William Godwin: Mary's Father's Philosophy in Relation to Frankenstein Themes

Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Father Of Philosophical Anarchism: Libertarianism
William Godwin (1756-1836) was the founder of philosophical anarchism. In his An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) he argued that government is a corrupting force in society, perpetuating dependence and ignorance, but that it will be rendered increasingly unnecessary and powerless by the gradual spread of knowledge. Politics will be displaced by an enlarged personal morality as truth conquers error and mind subordinates matter. In this development the rigorous exercise of private judgment, and its candid expression in public discussion, plays a central role, motivating his rejection of a wide range of co- operative and rule-governed practices which he regards as tending to mental enslavement, such as law, private property, marriage and concerts. Epitomizing the optimism of events in France at the time he began writing, Godwin looked forward to a period in which the dominance of mind over matter would be so complete that mental perfectibility would take a physical form, allowing us to control illness and ageing and become immortal.

Moral Philosophy: Famous Fire Case
Godwin's advocacy of universal benevolence against which Parr directed his energies, centering his attack on
Godwin's early dismissal of family feeling, gratitude and various natural sentiments. For Godwin, these are passions unconstrained by judgment, and so should not play a role in determining how we should act. He exemplifies his case in what has come to be known as the ‘Famous Fire Cause’, in which the reader is asked to imagine being able to save only one of two people in a fire, one of whom is the Archbishop Fénelon, a benefactor to the whole human race, the other of whom is the reader's parent (mother in the first edition, father thereafter!). Godwin's view is that justice demands that we act impartially for the greater good, which means saving Fénelon. He never abandoned this case, nor the view that it is our duty to act to bring about the greatest good. Just as a judge should not be influenced by familial or private concerns in his judgment, so too is the moral agent bound to judge impartially.

What we see in the changes is a consistent shift away from the rationalist account of moral motivation which marked the first edition to a position which is much more sceptical about the power of reason. …It also inevitably undermines Godwin's faith in the triumph of mind over physiological processes


Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

(Note: this is the basis of the drowning scene/scenario in I Robot)


Enquiry Concerning Political Justice
"The basic moral principle is that of justice: If justice have any meaning, it is just that I should contribute everything in my power to the benefit of the whole." (PPW III, 49)

This principle is filled out by two further principles. The first, equality, is used to establish that we are beings of the same nature, susceptible of the same pleasures and pains, and equally endowed with the capacity for reason. This is to endorse the philosophe principle that birth and rank must not affect the way people are treated —  the thing really to be desired is the removing as much as possible arbitrary distinctions, and leaving to talents and virtue the field of exertion unimpaired (PPW III, 65).



Enquiry Concerning Political Justice



These arguments are merely calculated to set in a more perspicuous light a principle which is admitted by many by whom the doctrine of necessity has never been examined; that the only measure of equity is utility, and whatever is not attended with any beneficial purpose is not just. This is so evident that few reasonable and reflecting minds will be found inclined to deny it. Why do I inflict suffering on another? If neither for his own benefit nor the benefit of others, can I be right? Will resentment, the mere indignation and horror I have conceived against vice, justify me in putting a being to useless torture? 'But suppose I only put an end to his existence.' What, with no prospect of benefit either to himself or others? The reason in mind more easily reconciles itself to this supposition is that we conceive existence to be less a blessing than a curse to a being incorrigibly vicious. But, in that case, the supposition does not fall within the terms of the question: I am in reality conferring a benefit. It has been asked, 'If we conceive to ourselves two beings, each of them solitary, but the first virtuous, and the second vicious, the first inclined to be the highest acts of benevolence, if his situation were changed for the social the second to malignity, tyranny and injustice, do we not feel that the first is entitled to felicity in preference to the second? If there be any difference in the question, it is wholly caused by the extravagance of the supposition. No being can be either virtuous, or vicious, who has no opportunity of influencing the happiness of others. He may indeed, though now solitary, recollect or imagine a social state; but this sentiment, and the propensities it generates can scarcely be vigorous, unless he have hopes of being at some future time, restored to that state. The true solitaire cannot be considered as a moral being unless the morality we contemplate be that which has relation to his own permanent advantage. But, if that be our meaning punishment, unless for reform, is peculiarly absurd. His conduct vicious, because it has a tendency to render him miserable: shall we inflict calamity upon him, for this reason only, because he has already inflicted calamity upon himself? It is difficult for us to imagine to ourselves a solitary intellectual being, whom no future accident shall ever render social. It is difficult for us to separate, even an idea, virtue and vice from happiness and misery, and, of consequence, not to imagine that, when we bestow a benefit upon virtue, we bestow it where it will turn to account; and when we bestow a benefit upon vice, we bestow it where it will be unproductive. For these reasons, e question of desert, as it relates to a solitary being, will always have a tendency to mislead and perplex. (1793) (http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/anarchist_archives/godwin/Godwinbiblio.html)

See: Steering Students Away From Violence and Texas: Redemption vs Retribution

From An Account of a Seminary

"The state of society is incontestably artificial; the power of one man over another must be always derived from convention of from conquest; by nature we are equal. The necessary consequence is, that government must always depend upon the opinion of the governed. Let the most oppressed people under heaven once change their mode of thinking, and they are free…. Government is very limited in its power of making men either virtuous or happy; it is only in the infancy of society that it can do any thing considerable; in its maturity it can only direct a few of our outward actions. But our moral dispositions and character depend very much, perhaps entirely, upon education." (1783) (www.infed.org/thinkers/et-good.htm)