Enquiry Concerning Political Justice


Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, by William Godwin, Abridged and edited by K. Codell Carter, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, Hardcover and Paperback, 340 pp.

William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice is perhaps the most notable attempt at a systematic presentation of anarchist theory in the history of political thought. For a few years after the work's appearance in 1793, it exerted a considerable influence on English radicalism, only to fall into general disfavor during the period of reaction which soon set in. In later years it has been for the most part ignored. Since the beginning of the 19th century it has seldom been reprinted, and Godwin has been known primarily through usually brief and often inaccurate references by historians of political theory. Yet he is a theorist of considerable ability, and Political Justice is interesting both as an ambitious attempt at the application of metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical principles to political theory, and for its challenging approach to topics such as political authority, rights, punishment, and property. Furthermore, the revival of interest in anarchism which has occurred in the past few years should result in a growing interest in Godwin, the first and one of the most capable exponents of philosophical anarchism. Until the appearance of this new edition, the only version available has been F.E.L. Priestley's excellent but quite expensive three-volume edition. The existence of a paperback edition therefore fulfills a need for the accessibility of the work to a much wider audience.

Carter has included in his abridgement all that is necessary for an understanding of the underlying philosophical principles of the work and their application to the issues of politics. Very little is omitted from the first four books, wherein Godwin sets forth the foundations of his philosophy. There he expounds his views that human thought and action are under the influence of the environment and that a change in social institutions is capable of producing vast moral improvement. He argues for social melioration through a growth of rationality, and contends that human beings are capable of guiding their actions by rational benevolence. His moral philosophy is a form of hedonistic utilitarianism and accordingly he presents a utilitarian interpretation of concepts such as justice, virtue, duty and rights. In this part of the work he also launches a defense of the utility of private judgment, and argues that political authority is a threat to individual autonomy.

The latter four books of Political Justice are concerned with an application of the basic principles to more specific political issues. Carter deletes much of Godwin's criticism of monarchy and aristocracy, but he retains the essentials of his polemic against both authoritarian and centralized government, and his apology for the autonomous decentralized community as the form of social life most consonant with individual autonomy and social progress. The reader will also find intact the important elements of Godwin's defense of freedom of expression (which anticipated many of the arguments of Mill), his critique of punishment, and his analysis of property in terms of a utilitarian criterion of distribution according to need.

Although the editor has done a commendable job of abridgement, there are several sections the omission of which must be regretted. Examples are some of Godwin's comments on monarchy, which have a bearing on the question of a strong executive (of particular contemporary interest is the omitted chapter on "a President with Regal Powers"), and a portion of the chapter on the "Scale of Punishment" which deals with concrete proposals for alternatives to imprisonment. However, the most serious omission consists of several sections which have often been attacked as extremely utopian and unrealistic. The best known of these sections is his description of an ideal future society in which human life will be indefinitely extended, and there will come an end to war, crime, government, disease, and unhappiness. It is true that Godwin himself calls these sections "conjecture" and does not consider them essential to his argument. However, since they have given rise to so much misinterpretation and unjustified criticism of Godwin in the past, they perhaps ought to have been left for the reader's own evaluation.

Carter's introduction to the edition constitutes one of the most successful short accounts of Godwin's political thought to appear to date. It performs the useful function of setting right many of the distortions of Godwin's ideas which have persisted through nearly two centuries of misinterpretation. He points out, for example, the fundamental utilitarianism of Godwin's moral philosophy (a quality missed by many commentators, including, most notably, Priestley). Moreover, he stresses the overall consistency with which Godwin applies the premises of his utilitarian ethics to social and political issues; a consistency often obscured by his frequent lack of care in the use of language. Carter also distinguishes Godwin's doctrine of perfectibility from the sort of naive optimism for which it has so often been mistaken. Furthermore, he shows the centrality of the author's environmentalism to the doctrines of Political Justice. One of the most significant contributions of the essay is an interesting argument concerning Godwin's view that human beings always do what they believe to be most desirable. Carter argues that although this contention may be based on faulty premises (as critics like D.H. Monro have suggested), it may still be a defensible description of human action.

Carter is, however, less successful in his attempt to exhibit a weakness in Godwin's attack on governmental authority. He holds that government may escape the force of Godwin's criticism if it can be shown to rest on a type of authority other than those discussed in Political Justice. However, the only possibility he mentions, the kind of authority which is delegated to an agent, is in fact dealt with by Godwin. He recognizes such authority as being at times a practical necessity; yet, he holds it to be in all cases a threat to autonomy, and therefore to require strict limitation. Furthermore, he argues in his discussion of social contract theory that a government which purports to rest on such authority would have difficulty justifying coercion.

Carter makes the valid point that some of Godwin's argument, particularly on the subjects of property and punishment, is weakened by a lack of empirical evidence. An instance is the contention that punishment for the sake of example fails to have the desired effect—deterrence. Godwin badly misuses the ideas of Italian criminologist Cesare Beccaria by invalidly applying to punishment in general arguments which that writer more successfully directed against capital punishment in particular. However, it might be said in Godwin's behalf that some elements of his discussion escape the criticism, since they consist of philosophical analysis of concepts, and are not dependent on empirical evidence. This is the case with his assertion that punishment for the purpose of example by its very nature inevitably conflicts with the utilitarian concern for the uniqueness of situations.

For the most part, Carter demonstrates an unusual perception of the value of Godwin's speculation on political issues such as the nature of authority, the effects of force, and the consequences of punishment and inequality. A notable exception, however, is his failure to appreciate the contemporary relevance of Godwin's concept of social organization. It is true that Godwin's extreme individualism prevented him from developing any convincing proposals for voluntary association to replace state power: this task was left for Bakunin, Kropotkin, and other exponents of social anarchism. Yet his arguments against centralized authority and his defense of decentralization are of great significance in laying the groundwork for both classical anarchist theory and for contemporary libertarian thought. In view of the revival of interest in anarchist and decentralist ideas (as exemplified by the movements for workers' control, community control of schools, and neighborhood government) the importance of Godwin's critique of centralized organization, and, therefore, the importance of the book Political Justice, has grown significantly.

John P. Clark is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University in New Orleans.