The first of these a just philosophy will probably induce us universally to explode.
(Book II, Chapter V; Penguin Enquiry, 191)
Although the phrasing of this is a bit unusual ("probably"?), Godwin's intention is clear enough. Active rights do not exist. But just what is an active right?
...By right, as the word is employed in this subject, has always been understood discretion, that is, a full and complete power of either doing a thing or omitting it, without the person's becoming liable to animadversion or censure from another, that is, in other words, without his incurring any degree of turpitude or guilt. Now in this sense I affirm that man has no rights, no discretionary power whatever.
(Book II, Chapter V, 1793. Toronto Enquiry, v. iii, 255)
So active rights are not rights as we usually use the term. They are not political rights to the "forbearance or assistance of other men." Rather, they are a special kind of moral right. An active right is the right to do what one likes irrespective of what duty demands: to "do as we list."

Godwin argues that there are no situations in which it is proper to disregard or ignore the demands of duty.

There is no sphere in which a human being can be supposed to act where one mode of reasoning will not, in every given instance, be more reasonable than any other mode. That mode the being is bound by every principle of justice to pursue. ...There is not one of our avocations or amusements that does not, by its effects, render us more or less fit to contribute our quota to the general utility. If then every one of our actions fall within the province of morals, it follows that we have no rights to the selecting them. No one will maintain that we have a right to trespass upon the dictates of morality.
(Book II, Chapter V; Penguin Enquiry, 192)
Thus there is no situation in which one has an active right. While this doctrine is not as immediately, intuitively obvious as Godwin may have believed, it has had and continues to have many adherents. Indeed, a major topic of contemporary debate is this very doctrine of the ubiquity of morality.[2] Nonetheless, Godwin's approach is a bit unusual. The question of rights is usually understood primarily as a political one, but this passage focuses on an ethical, rather than a political, concern. Although it is easy to see why a ubiquitous morality may conflict with the idea of a moral right, we may wonder how important this observation is. For as rights go, moral rights usually take a back seat to political rights. Most thinkers who accept the notion of a ubiquitous morality believe that human beings have some rights, understood in a political rather than moral sense. Godwin agrees with this view, despite his unusual approach.[3] He accepts the existence of a very small number of passive rights.

As one can see from the above quotations, passive rights are "the right we possess to the forbearance or assistance of other men." In other words, passive rights are social and political rights, rights to the help or non-interference of others. And although Godwin explicitly recognizes that some passive rights do exist, he has a very short list. Although I may be regarded as having a right to life and personal liberty, this is a right only insofar as it affects others' actions toward me. My "right to personal liberty" must never be construed as a moral right, i.e. an excuse to avoid doing my duty.

He has no right to his life when his duty calls him to resign it. Other men are bound... to deprive him of life or liberty, if that should appear in any case to be indispensably necessary to prevent a greater evil.
(Book II, Chapter V; Penguin Enquiry, 197-8)
In addition to this circumscribed right, there is one other passive right: the right to private judgment.
Every man has a certain sphere of discretion which he has a right to expect shall not be infringed by his neighbours. This right flows from the very nature of man.
(Book II, Chapter V; Penguin Enquiry, 198)
This does not seem, on the face of it, so extraordinary; every political and social doctrine (except perhaps Pol Pot's) recognizes some space for individual discretion. But private judgment turns out to be a principle of remarkable breadth, as sweeping as the principle of the ubiquity of duty. The principle of private judgment declares that the responsible moral agent must in all circumstances follow the demands of conscience as made manifest by the exercise of her own rational abilities. Furthermore, the moral agent must give generous latitude to others to follow the demands of their own private judgment, even if she is convinced that they are mistaken.

So although this theory places extraordinary moral demands upon individuals, it does so only in the context of considerable personal discretion to decide what their duty actually is. It is not ordinarily permissible for others to force me to do my duty, even if they are aware that I am shirking it. Saying that this is not ordinarily permissible, though, should prompt us to ask what constitutes extraordinary circumstances. Just how broad should the "sphere of discretion" be? Godwin recognizes the potential for tension between the duty to obey the dictates of private judgment and the normal attitude of respect for another's sphere of discretion. He states that forcibly interfering with another person's decisions is acceptable only in extreme circumstances: "Force may never be resorted to but, in the most extraordinary and imperious emergency." (Loc. cit.)

While this phrase is not as detailed or specific as we might wish, its general intent is clear. An individual's sphere of discretion should be very large, and forcible infringements upon it rare. Although Godwin specifically recommends that we offer advice and (if necessary) censure to our acquaintances, he frowns on the use of force except in highly unusual circumstances. Ordinarily, we should respect each individual's liberty to choose her actions based on her own assessment of her duty.[4]

No man must encroach upon my province, nor I upon his. He may advise me, moderately and without pertinaciousness, but he must not expect to dictate to me. He may censure me freely and without reserve; but he should remember that I am to act by my deliberation and not his. ...I ought to exercise my talents for the benefit of others; but that exercise must be the fruit of my own conviction; no man must attempt to press me into the service.
(Book II, Chapter V; Penguin Enquiry, 198-199)
The grounds for establishing and protecting this extensive sphere of discretion are found throughout the Enquiry.

Two principal reasons are stated just after the first presentation of the right:

First, all men are fallible; no man can be justified in setting up his judgment as a standard for others. We have no infallible judge of controversies; each man in his own apprehension is right in his decisions; and we can find no satisfactory mode of adjusting their jarring pretensions.
(Op. cit., 198)
This argues for a sensible precaution in deciding whether to use coercion against another; after all, my assessment of the situation is unlikely to be privileged over other assessments. Yet this consideration by itself does not seem sufficient to ground as strong a principle as Godwin wishes to assert.

Surely there are some cases (other than the outright emergencies already recognized) in which I have good reason to believe that I am correct and others are mistaken. If these misguided people are incorrigibly intent upon doing some action that will cause harm, it seems that I am prima facie permitted to use coercion, particularly if the consequences of coercion outweigh the harm that is likely to occur if I do nothing. Godwin's second reason addresses this objection:

Secondly, even if we had an infallible criterion, nothing would be gained, unless it were by all men recognized as such. If I were secured against the possibility of mistake, mischief and not good would accrue, from imposing my infallible truths upon my neighbour, and requiring his submission independently of any conviction I could produce in his understanding. Man is a being who can never be an object of just approbation, any further than he is independent. He must consult his own reason, draw his own conclusions and conscientiously conform himself to his ideas of propriety. Without this, he will be neither active, nor considerate, nor resolute, nor generous. (Loc. cit.)
This justification can be interpreted in a variety of ways. On the one hand, our attention is directed (in the final sentence) to the likely consequences of acting on others' deliberations, suggesting a consequentialist interpretation. Interestingly, though, Godwin does not present a detailed consequentialist defense of private judgment, here or elsewhere.

On the other hand, we are also told in absolute terms that man can "never be an object of just approbation, any further than he is independent." This suggests that independent judgment is regarded as inherently good, apart from the consequences that result from independence. As we shall see shortly, I argue that the preponderance of the evidence favors that interpretation.

If my interpretation is correct, the most fruitful interpretation of Godwin will emphasize his place in the intellectual tradition of English Dissent. A few words on the history of that tradition (and of the concept of private judgment) are in order.[5]

Private judgment in Dissenting thought

The British religious and intellectual tradition of Dissent includes as a central principle the sanctity of the individual conscience. In insisting on the supremacy of private judgment, Godwin was not diverging radically from the teachings of his forebears. His grandfather, father, and uncle were all Dissenting ministers, and Godwin himself was educated at the Hoxton Dissenting Academy and served as a minister for five years. Most of his friends during his formative years, including those before and during the composition of the Enquiry, were Dissenters (both actively religious and lapsed). Although it would be incorrect to view Godwin's philosophy as a mere restatement of the doctrines he learned in seminary, Dissenting philosophy clearly provides the basic material for the central elements of Godwin's theory.

Some ideas which provide a model for Godwin's view are present in Puritan arguments as early as the mid-seventeenth century. John Milton, for example, argues that civil authority ought never to legislate in matters of Christian belief or attach civil penalties (such as prison or fines) to divergence in Christian doctrine.[6] His argument is that interpretation of scripture is a matter that ought to be left to the individual conscience.

First, it cannot be denied, being the main foundation of our protestant religion, that we of these ages, have no other divine rule or authoritie from without us, warrantable to one another as a common ground but the holy scripture; and no other within us, but the illumination of the holy spirit so interpreting that scripture as warrantable only to ourselves, and to such whose consciences we can so persuade, can have no other ground in matters of religion but only from the scriptures.
(Milton 1790, 3-4)
Milton asserts that the individual conscience, as guided by the Holy Spirit, is the only reliable guide to scriptural interpretation. We cannot be absolutely certain just which of our own thoughts are guided by the Holy Spirit, and have even less grounds for knowing which of other people's thoughts are so guided. So we ought not to enforce religious beliefs, because the danger of error is too great. Furthermore, even if an established religion happened to be the true religion, establishing civil penalties or rewards for religious belief would interfere with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, substituting earthly motivations for divine ones.

Dissenters were often accused of antinomianism, i.e. the belief that understanding and interpreting moral law is of little importance, since the only way to salvation is through faith.[7] But as the quotation from Milton should make clear, far from being antinomians, Dissenters put such heavy emphasis on individual judgment because of their concern for the correct interpretation of divine commands. They believed that interpretation should be guided for each individual by that individual's direct connection to God, and looked askance at any system that provided motivations for people to make religious interpretations on any basis other than divine guidance.[8]

Milton was very careful to distinguish between the civil and ecclesiastical spheres, remarking at one point "...how absurd they often prove who have not learned to distinguish rightly between civil power and ecclesiastical." (Op. cit., 18) His concern for respecting the private judgment of individuals is restricted to ecclesiastical matters, where Christians are enjoined to rely on the work of the Holy Spirit and abandon other (secular) sources of religious motivation. In all other matters, however, Milton assumes a complete prerogative for the civil authority. But as Dissenting thought developed, writers were less concerned with maintaining that distinction.

Richard Price's influence

Richard Price, the theologian, scientist, and philosopher, is an excellent example of a philosopher who wrote in the Dissenting tradition, and whose arguments show the development of Dissenting thought in the years between Milton and Godwin. Price is perhaps best known today as the object of Edmund Burke's wrath in Reflections on the Revolution in France. He deserves to be better known, however, for his philosophy and for his political writings (most prominently, those in defense of the American Revolution). Although he and Godwin differ on many points, Price's doctrine of self-government had a considerable influence on Godwin; some of Godwin's arguments may be regarded as the logical consequences of Price's thought.[9]

In A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals (Price 1948), Price argues not only that the civil authorities ought not to interfere with the determinations of religious conscience, but that any individual who fails to act as private judgment demands is morally at fault. Price distinguishes first between abstract and practical virtue:

ABSTRACT virtue is, most properly, a quality of the external action or event. It denotes what an action is, considered independently of the sense of the agent; or what, in itself and absolutely, it is right such an agent, in such circumstances, should do, and what, if he judged truly, he would judge he ought to do. -PRACTICAL virtue, on the contrary, has a necessary relation to, and dependence upon, the opinion of the agent concerning his actions. It signifies what he ought to do, upon supposition of his having such and such sentiments. (177)
Price then argues that since we cannot reliably expect people to be acquainted with the abstract (all-things-considered) virtue of an action, one cannot be criticized for performing the duty which can be deduced from available information. Indeed, acting on one's best judgment, even though one will unavoidably be working with limited information, is not only acceptable but morally required. Acting upon someone else's judgment is morally blameworthy.
I have applied the epithets real and absolute to the first kind of virtue, for an obvious reason; but care should be taken not to imagine, that the latter is not also, in a different sense and view, real virtue. It is truly and absolutely right, that a being should do what the reason of his mind, though perhaps unhappily misinformed, requires of him; or what, according to his best judgment, he is persuaded to be the will of God. If he neglects this, he becomes necessarily and justly the object of his own dislike, and forfeits all pretensions to integrity. (180)
Price is not merely saying that it is acceptable to act upon one's own best judgment even when this diverges from one's actual (abstract) duty. He goes so far as to say that there is a sense in which the action dictated by one's best judgment is one's duty: "...there is a sense in which it may be said, that what any being, in the sincerity of his heart, thinks he ought to do, he indeed ought to do, and would be justly blameable if he omitted to do, though contradictory to what, in the former sense, is his duty." (178)

Nor does Price limit this doctrine to matters of religion. He broadens the proper domain of private judgment beyond matters of religious conscience, to all matters of morality. And this doctrine is not one of freedom for its own sake, but freedom for the purpose of determining and carrying out one's duty. The similarity to Godwin's position is clear.

Price also places an important qualifier on the duty of obeying private judgment. This duty is not merely to undertake what one sincerely believes to be the best course of action. It also requires that this sincere belief be one based on thorough and careful research of the situation.

Our rule is to follow our consciences steadily and faithfully, after we have taken care to inform them in the best manner we can... (Price 1948, 179)
Private judgment is thus not merely a matter of obedience to one's conscience; it must be obedience to one's informed conscience. It is thus not surprising that Price states that one of the three requisites of practical morality is intelligence.[10] Godwin makes a similar point:
If there be any truth more unquestionable than the rest, it is that every man is bound to the exertion of his faculties in the discovery of right, and to the carrying into effect all the right with which he is acquainted.
(Book II, Chapter VI; Penguin Enquiry, 207)
This stress on full information will be important for my interpretation of private judgment as a kind of autonomy, in chapter 3.

Although Price shared much of the same background, his philosophy is different from Godwin's in a number of ways. One obvious difference is Price's value theory. Unlike Godwin, Price is in no sense a utilitarian. His discussion of value theory in the Review is explicitly opposed to utilitarianism, in particular the views of Hutcheson.[11] Instead, he enumerates six distinct categories or "heads" of virtue, of which beneficence is only one: duty to God, self-love, beneficence to others, gratitude, veracity, and justice. Although this theory is apparently pluralist, Price also claims that these heads of virtue

all run up to one general idea, and should be considered as only different modifications and views of one original, all-governing law... Virtue thus considered, is necessarily one thing. No part of it can be separated from another.
(Price 1948, 165)
He accounts for cases of apparent contradiction between the demands of different categories of virtue by asserting that they result from ignorance and error: "...the practical errors of men have arisen plainly from their speculative errors; from their mistaking facts, or not seeing the whole of a case..." (Op. cit., 171) This doctrine once again underscores the importance of full information for real virtue.

Price's opposition to utilitarianism may be one reason why many of his social and political conclusions were less radical than Godwin's. Perhaps the most important difference (for our present purposes) is that Price did not question state authority. Although it is a challenge to find in the Review a clear justification for the state that is compatible with his principle of private judgment, Price clearly retained a role for the state.[12] His political work, which includes noteworthy arguments in favor of American independence, presumes a right to self-government for a whole people, not just for individuals. In that sense, then, the position developed in this dissertation is closer to Price's than to Godwin's, as this theory also argues that the state will remain necessary.

Still, Godwin's contribution remains significant. Godwin's arguments regarding local autonomy and the undesirability of law and punishment are original, and they play an important role in this theory. Indeed, a great deal of Godwin's originality consisted in taking principles familiar to anyone acquainted with Dissenting thought and applying them not only to moral decisions, but to political ones as well-and explicitly deducing the radical consequences which were to cause so much acclaim and scandal during his life.

Some puzzles

The position I have outlined raises a number of important questions.

i. How ought one to judge someone's moral worth: by the achievement of their actual duty (Price's "abstract virtue"), or by their obedience to conscience, however disastrous the results? (This problem arises for both Price and Godwin.)[13]

ii. Which actions count as following one's private judgment? Is it not possible to make a justifiable, conscientious decision to follow someone else's directions?

iii. Is the principle of private judgment meant to be justified on utilitarian grounds?

iv. Regardless of the answer to iii, what is Godwin's theory of moral duty? What determines one's actual (as opposed to perceived) duty?

This section discusses questions i and ii. The next section investigates the ultimate justification of private judgment; and the remainder of the paper discusses Godwin's value theory and theory of right action.

i. The distinction between abstract and practical virtue raises the question of how to assess the moral worth of a person. On the one hand, if we regard following the dictates of one's private judgment as the primary moral duty, how can we criticize someone for doing so, even if their actions result in catastrophe? Since no one can be expected to base her actions on knowledge she does not have, apparently acting conscientiously should guarantee one's moral rectitude, regardless of whether one's actions are ultimately coincident with abstract virtue. (This, as noted above, is Price's position.)[14] On the other hand, the ultimate goal of morality would appear to be performance of one's actual duty; and it is hard to understand why this should have no role in assessing someone's moral worth. Even worse is the logical possibility of a society entirely composed of morally virtuous individuals, all instructed by conscience to perform socially injurious or destructive acts.

This worry gives rise to question ii: when and whether it might be appropriate to act upon the dictates of someone else's judgment. For if my goal is to achieve my actual duty, but I am aware that someone else has a better idea of what that actual duty is, I face a quandary. My own judgment, even after I have sought out as much information as possible, may simply not be as accurate as another's. Am I still forbidden conscientiously to decide to act upon that person's judgment? If so, how ought I to regard that person's advice?

Godwin's attempted resolution of these difficulties is equivocal, changing significantly from the first to the third edition. One mark of this equivocal approach is that he tries to keep his eggs in as many baskets as possible. With regard to the problem of when it is appropriate to rely upon someone else's judgment, he reluctantly admits some role for what I will call rational authority:

Reverence to our superiors in wisdom is to be admitted, but with considerable limitations. I am bound, as has already appeared, to repose certain functions, such as that of building my house, or educating my child, in the hands of him by whom those functions will most properly be discharged. It may be right, that I should act under the person to whom I have thus given my suffrage, in cases where I have reason to be persuaded of his skill, and cannot be expected to acquire the necessary skill myself.
(Book III, Chapter VI; Penguin Enquiry, 245)
Lest we think, however, that Godwin is tempted to extend this reasoning to grant a general authority to the pronouncements of an individual or institution, he immediately admonishes us that
...in those cases of general justice which are equally within the province of every human understanding, I am a deserter from the requisitions of duty if I do not assiduously exert my faculties, or if I be found to act contrary to the conclusions they would dictate, from deference to the opinions of another. (Loc. cit.)
In chapter 5, I use the notion of rational authority to ground a theoretical justification for limited state authority. I argue that obeying state authority, even when it differs from one's private judgment, is compatible with the basic principles of Godwin's theory.

Godwin's own answer to these worries relies upon a number of theses which he works out at great length. Most of the suppositions he relies upon to solve these puzzles are not very convincing. Nevertheless, a brief discussion may be helpful in illuminating how his system works as a whole.

The two final theses which I mentioned on the first two pages of this chapter, the omnipotence of truth and the perfectibility of humanity, are the most important in the solution of these puzzles. A central tenet of Dissent was that truth, when adequately communicated, compels agreement. Milton's pamphlet argued that

seducement [the teaching of false religious doctrine] is to be hindered by fit and proper means ordained in church discipline; by instant and powerful demonstration to the contrary; by opposing truth to error, no unequal match; truth the strong, to error the weak, though shy and shifting. Force is not honest confutation; but uneffectual, and, for the most part, unsuccessful, ofttimes fatal to them who use it: sound doctrine diligently and duly taught, is of herself both sufficient, and of herself (if some secret judgment of God hinder not) always prevalent against seducers. (Milton, Op. cit., 30. Emphasis added.)
Godwin's treatment of this subject is more philosophically detailed, but still in the same vein.
Sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be victorious over error... [this] is so evident that it needs only be stated in order to the being universally admitted. Is there anyone who can imagine that, when sound argument and sophistry are fairly brought into comparison, the victory can be doubtful? ...We suppose truth not merely to be exhibited, but adequately communicated; that is, in other words, distinctly apprehended by the person to whom it is addressed.
(Book I, Chapter V: Penguin Enquiry, 140)
Book I, Chapter V is dedicated to asserting that truth can be adequately communicated, and that human beings are capable of understanding truth when it is adequately communicated.
...opportunity for the communication must necessarily be supposed. The incapacity of human intellect at present requires that this opportunity should be of long duration or repeated recurrence. We do not always know how to communicate all the evidence we are capable of communicating in a single conversation, and much less in a single instant. But, if the communicator be sufficiently master of his subject, and if the truth be altogether on his side, he must ultimately succeed in his undertaking.
(Book I, Chapter V: Penguin Enquiry, 141)
When coupled with Godwin's doctrine of the indefinite improvability of humanity, this doctrine reveals Godwin's solution to problems i and ii. Briefly, it is that eventually mankind will achieve a level of education and enlightenment so elevated and widespread that there will no longer be any need for social interference with individual conscience. Each person will be capable of self-government on the basis of reason; and knowledge and wisdom will be so well developed that perceived duty and actual duty will coincide. This eventual (and inevitable) development will resolve questions i and ii by dissolving them: for there will be no need to worry about divergences between perception of duty and actual duty; nor any need to disregard one's own judgment in favor of that of someone more knowledgeable.

Unfortunately, the doctrines of truth's omnipotence and humanity's perfectibility are largely unsupported by substantive argument. It should be clear why modern philosophers have little enthusiasm for these features of Godwin's theory.

Godwin's proof that human beings are essentially rational is similarly uninspiring. Indeed, it verges on the alarming.

Man is a rational being. If there be any man who is incapable of making inferences for himself, or of understanding, when stated in the most explicit terms, the inferences of another, him we consider as an abortive production, and not in strictness belonging to the human species. It is absurd therefore to say that sound reasoning and truth cannot be communicated by one many to another.
(Loc. cit.)
In practice, this attitude would seem to justify very unsavory policies; for if our political opponents simply cannot be made to see reason, it must follow that our political opponents are not human beings. I do not, of course, wish to imply that Godwin would personally have favored any such practical doctrine.[15] I merely wish to suggest that this line of reasoning is not well suited for helping us deal with situations where rational human beings (so defined by less stringent standards of rationality) continue to disagree about matters even after both sides have presented their most convincing arguments.

Luckily, much of Godwin's system avoids excessive emphasis on the principle just mentioned. Godwin and his Dissenting friends, having suffered through many years of official repression and maltreatment, were well aware that truth, however well communicated and however rational one's interlocutor, does not always triumph -- at least not always in the short run. The system described in the Enquiry is equipped to deal with failure to understand the truth. Its concern for the ameliorative influence of praise and censure by one's neighbors reflects the need for social structures to reinforce desirable behavior. And, as previously mentioned, it explicitly allows for emergency measures to prevent catastrophic errors.[16]

Furthermore, Godwin had no intention of prescribing an immediate overthrow of civil authority. The Enquiry is notorious for the contrast between the radicalism of its utopian ideal and the caution of its practical plan. The omnipotence of truth is manifest only in the limiting case in which all human beings have been properly educated and are no longer subject to the corrupting influence of the institutions that are currently responsible for their general condition of error and discord.

So although Godwin may have resolved questions i and ii to his satisfaction, some version of them remains for us. As I mention above, I devote most of chapter 5 to resolving question ii. Question i has less inherent interest for me; I suspect that it cannot be resolved other than pragmatically: by praising erring people's conscientiousness while at the same time trying to show them the errors of their ways.

Those matters aside, we should address questions iii and iv from earlier. We may still wonder whether private judgment can really serve the purpose Godwin puts it to, and how private judgment is supposed to be justified. To answer these questions, we will need to examine the often-repeated interpretation of Godwin as a paradigmatically utilitarian thinker.

As I noted earlier, private judgment functions both as a (passive) right and as a duty. Its status as a right is grounded in its role in duty.[17] This conception differs from much present-day rights-based discourse on liberty. Modern libertarians (and some classical liberals) typically regard fundamental liberties as absolute, grounded in the nature of humanity, and never legitimately violable. These liberties are no less absolute even if their sole function for some people is to protect the pursuit of self-destructive or pointless ends. Much libertarian discussion ignores worries about the moral worth of actions that might be freely pursued, as if the only relevant matter is that such actions are protected by the inherent liberties.

Godwin would probably agree that the right to private judgment is inviolable; but the modern libertarian view lacks the justification for private judgment that Godwin uses. According to the view so far presented, the rationale for such a strong right to private judgment is so that it may be used in the service of duty. And, as we have seen, Godwin does not regard a freely chosen action as one that ought to be protected from moral censure. On the contrary, recognizing that someone's actions are undertaken according to private judgment is simply the beginning, opening up opportunities for active debate and inquiry about whether these actions actually constitute that person's duty.

This view is not without appeal. But as we saw with regard to Wolff in chapter 1, it is not sufficient to ground an anarchist political philosophy. For if private judgment is only a duty, then it can be followed even under the most tyrannical regimes. It is not a moral rule whose extension to political associations is obvious or trivial. My perceived duty to X does not necessarily establish a corresponding duty on the government's part to allow me to X. If private judgment is to play the pivotal role Godwin seems to intend for it, then it must be more than a duty.

Godwin is often depicted as a paradigmatically utilitarian thinker. But as I shall show, utilitarian arguments do not do a very good job of explaining his emphasis on private judgment. I argue that Godwin does not intend to defend private judgment in this way. Furthermore, his value theory does not define duty hedonistically, despite appearances to the contrary. His position is more fruitfully interpreted as a variety of perfectionism. This argument is developed convincingly and at length by Mark Philp (Philp 1986), and my presentation is deeply indebted to his account. The perfectionist account helps answer the question of how private judgment is to be justified, and explains how it grounds Godwin's anarchism.

Godwin's value theory

One of the few distinct impressions philosophers have of Godwin, if indeed they have any at all, is of an uncompromising utilitarian. This is probably due most to his striking and memorable example of the demands of duty, the "famous fire cause":[18]

...the illustrious archbishop of Cambray was of more worth than his valet, and there are few of us that would hesitate to pronounce, if his palace were in flames, and the life of only one of them could be preserved, which of the two ought to be preserved. ...Suppose I had been myself the valet; I ought to have chosen to die, rather than Fenelon should have died. The life of Fenelon was really preferable to that of the valet. But understanding is the faculty that perceives the truth of this and similar propositions; and justice is the principle that regulates my conduct accordingly. It would have been just in the valet to have preferred the archbishop to himself. To have done otherwise would have been a breach of justice.
(Book II, Chapter II; Penguin Enquiry, 169-70)
It is not utterly implausible for Godwin to call upon a valet to sacrifice himself for his employer; after all, this might be defensible in a variety of value systems -- for example, an honor system that demands unbending personal loyalty, or one that exalts selfless valor. But Godwin presses his example to unheard-of extremes, in calling for the moral agent to sacrifice his mother, sister, father, or brother (depending on the edition) to the flames in order that Fenelon may live to write Telemachus.
...What magic is there in the pronoun 'my', that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth? My brother or my father may be a fool or a profligate, malicious, lying or dishonest. If they be, of what consequence is it that they are mine? (Op. cit., 170)
This passage, and others, seem to indicate an astonishingly uncompromising utilitarianism, a theory that concedes nothing to the ordinary teachings of received moral doctrine.

Sidgwick and later utilitarians took seriously the job of reconciling utilitarianism with common sense morality, and recommended far-reaching moral reform only in the cases where the two are indisputably at odds. Godwin, however, regards common sense morality as of little consequence, as this example demonstrates. This is even more marked when we consider the social circumstances of the late eighteenth century in which Godwin wrote.

So long as two human beings are forbidden, by positive institution, to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice will be alive and vigorous. So long as I seek, by despotic and artificial means, to maintain my possession of a woman, I am guilty of the most odious selfishness. ...
The abolition of the present system of marriage appears to involve no evils... It is a question of some moment whether the intercourse of the sexes, in a reasonable state of society, would be promiscuous, or whether each man would select for himself a partner to whom he will adhere as long as that adherence shall continue to be the choice of both parties. Probability seems to be greatly in favour of the latter.
(Book VIII, Chapter VIII Appendix; Penguin Enquiry, 762-3)
In the eighteenth century, such remarks caused outrage and scandal.[19] If Godwin was a utilitarian, he would seem to have been a particularly enthusiastic utilitarian to have been so willing to challenge the common sense of a much more conservative society.[20],[21]

Is private judgment grounded in utilitarianism?

Monro, Locke, Ritter, Marshall, Clark, and Schneewind all assert that utilitarianism is the basis of the Enquiry's doctrine.[22] Yet most of these writers also concede that Godwin is far from consistent in his support for utilitarianism. The most obvious indication of this is that utilitarianism simply does not provide sufficient support for the full extent of his doctrine of private judgment.

While some of the quotations I have presented earlier give a flavor of the importance of private judgment, only a perusal of the entire Enquiry can confirm the extent of the role it plays in virtually every substantive moral and political conclusion that Godwin reaches.

The universal exercise of private judgment is a doctrine so unspeakably beautiful that the true politician will certainly feel infinite reluctance in admitting the idea of interfering with it.
(Book II, Chapter VI; Penguin Enquiry, 208)
Nor can brief quotations demonstrate how few exceptions Godwin brooks for private judgment.

But if utilitarianism is the sole criterion of justice, then we could reasonably expect Godwin to treat private judgment as a consequence of utilitarian reasoning, and subsidiary to the utilitarian doctrine. This would imply that private judgment be supported when it maximizes utility, and only then. If this were Godwin's line of argument, we would expect him to present a detailed demonstration of the optimific consequences of private judgment. He does not. Nor does he make any satisfactory attempt to deal with the many circumstances in which private judgment simply is not utility-maximizing.

These apparent missteps could perhaps be reconciled with utilitarian doctrine if Godwin is employing an doctrine of indirect utilitarianism. This argument would, roughly, claim that acceptance of a general rule supporting the individual's conscientious sphere of discretion is productive of more utility than acceptance of a general rule recommending that people pursue utility-maximization. If this claim were true, then it would be best to protect private judgment even in individual cases where its use is non-maximizing, in order to uphold the general rule in favor of private judgment. This interpretation would allow us to retain a view of Godwin as essentially a utilitarian, though at best a half-hearted one with no appetite for the extended consequentialist analyses that Bentham engaged in.

Unfortunately for this line of argument, there is blessed little textual basis for it. Although the notion of indirect results had some currency in political economy by Godwin's time, this sort of reasoning had not been applied to utilitarianism.[23] Even if it had, there is no textual basis for ascribing it to Godwin. It simply is nowhere to be found in the Enquiry.

Unless we are willing to impose indirect utilitarianism where none is forthcoming, it seems we must regard Godwin's treatment of private judgment as at odds with his purported utilitarianism: or, more accurately, blatantly inconsistent with it. This apparent inconsistency is not comparable to the occasions in the Enquiry when Godwin is blindly utopian or blandly unconvincing. A rhetorical failure of this magnitude would cast into doubt the entire body of his most important work. This is particularly true if we consider the two earlier editions of the Enquiry, which many of his commentators do not discuss or quote. These earlier editions contain even less consequentialist argument than the third edition.

I do not mean to rule out of hand the suggestion that Godwin was deeply confused. But I believe that it is factually mistaken as well as suspiciously uncharitable. A better and more charitable interpretation would represent the Enquiry as a work whose main organizing principle is the principle of private judgment. The exercise of private judgment, the development of the skill of judging wisely, and the process of learning and informing one's conscience are all regarded as goods in themselves.

Price's view of the value of private judgment hints that Godwin might have reasons other than utilitarian ones for making the principle so central. After all, as I mentioned earlier, Price is quite distinctly not a utilitarian. His conception of duty is considerably more like that of W. D. Ross.[24] Although Godwin and Price evidently disagree on the content of duty, they are unanimous in their support for the principle of the informed conscience. Perhaps Godwin's apparent utilitarianism is not meant as a basis for private judgment, but as a theory of the good to be pursued conscientiously. In other words, perhaps Godwin accepts private judgment as an independent and prior principle of right, but believes that the content of each person's duty (in the many areas not covered by the principle of private judgment) is best expressed in utilitarian terms.

This proposal is, of course, a possible answer to question iv (see above, page 59) regarding the content of Godwin's value theory. A careful reading of the Enquiry suggests a surprisingly sophisticated theory. Godwin's rejection of hedonism is quite striking, and it provides support for a perfectionist account of the doctrine of private judgment and a roughly consequentialist approach to the content of personal duty.

Godwin's scale of value

Unsurprisingly, we must start by clearing up apparent inconsistencies. There is some prima facie textual evidence that Godwin's value theory is hedonistic. For example, his explicit discussion of value theory asserts that "pleasure... is to be termed an absolute good; the means of pleasure are only relatively good. The same observation may be stated of pain." (Book IV, Chapter XI; Penguin Enquiry, 390) Shortly thereafter, we also find him remarking that

The error of the Epicurean philosophers seems to have been, not in affirming that 'pleasure was the supreme good', for this cannot be refuted; but in confining that pleasure which is the proper scope of human actions to the pleasure of the individual who acts, and not admitting that the pleasure of others was an object which, for its own sake, could, and ought to be pursued.
(Book IV, Chapter XI; Penguin Enquiry, 391)
On the basis of this and various other passages in the Enquiry, some modern commentators regard him as a straightforward hedonist.[25] But as Mark Philp notes,
Godwin is concerned with the intention of an act, not just with its consequences; he distinguishes types of pleasure, regarding virtue as the highest pleasure; ...and he regards the self-interested pursuit of pleasure as simply a form of vice. Furthermore his argument that virtue is the highest pleasure, and that virtue only exists when one acts according to a sound appreciation of truth and justice means that we can only promote the well-being of others through expanding their appreciation of truth-so that even the pleasures of other people cannot be pursued directly...
(1986, 84)
Philp suggests that Godwin's view is perfectionist:
The end for human beings is the development of their rational capacities to their fullest possible extent... the development of a wisdom that can best be characterised as a state of blessedness.
(1986, 96)
There is considerable textual evidence for this view, particularly in the earlier editions. Truth, honesty, and knowledge are regarded as fundamental values, not dependent for value on being productive of any other sort of pleasure.

For example, Book IV, Chapter IV (1793) promotes a strict form of sincerity.

Real sincerity deposes me from all authority over the statement of facts. ... It annihilates the bastard prudence, which would instruct me to give language to no sentiment that may be prejudicial to my interests. It extirpates the low and selfish principle, which would induce me to utter nothing "to the disadvantage of him from whom I have received no injury." (Toronto Enquiry, v. iii, 291)
Godwin considers paradigm cases of lies that maximize enjoyment (or minimize pain), and rejects them.
But it will be asked, "What then, are painful truths to be disclosed to persons who are already in the most pitiable circumstances? Ought a woman that is dying of a fever to be informed of the fate of her husband whose skull has been fractured by a fall from his horse?"
The most that could possibly be conceded to a case like this, is, that this perhaps is not the moment to begin to treat like a rational being a person who has through the course of a long life been treated like an infant. But in reality there is a mode in which under such circumstances truth may safely be communicated...
(Toronto Enquiry, v. iii, 294)
Nor is it acceptable for someone to lie in order to preserve his life, even if he is confident that he will be able to accomplish great good in his remaining years:
The stress does not lie upon the good he would have done; that is precarious. ... We must not be guilty of insincerity. We must not seek to obtain a desirable object by vile means. We must prefer a general principle to the meretricious attractions of a particular deviation.
(Toronto Enquiry, v. iii, 296)
Godwin is clearly asserting a value that is not dependent on happiness: devotion to the truth. Indeed, the promotion of truth is an ultimate goal.
The object to be pursued undoubtedly is, the gradual improvement of mind. ... there cannot be a more unworthy idea, than that truth and virtue should be under the necessity of seeking alliance with concealment. (Op. cit., 299-300)
Nor is this illustration the only one to be found.

Another excellent example is found in Godwin's chapter on value theory. Although in the third edition this chapter contains the straightforwardly hedonistic statements quoted earlier, in all three editions it contains an intriguing scale of pleasures which anticipates Mill's later distinction between higher and lower pleasures.[26] Godwin's scale of pleasures is more complex than Mill's, in fact: he distinguishes four different levels or kinds of pleasure.

The lowest form of pleasure is that available to an uncultivated laborer.

The range of his ideas is scanty; and the general train of his sensations comes as near as the nature of human existence will admit to the region of indifference. This man is in a certain sense happy. He is happier than a stone.
(Penguin Enquiry, Book IV Chapter XI, 393)
The next step up the scale of happiness is embodied by a man of "rank, fortune, and dissipation." This character experiences more than the lack of want, the semi-brutish indifference, of the peasant mentioned above. Indeed, he has a surfeit of pleasurable sensations.
He enjoys all the luxuries of the palate, the choices viands, and the best-flavoured wines. ... He shoots, he hunts. He frequents all public places. He sits up late in scenes of gay resort. He rises late. ...he is almost a stranger to ennui. But he is a model of ignorance. He never reads, and knows nothing beyond the topic of the day. He can scarcely conceive the meaning of the sublime or pathetic; and he rarely thinks of anything beyond himself.
(Loc. cit.)
Although this man certainly has something more than the mere absence of pain, something still is lacking from this man's life: most obviously, intellectual pleasures.

The next step up belongs to the man of education and refined sensibility, who enjoys not only the bodily and social pleasures, but also those higher pleasures unavailable to the first two kinds of men.

The man of taste and liberal accomplishments is more advantageously circumstanced than he whom we have last described. We will suppose him to possess as many of the gratifications of expense as he desires. But in addition to these, like the mere man of fortune in comparison to the peasant, he acquires new senses, and a new range of enjoyment. ...In this person, compared with the two preceding classes, we acknowledge something of the features of man. They were only a better sort of brutes; but he has sensations and transports of which they have no conception.
(Op. cit., 394-5)
Thus far, it would be fair to describe this value theory as a pluralist consequentialism, with the intellectual pleasures valued highly. By itself, this is not quite enough to justify regarding Godwin's theory as perfectionist. But his four-tiered description ends with the most sublime kind of happiness of them all: that enjoyed by the man of benevolence. While the pleasure experienced by the man of benevolence has to do with the fellow-feeling that he has for others, the actual content of that fellow-feeling is significant:
...he ought constantly to endeavor to raise each class, and every individual of each class, to a class above it. ...to raise those who are abased; to communicate to every man all genuine pleasures, to elevate every man to all true wisdom and to make men participators of a liberal and comprehensive benevolence. (Op. cit., 395-6)
Note that Godwin is not claiming merely that the man of benevolence is the most virtuous. He is claiming that the man of benevolence is the happiest. He enjoys the greatest happiness who knows wisdom and exerts the greatest efforts toward the moral and intellectual improvement of his fellow man.

And, as Philp points out, Godwin does not attempt to demonstrate that the good inherent in intellection and wisdom results from the special quality of the pleasures derived from thought. Throughout the Enquiry, the argument criticizes the pursuit of emotions or sensations.

...Godwin's conception of pleasure is radically different from that required in an ideal-utilitarian account. It cannot be construed in terms of a set of sensations distinct from the act of cognition. The highest pleasure does not result from wisdom, rather, true wisdom is true felicity.
(Philp 1986, 87)
Godwin's apparent utilitarianism is based on a value theory that exalts knowledge, wisdom, and correct judgment above all else.

A final indication of the value Godwin placed on truth, knowledge, and education is found in the last book of the Enquiry:

This view of the subject will appear the more striking if we passing review the good things of the world. They may be divided into four classes; subsistence; the means of intellectual and moral improvement; inexpensive gratifications; and such gratifications as are by no means essential to healthful and vigorous existence, and cannot be purchased but with considerable labour and industry.
(Book VIII, Chapter I; Penguin Enquiry, 703-4)
Note that "the means of intellectual and moral improvement" gets a category all to itself. If we make the supposition, plausible in context, that Godwin intended this list to go from the indispensable to the increasingly dispensable, then this category is second in importance only to the basic needs of life.

In addition to explaining a great many details of Godwin's exposition, this interpretation helps us make sense of his conclusions. As I mentioned previously, the principle of private judgment cannot support Godwin's anarchist theory if it is interpreted merely as a moral principle, instrumental to carrying out one's duty. But the best interpretation of this theory is that private judgment-or, better, the high level of moral and intellectual development that is necessary for the proper exercise of private judgment-is a central goal of the correct moral and political system. In this interpretation, the stress placed upon the sanctity of private judgment makes a good deal more sense, as does adopting private judgment as a fundamental principle in the first place. In the view promoted in the Enquiry, human beings are regarded not merely as dutiful beings, or as law-abiding beings, but foremost as rational beings, whose highest good is the development of their rational capacities. Far from a mere instrumental role, private judgment is revealed as playing an essential part in the Godwinian conception of the ideal human moral agent.

In that case, though, we may wonder why there is apparently hedonistic language to be found at all in the Enquiry. One observation that may help resolve that question is that (as all commentators admit) Godwin was at times prone to inconsistency. Godwin may have moved toward hedonism in order to cope with hedonist arguments that were presented forcefully by his friends and intellectual associates during the years of revision. Philp's extensive analysis of Godwin's intellectual contacts, and the revisions made from the first to the third editions of the Enquiry, suggests that Godwin's views shifted as his intellectual circle came to include more thinkers committed to a hedonist theory of value, and lost many of those who had reinforced Godwin's earlier strong devotion to the ultimate value of honesty and truth.[27]

Even more importantly, there is no jarring inconsistency in interpreting Godwin as having regarded hedonistic pleasure as a good worth pursuing. It seems clear that he did not regard pleasurable sensation as a good that outweighs the more important goods of wisdom, rationality, and intellectual independence. But this is merely a subordinate ranking for hedonistic pleasures; it does not move them out of the realm of good altogether. If Godwin held a pluralist view of good, he may simply have lumped all of these goods-sensations, intellectual pleasures, the pleasures of benevolence-under the term 'pleasure'. The existence of the scale of pleasures discussed earlier suggests strongly that this was, in fact, Godwin's mature view.

Let us return to the suggestion, made earlier (p. 70), that Godwin's apparently utilitarian view was never intended as the ultimate basis for justification of his whole theory, but rather as a description of the theory of duty that should be followed by someone as they try to fulfill the primary duty of private judgment. I suggested earlier that this could answer the question of how Godwin characterizes actual (as opposed to perceived) duty. One clue that this might be the case was the strong agreement between Price and Godwin on the importance of private judgment, coupled with the sharp divergence between their value theories. Godwin's remarks in a chapter on "personal virtue and duty" support this interpretation.

...it is one thing to enquire whether an action is virtuous, and another to enquire whether a man is virtuous. The former of these questions is considerably simple... I would define virtue to be any action or actions of an intelligent being proceeding from kind and benevolent intention and having a tendency to contribute to general happiness.
(Book II, Chapter IV; Penguin Enquiry, 185)
A society made up of omniscient moral agents, with no need to worry about the divergence between actual duty and the dictates of private judgment, would act as this simple principle of virtue dictated. But, as we have seen, a world populated by fallible human beings is confronted with the gap between abstract and practical virtue; and thus our fallibility gives rise to the need to protect the sphere of personal discretion, even when the decisions that it protects are apparently contrary to actual duty.

I suggest that the best adaptation of Godwin's theory will look something like the following:

  1. The exercise of private judgment, as defined above, is a central duty for each individual.
  2. Private judgment is also a fundamental feature of an estimable life; following the dictates of one's informed conscience is a necessary condition of mature individuality.
  3. The skills necessary to exercise private judgment effectively -- in Godwin's terms, moral and intellectual improvement -- are particularly important social goods.
  4. The content of duty is to be determined by conscientious examination of the good. The good includes moral and intellectual good as well as pleasurable sensation.
Even if we adopt this view of Godwin's central principles, there are still a few important principles to be discussed. This is the task of the following chapter.

Notes to chapter 2

[1] Godwin uses the term 'justice' to cover all species of moral duty. See Book II, Chapter II: Penguin Enquiry, 168.

[2] See Scheffler, Human Morality (1992); Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985).

[3] This approach reminds us that Godwin's system is not primarily political, in the narrow sense of dealing with matters of state. Most of his arguments are directed at social and moral concerns. This is a point made repeatedly in D. H. Monro's Godwin's Moral Philosophy (Monro 1953). Although I disagree with much of Monro's interpretation, this point is correct and important.

[4] Unfortunately, Godwin manages to avoid giving examples of what constitutes an "extraordinary and imperious emergency." A broad construction could supply us with many cases in which interference with others' private judgment is required by duty. Still, this phrase seems designed to limit justified interference to a relatively small number of cases. I try to develop a more substantive non-interference principle in chapter 5.

[5] My treatment of private judgment's roots in Dissenting thought owes a great deal to Philp's fine discussion. See Philp 1986, chapter 1.

[6] Milton explicitly exempts Papists from this rule; but as he makes clear, this is because of the presumed claim to secular as well as religious authority made by the Roman Catholic church. See Milton 1790, 6, 19-20, and Philp 1986, 19.

[7] 'Antinomianism' is also applied to the claim that the elect are incapable of sin, and hence that any action taken by the elect is morally sanctified. This position is more extreme than the one quoted in the text, and largely accounts for antinomianism's unsavory reputation.

[8] We may wonder how Dissenters were able to make sense of widespread disagreement about matters both religious and secular. Surely, we may wonder, if the conscientious individual is guided by God, how is it possible for people to reach such divergent beliefs?
There are a number of likely responses to this worry. One thing to keep in mind is that not all beliefs are the product of fully informed conscientious judgment. (For the importance of full information, see the section of this chapter on Richard Price.) Another important concern is that human beings are capable of error by ignoring or misinterpreting divine guidance. Finally, it is not inconceivable that one person's well-meaning errors are a necessary part of that person's learning process, depending on his particular situation and the information available to him. Thus it may be advisable to let that person walk down his own spiritual path even in some of the cases in which one knows that he is mistaken. For more on this autonomy-like view, see the first section of chapter 3.

[9] We may not always be able to tell whether a particular argument of Godwin's is directly influenced by Price, or whether similarities between Godwin and Price are a result of their common background in Dissent. This matter deserves more attention than I am currently able to give it.

[10] This term is used in the sense of 'knowledge' or 'wisdom', rather than in its more common current meaning of raw brain power. The opposite of this sense of 'intelligence' is ignorance.

Incidentally, the other two requisites of practical morality for Price are liberty; and acting from a consciousness of rectitude. See Price 1948, 181-4.

[11] See Price 1948, 131-176; especially 137, 144, 161.

[12] 12See D. O. Thomas's discussion: Thomas 1977, 123-6.

[13] For more information on problem i, see Philp 1986, chapters 1 and 4.

[14] Necessary qualifications, earlier noted: one acts rightly if one acts upon the dictates of an informed conscience, with the intention of acting rightly.

[15] While Godwin was sometimes regarded as overbearing and humorless, he was also generally admitted-even by sometimes harsh critics such as Coleridge-to have a mild and tolerant temperament. His fervent opposition to revolution and chaos ought by itself to speak against the idea that, given the opportunity, Godwin would have been another Robespierre.

[16] It is worth noting that human failure to perceive the truth and to act upon it poses a problem for any political philosophy. A recurring worry posed by critics of governments, anarchists among them, is that the people who form and carry out the decisions of government are not made any less fallible simply by having achieved political power. Although political constitutions or social traditions may serve as corrective measures for fallible humanity, these institutions themselves face serious worries about obsolescence or original bias.

[17] Thomas (1977) notes that this is a characteristically Puritan (and hence Dissenting) understanding of rights.

[18] The phrase is Charles Lamb's, in The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, v. I, 237. Quoted in Locke 1980, 168. 'Cause' is correct, and is not a typographical error.

[19] See St. Clair 1989, 182-188 for more information on the social reaction to Godwin's views on sex and domestic relations. Conservative writers were so exercised over these views (as well as other elements of his theory) that they made Godwin and his circle regular targets of abusive and vicious criticism. The reaction was partly to the Enquiry but also to the Memoirs of the author of a vindication of the rights of woman, a biography of the noted writer Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin's first wife. St. Clair remarks that "for years after 1798 there was scarcely an unwanted pregnancy anywhere in England for which Mary Wollstonecraft did not take a share of the blame." (1989, 188)

It is noteworthy that remarks such as Godwin's would not cause such scandal today. The trend of social thought has clearly been toward Godwin's position. Divorce, for example, is much easier today, and no longer carries a profound social stigma. Perhaps even more striking is the increased middle-class social acceptability of pre-marital sexual relations.

[20] These quotations are good examples of Godwin's radicalism, but they do not by themselves demonstrate that his radicalism is founded on utilitarianism. The views on sex and marriage appear to owe more to the principles of independence and private judgment. The Fenelon example, though more plausibly represented as utilitarian, could conceivably be meant solely to illustrate the strict demands of morality. The evidence, such as it is, that Godwin was a utilitarian lies elsewhere in the Enquiry.

[21] J. B. Schneewind remarks that Godwin's radicalism is probably the source of repeated conservative criticisms of the utilitarian as "the monster of abstract rationality... denying the importance of family, friends, country, laws, traditions..." (See Schneewind 1977, 139.) This observation is quite accurate; it is remarkable that this sort of caricature has been applied not only to Godwin's own work but to that of other utilitarians, and that it has been made by people who apparently were ignorant of Godwin's work or even his existence.

[22] I should note that critical opinion on this subject was never unanimous. F.E.L. Priestley edited the 1946 Toronto edition of the Enquiry, which includes a book-length introductory essay in the third volume. His extensive knowledge of all three editions of the book led him to the conclusion that "Godwin's moral philosophy is opposed to that of the utilitarians." See the Toronto Enquiry, v. iii, 14-27.

[23] The best-known argument from indirect results is Adam Smith's "invisible hand" argument regarding the unintended good produced by free market transactions. See A. Smith 1976. My point here is also made by Philp: see Philp 1986, 83-86.

[24] See The Right and the Good, Ross 1930.

[25] See especially Clark 1977, chapter 4.

[26] Indeed, it may have had some direct or indirect influence on Mill's thought. E. G. West writes, "William Godwin... was a member of the circle of friends of J. S. Mill's father, James Mill, and [a] frequent visitor to his home..." West 1965, 130.

[27] For this argument, see Philp 1986, chapters 1 and 4.

Proceed to Chapter 3

Return to the Table of Contents

Return to Chris Roberson's home page