📚🤔Justin’s Comments on William Godwin’s The Enquirer, Part I, Essay X📖📝


Godwin says family life is the most important subject in private life.

Godwin says people have “ill humours” and things like that, and asks if people should “spend these upon his fellow beings” or “suffer them to subside of themselves?”

Godwin says that excessive closeness/familiarity with other people is “the bane of social happiness.”

Godwin says people fool themselves a ton, making excuses and passing off errors as virtues.

Godwin says there are people who like trashing other people’s views and think its righteous/effective to do so. (Godwin seems to favor kindness/reason/calm explanation instead).

J’s Comment: People think that defeating somebody in a debate (that lasts at most an hour or two)is what discussion is. The idea that there could be a long, sustained, calm, pleasant exchange of views in which both people benefit is foreign to most people. That kind of exchange is not something that they really have in their repertoire.

Godwin says the children are frequently rebuked and talk to in harsh tones. He says this is due to an excess of familiarity. He says that people think this is virtuous, but that there was “no atom of virtue or benevolence” in the conduct. Godwin points out that kids can’t resist and are victims.

Godwin says the children are individual beings with powers of reasoning and are entitled to an amount of independence and discretion.

J’s Comment: Lots of people will treat their child as having some discretion in certain areas much of the time, but then revoke or violate that discretion at their whim. For example, they will act as if their children have property until they decide to take it away. Or they will act as if the children can decide how to use their time, including playing video games, until they decide that the child should be doing something else. The children aren’t subjected to a complete authoritarian regime – at least, not typically. Children typically aren’t following a rigid schedule in all their activities. But the situation they find themselves in is very much a rule of man situation, not a rule of law situation. Their parents have and exercise enormous arbitrary authority over the details of the children’s lives.

Godwin counts children as people. “The most fundamental of all the principles of morality is the consideration and deference that man owes to man; nor is the helplessness of childhood by any means unentitled to the benefit of this principle.” Godwin says that neglecting this principle of morality is the source of various evils that mankind faces.

Godwin says that people are harsh to children in order to teach the children their errors. But this doesn’t actually work. The lesson children learn is that they have to deal with stuff besides the actual consequences of their errors, and that people will use force when reason fails to persuade. Godwin says that the result of the harshness is to cause people to hate the lessons that occasioned their pain.

Godwin says that in order to understand the true means of convincing someone of error, we should imagine how we would act towards child we don’t know very well. And Godwin says that in that scenario people will generally recognize that harsh tones and nasty looks don’t correct error.

J’s Comment: Lots of times in TCS/FI community, people encounter the suggestion of imagining how they would react if there were a change to the situation. And that is exactly what Godwin is doing. He is suggesting that people hypotheticalize about a different situation and then consider how they would react differently to that situation. It is interesting that lots of people would treat the child of a stranger with more kindness and care then they would treat their own child, despite saying they love their child.

Godwin continues on the theme of how people would treat a child they don’t know well:

he would treat the child in this respect as he would an adult of either sex. He would know that to inspire hatred to himself and distaste of his lessons, was not the most promising road to instruction. He would endeavour to do justice to his views of the subject in discussion; he would communicate his ideas with all practicable perspicuity; but he would communicate them with every mark of conciliation and friendly attention.

J’s Comment: people are often somewhat harsh to children they don’t know very well, although they are often not as harsh as they would be to their own children.

People feel a special obligation to correct the mistakes of their children that they don’t feel towards other people’s children. And to a large extent that’s reasonable, because they do in fact have a unique responsibility towards their own children in terms of helping them figure out life. Because of what people think morality is, when they take on a role that involves some sort of exercise of moral authority, they tend to be harsh.

People do not see morality is something which can help one flourish and lead a happy, joyous, fulfilled, productive existence. So this is an interesting relationship between a mistaken conception of morality and the methodology of parenting/education.

People try and do what they think is virtuous and right. People often hurt their children even when they feel bad doing so. I’ve always thought the idea encapsulated in the expression “this hurts me more than it hurts you” was perverse, nasty, and cruel, especially given the power imbalance context in the situations where it is typically said. But the parent is frequently experiencing some suffering while harming their child, and yet continuing the harm because the parent thinks it is the right thing to do. That is a tragedy.

BTW I think Godwin is really optimistic here. Lots of people have unconsidered views, and when asked why they think those views, they don’t really have an answer and sort of drop the discussion. And that’s with their adult friends and whatnot. Most people will take a child even less seriously as a discussion partner and put even less effort in than they would normally. But I do think Godwin is right that people would be less hostile and mean towards children they don’t know well. BTW Godwin notes right after the above-quoted section that people can be angry and mean towards adults as well.

Godwin says:

The ill humour which is so prevalent through all the different walks of life, is the result of familiarity, and consequently of cohabitation. If we did not see each other too frequently, we should accustom ourselves to act reasonably and with urbanity. But, according to a well known maxim, familiarity breeds contempt.

J’s Comment: I would say that the issue is less familiarity per se, than it is having a bunch of unresolved conflicts with people that you see often combined with the lack of rational problem-solving methods. Conflicts often come about due to sharing of resources. So sharing less and getting better at reason would be two generic ways for improving the issue Godwin complains about. And regarding less sharing, Godwin mentions that maybe we should do away with cohabitation!

Justin’s Comments Boilerplate: All quotes are Godwin quotes from this Essay unless otherwise noted. When I say something like “Godwin says” or “Godwin implies” it’s an attempt at a paraphrase of material I have not quoted. When I say “J’s Comment” it’s my own thoughts, questions, and commentary on the stuff just quoted or discussed.