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Was William Godwin a Utilitarian?


The aim of this article is to discuss whether the political thought of the late eighteenth-century British philosopher William Godwin--as expressed in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, published in three different editions during the 1790s--is best described as utilitarian. The significance of this issue and its resolution are threefold. First, it is important within Godwin scholarship. My objective is to rehabilitate the utilitarian reading. Second, attention to this issue informs understandings of late eighteenth-century utilitarianism. Third, it speaks to a methodological problem in the history of ideas because ascribing a utilitarian moral theory to Godwin involves a rejection of the claim, associated with the work of Quentin Skinner, that we cannot ascribe to past thinkers concepts that they lack the linguistic means to express.

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