This article was last modified on January 17, 2010.

Godwin, Property and Philosophical Anarchism

A philosophical anarchist, William Godwin believed that change would come gradually and that there was no need for violent revolution. Philosophical anarchism is an anarchist school of thought which contends that the State lacks moral legitimacy but does not advocate revolution to eliminate it. Though philosophical anarchism does not necessarily imply any action or desire for the elimination of the State, philosophical anarchists do not believe that they have an obligation or duty to obey the State, or conversely, that the State has a right to command. Philosophical anarchism is a component especially of individualist anarchism. Other philosophical anarchists of historical note include Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Benjamin Tucker, and Henry David Thoreau.

Godwin’s views on government can best be summed up as follows: “Above all we should not forget, that government is an evil, an usurpation upon the private judgment and individual conscience of mankind; and that, however we may be obliged to admit it as a necessary evil for the present, it behoves us, as the friends of reason and the human species, to admit as little of it as possible, and carefully to observe whether, in consequence of the gradual illumination of the human mind, that little may not hereafter be diminished.”

However, our concern here is with his views of property, not the state, though these two topics intertwine. Indeed, Godwin saw how crucial property was to political structures when he declared, “The subject of property is the key-stone that completes the fabric of political justice.” [Godwin: 420]

The Natural Gravitation of Property

Godwin saw that the key to social justice was to have the right property be put into the right hands. Whereas Aristotle felt that individual ownership was more beneficial than communal ownership, Godwin further clarifies that it is not only the private possession that is important, but also whom the possessor is. “Who is the person entitled to the use of any particular article of this kind? Who is the person, in whose hands the preservation and distribution of any number of these articles, will be most justly and beneficially vested?” [Godwin: 422]

Where Mankind Has Failed

In the world as it is today, men love to have distinction, and that is why they pursue luxury rather than needs. “How many of these things would engage his attention, if he lived in a desert island, and had no spectator of his economy?” [Godwin: 426] So long as men continue to strive for success in the form of material goods, there can be no justice in property.

Does human nature allow for people to stop being self-interested?

The Place of Religion

“The doctrine of the injustice of accumulated property, has been the foundation of all religious morality.” [Godwin: 429]

Religion teaches that the rich “are merely administrators, and by no means proprietors in chief.” [Godwin: 430]

Godwin cites Mark 10:21 (Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.) and Acts 2:44-45 (And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all [men], as every man had need.)

Not cited is Mark 10:25 (It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.)

The Coming of a New Dawn


“If man have a right to any thing, he has a right to justice.” [Godwin: 423] (Justice is the fundamental right. Are other rights based on this? Whose justice?)

“what conduces to the benefit or pleasure of one man, will conduce to the benefit or pleasure of another.” [Godwin: 423]

“the good things of the world are a common stock, upon which one man has as valid a title as another to draw for what he wants.” [Godwin: 423]

“I have a right to every pleasure I can participate without injury to myself or others; his title, in this respect is of similar extent.” [Godwin: 423]

“Those things which are necessary for the accommodation of man in society cannot be obtained without the labour of man. ” [Godwin: 431]

“Property implies some permanence of external possession, and includes in it the idea of a possible competitor.” [Godwin: 432]

First degree of property: “The first and simplest degree is that of my permanent right in those things the use of which being attributed to me, a greater sum of benefit or pleasure will result than could have arisen from their being otherwise appropriated. It is of no consequence, in this case, how I came into possession of them, the only necessary conditions being their superior usefulness to me, and that my title to them is such as is generally acquiesced in by the community in which I live. Every man is unjust who conducts himself in such a manner respecting these things as to infringe, in any degree, upon my power of using them, at the time when the using them will be of real importance to me.” [Godwin: 432] If something is most useful to me, it should be mine, regardless of how its acquired. (In RPGS, items are given to those who can use them.)

“The second degree of property is the empire to which every man is entitled over the produce of his own industry, even that part of it the use of which ought not to be appropriated to himself. It has been repeatedly shown that all the rights of man which are of this description are passive.(2*) He has no right of option in the disposal of anything which may fall into his hands. Every shilling of his property, and even every, the minutest, exertion of his powers have received their destination from the decrees of justice.” [Godwin: 433] Man has a right to his own product.

“It will readily be perceived that this second species of property is in a less rigorous sense fundamental than the first. It is, in one point of view, a sort of usurpation. It vests in me the preservation and dispensing of that which in point of complete and absolute right belongs to you.” [Godwin: 434]

“The third degree of property is that which occupies the most vigilant attention in the civilized states of Europe.” [Godwin: 434]

“Every man may calculate, in every glass of wine he drinks, and every ornament he annexes to his person, how many individuals have been condemned to slavery and sweat, incessant drudgery, unwholesome food, continual hardships, deplorable ignorance, and brutal insensibility, that he may be supplied with these luxuries. It is a gross imposition that men are accustomed to put upon themselves when they talk of the property bequeathed to them by their ancestors. The property is produced by the daily labour of men who are now in existence.” [Godwin: 435]

“It is clear therefore that the third species of property is in direct contradiction to the second.” [Godwin: 435]

“the quantity of manual labour … should be reduced within as narrow limits as possible.” [Godwin: 436]

“For any man to enjoy the most trivial accommodation, while, at the same time a similar accommodation is not accessible to every other member of the community, is, absolutely speaking, wrong. All refinements of luxury, all inventions that tend to give employment to a great number of labouring hands, are directly adverse to the propagation of happiness.” [Godwin: 436]

“The country-gentleman who, by leveling an eminence, or introducing a sheet of water into his park, finds work for hundreds of industrious poor is the enemy, and not, as has commonly been imagined, the friend, of his species.” [Godwin: 436]

“Very little indeed is employed to increase the happiness or conveniences of the poor.” [Godwin: 436]

“They barely subsist at present, and they did as much at the remoter period of which we speak. Those who, by fraud or force, have usurped the power of buying and selling the labour of the great mass of the community are sufficiently disposed to take care that they should never do more than subsist.” [Godwin: 437] Rich pay the poor just enough to keep them poor.

“All that is luxury and superfluity would increase the accommodations of the rich, and perhaps, by reducing the price of luxuries, augment the number of those to whom such accommodations were accessible. But it would afford no alleviation to the great mass of the community.” [Godwin: 437]

“What reason is there then that this species of property should be respected?” [Godwin: 437]

“If, by positive institution, the property of every man were equalized today, without a contemporary change in men’s dispositions and sentiments, it would become unequal tomorrow.” [Godwin: 438]

“We have already shown, and shall have occasion to show more at large, how pernicious the consequences would be if government were to take the whole permanently into their hands, and dispense to every man his daily bread.” [Godwin: 438]

“The idea of property, or permanent empire, in those things which ought to be applied to our personal use, and still more in the produce of our industry, unavoidably suggests the idea of some species of law or practice by which it is guaranteed. Without this, property could not exist.” [Godwin: 439]

“If, in any society, wealth be estimated at its true value, and accumulate and monopoly be regarded as the seals of mischief, injustice and dishonour, instead of being treated as titles attention and deference, in that society the accommodations of human life will tend to their level, and the equality of conditions will be destroyed. A revolution opinions is the only means of attaining to this inestimable benefit. Every attempt to effect this purpose by means of regulation will probably be found ill conceived and abortive. Be this as it will, every attempt to correct the distribution of wealth by individual violence is certainly to be regarded as hostile to the first principles of public security.” [Godwin: 441]

“if reason prove insufficient for this fundamental purpose, other means must doubtless be employed. It is better that one man should suffer than that the community should be destroyed.” [Godwin: 442]

“It is therefore right that property, with all its inequalities, such as it is sanctioned by the general sense of the members of any state, and so long as that sanction continues unvaried should be defended, if need be, by means of coercion.” [Godwin: 442] Property right should be defended if it keeps society stable.

“It is an expedient, protecting one injustice, the accumulation of property, for the sake of keeping out another evil, still more formidable and destructive. Lastly, it is to be considered that this injustice, the unequal distribution of property, the grasping and selfish spirit of individuals, is to be regarded as one of the original sources of government” [Godwin: 443] Okay to protect lesser of two evils, agrees with Hobbes/Locke to a point.

“”There is no merit in being born the son of a rich man, rather than of a poor one, that should justify us in raising this man to affluence, and condemning that to invincible depression. Surely,” we might be apt to exclaim, “it is enough to maintain men in their usurpation [for let it never be forgotten that accumulated property is usurpation], during the term of their lives. It is the most extravagant fiction, which would enlarge the empire of the proprietor beyond his natural existence, and enable him to dispose of events, when he is himself no longer in the world.”” [Godwin: 444] Argument against inheritance.

“Most persons would be inclined to bestow their property, after the period of their lives, upon their children or nearest relatives. Where therefore they have failed to express their sentiments in this respect, it is reasonable to presume what they would have been; and this disposal of the property on the part of the community is the mildest, and therefore the most justifiable, interference.” [Godwin: 445]

“Property, under every form it can assume, is upheld by the direct interference of institution; and that species which we at present contemplate must inevitably perish the mordent the protection of the state is withdrawn.” [Godwin: 447]

“The inequalities of property perhaps constituted a state through which it was at least necessary for us to pass, and which constituted the true original excitement to the unfolding the powers of the human mind.” [Godwin: 448]

“the principle in which the doctrine of property is founded, the sacred and indefeasible right of private judgement.” [Godwin: 449]

“instead of being forward to act itself as an umpire, that the community might fill the humbler office of guardian of the rights of private judgement, and never interpose but when one man appeared, in this respect, alarmingly to encroach upon another.” [Godwin: 450]

“The first idea of property then is a deduction from the right of private judgement; the first object of government is the preservation of this right.” [Godwin: 450]

“Thus deep is the foundation of the doctrine of property. It is, in the last resort, the palladium of all that ought to be dear to us, and must never be approached but with awe and veneration.” [Godwin: 450]

“Civil society maintains a greater proportion of security among men than can be found in the savage state: this is one of the reasons why, under the shade of civil society, arts have been invented, sciences perfected and the nature of man, in his individual and relative capacity, gradually developed.” [Godwin: 451]

“Persuasion, and not force, is the legitimate instrument for influencing the human mind; and I shall never be justifiable in having recourse to the latter, while there is any rational hope of succeeding by the former.” [Godwin: 451]

“…the criterion of morals is utility. When it has once been determined that my being constituted the possessor of a certain article will be beneficial, it does not follow that my attempting, or even succeeding, violently to put myself in possession of it will be attended with a beneficial result.” [Godwin: 452] If an object is best in my hands, this does not give me the right to take it.

“It may appear to be a truth of that nature which is accustomed to sink deep in the human understanding, insensibly to mix itself with all our reasonings, and ultimately to produce, without shadow of violence, the most complete revolution in the maxims of civil society.” [Godwin: 452] The knowledge that things are best in the hands of some and not others will create a moral revolution.


Godwin, William. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness. University of Toronto Press, 1946 (originally 1793)

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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