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Comments on Political Justice, Book 2, Chapter 2

I am reading Political Justice by William Godwin. Here is a summary of his position in book 2, chapter 2, followed by my comments, criticism, and improvements.

Godwin considers the maxim "that we should love our neighbour as ourselves". He likes the sentiment, but points out men are not equally valuable. Imagine a burning building with Fenelon, the illustrious Archbishop of Cambrai, and his valet, and only time to save one person? Who would hesitate to save Fenelon? This is not an unjust decision, because Fenelon will do more good works after being saved, and make important contributions that help society. He is a more valuable person. Godwin specifically mentions two ways people can be more valuable: being further above animals (more intelligent), and being more virtuous in terms of benefitting the public good.

Godwin discusses some objections, and in each case insists on impartial justice. For example, even if I am the valet, I should prefer Fenelon be saved over myself, because he is more valuable to the world. And if the valet is my brother, my father, or my benefactor, I might be tempted to save him, but I should not. What magic is there in the pronoun "my" to change what is right? Fenelon is more valuable, and thus it is better to save him.

Another objection is that I might owe the valet a debt of gratitude. Godwin acknowledges that this gratitude is important, because it comes from some benefit the valet bestowed upon me, which shows his value. However, the valet would be equally virtuous if he had done this service for someone else, so it should make no difference that he helped me personally. What matters is how valuable each person is impartially -- without giving special status to myself. And so Fenelon should still be saved; he is owed gratitude by more people.

Next, consider that we have seen proof of the good deeds of our personal benefactor, but we are ignorant of many of the good deeds performed elsewhere. Thus we might, out of ignorance, save a person we know personally, even if in fact he is less worthy. This, Godwin says, might excuse our error, but it would not make it less of an error. The truth of which person is more virtuous and should be saved is the same even if we are ignorant of it.

Godwin does give a reason to justify helping ourselves in life. It is that helping ourselves also helps the public good: we can accomplish more good if we live a long time in mental and physical health, so it is just to put effort and resources into maintaining those.

The main idea of the chapter is to live impartially. If my neighbor needs money that I have more than I do, for a better use, then I should give it to him. His right to it is just as complete as if I owed it to him for goods purchased. There is no room in a virtuous life for personal whim or fancy, or to give our favors; we should always seek only to take actions in accordance with impartial justice.

My Commentary

First, Godwin is correct that the truth of what would be best ideally is unaffected by our ignorance. However, there is also a truth of what is the best way for people to live, which is a more interesting and useful truth. The right policies for people to live by must take into account our imperfections and ignorance; we must live in a way that works well despite our ignorance, and which can handle our mistakes. One of the ways we can minimize errors is if we each individually focus our use of resources on areas where we have the most knowledge. That means using our efforts primarily to affect our own life, our friends and family, any area of expertise we have pursued, and our vocation. This is effective because when we apply resources to those areas, we best understand which projects and causes are going to work well, and which are mistaken. And we best understand which people are virtuous, and will make best use of any aid.

This approach does not guarantee a good distribution of wealth, resources, and effort. A poor distribution could result if a great many people know a lot about unimportant things, and don't know enough about important things. What they care about is skewed; their lives and knowledge focus on less valuable or significant things than they should. If that is the case, the solution is persuasion: persuade people to devote more thought and attention and resources to the most important areas. Show them why those areas are best. Demonstrate their merits with vigor and zeal. And then those areas will receive more attention, and projects in those areas will have more resources.

Second, I appreciate Godwin's strict adherence to impartiality. He takes it very seriously, and this is a great thing. However, there is perhaps an important reason to favor ourselves. It is that people are not set in stone: they can change and improve. And this will happen most if they have an optimistic attitude, and believe in themselves. So, I want to see people support their own dreams and aspirations. Consider a sport like baseball. None of the great players started at the top. And none of them got to the top by finding the best players and saying, "You are more valuable than me. I will do anything to help you." Instead they had self-respect. They worked to improve their own skill.

Third, the idea of their existing an objective, impartial, public good, which everyone should work towards, has a flaw. The flaw is: people disagree. This is related to the earlier comments about ignorance. While there is a truth of the matter about what would be best for everyone, we don't know it. We have to work with the knowledge that exists.

This leads to the question: what is a rational and just system for resolving disagreement and deciding which ideas are correct and which people are most deserving of resources for their projects?

The important issue here is that we do not suppress unpopular ideas. No one should be under pressure to abandon their idea -- which many consider bad and wasteful -- and to instead support a popular idea most people consider best. Instead they should be cheered on for trying out a new idea which might bear fruit. Or at least fully tolerated in their disagreement with popular opinion. The only reason projects should be ended is that everyone involved changes their mind -- either because they are presented with powerful arguments, or because in pursuing the project they learn more about it and decide it's a mistake.

This still leaves us to consider how resources be distributed. We don't want everyone working on bad ideas all the time, and we don't want any more resources than necessary wasted on mistakes. We want people with good ideas to have the most influence and choice over what the next projects are. In other words, we want a self-correcting system that distributes resources to the best projects while simultaneously allowing for unpopular ones.

We have a system like that! It's called the free market, or capitalism. The way it works is: people fund their own projects using their own resources. When they fail, they have less resources to use on future projects. When they succeed, they end up with more resources for future projects.

Who succeeds or fails isn't determined by some appointed judges (who might be biased). Instead, it is determined by the entire market which makes use of knowledge distributed among many, many people. And the market is able to produce an impartial answer even if each participating individual is biased. The way the market can do this is using a very good criterion for which projects succeed or fail, and thus which project participants have more resources for future projects.

The criterion is: do people want the results? If you make something people want (goods or knowledge) the market rewards you, and if you don't, it doesn't.

The market is not perfect. It can only operate using the knowledge people have, and not based on the ultimate truth of the matter. And worse, every project contains many different ideas. The author of an excellent book might end up poor because he choose an incompetent publisher. His lack of skill at choosing a publisher has nothing to do with how good his book is, but the market lumps them together.

Fortunately, there are solutions. If he believes the book is good despite its initial failure, he can try again: the market lets people try things as many times as they want to. And if he has good reasons to believe this, he can say them, and other people who agree can help him correct the error. And this brings us to the general solution: do the wrong people and projects have a lot of resources? Educate them, and they will redistribute those resources themselves to something better. All you have to do is spread knowledge of what is best -- share the truth -- and the world will reorganize itself accordingly.

In closing, I realize the idea that people can be persuaded of good ideas over personal self-interest is controversial. However, the possibility of doing so is one of the major themes of Political Justice. So Godwin, at least, would agree with me. And if you read his book, perhaps you will too.

Elliot Temple on November 25, 2007

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