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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



The validity of promises examined. -- Shewn to be inconsistent with justice. -- To be foreign to the general good. -- Of the expectation excited. -- The fulfilling expectation does not imply the validity of a promise. -- Conclusion.
{150} The whole principle of an original contract proceeds upon the obligation under which we are placed to observe our promises. The reasoning upon which it is founded is, 'that we have promised obedience to government, and therefore are bound to obey.' It may consequently be proper to enquire into the nature of this obligation to observe our promises.

We have already established justice as the sum of moral and political duty. Is justice then in its own nature precarious or immutable? Surely immutable. As long as men are men, the conduct I am bound to observe respecting them must remain the same. A good man must always be the proper object of my support and cooperation; vice of my censure; and the vicious man of instruction and reform.

{151} What is it then to which the obligation of a promise applies? What I have promised is either right, or wrong, or indifferent. There are few articles of human conduct that fall under the latter class; and the greater shall be our improvements in moral science the fewer still will they appear. Omitting these, let us then consider only the two preceding classes. 'I have promised to do something just and right.' This certainly I ought to perform. Why? Not because I promised, but because justice prescribes it. 'I have promised to bestow a sum of money upon some good and respectable purpose. In the interval between the promise and my fulfilling it, a greater and nobler purpose offers itself, and calls with an imperious voice for my cooperation.' Which ought I to prefer? That which best deserves my preference. A promise can make no alteration in the case. I ought to be guided by the intrinsic merit of the objects, and not by any external and foreign consideration. No engagements of mine can change their intrinsic claims.

All this must be exceedingly plain to the reader who has followed me in my early reasonings upon the nature of justice. If every shilling of our property, every hour of our time and every faculty of our mind, have already received their destination from the principles of immutable justice, promises have no department left upon which for them to decide. Justice it appears therefore ought to be done, whether we have promised it or not. If we discover any thing to be unjust, we ought to abstain from it, with whatever {152} solemnity we have engaged for its perpetration. We were erroneous and vicious when the promise was made; but this affords no sufficient reason for its performance.

But it will be said, 'if promises be not made, or when made be not fulfilled, how can the affairs of the world be carried on?' By rational and intelligent beings acting as if they were rational and intelligent. A promise would perhaps be sufficiently innocent, if it were understood merely as declaratory of intention, and not as precluding farther information. Even in this restrained sense how ever it is far from being generally necessary. Why should it be supposed that the affairs of the world would not go on sufficiently well, though my neighbour could no farther depend upon my assistance than it appeared rational to grant it? This would be a sufficient dependence if I were honest, nor would he if he were honest desire any thing more. If I were dishonest, if I could not be bound by the reason and justice of the case, it would afford him slender additional dependence to call in the aid of a principle founded in prejudice and mistake: not to say, that, let it afford ever so great advantage in any particular case, the evil of the immoral precedent would outweigh the individual advantage.

It may be farther objected, 'that this principle might be sufficiently suited to a better and more perfect state of society, but that at present there are dishonest members of the community, {153} who will not perform their duty, if they be not bound to it by some grosser motive, than the mere moral consideration.' Be it so. This is a question altogether different from that we have been examining. We are not now enquiring whether the community ought to animadvert upon the errors of its members. This animadversion the upright man is not backward to encounter, and willingly risks the penalty, which the society (for the society is more competent to ascertain the just amount of the penalty than the preceding caprice of the parties) has awarded in cases apparently similar, if he conceive that his duty requires from him that risk.

But to return to the case of promises. If I shall be told, that, 'in choosing between two purposes about which to employ my money, my time or my talents, my promise may make an essential difference, and therefore having once been given ought to be fulfilled. The party to whom it was made has had expectations excited in him, which I ought not to disappoint; the party to whom I am under no engagement has no such disappointment to encounter.' What is this tenderness to which I am bound, this expectation I must not dare to disappoint? An expectation that I should do wrong, that I should prefer a less good to a greater, that I should commit absolute evil; for such must be the result when the balance has been struck. 'But his expectation has altered the nature of his situation, has engaged him in {154} undertakings from which he would otherwise have abstained.' Be it so. He and all other men will be taught to depend more upon their own exertions, and less upon the assistance of others, which caprice may refuse, or justice oblige me to withhold. He and all others will be taught to acquire such merit, and to engage in such pursuits, as shall oblige every honest man to come to their succour, if they should stand in need of assistance. The resolute execution of justice, without listening to that false pity, which, to do imaginary kindness to one, would lead us to injure the whole, would in a thousand ways increase the independence, the energies and the virtues of mankind.

Let us however suppose, 'that my conduct ought to be influenced by this previous expectation of the individual.' Let us suppose, 'that, in selecting an individual for a certain office, my choice ought not to be governed merely by the abstract fitness of the candidates, but that I ought to take into the account the extreme value of the appointment from certain circumstances to one of the candidates, and its comparative inutility to the other.' Let us farther suppose, 'that the expectation excited in one of them has led him into studies and pursuits to qualify himself for the office, which will be useless if he do not succeed to it; and that this is one of the considerations which ought to govern my determination.' -- All this does not come up to what we have been taught respecting the obligation of a promise. {155} For, first, it may be observed, that it seems to be of little consequence in this statement, whether the expectation were excited by a direct promise or in some other manner, whether it were excited by a declaration of mine or of a third person, or lastly, whether it arose singly out of the reason of the case and the pure deductions and reflections of the expecter's mind. Upon every one of these suppositions his conduct, and the injury he may sustain from a disappointment, will remain the same. Here then all that has been commonly understood by the obligation of a promise is excluded. The motive to be attended to, flows from no solemn engagement of mine, but from an incidental consequence of my declaration, and which might just as easily have been the consequence of many other circumstances. The consideration by which it becomes me to be influenced is, not a regard for veracity, or a particular desire to preserve my integrity, both of which are in reality wholly unconcerned in the transaction, but an attention to the injury to be sustained by the losing candidate, whatever might be the original occasion of the conduct out of which the injury has proceeded.

Let us take an example of a still simpler nature. 'I live in Westminster; and I engage to meet the captain of a ship from Blackwal at the Royal Exchange. My engagement is of the nature of information to him, that I shall be at the Exchange at a certain hour. He accordingly lays aside his other business, and comes thither to meet me.' This is a reason why I should {156} not fail him unless for some very material cause. But it would seem as if the reason why I should not fail him would be equally cogent, if I knew from any other source that he would be there and that a quantity of convenience equal to the quantity upon the former supposition would accrue from my meeting him. It may be said, 'that it is essential to various circumstances of human intercourse, that we should be able to depend on each other for a steady adherence to engagements of this sort.' The statement however would be somewhat more accurate if we said, 'that is was essential to various circumstances of human intercourse, that we should be known to bestow a steady attention upon the quantities of convenience or inconvenience, of good or evil, that might arise to others from our conduct.'

It is undoubtedly upon this hypothesis a part of our duty to make as few promises or declarations exciting appropriate expectations as possible. He who lightly gives another the idea that he will govern himself in his future conduct, not by the view that shall be present in his mind when the conduct shall become determined on, but by the view he shall be able to take of it at some preceding period, is vicious in so doing. But the obligation he is under respecting his future conduct is, to act justly, and not, because he has committed one error, for that reason to become guilty of a second.