Godwin Revisited: Anarchism for the Real World


Christopher Joseph Roberson

Chair: Elizabeth Anderson

Anarchism's traditional focus on the abolition of the state has contributed to its current disrepute. I argue that this disrepute is undeserved. My dissertation explores the possibility that the most important goal of anarchism-the exercise of individuality in the context of peaceable and egalitarian communities-is compatible with the existence of state authority. My position incorporates the insights of modern theorists such as Joseph Raz and Michael Taylor in dialogue with those of the first anarchist philosopher, William Godwin.

Most current attempts to defend anarchism suffer from a lack of grounding in a detailed value theory. Godwin's theory can provide that grounding. I present and interpret his theory and its historical roots in the work of Richard Price and other Puritan writers. Godwin's theory is based on a view of the good life as inherently involving the development and exercise of individual autonomy, or private judgment. This perfectionist view differs from many contemporary liberal social and political theories, which call for state neutrality between differing conceptions of the good.

Even if Godwin's theory is acceptable, it appears that the traditional anarchist goal of a stateless society should be abandoned. I argue that attempts by writers such as Michael Taylor and Murray Rothbard to demonstrate the dispensability of state authority are flawed, and that modern society cannot be just in the absence of the state. But Godwin's perfectionist principles can support the creation of a limited state. A state based on these principles would in most ways resemble modern Rawlsian liberalism, rather than libertarianism. The primary differences would be its perfectionist rather than neutralist grounding, a greater emphasis on decentralization of power, and community participation in the creation of social order.

Finally, I examine some of the ways in which communities can produce social order, and recommend some ways to ensure that these communities are fair, peaceful, and productive of individual freedom.

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