Godwin's Political Philosophy

Here is Godwin summarizing his own political philosophy.

Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin; General Editor Mark Philp; London 1993; Volume 2; p 219-220 [The Administration of 1806, published 1807]
My political creed may be stated with great brevity and clearness. It consists of two parts, speculative and practical. In speculative politics, I indulge with great delight to my own mind (and I cannot easily persuade myself with injury to others), in mediating on what man can be, on all the good which our nature, taken in the most favourable point of view, seems to promise, and in endeavouring to trace in the wide and unexplored sea of future events, through what adventures and by what means that good (certainly in many of its branches exceedingly remote) may ultimately be brought home to man.

In practical politics, my path is marked with many a beacon, which is wanting to me in the tracks of speculation, and therefore I may hope is less exposed to error. In the first place, I am an enemy to revolutions. I abhor, both from temper, and from the clearest judgment I am able to form, all violent convulsions in the affairs of men. I look to the understanding alone for all real and solid improvements in the structure of human society. Whether the human mind shall exult most in the display of a gilded chariot and a splendid drawing-room, or in simplicity of manners and the practice of virtue, must depend on the judgment the human mind in the successive revolutions of things shall form of what it is that is exquisite and admirable.

I am therefore practically a friend to the English constitution. Not that I regard it, as some men have done, as the model of all that is the best in political government, and the consummation of human wisdom. But I find in it much that is good; and when I compare it with the government of the countries that surround us, devoutly do I admire it. Were it much worse than it is, my principles would restrain me from assailing it with violence; but as it is, that patience and filial tenderness towards it which my principles enjoin, is made likewise agreeable to my inclinations. I would treat it as I would a robe bestowed on me for the most useful purposes; I would repair it where it became decayed; in those repairs I would change in some respects the fashion of it as my conveniency seemed to require; but the changes that took place (to however great a sum they might one day amount) should be, separately taken, gentle, temperate, almost insensible. From a pure system of feudal manners, which the English constitution at one time was, it has gradually adapted itself to a mercantile and considerably luxurious nation; and I neither expect nor desire that it should continue unchanged in times to come, and more than it has remained unchanged in ages past.

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Trade is Error Correction

Trade consists of correcting errors. That's why it's profitable.

The errors are errors about who has what property.

As with all error correction, criticism and knowledge are central.

All trade requires knowledge: you have to know that it'd be a good idea to trade X for Y or you won't do it.

All trades require criticizing and wanting to change the status quo. I haven't got an iPad, *but that's a mistake*, I should have one! I haven't got anything to eat for dinner, but I should change that! Or more advanced, "That company is doing some useful stuff, but I have an even more valuable project for them to work on than their current one, so I'll buy them out and change their focus" or "That store is doing ok but if i owned that particular building I could provide more value there, so I'll buy it".

When you're right, you buy a store (say) for $110, that had a value of $100 to the old owner, and then you make a profit of $200 from it. So by correcting the error (store being used in a way with $100 of value instead of the new way worth $200), value is creating and both parties to the trade gain.

When you're mistaken -- i.e. you don't correct an error -- then you buy for $110, but only make $90. So you come out behind. But at least your mistake didn't hurt the other guy, it's only your problem, which is good.

In this way, correcting errors is encouraged, and creating errors is discouraged.

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Godwin Against Parochial Thinking

_Thoughts Occassioned by the Perusal of Dr Parr's Spital Sermon_, by William Godwin, p 63
One of the greatest evils which can infest political disquisition, is the imagination that what takes place in the spot and period in which we live, is essential to the general regulation and well-being of mankind.
Yet again Godwin anticipates _The Beginning of Infinity_ which criticizes parochialism.

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The Machinery of Freedom -- Free PDF


Really great book! Read it! It's about Anarcho Capitalism.

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Force Is Complicated

A mistake made by Ayn Rand and some libertarians is to think it's simple to decide what is and isn't force.

Consider these example situations:

1) A biker is forced to steer well around a car being washed or else be hit with some water.

2) A car door is opened 10 ft in front of a biker who steers around it. The biker didn't see the driver look first.

3) Some amateur bikers go slowly blocking the road. They choose not to go single file to let people pass.

4) A car doesn't use a blinker when it should.

5) A baseball field is built so that home runs which clear the fence could hit people at a nearby park.

In each case, it is not obvious if force is being initiated. That means the principle "don't initiate force" isn't a panacea, because reasonable people can disagree about what force is.

One of the crucial mechanisms of a peaceful, civilized society is that people in general make a reasonable effort to avoid doing anything in the grey zone which might be taken as force, but at the same time if someone does do something borderline bad they do their best to overlook it and not get upset. Almost everyone having a double standard in this way (aim for one standard, but accept things up to a worse standard from others) is really effective. People don't suceed at this every time, but it's a major source of confliction prevention.

Another mechanism of our society is to treat the same action differently depending on the person's intention. Was it an accident or intended? Was he trying to accomplish a legitimate purpose that people should accomplish, or not? If you hit someone while playing baseball that's one thing; if you just find a fence with people on the other side and start hitting balls over that's another.

It's important to be tolerant of impositions others impose on us, and to expect them, not to just draw a line and become hateful and aggrieved if anyone crosses it.

One underlying reason this attitude is effective is that conflict resolution and negotiation is expensive. I don't have in mind only courts, but even simply talking to a stranger, and making them understand the issue, can be hard. They don't know what's on your mind, or what kind of things you care about or expect from life, and they may well assume if you're talking to them it must be important and so misunderstand any small complaint.

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Burke on Economics

quotes from Thoughts and Details on Scarcity by Burke:

The balance between consumption and production makes price. The market settles, and alone can settle, that price. Market is the meeting and conference of the consumer and producer, when they mutually discover each other's wants. Nobody, I believe, has observed with any reflection what market is, without being astonished at the truth, the correctness, the celerity, the general equity, with which the balance of wants is settled. They who wish the destruction of that balance, and would fain by arbitrary regulation decree, that defective production should not be compensated by encreased price, directly lay their axe to the root of production itself.
We, the people, ought to be made sensible, that it is not in breaking the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God, that we are to place our hope of softening the Divine displeasure to remove any calamity under which we suffer, or which hangs over us.
the State ought to confine itself to what regards the State, or the creatures of the State, namely, the exterior establishment of its religion; its magistracy; its revenue; its military force by sea and land; the corporations that owe their existence to its fiat; in a word, to every thing that is truly and properly public, to the public peace, to the public safety, to the public order, to the public prosperity. In it's preventive police it ought to be sparing of its efforts, and to employ means, rather few, unfrequent, and strong, than many, and frequent, and, of course, as they multiply their puny politic race, and dwindle, small and feeble.

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The Search of Truth Presupposes Ethics

The fact that science cannot make any pronouncement about ethical principles has been misinterpreted as indicating that there are no such principles; while in fact the search of truth presupposes ethics
From Karl Popper, «Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind», in: Gerard Radnitzky and William W. Bartley, III (editors), Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1987), p. 141., found online at http://www.unav.es/cryf/theethicalrootsofkarlpoppe...

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A Philosopher's History of the French Revolution

1688, liberty was (re)invented. In England, having been brewing there for many centuries, with many setbacks.. (It had previously existed in ancient Greece, especially Athens.)

A hundred years later, Anglophiles in France wanted it too. They advocated liberty and explained why it was a good idea to the French.

Many Frenchmen were confused, impatient, angry, and ignorant. The French philosophers did not understand liberty as well as the English did, and the French peasants understood much less than that.

As the revolution began, most of England thought the French were finally catching up and becoming more like England. That's what the better French philosophers hoped for.

Unfortunately, the mainstream French approach had several crucial mistakes. Edmund Burke noticed these mistakes and wrote a book explaining them and also making accurate predictions about the violence that was to come. As William Godwin put it, "Mr Burke is entitled to great applause for having seen earlier than perhaps any other man the events the seeds of which were sown in the French revolution."

Burke was a lifelong advocate of reform in England. He would have liked France to have liberty too. But as Burke understood, there are different approaches to reform, some of which are effective, and some of which are ineffective or worse. Wanting liberty is not enough to get liberty; misguided approaches typically lead to disaster.

Burke carefully explained in his book that the French approach was not following the English lead, but instead was doing many things quite differently. Of particular note, the English way was to attempt gradual reforms; there should be no sweeping changes unless that is the only possible way forward. France had already been reforming; the King had implemented some reforms and was somehwat sympathetic to liberty, as were many of the aristocracy; so why, then, was there any revolution at all? The French Revolutionaries threw away progress in hand for unrealistic dreams of shortcuts to much larger progress.

Burke also explained that the French made mistakes in political philosophy. They didn't understand how important it was to build on existing traditions, and improve on existing political institions. They thought they could build new things that would be better, but that is folly for any new thing is bound to have its own problems; the way we get good things is not about sweeping away all existing institutions and doing it right once and for all, but about correcting errors.

Burke respected the value of the men and ideas that came before him, and hoped to do even better. Many of the French did not respect their existing ideas, and didn't see any value in them. Because they failed to understand the valuable parts of their existing system, they failed to incorporate those useful parts into their new system.

The French wanted fast progress, but shortcuts don't work. As Godwin explained, if you change a country overnight, but the populace does not understand the new way, they will simply follow their existing ideas and revert things back to the old ways. Reforms must come after knowledge; they must be understood first and implemented second. In this way, reforms happen easily, almost automatically, after most people already want them, instead of being a struggle, and there is no problem of reverting. This way has a further large advantage: if we have a new idea and implement it right away, it might be a mistake. If we first persuade most people in the country of the idea, then in all that discussion we may improve the idea or reject it; error correction happens in the persuasion phase.

Due to its mistakes, the French Revolution became a violent mess that set liberty back not only in France but also in the rest of Europe, and even in England where it disheartened many reformers and, due to a real danger of revolutionary violence, temporary suppression of open debate was deemed necessary.

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A Nature and Nurture Summary

In an uninteresting sense, all traits have both a "nature" and "nurture" component.

These categories would be better named as genetic/biological and environment/ideas. (I'll use mixed terminology, the important thing is to bear in mind what it means.)

Without genes, you won't get a person. Genes create the brain. If genes were different, you'd get a body without a brain or lungs, or nothing larger than an egg. And different genes, in the right situation, make a flower or a tree instead of a person.

Without environment, you'd never get a person either. You think eye color is purely genetic? Not if the fetus doesn't get enough nutrition from its environment. It will die without having eyes, without an appropriate environment to help it.

So, trivially, all traits have nature and nurture involved.

Now let's consider a liberal. Why is he a liberal? How can we explain it? It's a matter of ideas. There is nothing in his genes about liberalism.

Liberals are liberals because they have *knowledge* about liberalism. What is the origin of that knowledge? It's from our culture and its political traditions, from books, from thinking, from discussions, from the TV, and so on. Liberalism isn't a part of our genes, even though, yes, our genes are necessary for creating the brain which is needed to understand liberalism.

There's always an idea-based explanation of why a person is a liberal, which explains where the knowledge came from. His parents told him, or he figured it out himself, or he read it in _Liberalism_ by Ludwig von Mises, etc, he did not find liberal arguments in his genes.

Note that "knowledge" is not "justified, true belief". There is no assumption that knowledge isn't mistaken or that the holder understands its nature. Anti-liberals have knowledge too, even though liberals and anti-liberals can't both have the truth of the matter.

The nature/nurture debate -- the heart of it, I think -- revolves around questions like:

1) Where does the knowledge that determines if a person is liberal/happy/smart/gay/light-hearted/extroverted/many-other-things come from?

2) If a person wants to change, what interventions will be effective?

The "conventional/standard" view among *lay* people and the news media gives the following answers:

1) Around 20% of the knowledge for high level personality traits and other uniquely human features (things not found in animals) is from genes, and 80% from upbringing/etc.

2) If the knowledge is from upbringing, then it can be changed by learning new ideas, but if it's from genes then it's permanent/unchangeable.

BTW this view has sometimes been claimed to be a consensus of scientists, but it's not. For example, the expert geneticist Sahotra Sarkar not only disagrees but reports that most competent geneticists know that the heritability approach has been criticized in the literature and use other, better methods instead. The heritability approach these conclusions largely come from is popular with social scientists, psychologists, other people who haven't specialized in all the technical details.

My answers to the questions are:

1) All high-level, uniquely human traits (such as being extroverted, liberal, or good at thinking aka intelligent) are best explained by ideas, not genes. There's no gene about extroversion or how to enjoy critical discussion. The knowledge for those traits is in ideas.

2) Humans are not unchangeable, but interventions are sometimes hard b/c *ideas can be entrenched*. Interventions on all issues are possible, and often interventions are *easier for genetic traits* than any of the hard-to-change ideas. If something is really hard to change, that hints it's an idea, b/c ideas are often the hardest thing to change.

Often people argue against nurture by saying "it can't be nurture, b/c i tried to change that aspect of myself and failed". This is quite irrelevant to a correct framing of the issues. There has never been any serious argument that ideas are easy to change, or genetic traits hard; it was just assumed.

Things are hard to change based on how much knowledge there is to prevent change. Ideas can and do often have more knowledge than genes.

Entrenched ideas are hard to change for two big reasons: 1) there is more knowledge behind them to keep them entrenched (b/c memetic evolution goes much faster than genetic, so they are more highly adapted). 2) People use creativity to maintain and defend entrenched ideas (i.e. they create more knowledge). When you try to change a genetic trait, that's a static obstacle, but a memetic trait will sometimes change in the middle of your attempted intervention.

As I like to point out, hair color is genetic but it's not very hard to change it with hair dye. Height is genetic, but it's not very hard to wear platform shoes or stilts. Eye color is genetic, but it's not hard to purchase colored contacts. Having two legs is genetic, but it's not that hard to cut one off, if you want to change your leg quantity. But being a Christian, for example, is a matter of ideas, and for most Christians it's very hard to change.

Another idea people struggle to change is romantic love. Often enough people find their way of falling in love isn't working out very well for their life, but after several broken hearts they still have a very hard time changing it. Some people think this indicates it must be genetic, but that's a bad argument as above. And anyway we know historically that people treated love very differently in other cultures in the past, so how can it be genetic? There's simply a common, unscientific assumption that if people's attempts to change something fail then it must have a substantial genetic component.

I focus mostly on the issue of changing traits because I think that's what most people care about (and indeed it is important).

When it comes to changing traits, the most accurate single sentence would go something like: "It's 100% nurture, but that doesn't mean changing will be easy, you may want to study epistemology, i.e. to learn how to learn, or your attempts to learn new ideas may well be ineffective".

Another single sentence, "Humans are all about ideas, *ideas have consequences* (e.g. determine the course of one's life), and while changing one's mind can be very hard, it's always possible and doing it effectively is one of the most important skills to learn."

Another: "Blaming one's failure to change his mind on genes is a way of abdicating responsibility -- much like blaming a child's disobedience on a physical, genetic, 'mental' illness like ODD -- but in addition to playing the blame-and-victimhood game it's also a way to *give up* and stop trying to improve."

One more: "Nature does not have a 20% influence; percentage is the wrong thing to measure in; it's more of a constant amount, e.g. 20, which doesn't go up as our culture becomes more advanced, but instead becomes trivially small to overcome." (Example: to a low technology culture, changing eye color for a play would seem quite hard. But now it's easy. There was a fixed amount of difficulty which is now beneath us.)

This is not a comprehensive statement. Questions are welcome.

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Roy Porter is an expert on the Enlightenment. He has multiple books on it, and made a TV show.

But he doesn't know everything about it. For some issues in his field, he's mistaken.

Porter hinted that Burke was an anti-capitalist, as opposed to Adam Smith. But he doesn't know what he's talking about. Adam Smith said Burke was the one man who thought the same way as him on econimic matters. He further implied that Burke was an anti-liberal, anti-Enlightenment man, but that's ridiculous: Burke was a lifelong liberal reformer and member of the liberal political party (Whigs).

Porter has Godwin wrong too. He thinks Godwin a hypocrite for his views on marriage and his actions, but he simply does not address Godwin's reasoning. He glosses over the issue quickly, and hopes I'll take his word for it, but I'm not going to, I have an informed view on the matter and Porter offered nothing to change my mind. Porter also makes a factual claim -- with no citation -- about Godwin wanting his daughter and Shelley to marry that I've seen no where else (having read many books specifically on this topic).

Porter is certainly not the only person to get Burke and Godwin wrong. Thomas Sowell has them atrociously wrong, even misquoting them.

These are examples of the simple fact that no expert knows everything, and especially in broad fields there is so much to know that very few people study all of it.

People have holes in their knowledge, even experts.

In my experience with experts, when they speak to an area that I've studied a lot, the majority of the time they get it wrong. They are not usually right, but usually wrong.

Most philosophers have epistemology wrong. It's not just that they disagree with Popper but that they don't understand the issues and address his best arguments. They're outclassed and ignorant.

Most historians of the relevant types have Burke wrong. And most have Godwin wrong.

Popper says most historians of Plato and Aristotle are badly mistaken (and argued his case). He persuaded me. Popper isn't the only one to say this. Godwin had a negative view of them both. Bronowski recognized that Plato's politics were bad. And of course there were Greeks who didn't see eye to eye with Plato or Aristotle (such as, respectively, Pericles and Xenophanes).

These are cherry picked examples. I've simply taken the areas where I know a lot and focussed only on them. Are these same experts right about other stuff where I don't know what I'm talking about? Maybe they are and maybe they aren't, beats me.

Some may reply with arguments that I'm wrong on the examples I've given. So what? First of all for these narrows areas I'd say I'm an expert. If you want to think for yourself instead of accepting my expert knowledge, go right ahead. Second, I'd suggest we settle it the way everything should be settled: not be appeal to authority, or consideration of the sources of claims, but simply by critical debate. Post in comments and I'll tell you why you're wrong or I'll concede, simple as that.

Anyway, here's what I think, the lesson to be learned: when I'm in a serious position to judge an expert opinion for myself, I find it lacking the majority of the time. Why should the experts be more reliable for issues I haven't personally studied? I think the experts are simply unreliable all the time, and make mistakes constantly. That makes it all the more important to think for myself, and study important issues for myself.

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"Heritability" is misleading and correlations don't hint

Genetics and Reductionism by Sahotra Sarkar, pp 12-13:
high [narrow] heritability, which is routinely taken as indicative of the genetic origin of traits, can occur when genes alone do not provide an explanation of the genesis of that trait. To philosophers, at least, this should come as no paradox: good correlatoins need not even provide a hint of what is going on. They need not point to what is sometimes called a "common cause". They need not provide any guide to what should be regarded as the best explanation.
I already knew that. :-)

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What is "genetic"?

In Genetics and Reductionism, by Sahotra Sarkar, page 4, he considers what it means for a feature of a person to be genetic. He says that although many people assume it's simple and they understand it, actually it's a tricky problem and presents several unsatisfactory answers and explains their flaws. He doesn't offer the correct answer.

Here's the answer: A feature is genetic if the knowledge for the feature is the person's genes.

This is an example of the general purpose value of epistemology: epistemolgy is needed for solving problems in many other fields.

Let's consider an example. Jack is born and grows up to be a seven foot tall basketball superstar. Is his height genetic? Is his basketball playing genetic?

On both of these questions, some would get confused. They would say the basketball playing is a caused by a "gene-meme interaction" (or "gene-environment interaction"). That is true. Basketball coaches, and parents, are more encouraging to tall children. His cultural environment responds to tallness. And although many would overlook it, becoming tall is not purely genetic but requires environmental help, for example Jack must be fed regularly. The genes alone cannot make Jack tall without the meals.

Some would therefore conclude that both height and basketball skill, and pretty much everything else, are partially genetic.

But let's look at the knowledge. There is no knowledge about basketball in the genes. There is only knowledge about it in coaches, parents, other kids ... in Jack's culture. So basketball playing is not genetic, full stop. Note that this conclusion matches common sense, and also that it can give meaningful answers instead of just vaguely saying everything has multiple causes.

As to height, his parents don't know anything about making Jack tall[1], but his genes do have knowledge about how to construct a tall person. So height is genetic. Again the knowledge-based definition gets the common sense answer.

[1] There are some humans ideas about making people tall. You can stretch them. You can feed them "health food". You can bless them. To the extent the parents do those things — and they work — then the height is partially caused by knowledge in the parents.

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