An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice
by William Godwin

ENQUIRY

CONCERNING


POLITICAL JUSTICE

AND

ITS INFLUENCE

ON

MORALS AND HAPPINESS.

BY WILLIAM GODWIN.


THE FOURTH EDITION

IN TWO VOLUMES.

VOL I.



LONDON:

J.WATSON, 5 PAUL'S ALLEY, PATERNOSTER ROW.

1842


Few works of literature are held to be of more general use, than those which treat in a methodical and elementary way of the principles of science. But the human mind in every enlightened age is progressive; and the best elementary treatises, after a certain time, are reduced in value by the operation of subsequent discoveries. Hence it has always been desired by the intelligent, that new works of this kind should from time to time be brought forward, including the improvements, which had not yet been realised when former compilations upon the subject were produced. It would be strange if something of this kind were not requisite in the science of politics, after the concussion that the minds of men have suffered upon this subject, and the materials that have been furnished, by the recent experiments of America and France. A sense of the value of such a work, if properly executed, was the motive which gave birth to these volumes.

Authors who have formed the design of supplying the defects of their predecessors, will be found, if they were in any degree equal to the task, not merely to have collected the scattered information that had been produced upon the subject, but to have enlarged the science by the effect of their own mediations. In the following work principles will occasionally occur, which it will not be just to reject without examination, upon the ground of their apparent novelty. It was impossible perseveringly to reflect upon so comprehensive a science, and a science which may be said to be yet in its infancy, without being led into ways of thinking that were is some degree uncommon.

Another argument in favour of the utility of such a work, was frequently in the author's mind, and therefore ought to be mentioned. He conceived politics to be the proper vehicle of a liberal morality. That description of ethics will be found perhaps to be worthy of slight estimation, which confines itself to petty detail and the offices of private life, instead of designing the combined and simultaneous improvement of communities and nations. But, if individual correction ought not to be the grand purpose of ethics, neither ought it by any means to be overlooked. It appeared sufficiently practicable to make of such a treatise, exclusively of its direct political use, an advantageous vehicle for this subordinate purpose. The author was accordingly desirous of producing a work from the perusal of which no man should rise, without being strengthened in habits of sincerity, fortitude, and justice.

Having stated the considerations in which the work originated, it is proper to mention a few circumstances of the outline of its history. It was projected in the month of May 1791: the composition was begun in the following September, and has therefore occupied a space of sixteen months. This period was for the most part devoted to the purpose with unusual ardour. It were to be wished it had been longer; but the state of the public mind and of the general interests of the species operated as a strong argument in favour of an early publication.

The printing of the following treatise, as well as the composition, was influenced by the same principle, a desire to reconcile a certain degree of dispatch with the necessary deliberation. The printing was for that reason commenced long before the composition was finished. Some disadvantages have arisen from this circumstance. The ideas of the author became more perspicuous and digested as his enquiries advanced. The longer he considered the subject, the more clearly he seemed to understand it. This circumstance has led him into some inaccuracies of language and reasoning, particularly in the earlier part of the work, respecting the properties and utility of government. He did not enter upon the subject without being aware that government by its very nature counteracts the improvement of individual intellect; but, as the views he entertains in this particular are out of the common road, it is scarcely to be wondered at that he understood the proposition more completely as he proceeded, and saw more distinctly into the nature of the remedy. This defect, together with some others, might, under a different mode of preparation, have been avoided. The judicious reader will make a suitable allowance. The author judges upon a review that the errors are not such as essentially to affect the object of the work, and that more has been gained than lost by the conduct he has pursued.1

In addition to what is here stated it may not be useless to describe the progress by which the author's mind was led to its present sentiments. They are not the suggestions of any sudden effervescence of fancy. Political enquiry had long held a considerable place in the writer's attention. It is now twelve years since he became satisfied that monarchy was a species of government essentially corrupt. He owed this conviction to the political writings of Swift and to a perusal of the Latin historians. Nearly at the same time he derived much additional stimulus from several French productions on the nature of man which fell into his hands in the following order, the Systéme de la Nature, the works of Rousseau, and those of Helvetius. Long before he projected the present work his mind had been familiarized to several of the speculations suggested in it respecting justice, gratitude, the rights of man, promises, oaths and the omnipotence of opinion. Of the desirableness of a government in the utmost degree simple he was not persuaded but in consequence of ideas suggested by the French revolution. To the same event he owes the determination of mind which gave birth to the present work.

The period in which it makes its appearance is singular. The people of England have assiduously been excited to declare their loyalty, and to mark every man as obnoxious who is not ready to sign the Shibboleth of the constitution. Money is raised by voluntary subscription to defray the expense of prosecuting men who shall dare to promulgate heretical opinions, and thus to oppress them at once with the authority of government, and the resentment of individuals. This was an accident unforeseen when the work was undertaken; and it will scarcely be supposed that such an accident could produce any alteration in the writer's designs. Every man, if we may believe the voice of rumour, is to be prosecuted who shall appeal to the people by the publication of any unconstitutional paper or pamphlet; and it is added that men are to be punished for any unguarded words that may be dropped in the warmth of conversation and debate.2 It is now to be tried whether, in addition to these alarming encroachments upon our liberty, a book is to fall under the arm of the civil power which, beside the advantage of having for one of its express objects the dissuading from tumult and violence, is by its very nature an appeal to men of study and reflection. It is to be tried whether an attempt shall be made to suppress the activity of mind, and put an end to the disquisitions of science. Respecting the event in a personal view the author has formed his resolution. Whatever conduct his countrymen may pursue, they will not be able to shake his tranquillity. The duty he conceives himself most bound to discharge is the assisting the progress of truth; and, if he suffer in any respect for such a proceeding, there is certainly no vicissitude that can befal him that can ever bring along with it a more satisfactory consolation.

But, exclusively of this precarious and unimportant consideration, it is the fortune of the present work to appear before a public that is panic struck, and impressed with the most dreadful apprehensions respecting such doctrines as are here delivered. All the prejudices of the human mind are in arms against it. This circumstance may appear to be more essential than the other. But it is the property of truth to be fearless, and to prove victorious over every adversary. It requires no great degree of fortitude to look with indifference upon the false fire of the moment, and to foresee the calm period of reason which will succeed.

London, January 7, 1793

PREFACE

To

THE SECOND EDITION.

The reception of the following work has been such as to exceed what the author dared to promise himself. Its principles and reasoning have obtained the attention of the public to a considerable extent. This circumstance he has construed as imposing upon him the duty of a severe and assiduous revisal. Every author figures to himself, while writing, a numerous and liberal attention to his lucubrations: if he did not believe that he had something to offer that was worthy of public notice, it is impossible that he should write with any degree of animation. But the most ardent imagination can scarcely be expected to come in competition with sense. In the present instance, there are many things that now appear to the author upon a review, not to have been mediated with a sufficiently profound reflection, and to have been too hastily obtruded upon the reader. These things have been pruned away with a liberal hand. The wish nearest to his heart is, that there should be nothing in the book unworthy of the cause it was intended to serve. But, though he professes to have done much, much yet remains to be done. After repeated revisals the jealous eye of a man habituated to the detection of errors, still discovers things that might be better. Some are obscure; some are doubtful. As to the last, the author did not conceive himself at liberty to retract anything without a conviction, or something near a conviction, that he was wrong. He deemed it by no means justifiable to suppress any opinion, because it was inconsistent with the prejudice or persuasion of others. A circumstance by which it was originally intended that this book should be characterised, was a perfect explicitness and unreserve; and even if this intention should at last be an improper one, it was apparently too late to reverse it. It would have been an act incompatible with every pretension to integrity, to have rescinded sentiments originally advanced as true, so long as they stood forward to the author's mind accompanied with their original evidence.

It will perhaps be asked by some persons in perusing the present edition, how it has happened that the author has varied in so many points from the propositions advanced in the former? and this variation may even be treated as a topic of censure. To this he has only to answer, in the first place, that the spirit and great outlines of the work, he believes, remain untouched, and that it is reasoned in various particulars with more accuracy from the premises aand fundamental positions, than it was before. Secondly, he presumes to ascribe the variations to an industrious and conscientious endeavour to keep his mind awake to correction and improvement. He has in several instances detected error; and so far is he from feeling mortified at the discovery, that he hopes yet, by such activity and impartiality as he shall be able to exert, to arrive at many truths, of which he has scarcely at present perhaps the slighest presentiment.

Some apology is due to the purchasers of the former edition respecting the variations that appear in this. It was extremely the wish of the author, that the variations should be printed separately for their use. But how was this possible? They grew under his hands; and at last, out of eight books of which the work consists, the four first and the last may, without impropriety, be said to be re-written. An obvious alternative unavoidably offers itself. If the work be of that useless sort with which the press is daily encumbered, these purchasers will not be very solicitous about the variations of such a performance. If on the contrary it be a production of any value, they will probably sympathise with the author. He feels himself particularly indebted to them, for having enabled him to bring the work to its present state of correction; and it is to be hoped that they will not regret the having been instrument to that purpose. The parts of the work in which the most material variations of deduction or statement appear, will be found under the following titles, The Characters of Men Originate in the External Circumstances, The Voluntary Actions of Men Originate in their Opinions, Of Personal Virtue and Duty, Of Rights, Of Promises, Of Obedience, Of Forms of Government,3 Illustrations of Sincerity, Of Self-love and Benevolence, Of Good and Evil, Principles of Property, and Of the Supposed Advantages of Luxury. Important explanations are also subjoined on the topics of marriage and longevity, Book VIII., Appendices to Chaps. VIII., and IX. To these the author would wish particularly to call the attention of his former readers. Inferior variations are scattered everywhere, and are impossible to be enumerated.

The Enquiry concerning Political Justice has been treated by some persons as of a seditious and inflammatory nature. This is probably an aspersion. If the political principles in favour of which it is written have no solid foundation, they have little chance to obtain more than a temporary fashion; and the present work is ill calculated to answer a temporary purpose. If on the contrary they be founded in immutable truth, it is highly probably, to say the least, that they will one day gain a decisive ascendancy. In that case, the tendency of such a disquisition, will be to smooth the gradation, and to prepare the enlightened to sympathise with the just claims of the oppressed and the humble No man can more fervently deprecate scenes of commotion and tumult, than the author of this book; no man would more anxiously avoid the lending his assistance in the most distant manner to animosity and bloodshed; but he persuades himself that, whatever may be the events with which the present crisis of human history shall be distinguished, the effect of his writings, as far as they are in any degree remembered, will be found favourable to the increase and preservation of general kindness and benevolence.

OCTOBER 29, 1795.

•••

ADVERTISEMENT.

The author has not failed to make use of the opportunity afforded him by the Third Edition, to revise the work throughout. The alterations however that he has made, though numerous, are not of a fundamental nature. Their object has been merely to remove a few of the crude and juvenile remarks, which, upon consideration, he thought himself able to detect, in the book as it originally stood.

JULY 1797.


SUMMARY OF PRINCIPLES

ESTABLISHED AND REASONED UPON IN THE FOLLOWING WORK



The reader who would form a just estimate of the reasonings of these volumes cannot perhaps proceed more judiciously than by examining for himself the truth of these principles, and the support they afford to the various inferences interspersed through the work.



I.

THE true object of moral and political disquisition, is pleasure or happiness.

The primary, or earliest, class of human pleasures is the pleasures of the external senses.

In addition to these, man is susceptible of certain secondary plea- sures, as the pleasures of intellectual feeling, the pleasures of sympathy, and the pleasures of self-approbation.

The secondary pleasures are probably more exquisite than the primary:

Or, at least,

The most desirable state of man is that in which he has access to all these sources of pleasure, and is in possession of a happiness the most varied and uninterrupted.

This state is a state of high civilization.

II.

The most desirable condition of the human species is a state of society.

The injustice and violence of men in a state of society produced the demand for government.

Government, as it was forced upon mankind by their vices, so has it commonly been the creature of their ignorance and mistake.

Government was intended to suppress injustice, but it offers new occasions and temptations for the commission of it.

By concentrating the force of the community, it gives occasion to wild projects of calamity, to oppression, despotism, war and conquest.

By perpetuating and aggravating the inequality of property, it fosters many injurious passions, and excites men to the practice of robbery and fraud.

Government was intended to suppress injustice, but its effect has been to embody and perpetuate it.

III.

The immediate object of government is security.

The means employed by government is restriction, an abridg- ment of individual independence.

The pleasures of self-approbation, together with the right cultiva- tion of all our pleasures, require individual independence.

Without independence men cannot become either wise, or useful, or happy.

Consequently, the most desirable state of mankind is that which maintains general security, with the smallest incroachment upon individual independence.

IV.

The true standard of the conduct of one man towards another, is justice.

Justice is a principle which proposes to itself the production of the greatest sum of pleasure or happiness.

Justice requires that I should put myself in the place of an impartial spectator of human concerns, and divest myself of retrospect to my own predilections.

Justice is a rule of the utmost universality, and prescribes a speci- fic mode of proceeding, in all affairs by which the happiness of a human being may be affected.

V.

Duty is that mode of action which constitutes the best application of the capacity of the individual to the general advantage.

Right is the claim of the individual to his share of the benefit arising from his neighbours' discharge of their several duties.

The claim of the individual is either to the exertion or the for- bearance of his neighbours.

The exertions of men in society should ordinarily be trusted to their discretion; their forbearance, in certain cases, is a point of more pressing necessity, and is the direct province of political superintendence, or government.

VI.

The voluntary actions of men are under the direction of their feelings.

Reason is not an independent principle, and has no tendency to excite us to action; in a practical view, it is merely a com- parison and balancing of different feelings.

Reason, though it cannot excite us to action, is calculated to regulate our conduct, according to the comparative worth it ascribes to different excitements.

It is to the improvement of reason therefore that we are to look for the improvement of our social condition.

VII.

Reason depends for its clearness and strength upon the cultiva- tion of knowledge.

The extent of our progress in the cultivation of knowledge is unlimited.

Hence it follows,

1. That human inventions, and the modes of social existence, are susceptible of perpetual improvement.

2. That institutions calculated to give perpetuity to any particular mode of thinking, or condition of existence, are pernicious.

VIII.

The pleasures of intellectual feeling, and the pleasures of self- approbation, together with the right cultivation of all our pleasures, are connected with soundness of understanding.

Soundness of understanding is inconsistent with prejudice: con- sequently, as few falsehoods as possible, either speculative or practical, should be fostered among mankind.

Soundness of understanding is connected with freedom of enquiry; consequently, opinion should, as far as public security will admit, be exempted from restraint.

Soundness of understanding is connected with simplicity of manners, and leisure for intellectual cultivation: conse- quently, a distribution of property extremely unequal, is adverse to the most desirable state of man.


Footnotes

1The defects here alluded to, have been attempted to be rectified in the second edition. It is impossible perhaps so to improve a crude and unequal performance, as to remove every vestige of its original blemish.

2The first conviction of this kind, was of a journeyman tallow-chandler, January 8, 1793, who, being shown the regalia at the Tower, was proved to have vented a coarse expression against royalty to the person that exhibited them.

3The principles delivered on this subject in the last chapter of Book III., are more fully developed in the three first chapters of Book IV.