Apropos of our recent discussion of utilitarianism, I’ve been thinking about anarchist pioneer William Godwin, who took the principle of utility to the length of rejecting all personal attachments, famously claiming that one should save a stranger over one’s own mother if the stranger were an important public benefactor (either intrinsically or through his effects) and one’s mother not:
In a loose and general view I and my neighbour are both of us men, and of a consequence entitled to equal attention; but in reality it is probable that one of us is a being of more worth and importance than the other. A man is of more worth than a beast, because, being possessed of a higher faculties, he is capable of a more refined and generous happiness. In the same manner the illustrious Archbishop of Cambray was of more worth than his chambermaid, and there are few of us who would hesitate to pronounce, if his palace were in flames, and the life of only one of them could be preserved, which of the two ought to be preferred.
Supposing I had been myself the chambermaid, I ought to have chosen to die rather than that Fenelon should have died. The life of Fenelon was really preferable to that of the chambermaid. But understanding is the faculty that perceives the truth of this and similar propositions, and justice is the principle that regulates my conduct accordingly. It would have been just in the chambermaid to have preferred the Archbishop to herself. To have done otherwise would have been a breach of justice.
Supposing the chambermaid to have been my wife, my mother, or my benefactor, this would not alter the truth of the proposition. The life of Fenelon would still be more valuable than that of the chambermaid, and justice, pure unadulterated justice, would still have preferred that which was most valuable. Justice would have taught me to save the life of Fenelon at the expense of the other. What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ to overturn the decisions of everlasting truth? My wife or my mother may be a fool or a prostitute, malicious, lying, or dishonest. If they be, of what consequence is it that they are mine? (Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, First Edition (1793)
In later editions, Godwin responded to public outcry by changing the sex of the sacrificed parent and adding some further reasoning, but the doctrine remained unchanged:
In a loose and general view I and my neighbour are both of us men; and of consequence entitled to equal attention. But, in reality, it is probable that one of us is a being of more worth and importance than the other. A man is of more worth than a beast; because, being possessed of higher faculties, he is capable of a more refined and genuine happiness. In the same manner the illustrious archbishop of Cambray was of more worth than his valet, and there are few of us that would hesitate to pronounce, if his palace were in flames, and the life of only one of them could be preserved, which of the two ought to be preferred.
But there is another ground of preference, beside the private consideration of one of them being further removed from the state of a mere animal. We are not connected with one or two percipient beings, but with a society, a nation, and in some sense with the whole family of mankind. Of consequence that life ought to be preferred which will be most conducive to the general good. In saving the life of Fenelon, suppose at the moment he conceived the project of his immortal Telemachus, should have been promoting the benefit of thousands, who have been cured by the perusal of that work of some error, vice and consequent unhappiness. Nay, my benefit would extend further than this; for every individual, thus cured, has become a better member of society, and has contributed in his turn to the happiness, information, and improvement of others.
Suppose I had been myself the valet; I ought to have chosen to die, rather than Fenelon should have died. The life of Fenelon was really preferable to that of the valet. But understanding is the faculty that perceives the truth of this and similar propositions; and justice is the principle that regulates my conduct accordingly. It would have been just in the valet to have preferred the archbishop to himself. To have done otherwise would have been a breach of justice.
Suppose the valet had been my brother, my father, or my benefactor. This would not alter the truth of the proposition. The life of Fenelon would still be more valuable than that of the valet; and justice, pure, unadulterated justice, would still have preferred that which was most valuable. Justice would have taught me to save the life of Fenelon at the expense of the other. What magic is there in the pronoun “my,”” that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth? My brother or my father may be a fool or a profligate, malicious, lying or dishonest. If they be, of what consequence is it that they are mine? (Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Second Edition (1796) and subsequent editions)
But a few years later, in a reply to some
hysterical ranting criticism from Samuel Parr, Godwin revised his position somewhat, taking a more accommodating stance, on indirect-utilitarian grounds, toward acting on personal attachments – though he continued to think that on the whole it would be preferable to sacrifice the parent to save Fénelon.
I’m not a utilitarian, of either the direct or the indirect variety (for some of my reasons, see my critique of Leland Yeager), and I have no sympathy either for Godwin’s throw-momma-from-the-train position or for the kinder-gentler version of indirect utilitarianism that allows us to act on personal attachments solely because the general policy of so allowing works out to the common benefit.
But I think Godwin deserves credit, in his reply to Parr, for drawing a distinction between criterion and motive that most philosophers think entered the utilitarian arsenal only much more recently. No, this distinction doesn’t make Godwin’s version of utilitarianism genuinely viable; but it makes it a good bit more subtle and sophisticated than it is often taken to be. Godwin is one of those many early thinkers who deserve more attention than they receive. Here’s an excerpt from Godwin’s reply:
[F]or more than four years, I have been anxious for opportunity and leisure to modify some of the earlier chapters of that work [Enquiry Concerning Political Justice] in conformity to the sentiments inculcated in this. Not that I see cause to make any change respecting the principle of justice, or any thing else fundamental to the system there delivered; but that I apprehend domestic and private affections inseparable from the nature of man, and from what may be styled the culture of the heart, and am fully persuaded that they are not incompatible with a profound and active sense of justice in the mind of him that cherishes them. …
A sound morality requires that nothing human should be regarded by us as indifferent; but it is impossible we should not feel the strongest interest for those persons whom we know most intimately, and whose welfare and sympathies are united to our own.
True wisdom will recommend to us individual attachments; for with them our minds are more thoroughly maintained in activity and life than they can be under the privation of them, and it is better that man should be a living being, than a stock or a stone. True virtue will sanction this recommendation; since it is the object of virtue to produce happiness; and since the man who lives in the midst of domestic relations, will have many opportunities of conferring pleasure, minute in the detail, yet not trivial in the amount, without interfering with the purposes of general benevolence. Nay, by kindling his sensibility, and harmonizing his soul, they may be expected, if he is endowed with a liberal and manly spirit, to render him more prompt in the service of strangers and the public. …
Here is a full and explicit avowal of all I acknowledge or perceive to be erroneous upon this point in the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice …. [I]t is right we should have a clear idea how far my admissions already recited militate with any thing advanced in my original treatise. The idea of justice there contained is, that it is a role requiring from us such an application of “our talents, our understanding, our strength, and our time,” as shall, in the result, produce the greatest sum of pleasure, to the sum of those beings who are capable of enjoying the sensation of pleasure. – Now, if I divide my time into portions, and consider how the majority of the smaller portions may be so employed, as most effectually to procure pleasure to others, nothing is more obvious, than that many of these portions cannot be employed so effectually in procuring pleasure, as to my immediate connections and familiars: he therefore who would be the best moral economist of his time, must employ much of it in seeking the advantage and content of those, with whom he has most frequent intercourse. Accordingly it is there maintained, that the external action recommended by this, and by the commonly received systems of morality, will in the generality of cases be the same, all the difference lying in this, that the motives exciting to action, upon the one principle, and the other, will be essentially different.
Here, according to my present admission, lies all the error of which I am conscious, in the original statement in the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. I would now say that, “in the generality of cases,” not only the external action, but the motive, ought to be nearly the same as in the commonly received systems of morality; that I ought not only, “in ordinary cases, to provide for my wife and children, my brothers and relations, before I provide for strangers …” but that it would be well that my doing so, should arise from the operation of those private and domestic affections, by which through all ages of the world the conduct of mankind has been excited and directed.
There is a distinction to be introduced here, with which I am persuaded Dr. Parr is well acquainted, though for some reason he has chosen to pass over one side of this distinction entirely in silence in his Sermon, between the motive from which a virtuous action is to arise, and the criterion by which it is to be determined to be virtuous. The motives of human actions are feelings, or passions, or habits. Without feeling we cannot act at all; and without passion we cannot act greatly. But, when we proceed to ascertain whether our actions are entitled to the name of virtue, this can only be done by examining into their effects, by bringing them to a standard and comparing them with a criterion.
I cannot be mistaken in affirming that Dr. Parr and I are agreed about this criterion. … We are agreed … that “that action or principle which does not tend to produce a general overbalance of pleasurable sensation, is not virtuous.”
What then is the most essential difference between us as to the principle of morals? Simply this, that Dr. Parr is inclined to lay most emphasis, and most frequently to remind those he would instruct, of the motive from which as human beings their moral actions must spring, and that I would oftenest and most earnestly remind them of the criterion by which they must ascertain whether their actions are virtuous. …
Let us consider here for a moment the case, so often attacked with all the weapons of argument and ridicule, of Fenelon and the valet, and ask how far the decision of this case will be affected, by the admission of the domestic affections. …
Dr. Parr well observes that this is a question of “unusual duties,” and a case, “imaginary” he calls it, I would say, that perhaps will scarcely happen once in the history of an age. That it is not imaginary, will be evident to every man who recollects that a decision precisely on the same principles happened in the life of Timoleon, and a second time in that of Lucius Junius Brutus, to confine myself to instances of the most consummate notoriety. The reader however is bound in fairness to recollect the unusualness of the case, and to bear in mind that, whichever way it is decided, it can have no tendency to shake the domestic affections in the ordinary intercourses of life. Dr. Parr indeed, because it is unusual and extreme, treats it as criminal to have called towards it the attention of mankind. In this I do not agree with him. It is a question which must be tried by the criterion of all virtue. If indeed, as Dr. Parr seems to think (judging from the sacred silence he has preserved concerning it in the course of an argument where it must have obtruded itself on his mind a thousand times), this criterion by which all our actions are to be tried, this book of life by which must be decided the merits and demerits of every day of our existence, must slumber in awful repose to the resurrection of the dead, then it may be a crime to enquire into the respective claims of Fenelon and his valet. But, as has already appeared, I hold, that this criterion cannot be consulted too often, that the recollection or non-recollection of it constitutes the main difference between the Livonian peasant and the sage, and that it would be well for mankind and the generation of an accomplished moral character, that justice and philanthropy should be converted into a passion and made one of the stirring and living thoughts of our bosom. I conceive that there must lurk a secret contradiction in terms, in the idea of a criterion which is never to be consulted; and, I do not know how our acquaintance with, and facility in the application of, this criterion can be so effectually improved, as by frequently consulting it, and applying it to cases of a certain niceness and delicacy. …
In revising the question of Fenelon and the valet, in its relation to the sacredness, the beauty and utility of the domestic affections, three things are principally to be observed.
First, I will suppose that I save in preference, the life of the valet, who is my father, and in so doing intrench upon the principle of utility. Few persons even upon that supposition will be disposed severely to blame my conduct. We are accustomed and rightly accustomed, to consider every man in the aggregate as a machine calculated to produce many benefits or many evils, and not to take his actions into our examination in a disjointed and separate manner. If, without pause or hesitation, I proceed to save the life of my father in preference to that of any human being, every man will respect in me the sentiment of filial affection, will acknowledge that the feeling by which I am governed is a feeling pregnant with a thousand good and commendable actions, and will confess, according to a trite, but expressive, phrase, that at least I have my heart in the right place, that I have within me those precious and inestimable materials out of which all virtuous and honourable deeds are made.
But, secondly, the consideration of the domestic affections, and their infinite importance to “the culture of the heart,” does essentially modify the question of utility, and affect the application of the criterion of virtue. The action, viz., the saving of the life of Fenelon, is to be set against the habit, and it will come to be seriously considered, whether, in proportion to the inequality of the alternative proposed to my choice, it will contribute most to the mass of human happiness, that I should act upon the utility of the case separately taken, or should refuse to proceed in violation of a habit, which is fraught with a series of successive utilities.
Thirdly, it is proper to notice the deception which Dr. Parr and his coadjutors put upon themselves and others, in constantly supposing that, if the father is saved, this will be the effort of passion, but if Fenelon is saved, the act will arise only from cool, phlegmatic, arithmetical calculation. No great and honourable deed can be achieved, but from passion. If I save the life of Fenelon, unprompted to do so by an ardent love of the wondrous excellence of the man, and a sublime eagerness to achieve and secure the welfare and improvement of millions, I am a monster, unworthy of the appellation of a man, and the society of beings so “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as men are.
I perceive that I did not sufficiently take into mind the prejudices and habits of men, when I put the case of Fenelon, the writer of certain books of reasoning and invention. The benefit to accrue from the writing of books is too remote an idea, to strike and fill the imagination. If I had put the case of Brutus, and supposed that upon the preservation of his life, against which his sons appear so basely to have conspired, hung all the long series of Roman freedom and Roman virtue … few persons, I believe, would have felt any difficulty in deciding. It would easily have been seen, that to have sacrificed any life, rather than suffer the destruction of a man who could alone preserve his contemporaries and future ages from barbarism and slavery, was a proper theme for passion, for the exercise of that illustrious and godlike philanthropy, which constitutes the highest merit the human heart is able to conceive. (Thoughts Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr. Parr’s Spital Sermon (1801)
Apropos of Godwin’s reference to Brutus (incidentally not to be confused with the Brutus who helped assassinate Caesar), I note in passing that while both the Greeks and the Romans were fond of legends in which a father sacrifices a son or daughter for the good of the state, in the Roman versions the father (e.g., Brutus, Manlius Torquatus …) is generally portrayed as noble and heroic for doing this, whereas in the Greek versions the father (e.g., Agamemnon, Idomeneus …) incurs the disfavour of the gods. Yet another reason for preferring the Greeks to the Romans ….