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Are Individualists Capable of Virtue?: Godwin’s Thoughts on Man

If methodological individualists in the social sciences say literally every action is motivated by self-interest, is there no room for self-sacrifice?

Editor’s Note

For his eleventh essay in an on-going series of escalating observations about human nature, William Godwin examined the curious and relatively new phenomenon of individualism. Following liberal historians like Benjamin Constant and Francois Guizot, Godwin argues that in the ancient world, “the impulse of the citizens was to merge their own individuality in the interests of the state,” but in the modern period, people acted in a revolutionary new manner. Godwin reminds readers that in their own age, “We…are broken into detached parties, thinking only for the most part of ourselves and our immediate connections and attachments.” Whatever it’s no-doubt complex and varied sources, this key element of modernity birthed “a new species of philosophy” concerned with the mechanics of self-interest. Godwin’s contemporaries constructed new social sciences which accepted individualism as a fundamental premise in their craft, from Smithian economics to utilitarian ethics. While our author does not dispute the accuracy of the observation that individual actions are always based in some sort of self-interest, his essay seeks to establish a distinction between basic utility-maximizing activity and virtuous, benevolent activity. Though a sort of vulgar utilitarian might outright deny that individuals are even capable of altruism, Godwin believed that “man is not in truth so poor and pusillanimous a creature as this system would represent.”

His argument is an interesting one, perhaps worthy of some serious consideration by methodological individualists: Godwin challenges the utilitarian assumption that people constantly walk around burdened by their pains and desperately seeking after their pleasures, minimizing and maximizing utils as need be. In fact, he posits, real lived experience suggests that people easily forget pain and pleasure both, becoming absorbed in action. What was more, the vast annals of history were littered with examples of self-sacrifice under extremely questionable circumstances. He suggests that people were capable of both committing great acts of virtue by casting away the burdens of self-interest and individuals could even separate themselves from decision-making and acting. Absorbed in our work, we may forget—for at least a time—that we are agents at all. We become mere machines, no longer reasoning, no longer adding utils, no longer subject to the fundamental premises adopted by modern social science. How, then, do we account for this phenomenon? Godwin’s analysis suggests that when social scientists make virtually any assumptions about the activities of individuals, they are engaged in a fundamentally collectivist imposition of identity from the top down. When we confidently assert that all individuals always act to satisfy their most urgently felt wants first, for example, perhaps we mistake just how bizarre human history and psychology can actually be. Perhaps the assumption of any a priori knowledge of human action assumes far too much about the individuals we also claim we can never truly understand.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History


By William Godwin


No question has more memorably exercised the ingenuity of men who have speculated upon the structure of the human mind, than that of the motives by which we are actuated in our intercourse with our fellow-creatures. The dictates of a plain and unsophisticated understanding on the subject are manifest; and they have been asserted in the broadest way by the authors of religion, the reformers of mankind, and all persons who have been penetrated with zeal and enthusiasm for the true interests of the race to which they belong…

In the times of the ancient republics the impulse of the citizens was to merge their own individuality in the interests of the state. They held it their duty to live but for their country. In this spirit they were educated; and the lessons of their early youth regulated the conduct of their riper years.

In a more recent period we have learned to model our characters by a different standard. We seldom recollect the society of which we are politically members, as a whole, but are broken into detached parties, thinking only for the most part of ourselves and our immediate connections and attachments.

This change in the sentiments and manners of modern times has among its other consequences given birth to a new species of philosophy. We have been taught to affirm, that we can have no express and pure regard for our fellow-creatures, but that all our benevolence and affection come to us through the strainers of a gross or a refined self-love. The coarser adherents of this doctrine maintain, that mankind are in all cases guided by views of the narrowest self-interest, and that those who advance the highest claims to philanthropy, patriotism, generosity and self-sacrifice, are all the time deceiving others, or deceiving themselves, and use a plausible and high-sounding language merely, that serves no other purpose than to veil from observation “that hideous sight, a naked human heart.”

The more delicate and fastidious supporters of the doctrine of universal self-love, take a different ground. They affirm that “such persons as talk to us of disinterestedness and pure benevolence, have not considered with sufficient accuracy the nature of mind, feeling and will. To understand,” they say, “is one thing, and to choose another.” The clearest proposition that ever was stated, has, in itself, no tendency to produce voluntary action on the part of the percipient. It can be only something apprehended as agreeable or disagreeable to us, that can operate so as to determine the will. Such is the law of universal nature. We act from the impulse of our own desires and aversions; and we seek to effect or avert a thing, merely because it is viewed by us as an object of gratification or the contrary.

The virtuous man and the vicious are alike governed by the same principle; and it is therefore the proper business of a wise instructor of youth, and of a man who would bring his own sentiments and feelings into the most praise-worthy frame, to teach us to find our interest and gratification in that which shall be most beneficial to others…”

I will therefore further venture to add, that, upon the hypothesis of self-love, there can be no such thing as virtue. There are two circumstances required, to entitle an action to be denominated virtuous. It must have a tendency to produce good rather than evil to the race of man, and it must have been generated by an intention to produce such good. The most beneficent action that ever was performed, if it did not spring from the intention of good to others, is not of the nature of virtue. Virtue, where it exists in any eminence, is a species of conduct, modelled upon a true estimate of the good intended to be produced. He that makes a false estimate, and prefers a trivial and partial good to an important and comprehensive one, is vicious.

It is admitted on all hands, that it is possible for a man to sacrifice his own existence to that of twenty others. But the advocates of the doctrine of self-love must say, that he does this that he may escape from uneasiness, and because he could not bear to encounter the inward upbraiding with which he would be visited, if he acted otherwise. This in reality would change his action from an act of virtue to an act of vice. So far as belongs to the real merits of the case, his own advantage or pleasure is a very insignificant consideration, and the benefit to be produced, suppose to a world, is inestimable. Yet he falsely and unjustly prefers the first, and views the latter as trivial; nay, separately taken, as not entitled to the smallest regard. If the dictates of impartial justice be taken into the account, then, according to the system of self-love, the best action that ever was performed, may, for any thing we know, have been the action, in the whole world, of the most exquisite and deliberate injustice. Nay, it could not have been otherwise, since it produced the greatest good, and therefore was the individual instance, in which the greatest good was most directly postponed to personal gratification. Such is the spirit of the doctrine I undertake to refute.

But man is not in truth so poor and pusillanimous a creature as this system would represent.

It is time however to proceed to the real merits of the question, to examine what in fact is the motive which induces a good man to elect a generous mode of proceeding.

Locke is the philosopher, who, in writing on Human Understanding, has specially delivered the doctrine, that uneasiness is the cause which determines the will, and urges us to act. He says, “The motive we have for continuing in the same state, is only the present satisfaction we feel in it; the motive to change is always some uneasiness: nothing setting us upon the change of state, or upon any new action, but some uneasiness. This is the great motive that works on the mind.”

It is not my concern to enquire, whether Locke by this statement meant to assert that self-love is the only principle of human action. It has at any rate been taken to express the doctrine which I here propose to refute.

And, in the first place, I say, that, if our business is to discover the consideration entertained by the mind which induces us to act, this tells us nothing…He must be endowed with a slender portion of curiosity, who, being told that uneasiness is that which spurs on the mind to act, shall rest satisfied with this explanation, and does not proceed to enquire, what makes us uneasy?…

It is true, that we cannot act without the impulse of desire or uneasiness; but we do not think of that desire and uneasiness; and it is the thing upon which the mind is fixed that constitutes our motive. In the boundless variety of the acts, passions and pursuits of human beings, it is absurd on the face of it to say that we are all governed by one motive, and that, however dissimilar are the ends we pursue, all this dissimilarity is the fruit of a single cause.

One man chooses travelling, another ambition, a third study, a fourth voluptuousness and a mistress. Why do these men take so different courses?…

Each of these finds the qualities he likes, intrinsically in the thing he chooses…The cause of these differences is, that each man has an individual internal structure, directing his partialities, one man to one thing, and another to another.

Few things can exceed the characters of human beings in variety. There must be something abstractedly in the nature of mind, which renders it accessible to these varieties. For the present we will call it taste…

Just so the benevolent man is an individual who finds a peculiar delight in contemplating the contentment, the peace and heart’s ease of other men, and sympathises in no ordinary degree with their sufferings. He rejoices in the existence and diffusion of human happiness, though he should not have had the smallest share in giving birth to the thing he loves. It is because such are his tastes, and what above all things he prefers, that he afterwards becomes distinguished by the benevolence of his conduct…

The doctrine of the modern philosophers on this point, is in many ways imbecil and unsound. It is inauspicious to their creed, that the reflex act of the mind is purely the affair of experience. Why did the liberal-minded man perform his first act of benevolence? The answer of these persons ought to be, because the recollection of a generous deed is a source of the truest delight. But there is an absurdity on the face of this solution.

We do not experimentally know the delight which attends the recollection of a generous deed, till a generous deed has been performed by us. We do not learn these things from books. And least of all is this solution to the purpose, when the business is to find a solution that suits the human mind universally, the unlearned as well as the learned, the savage as well as the sage.

And surely it is inconsistent with all sound reasoning, to represent that as the sole spring of our benevolent actions, which by the very terms will not fit the first benevolent act in which any man engaged.

The advocates of the doctrine of “self-love the source of all our actions,” are still more puzzled, when the case set before them is that of the man, who flies, at an instant’s warning, to save the life of the child who has fallen into the river, or the unfortunate whom he beholds in the upper story of a house in flames. This man, as might be illustrated in a thousand instances, treats his own existence as unworthy of notice, and exposes it to multiplied risks to effect the object to which he devotes himself.

They are obliged to say, that this man anticipates the joy he will feel in the recollection of a noble act, and the cutting and intolerable pain he will experience in the consciousness that a human being has perished, whom it was in his power to save. It is in vain that we tell them that, without a moment’s consideration, he tore off his clothes, or plunged into the stream with his clothes on, or rushed up a flaming stair-case. Still they tell us, that he recollected what compunctious visitings would be his lot if he remained supine—he felt the sharpest uneasiness at sight of the accident before him, and it was to get rid of that uneasiness, and not for the smallest regard to the unhappy being he has been the means to save, that he entered on the hazardous undertaking.

Uneasiness, the knowledge of what inwardly passes in the mind, is a thing not in the slightest degree adverted to but in an interval of leisure. No; the man here spoken of thinks of nothing but the object immediately before his eyes; he adverts not at all to himself; he acts only with an undeveloped, confused and hurried consciousness that he may be of some use, and may avert the instantly impending calamity. He has scarcely even so much reflection as amounts to this.

The history of man, whether national or individual, and consequently the acts of human creatures which it describes, are cast in another mould than that which the philosophy of self-love sets before us. A topic that from the earliest accounts perpetually presents itself in the records of mankind, is self-sacrifice, parents sacrificing themselves for their children, and children for their parents. Cimon, the Athenian, yet in the flower of his youth, voluntarily became the inmate of a prison, that the body of his father might receive the honours of sepulture. Various and unquestionable are the examples of persons who have exposed themselves to destruction, and even petitioned to die, that so they might save the lives of those, whose lives they held dearer than their own. Life is indeed a thing, that is notoriously set at nothing by generous souls, who have fervently devoted themselves to an overwhelming purpose. There have been instances of persons, exposed to all the horrors of famine, where one has determined to perish by that slowest and most humiliating of all the modes of animal destruction, that another, dearer to him than life itself, might, if possible, be preserved.

What is the true explanation of these determinations of the human will? Is it, that the person, thus consigning himself to death, loved nothing but himself, regarded only the pleasure he might reap, or the uneasiness he was eager to avoid? Or, is it, that he had arrived at the exalted point of self-oblivion, and that his whole soul was penetrated and ingrossed with the love of those for whom he conceived so exalted a partiality?…

The principal circumstance that divides our feelings for others from our feelings for ourselves, and that gives, to satirical observers, and superficial thinkers, an air of exclusive selfishness to the human mind, lies in this, that we can fly from others, but cannot fly from ourselves…

With our own distempers and adversities…We may change the place of our local existence; but we cannot go away from ourselves. With chariots, and embarking ourselves on board of ships, we may seek to escape from the enemy. But grief and apprehension enter the vessel along with us; and, when we mount on horseback, the discontent that specially annoyed us, gets up behind, and clings to our sides with a hold never to be loosened…

What the desperate man hates is his own identity. But he knows that, if for a few moments he loses himself in forgetfulness, he will presently awake to all that distracted him. He knows that he must act his part to the end, and drink the bitter cup to the dregs. He can do none of these things by proxy. It is the consciousness of the indubitable future, from which we can never be divorced, that gives to our present calamity its most fearful empire. Were it not for this great line of distinction, there are many that would feel not less for their friend than for themselves. But they are aware, that his ruin will not make them beggars, his mortal disease will not bring them to the tomb, and that, when he is dead, they may yet be reserved for many years of health, of consciousness and vigour…

It is of great consequence that men should come to think correctly on this subject. The most snail-blooded man that exists, is not so selfish as he pretends to be. In spite of all the indifference he professes towards the good of others, he will sometimes be detected in a very heretical state of sensibility towards his wife, his child or his friend; he will shed tears at a tale of distress, and make considerable sacrifices of his own gratification for the relief of others.

But his creed is a pernicious one. He who for ever thinks, that his “charity must begin at home,” is in great danger of becoming an indifferent citizen, and of withering those feelings of philanthropy, which in all sound estimation constitute the crowning glory of man. He will perhaps have a reasonable affection towards what he calls his own flesh and blood, and may assist even a stranger in a case of urgent distress.—But it is dangerous to trifle with the first principles and sentiments of morality. And this man will scarcely in any case have his mind prepared to hail the first dawnings of human improvement, and to regard all that belongs to the welfare of his kind as parcel of his own particular estate.

The creed of self-love will always have a tendency to make us Frenchmen in the frivolous part of that character, and Dutchmen in the plodding and shopkeeping spirit of barter and sale. There is no need that we should beat down the impulse of heroism in the human character, and be upon our guard against the effervescences and excess of a generous sentiment…

Modern improvements in education are earnest in recommending to us the study of facts, and that we should not waste the time of young persons upon the flights of imagination. But it is to imagination that we are indebted for our highest enjoyments; it tames the ruggedness of uncivilised nature, and is the never-failing associate of all the considerable advances of social man, whether in throwing down the strong fences of intellectual slavery, or in giving firmness and duration to the edifice of political freedom.

And who does not feel that every thing depends upon the creed we embrace, and the discipline we exercise over our own souls?…

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