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Joseph Butlers Moral Philosophy Joseph Butler's Moral Philosophy
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Stanford Encyclopedia Joseph Butler is best known for his criticisms of the hedonic and egoistic
selfish theories associated with Hobbes and Bernard Mandeville and for
of Philosophy his positive arguments that self-love and conscience are not at odds if
properly understood (and indeed promote and sanction the same actions).
In addition to his importance as a moral philosopher Butler was also an
influential Anglican theologian. Unsurprisingly his theology and
philosophy were connected his main writings in moral philosophy were
Edward N. Zalta Uri Nodelman Colin Allen R. Lanier Anderson published sermons, a work of natural theology, and a brief dissertation
Principal Editor Senior Editor Associate Editor Faculty Sponsor attached to that work. Although most of Butler's moral arguments make
Editorial Board rich use of passages from scripture and familiar Christian stories and
concepts, they make little reference to and depend little on the reader
Library of Congress Catalog Data having any particular religious commitments. Indeed many of his
ISSN: 1095-5054
arguments do not rest on the reader having any religious commitments at
Notice: This PDF version was distributed by request to mem- all. His Analogy of Religion was aimed to convince deists of the truth of
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distribution is prohibited. To learn how to join the Friends of the philosophy being of interest to both secular and Christian moralists, and to
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Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
1. Life, Works, and General Overview
Copyright c 2013 by the publisher
The Metaphysics Research Lab 2. Moral Science
Center for the Study of Language and Information 3. Human Nature
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
4. Conscience and the principles of human nature
Joseph Butlers Moral Philosophy
Copyright c 2014 by the author 5. Self-Love and Benevolence
Aaron Garrett 6. Compassion, Resentment, and Forgiveness
All rights reserved. 7. Self-Deceit and Ignorance
Copyright policy: 8. Influence

Joseph Butlers Moral Philosophy Aaron Garrett

Bibliography Occasions and published in 1749. This was followed by the Durham
Primary Literature Charge (a work exhorting the clergy of his diocese) published a year
Secondary Literature before Butler's death in 1752 (For more on Butler's life see Cunliffe 2008,
Academic Tools from which most of the above information is derived; see also Cunliffe
Other Internet Resources 1992 and Tennant 2011).
Related Entries
Butler's moral philosophy is characterized by a very high degree of
analytic rigor and argumentative care. This is all the more surprising for
1. Life, Works, and General Overview the fact that many of these rigorous arguments are presented in sermons
(and particularly in footnotes to sermons). The manner in which Butler
Butler was born in 1692 and attended a dissenting academy where he read argues, and the details of the particular arguments, are indeed what many
current philosophy including up to date logic, and works of John Locke philosophers who have engaged with him have found most inspiring, even
and Samuel Clarke. While a student there Butler wrote a letter to Clarke when they have rejected his conclusions whole-heartedly. Butler's first
pointing out two problems in Clarke's arguments for God's unicity and three sermons provide a general framework for his moral philosophy via a
God's omnipresence in Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God. teleological account of human nature. On the basis of this account of
Butler's criticisms led to a mutually admiring correspondence. Clarke human nature Butler argues that self-love and benevolence or virtue --
arranged to have the correspondence published in 1716, although Butler's principles that other moral philosophers have seen as in tension are not
letters appeared anonymously. Shortly thereafter Butler joined the Church only not in tension but mutually supporting when properly understood.
of England, attended Oxford, and was ordained. This led to his The remaining sermons consider a number of key features of moral
appointment as preacher at Rolls Chapel, the chapel associated with the psychology self-deception, benevolence, forgiveness, compassion
London equity courts, where he served until 1726. During this period he and further develop the discussions of self-love and virtue initiated in the
also earned a law degree. In 1726 he published a selection of his sermons first three sermons. They make manifest that Butler thought that the details
as Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel. It appeared in a second of moral psychology when carefully presented and rigorously sorted ruled
edition in 1729 with corrections and with the addition of an important out many questionable commitments that looser philosophers took them to
synoptic Preface. In 1736 Butler published his major work of natural warrant. These particular moral psychological inquiries are followed by a
theology, the Analogy of Religion, the work for which he was best known discussion of love of God. For Butler this was a central and unifying
in his lifetime, with two brief but important dissertations: Of Personal sentiment that showed the continuity between morals and natural religion.
Identity and On Virtue. In the same year he was appointed Queen Butler concluded the Sermons with a discussion of human ignorance,
Caroline's cleric, and after her death the following year he rose to become which in conjunction with his discussions of self-deceit underscored one
Bishop of Bristol (1738) and eventually Bishop of Durham (1750). A of his central themes: the limits of human self-knowledge and knowledge
number of his sermons from the latter part of his career were published of divine design, limits that had to be continuously in mind when making
individually. Some of them were collected as Six Sermons on Public moral arguments. Butler's later sermons, the Dissertation on Virtue, and

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the sections of the Analogy of Religion that concern moral philosophy, standards to be accessible to and motivating for ordinary reflecting agents
also continue to develop many of these themes. (to be discussed in 3.). Whereas the abstract relations of things might
establish for Clarke or Wollaston that Vice is contrary to the Nature and
2. Moral Science Reasons of Things (Preface, 12), arguments of matter of fact
established that vice is a violation or breaking in upon our own Nature,
In his Preface to the 2nd edition of his Sermons Butler sketched his (Preface, 12). These fitnesses or proportions were to be discovered in
vision of Morals, considered as a Science, (Preface, 6) i.e. our nature and although they might be consistent with a priori
speculative moral philosophy in need of defense from speculative metaphysical relations, the norms and values that they determined were
objections as opposed to practical moral counsel or revealed religion. obliging and motivating in absence of access to said relations. As such
Morals considered as a science proceeds either from abstract relations of they were relativized to human nature, authoritative for it, and accessible
things or from matters of fact (Preface, 12). Clarke and William via reflection on our actions and observation of our actions and those of
Wollaston were influential philosophers who argued primarily from others
abstract relations to moral obligations, duties, virtues, etc. in their moral
systems. Clarke in particular had argued that we have a priori access to the But one might still worry that moral judgments that rested on probable
eternal fitnesses of things through certain, abstract, and necessary quasi- matters of fact were less secure than those found to be in accordance with
mathematical arguments (Clarke 1706) that entail necessary moral eternal fitnesses, even with the aforementioned advantages. Seven years
obligations and duties insofar as actions accord with or fail to accord with later, Butler offered a methodological argument in the Introduction to
eternal and immutable realities. In his correspondence with Clarke, the the Analogy that might respond to this objection if applied to morals
young Butler noted his discovery of a new method for establishing truths (although Butler framed the point more generally). Although deductive
in morals (Butler/Clarke 1716, 1). Although the correspondence took arguments like those championed by Clarke were secure when considered
place a few years before Butler delivered the Sermons, it seems likely that abstractly, they were open to doubt when applied to matters of fact about
the method he alluded to in the correspondence was the nascent method actions or characters. This was because one needed a hypothesis of how to
that he would deploy in the first three sermons (which Butler stressed were apply the abstract demonstrative truths to observed facts (Introduction
argued strictly from matters of fact (Preface 13). 7) how to fit the fitnesses to actions so to speak and this hypothesis
itself was not deductively secure. Butler offered the analogy of Cartesian
Butler had little doubt that arguments from abstract relations and physiology. Cartesian physiology applies Cartesian geometry to living
arguments from matters of fact were complementary, but he held that the bodies. But one needs a probable hypothesis to move from the abstract
latter had major advantages over the former as a method in ethics. First it truths of Cartesian geometry to actual bodies and diseases. For example,
was in a peculiar Manner adapted to satisfie a fair Mind; and is more this spleen is roughly an oval and the way it interacts with the liver
easily applicable to the several particular Relations and Circumstances in roughly results in this sort of mechanism. The mechanism itself as
Life (Preface, 12). In other words, arguments from matters of fact represented abstractly is a certain geometrical relationship. But in order to
allowed us to discern moral standards in human actions and for the apply the mechanism to blood and guts, one needs to have a probable, i.e.

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not certain, hypothesis about how the ideal mechanism fits with the facts desires, reasons, and motivations fit together. This is difficult in practice
on the ground that this arrangement of blood and guts is best captured since the actions that we observe in ourselves and in others almost always
by this mechanism not that one. A similar problem arises when applying draw on more than one principle. For example both self-love and the
eternal and abstract relations to particular moral circumstances and particular passions often go into the motivation or justification for
actions. The need for a hypothesis as to how the relations might fit actual particular actions. Consequently the moral scientist could be said to bring
actions rendered the evaluation of the action merely probable even though a version of Locke's negative program of underbrush clearing in the theory
the rightness and wrongness to which the action was to conform the of knowledge to moral philosophy, by analyzing and disambiguating
eternal fitness was known certainly. principles, motivations, and passions which give rise to actions which we
judge to be virtuous and vicious. At the same time Butler's way of
Since both Clarke's method and Butler's method were probable, Clarke's thinking about morality as dictated by nature had strong resonances with
probable in application to actions and Butler's in relying on matters of fact the Stoics and other ancient moralists.
about human nature in establishing facts about vice and virtue, one might
conclude skeptically that both failed. But Butler argued that a probable In order to show how these principles, motivations, and passions bear on
course of action could still be morally obligatory. He claimed that virtue and vice Butler distinguished between three senses of nature
probable reasoning could result in sufficient certainty for moral action (Sermon 2). Nature (N1) can refer to any principle or element that belongs
when an action could be shown to be more probably good than either to or motivates human beings. It can also refer (N2) to the strongest
inaction or an opposed action. Lacking further evidence the more probably among a group of principles, i.e., it is in our nature to get angry, not to
good action is morally obligatory. This suggested a way in which probable giggle, when unjustly accused. Finally it can refer (N3) to natural
evidence, for example probable evidence for the existence of an afterlife, supremacy, i.e., that a principle acts as a law, guide, or authority to other
could be obliging on us and was crucial to his arguments for the principles or passions. Butler suggests that whatever is naturally supreme
reasonableness of basic Christian teachings in the Analogy. unites various principles in a teleological system. Consequently Butler can
be seen to be arguing that when we take a survey of all that belongs to
3. Human Nature human nature (N1) we discover that conscience has natural supremacy
(N3) in a united hierarchy (although see Section Five for Butler's claim
Because of the absence of a priori demonstrative premises, a moral that self-love is also a supreme principle). N1 principles can be identified
philosopher arguing from matters of fact had to have detailed knowledge piecemeal, particular passions that belong to the human frame. N2
of the principles of action in human nature and of moral psychology as principles are relational, i.e. the strongest of a group of principles. N3
well as arguments to show how these principles had bearing on virtue and principles are relational as well but they are also rational and they unify
vice. Human beings, according to Butler, had within their nature various other sorts of principles. By educing a hierarchy in the principles of
instincts and principles of action: desires for particular pleasures, human nature, and by showing that the hierarchy is independent of the
benevolence, self-love, and conscience. The practitioner of moral science strength (N2) of the principles as motivations for action, we can
aimed to discover what these principles are and the ways in which these demonstrate that what we ought to do morally (N3) may differ from what

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we are most strongly motivated to do (N2) without reflection. The supremacy of conscience in human nature can also be shown by a
comparison of the constitutions and natures of animals with human nature.
Butler's best-known arguments for the natural hierarchy of principles draw Animals are driven by principles similar to (or identical to) those that give
on a number of analogies: to a watch (Preface), to a civil constitution rise to human actions: they share many of our passions and they too are
(Sermon III), to a tree, and to a machine (Sermon 3 Note 1). Just as a driven by self-interest. When animals act according to these principles
clock is not an individual gear, or a pile of gears, but is what it is due to they act appropriately to their natures (in senses N1 and N2). But humans
the ways in which the gears move together towards an end, so too human have a principle, conscience, which animals lack. This suggests that
nature is not a particular principle of action, or a bundle of principles, but humans do not act suitably to what is distinctive to their whole nature, and
the interaction of principles, desires, and reasons, as a system towards in particular suitable to that end which draws on many of the principles of
ends. That our nature is structured towards ends, which Butler takes to be human nature when they act only from those principles that they share
empirically evident, gives evidence of a hierarchy of principles to attain with animals and not according to conscience.
the ends, a hierarchy where some principles must be naturally subordinate
to others (N3). This shows that there is something natural to us in the Interpreters of Butler have disagreed about the degree to which they hold
sense of N3, in addition to N1 and N2 (both of which are a matter of that Butler's teleological and hierarchical account of human nature relies
observed fact). A civil constitution implies in it united strength, various on theological premises, and on what sort of teleology is at play. Some
subordinates under one direction a superior faculty whose office it is to interpreters hold that Butler's arguments that there are N3 principles only
adjust, manage, and preside over them, (Sermon III 2). The governing go through if we assume that God created human beings for a purpose and
faculty has authority. When a civil constitution is violated or overthrown in accordance with providence (Darwall 1995; Penelhum 1985). On this
by meer power this goes against the nature of the constitution. When a account what human beings ought to be or ought to do follows from what
machine's or a tree's parts no longer bear proportionate relations among they were designed for. Humans were designed for virtue and so they
themselves and are no longer guided by superior principles, it is broken or ought to be virtuous. Others suggest that the argument has support without
sick. By analogy, when forceful principles and passions (N2) go against recourse to theological arguments, and that the teleological facts about
authoritative principles (N3), or when the principles and passions no human nature imply norms and values that are obliging without reference
longer bear the same relations or are in conflict this goes against our to design (Wedgwood 2007; Irwin 2008).
nature and is unnatural. The analogy suggests that it is unnatural when a
N2 principle overpowers a N3 principle. The subordination of N2 4. Conscience and the principles of human nature
principles to N3 principles is natural and preserves and guides our natures.
N3 principles are what we ought to act on or act in accordance with. Like Shaftesbury, Butler held that conscience is a reflective principle.
Deciding whether Butler holds that we ought to act on them just because Shaftesbury asserted that every reasoning or reflecting Creature is, by his
they are in accordance with our nature or we ought to act on them because Nature, forc'd to endure the Review of his own Mind, and Actions; and to
they are morally right and in accordance with our nature has led to some have Representations of himself, and his inward Affairs, constantly
of the most salient objections to Butler's moral philosophy (see Section 4). passing before him, obvious to him, and revolving in his Mind,

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(Shaftesbury 1699 II.1 [119] For Butler conscience is more specifically a moral law, duty, obligation, or virtue, is right or wrong, morally good or
reflection on prospective or retrospective actions of oneself and others bad independent of any punishment or reward (Preface 29;
according to moral principles. When we judge characters we reflect on Dissertation on Virtue 8). Butler criticized those forms of natural law
actions in relation to the capacities of agents (Dissertation on Virtue 5). and Hobbesian accounts of motivation that held that I am morally
Butler presumes that all ordinary human beings have a sense of right and motivated and given an authoritative reason for acting by a law sanctioned
wrong in presuming that the moral principles are accessible for reflection, with rewards and punishments by a divine or civil legislator. He argued
and that the many ways of describing this sense of right and wrong all that insofar as sanctions are superadded to the moral rightness or
point to one and the same capacity: Conscience, moral Reason, moral wrongness of the act there is no connection between the sanction and the
sense, or divine Reason as a Sentiment of the Understanding, or as a rightness or wrongness of the action beyond the arbitrary will of the
Perception of the Heart (Dissertation on Virtue 1). There are a number legislator. This connection is insufficient for moral motivation. When I act
of elements in the natural supremacy of conscience that help us to primarily or only due to an external sanction I am not acting from a law
understand the nature of its authority. unto myself (see Darwall 1992).

First, according to Butler conscience has a unique authority among the This law of conscience is readily accessible to us the most near and
principles belonging to human nature. As evidenced in the civil intimate, the most certain and known (Preface, 26) in a way that
constitution analogy, we recognize that it should direct other principles probable consequences of prudential or interested actions are not. That an
and not vice-versa and that the authority is proper to conscience and no authoritative principle dictates that we ought to intend a good action does
other principle. Further we recognize that any ordinary reasonable person not depend on external factors that might prevent or mitigate the desired
has a conscience and ought to obey it. The term conscience was prudential outcome (but see McNaughton 2012). Relatedly, ends may vary
commonly employed in both theological and philosophical contexts but conscience is fixed, steady, and immovable.
(Shaftesbury identified it with reflective reason) but was also a legal term
of art among the equity lawyers to whom Butler preached his sermons. In Butler argued in the Sermons that conscience was a principle superior to
the legal context it had the sense of acting minimally as an ordinary and governing of the particular passions, affections, and instincts and
reasonable person would and maximally as a fully informed, ideal established a hierarchy among them (Sermon XIII 7). As previously
reasoner would (see Garrett 2012). discussed the hierarchy is natural. But due to ambiguities in Butler's
presentation, in particular due to differences in the aims of individual
Next, conscience is closely connected to autonomy: when we act sermons, there are a number of ways to understand the relation between
according to conscience we act as a law unto ourselves or according to a conscience and the other principles. On one reading conscience is
law of our own nature. By being a law unto oneself Butler seemed to mean authoritative over the other main principles discussed by Butler self-
being motivated by our inner sense of moral rightness and wrongness and love and benevolence (if it is a principle see Section 5) and all when
not being motivated by considerations external to the rightness or properly understood promote the same actions in accordance with our
wrongness of acting or not acting (Sermon III 6). For Butler, like Clarke, nature. When we seek our own goods and those of others in accordance

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with conscience or reflection we act virtuously and we also promote our due to a conflict among principles. Conscience can't be pointing to a
private happiness. But, there are also passages that suggest that Butler held conflict with itself since that would be circular. So it must be a conflict
self-love to be a principle on par with conscience (Sidgwick III.12 2) or with the next highest principle: self-interest. But then conscience just
even above it (Sermon IX 15). And there are passages where Butler asserts what self-interest dictates, and so the testimony of conscience is
suggests that benevolence contains all the virtues, and consequently this redundant and has no special authority. Put differently, Butler assumes
too seems to be a principle on par with or identical with conscience. that his argument that virtue is natural entails an argument for the
Consequently there are multiple plausible hierarchies. Interpreters who supremacy of conscience. But there is no good reason to assume the
advocate hierarchies which place self-love or benevolence on par with (or entailment in fact the two are not only independent, but in conflict.
even above) conscience normally either argue that they are still consistent There have been a number of responses to Sturgeon. Penelhum, notably,
with the supremacy of conscience or see this as showing a serious problem denied that Butler was committed to the Full Naturalistic Thesis and
in Butler's arguments. argued that Butler instead held the independent existence of the
judgments of right and wrong from Judgments of naturalness and
Here are few of the problems. If it is reasonable to obey conscience, then unnaturalness (Penelhum 1990, 68; see also Irwin 2008 707 and
the rules that Conscience lays down are either reasonable in and of McNaughton 2012).
themselves or they are the dictates of an arbitrary authority (Sidgwick,
III.13 2). If the latter, then it is hard to see what justifies this arbitrary 5. Self-Love and Benevolence
authority. But if the former, then Sidgwick argues that there is no
independent moral authority for conscience a conclusion which As previously noted Butler discusses two other important constituents of
Sidgwick thought perfectly reasonable and Butler is caught in the same human nature in addition to conscience and the particular passions: self-
justificatory circle that the Stoic arguments for life according to nature love and benevolence. Central to Butler's analysis of self-love is his
were: it is reasonable to live according to Nature, and it is natural to live extremely influential dismissal of psychological egoism in C. D.
according to Reason (ibid.). A related objection is that since both Broad's words he killed the theory so thoroughly that he sometimes
conscience and self-love are rational principles and in general cannot be in seems to the modern reader to be flogging dead horses (Broad 1930, 55;
conflict, conscience just dictates whatever self-love dictates and vice- but see Penelhum 1985; Henson 1988; Sober 1992). For Butler, the kind
versa. Consequently conscience cannot have a distinctive authority. of egoism exemplified for him by Hobbes the selfish theory in
Sturgeon identified a different circularity connected with the justification eighteenth century parlance rests on the failure to distinguish principles
of the supremacy of conscience. Since Butler held that virtuous actions are from passions. There is a trivial sense in which all of our passions are our
those in conformity to the nature of the agent and vicious ones not in own and the pleasure we have in discharging or pursuing any passion is
conformity according to Sturgeon the doctrine of natural authority of self love. But it is also uninteresting: we can't conclude much from the
conscience is entirely superfluous (Sturgeon, 316). This is because if fact that every passion we take pleasure in is our passion. We certainly
conscience points to the wrongness of an action the wrongness must be can't conclude that human beings are always motivated by selfishness.
due to the action's conformity or non-conformity with our nature i.e.

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That selfish theorists thought we could was due in part to their confusing about human nature. But once a compassionate motivation is recast as a
the ownership of an impulse with its object (Broad 1930, 65)the selfish motivation, for Hobbes as a type of fear, it conflicts with the sense
inference from that the passions are ours to that we are the objects of the of the term being explained to the point that it engenders contradiction.
passions. Although the passions belong to us it does not therefore follow For example: we feel compassion strongly towards our friends. If
that our self, or our self-gratification, is the object of the passion. compassion were a fear then we would fear our friends strongly, which
seems to conflict with the agreed use of the word compassion.
This mistake is connected to another: confusing the principle of self-love,
which has the happiness of the self as its object, with particular passions Which was not to deny of course that people act from selfishness, self-
and desires. Once we recognize that the pain of hunger and shame, and partiality, and confused self-interest. Selfishness and self-partiality often
the delight from esteem, are no more self-love than they are any thing in mix with benevolent motivations to give rise to benevolent and even
the world (Sermon I, Note 3) they are particular passions and desires compassionate actions (Sermon V Note 1). Unlike Shaftesbury and
with particular objects we see that from the fact that we take pleasure in Hutcheson, Butler stressed that human beings often act from mixed and
our passions and that they are our passions it does not follow that we are opaque motives (as will be discussed in Section 6). But the existence of
guided by selfish principles. Passions do make us happy or unhappy. But mixed motivations presumes non-interested motivations with which
that we have an interest in being happy or unhappy is distinct from the selfishness is mixed not the reducibility of all motivations to selfishness or
particular passions, their objects, or the happiness arising from the self-partiality. This also has the virtue of being a simpler explanation than
passions although it may be a reason to prefer one passion over the more complicated selfish motivations offered by Hobbes' theory.
another. This was connected to Butler's belief that passions are not
interested in themselves. They have particular ends whereas self-love is According to Butler, once clarified self-love is properly understood as
our general interest in securing our happiness. regard to our own Interest, Happiness, and private Good (Sermon IX
8). Butler further suggests that self-love can be pursued better and worse,
Like Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson, Butler thought it empirically and that it is best reflected on via reason in a cool and impartial way. By
evident that human beings had benevolent motivations, and he thought it cool Butler understood impartial in the sense of not being swayed
obvious that these benevolent motivations could make us happy and be away from the truth by particular loves and hates or by self-partiality. And
consistent with self-interest. He placed more stress on the exceptions than by reason Butler understood the faculty of discerning truth (Sermon XIII
Shaftesbury had and stressed that they are naturally consistent, i.e. that 5). Self-love worked best and our interest was best served when we
they are consistent in our nature and the natural course of things although impartially seek what is truly in our interest. When understood in this way
the unnatural and intemperate actions of others might interfere locally it can clearly suggest actions that conflict with selfishness. Conversely
(Analogy III 5; 27). He saw Hobbes' reduction of all other-directed resolute selfishness and self-partiality are not the best course for self-love.
motivations -- such as compassion -- to selfish motivations in disguise to To satisfy a particular desire may or may not make us happy in either the
deny an evident matter of fact for theoretical reasons, i.e. in order to short or long-term and may not educe to our private good. And although
reconcile benevolence and compassion with Hobbes' general hypothesis satisfying a desire may make us happy, and all of our happiness may be

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the result of particular passions, no particular passion has happiness in Which is not to suggest that conscience, virtue and self-love are identical,
general as its object. although Butler connected them very deeply (Frey 1992 and n.p.).
Although virtue tends to coincide with interest it tends to coincide because
Conversely we might fruitlessly seek our interest but have no particular a virtuous life is a life with the right balance of benevolent passions and
object in mind. Or we might obsess over our interest to such a degree that dispositions to make one happy and a life which responds to the
we would continually be exercising the principle of self-love but not unchanging and immediate moral authority of conscience -- although they
actually satisfying our particular passions and consequently not be happy. are approved of and motivated by self-love as well.
Happiness consists in the Gratification of certain Affections, Appetites,
Passions, with Objects which are by Nature adapted to them, (Sermon IX Butler uses benevolence mainly to refer to a particular passion or a cluster
16). Self-love is a principle governing actions leading to the satisfaction of passions (McNaughton 1992), although sometimes he also refers to it
or avoidance of the particular passions. Both self-love and the particular and cognate terms (love of thy neighbor) as principles that might have
passions are necessary for the proper natural functioning of human beings. particular passions as their objects. There is still a fair amount of scholarly
disagreement as to which sense is more central in Butler's arguments
Once self-love is distinguished from selfishness, self-partiality and the (nicely summarized in Irwin 2008). Benevolence as a particular passion,
particular passions it becomes clearer that the conflict between self-love like ambition or revenge, is never interested or disinterested in and of
and benevolence is mostly an illusion when considered in the long term. itself. It is only interested or disinterested in so far as it is guided by or in
Particular passions like compassion are perfectly consistent with self-love, accordance with our self-love. Acting in a benevolent manner might make
indeed Butler held that to take pleasure in benevolent and virtuous acts us happy. Indeed it seems to be the case that benevolent actions and
and view them as part of one's happiness is itself the Temper of affections often do make people happy. And we might initially decide to
Satisfaction and Enjoyment. In the Analogy, Butler provided further gratify the passions of benevolence from self-love. But the passions
arguments that the natural tendency of virtue was the reward of happiness, themselves have no more or less connection to interest than any other
and the natural punishment for vice, misery. We often fail to see this passion does.
natural tendency because we focus on accidents or a limited range of
examples to the detriment of the consistent long-term tendencies. Butler Not being made happy by benevolent actions would point to a defect of
suggested a thought experiment of a monarchy run on virtuous principles temper or a lack of balance in one's nature if the result was diminished
(Analogy III 20) and argued that it would tend to be happier and more happiness and going against the dictates of conscience. As noted, for both
powerful than other regimes if allowed to flourish, eventually becoming a Butler and Shaftesbury, self-love and virtue converge when properly
universal monarchy. The natural tendency of happiness, power, and virtue understood. But importantly according to Butler, Shaftesbury erred in not
all coincide in its flourishing, growth, and moral governance. And recognizing that they could conflict in particular cases, and if they did
happiness as coupled to virtue in this life points to happiness as the conflict the distinctive authority of conscience would trump our apparent
consistent reward for virtue in the next when accidents do not threaten to prudential motivations. This did not mean that our general interest
derail the natural tendency. conflicted with conscience, but rather that local prudential information

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could give reasons for particular reasons for action that conflicted with according to and to be motivated by the principle of loving one's neighbor
conscience. generally leads to virtuous and morally approved actions. Although self-
partiality tends in the opposite direction, benevolence offsets this tendency
There is also some (more contested) evidence that Butler thought of and brings benevolent and self-partial affections in proper proportion.
benevolence as a ruling principle. Butler referred to the general principle Conversely self-partiality brings benevolence in line with self-love such
of charity or love of our neighbor as thyself as a virtuous principle or as that it balances properly in our nature.
the reason guided endeavor to promote the happiness of proximate others
to the same degree that one attempts to promote one's own good (although According to Butler when we approve of virtue in an agent this gives rise
he also identified love of neighbor with the particular passion of to benevolence towards the agent. The ultimate object of this love of
compassion). This was a regulating principle of action, perhaps distinct benevolent moral agents is our love of God, the most benevolent agent. In
from benevolent passions. Butler suggested in Sermon IX that we have a stressing the continuity between love of neighbor and love of God, Butler
fundamental obligation to the happiness of sensible creatures other than also stressed the continuity between our approval of moral agents and
ourselves insofar as they are capable of pleasure and pain, an obligation natural theology. Finally, to have a character such that benevolent actions
that can only be ignored in order to bring about greater happiness (to be make one happy is normally to have a character that encompasses all of
further discussed in Section 6). Although this appears to be a fundamental the virtues.
moral obligation to maximize welfare a few years later Butler strongly
criticized theories on which the overall happiness is what makes an action 6. Compassion, Resentment, and Forgiveness
good or evil and argued that our conscience holds actions to be morally
good or bad independent of the expected or actual consequences for Compassion was besides the love of God the most important of the
happiness (Dissertation, 5). Most of the secondary literature takes particular passions involving benevolence for Butler. He defined
Butler to generally be an anti-utilitarian (but see Louden 1995 and in a compassion as real sorrow and concern for the misery of our fellow
different way see Frey), but there is disagreement as to whether Butler creatures giving rise to the desire to relieve their distress. The passion of
held a consistent position or changed his mind (see McPherson 1948-9). compassion arose from the imaginative ability to substitute another for
Some even argue that he might be able to embrace a form of oneself and thereby to be affected by the distresses of that other with
consequentialism (see McNaughton, forthcoming). whom one compassionates as towards oneself (Sermon V Note 1). Butler
readily admitted that the psychological process that gives rise to
Finally, Butler claimed that benevolence is the whole of virtue in Sermon compassion included both pleasure in the fact that we were not suffering
XII, although he qualified the claim later in Sermon XII and qualified it the distress as well and awareness of our own susceptibility to the ills
even more strongly in the Dissertation on Virtue. Butler did not mean prompting distress in the object of our compassion. But although the
that to act benevolently in each and every action was the entirety of virtue, process of giving rise to compassion also gives rise to and even includes
for example as we shall see in the next section moral resentment was an self-partial thoughts, compassion refers strictly to a real sorrow and
appropriate attitude for a virtuous agent. Rather he meant that to act concern for the misery of our fellow creatures (Sermon V Note 1). To

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identify it with a self-partial pleasure in the fact that we were not in distinguished from resentment. For Butler, settled resentment has an
distress or with the desire to alleviate distress in order to no longer be important moral end in drawing men together to pursue justice, in making
annoyed by it was to be confused about the meaning of word. Although them fear engendering resentment in mankind due to their actions, and to
according to Butler compassion, like any affection, must be governed by extirpate moral wickedness: it is one of the common bonds by which
reason, the motivation to virtuous actions that compassion gives rise to society is held together, a fellow feeling, which each individual has in
would not be given rise to by reason alone. Consequently the passion of behalf of the whole species, as well as oneself. Indeed Butler goes so far
compassion has a central role in our moral actions. Moreover, the as to suggest that communal moral resentment and the justice it gives rise
principle of private self-love is not sufficient to serve our welfare without to is what separates us from the state of nature where each man is arbiter
compassion, i.e., compassion is an important ingredient in our well being of his own punishment which quickly devolves into revenge (a point
in addition to being an important moral passion. Its importance for our developed further in Six Sermons).
well being can be seen, according to Butler, in the fact that those who lack
compassion, who have hardness of heart, tend to have diminished This raises a central problem for resentment as a moral sentiment or
happiness blocking the scope and degree of their happiness. passion: unless kept strictly within bounds it devolves into revenge and
conflicts with benevolence and virtue. Part of the answer is that however
Resentment or anger was somewhat more difficult for Butler to deal with extreme an injury done, and however settled the resentment rising in
insofar as it was ubiquitous to human beings but conflicted with the response, the execution of justice does not supersede the prior obligation
Christian command to love our enemies. Butler made two distinctions, of good will we have to all humans insofar as they are capable of
between settled (or deliberate) and hasty (or sudden) resentment and happiness and misery. Rather we harm wrong doers to preserve the quiet
between resentment raised by non-moral harm or resentment raised by and happiness of the world and this general and more enlarged
moral injury. He further distinguished between resentment and the obligation destroys a more particular and confined one of the same kind,
negative passion of malice (although he denies the existence of inconsistent with it. Guilt and injury then does not dispense with or
disinterested, cool, direct ill-will or malice). Hasty resentment is an supersede the duty of goodwill, (Sermon IX 15). Another part of the
immediate response to mere harm without appearance of wrong or answer is that since the proper object is the injustice, to resent someone's
injustice, (Sermon VIII, 7). It can be excessive and misguided, and one whole character as opposed to the particular aspect of character that gave
can be morally culpable for excessive and misguided expressions of it, but rise to the harm, i.e. to portray them as wholly monstrous, is to move
hasty resentment serves an important end of self-preservation and care of beyond the appropriate bounds. This pitfall is easier to avoid when we
one's near and dear. Settled resentment is an affection that has moral evil recognize our own mixed characters and flaws. Relatedly, and perhaps
or injustice as its object. Although moral evil gives rise to pain which can most importantly one must recognize that self-partiality is often fueling a
strengthen this settled resentment, the object of the resentment is not the desire for revenge against those we resent insofar as they have injured us.
pain or harm done but instead the design or intention to morally injure, We ought to attempt to view injuries to us from as distant and
harm, do wrong and injustice. And the goal of resentment is to cause unprejudiced a human viewpoint as possible with full awareness of our
appropriate injury in a wrongdoer, not malign injury or revenge that are own future non-existence and final judgment -- and when we do we will

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be able to recognize that our enemies are as often as not mistaken or acting been asked to curse the Israelites by the Moabites. Even though God
inadvertently. expressly forbade Balaam, he still considered cursing the Israelites when
greater rewards were offered by Moabite ambassadors. The puzzle was
The awareness of our own flaws, and our acceptance of the non-existence how could Balaam know what was right but still be motivated to do what
of cool, disinterested and malign wills as well as our recognition of the was wrong? Butler's answer was not so much to try to solve the problem
ubiquity of mixed characters also gives rise to compassion and the desire of akrasia as to describe the moral psychology of self-deceit.
to forgive. But notably for Butler forgiveness does not entail giving up
resentment for moral wrongs (Griswold 2008). Rather it entails checking Balaam's moral failure was effected by his avoiding reflecting on his
inappropriate resentment, anger, and revenge, being aware when what actions, by a pervasive asymmetry in how we view ourselves and how we
appears to be a moral harm is in fact an inadvertent injury whose putative view others due to native self-partiality that can only be corrected by
moral injustice is inflated by our own partiality, and treating others who reflection, and by a difficulty in discerning the exact degree to which we
harm us with the same compassion that we hold all humans due good-will are obliged to act morally. The three are interconnected. We are normally
should be treated. happy to unreflectively cut more slack for ourselves than we are willing to
cut for others due to self-partiality or an overfondness for ourselves
7. Self-Deceit and Ignorance (Sermon X 6). When a morally right action is a matter of degree, it is
easy and common to avoid reflection and to err on the side of self-
Butler devoted three of his Sermons to issues connected with self-deceit partiality in the degree in which the moral action is undertaken. This
(IV, VI, X). The focus on the pervasiveness of self-deceit as a serious allows one to engage in more and more immoral acts while convincing
moral problem is an important difference between Butler and his more oneself that each undermining of the rule is justified and reasonable. In the
optimistic confreres Hutcheson and Shaftesbury. For Butler we are often story of Balaam, Balaam invites the ambassadors to stay the night under
self-deceived even when we think we are doing what is morally right (in the aegis of hospitality. By analogy for Butler we undermine rules under
fact if we think we are wholly in the right we are almost always deceived the aegis of ordinary sociability and civility for example we engage in
(Sermon X 13)) and we often only recognize our self-deception if at self-serving malicious gossip under the aegis of being sociable and
all -- upon later reflection. That we are so prone to self-deception is gradually undermine our capacity to act from the dictate of conscience
mainly due to a lack of reflection when acting prompted by self-partiality. when called upon to do so.

According to Butler most of us can access what the right thing is to do in Since conscience is authoritative and proximate for Butler, and since the
most circumstances, and most of us often wish to do the right thing when dictates of conscience coincide with our self-love, self-deceit only gets off
it doesn't conflict with our self-partiality. But we are also susceptible to the ground if we avoid reflection or if we reflect poorly. In addition to the
engage in self-deceit in order to justify acting on self-partial motives even oversimplifying and bad faith just described, we give self-deceit a
when it conflicts with what is morally right. Butler illustrated the this sort foothold by refusing to look at or avoiding the facts of the matter when we
of self-deceit by reference to the example of Balaam, a prophet who had feel these facts will go against our self-partial desires Butler gives the

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example of profligate spenders not looking at the state of their finances fact that our ability to apply them seriously to ourselves is one of the bases
(Sermon X 11) and by relying piecemeal on the counsel of others for our ultimate punishment and reward.
when these counsels serve our interest.
The problem of self-deceit is connected to another of Butler's abiding
In one of his less read sermons (Sermon IV) Butler suggests that careful themes, human ignorance of the larger design of God. In Sermon XV
government of the tongue is important to one's moral well being. The role Upon Human Ignorance (notably the final sermon of the collection) and
of others both our oppositions to and agreements with others and its in the Analogy and Dissertation on Virtue, Butler stressed that our
relation to self-governance is particularly crucial for Butler in explaining knowledge of design is probable at best. Sermon XV concludes with an
this sort of self-deceit. Our tendency to paint the characters of others in exhortation reminiscent of Locke. Since we have such limited knowledge
black and white allows us to justify our immoral actions by virtue of the of providence and of God's design, we should turn our attention to that
fact that we self-deceptively (and self-righteously) cast ourselves and our which we can have knowledge of: our nature insofar as it bears on our
motivations as wholly good in opposition to our opponent who is wholly moral governance and conduct.
evil, and so we can treat them however we see fit. We also draw on the
idle comments of others that conform with our self-partial desires to serve The argument of the Analogy and the Dissertation on Virtue were both
as external justification of our immoral actions. premised on this. In the Analogy, Butler argued that we have probable
evidence that our morally right and wrong actions will be judged and
The problem then is given human beings great capacity for self-deceit, rewarded and punished by God and that this life is a probationary period
how can it be prevented? Is not the attempt to prevent self-deceit as prone where we act in ways that will be ultimately judged.
to self-deceit as anything else? Butler's answer is that habitual and
systematic self-reflection and self-governance by rigid rules are the best 8. Influence
response. In a manner reminiscent of Epictetus' famous maxim one must
watch oneself as an enemy lying in ambush, and view one's actions as an Butler's Sermons were read in the eighteenth century, in particular after
enemy would judging them harshly. Butler suggests a two part rule to this the publication of the Analogy, and went through multiple editions. The
end One is, to substitute another for yourself, when you take a survey of Analogy was reprinted many times in the eighteenth and nineteenth
any part of your behavior, or consider what is proper and fit and centuries, as were Butler's works. His initial influence seems to have been
reasonable for you to do on any occasion: the other part is, that you greatest on Scottish philosophers, including (perhaps) his contemporary
consider yourself as the person affected by such a behavior, (Sermon X Francis Hutcheson, George Turnbull, David Fordyce, David Hume, Adam
15). The rule itself may be dishonestly applied but even the misguided Smith, Thomas Reid, and their fellow travellers notably Edmund
attempt to apply it may reveal more truth than not applying it at all. In the Burke. Hume sought to meet Butler and emended the manuscript copy of
Analogy Butler argued that one of the central moral purposes of this life is A Treatise on Human Nature he gave to him for fear it would cause
as a probationary period in the acquisition of habits of self-governance offence. Hume's and Smith's accounts of sympathy, compassion,
(Analogy V). That these habits are not fool-proof is a consequence of the resentment, justice, and their empirical attitude towards moral psychology

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(and to the centrality of moral psychology for ethics) and the limits of it.]
metaphysical explanations in morals bear Butler's influence. Hume's Butler, J., 1749, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel To
discussion of induction in his Treatise has also been seen as a criticism of which are added Six Sermons, Preached on Publick Occasions,
Butler's procedure in the Analogy (Russell 2008). In the late nineteenth London: J. and P. Knapton, 4th ed. [This edition marked the
and early twentieth century Butler's Sermons became more influential than appearance of the Six Sermons.]
the Analogy, due to their influence at Oxford and Cambridge and
particularly on William Whewell (see Tennant 195199) and Sidgwick. I have cited these works from the most complete current edition, although
Throughout the later nineteenth century and the twentieth century they the citations should allow for passages to be easily identified in other
were discussed by and had an influence on many of the central moral editions:
philosophers of the Anglo-American tradition G. E. Moore, Pritchard,
White, D. (ed.), 2006, The Works of Bishop Butler, Rochester, NY:
Rawls, etc.. Butler's influence and importance has persisted.
University of Rochester Press.

Bibliography I have cited the Preface to the 2nd edition of the Sermons as Preface,
the Sermons by number (i.e. Sermon VI), the Introduction to the
Primary Literature Analogy of Religion as Introduction, the main contents of the work by
Analogy and chapter, the Dissertation of Virtue as Dissertation, the
There is currently no up to date critical edition of Butler's works. There
Six Sermons as Six Sermons and the Clarke/Butler correspondence as
are many editions of Butler's Sermons and Analogy. The main editions of
Clarke/Butler. All references are by paragraph, corresponding to the
Butler's works discussed in this article are:
paragraphs in the White edition above.
Butler, J. and Clarke, S., 1716, Several Letters from a Gentleman in
Glocestershire, London, J. Knapton, 1716.
Secondary Literature
Butler, J., 1726, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel,
Broad, C. D, 1930, Five Types of Ethical Theory, London: Kegan Paul.
London: J. and J. Knapton.
Clarke, S., 1706, A Discourse Concerning the Unchangeable Obligations
Butler, J., 1729, Fifteen Sermons Preached at Rolls Chapel, London:
of Natural Religion, and the Truth and Certainty of Christian
J. and J. Knapton, 2nd ed. [Revised and with the edition of a
Revelation, London: J. Knapton.
Cunliffe, C., (ed.), 1992, Joseph Butler's Moral and Religious Thought:
Butler, J., 1736, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to
Tercentenary Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
the Constitution and Course of Nature, London: J. and P. Knapton,
, 2008, Butler, Joseph (16921752), in theOxford Dictionary of
2nd corrected edition. [This was the corrected edition that appeared in
National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
the same year as the initial imprint. The two dissertations Of
Darwall, S., 1992, Conscience as Self-Authorizing in Butler's Ethics, in
Personal Identity and Of the Nature of Virtue were appended to
C. Cunliffe (ed.) 1992, pp. 209241.

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, 1995, The British Moralists and the Internal Ought: 16401740, Shaftesbury, Lord (Anthony Ashley Cooper), 1711, Characteristicks, in
Oxford: Oxford University Press. Den Uyl, D., (ed.), Anthony, Third Earl of Shaftesbury:
Frey, R. G., 1992, Butler on Self-Love and Benevolence, in C. Cunliffe Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, Indianapolis:
(ed.), 1992, pp. 24368. Liberty Fund, 2001, 3 volumes.
Garrett, A., 2012, Reasoning about morals from Butler to Hume, in Ruth Sidgwick, H., 1901, Methods of Ethics, London: Macmillan, 6th ed.
Savage, (ed.), Philosophy and Religion in Enlightenment Britain, Sober, E., 1992, Hedonism and Butler's Stone, Ethics, 103 (1): 97103.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 169186. Tennant, B., 2011, Conscience, Consciousness, and Ethics in Joseph
Griswold, C., 2007, Forgiveness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Butler's Philosophy and Ministry, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer.
Press, I.ii. Wedgwood, R., 2008, Butler on Virtue, Self-Interest and Human Nature
Henson, R., 1988, Butler on Selfishness and Self-Love, Philosophy and in Paul Bloomfield, (ed.),Morality and Self-Interest, Oxford
Phenomenological Research, 49 (1): 3157. University Press, pp. 177-204.
Irwin, T. H., 2008, The Development of Ethics: Volume II: From Suarez to
Rousseau, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 476557. Academic Tools
Louden, R., 1995, Butler's Divine Utilitarianism, History of Philosophy
Quarterly, 12 (3):265280. How to cite this entry.
McNaughton, D., 1992, Butler on Benevolence, in C. Cunliffe (ed.), Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP
1992, pp. 269291. Society.
, 2013, Butler's Ethics in Crisp, Roger, (ed.), The Oxford Handbook Look up this entry topic at the Indiana Philosophy Ontology
of the History of Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 377 Project (InPhO).
392. Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers, with links
McPherson, T. H., 1948, The Development of Bishop Butler's Ethics to its database.
Part I, Philosophy, 23 (87): 317331.
, 1949, The Development of Bishop Butler's Ethics Part II,
Other Internet Resources
Philosophy, 24 (88): 322.
Penelhum, T., 1986, Butler, Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Bishop Joseph Butler, an online website devoted to Butler,
, 1992, Butler and Human Ignorance, in C. Cunliffe (ed.), 1992, pp. maintained by David and Linda White. On the website are extensive
11740. and useful bibliographies and the proofs from White's edition of
Rorty, A., 1978, Butler on Benevolence and Conscience, Philosophy, 53 Butler's works.
(204): 171184.
Russell, P., 2008, The Riddle of Hume's Treatise: Skepticism, Naturalism, Related Entries
and Irreligion, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Clarke, Samuel | egoism | forgiveness | self-deception | Shaftesbury, Lord

[Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of]


Thanks to Ian Blaustein, Roger Crisp, Charles Griswold, Knud

Haakonssen, James Harris, Colin Heydt, David McNaughton, Amelie
Rorty, Daniel Star, and Bob Tennant for extensive and extremely helpful
comments. Thanks to Stephen Darwall for suggesting the article, to Ray
Frey for initiating my interest in Butler, and to the students in my Butler
seminar for helping me think through the issues discussed in the article.

Copyright 2014 by the author

Aaron Garrett

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