While William Godwin can be argued to be the world’s first Anarchist, he was a very odd type of Anarchist, indeed, for he believed that Society was more important than the individual. Godwin felt that each person has a DUTY to do all that he can for Society– even unto the sacrifice of one’s own life.
The closest Godwin comes to justifying his State-first belief is when he speaks of the flipside of Duty, Individual Rights. According to Godwin in his book An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, every Individual has the Right to claim “his share of the benefit arising from his neighbor’s discharge of their several Duties.” In other words, we all must perform our Duties to Society, but in return, we have the Right to reap the plentiful rewards accumulating to Society from the sum-results of everyone’s performance of Duty.
“Virtue demands the active employment of an ardent mind in the promotion of the general good,” states Godwin. It is not enough merely to do no harm. “Innocence is not a virtue.” A good, well-meaning heart means very little if not put to active use. “Intention is of no further value than it leads to utility.”
Godwin’s most general definition of Duty is… “the best application of the capacity of the individual to the general advantage.”
“I am bound,” says Godwin, “to employ my talents, my understanding, my strength, and my time for the production of the greatest quantity of general good.” This is simply what we owe; our contributions to Society, no matter how generous, are never gifts– but debts paid. “It is impossible for me to confer upon any man a favor; I can only do him right.”
But here’s the twist, the twist that turns what sounds like Fascism into something akin to Anarchism… Yes, says Godwin, I must exercise my talents for the benefits of others– “but that exercise must be the fruit of my own conviction.” We must never be COMPELLED — by Government or any one else– to perform our Duties, but ought to perform them voluntarily.
There are some interesting implications flowing from Godwin’s State-before-Individual outlook…
For instance, Godwin thinks suicide is wrong in most cases, because it robs Society of all our future contributions. The only exception would be if our death somehow brings more ultimate benefit to society than detriment. But we should be careful about jumping to this conclusion, warns Godwin, no matter how worthless we may feel in the moment… It would take a lot of good produced via self-hurt to compensate for twenty or thirty years of contributions, however meager, to Society.
For similar reasons, Godwin is against dueling since “useful lives are not to be hazarded.”
Godwin also cautions us against confusing bullying demands with the legitimate requirements of Society. In Godwin’s day, a certain class of men felt intense social pressure to defend their honor by challenging to a fight or duel any man who had besmirched or impugned his reputation or courage. But Godwin contends that it would be more cowardly “to do a deed my soul detests” (such as dueling) because of peer pressure than to hazard my life for a cause I know to be wrong. I can’t help but wonder how this might apply in times of conscription, such as during the U.S. foray into Vietnam in the late-middle 20th century.
On the other hand, though we must not give-up our lives for wrong or inadequate reasons, we should not hesitate to sacrifice our personal existence for the good of Society as a whole. Says Godwin… “If the extraordinary case should occur in which I can promote the general good by my death more than by my life, justice requires that I should be content to die.”
And, with a jarring sense of objectivity, Godwin matter-of-factly states that some lives are more worth saving more than others. It comes down to what a particular life can offer Society.
The problem, of course, comes in the details. How do we determine without error what is in the best interest for Society? How do we know what the truly best avenues to accomplish those interests are, once determined? How should we, in practice, assign comparative values of societal worth to different individuals? How do we know that our sincere actions and self-sacrifice are not misapplied? Godwin, himself, remarks that the men involved in London’s Gunpowder Treason IMAGINED that what they were doing was a benefit to commonweal. The problem, according to Godwin (and to history as written by the non-overthrown establishment), was the Treasonists’s motivating ideas were wrong.
Lastly, Godwin contends that, just as our lives and our best labor belong to Society, so too does our property. A person must consider that he merely holds his property IN TRUST for Society– just as we hold our lives. We have no more right to do what we want with our own property than with our own person.