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William Godwin and the Defence of Impartialist Ethics1

  • Peter Singer (a1), Leslie Cannold (a1) and Helga Kuhse (a1)

Impartialism in ethics has been said to be the common ground shared by both Kantian and utilitarian approaches to ethics. Lawrence Blum describes this common ground as follows:

Both views identify morality with a perspective of impartiality, impersonality, objectivity and universality. Both views imply the ‘ubiquity of impartiality” – that our commitments and projects derive their legitimacy only by reference to this impartial perspective.

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2 Blum Lawrence, ‘Iris Murdoch and the Domain of the Moral”, Philosophical Studies, 1 (1986), 344. Blum notes that the term ‘impartialism” derives from Darwall Stephen's Impartial Reason, Ithaca, 1983, although Darwall applies it only to Kantianism.

3 See Murdoch Iris, The Sovereignty of Good, London, 1970; Williams Bernard, ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism”, Utilitarianism For and Against, ed. Smart J. J. C. and Williams Bernard, Cambridge, 1973; Stocker Michael, ‘The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories”, The Journal of Philosophy, lxxvi (1976), 453–66; Blum Lawrence, Friendship, Altruism and Morality, London, 1980; Mackie J. L., Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Harmondsworth, 1977, p. 132; Gilligan Carol, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, Cambridge, Mass., 1982; Noddings Nel, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1986; Nagel Tom, The View from Nowhere, New York, 1986. The importance of Murdoch's work for the contemporary debate is emphasized by Blum in the work referred to in note 2, above.

4 Hazlitt William, The Spirit of the Age (1825), Oxford, 1954, pp. 1920, as cited by St Glair William, The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family, London, 1989, p. 91.

5 Godwin William, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness [1793], ed. and abr. Preston Raymond, New York, 1926, pp. 41–2. Henceforth this work will be referred to simply as Political Justice. (We refrain from commenting here on Godwin's reason for holding ‘a man” to be of more worth than ‘a beast”.)

6 Political Justice, p. 43.

8 Sidgwick Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn., London, 1907, pp. 428–9; Smart J. J. C., ‘An outline of a system of utilitarian ethics”, in Utilitarianism For and Against, Smart and Williams , pp. 53–6.

9 Political Justice, p. 52; see also p. 44.

10 Ibid., pp. 44–5.

11 Godwin William, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice: With selections from Godwin's other writings, ed. Carter K. Codell, Oxford, 1971, p. 71.

12 Raymond Preston, in his Introduction to Political Justice, p. xxx.

13 Monro D. H., ‘Archbishop Fénelon versus My Mother”, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, xxviii (1950), 154.

14 Philp Mark, Godwin's Political Justice, London, 1986, p. 209.

15 St Clair , p. 175.

16 Political Justice, ed. Carter K. Codell, pp. 72–3.

17 Ibid., p. 72.

18 See Hume David, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, British Moralists 1650–1800, ed. Raphael D. D., 2 vols., Oxford, 1969, i. 86, and Smith Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, i. 226.

19 Hare R. M., Moral Thinking, Oxford, 1981, pp. 44–5.

20 For the terminology of ‘agent-neutral” and ‘agent-relative” see Parfit Derek, Reasons and Persons, Oxford, 1984, p. 143; for further discussion see Nagel , pp. 152ff.

21 Godwin William, Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 2nd edn., ch. 6, p. 90, quoted in Godwin William, Thoughts Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr Parr's Spital Sermon, (1801), reprinted in Uncollected Writings (1785–1822) by William Godwin, ed. Marken J. and Pollin B., Florida, 1968, pp. 314–5. As K Codell Carter notes (op. cit., p. 320n. 2) the passage italicized in the original is from Terence (Heautontimorumenos, I. 77), and is usually translated as ‘nothing human is alien to me”. Godwin's argument for the importance of ‘individual attachments” is reminiscent of Aristotle's discussion of the need for friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics, Bk IX, § 9.

22 Godwin William, St Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century, p. viii, quoted in Godwin William, Thoughts Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr Parr's Spital Sermon, pp. 314–5.

23 For details on the life of Samuel Parr, see Derry Warren, Dr Parr: A Portrait of the Whig Dr Johnson, Oxford, 1966.

24 Parr Samuel, A Spital Sermon preached at Christ Church upon Easter Tuesday, April 15, 1800, to which are added notes, London, 1801. Henceforth cited as A Spital Sermon.

25 Galatians 6:10.

26 A Spital Sermon, p. 6

27 Ibid., p. 4.

28 Mackie , p. 132. Mackie takes the useful term ‘self-referential altruism” from C. D. Broad, but without giving a source, and we have been unable to find the reference.

29 Noddings , p. 86; for a related passage see also p. 112.

30 A Spital Sermon, pp. 910.

31 Ibid., pp. 10–11.

32 Dickens Charles, Bleak House, (1853, London), ch. 4. (We owe this reference to Christina Hoff Sommers: ‘Filial Morality”, Women and Moral Theory, ed. Kittay Eva Feder and Meyers Diana T., Totowa, NJ, 1987, p. 72.)

33 Gilman Charlotte Perkins ‘The Unnatural Mother”, The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, ed. Lane Ann J., New York, 1980, p. 65; first published in The Forerunner, 11 1916, pp. 281–5. We thank Erin McKenna for drawing our attention to this story.

34 A Spital Sermon, pp. 33–4.

35 Plato , The Republic, trans. Lee Desmond, 2nd edn., Harmondsworth, 1974, p. 247 (462c–e).

36 Aristotle , Politics, Bk II, 1262b; ed. and trans. John Warrington, London, 1959, p. 33.

37 Godwin , Thoughts Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr Parr's Spital Sermon, in Uncollected Writings. Henceforth cited as Thoughts, with the first set of page numbers referring to those in the original, and the second set, preceded by ‘M”, to the Marken and Pollin edition.

38 Thoughts, pp. 27–8 (M 316–17).

39 Ibid., pp. 32–4 (M 321–3). Godwin's argument that I am entitled to give more attention to my child because ‘I best understand his character and his wants” can be found later in Sidgwick , pp. 432–4, and in Jackson Frank, ‘Decision-Theoretic Consequentialism and the Nearest and Dearest Objection”, Ethics, ci (1991), 461–82; see especially 474–5.

40 Stocker , 459; the example of Smith's visit is on 462.

41 Sidgwick , p. 413. In ‘Utilitarian Morality and the Personal Point of View”, Journal of Philosophy, lxxxiii (1986), 417–38, at 421n. 13, David Brink employs this distinction in his defence of utilitarianism, meets objections to it, and provides references to several other statements of the same point. The earliest of these – Joseph Butler's Fifteen Sermons (see Sermon XII, § iv, par. 31) – precedes Godwin, having been first published in 1726. See also Jackson, 465ff.

42 Railton Peter, ‘Alienation, Consequentialism and the Demands of Morality”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, xiii (1984), 153. The example of John is to be found on 135, and of Juan on 150.

43 Thoughts, p. 41 (M 330).

44 For a selection of key articles in the modern debate on act- and rule-utilitarianism, see Contemporary Utilitarianism, ed. Bayles Michael, New York, 1968, or Consequentialism, ed. Pettit Philip, Aldershot, 1993, Pt. IV. See also Lyons David, Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism, Oxford, 1965, and Hare , Moral Thinking. Godwin was not, however, the first to point to the distinction between judging on the basis of the utility of each act, and judging on the basis of conformity to a rule or habit that is itself productive of utility. For a discussion of earlier comments along similar lines by David Hume and Richard Price, see Harrison Jonathan, ‘Utilitarianism, Universalisation and Our Duty to Be Just”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, liii (19521953), 105–34; reprinted in Contemporary Utilitarianism, Bayles.

45 Gilligan , p. 28.

46 Thoughts, p. 41 (M 330).

47 A Spital Sermon, p. 52.

48 That view could, for example, be taken of Samuel Scheffler's attempt to reconcile consequentialism and partiality in The Rejection of Consequentialism, Oxford, 1982, or of Peter Railton's ‘sophisticated consequentialism”, defended in his ‘Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality”. For recent discussion of the issue of consequentialism and personal relationships, see Badhwar Neera Kapur, ‘Why it is wrong to be always guided by the best: consequentialism and friendship”, Ethics, ci (1991), 483504; see also Friendship: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Badhwar Neera Kapur, Ithaca, 1993, especially the editor's introduction at pp. 28–32.

49 Thoughts, p. 46 (M 336).

50 Monro , ‘Archbishop Féneleon”, 171; also in Monro D. H., Godwin's Moral Philosophy, London, 1953, p. 33.

51 The novel is Caleb Williams, or Things as they are; the significance of its sub-title is pointed out by Monro, ‘Archbishop Féneleon”, 167.

1 The research on which this essay is based was supported by a grant from the Australian Research Council. We thank Justin Oakley for helpful comments.

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