This chapter continues the exposition of Godwin's view begun in chapter 2. The first two topics I discuss in this chapter are autonomy and equality. As we shall see, these topics are related, in part, by Godwin's emphasis on truth and accuracy of knowledge. Next, I summarize Godwin's critique of law and punishment, and his defense of sincerity. I then review the Enquiry's doctrine of the perfectibility of humanity, which is one element of Godwin's theory that I do not retain.
Robert Paul Wolff undertook a defense of anarchism because it seemed that no other political condition could be consistent with the duty of moral autonomy. If this approach fails, as I think it does, it does so because Wolff's conception of autonomy is faulty. As we saw in chapter 1, Wolff defines autonomy as a duty not to let others determine one's moral choices. Autonomy conceived in this way can be achieved under any political circumstances whatever, and might even direct one to disregard others' moral duties; this is hardly an ideal foundation for an anarchist theory. Nor is it clear that Wolff's conception of autonomy is one that would be endorsed by many of the influential proponents of autonomy.
Nonetheless, a convincing defense of anarchism will depend on some conception of autonomy. Godwin's theory, as we have seen in chapter 2, relies on private judgment, which plays a role intriguingly similar to that played by autonomy in many modern theories. One might even think of private judgment as a Godwinian version of autonomy, provided one recognizes that private judgment differs in important features from many of the familiar modern interpretations of that concept. The differences between private judgment and other conceptions of autonomy can help explain some of the particular emphases of Godwin's overall theory.
Autonomy has a remarkable place in twentieth-century philosophy. Many views depend on autonomy as a central feature; but until recently, there were few extensive attempts to define and examine the concept. As one might expect in such a situation, there are almost as many (explicit or implicit) conceptions of autonomy as there are theories that rely on autonomy. For our purposes, then, it will be useful to concentrate on the most historically influential notion of autonomy, that of Kant.
Autonomy is central to one of Kant's formulations of the Categorical Imperative. This formulation requires that moral decisions be made on the basis of the law which the will gives itself on the basis of reason. Kant's discussion in the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1956) reveals that the requirement of autonomy results from his emphasis on the good will. Kant tells us that a morally good action can only be one which is done for the sake of moral duty, and not as a result of following a mere inclination or interest. For an act to count as a moral duty, it must be required by a maxim of reason which the agent could rationally will to be a universal law. Actions done from mere inclination or personal interest, without regard for (or contrary to) the dictates of universal reason, can never count as morally worthy.
Whence autonomy, then? In order for an agent's will to follow the law of moral duty rather than the inclination of emotion or personal interest, the will must be the origin of that law. Otherwise, Kant tells us,
...the law had to carry with it some interest in order to attract or compel, because it did not spring as a law from his own will: in order to conform with the law his will had to be necessitated by something else to act in a certain way. This absolutely inevitable conclusion meant that all the labour [of previous moral philosophers] spent in trying to find a supreme principle of duty was lost beyond recall; for what they discovered was never duty, but only the necessity of acting from a certain interest. This interest might be one's own or another's; but on such a view the imperative was bound to be always a conditioned one and could not possibly serve as a moral law.If an agent's motivation were to derive from any source other than his own will, it could produce only non-moral action, action grounded in inclination. So for Kant, an agent must have autonomy in order for any of its actions to count as moral.
(Kant 1956, 100)
The surface similarities between private judgment and Kantian autonomy mask a number of important differences. One difference is that Kant's concern about undue influence is not limited to the influence exerted by other people; heteronomy results from one's actions being determined by any inclination other than the good will, including one's own inclinations or interests. The focus on the moral agent's self-rule is not so much a matter of concern about political tyranny or social oppression or even bad advice as it is a concern about avoiding being improperly motivated toward the actions one takes.
Godwin's insistence on the need to act according to the standards of impartial justice, particularly as manifest in the Fenelon example (see chapter 2), might suggest a similar preoccupation with acting solely for the sake of duty. His criticism of gratitude certainly has some likeness to Kant's doctrine:
...the consideration of my neighbour's moral worth, and his importance to the general weal, [is] the only standard to determine the treatment to which he is entitled. Gratitude therefore, if by gratitude we understand a sentiment of preference which I entertain towards another, upon the ground of my having been the subject of his benefits, is no part either of justice or virtue.But the similarities between these doctrines are less striking than an initial reading indicates. Kant criticizes as immoral (or non-moral) any action that proceeds from inclination rather than the good will, even if the action happens to be in accordance with the dictates of duty. Godwin's criticism, on the other hand, is directed at the notion that (to use a modern term) "agent-centered restrictions" can justify action that would be regarded as unjust or unwarranted from an impartial perspective. In the passage just quoted, Godwin is not arguing that gratitude is an inherently non-moral motivating force; he is claiming that it may lead us into error, by distorting our assessment of the moral worth of people toward whom we feel grateful. He makes a similar argument with regard to promises.
It may be objected, ... "that... I shall inevitably judge most favourably of him, of whose virtues I have received the most unquestionable proofs; and thus shall be compelled to prefer the man of moral worth whom I know, to another who may possess, unknown to me, and essential superiority."
This compulsion however is founded only in the imperfection of human nature. It may serve as an apology for my error, but can never change error into truth. It will always remain contrary to the strict and universal decisions of justice.
(Book II, Chapter II; Penguin Enquiry, 171-2)
So although Godwin is advancing the controversial claim that agent-centered considerations (such as gratitude or promises) do not fundamentally alter one's impartial duty, he is not making the further claim that the only motivation that can inspire a truly moral act is the wish to do good. Indeed, in 1801's Thoughts Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr Parr's Spital Sermon, Godwin explicitly endorses acting on the basis of affections such as paternal love or patriotism-provided, that is, that the actions produced by these motivations remain consistent with the demands of justice.
I do not require that, when a man is employed in benefiting his child, he should constantly recollect the abstract principle of utility, but I do maintain that his actions in prosecuting that benefit are no further virtuous than in proportion as they square with that principle.So while Kant's doctrine of autonomy is deeply connected to his concerns about moral motivation, this is not comparably true of Godwin and private judgment.
(Godwin 1968, 321-2)
A second important difference between Kant's and Godwin's positions on independence of moral decision-making is that Kant does not share Godwin's (and Price's) focus on information. As we have seen in chapter 2, private judgment amounts to more than simply obeying one's own judgment, or even obeying one's rational judgment. It requires, in addition, a real effort to inform oneself fully about the facts of the matter. One's decisions count as properly conscientious only if they are the products of an informed conscience.
This focus is not to be found in Kant's discussion in the Groundwork. Although Kant is deeply concerned that moral decisions be the product of reason, he does not express a comparable concern that these decisions be based on complete information. As long as one's decisions are made by one's own rational will, they have satisfied the requirements of Kantian autonomy. This conception clearly differs from the notion of the private judgment of an informed conscience. In fact, it may be helpful to think of the Kantian and Godwinian treatments of self-rule as exemplars of two broader categories of conceptions of autonomy: choice-centered and knowledge-centered.
Kant's view is paradigmatically choice-centered. Its focus on the rational will and relative disregard for quality of information is quite common among modern theories of autonomy. Although most Kantian-influenced conceptions of autonomy abandon some of the characteristic features of the Kantian model, such as the emphasis on the good will as the only source of moral motivation, they generally retain its primary focus on the origin of the choices in the agent's reason. In the influential Dworkin/Frankfurt hierarchical model of autonomy, an agent's status as autonomous depends on whether the choices the agent actually makes are in accordance with that agent's higher-order volitions (for Frankfurt), or are choices that the agent identifies with (for Dworkin). Neither of these theories has a great deal to say about the source of the information upon which the agent bases her decisions.
The knowledge-centered conception of autonomy, by contrast, does regard knowledge as a matter of primary concern. This conception is found in Godwin and other writers in the Puritan and utilitarian traditions: Price, J. S. Mill, Sidgwick, and others. This conception, like the choice-centered conception, demonstrates a concern for rationality and self-determination. But in the knowledge-centered conception, this concern is characteristically expressed with an eye to the epistemic position of the moral agent. The defense of individual liberty also depends to a considerable extent on epistemic concerns.
Before I continue, I should remark that Godwin's knowledge-centered notion of autonomy is probably not, by itself, sufficient to ground the strong defense of individual liberty that his theory depends upon. The discussion in chapter 2 indicated that there is a substantial perfectionist component to Godwin's theory, over and above calculations of individual utility. But we may also wonder whether the perfectionist view is itself strong enough to ground Godwin's entire theory. I suspect that neither his perfectionist account nor the focus on information which I am about to outline can, separately, serve to support the full extent of Godwin's theory. Perhaps both of these principles working together are necessary to provide good reason for the extensive sphere of personal discretion that Godwin defends.
The general outline of this sort of defense of individual autonomy is already familiar from the work of J. S. Mill and Sidgwick. We can briefly gloss these sorts of arguments as follows. Note first that an individual has a special interest in the choices that she makes. This is grounded in three important generalizations. First, she is uniquely situated to put into practice most of the choices she makes. Second, in many cases, she will be among the people most deeply affected by the consequences of her actions. Finally, she typically has the most detailed and accurate knowledge of her own situation. Any of these features of her situation is defeasible: there is no metaphysical guarantee that she will always be most knowledgeable about her situation, or most likely to be affected by her choices, or best able to carry out her decisions. But for most individuals, for the most part, these generalizations are accurate.
It is not too great a leap to deduce from these observations a duty on each individual's part to make her own choices and, whenever possible, to make those choices on the basis of her own knowledge. For allowing others to make one's decisions will often amount to letting those decisions be made by people who are less well informed and less acutely interested in the result than oneself. This duty is probably not as sweeping as the one Godwin ultimately defends; for it is easy to think of cases where this duty does not hold. These are cases in which the individual is demonstrably inferior in knowledge of her situation, or rationality, or rational interest in the outcome. It is only reasonable to recognize the handicap faced by small children, and the advantage possessed by an expert.
Still, the presumption will almost always be in favor of making one's own decisions, particularly in areas in which we do not normally recognize the existence of or need for experts. This is Godwin's doctrine; recall his remark 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.Godwin does not provide more specific information about what areas of knowledge fall into "the province of every human understanding." The context of these remarks, however, is suggestive. The examples he gives of areas where I may rely on the judgment of an expert are areas in which one needs special training or research in order to function adequately: for example, skills such as engineering or teaching. Godwin apparently means to single out by contrast areas in which we expect adults to have a minimal level of competence: notably, areas of knowledge fundamental to social functioning such as moral development. In this domain, we should expect people to cultivate and rely on their private judgment. Although further details are difficult to extract from the text and debatable once we have extracted them, we can presume that Godwin intended to cast this net fairly widely-not least because his resulting doctrine of the sphere of discretion is so sweeping.
(Book III, Chapter VI; Penguin Enquiry, 245.)
>From these considerations, we may deduce a duty on the part of others for "aid and forbearance." Since I normally have better knowledge of my own circumstances than do others, and have the most vivid interest in the results of my actions, in most situations other people should treat me accordingly: as the best judge of my own situation and duty. (Once again, this principle is defeasible in cases where my knowledge or rationality are in question.) My discussion of Godwin thus far has focused on the sphere of discretion, which embodies the duty of forbearance. But we should not overlook his deep interest in the distribution of resources. Godwin expresses this interest throughout the Enquiry, but especially in Book VIII, which is almost entirely devoted to the subject of private property. His position is likely to strike us as prone to internal conflict, as he makes two central claims: first, that property ought to be distributed on the basis of need; and, second, that the disposition of one's own property should be regarded as inside the protected sphere of discretion. It would not be unreasonable to suspect that a system that scrupulously protects property rights may not be one in which property is distributed strictly according to needs. Godwin must resort to his notorious perfectibilism (discussed later in this chapter) in order to resolve this difficulty. But the existence of this conflict should not blind us to his belief in the existence of a robust duty to aid those around us in the exercise of their uniquely well-informed judgment.
If private judgment is correctly interpreted as a knowledge-centered conception of autonomy, we may have a better understanding of why Godwin's political conclusions turn out as they do. A view of autonomy that focuses primarily on the notion of rationality, and that, like Kant's, assumes a common rationality for all people, need not make extraordinary concessions to the need for individual liberty: for a regulating authority is just as likely, perhaps more likely, to decide rationally as is the person subject to regulation. When we introduce the elements emphasized by the knowledge-centered conception of autonomy, however, it seems much more likely that the ruler-the centralized, inflexible, remote government-will be at a disadvantage when it comes to making the right decisions. Hence there is that much more reason to place power in the hands of the individual, where it can be best exercised on the basis of the most accurate information.
This knowledge-centered conception of autonomy may help us interpret Godwin's treatment of equality. His ideal of equality included material equality, but was preeminently focused on social equality. Hundreds of pages of the Enquiry -- virtually all of Books V and VIII -- are dedicated to examining how social inequality is inherently destructive of fundamental goods of his system: intellectual and moral improvement, and the search for truth.
A fair portion of Godwin's time is spent discussing the adversities that face the socially disadvantaged. As one might expect, he decries the barriers that poverty and social inferiority place in the way of moral action and intellectual development. Severe poverty is an obvious and gross barrier: one cannot hope to spend time and effort in improving oneself if one must work at an exhausting job from dawn to dusk, and if all of one's money must be spent on mere subsistence. But this is far from the only difficulty produced by a system of social and material inequality. In the search for truth, even those not imprisoned by abject poverty may be hampered by the need to fawn and grovel in the face of authority.
Godwin emphasizes how material inequality produces and reinforces social inequality:
...accumulation brings home a servile and truckling spirit, by no circuitous method, to every house in the nation. Observe the pauper fawning with abject vileness upon his rich benefactor, speechless with sensations of gratitude, for having received that which he ought to have claimed, not indeed with arrogance, or a dictatorial and overbearing temper, but with the spirit of a man discussing with a man, and resting his cause only on the justice of his claim. Observe the servants that follow in a rich man's train, watchful of his looks, anticipating his commands, not daring to reply to his insolence, all their time and their efforts under the direction of his caprice.He is articulate and rather uncharacteristically vehement about the degrading effects that result:
(Book VIII, Chapter III; Penguin Enquiry, 725-26)
...It would indeed be visionary, to expect integrity from mankind, while they are thus subjected to hourly corruption, and bred, from father to son, to sell their independence and their conscience, for the vile rewards that oppression has to bestow. ...The true object that should be kept in view, is to extirpate all ideas of condescension and superiority, to oblige every man to feel that the kindness he exerts is what he is bound to perform, and to examine whether the assistance he asks be what he has a right to claim.Godwin's emphasis, both in these passages and elsewhere in the Enquiry, reveals that he is not particularly interested in enforcing strict material equality for its own sake; he is considerably more interested in avoiding the relations of control and dominance that result from economic dependence on the whims of a boss or ruler.
(Book VIII, Chapter III; Penguin Enquiry, 726-27)
The same concerns apply to relations of social inequality that are not directly related to economic dependence. One may feel compelled to ignore or downgrade one's own judgment in the face of the disapproval of any social superior; and this self-abasement is just as corrupting as the need to please one's economic ruler. It may be more corrupting, in fact, since deeply entrenched feelings of inferiority are more insidious than the exercise of obvious economic leverage. Godwin was well aware of this: much of the Enquiry is dedicated to deflating the pretensions to superiority of kings, aristocrats, and the rich. In fact, Godwin goes so far as to claim that social inequality is not only degrading to the powerless, but also to the powerful. Book V presents a trenchant critique of monarchy and aristocracy, arguing at length that social inequality is inherently destructive of moral and intellectual improvement. This critique of social inequality was an important reason for his subsequent fame as a radical thinker.
In Chapters II and III of Book V, Godwin argues that a monarch can never be a free and intellectually independent moral agent. A prince is the captive of his surroundings, perhaps most of all in the realm of intellectual development. The prince's education is designed to protect him; but in so doing, it inevitably must restrict his access to the truth.
In all things it is first of all to be remembered that he is a prince, that is, some rare and precious creature, but not of human kind.The prince so educated becomes accustomed to flattery and dissimulation, and hence divorced from reality.
As he is the heir to a throne, it is never forgotten by those about him that considerable importance is to be annexed to his favour or his displeasure. Accordingly, they never express themselves in his presence frankly and naturally, either respecting him or themselves. They are supporting a part. They play under a mask.
(Book V, Chapter II; Penguin Enquiry, 415)
Above all, simple, unqualified truth is a stranger to his ear. It either never approaches; or, if so unexpected a guest should once appear, it meets with so cold a reception as to afford little encouragement to a second visit. The longer he has been accustomed to falsehood and flattery, the more grating will it sound. (Op. cit., 416)Having received the education just described, the prince is simply not predisposed to seek or recognize the unvarnished truth. Even if he were, the very fact of his power would inevitably taint the advice and counsel of his advisers.
As a king, the sovereign is just as divorced from reality, unable to leave the stifling cocoon of ministers and advisers.
He is placed in a sphere peculiarly his own. He is surrounded with an atmosphere through which it is impossible for him to discover the true colours and figure of things. ...A king soon finds the necessity of entrusting his functions to the administration of his servants. He acquires the habit of seeing with their eyes, and acting with their hands. ...Like a man long shut up in a dungeon, his organs are not strong enough to bear the irradiation of truth. Accustomed to receive information of the feelings and sentiments of mankind, through the medium of another, he cannot bear directly to converse with business and affairs.Someone whose situation and constitution prevent adequate access to the truth cannot be considered a free, fully realized human being. This is a disastrous failing on the part of someone who must superintend over millions of other people, and yet it is unavoidable by the very nature of the sovereign's position.
(Book V, Chapter III; Penguin Enquiry, 423-4)
Forthright, inquisitive, honest people can only mature and flourish in circumstances where no one must toady to anyone else: boss, landlord, gentry, or ruler. For these inequalities corrupt both the dominant and the subordinate; they introduce distorting motives and habits into the equation, making unbiased deliberation difficult (if not impossible). Since the pre-eminent duty of private judgment relies so deeply on access to accurate information, we can see why Godwin regarded the persistence of social inequality as a deeply problematic-indeed, immoral-situation.
The focus on accurate information also leads Godwin to emphasize a source of knowledge unavailable to the authority imprisoned behind a wall of sycophancy: first hand experience.
...there are but two ways in which [intellectual improvements] can be appropriated by any individual; either at second hand by books and conversation, or at first hand by our own observations of men and things. The improvement we receive in the first of these modes is unlimited; but it will not do alone. We cannot understand books, till we have seen the subjects of which they treat.The advantages of first hand experience are often subtle, but in many instances they are undeniable. The immediacy and depth of first hand experience are sometimes crucial to a proper grasp of the meaning of a situation. Furthermore, as Godwin stresses, first hand experience is crucial to the development of one's ability to interpret information received from other sources.
He that knows the mind of man, must have observed it for himself; ...he must have seen it without disguise, when no exterior situation puts a curb upon its passions... he must himself have been an actor in the scene, have had his own passions brought into play...
(Book V, Chapter II; Penguin Enquiry, 414)
We should not overstate the case: many kinds of knowledge are not particularly dependent on first hand experience. One need not be a scientist in any practical capacity to learn the Periodic Table of the Elements. Nor should we ignore the importance of distance and perspective in making a full and measured analysis of many matters, particularly social and historical circumstances. Even so, Godwin's main points remain salient: some degree of first hand experience is necessary in many cases, and especially in order to develop one's capacity to obtain perspective and considered judgment. This is particularly true, once again, in the areas of knowledge which are accessible to all.
Concerns like these probably underlie traditional popular mythology about benevolent authority. Medieval stories about kings visiting their subjects in disguise play upon the common perception that the sovereign is unacquainted with the day-to-day reality of his subjects. They also play upon the hope, or perhaps wish, that the sovereign recognizes the need for practical, unmediated experience in order to govern well. We find a similar concern in modern stories about top corporate executives who trained for their jobs by working in every department of the company.
It should be clear how these additional principles work to support the
conclusions of this theory. The bare principle of autonomy, as we saw
in chapter 1, cannot provide full support for the anarchist principles
of decentralization and limited authority. But the principle of
private judgment, in conjunction with these reflections on the need
for accurate information, can bring us much closer to a properly
convincing argument. Godwin's ideal community, a small, parish-sized
unit, reflects his desire for a decentralized, egalitarian mode of
life in which all individuals would be able to judge for themselves on
the basis of information that was either directly available or could
be sought without fear that relations of inequality would distort the
free exchange of ideas. This anarchist ideal makes more sense when
expressed in its full context.
The inherent undesirability of law and
The emphasis on plain, unvarnished information surfaces again in Godwin's discussion of law and punishment. As I stated in the previous chapter, Godwin regards law and punishment as inherently evil; perhaps unavoidable in the existing corrupt social conditions, but disadvantageous enough that we should wish to restrict them to as few cases as possible.
There are two main arguments for this conclusion. One is very similar to the considerations just explored: Godwin argues that law is simply not well suited to the enormous complexity of real life.
...an enlightened and reasonable judicature would have recourse, in order to decide upon the cause before them, to no code but the code of reason. ...They would feel the absurdity of bringing every offence to be compared with a certain number of measures previously invented, and compelling it to agree with one of them.Legislation, after all, is created by people at an unavoidable epistemic distance from the particular cases that it purports to regulate. No legislature can hope to deal with the virtually unlimited variety of circumstances that may arise.
(Book VII, Chapter IV; Penguin Enquiry, 652)
There is no maxim more clear than this, 'Every case is a rule to itself.' No action of any man was ever the same as any other action, had ever the same degree of utility or injury. ...As new cases occur, the law is perpetually found deficient. How should it be otherwise? Lawgivers have not the faculty of unlimited prescience, and cannot define that which is boundless.Law, being finite, is fully competent only in a finite number of cases, probably a small subset of the cases we will actually encounter. Since we must use reason to determine the proper mode of action in these cases, Godwin proposes abandoning the use of law altogether.
(Book VII, Chapter VIII; Penguin Enquiry, 685-6)
Unfortunately, Godwin had a knack for expressing a potentially useful idea in such a way as to make it sound extreme and implausible. Abolishing law altogether appears to open the way to rule by arbitrary fiat. This was not his intention, however. We should recall some of the differences between our time and his; and we should also consider some of the qualifications which Godwin would most likely have assented to.
Godwin lived in a time when crimes which today are considered minor were punishable by death.
Between... 1660 and... 1819, 187 new capital statutes became law-nearly six times as many as had been enacted in the previous three hundred years. Nearly all were drafted to protect property, rather than human life; attempted murder was classed only as a "misdemeanor" until 1803. ...One could be hanged for burning a house or a hut, a standing rick of corn, or an insignificant pile of straw; for poaching a rabbit, for breaking down "the head or mound" of a fishpond, or even cutting down an ornamental shrub; or for appearing on a high-road with a sooty face. (Hughes 1986, 29)The disparity between the demands of the law and the human feelings of the people who were obliged to carry out the law became almost unbearable. Judges who handed down capital sentences in cases such as these were often seen to shed tears along with the prisoners and court spectators.
Why did the judges weep with the accused? Because both were bound -- though not, of course, in equality of pain -- to the law. This drama of immutable rules lay at the heart of the tremendous power that Law held over the English imagination. The judge simply surrendered to the imperative of the statutes, a course of action that absolved him of judicial murder, and that caused him to weep. (Op. cit., 30)This attitude caused a number of apparently hypocritical adjustments in judicial behavior. Judges would commute a death sentence if the convict was sufficiently penitent. Many juries undervalued goods in theft trials so as to convict for a theft of 39 shillings; theft of goods worth 40 shillings or more was a capital offense. And many capital sentences were commuted by the Crown. Convicts served long prison terms or were transported to the American colonies, or after 1788 to the Australian penal colony. Hughes (Op. cit., 35) estimates that the percentage of capital sentences that were actually carried out in London and Middlesex was as low as 16% in one ten-year period, and scarcely exceeded 50% for much of the late eighteenth century.
Godwin was clearly reacting to this situation; for example, in Book VII he argues vociferously against capital punishment, and dedicates an entire chapter to the practice of granting pardons. His arguments make considerable sense when compared to the then-prevalent attitude of veneration for impartial Law combined with reluctance to comply fully with its inhumane results. Even if one does not wish to go quite so far as the complete abolition of law, Godwin's arguments provide good reason to wish for a more rational basis for the law. Not the least of the benefits that could result from legal reform would be freeing judges to hand down sentences that reflect the particulars of the case.
But the inflexibility of law, its isolation from the facts of real life, is not Godwin's most substantial consideration against it. If it were, it could easily be answered by making the law more flexible, and its enforcement more decentralized. Indeed, decentralized enforcement is a fact of life in the modern legal system, embodied by such institutions as parole boards and probation officers. Another, more sweeping indictment of the system of law is his objection to any form of physical coercion. Since the state is an inherently coercive institution, Godwin thus views it as inherently evil. It may be a necessary evil in some circumstances, but it is evil nonetheless.
Let us not overstate the case here. In calling the state coercive, I do not mean to draw in any unwarranted connotations. I do not, for example, mean to claim that since the state is inherently coercive, it can be inferred to be inherently oppressive. I merely mean to draw our attention to the basic definition of the state in any political theory: the state is the institution that declares to itself a monopoly upon legitimate use of force. If the state reserved to itself no more than an advisory role, it would cease for all practical purposes to be a state. Law that cannot be enforced has no standing as law. And force, even when legitimately applied, is paradigmatically coercive.
Given the standing of private judgment in Godwin's theory, it ought to be no surprise that he regards coercion as unacceptable (except, again, in cases of emergency, when it is necessary to prevent disaster). Coercion fails to improve the moral status of those to whom it is applied. Indeed, its real effect is to degrade their ability and motivation to rely upon the guidance of conscience.
The direct tendency of coercion is to set our understanding and our fears, our duty and our weakness, at variance with each other. Coercion first annihilates the understanding of the subject upon whom it is exercised, and then of him who employs it.Since the true end of political society is the moral (i.e. intellectual) improvement of the individual, coercion is pernicious. "It cannot begin with convincing; it is no argument. ... It includes in it a tacit confession of imbecility. ... He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak." (Op. cit., 641-2)
(Book VII, Chapter II; Penguin Enquiry, 639)
How, then, would the anarchist society deal with troublesome behavior? Briefly, the answer is: by showing the wrongdoers the error of their ways. Naturally, this summation of Godwin's attitude does not do it full justice. Godwin was well aware that rational patterns of thought and behavior are not taught effortlessly or quickly. He also knew that even generally rational people sometimes need to be strenuously urged along the right path. He assumed that communities would take a considerable interest in the education of their children and the censure of people who deviated from social norms. But in a community bound together by ties of long acquaintance, affection, and mutual concern, moral censure can accomplish much that punishment can never aspire to. In other words, Godwin put great stock in diffuse sanctions; see chapters 4 and 6.
I must also remind the reader that Godwin did not intend the immediate abolition of all forms of (state) coercion. His point in these chapters is to establish that coercion would be unacceptable and unnecessary in an ideal state of mankind, in which all human beings were properly educated and trained in the exercise of and obedience to the dictates of private judgment. His belief in human perfectibility led him to conclude that such an ideal condition was indeed realizable.
But what, then, should our attitude be regarding coercion in the present, unenlightened condition of society? This question is particularly pressing if, as I recommend, we abandon perfectibilism and assume that for the indefinite future, humanity will have to deal with imperfect and fallible companions and social circumstances. Is it really desirable to seek a condition with an absolute minimum of coercion?
The theory I propose does not take this grand step; it recommends that some important decisions and activities should remain in the hands of centralized authority. My theory does, however, suggest that as much as possible, important issues should be deliberated and decisions made in those venues where threat of punishment is not a means of enacting collective decisions. The actions of a self-governing community, as defined later in this project, are in principle preferable to those made by institutions inherently governed by law and hence by the underlying threat of physical coercion. The reasons are much as Godwin has represented them: in the absence of coercion, decisions can be made and people convinced on the basis of reason and discussion, not by the application of power.
In addition, Godwin's intended goal of judgment on the basis of reason alone need not be quite as ad hoc as it sounds. There is no reason to suppose that judgments must be carried out without the benefit of the background provided by experience, tradition, and historical records. Small organizations already rely on bylaws, standing rules, and the shared experience and history of their members to help guide them in their decisions; this use of organizational history would, presumably, be even more important for communities in a quasi-anarchist system. Admittedly, this places considerable responsibility on each community to keep detailed records of its decisions and the basic principles by which those decisions were reached. But this responsibility is part of the cost of community independence and autonomy.
This position has some similarity to classic arguments advanced in favor of the common law rather than statutory law. The distinguishing characteristics of common law-its case-based interpretive method, reliance on precedent, and especially its claim to represent the common reason of the community-clearly have much in common with the methods many communities use and would probably continue to use. But we should not overstate this resemblance. Common law, no less than statutory law, is law; it is shaped by judges at an epistemic distance from the facts of the case, a distance comparable to that of legislators. Furthermore, small organizations-communities in our sense-would not necessarily be bound by the deep traditionalism characteristic of common law. A community might be more interested in rules that represent the common reason of the community at the moment, rather than (as common law emphasized) the common reason over time. Part of the appeal of self-determination by communities is that the rules they depend on would be readily adjustable to meet current needs and modes of reasoning.
This is the last basic principle of Godwin's system. Sincerity is not merely a chance addition to Godwin's system. It is central to his doctrine of adherence to the truth, and also to the preservation of order in a society based upon socially mediated and developed rational self-governance.
Godwin's defense of sincerity is partly grounded in his devotion to truth at all costs. We saw in the previous chapter that he regarded the convenient lie (or even the useful lie, productive of happiness for others as well as oneself) as utterly contemptible. This attitude was primarily expressed in the first edition of the Enquiry. By the third edition, he had qualified his position so as to state that
...it may probably be wrong to be minutely scrupulous with a drunken bigot in a corner, who should require of me an assent to his creed with a pistol at my breast...and even to assert that sincerity is only a duty for reasons of utility. Even though he backed away from his earlier, unqualified praise of sincerity, he continued to claim that sincerity was ultimately productive of utility. In the circumstances of his ideal society, this may well be true. Sincerity is a necessary tool for the production of a viable self-governing community.
(Book IV, Chapter VI Appendix I; Penguin Enquiry, 320)
Godwin knew well that individual reason is learned and constantly altered and refined by interchanges with other people; and that reason has no claim to be completely reliable, particularly if it is practiced in a social vacuum.
Knowledge, such as we are able to acquire it, depends in a majority of instances, not upon the single efforts of the individual, but upon the consent of other human understandings sanctioning the judgement of our own. ... It is impossible I should have a true satisfaction in my dispositions and talents, or even any precise perceptions of virtue and vice, unless assisted by the concurrence of my fellows.We must thus rely upon our community to correct our mistakes and to refine our rational abilities. This can work properly only if questionable actions or decisions are discussed openly and honestly.
(Book IV, Chapter VI; Penguin Enquiry, 313)
A system based on law can dispense with a certain amount of openness and sincerity. Legal systems are directed primarily at determining past facts about my behavior and intentions. They often have little interest in determining whether I now understand "the error of my ways," and am willing to commit myself to undertaking whatever means are necessary to correct my future behavior. Furthermore, since the degrees of supervision and punishment in a formal system cannot be too highly complex or differentiated, the system has limited flexibility. In such systems, there is little additional in researching detailed facts about my relations and attitudes to my neighbors. Sincerity and openness often have little impact in the courtroom, where the nature and limits of the likely punishment are prescribed and executed by an outside authority.
In a system based not upon legal rules but upon the shared experience of the community, the opinions of one's peers are less dependent upon external and possibly irrelevant guidelines. The community is able to judge and exert moral pressure (the diffuse sanctions mentioned earlier) upon an individual based upon a wealth of experience about that person's daily life, personality, past behavior, and present attitudes. And one way of guaranteeing that the community has the sort of personal information necessary for proper instruction and correction of its members is to establish the community on a basis of mutual respect and consideration, where important information would not be hidden behind a veil of shame or duplicity. Thus if such communities are to operate fairly, they must do so in an atmosphere of truthfulness and honesty.
Godwin believed that in a community run on this principle, the tendency would be toward mercy rather than severity; rational persuasion rather than force; and individualized treatment rather than blanket decree.
Even in expostulation and censure, friendliness of intention and mildness of proceeding may be eminently conspicuous. There should be no mixture of disdain and superiority. The interest of him who is corrected, not the triumph of the corrector, should be the principle of action. True sincerity will be attended with that equality which is the only sure foundation of love, and that love which is the best finishing and lustre to a sentiment of equality.We may, I hope, be forgiven if we regard this admirable sentiment as excessively optimistic. As the anthropological evidence of actual anarchically organized societies in the next chapter indicates, most self-governing communities rely at least partly on sanctions which Godwin would regard as unacceptable: gossip, emotional pressure, and quite often threats of violence. Worse, very often social pressures are applied not to advance general rationality, but rather to enforce rationally indefensible social strictures. Finally, sincerity can sometimes serve as a rhetorical weapon in its own right: forthrightness is sometimes just aggressiveness under another name. Sincerity without a commitment to basic norms of kindness and consideration can be deeply disruptive to the basic ability of community members to live and work together.
(Op. cit., 321)
Even though no political theory has an easy answer to these worries, this does not mean that the problem is easily dismissed as equally applicable to any rival theory. If anarchist theory is to rely so heavily upon social enforcement of rational norms, it will need to provide some assurance of widespread social acceptance of those norms, and not irrational or destructive norms. Otherwise, it will need to appeal to some source of social order other than diffuse sanctions. The prospects for just use of diffuse sanctions are discussed in chapter 6.
Godwin's solution to this difficulty, as I have mentioned, is the belief in the perfectibility of humanity, the last of his principles that I will discuss. This principle implies that human development will advance to a stage in which enlightenment and rationality will prevail. A society composed of such fully rational individuals would pose no threat to any of its members, and its sanctions would be used only to enforce rationally defensible norms.
The perfectibility thesis came in for considerable criticism in Godwin's time, partly because of its misleading name. In the later editions of the Enquiry, Godwin asserts that he never meant 'perfectible' to denote 'capable of achieving perfection'. Rather, the term is meant to denote perpetual improvability.
By perfectible, it is not meant that... [man] is capable of being brought to perfection. But the word seems sufficiently adapted to express the faculty of being continually made better and receiving perpetual improvement; and in this sense it is here to be understood. ...every perfection or excellence that human beings are competent to conceive, human beings... are competent to attain.Put this way, Godwin sounds less ridiculous; we can recognize him as a progressive thinker. Some version of the progressive hypothesis is held by most radical theorists; David Miller points out that it helps explain "...how the same human raw material can produce one kind of behaviour at a certain moment and another kind at a different moment." (1984, 63) In other words, progressivism allows the radical thinker to argue that people need not always behave as they do now; their current faults can be blamed on their current lack of enlightenment, or on the corrupting influence of their political and social environment.
(Book I, Chapter V; Penguin Enquiry, 145)
Despite its popularity, this doctrine is insufficiently supported by evidence or argument and ought to be abandoned. In abandoning the progressive hypothesis, I do not mean to imply that social progress is impossible, or that the results of progress in one area of human development would have no effect on other human capacities. Certainly we ought to strive to insure that, unlike the present, adequate nutrition, education, and safe surroundings are available to everyone; and we would expect that meeting these needs could produce very important and desirable social changes. But we also ought not to believe that solving these deficiencies will be enough to resolve every other problem that human beings face.
Simple experience of two hundred years of the progressive hypothesis suggests that fundamental human failings^^-envy, xenophobia, selfishness^^-are simply not as easily eradicated from the human psyche as the theorists of enlightenment proposed. It is simply false that greater wealth, education and personal stability are any reliable guarantee of the level of benevolence and selflessness that Godwin predicts for his ideal society. And there are reasons to think that even ideally rational and mutually cooperative people would still have considerable potential for social conflict simply because two different morally supportable projects are capable of coming into conflict.
If we assume that human beings, for the foreseeable future, will retain at least some of their bad characteristics, what becomes of the quest for a stateless society? The following chapter examines two different anarchist proposals: the anthropological and the libertarian. I conclude that neither proposal supports the view that our society can look forward to a condition of statelessness.
 One can carry out a fairly straightforward demonstration of the contemporary importance of autonomy simply by looking in the Philosophers' Index. Also, see Christman 1989, Dworkin 1988 and 1989, and Frankfurt 1989, for discussions of the multiplicity of modern theories of autonomy.
 See Christman 1989, as well as the essays in the same volume by Feinberg and Dworkin, for a discussion of the complicated modern situation of the concept of autonomy.
 Here I assume that readers either are already familiar with the Groundwork or can easily acquaint themselves with that work and the many commentaries on it. This is in order to avoid a digressive in-depth exposition of Kant's philosophy, particularly when any number of writers have already performed this task more thoroughly than I could hope to do in the available space.
 Kant's well-known insistence on this point is found in the Groundwork (1956) at 65-7. See Herman 1993 for an interesting discussion of the plausibility of Kant's view that the motive of duty is the only morally good motive. Her argument rests in part on the observation that Kant's theory of motivation departs from empiricist assumptions. Kant, says Herman, allows that non-dutiful motivations may be present in morally good actions, provided that they act only as incentives, not reasons, for action. (This distinction makes no sense, according to Herman, if one adopts common empiricist assumptions about how motivation works.)
 For the notion of agent-centeredness, see Scheffler 1986 and 1992.
 In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to this discussion. See Book III, Chapter III.
 This claim must, of course, be understood in the context of the changes that promises or sentiments create in others' reasonable expectations for one's behavior. Godwin, no less than modern utilitarians, admits that promises make a difference toward how one must act. These thinkers simply deny that making a promise creates an obligation that, by itself, strongly overrides independent considerations of utility. Any consequentialist will admit that by promising, I create expectations; and failing to fulfill those expectations will create negative consequences which must be taken fully into consideration when determining one's course of action.
 This essay is reprinted in Uncollected Writings, Godwin 1968.
 For an interesting discussion of Godwin's views on moral motivation, see Singer et al. 1995.
 This categorization, as well as a considerable amount of the supporting argument, was suggested to me by David Hills.
 See Dworkin 1988, 1989; and Frankfurt 1989. For discussion of the Dworkin/Frankfurt model and alternatives to it, see Christman 1989. My discussion is not meant to imply that the Dworkin/Frankfurt model is the only important current model of autonomy. But it is a well-known, influential model of autonomy that shares important characteristics with the Kantian conception.
 See Mill 1972, 143-54; also Sidgwick 1981, esp. 444-45.
 The existence of better-informed experts plays an important role in the justification of the state in chapter 5.
 For an intriguing discussion of Godwin's changes in his doctrine of private property from the first to the third editions of the Enquiry, see Claeys 1984.
 This comment is not meant to imply that Kant was dangerously illiberal; rather, it is meant to indicate that Godwin's view led him to make an even further step in the direction of minimizing interference in the individual's decisions.
 Chapter 5 investigates the sorts of cases in which it is reasonable to assume an epistemic advantage on the part of regulating authority.
 Some of these stories are, no doubt, true to life; but probably not as many as people would like.
 Though as chapter 5 makes clear, the ideal of a completely stateless society is not mandated even by the sum of these principles.
 This last penalty is not quite as deranged as it sounds. It was aimed at poachers, who in the 1720s had taken to blackening their faces before engaging in hunting and vandalism on the manors of local landowners.
 From this point of view, the current movement in the United States toward mandatory sentencing is an unfortunate trend, as it takes away discretion from trial judges who are better placed to judge the details of each case than are legislatures.
 Of course, as some commentators have noted, this does not mean that the state is the only institution that ever uses force or coercion; nor has any state claimed to be such an institution or tried to become such. The claim is, rather, that the state is the sole arbiter of when force can legitimately be used. Legitimate use of force may be delegated by the state to various private groups or individuals, but only in certain circumstances and within specified bounds; and determinations of whether use of force falls within those specified bounds is reserved to the state or its representative agent.
 Naturally, not all small, self-governing communities are in fact governed by reason and persuasion. My intention is not merely to suggest a policy of decentralization, but also a norm of peaceful rationality for the governance of small communities. See chapter 6 for detailed examination of this matter.
 For more information on classic defenses of the common law, see Postema 1986, especially chapters 1 and 2.
 The major exceptions to this rule often deal with areas which the law enters only reluctantly, such as juvenile and family law. In such areas, the courts often rely quite explicitly on other sources of social control, such as the family, rather than state-administered sanctions.
 Which is not to say that Godwin was necessarily as blindly optimistic as he sometimes seems in the pages of the Enquiry. As his novels indicate, Godwin was acutely aware of the tendencies of even close friends to act in ways that were profoundly different from what his own rational guidelines would encourage.
 I discuss the omnipotence of truth in the previous chapter.
 See Kavka 1995.
Proceed to Chapter 4
Return to the Table of Contents
Return to Chris Roberson's home page