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For and Against Ownership: William Godwin's Theory of Property

  • Robert Lamb

This article offers an interpretation of British philosopher William Godwin's theory of property ownership, as outlined in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Godwin's work can be read as presenting an incoherent account of property rights, which, on the one hand, justifies its existence on seemingly utilitarian grounds while, on the other, impugns its legitimacy on egalitarian grounds. But the contradiction apparent in Godwin's position is actually illusory and can in fact be plausibly interpreted as comprising a coherent two-level understanding of political morality, wherein the right to own private property is best comprehended as a “right to do wrong.”

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1 Clark, John P., The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

2 Marshall, Peter, William Godwin (London: Yale University Press, 1984); Locke, Don, A Fantasy of Reason: The Life and Thought of William Godwin (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980); Lamb, Robert, “Was William Godwin a Utilitarian?Journal of the History of Ideas 70 (2009): 119–41.

3 Philp, Mark, Godwin's Political Justice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).

4 Kramnick, Isaac, Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism: Political Ideology in Late Eighteenth-Century England and America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).

5 Godwin, William, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Modern Morals and Happiness, ed. Kramnick, Isaac (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976 [1798]), 701. This version of the third edition of the text is currently out of print, but it remains the most easily accessible.

6 Hazlitt, William, The Spirit of the Age, ed. Mackerness, E. D. (London: Collins, 1969 [1825]), 3537. As Gregory Claeys notes, although Godwin's “impact on the plebeian reform movement was more limited” than on the literate middle classes, it was nevertheless highly influential on the reformist London Corresponding Society's charismatic leading writer, orator, and key theoretician John Thelwall, and partly because of this, the reach of Godwinian ideas were most definitely not confined to the formally educated. Claeys, , The French Revolution Debate in Britain: The Origins of Modern Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 135.

7 See Paine, , “Agrarian Justice,” in The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Foner, Philip S., vol. 1 (New York: Citadel Press, 1969 [1796]); Wollstonecraft, Mary, “A Vindication of the Rights of Men,” in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Todd, Janet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994 [1790]); Thelwall, , “The Rights of Nature against the Usurpation of Establishments,” in The Political Writings of John Thelwall, ed. Claeys, Gregory (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1995 [1797]); Spence, , “The Rights of Infants,” in The Political Writings of Thomas Spence, ed. Dickinson, H. T. (Newcastle: Avero, 1982 [1797]).

8 Jones, Gareth Stedman, An End to Poverty? A Historical Debate (London: Profile, 2004).

9 Ibid., 92–96.

10 Horne, Thomas, Property Rights and Poverty: Political Argument in Britain, 1605–1834 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990). Like Stedman Jones, Horne does mention Godwin very briefly but only in relation to a discussion of Malthus (see 164–65, 167).

11 Godwin, Political Justice, 194. “There is no situation in which we can be placed, no alternative that can be presented to our choice, respecting which duty is silent” (638).

12 Ibid., 193–94. In terms of his immediate context, Godwin's utilitarian rejection of rights-based theories is singular. For some discussions of the prominence of natural rights theories among 1790s radicals, see for Paine, Philp, Mark, Paine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) and Claeys, Gregory, Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought (London: Unwin Hymen, 1989); for Wollstonecraft, Halldenius, Lena, “The Primacy of Right: On the Triad of Liberty, Equality, and Virtue in Wollstonecraft's Political Thought,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 15 (2007): 7599; and for Thelwall, Hampsher-Monk, Iain, “John Thelwall and the Eighteenth-Century Radical Response to Political Economy,” The Historical Journal 34 (1991): 120.

13 Godwin, Political Justice, 192.

14 See, for example, ibid., 191–99.

15 As John Stuart Mill notes, the individual right of equal treatment is not a deviation from the utility principle but “the very principle itself”; what gets the theory off the ground in the first place. Mill, , “Utilitarianism,” in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. 10, Essays on Ethics, Religion and Society, ed. Robson, J. M. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), 258.

16 Godwin, Political Justice, 196.

17 Ibid., 701.

18 Claeys, Gregory, “The Effect of Property on Godwin's Theory of Justice,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 22 (1984): 81101.

19 For a discussion of this, see Claeys, The French Revolution Debate in Britain, 127–34.

20 This claim was advanced by Woodcock, George in his introduction to William Godwin: Selections from Political Justice (London: Freedom Press, 1943), 4. For a critical discussion of the claim, which also provides a comprehensive account of Godwin's revisions on property and revolutions and the possible contextual reasons behind the shifts in his thought, see Philp, Godwin's Political Justice, 120–41.

21 Godwin had a temporary fall-out with John Thelwall in 1795 that centered on Godwin's authorship of “Considerations on Lord Grenville and Mr. Pitt's Bills,” a pamphlet that criticized the political tumult inevitably caused by the activities of political associations. These worries were also given expression in Political Justice, 266–92. See Kramnick, “Introduction” to Political Justice, 32–50.

22 Kramnick, Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism, 63.

23 It might be argued—by someone influenced by the methodological writings of Quentin Skinner—that the entire project of trying to present Godwin's theory of property as coherent is a misguided one and is evidence of bewitchment by a “myth of coherence.” See Skinner, , “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” in Skinner, Quentin, Visions of Politics, vol. 1, Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 6770. While there is, of course, a danger of mistakenly seeing and presenting coherence where there is in fact none, Skinner's “myth” is best read as heuristic advice rather than as any methodological rule, for there is no reason to assume that authors do not strive for coherence in their writings.

24 Godwin, Political Justice, 730.

25 Ibid., 701.

26 Ibid., 725.

27 Ibid., 727.

28 Ibid., 725.

29 Ibid., 709 (emphasis added).

31 Ibid., 702.

32 Ibid., 703–4.

33 Ibid., 704.

35 Ibid., 705 (emphasis added).

36 The qualitative distinction Godwin draws between types of pleasure is expressed in terms of “primary” (“pleasures of the external senses”) and “secondary” (like “intellectual feeling, the pleasures of sympathy, and the pleasures of self-approbation”) and the latter are “more exquisite” than the former (ibid., 75).

37 Ibid., 705.

38 He does not seem to deploy the term “direct pleasure” in any systematic or definitive manner, but it seems akin to the qualitatively more valuable “secondary pleasures” that he describes in the “summary of principles” that he inserted at the start of the third edition (ibid., 74–78).

39 Godwin's decision to refer to justifications of property rights as “degrees” of ownership is strange and has confused some commentators. Laura Brace, for instance, appears to argue that all three degrees are part of the same system of property (The Politics of Property: Labour, Freedom and Belonging [Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004], 51). Clark's interpretation of the text, whereby Godwin “describes three possible systems of property and ranks them according to their conformity with justice,” is much more convincing (Clark, Philosophical Anarchism, 249–50).

40 Godwin, Political Justice, 710.

41 Grotius, Hugo, De Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres, trans. Kelsey, F. W., vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925), I.II.I.5.

42 Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett, Peter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), II: §27.

43 Hegel, G.W.F., Elements of the Philosophy of Right, ed. Wood, Allen W. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), §51.

44 Locke, Two Treatises, II: §30.

45 Godwin, Political Justice, 199.

46 Ryan, Alan, Property and Political Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), 93.

47 This should not be confused with the Christian “stewardship” argument often thought to underpin the spoilage proviso present in Locke's account of ownership rights in the Second Treatise. For Locke, individual ownership rights evaporate when there is a risk that the goods in question shall go to waste (Two Treatises, II: §§31, 38). The goods in question essentially return to the “common” and can be re-appropriated accordingly by other individuals. The utilitarian idea of stewardship that Godwin defends goes much further. It would seem that for him, an individual might make good use of property—very good use even—but still not be able to reserve an inviolable right over it. All that it takes for an ownership right to be transferred to another is if that other can make better use than the possessor. And after the right is transferred, the next “steward” has no more secure an entitlement to it than the previous one.

48 Godwin's moral philosophy is distinct from act-utilitarianism in numerous ways, including: his insistence that a virtuous intention is a necessary ingredient to a moral action rather than just the outcome of that action (Political Justice, 185); his construal of human happiness in nonhedonistic terms (75–78, 391–95); the discretionary weight he affords affective relationships under “ordinary” circumstances (173); the inviolable right to individual freedom he defends (200–208); and, as will be shown below, his defense of rights to private property ownership even under circumstances where their effect on society is to reduce overall utility.

49 Ibid., 710.

51 His claim is that the argument that “the treatment to which men are entitled is to be measured by their merits and their virtues” is “in reality, so far from being adverse to equality in any tenable sense, [it] is friendly to it, and is accordingly known by the appellation of equity, a term derived from the same origin” (ibid., 183–84).

52 Ibid., 243–47.

53 He describes as virtuous “any action or actions of an intelligent being proceeding from kind and benevolent intention and having a tendency to contribute to general happiness” and insists that “in whatever instance either the tendency or the intention is wanting, the virtue is incomplete” (ibid., 184).

54 Ibid., 707.

56 Ibid., 711.

57 Ibid., 711.

58 Though he does not actually employ the term “capitalism,” to ascribe such a concept to him for the purpose of analytical exegesis does not seem outlandishly anachronistic—he does, for instance, refer to “capitalist” individuals. He refers to the “capitalist” as “an idle and useless monopolizer” (ibid., 793).

59 Ibid., 712.

60 Ibid., 711.

61 Ibid., 711–12.

62 Ibid., 713.

63 Ibid., 712.

66 Ibid., 735.

67 Ibid., 711.

68 But what if, despite the inevitable nature of exploitative relations within capitalism, this system of property did somehow manage to produce an overbalance of pleasure rather than pain? What, indeed, if the number of exploiters increased (and the number of exploited correspondingly decreased) to the point when the quantity of happiness experienced by the former significantly outweighs (and thus negates) the quantity of pain experienced by the latter? Godwin does not actually seem to consider this possibility, but there appear to be two answers available to him. The first would simply be to suggest that it is in the nature of the system to have always more exploited than exploiters, and the scenario just suggested would, therefore, be an impossible one. Such a response does not seem particularly impressive, especially since there is a far better alternative open to him, which is already implicit in his account of utilitarianism. For Godwin, pleasure is most definitely nonhedonistic (see ibid., 75–78), so any calculation of happiness is not a straightforwardly quantitative calculation. He also makes clear that the definitive characteristic of the capitalist is the pursuit of luxury goods, and that this pursuit belongs among the lower rank of pleasures. In qualitative terms, then, any comparison between the pleasures of the exploiter and the severe pain felt by the exploited will inevitably favor the latter. It is both the nature of capitalism and the nature of pleasure, then, that generates the individual right not to experience a certain level of pain, which can also be characterized as the right to a certain level of welfare.

69 Compare ibid., 709–24, for consideration of possible reasons for the legitimacy of property with 725–56, for the case for a system of equality of holdings and the deflections of the case against.

70 At one point he declares (in response to Burke) that the “age of chivalry is not gone” (ibid., 726).

72 Ibid., 727, 725.

73 Ibid., 731–32.

74 Ibid., 741.

75 Ibid., 725.

76 Ibid., 703.

77 As Clark observes, Godwin's “egalitarian view of human nature leads him to this position. Since each person shares in a universal nature, there should be a presumption of the equal right of all to property, until evidence is presented to justify the superior right of one over another” (Philosophical Anarchism, 249).

78 Godwin, Political Justice, 712.

79 Ibid., 711.

80 Ibid., 710.

81 Ibid., 725.

82 Ibid., 710.

83 Stephen, Leslie, The English Utilitarians (London: Duckworth, 1900), 231; Kagan, Shelly, The Limits of Morality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 12, 10.

84 Godwin, Political Justice, 175.

85 Ibid., 174.

86 Ibid., 198. No individual should “expect to dictate to me” and each “should remember that I am to act by my deliberation and not his. He may exercise a republican boldness in judging, but must not be peremptory and imperious in prescribing.” For further discussion of the nature and justification for individuals having such a “sphere of discretion,” see Lamb, Robert, “William Godwin on the Morality of Freedom,” History of Political Thought 28 (2007): 661–67.

87 Active rights are identified as individual entitlements simply to “do as we list” (Political Justice, 191) and, as such, are “superseded and rendered null by the superior claims of justice” (197).

88 Ibid., 225. “The pleasure of intellectual feeling”—which is among the most “exquisite” (ibid., 75) pleasures—is, he claims, “connected with the soundness of our understanding,” which, in turn, is connected with “freedom of enquiry” (ibid., 78).

89 Ibid., 754 (emphasis added).

90 Ibid., 311–31.

91 Ibid., 196.

92 Waldron, Jeremy, “A Right to Do Wrong,” in Liberal Rights: Collected Papers, 1981–1991 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 6387. Although Waldron's claim about the theoretical coherence of the “right to do wrong” is sound and though I argue that Godwin's theory shows his agreement, the original declaration in Political Justice is not conceptually nonsensical and would presumably be thought tautological by strict act-utilitarians or consequentialists like Kagan (see The Limits of Morality).

93 Ibid., 735–36.

94 While the logical correlative of a claim right is a duty, the correlative of a privilege is simply the lack of such a duty. See Hohfeld, Wesley, Fundamental Legal Conceptions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1923).

95 Godwin, Political Justice, 710.

96 Godwin suggests the individual can follow existing social conventions by providing “in ordinary cases, for my wife and children, my brothers and relations, before I provide for strangers,” though he admits that such an argument “is to be admitted with great caution” (ibid., 173).

97 Ibid., 169–170.

98 Discussions of this aspect of Godwin's thought include Monro, D. H., Godwin's Moral Philosophy: An Interpretation of William Godwin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951), 935; Barry, Brian, Justice as Impartiality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 217–33; Singer, Peter, Cannold, Leslie, and Kuhse, Helga, “William Godwin and the Defense of Impartialist Ethics,” Utilitas 7 (1995): 6786; and Lamb, Robert, “The Foundations of Godwinian Impartiality,” Utilitas 18 (2006): 134–53.

99 Philp, Godwin's Political Justice, 135.

100 Godwin, Political Justice, 225.

101 Ibid., 226.

102 Ibid., 225.

103 Claeys, “The Effect of Property,” 97.

104 This doctrine is probably most associated with Aquinas, who writes “Things pertaining to human right cannot take anything away from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine providence, lower things are ordained for the purpose of supplying man's necessities. And so the division and appropriation of such things which proceeds from human law does not cancel out the fact that man's necessities must be supplied by means of those things. And so whatever anyone has in superabundance is due under the natural law to the poor for their succour” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, Question 66, Seventh Article in Aquinas, , Political Writings, ed. Dyson, R. W. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002], 216). Clearly Godwin's theory has no place for natural law so understood.

105 Philp, Godwin's Political Justice, 137. Philp further argues that “Godwin might best be seen as holding that the man who denies a starving person food is explicitly making a declaration of war on the principles of society and justice, and therefore cannot expect to be protected.”

106 It is such a commitment, expressed in the “Second Treatise” (Two Treatises, II: §6) that is usually thought to underpin Locke's alleged defense of an unconditional subsistence right in the “First Treatise” (Two Treatises, I: §42).

107 Godwin, Political Justice, 272; Philp, Godwin's Political Justice, 137.

108 Godwin, Political Justice, 713 (emphasis added). Key to Godwin's thought is the rejection of any violent or revolutionary means of political change (266–81), which explains his stress on reason here as a possible mechanism for reforming or replacing the “system.”

109 Ibid., 714. Thus “agrarian laws, and others of a similar tendency which have been invented for the purpose of keeping down the spirit of accumulation, deserve to be regarded as remedies more pernicious than the disease they are intended to cure.” The view expressed here seems evidence of Godwin's shift away from primitivist criticisms of commerce. For discussions of the republican context within which late eighteenth-century debates about property can be understood, see most famously Pocock, J. G. A., Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); and for specific discussions of the 1790s in the light of this context, see Claeys, Gregory, “The Origins of the Rights of Labor: Republicanism, Commerce, and the Construction of Modern Social Theory in Britain, 1796–1805,” Journal of Modern History 66 (1994): 249–90 and Philp, Mark, “English Republicanism in the 1790s,” Journal of Political Philosophy 6 (1998): 235–62.

110 Godwin, Political Justice, 715 (emphasis added).

111 Ibid., 716.

I am grateful to the Editor of The Review of Politics, the journal's referees, and Dario Castiglione, Iain Hampsher-Monk, and Mark Philp for their helpful comments.

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