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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin

Book III




The question stated. -- First hypothesis: government founded in superior strength. -- Second hypothesis: government jure divino -- Third hypothesis: the social contract. -- The first hypothesis examined. -- The second -- Criterion of divine right: 1. Patriarchal descent -- 2. Justice.
{139} It has appeared in the course of our reasonings upon the nature of society, that there are occasions in which it may be necessary, to supersede private judgment for the sake of public {140} good, and to control the acts of the individual by an act to be performed in the name of the whole. It is therefore an interesting enquiry to ascertain in what manner such acts are to be originated, or in other words to ascertain the foundation of political government.

There are three hypotheses that have been principally maintained upon this subject. First, the system of force, according to which it is affirmed, 'that, inasmuch as it is necessary that the great mass of mankind should be held under the subjection of compulsory restraint, there can be no other criterion of that restraint, than the power of the individuals who lay claim to its exercise, the foundation of which power exists in the unequal degrees, in which corporal strength and intellectual sagacity are distributed among mankind.'

There is a second class of reasoners, who deduce the origin of all government from divine right, and affirm, 'that, as men derived their existence from an infinite creator at first, so are they still subject to his providential care, and of consequence owe allegiance to their civil governors, as to a power which he has thought fit to set over them.'

The third system is that which has been most usually maintained by the friends of equality and justice; the system according to which the individuals of any society are supposed to have {141} entered into a contract with their governors or with each other, and which founds the rights of government in the consent of the governed.

The two first of these hypotheses may easily be dismissed. That of force appears to proceed upon the total negation of abstract and immutable justice, affirming every government to be right, that is possessed of power sufficient to inforce its decrees. It puts a violent termination upon all political science; and seems intended to persuade men, to sit down quietly under their present disadvantages, whatever they may be, and not to exert themselves to discover a remedy for the evils they suffer. The second hypothesis is of an equivocal nature. It either coincides with the first, and affirms all existing power to be alike of divine derivation; or it must remain totally useless till a criterion can be found, to distinguish those governments which are approved by God, from those which cannot lay claim to that sanction. The criterion of patriarchal descent will be of no avail, till the true claimant and rightful heir can be discovered. If we make utility and justice the test of God's approbation, this hypothesis will be liable to little objection; but then on the other hand little will be gained by it, since those who have not introduced divine right into the argument, will yet readily grant, that a government which can be shewn to be agreeable to utility and justice, is a rightful government. {142}

The third hypothesis demands a more careful examination. If any error have insinuated itself into the support of truth, it becomes of particular consequence to detect it. Nothing can be of more importance, than to separate prejudice and mistake on the one hand, from reason and demonstration on the other. Wherever they have been confounded, the cause of truth must necessarily be a sufferer. That cause, so far from being injured by the dissolution of the unnatural alliance, may be expected to derive from that dissolution an eminent degree of prosperity and lustre.