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Butler's Sermons

Joseph Butler (1692-1752) was a minister of the Church of England, and eventually a Bishop -- first Bishop of Bristol, and then Bishop of Durham.

Note: References to Butler are all to the paragraph numbers in D. D. Raphael, British Moralists: 1650-1800, where applicable; otherwise, to the edition of J. H. Bernard (London, 1900).

Butler had a distinctive philosophical outlook. He was strongly opposed to grand simplifying theories, which in his view often obscured the subtle distinctions that matter in everyday life. This is part of what he meant by his most famous remark, 'Everything is what it is and not another thing' (Preface, 384). He also held that it is a mistake to seek for absolute certainty. We should hold onto the most reasonable ideas we have, until we find something better. Famously, he defends Christianity, not as self-evidently true, but as probable. But that makes Christianity no worse in his view than any other ideas that we rely on every day: as he says, 'to us, probability is the very guide of life' (Introduction to the Analogy of Religion, 3).

Like many of the other philosophers we'll be looking in this semester, Butler is very much concerned to answer the question: Why should we care about morality? What reason do we have to care about it?

But he takes a different approach from the other philosophers. He doesn't just want to appeal to some desire which we all have and then maintain that morality helps us to satisfy this desire -- as Hobbes does for example. One could always ask, Why should we have this desire? Perhaps we should try to get rid of it, or suppress it? And Butler certainly doesn't want to appeal to a desire whose object can be specified in value-neutral terms -- such as my self-preservation or the happiness of others. This is a reductionist approach to morality, which Butler would shun.

But he also avoids the approach that we will see in Kant, and which Butler knew in the work of the physicist and theologian Samuel Clarke -- the approach that claims that we just do have an overriding reason to be moral, and this fact depends on the essential nature of rationality, which is the same everywhere for all rational beings. Instead, Butler wants to argue that the reason we have to care about morality stems from our nature as human beings. He wants to revive the ancient idea, which we saw in Plato and Aristotle, that virtue is conformity to nature, and vice is contrary to nature -- as he puts it, 'more contrary to our nature than tortures and death' (Preface, 375). However, he does not want to defend virtue by saying that it is necessary for happiness. He says simply that being virtuous is necessary if we are to conform to our nature.

But what is meant here by "nature"? Butler mentions Wollaston's objections to the idea that virtue is following nature in 375, and again in 398. (These objections to the idea that morality is necessary if we are to conform to our nature are developed later on by J. S. Mill.)

Butler explains his idea of human nature by an analogy with a watch, in 376. Still, his use of the watch analogy is radically differently from Hobbes's use of the analogy in the Introduction to Leviathan: Hobbes understands the watch purely mechanically, whereas Butler insists that the watch must be understood teleologically. As Butler says, "This our nature, i.e. our constitution, is adapted to virtue, as .... [that of a watch] is adapted to measure time".

First, by speaking of the "nature" or the "constitution" of human beings, I think Butler means both (i) the most important features of human beings, the features that explain everything else about human beings and how they function, and (ii) the features that are essential to each human being - the features that no human being could exist without possessing. (For this second point, see the end of 376, where he says that if the something is 'out of order' too much, the thing will be totally destroyed.)

To say that our constitution is "adapted to F-ing" means that we have some constitution C such that (i) having C enables us to F fairly well, and (ii) it is because having C enables F-ing that we have C in the first place. So distinguish: a flint may be suitable for cutting; but it is not "adapted for" cutting in the way that a knife is. It is not because its shape enables cutting that the flint has that shape in the first place. Similarly, a nose is adapted for smelling but not for supporting spectacles. It is also essential to a nose that it has the constitution that enables smelling; or to a knife that it has the constitution that enables cutting. If they lost this constitution, they would cease to be noses or knives.

Now, I don't think Butler is identifying virtue with following nature: Perhaps there could be some being adapted for vice. (E.g. perhaps the monster in the movie Alien is adapted to murder and mayhem -- it certainly doesn't seem adapted to virtue!)

We, however, are designed and created by God, who is perfectly wise, powerful and good. So God will presumably adapt us to virtue. See here the beginning of Sermon II, 395.

Sermon I distinguishes the three main parts of the human soul:

  1. particular passions, including the especially important one, benevolence;
  2. self-love; and
  3. conscience.

(2) and (3) are reflective capacities, that involve thinking about all one's passions. Conscience is still more reflective in that it also involves thinking about self-love as well as about all the other passions.

Now one of his main aims is to argue that the general tendency of all of the elements in our nature is to lead us to do good, both to ourselves and to others. Virtue, he believes, consists in promoting both one's own good and the good of other people, in the proper balance. (Butler doesn't think that virtue is just being self-sacrificing or thinking about others before oneself.)

Butler argues that all the elements of our nature lead us to do good, both to ourselves and others, in Sermon I. See italicized paragraph at the end of 387. In particular, two important elements are self-love and benevolence (388). (He introduces here his theme that generally speaking, for the most part, self-love and benevolence coincide: you can't do good to others if you don't take care of yourself; and you won't really have a good time in life he believes unless you do care about others. But he argues for this a bit more later.) Also, if you look at the various particular passions, you see that each of them, although quite different from a desire for your own good, or for public good, do have some tendency to promote either private or public good. Non-human animals have no ability to think reflectively about their good, or their overall happiness, yet many of their desires to naturally tend to promote their own good or the good of the herd.

Finally, of course, there is the principle of Conscience (390) whose natural tendency is to promote virtue, i.e. a course of life that involves promoting private and public good in the proper balance. He claims that it is obvious that we have this conscience: we all find that we approve or disapprove of some actions more than others.

Hence his conclusion in 391: the selfish view of human nature is a fiction, that arises from "the speculative absurdity of considering ourselves single and independent..." On the contrary, society is held together by countless different bonds of different kinds (note: not just by "benevolence"); some of them even faintly ridiculous.

On the other hand, we do not have a natural tendency to vice. See 392. We do not love treachery or ingratitude as such. Hence his conclusion in 394.

The theme of Sermons II and III is Butler's idea of the natural supremacy of conscience. Let's postpone that point until later. We might wonder whether there isn't though some deeper tension between self-love -- our considered pursuit of our own interest -- and "a right behaviour in society, ... that course of life which we call virtue".

Let's see how Butler sets out to reconcile self-love with virtue. This is chiefly in the Sermon XI, though see also Sermon I, 389 and Preface, 382-6. The first point he needs to make is that there is a clear distinction between the particular passions and self-love. This is his famous refutation of psychological hedonism.

That is, he must deny that what it is self-love that ultimately motivates these particular passions. This point comes out in Sermon I. The particular passions are distinct from self-love. See the first footnote to 389.

What is self-love in Butler's view? It seems that he identifies self-love with the desire for the greatest possible happiness over one's life as a whole. "Each man hath a general desire of his own happiness; [this] proceeds from, or is, self-love .... inseparable from all sensible creatures who can reflect....." 414.

What is happiness? Butler has an interesting and not entirely traditional conception of happiness. See e.g. 383: "the very idea or interest or happiness consists in this, that an appetite or affection enjoys its object". See again, 417. "Happiness or satisfaction consists only in the enjoyment of those objects, which are by nature suited to our several particular appetites, passions and affections." Butler's view then is that all happiness presupposes a desire or appetite. A desire or appetite enjoys its object, we may suppose, when the desire is fulfilled and you are conscious of its being fulfilled. This is I suppose why Butler says that the happiness is something "internal", whereas the object of the appetite is something "external" (see the end of 414). Hence self-love in Butler's view is the desire to fulfil as many as possible of one's desires and appetites and get the enjoyment of this fulfilment.

But now it is obvious that self-love must have some other desires or appetites or passions to work on: otherwise it could never get started. See 417 or 383.

Now Butler wants to show, not only that we have desires other than self-love, but also that self-love is not even a necessary motive for all our actions: this is where he appeals (especially at the end of the Preface, and in Sermon I) to the existence of irrational self-destructive behaviour. In this way, Butler refutes both psychological hedonism (the view that all action motivated by the desire for pleasure), and psychological egoism (the view that all action motivated by desire for my own good, advantage, interest).

So, in Butler's view, the only motive that aims at our own interest is self-love. All other motives, including the desire for sex and for food and for the love and esteem and happiness of others aim, intrinsically, at something external. Self-love is not the primary enemy of morality: instead, it is the particular passions (in themselves innocent) which get swept out of control. There is no more reason to suspect conflict between self-love and benevolence than there is to expect it between self-love and any other particular passion whatever. See Sermon XI.

Superior principles. Human nature, Butler argues, is a system. The various motivating factors in human nature, he thinks, aren't just a heap or clump. Instead, they form a system. They are in fact hierarchically structured: some are superior to others. Some of them were implanted in us to be the raw material which the others work on, while others were implanted to oversee and direct which of the former will actually lead to action. One principle is superior to another if and only if the first is the one which -- all things considered -- ought to be obeyed rather than the second if they conflict. That is, the superior principle represents the weightier and more important, or better, reasons. To say that we ought to obey the superior principle rather than the inferior principle isn't to say that it is morally better, or better from the point of view of self-interest, to obey that rather than the other: it's to say that it is just better all things considered.

One place where B. distinguishes a "moral 'ought'" from an "all-things-considered 'ought'" is in Sermon III, 406, where he contrasts the "rule of right" and our "obligation to obey it".

Butler is claiming that we can understand this notion of what we ought to do -- all things considered -- in terms of the notion of what it is correspondent with our nature to do. The stronger reasons are the ones which we are supposed to be more influenced by: "supposed" here means "it is the purpose of our constitution and our nature to be more influenced by".

Butler explains this conception of superior principles by appeal to the difference between mere power and authority, 402. Authority belongs to the lawful government, even if it happens that a warlord or a bandit has greater power. The lawful authority has the right to command and we have reason to obey it, even if in fact we do not always obey it.

Why should we believe that there are superior principles? Butler offers an interesting argument at the end of Sermon II, 403. According to Butler, it would be absurd to stop approving of some things more than others. It would be absurd to be committed to approving any two actions that a human being could do equally. Yet if we acknowledged no authority but only strength, then every action is produced by whatever motivating element was strongest at the time, so they would be no reason to think that there was anything wrong with that motivation. (Although the example that Butler takes is of moral approval, I think it is clear that he must mean "finding one thing all-things-considered better than another". This is clear because he believes that self-love is a superior principle as well as conscience. If we didn't believe that there were superior principles, then we would have to assessing courses of action, on the basis of the reasons for and against those actions, altogether; we would just do whatever we felt most inclined to do at the moment; we would never have to engage in practical reasoning at all.)

But which principles have greater authority? Butler says that both self-love (400) and conscience (401) are superior principles.

Our particular passions just pursue some particular external object without thinking of the effects which that pursuit will have on the pursuit of other desires (400). Hence two appetites may well conflict: surely there can sometimes be a better and a worse way of resolving that conflict, and acting on the one that happens to be the strongest need not hit it.

First, self-love is superior to the particular passions because it surveys them and reflects on them: it is also supported by them, because it aims at the satisfaction of as many of them as possible, over one's whole life: it takes a larger view and doesn't just focus on the particular object. It aims to correct the deficiencies and tensions among our particular passions, while directly aiming at one of the main things which those passions themselves are adapted to promote. Why would this principle of self-love be implanted within us, if its purpose was not to regulate the satisfaction of the particular passions? So self-love ought to make a difference to which particular passions we actually act on: it ought to take precedence over them in any case of conflict.

What of conscience? It surveys not only the particular passions but also self-love (this is because it aims at promoting both public and private good in the right, virtuous proportion): it is the highest-order principle; it reflects on all the other principles.

Hence conscience, by its very nature, claims superiority. See Sermon II, 399 and 402. Should we heed this claim of superiority? Yes, it is part of out human nature: that is, we can already see that the deepest tendency even of our particular passions is towards virtue.

This is where his argument appeals to the point that he made in Sermon I, that it is the natural purpose of all our particular passions to lead us towards virtue. This point is also argued at greater length throughout the Sermons. For example, he argues that our natural tendency to talkativeness serves two purposes: first, 'that we might communicate our thoughts to each other, in order to carry on the affairs of the world; for business, and for our improvement in knowledge and learning'; and second, 'to please and be entertaining to each other in conversation. This .... unites men closer in alliances and friendships; gives us a fellow-feeling of the prosperity and unhappiness of each other; and is in several respects serviceable to virtue, and to promote good behaviour in the world' (IV, 7). Compassion has as its 'final causes .... to prevent and relieve misery' (V, 3). The final cause of our tendency to 'sudden anger' is 'self-defence' (VIII, 6); while 'deliberate' or 'settled resentment ... is to be considered as a weapon, put into our hands by nature, against injury, injustice and cruelty' (VIII, 8). In general, he says, 'every one of our passions and affections hath its natural stint and bound' (XI, 9: 417 in Raphael); within these natural bounds, each passion promotes the cause of virtue and happiness.

Moreover, because this is the general tendency of our particular passions, we can also see that there will never be a clear case of a conflict between conscience and self-love. See Preface, reply to Shaftesbury, 380. He puts this point in a more extreme way at the end of Sermon XI, 423 - though it seem that at that point he is assuming the views of his opponents, for the sake of argument.


These are Butler's main ideas: his claim that we are by nature adapted to virtue; his refutation of psychological hedonism and egoism; his notion of naturally superior principles; and his idea that conscience is naturally superior to all other elements in the soul - i.e. that conscience is naturally supreme. The idea of the supremacy of conscience is the crowning element in Butler's theory: it is the most important idea that his Sermons are aiming to establish. As I interpreted him, all the other elements were important parts of his defence of the idea of natural supremacy of conscience. He supports the idea that we are adapted to virtue by first distinguishing the motivating elements in the soul into three groups - the particular passions, reasonable self-love, and conscience - and arguing that, even the only one of these three that is directly concerned with approving or disapproving actions and affections as virtuous or vicious, the natural tendency of the whole mind is to lead us to a life of virtue. So it is natural to conclude, he thinks, that we are adapted to virtue: it is the overall purpose of our nature to be virtuous. Part of arguing for this view is to get at the right conception of what the particular passions and self-love really aim at: hence it is very important for Butler to argue against the view that all of our desires are reducible to self-love - the desire for our own greatest happiness. (If that were the case, Butler would not be able to argue so easily that we are adapted to virtue.) Hence Butler's conception of the particular passions as aiming simply at external objects, and not at the pleasure that arises from them; while self-love surveys all the particular passions and tries to make them as harmonious as possible by working out how to satisfy as many of them as possible.

One principle is superior to another if and only if, all things considered, it is better to follow the first rather than the second if they conflict. We have to acknowledge that there are superior principles if we are not to opt out of practical reasoning all together. Butler explains this idea of superior principles by means of his analogy with the distinction between power and authority: power may determine who actually gets obeyed, but authority is a matter of who ought to be obeyed, whom we are "supposed" to obey. Butler assumes that this idea, of whom we are "supposed" to obey, can be interpreted as the idea of what we designed by God to obey. One principle will be superior to another if it is part of the very reason why nature gave us those principles that we should obey one rather than the other if they conflict. The two superior principles are self-love and conscience: see Sermon III, 409.

Why would Nature have given us the principle of self-love if not to determine which of our particular passions to act, so as to ensure the satisfaction of the greatest number of our particular passions overall? A similar sort of argument is made about conscience. Conscience is the highest-order faculty: it surveys all the others, including self-love, and approves and disapproves of them, thereby aiming to determine which of the other principles we end up acting on. It thus claims superiority to all the rest. This claim to superiority is legitimate, because we can see that it is aiming at the fundamental natural purpose of all the other principles and affections. To support this claim Butler argues again that our particular passions are designed to lead us to virtue; and claims that in consequence there are practically never any clear conflicts between self-love and conscience.

Why does Butler say that there are no clear conflicts? He seems to think that what is in your long-term interest is a complex and debatable question, involving a baffling consideration of the long-term consequences. By contrast, he seems to think that what conscience dictates is always pretty clear and obvious. Here, like most of the writers of this period, he is far too confident that we all know what virtue requires: see 405. The only sources of moral error that he acknowledges are bad moral theory; and self-deception, which (in a Sermon that isn't reprinted in Raphael), he interprets as the kind of partiality which prevents us from seeing that a rule that we apply to others also applies to some course of action that we are engaged upon ourselves. This is why Butler isn't primarily concerned with explaining what is right, but just with telling us why we should do what is right.