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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Offensive war contrary to the nature of democracy. -- Defensive war exceedingly rare. -- Erroneousness of the ideas commonly annexed to the phrase, our country. -- Nature of war delineated. -- Insufficient causes of war -- The acquiring a healthful and vigorous tone to the public mind -- The putting a termination upon private insults -- The menaces or preparations of our neighbours -- The dangerous consequences of concession. -- Two legitimate causes of war.
{511} Exclusively of those objections which have been urged against the democratical system as it relates to the internal management of affairs, there are others upon which considerable stress has been laid in relation to the transactions of a state with foreign powers, to war and peace, to treaties of alliance and commerce.

There is indeed an eminent difference with respect to these between the democratical system and all others. It is perhaps {512} impossible to shew that a single war ever did or could have taken place in the history of mankind, that did not in some way originate with those two great political monopolies, monarchy and aristocracy. This might have formed an additional article in the catalogue of evils to which they have given birth, little inferior to any of these we have enumerated. But nothing could be more superfluous than to seek to overcharge a subject the evidence of which is irresistible.

What could be the source of misunderstanding between states, where no man or body of men found encouragement to the accumulation of privileges to himself at the expence of the rest? A people among whom equality reigned, would possess every thing they wanted, where they possessed the means of subsistence. Why should they pursue additional wealth or territory? These would lose their value the moment they became the property of all. No man can cultivate more than a certain portion of land. Money is representative, and not real wealth. If every man in the society possessed a double portion of money, bread and every other commodity would sell at double their present price, and the relative situation of each individual would be just what it had been before. War and conquest cannot be beneficial to the community. Their tendency is to elevate a few at the expence of the rest, and consequently they will never be undertaken but where the many are the instruments of the few. But this cannot happen in a democracy, till the democracy shall become {513} such only in name. If expedients can be devised for maintaining this species of government in its purity, or if there be any thing in the nature of wisdom and intellectual improvement which has a tendency daily to make truth prevail more over falshood, the principle of offensive war will be extirpated. But this principle enters into the very essence of monarchy and aristocracy.

Meanwhile, though the principle of offensive war be incompatible with the genius of democracy, a democratical state may be placed in the neighbourhood of states whose government is less equal, and therefore it will be proper to enquire into the supposed disadvantages which the democratical state may sustain in the contest. The only species of war in which it can consistently be engaged, will be that, the object of which is to repel wanton invasion. Such invasions will be little likely frequently to occur. For what purpose should a corrupt state attack a country, which has no feature in common with itself upon which to build a misunderstanding, and which presents in the very nature of its government a pledge of its own inoffensiveness and neutrality? Add to which, it will presently appear that this state, which yields the fewest incitements to provoke an attack, will prove a very impracticable adversary to those by whom an attack shall be commenced.

One of the most essential principles of political justice is diametrically {514} the reverse of that which impostors and patriots have too frequently agreed to recommend. Their perpetual exhortation has been, 'Love your country. Sink the personal existence of individuals in the existence of the community. Make little account of the particular men of whom the society consists, but aim at the general wealth, prosperity and glory. Purify your mind from the gross idea of sense, and elevate it to the single contemplation of that abstract individual of which particular men are so many detached members, valuable only for the place they fill1.'

The lessons of reason on this head are precisely opposite. 'Society is an ideal existence, and not on its own account entitled to the smallest regard. The wealth, prosperity and glory of the whole are unintelligible chimeras. Set no value on anything, but in proportion as you are convinced of its tendency to make individual men happy and virtuous. Benefit by every practicable mode man wherever he exists; but be not deceived by the specious idea of affording services to a body of men, for which no individual man is the better. Society was instituted, not for the sake of glory, not to furnish splendid materials for the page of history, but for the benefit of its members. The love of our country, if we would speak accurately, is another of those specious illusions, which have been invented by impostors {515} in order to render the multitude the blind instruments of their crooked designs.'

Meanwhile let us beware of passing from one injurious extreme to another. Much of what has been usually understood by the love of our country is highly excellent and valuable, though perhaps nothing that can be brought within the strict interpretation of the phrase. A wise man will not fail to be the votary of liberty and equality. He will be ready to exert himself in their defence wherever they exist. It cannot be a matter of indifference to him, when his own liberty and that of other men with whose excellence and capabilities he has the best opportunity of being acquainted, are involved in the event of the struggle to be made. But his attachment will be to the cause, and not to the country. Wherever there are men who understand the value of political justice and are prepared to assert it, that is his country. Wherever he can most contribute to the diffusion of these principles and the real happiness of mankind, that is his country. Nor does he desire for any country any other benefit than justice.

To apply these principles to the subject of war. And, before that application can be adequately made, it is necessary to recollect for a moment the force of the term.

Because individuals were liable to error, and suffered their apprehensions {516} of justice to be perverted by a bias in favour of themselves, government was instituted. Because nations were susceptible of a similar weakness, and could find no sufficient umpire to whom to appeal, war was introduced. Men were induced deliberately to seek each other's lives, and to adjudge the controversies between them, not according to the dictates of reason and justice, but as either should prove most successful in devastation and murder. This was no doubt in the first instance the extremity of exasperation and rage. But it has since been converted into a trade. One part of the nation pays another part to murder and be murdered in their stead; and the most trivial causes, a supposed insult or a sally of youthful ambition, have sufficed to deluge provinces with blood.

We can have no adequate idea of this evil, unless we visit, at least in imagination, a field of battle. Here men deliberately destroy each other by thousands without any resentment against or even knowledge of each other. The plain is strewed with death in all its various forms. Anguish and wounds display the diversified modes in which they can torment the human frame. Towns are burned, ships are blown up in the air while the mangled limbs descend on every side, the fields are laid desolate, the wives of the inhabitants exposed to brutal insult, and their children driven forth to hunger and nakedness. It would be despicable to mention, along with these scenes of horror, and the total subversion of all ideas of moral justice they must occasion {517} in the auditors and spectators, the immense treasures which are wrung in the form of taxes from those inhabitants whose residence is at a distance from the scene.

After this enumeration we may venture to enquire what are the justifiable causes and rules of war.

It is not a justifiable reason, 'that we imagine our own people would be rendered more cordial and orderly, if we could find a neighbour with whom to quarrel, and who might serve as a touchstone to try the characters and dispositions of individuals among ourselves2.' We are not at liberty to have recourse to the most complicated and atrocious of all mischiefs, in the way of an experiment.

{518} It is not a justifiable reason, 'that we have been exposed to certain insults, and that tyrants perhaps have delighted in treating with contempt the citizens of our happy state who have visited their dominions.' Government ought to protect the tranquillity of those who reside within the sphere of its functions; but, if individuals think proper to visit other countries, they must then be delivered over to the protection of general reason. Some proportion must be observed between the evil of which we complain, and the evil which the nature of the proposed remedy inevitably includes.

It is not a justifiable reason, 'that our neighbour is preparing or menacing hostilities.' If we be obliged to prepare in our turn, the inconvenience is only equal; and it is not to be believed, that a despotic country is capable of more exertion than a free one, when the task incumbent on the latter is indispensible precaution.

It has sometimes been held to be sound reasoning upon this subject, 'that we ought not to yield little things, which may not in themselves be sufficiently valuable to authorise this tremendous appeal, because a disposition to yield only invites farther experiments3.' Far otherwise; at least when the character of {519} such a nation is sufficiently understood. A people that will not contend for nominal and trivial objects, that maintains the precise line of unalterable justice, and that does not fail to be moved at the moment that it ought to be moved, is not the people that its neighbours will delight to urge to extremities.

'The vindication of national honour' is a very insufficient reason for hostilities. True honour is to be found only in integrity and justice. It has been doubted how far a view to reputation ought in matters of inferior moment to be permitted to influence the conduct of individuals; but, let the case of individuals be decided as it may, reputation, considered as a separate motive in the instance of nations, can never be justifiable. In individuals it seems as if I might, consistently with the utmost real integrity, be so misconstrued and misrepresented by others, as to render my efforts at usefulness almost always abortive. But this reason does not apply to the case of nations. Their real story cannot easily be suppressed. Usefulness and public spirit in relation to them chiefly belong to the transactions of their members among themselves; and their influence in the transactions of neighbouring nations is a consideration evidently subordinate. The question which respects the justifiable causes of war, would be liable to few difficulties, if we were accustomed, along with the word, strongly to call up to our minds the thing which that word is intended to represent.

{520} Accurately considered, there can probably be but two justifiable causes of war, and one of them is among those which the logic of sovereigns and the law of nations, as it has been termed, proscribe: these are the defence of our own liberty and of the liberty of others. The well known objection to the latter of these cases, is, 'that one nation ought not to interfere in the internal transactions of another;' and we can only wonder that so absurd an objection should have been admitted so long. The true principle, under favour of which this false one has been permitted to pass current, is, 'that no people and no individual are fit for the possession of any immunity, till they understand the nature of that immunity, and desire to possess it.' It may therefore be an unjustifiable undertaking to force a nation to be free. But, when the people themselves desire it, it is virtue and duty to assist them in the acquisition. This principle is capable of being abused by men of ambition and intrigue; but, accurately considered, the very same argument that should induce me to exert myself for the liberties of my own country, is equally cogent, so far as my opportunities and ability extend, with respect to the liberties of any other country. But the morality that ought to govern the conduct of individuals and of nations is in all cases the same.


1. Du Contrat Social, &c. &c. &c.

2. The reader will easily perceive that the pretences by which the people of France were instigated to a declaration of war in April 1792 were in the author's mind in this place. Nor will a few lines be misspent in this note in stating the judgment of an impartial observer upon the wantonness with which they have appeared ready upon different occasions to proceed to extremities. If policy were in question, it might be doubted, whether the confederacy of kings would ever have been brought into action against them, had it not been for their precipitation and it might be asked, what impression they must expect to be made upon the minds of other states by their intemperate commission of hostility? But that strict justice, which prescribes to us, never by a hasty interference to determine the doubtful balance in favour of murder, is a superior consideration, in comparison with which policy is unworthy so much as to be named.

3. This pretence is sustained in Paley's Moral and Political Philosophy, Book VI. Chap. XII.