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


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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Robert Lamb , “Was William Godwin a Utilitarian?Journal of the History of Ideas 70 (2009): 119–41

Gregory Claeys , Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought (London: Unwin Hymen, 1989)

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

Peter Singer , Leslie Cannold , and Helga Kuhse , “William Godwin and the Defense of Impartialist Ethics,” Utilitas 7 (1995): 6786

Robert Lamb , “The Foundations of Godwinian Impartiality,” Utilitas 18 (2006): 134–53

J. G. A. Pocock , Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)

Gregory Claeys , “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

Mark Philp , “English Republicanism in the 1790s,” Journal of Political Philosophy 6 (1998): 235–62

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The Review of Politics
  • ISSN: 0034-6705
  • EISSN: 1748-6858
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-politics
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