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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Grounds of the objection. -- Its serious import. -- Answer. -- The introduction of such a system must be owing, 1. To a sense of justice -- 2. To a clear insight into the nature of happiness -- As being properly intellectual -- Not consisting in sensual pleasure -- Or the pleasures of delusion. -- Influence of the passions considered. -- Men will not accumulate either from individual foresight -- Or from vanity.
{829} Let us proceed to another objection. It has sometimes been said by those who oppose the doctrine here maintained, 'that equality might perhaps contribute to the improvement and happiness of mankind, if it were consistent with the nature of man that such a principle should be rendered permanent; but that every expectation of that kind must prove abortive. Confusion would be introduced under the idea of equality to-day, but the old vices and monopolies would return to-morrow. All that the rich would have purchased by the most generous sacrifice, {830} would be a period of barbarism, from which the ideas and regulations of civil society must commence as from a new infancy. The nature of man cannot be changed. There would at least be some vicious and designing members of society, who would endeavour to secure to themselves indulgencies beyond the rest. Mind would not be reduced to that exact uniformity which a state of equal property demands; and the variety of sentiments which must always in some degree prevail, would inevitably subvert the refined systems of speculative perfection.'

No objection can be more essential than that which is here adduced. It highly becomes us in so momentous a subject to resist all extravagant speculations: it would be truly lamented, if, while we parted with that state of society through which mind has been thus far advanced, we were replunged into barbarism by the pursuit of specious appearances. But what is worst of all, is that, if this objection be true, it is to be feared there is no remedy. Mind must go forward. What it sees and admires, it would at some time or other seek to attain. Such is the inevitable law of our nature. But it is impossible not to see the beauty of equality, and to be charmed with the benefits its seems to promise. The consequence is sure. Man, according to the system of these reasoners, is prompted to advance for some time with success; but after that time, in the very act of pursuing farther improvement, he necessarily plunges beyond the compass of his powers, and has then his petty career to begin afresh. {831} The objection represents him as a foul abortion, with just enough understanding to see what is good, but with too little to retain him in the practice of it. -- Let us consider whether equality, once established, would be so precarious as it is here represented.

In answer to this objection it must first be remembered, that the state of equalisation we are here supposing is not the result of accident, of the authority of a chief magistrate, or the over earnest persuasion of a few enlightened thinkers, but is produced by the serious and deliberate conviction of the community at large. We will suppose for the present that it is possible for such a conviction to take place among a given number of persons living in a society with each other: and, if it be possible in a small community, there seems to be no sufficient reason to prove that it is impossible in one of the larger dimensions. The question we have here to examine is concerning the probability, when the conviction has once been introduced, of its becoming permanent.

The conviction rests upon two intellectual impressions, one of justice, and the other of happiness. Equalisation of property cannot begin to assume a fixed appearance in human society, till the sentiment becomes deeply wrought into the mind, that the genuine wants of any man constitute his only just claim to the appropriating any species of commodity. If the general sense of {832} mankind were once so far enlightened, as to produce a perpetual impression of this truth, of so forcible a sort as to be exempt from all objections and doubt, we should look with equal horror and contempt at the idea of any man's accumulating a property he did not want. All the evils that a state of monopoly never fails to engender would stand forward in our minds, together with all the existing happiness that attended upon a state of freedom. We should feel as much alienation of thought from the consuming uselessly upon ourselves what would be beneficial to another, or from the accumulating property for the purpose of obtaining some kind of ascendancy over the mind of our neighbours, as we now feel from the commission of murder. No man will dispute, that a state of equal property once established, would greatly diminish the evil propensities of man. But the crime we are now supposing is more atrocious than any that is to be found in the present state of society. Man perhaps is incapable under any circumstance of perpetrating an action of which he has a clear and undoubted perception that it is contrary to the general good. But be this as it will, it is hardly to be believed that any man for the sake of some imaginary gratification to himself would wantonly injure the whole, if his mind were not first ulcerated with the impression of the injury that society by its ordinances is committing against him. The case we are here considering is that of a man, who does not even imagine himself injured, and yet willingly subverts a state of happiness to {833} which no description can do justice, to make room for the return of all those calamities and vices with which mankind have been infested since the earliest page of history.

The equalisation we are describing is farther indebted for its empire in the mind to the ideas with which it is attended of personal happiness. It grows out of a simple. clear and unanswerable theory of a human mind, that we first stand in need of a certain animal subsistence and shelter, and after that, that our only true felicity consists in the expansion of our intellectual powers, the knowledge of truth, and the practice of virtue. It might seem at first sight as if this theory omitted a part of the experimental history of mind, the pleasures of sense and the pleasures of delusion. But this omission is apparent, not real. However many are the kinds of pleasure of which we are susceptible, the truly prudent man will sacrifice the inferior to the more exquisite. Now no man who has ever produced or contemplated the happiness of others with a liberal mind, will deny that this exercise is infinitely the most pleasurable of all sensations. But he that is guilty of the smallest excess of sensual pleasures, by so much diminishes his capacity of obtaining this highest pleasure. Not to add, if that be of any importance, that rigid temperament is the reasonable means of tasting sensual pleasures with the highest relish. This was the system of Epicurus, and must be the system of every man who ever speculated deeply on the nature of human happiness. For the pleasures of delusion, they are absolutely {834} incompatible with our highest pleasure. If we would either promote or enjoy the happiness of others, we must seek to know in what it consists. But knowledge is the irreconcilable foe of delusion. In proportion as mind rises to its true element and shakes off those prejudices which are the authors of our misery, it becomes incapable of deriving pleasure from flattery, fame or power, or indeed from any source that is not compatible with, or in other words does not make a part of the common good. The most palpable of all classes of knowledge is that I am, personally considered, but an atom in the ocean of mind. -- The first rudiment therefore of that science of personal happiness which is inseparable from a state of equalisation, is, that I shall derive infinitely more pleasure from simplicity frugality and truth, than from luxury, empire and fame. What temptation has a man, entertaining this opinion, and living in a state of equal property, to accumulate?

This question has been perpetually darkened by the doctrine, so familiar to writers of morality, of the independent operations of reason and passion. Such distinctions must always darken. Of how many parts does mind consist? Of none. It consists merely of a series of thought, succeeding thought from the first moment of our existence to its termination1. This word passion, which has produced such extensive mischief in the philosophy of mind, and has no real archetype, is perpetually shifting its meaning. Sometimes {835} it is applied universally to all those thoughts, which, being peculiarly vivid, and attended with great force of argument real or imaginary, carry us into action with uncommon energy. Thus we speak of the passion of benevolence, public spirit or courage. Sometimes it signifies those vivid thoughts only, which upon accurate examination appear to be founded in error. In the first sense the word might have been unexceptionable. Vehement desire is the result of a certain operation of the understanding, and must always be in a joint ratio of the supposed clearness of the proposition and the importance of the practical effects. In the second sense, the doctrine of the passions would have been exceedingly harmless, if we had been accustomed to put the definition instead of the thing defined. It would then have been found that it merely affirmed that the human mind must always be liable to precisely the same mistakes as we observe in it at present, or in other words affirmed the necessary permanence in opposition to the necessary perfectibility of intellect. Who is there that sees not, in the case above stated, the absurdity of supposing a man, so long as he has a clear view of justice and interest lying on one side of a given question, to be subject to errors that irresistibly compel him to the other? The mind is no doubt liable to fluctuation. But there is a degree of conviction that would render it impossible for us any longer to derive pleasure from intemperance, dominion or fame, and this degree in the incessant progress of thought must one day arrive. {836}

This proposition of the permanence of a system of equal property, after it has once been brought into action by the energies of reason and conviction, will be placed out of the reach of all equitable doubt, if we proceed to form to ourselves an accurate picture of the action of this system. Let us suppose that we are introduced to a community of men, who are accustomed to an industry proportioned to the wants of the whole, and to communicate instantly and unconditionally, each man to his neighbour, that for which the former has not and the latter has immediate occasion. Here the first and simplest motive to personal accumulation is instantly cut off. I need not accumulate to protect myself against accidents, sickness or infirmity, for these are claims the validity of which is not regarded as a subject of doubt, and with which every man is accustomed to comply. I can accumulate in a considerable degree nothing but what is perishable, for exchange being unknown, that which I cannot personally consume adds nothing to the sum of my wealth. -- Meanwhile it should be observed, that, though accumulation for private purposes under such a system would be in the highest degree irrational and absurd, this by no means precludes such accumulation, as may be necessary to provide against public contingencies. If there be any truth in the present reasonings, this kind of accumulation will be unattended with danger. Add to this, that the perpetual tendency of wisdom is to preclude contingency. It is well known that dearths are principally owing to the false precautions {837} and false timidity of mankind; and it is reasonable to suppose that a degree of skill will hereafter be produced which will gradually annihilate the failure of crops and other similar accidents.

It has already appeared, that the principle and unintermitting motive to private accumulation, is the love of distinction and esteem. This motive is also withdrawn. As accumulation can have no rational object, it would be viewed as a mark of insanity, not a title to admiration. Men would be accustomed to the simple principles of justice, and know that nothing was entitled to esteem but talents and virtue. Habituated to employ their superfluity to supply the wants of their neighbour, and to dedicate the time which was not necessary for manual labour to the cultivation of intellect, with what sentiments would they behold the man, who was foolish enough to sew a bit of lace upon his coat, or affix any other ornament to his person? In such a community property would perpetually find its level. It would be interesting to all to be informed of the person in whose hands a certain quantity of any commodity was lodged, and every man would apply with confidence to him for the supply of his wants in that commodity. Putting therefore out of the question every kind of compulsion, the feeling of depravity and absurdity, that would be excited with relation to the man who refused to part with that for which he had no real need, would operate in all cases as a sufficient discouragement to so odious an {838} innovation. Every man would conceive that he had a just and complete title to make use of my superfluity. If I refused to listen to reason and expostulation on this head he would not stay to adjust with me a thing so vicious as exchange, but would leave me in order to seek the supply from some rational being. Accumulation instead, as now, of calling forth every mark of respect, would tend to cut off the individual who attempted it from all bonds of society, and sink him in neglect and oblivion. The influence of accumulation at present is derived from the idea of eventual benefit in the mind of the observer; but the accumulator then would be in a case still worse than that of the miser now, who, while he adds thousands to his heap, cannot be prevailed upon to part with a superfluous farthing, and is therefore the object of general desertion.


1. Book IV, Chap. VII, p. 335.