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The Effects of Property on Godwin's Theory of Justice GREGORY CLAEYS IN THIS ARTICLE I want to explore the logic behind, and the consequences of, an apparent contradiction in William Godwin's theory of justice which evidently arose during both the composition and the rewriting of his chief work, the Enquiry concerning Political Justice.' My argument begins with the presupposition that when Godwin began to compose the eighth book of his Political Justice, "Of Property," he felt obliged to set forth a different standard of justice from that outlined earlier in the work, even though his earlier sections had gone to the printers and hence could not be altered immediately . In these sections, and particularly the chapter entitled "Of Justice," Godwin had developed a conception of justice in which the single standard of just behavior in cases of moral conflict was preference for that individual whose worth to society was the greatest, where worth was defined largely in terms of a contribution to cultural and intellectual development. Hence, in Godwin's famous 'fire case,' where we are obliged to rescue either our own mother or the philosopher Fenelon from a conflagration, we must choose the latter. In his first serious examination of the problem of property, however, Godwin introduced a concept of desert based on physical need. Realizing that he had set forth two potentially contradictory accounts of justice, Godwin argued that it was impossible that need could ever conflict with virtue, because property was not an appropriate reward for virtue at all. This required , however, that he completely avoid any conflation of property with virtue, a task at which he was not entirely successful in the first edition, I am grateful to Dr. Istvan Hont for helpful clarifications and to the Research Centre, King's College, Cambridge, for helping to fund my research. ' All references here will be to the accessible reprint of the third edition, Isaac Kramnick, ed., (London: Penguin Books 1976), hereafter cited as PJ. Where changes in the various editions affect the argument here, the first edition will be cited as "'PJ(1793)." [8~] 82 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 22" 1 JAN 1984 where industriousness is temporarily considered as a form of virtue. This problem was removed in the second edition, but at this point several other consequences of Godwin's intellectual development became apparent which were to alter once again his conception of the relation of property to virtue. These consequences stem firstly from Godwin's complete rejection of governmental interference in virtually all areas of civil life (his 'anarchism'), and secondly from his desire in 1794-95 to emphasize his case against violent revolution by strengthening his portrayal of the sanctity of existing property relations. The rejection of governmental interference led him to reconsider private means of caring for the poor, of virtuously disposing of one's own wealth. His reaction to the extreme levelling doctrines associated with the French Revolution, on the other hand, helped prompt Godwin to introduce concepts of rights which had been severely attacked in the first edition. Not wishing to defend existing inequalities of property, however, Godwin developed the concept of a just claim to unequal property, a claim which entailed that wealth be used solely to make the poor independent of the rich, rather than either simply dispensing it to them (making them dependent on the rich) or employing them at any task whatsoever, where their labor could not contribute to their growth as rational beings. By arguing that this sole dispensation of wealth establishes a just claim to maintain unequal amounts of property, however, Godwin ultimately adhered to two theories of justice (merit and need). Moreover, he also subdivided the latter in order to incorporate a new, largely economic rather than cultural, concept of public utility. This meant that Godwin's needs theory of justice itself now had two potentially contradictory components, one based upon the claim of the poor to have their needs immediately satisfied, the other upon the ability of the rich to claim that the aggregate social utilities resulting from their mode of dispensing wealth would be greater. The latter claim, moreover, is essentially a merit claim bearing a strong similarity...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 81-101
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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