An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

by William Godwin
Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1487

In 1793, William Godwin, the first philosopher of anarchism, published An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. This three-volume work gives evidence of being strongly influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution and argues that the rational being, the human, must be given complete freedom to exercise pure reason. All forms of government, being founded on irrational assumptions, are tyrannical and eventually must be eliminated. Laws have been produced not by wisdom but by greed and fear, so they should be replaced by the products of reasonable people’s ability to make decisions. Accumulated property is a means of exploitation and, consequently, must be abolished. This last point was, however, modified in a later edition. With its varying degrees of indebtedness to Aristippus, Plato, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Claude-Adrien Helvétius, and despite its equivocating alterations in the final revision, Godwin’s book gave evidence of original thinking and provided generations of revolutionary thinkers with stimulation and guidance.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Godwin asserts that the general human objective is happiness; that politics, the promotion of individual good, is humanity’s most important pursuit; and that the two traditional articles of political liberty have been, first, “security of our persons,” and, second, “security of our property.” Godwin asks, however, would not a good government “take away all restraints upon the enquiring mind”? The early chapters of the book develop Godwin’s view that throughout history government has had a corrupting influence, but only because people have not lived up to their potential truthfulness and to their ability to see what is evil and what is good. The assumption is that if people will define clearly to themselves the genuinely good principles of life, government will improve.

Godwin surveys historically the destructiveness and futility of war, and to emphasize its irrational causes, he quotes at some length from the satire on war in book 2 of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). In the present condition, Godwin continues, punishment is the only means of repressing the violent revolt of the deprived masses. If government is a subject for discussion, however, then people might reasonably agree about it some day and see the advantages of freedom and equality.

From these premises Godwin proceeds to demonstrate that, of the three principal causes of moral improvement, both literature and education, though beneficial, have limitations, and that the third cause, political justice, is strong where the first two are weak. Political justice is strong in the extent of its operation. When political justice is equally addressed to all, it will impart virtue to all. Since error and injustice tend to destroy themselves, it is doubtful whether they could be perpetuated without governmental support, for government “reverses the genuine propensities of mind, and instead of suffering us to look forward, teaches us to look backward for perfection.” To exemplify how political institutions have in the past militated against moral improvement, Godwin points out the destructive passions engendered by the inequality of property, the magnificence accorded to enormous wealth, and the insolence and usurpation of rich persons. Traditionally, both legislation and administration of the law have favored the rich and have repressed the freedom of the poor to resist the rich.

Godwin asserts strongly that humanity’s most distinguished and most important characteristic is its perfectibility, by which he means not the capacity to become perfect but, rather, the capability to improve. Evidences of humanity’s progressive nature are the development of language and the invention of alphabetical writing. Having asserted that all science and all art are capable of being further perfected, Godwin asks why the same should not be true of morals and social institutions. On the usefulness of history in this regard, he comments: “Let us look back, that we may profit by the experience of mankind; but let us not look back as if the wisdom of our ancestors was such as to leave no room for future improvements.”

The true instruments of moral influence, in Godwin’s opinion, are not direct physical causes such as climate but, rather, such concepts as desire and aversion or punishment and reward. Definitely restrictive to moral progress are the institutions or professions that always operate to produce a certain character or stereotype and thus suppress frankness of mind. The example cited by Godwin is the priesthood, which requires that all priests must be alike in their subservience. Godwin is certain that free people in any country will be “firm, vigorous and spirited in proportion to their freedom,” as, conversely, slaves will be “ignorant, servile and unprincipled.”

When the magic of the indoctrinated idea is dissolved and the great majority of any society seek true benefits, the struggle need not involve tumult or violence. Indeed, “the effort would be to resist reason, not to obey it.” Just views must be infused into the liberally educated, but this process must come about gradually. Humanity’s basic error in politics is the supposition that a change is impracticable, with the result that humanity does not look forward incessantly to the accomplishment of change. People, Godwin asserts, do not choose evil when they see it to be evil. Therefore, once having shaken off an injurious evil, a society will not permit its revival unless its conviction of truth becomes obliterated.

An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice develops a theme that is in close agreement with Thomas Paine’s belief that society, being produced by human wants, is a blessing, but that government, necessitated by human wickedness, is at its best a necessary evil. Godwin defines the term “justice” as meaning that the individual should contribute everything in his or her power to the benefit of the whole, the whole being not the state but other individuals. The importance to the general weal must be the only standard, and a benefit conferred upon an individual to the detriment of the society is wrong. Even one’s self-preservation must be based on the premise of one’s good to the society—to all. An important theme in Godwin’s book is the propriety of applying more justice in order to ascertain political truth.

Society is bound to do for its members everything that can contribute to their welfare. In Godwin’s view, what most enlarges the mind—virtue and consciousness of independence—contributes most to this welfare. Individuals, for their part, must follow the best knowledge obtainable. Regarding the possibility that a wrong action may result even from the individual’s best intention, Godwin says: “If the disposition by which a man is governed have a systematical tendency to the benefit of his species, he cannot fail to obtain our esteem, however mistaken he may be in his conduct.” Virtue is essentially the incessant search for accurate knowledge about utility and right, in which search the exercise of private judgment and the dictates of individual conscience must be accorded primary importance. Since pleasure is to be desired and pain to be avoided, individuals should contribute to the pleasure and benefit of one another and should oppose the despot’s power, which is based on indoctrination and is productive of pain.

Moral equality consists of “the propriety of applying one unalterable rule of justice to every case that may arise.” Two persons cannot have opposite rights. Moreover, people really have no rights. Since rights can apply only to totally indifferent issues (where to sit and the like), and since an intelligent person immediately becomes a moral person with duties, rights and duties are absolutely exclusive of each other. Although society, composed of individuals, also has no rights, people must, under the present inadequate government, assert some “rights.”

Godwin argues further that judgment is founded on evidence, so compulsion cannot bring people to uniformity of opinion. Government needs to be perfected away from the concept of compulsion; the insignificant individual must be made free to criticize the august senate. Countries in which decrees instead of arguments are what rule contain “mere phantoms of men,” who give no indication of what they might be if they were entirely free to follow the dictates of conscience and to speak and to act as they think. Finally, individual justice—equality and freedom—must be the basis and goal of improvement in government.

Having set forth the underlying principles of his theory, Godwin proceeds to criticize existing society, develop his system of social ethics, and predict conditions of the future. His confidence in the power of reason gives the book an optimism which has frequently been criticized as unresponsive to the lessons of history. While it is true that his emphasis on necessity (cause and effect viewed as an invariable sequence) is inconsistent with his simultaneous assertion of the efficacy of education, Godwin has been unfairly criticized for maintaining that enlightened education could rectify the falsity and the ignorance of human judgment. Such a criticism cannot be fairly administered until after the society has made a concerted effort to educate itself as Godwin proposed.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access