Written by and shared with permission of Elliot Temple on July 28, 2011.
William Godwin (1756-1836) was originally a Christian minister and tory, but was persuaded of liberalism and atheism. He subsequently made important advances in liberal philosophy. He is not well known, and has a false reputation as a radical socialist anarchist. His good ideas have been neglected or not understood (or, perhaps, neglected due to not being understood).
I consider Godwin the best liberal philosopher of all time.
Godwin has a unique way of approaching liberalism. Here are some of the other approaches for comparison:
- With a focus on capitalism and economics arguments, like Ludwig von Mises or Friedrich Hayek
- With a focus on piecemeal reform while respecting tradition, like Edmund Burke
- With a focus on avoiding totalitarianism, and being able to implement reforms without violence, like Karl Popper
- With a focus on concepts like freedom, reason, progress and kindness
- With a focus on individualist moral principles, like Ayn Rand
Godwin is different. His primary principles could be summarized as fallibilism and persuasion. He wants people to live by their own understanding and judgement.
Godwin did not know Popperian epistemology nor modern economics, both of which had not yet been invented. He was familiar with the ideas of economists of his time like Adam Smith and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot.
In the early 1790's Godwin made several attempts to chart the development of his philosophical principles. Here are a few he listed:
1779 That man is in a state of perpetual improvement
1781 That commerce ought not to be regulated
1788 That the varieties of mind are the produce of education
1790 That God ought not to be worshipped
"That man is in a state of perpetual improvement" has a lot in common with The Beginning of Infinity (BoI). Godwin explains more in _Political Justice_ (PJ):
Sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be victorious over error: Sound reasoning and truth are capable of being so communicated: Truth is omnipotent: The vices and moral weakness of man are not invincible: Man is perfectible, or in other words susceptible of perpetual improvement.
This is the unbounded progress that BoI speaks of. And it says, with BoI, that there are no insoluble problems. And Godwin clarifies elsewhere that he doesn't mean people can reach perfection, only that they can improve without limit.
Godwin's most important idea has to do with the irrationality of force, and the superiority of persuasion. Some quotes:
The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature; by William Godwin; New York 1965; p 77-78
If a thing be really good, it can be shown to be such. If you cannot demonstrate its excellence, it may well be suspected that you are no proper judge of it.
From Political Justice:
Let us consider the effect that coercion produces upon the mind of him against whom it is employed. It cannot begin with convincing; it is no argument. It begins with producing the sensation of pain, and the sentiment of distaste. It begins with violently alienating the mind from the truth with which we wish it to be impressed. It includes in it a tacit confession of imbecility. If he who employs coercion against me could mold me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak.
From Political Justice:
do you wish by the weight of your blows to make up for the deficiency of your logic? This can never be defended. An appeal to force must appear to both parties, in proportion to the soundness of their understanding, to be a confession of imbecility. He that has recourse to it would have no occasion for this expedient if he were sufficiently acquainted with the powers of that truth it is his office to communicate. If there be any man who, in suffering punishment, is not conscious of injury, he must have had his mind previously debased by slavery, and his sense of moral right and wrong blunted by a series of oppressions.
From Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin; General Editor Mark Philp; London 1993; Volume 2; p 60 [Essay against reopening the war with france, spring 1793]:
What is it that makes the true difference between the uncultivated savage, and the enlightened member of a civilised community? The single circumstance, that the one employs force to obtain his purposes, and the other reason. This is the fundamental principle of the true social science, that the mind cannot be mended by the exercise of compulsion.
These short quotes do not get the full point across. He speaks of this in many other places and integrates the concepts throughout his thinking. I will explain Godwin's fundamental point (based on many books, not just these quotes) in my words, sticking closely to what Godwin did say:
People are fallible. When they disagree, either or both of them could easily be wrong. Therefore disagreements should be approached with reasoned persuasion. If you are correct, and you explain why sufficiently well, then the other guy will agree with you and go along with what you suggested. If you can't persuade him, then you have to consider that maybe you are wrong, and this is certainly no time to use force.
Being forced feels psychologically the same for the other person if you are in fact right or not. That you are right, even if true, does not make it any better. It's cruel to use force and does not help him learn better. And the forcer may well be mistaken. If he really knew what he was talking about he'd be able to convince people.
Do not rush progress. If you can't convince people, get better ideas and arguments. If you're right, the delay isn't very important, and the insurance against error and avoidance of force are very important. Reforms need to wait until people are persuaded. Ideas need to come first, and persuade people, and then changes can easily be made afterwards.
The fundamental irrationality is to assume, in a disagreement, that you are right and the other guy is wrong, and that if he doesn't concede then that justifies the use of force against him. The rational approach is to treat all disagreements as opportunities to be open minded and seek the truth, and to cooperate in trying to discover what is best.
Consent is a crucial error correction mechanism. If people all consent, they might be mistaken, but at least in their best judgment they think the idea is OK. When consent is violated, it means doing something that someone thinks is a mistake. It is force instead of persuasion. People should interact when they consent to, and leave each other alone when they don't have unanimous consent to do something together.
One idea crucial to all this is that there *is* a truth (especially in morality), which is *best for everyone*. There is a truth to be found that makes no one a lose but everyone a win. People don't inherently have conflicts of interest that require them to fight, but actually can agree. Finding and agreeing on the truth is always in all of their best interests. Life does not require anyone ever to be sacrificed for me to get what I want.
Cooperation is always both possible and best. Sometimes the cooperation will be very minimal and consist of agreeing to leave each other alone. But at least that much is always possible for everyone to prefer and consent to.
This is what no one has explained or understood as well as Godwin did. Virtually no one has even understood it well enough to try (before me). And this is a better way to understand liberalism than any of the other ways. The others have great value, but this is more fundamental and more powerful.
These ideas directly favor concepts like:
- free trade: trade by unanimous consent when all parties are persuaded the trade would be an improvement
- respect for individually owned property: it may be best that I have your property. If so, I should persuade you, not take it. If I can't persuade you, I should work on creating better ideas, or consider that I may be mistaken.
- cooperation for mutual benefit with unanimous consent, or not at all
- non-violent conflict resolution mechanisms to deal with problems
Godwin applied his advanced philosophical understanding elsewhere. It matters beyond politics. And today it still yields conclusions that modern civilization does not know.
For example, Godwin knew that this all applies to the education of children. If a child disagrees with something, it is irrational to assume the educator has the truth. And if a child disagrees, and you force him, then even if you're right it is still the same psychologically for the child as if you were wrong. Educators should acknowledge their fallibility and proceed by persuasion.
Godwin also criticized punishment of criminals. Hurting people is irrational and cruel, and does not help them reform. In a better and more liberal society, criminals would never be punished and no one would wish vengeance. They would still need to pay reparations for harm done to the extent possible, and be prevented from doing further harm. Sometimes that would involve prison. But the purpose of prison would not be a punishment, it would be to keep people safe from them. This has straightforward consequences like that prisons need not be intentionally uncomfortable, which is contrary to modern prison design.
Other issues Godwin addressed (I won't give details here) include marriage, promises, nature/nurture, overpopulation and immortality.
Godwin is nothing like the "harsh, "greedy" capitalists that some complain of. He was open to the idea, for example, that many rich people should give away a considerable amount of their wealth to people who had objectively better uses for it. Yet Godwin's position is compatible with capitalism. He abhorred violence and would never wish anyone to take from a rich man. All you can legitimately do about rich men who "hoard" their wealth is persuade them, which is a form of helping them to have better ideas. If they don't listen, you might be mistaken, and the only thing to do is try to get better arguments/ideas and in the mean time leave them alone.
Various grievances expressed by progressive have some truth to them. Even Marx wasn't completely wrong about everything. People sometimes fear complaints by radicals because they could lead to violence. Godwin's philosophy renders such things harmless, and fully compatible with liberalism, by banning the use of force and insisting on rational persuasion and voluntary consent in all matters.
Even utopian dreams of a completely redesigned society are harmless when approached with the right methodology. When violence is completely out of the question, they won't hurt anyone.
One fact many critics of capitalism overlook, but which Godwin explained well, is that many of the unfairnesses of who has money are caused by Government. Many grievances they attribute to capitalism are caused by lack of capitalism. This point was made in general form in BoI in the Socrates dialog chapter, where they discuss what would happen if Athens thought stealing caused prosperity. When it failed to work, many people would think what they needed is more stealing. It's easy to be mistaken about what the causes of problems are.
In Godwin's time, this problem happened rather directly: the Government took money from everyone (via taxes) and then literally handed it out to favored people (e.g. to ancestors of war heroes). Pensions and land grants had a great deal of unfairness to them, and were backed by Government which implicitly means backed by violence against people who don't obey the rules.
Today, the Government makes many laws violating the principle of free tree. Each of these creates some unfairness, implicitly by force. Some people get rich because of bad laws, while others lose out. We have legitimate grievances against that. A common example is when the Government uses laws to prevent competition, thus securing a monopoly for a favored person, such as local cable monopolies.
I want to cover two more points which are Godwin's gradualism and the French Revolution. I'm going to include several quotes I think are worth reading.
Here is a gradualist and anti-revolutionary explanation, from Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin; General Editor Mark Philp; London 1993; Volume 2; p 219-220 [The Administration of 1806, published 1807]:
My political creed may be stated with great brevity and clearness. It consists of two parts, speculative and practical. In speculative politics, I indulge with great delight to my own mind (and I cannot easily persuade myself with injury to others), in mediating on what man can be, on all the good which our nature, taken in the most favourable point of view, seems to promise, and in endeavouring to trace in the wide and unexplored sea of future events, through what adventures and by what means that good (certainly in many of its branches exceedingly remote) may ultimately be brought home to man.
In practical politics, my path is marked with many a beacon, which is wanting to me in the tracks of speculation, and therefore I may hope is less exposed to error. In the first place, I am an enemy to revolutions. I abhor, both from temper, and from the clearest judgment I am able to form, all violent convulsions in the affairs of men. I look to the understanding alone for all real and solid improvements in the structure of human society. Whether the human mind shall exult most in the display of a gilded chariot and a splendid drawing-room, or in simplicity of manners and the practice of virtue, must depend on the judgment the human mind in the successive revolutions of things shall form of what it is that is exquisite and admirable.
I am therefore practically a friend to the English constitution. Not that I regard it, as some men have done, as the model of all that is the best in political government, and the consummation of human wisdom. But I find in it much that is good; and when I compare it with the government of the countries that surround us, devoutly do I admire it. Were it much worse than it is, my principles would restrain me from assailing it with violence; but as it is, that patience and filial tenderness towards it which my principles enjoin, is made likewise agreeable to my inclinations. I would treat it as I would a robe bestowed on me for the most useful purposes; I would repair it where it became decayed; in those repairs I would change in some respects the fashion of it as my conveniency seemed to require; but the changes that took place (to however great a sum they might one day amount) should be, separately taken, gentle, temperate, almost insensible. From a pure system of feudal manners, which the English constitution at one time was, it has gradually adapted itself to a mercantile and considerably luxurious nation; and I neither expect nor desire that it should continue unchanged in times to come, and more than it has remained unchanged in ages past.
Godwin wants reforms to be "separately taken, gentle, temperate, almost insensible", and without violence.
Here is a Godwin passage about gradualism that could have been written by Edmund Burke, from The Life of William Godwin; Ford K Brown; London&Toronto 1926; p 338 [letter to Cambridge student named Rosser in 1820]:
You express yourself ready to burst with joy on the event of the Spanish Revolution. All that I have seen I like, and I am willing to anticipate all that is good from it. A revolution that gives representation, that gives freedom of the press, that sets open the door of the prison, and that abolishes the inquisition, and all this without bloodshed, must have the approbation of every liberal mind. But I know too little respecting it. If it gives, as you say, universal suffrage, that is a pain to my heart. Without the spirit of prophecy, I can anticipate the most disastrous effects from that. England is not yet ripe for universal suffrage, and, as I have often said, if it was established here the monarchy probably would not stand a year. Now the medicine that is too strong for the English nation, I can never believe will work well in Spain.
Godwin would approve if there was no force or bloodshed. But overly ambitious reforms will not be accomplished without violence. Ideas need to come first and reform second.
Two more from Political Justice:
The only method according to which social improvements can be carried on, with sufficient prospect of an auspicious event, is when the improvement of our institutions advances in a just proportion to the illumination of the public understanding.
Under this view of the subject then it appears that revolutions, instead of being truly beneficial to mankind, answer no other purpose than that of marring the salutary and uninterrupted progress which might be expected to attend upon political truth and social improvement. They disturb the harmony of intellectual nature. They propose to give us something for which we are not prepared, and which we cannot effectually use. They suspend the wholesome advancement of science, and confound the process of nature and reason.
Godwin on revolutions in PJ:
Some links to more works:
Political Justice is his best book. Everyone should read it. That's why it's in the bibliography of the Beginning of Infinity!