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Thomas Sowell's Poor Scholarship

Today I read some of "A Conflict of Visions" by Thomas Sowell with a particular interest in what he would say about Godwin and Burke. I was very disappointed, and was concerned about his accuracy. So, I checked up on two of his footnotes. In both cases he misrepresented the original text.

Sowell writes (page 23):
Unintentional social benefits were treated by Godwin as scarcely worthy of notice.[12]
Here is what Godwin actually says (Political Justice, Volume 1, Page 433):
Virtue requires a certain disposition and view of the mind, and does not belong to the good which may accidentally and unintentionally result from our proceeding. The creditor that, from pure hardness of disposition, should cast a man into prison who, unknown to him, was upon the point of committing some atrocious and sanguinary action, would not be virtuous but vicious. This mischief to result from the project of his debtor, was no part in his motive; the thought only of gratifying his inordinate passion.
Godwin is not arguing that unintentional social benefits are unimportant. He is arguing against the theory that all actions should be judged purely by their consequences; intentions matter and people should not be given moral credit for lucky accidents. Sowell has misrepresented Godwin.

Sowell writes (page 25):
"Nothing is good," Burke said, "but in proportion, and with reference"[20]--in short, as a trade-off.
Sowell is representing Burke as saying that nothing is good except trade-offs. Here is what Burke said with the preceding sentence included:

All I recommend is, that whenever the sacrifice of any subordinate point of morality, or of honour, or even of common liberal sentiment and feeling is called for, one ought to be tolerably sure that the object is worth it. Nothing is good, but in proportion and with reference.
Burke is saying that if we make a trade-off, we should be sure it's worth it. That does not mean that only trade-offs are good, it only means that we better not ignore proportion or reference. Sowell has misrepresented Burke.

Elliot Temple on December 20, 2008


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