Utilitas



The Foundations of Godwinian Impartiality


ROBERT LAMB a1
a1 University of Exeter r.lamb@ex.ac.uk

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Abstract

William Godwin is often cited in contemporary philosophical discussions of ethical impartiality, within which he functions as a sort of shorthand for a particularly crude and extreme act-utilitarianism, one that contains no foundational commitments other than the maximizing of some conception of the general good. This article offers a reinterpretation of Godwin's argument, by focusing closely on the ambiguous nature of its justificatory foundations. Although utilitarian political theories seem to have two possible justifications available to them – egalitarian and teleological – there has been little effort to establish which one of them Godwin's argument for impartiality relies on. This problem becomes more complicated when it is acknowledged that Godwin actually provides two different justifications for impartiality, only one of which is consequentialist. The other seems to make a case based on the recognition of moral worth and virtue. This is something confirmed through analysis of Godwin's writings on equality and suggests his political theory is more complex than most philosophers are willing to admit.