• Robert Spicer

William Godwin on Law

William Godwin

Godwin (1756-1836), was a political writer and novelist who was one of the earliest and most trenchant critics of law. He proposed a decentralised and simplified society based on voluntary associations of free and equal individuals. He lived with Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist, and was an influence on Shelley. Godwin’s views included the following:

• Man-made law is unnecessary because immutable reason is the true legislator. Men can do no more than declare and interpret the rules of universal justice as perceived by reason.

• The main weakness of law is its status as a general rule. No two actions are the same and yet the law absurdly tries to reduce the myriad of human actions to one common measure. As such it operates like Procrustes’ bed which cuts or stretches whoever lies on it.

• Law is inevitably made in the interest of the lawmakers and as such is a venal compact by which superior tyrants have purchased the countenance and alliance of the inferior.

• Like government, law fixes the human mind in a stagnant condition and prevents that unceasing progress which is its natural tendency.

• Punishment threatened or imposed by law is not an appropriate way to reform human conduct. Men are products of their environment. They cannot strictly speaking be held responsible for what they do. An assassin is no more guilty of the crime he commits than the dagger he holds. Because men are controlled by circumstance, they do not have free will. There can be no moral justification of punishment, whether it is aimed at retribution, example or reform.

• All punishment is a tacit confession of imbecility. It is worse than the original crime because it uses force instead of rational persuasion. Coercion cannot convince or create respect. It can only sour the mind and alienate the person against whom it is used.

• Law, like government, is not only harmful but unnecessary. Godwin’s answer to anti-social acts was to reduce the occasion for crime by eradicating its causes in government and accumulated property and by encouraging people, through education, to think in terms of the general good rather than private interest. Because human vice is mainly error, enlightenment would be enough to make people virtuous.

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