Wednesday, 4 April 2012

‘The Love of Distinction is Capable of Different Directions’ – William Godwin and Defining Utilitarianism

I am currently finalising my PhD on Percy Bysshe Shelley and Political Economy. The following essay reflects my research on how the principles of Adam Smith in both The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), was both interpreted and developed by Godwin in the revolutionary decade, and by utilitarian political economists in the 1810s. All feedback welcome!

‘The Love of Distinction is Capable of Different Directions’ – William Godwin and Defining Utilitarianism

Leanne Stokoe, Newcastle University

William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Modern Morals and Manners (1793) is often overlooked as the proponent of a different kind of utilitarianism to Jeremy Bentham’s concept of a moral ‘code’. However, its approach to utility was influential upon those who sought to develop this outlook in an alternative manner to the so-called ‘philosophical radicals’. Godwin was one of the first to respond to Bentham’s systematic view of pleasure and pain in the 1798 edition of Political Justice. This text, as John P. Clark has illustrated in his important study of Godwin and utility, was amended significantly from its 1793 and 1796 editions, in order to encompass Godwin’s belief in the potential of utility.[i] Godwin was familiar with the sources that had inspired Bentham’s view of the ‘pannomion’, the utilitarian code that reduced human morals to the calculation of pleasure and pain. This encompassed the philosophy of Helvétius, that benevolence derives from self-interest, and Hobbes’s speculation that charity depends upon this emphasis upon the self. However, Godwin’s approach to such theories was more progressive than Bentham’s view of self-interest as the prime motivator behind human nature. Criticising Bentham’s doctrines, he writes, ‘to rest in general rules, is sometimes a necessity which our imperfection imposes upon us [...] but the true dignity of human reason is, as much as we are able, to go beyond them’.[ii] This suspicion towards perpetuating ‘general rules’ and emphasis upon progress, can be seen as undermining Bentham’s reductive methods. However, Godwin’s celebration of ‘reason’ not only reflects his valuation of philosophy above the poetry venerated by Romantics. It also signifies how he shares Bentham’s eighteenth-century concept of utility.

Godwin admired Bentham’s philosophical approach, as can be observed in the calculative methodology he adopts in relation to the latter’s concepts of pleasure and pain. There are instances in Political Justice that uphold this. For example, Godwin insists that, ‘morality is nothing else but a calculation of consequences’ (I, 342), and suggests that ‘it is not difficult to form a scale of happiness’ (I, 395). Such a mathematical approach to morals can be aligned with Bentham’s insistence that the utilitarian code was the only consistent theory of ethics.[iii] In this respect, Godwin’s approach to moral questions can be aligned with Bentham’s determination to devise a just ‘scale’ through which to judge virtue. Nevertheless, there are indications that suggest that Political Justice engaged with the same philosophical tradition as Bentham, rather than being influenced directly by the latter’s doctrines. Godwin was not only convinced that benevolence derived from within the principle of self-interest; he also believed that such a quality could be developed in order to achieve what he termed a ‘disinterested’ society.

Political Justice was influenced by Adam Smith’s views on human sympathy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). This is evident in its subtitle’s profession to ‘enquire into’ the ‘influence on morals and happiness’. Such a manifesto is significant in that Godwin connects such treatises on ‘morals’ with the emphasis upon ‘happiness’ in utilitarian doctrines. This suggests from the outset how his concept of ‘utility’ goes beyond Bentham’s inflexible model. As John Whale considers, ‘an older, eighteenth-century form of sensibility is grafted onto Godwin’s utilitarian philosophy, in a manoeuvre which inverts the dominant version of popular Benthamite utilitarianism’.[iv] Such emphasis upon ‘sensibility’, in terms of Godwin’s receptiveness to Enlightenment precepts, can be observed by exploring his approach to self-interest. Godwin did not believe that social ‘happiness’ is achieved indirectly through the individual’s pursuit of their own desires. Instead, he countered that ‘benevolence’ for fellow man was possible, by engaging with Smith’s concept of the tendency within self-interest to extend outwards to others.

Godwin contemplates that ‘the good of our neighbour’ is at first ‘pursued for the sake of its advantage to ourselves’ (Political Justice, I, 425). Although this appears to parallel Bentham’s maxims, Godwin’s receptiveness to elements of Smithian moral philosophy is evident in thoughts he expressed in The Enquirer. This was published significantly between the 1793 and 1798 editions of Political Justice. He suggests that ‘one of the best practical rules of morality that ever was delivered, is that of putting ourselves in the place of another, before we act or decide anything respecting him’.[v] Such insistence upon envisaging ‘the place of another’ shares similarities with Smith’s concept of imaginative sympathy. However, it was on this issue of ‘imagination’ that Godwin and Smith differed. Unlike Smith’s belief that man can identify with the desires of others from within his own self-interest, Godwin aligns this ‘extending out’ to others with reason, rather than with imagination.

Having outlined Godwin’s valuation of reason above the imaginative faculty, it is necessary to explore how this impacts upon his view of utilitarianism. Godwin interprets Smith’s precepts along rationalistic lines. He regards Smith’s conclusions relating to imagination as beneficial, but secondary to its ability to inspire intellectual progress. The process that underpins Political Justice is well known; the concept of mankind as developing gradually through the powers of human reason. What is less acknowledged is how this theory both shapes and limits Godwin’s assessment of utilitarianism. His emphasis upon reason as being the progressive faculty persuaded him that Smith’s view of an outward-reaching self-interest was merely a transient stage in human development, rather than reflecting the moral potential of imagination. Godwin concluded that the final stage in social happiness was instead the gradual superseding of self-interest itself, as society became rationally aware of the natural ‘disinterestedness’ of human motives. Therefore, although Godwin admired Enlightenment precepts, he believed ultimately that ‘benevolence’ rested upon a more evolved understanding of human motives that displaced the self altogether.

Godwin describes how ‘no man so truly promotes his own interest as he that forgets it. No man reaps so copious a harvest of pleasure as he who thinks only of the pleasures of other men’ (Political Justice, I, 395). This statement reveals how Godwin’s view of utilitarianism presents a challenge to Bentham’s doctrines. On the one hand, Godwin’s alignment of ‘pleasures’ with this concept of ‘disinterestedness’ signifies how he is challenging Bentham’s inflexible view of self-interest. However, on the other, his insistence upon man as ‘forgetting’ his ‘own interest’ indicates that his rational view of progress overlooks the crucial role of imagination in the doctrines of his predecessors. In addition, he fails to acknowledge how his determination to invalidate such dependence upon the self is engendered within self-interest itself. Godwin’s conviction that ‘universal benevolence was only the final goal, requiring extensive changes in society’, encountered difficulties in his later works. The belief that ‘benevolence’ could only be achieved by ‘change’ and the phasing out of self-interest, troubled Godwin. It also undermined his determination to prove that man is capable of having conscious, disinterested motives. As Clark suggests, his later essays ‘are especially sceptical’.[vi]

Godwin’s appreciation for the role of exception and hypothesis (a characteristic of his Dissenting education) indicates how his view of utility rests upon the role of the intellect and historical change. This draws attention to how Godwin’s concept of self-interest defies Bentham’s permanent categorisations. Godwin rejected Bentham’s belief in ‘absolutes’ of good and evil, defined in terms of pleasure and pain. He believed instead that such motives were by-products of reaching one’s goals, and that these were often confused with the goals themselves. As a result, not only did he believe that what we view as ‘happiness’ was both individually and historically subjective; he also implied that Bentham’s conclusions on pleasure and pain were more complex than the latter suggested. In Political Justice, and his later works, Godwin maintained that Bentham’s calculation of pleasures and pains, was also influenced by other pleasures and pains that led to their production. For example, he identified that the realisation of ‘absolute’ happiness depended also upon ‘relative’ pleasures such as virtue, knowledge and liberty.[vii] Crucially, such ‘relativity’ depended upon the historical stage in which they were produced.

Godwin viewed of historical development as a series of interplays between ‘progress’ and ‘decline’. However, instances can be seen in Godwin’s thought, of an even greater understanding of human perfectibility. Certainly, Godwin’s theory that ‘disinterestedness’ can become acknowledged as a result of society’s recognition of the errors of selfishness, never suggests that man could place another before himself in the first instance. Nevertheless, Godwin draws close to acknowledging the potential of imaginative sympathy, when he describes how ‘the love of distinction is capable of different directions’ (Political Justice, II, 427). This contemplation that such ‘distinctions’ may contain the potential to develop in ‘different directions’ than his own concept of a rational perfectibility, draws close to Smith’s moral philosophy. As a result, Godwin’s elevation of reason over imagination is perhaps less clear-cut than it initially appears, even if he never developed this aspect of his philosophy to its full extent. As John Whale argues, ‘Godwin reminds us of the variety within the conflict between utility and imagination in this period, and of how imagination has the capacity to re-articulate itself in the face of utility’.[viii] Nevertheless, Whale’s comment about imagination having to ‘re-articulate itself’ when confronted with these doctrines is revealing. It suggests that, for all his contemplations on the different ‘directions’ of benevolence, Godwin maintained that imagination was secondary to a progressive, utilitarian philosophy.

I will conclude this exploration of Godwin’s view of utility, by suggesting that his outlook was particularly significant in the way that it emphasises the mutability of Bentham's moral ‘codes’. This progressive approach to utility led Joseph Priestley, in his introduction to the 1798 edition of Political Justice, to deny that Godwin could be viewed as a utilitarian. This was due to the distinction he made between pleasures and pains, and his claims that people could pursue the pleasures of others as their goal (III, 15-16). Nevertheless, Godwin’s views on self-interest were influential amongst the younger utilitarians. Bentham, David Ricardo and James Mill have been looked upon as the figureheads of utilitarianism, while Godwin has been given little attention. However, I suggest that his ideas on ‘disinterestedness’ became crucial to the form utilitarianism would take in the progression of the nineteenth century.

[i] In fact, John P. Clark illustrates how Godwin ‘eliminated the non-utilitarian sections of the work’ in 1798. The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 110.
[ii] William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, 3 vols, ed. by F. E. L. Priestley (London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1798; photographic facsimile edition, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1946) I, 345.
[iii] David Baumgardt, Bentham and the Ethics of Today (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952), p. 33.
[iv] John Whale, Imagination Under Pressure, 1789-1832: Aesthetics, Politics and Utility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 99.
[v] The Enquirer, or Reflections On Education, Manners, And Literature (London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1797), p. 298.
[vi] Clark, Philosophical Anarchism, pp. 88, 70.
[vii] Ibid, pp. 88, 94.
[viii] Whale, Imagination Under Pressure, pp. 99-100.

This content is attributed to, and was posted originally by Leanne Stokoe on


  1. I really enjoyed this essay! As someone who's just now tackling Mary Shelley, I'm very curious about Godwin's take on the pleasure/pain quantifications. There seems to me to be a lot of his influence in Shelley's portrayal of Frankenstein's monster and his education by way of experiencing the world through either pleasure or pain.

    You wrote, "Godwin rejected Bentham’s belief in ‘absolutes’ of good and evil, defined in terms of pleasure and pain. He believed instead that such motives were by-products of reaching one’s goals, and that these were often confused with the goals themselves. As a result, not only did he believe that what we view as ‘happiness’ was both individually and historically subjective; he also implied that Bentham’s conclusions on pleasure and pain were more complex than the latter suggested. In Political Justice, and his later works, Godwin maintained that Bentham’s calculation of pleasures and pains, was also influenced by other pleasures and pains that led to their production."

    Am I understanding you correctly that he was creating a sort of fracturing of pleasure versus pain by way of exploring historical and personal motive, thereby creating a less absolute sort of spectrum through which people acted? Because that would be fascinating.

    Additionally, this is perhaps a really ignorant question, but I'd be really interested to hear your opinion on whether you think Godwin, having offered a more nuanced mode of utilitarianism, maybe mitigated some of the attitudes held towards principles of utility by progressives who were discomfited by Bentham's more de-individualised ideas of happiness of society as a whole? Or perhaps a better question would be, was his interpretation of utilitarianism influential towards others other than the younger utilitarians? I ask because Carlyle enjoyed excoriating utilitarianism, but he aimed his barbs mostly at Bentham, and I don't recall him ever being much aware of Godwin's take

  2. Hi Kate, I'm glad you enjoyed my essay!

    You make extremely interesting points, and I find it fascinating that you can trace elements of these ideas in 'Frankenstein'. That would identify an original point of comparison between Mary and her father, and how much they discussed these themes together.

    Certainly I think Godwin believed historical and subjective variables to be important when defining utility and the concept of ‘the greatest happiness’. I think a lot of this was connected to his belief that it was possible to ‘go beyond’ the selfish principle, through the faculty of reason. As I said, I think he viewed this in the sense of Smith’s moral philosophy, rather than Bentham’s rejection of imagination in relation to human motives. Of course, this contrasted with Bentham’s views that pleasure and pain could inform a view of morals that was relevant ‘in all times and places’. I’d be really interested to hear what you find out, if you pursue this theme in your research. By what you’ve said, I’m sure Mary would have discussed this with her father, so maybe checking out her journals and their correspondence would be helpful.

    As for your second question, an aspect of Godwin’s view of utility I never really had time to mention was his influence upon William Hazlitt. In his 'Essay on the Principles of Human Action' (1805), Hazlitt went a step further than Godwin, arguing that human nature was intrinsically disinterested, and that individuals defined good and evil in terms of others, as well as themselves. He was certainly receptive to Godwin’s views on the ability to ‘go beyond’ self-interest, but extended them by arguing how humans were already disinterested by nature. I’m sure the Lake Poets, in their early idolisation of Godwin, would have been receptive to his view of morals. Finally, I have done research on the extent to which Godwin’s views of utility influenced Shelley in his discussion of political economy, and how the latter’s view of imagination allowed him to build upon Godwin’s reasoning.

    Does that answer your questions? I really enjoyed your presentation on Carlyle and Marx – as I work in the earlier half of the century, it would be interesting to hear more about their responses to utility. You’re right, it’s a shame that Godwin is often overlooked in relation to utilitarianism. We should talk more!!

  3. Sorry for the long silence--I wasn't sure whether blogger was going to inform me of your comment or not. But thank you for such a thoughtful reply!

    It seems to me from my very surface readings about Shelley that she certainly idolised her father, and modelled her work somewhat after his--my edition of Frankenstein points to direct parallels between its plot and one of Godwin's novels, though which one in particular escapes me and I haven't the edition on hand.

    Godwin seems to have a far more interesting perspective on utility than I think either Marx or Carlyle were either conscious of or willing to permit! I have no idea how far I'll be going into this topic with my own research, but from what you've described there's a really interesting focus on the universality of experience and whether that experience can be quantified that serves as the sort of central point of contention between the people tackling the issue, whether positively or negatively. Marx falls into a strange sort of space where he'll protest the reduction of workers to numbers, but communism seems to imply an attempt towards quantifiable equality that has obviously backfired. Carlyle is probably far more relatable, but I haven't come across any direct interaction with Godwin yet. I'll let you know if I stumble across anything more specific than that!

    And yes, that answers my question perfectly. I again know very little about Hazlitt, but it is good to know that there was a whole spectrum of different people considering both Godwin's and Bentham's interpretations of similar basic principles. I deal a great deal with extremist interpretations by necessity, so being reminded of the grey areas is essential!

    We should definitely talk more, this is fascinating stuff!

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