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Butler, Joseph (1692–1752)


Though he has not left us a complete philosophical system, Joseph Butler produced a moral philosophy that is still held in the highest esteem, and a philosophical theology of considerable long-term value. Butler was the eighth child of a prosperous draper. His father enrolled him in a dissenting academy, but he decided to join the established church and entered Oriel College, Oxford, in 1714. While still at school he had engaged in a philosophical correspondence with Samuel Clarke and at Oxford was befriended by Edward Talbot, son of the Bishop of Salisbury. Clarke and Talbot's father were instrumental in Butler's being appointed, after graduation, as Preacher at the Chapel of the Rolls. A selection of his sermons there was published in 1726 under the title Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel. In 1729 a second edition appeared, with an important new preface. Bishop Talbot's patronage continued with Butler's entering the living of Haughton, and later that of Stanhope, in Talbot's later diocese of Durham. While at Stanhope Butler wrote his other major work, of which the full title is The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature. This appeared in 1736, and appeared in a second edition in the same year. By then Butler had entered royal circles. His school friend Robert Secker had drawn him to the attention of Queen Caroline, who appointed him Clerk of the Closet in 1736, conversed with him frequently on theological and philosophical matters, and received the sacrament from him on her deathbed in 1737. The king promised her that he would advance Butler and made him Bishop of Bristol in 1738. There is an unsubstantiated story that he was offered the see of Canterbury in 1747 and declined it. In 1751 he became Bishop of Durham but was not destined to preside there for long because his health rapidly declined. He died in 1752, and was buried in Bristol. He never married.

Butler's Aims and Methods

Butler's personal history shows that he was, in C. D. Broad's words, "a thoroughly unworldly man whom the world treated very well." His integrity and intellectual prowess were widely recognized, and the patronage he received merely ensured that he did not suffer for them. His writings are often hard reading (and the sermons must often have been hard listening), not because they are unclear but because Butler aims at clarity exclusively and often sacrifices elegance in pursuit of it.

Butler is a Christian priest who seeks his readers' spiritual welfare. So, although his theoretical skills are considerable, they are wholly subordinated to his practical concern for the exercise of virtue and the proper consideration of the claims of religion. In urging these, however, he does not appeal to revelation. Nor does he use the a priori arguments in ethics and theology employed by Clarke, although he says he agrees with these. Butler's own methods are empirical ones. His ethical arguments are designed to show that the exercise of virtue is the expression of our true human nature and that vice violates it. His religious apologetic is based on the same appeal to probability that he thinks necessary for prudent conduct in everyday life. His famous attacks on selfish and hedonistic theories of human nature are designed to remove what he sees as the morally dangerous influence of faulty philosophy and are not intellectual explorations undertaken for their own sake.


In the Rolls Sermons, Butler seeks to encourage his worldly-wise hearers to practice virtue by arguing that to do so is to live in accordance with our nature. Virtue is the natural form of life for us, and vice is unnatural. He assumes, as his hearers would also have done, at least nominally, that the motives and capacities in our nature are placed there by God for our good, and he maintains that a realistic attention to those motives and capacities will show that living virtuously represents their natural exercise.

His argument has two main stages. The first stage is an account of the components of human nature, and the second is a claim about its structure and about the implications of that structure for our conduct. He argues that our nature is misrepresented by those (particularly Hobbes) who think that we are always selfish and by those who hold that we are always motivated by the desire for pleasure. If either of these theories were true, genuinely virtuous action would be impossible. Butler holds instead that our nature contains within it several distinct principles. There are, first, the "particular passions, appetites, and affections" such as the desires for food or possessions, or the emotions like joy or anger. There is, next, the "general affection of self-love," which is the desire for one's own long-term interest or happiness (which Butler interprets as the proper satisfaction or expression of one's own particular passions). It is self-love that causes us to restrain our present appetites in the interest of our long-term health, for example; and Butler clearly thinks of it as requiring rational calculation. Thirdly, there is the "natural principle" of benevolence. Butler uses this term as a general name to include all those desires we have for the good of others. (Scholars disagree over whether he also thinks of it as a rational principle in the same way that self-love is.) He identifies it with the love of one's neighbor.

Finally, and most important, our nature includes conscience. He describes this as "a principle of reflection in men, by which they distinguish between, approve and disapprove their own actions." Its judgments pronounce actions and motives to be "in themselves just, right, good" or "evil, wrong, unjust," and when it makes such judgments it "magisterially exerts itself." So conscience judges actions and motives in an intuitive manner and judges them as being of certain kinds, not as having good or bad consequences.

In defending his account of the components of our nature, Butler appeals primarily to our common experience. He also produces classic arguments against Hobbesian and other theories that say our motives are always selfish or are always directed toward pleasure. Experience seems to show us many examples of actions done from benevolence, and only a priori commitment to theory can incline us to doubt that our motives are often as they seem. Furthermore, self-love is only the motive for some actions and not for all. And although we do indeed gain pleasure from the successful pursuit of objects we desire, it is these objects themselves, and not the pleasure we derive from them, that we are pursuing.

But our nature is not merely one in which all these principles are to be found. It is one in which they form a system or constitution in which there is a built-in order of superiority and subordination. When we act in accordance with this order, we act naturally and so virtuously; when we violate it, we act unnaturally and so viciously. Butler introduces this claim with reference to the natural superiority of self-love to particular desires. If an animal enters a baited trap in pursuit of food, it acts naturally because it follows the desire that is the strongest. But if a human knowingly satisfies a desire at the expense of his or her long-term good, then he or she acts unnaturally by ignoring the proper superiority of self-love to the ruinous desire. There is, therefore, a crucial distinction to be made in human nature between the strength of some motivating principle and its authority. In prudent behavior they coincide; in imprudent behaviour they clash.

Butler's key ethical doctrine is that of the natural supremacy not of self-love but of conscience. To live virtuously is to do what conscience approves and avoid what it disapproves. This does not mean that Butler identifies virtue with acting from duty (or conscientiousness); for conscience may well add its approval to actions that are already motivated by desire or by self-love. But when we are inclined to do something conscience rejects, or fail to desire what it enjoins, it may well have to supply its own motivating influence.

Butler thinks we usually have no difficulty in identifying right actions. He also thinks that these very largely coincide with the promptings of benevolence. But in the "Dissertation on Virtue" appended to the Analogy, he firmly rejects the utilitarian suggestion that virtue and benevolence can be identified. We lack the detailed knowledge of consequences for this to be true, so virtue consists rather in doing those acts that conscience approvesthat is, acts of the right kind. That such acts will lead to the general good must be left to providence. He also thinks that providence must ensure that following conscience will not prove to be at odds with the demands of self-love and that benevolence (or love of neighbor) and self-love will also prove, in the end, to coincide.

Butler's case for the supremacy of conscience is therefore based on four related claims: that conscience has a natural authority, that is manifest in the way it makes its judgments; that to disregard it is to behave unnaturally; and that doing what conscience tells us is in the end for our good, even though we may not immediately discern this. These arguments are designed to persuade those who feel they know well enough what conscience tells them to do, but are still inclined to ask whether this is a compelling reason to do it. He tells them that if they recognized the place conscience has in their natures, they would see that it is.

The Rolls Sermons are notable for Butler's shrewdness, theoretical acumen, and wise moral psychology. They contain interesting and durable treatments of themes such as compassion, resentment, forgiveness, and self-deception.

Philosophical Theology

Butler's ethical sermons are still widely read, and their arguments have not dated. His religious apologetic has fared less well, even though it was better known in the century after his death. The reason for its present lack of influence is the fact that the debates to which it was intended to be a contribution have long since ceased. Butler's intent in the Analogy of Religion was to respond to the attacks on Christian orthodoxy made by the Deists. The Deists believed that the rational order of the cosmos revealed by science shows that our world had a creator, but they rejected Christian claims to revelation, maintaining that we only have need of "natural religion"that is, the moral guidance of conscience and a vague general reverence for God. A deity who is rational in the way the design in nature shows God to be would have no need of special revelation, miracle, or priest craft to instruct us. Butler sees it as his task to restore the traditional connection between belief in God and openness to revelation in the face of this criticism.

Butler wants to encourage his readers, whom he assumes accept the reality of God, to pay close attention to the claims of Christianity and not dismiss them. He thinks that these claims have strong evidence in their favor; but his aim in the Analogy is less to show this than to persuade those who doubt it that they would still be prudent to examine them with care. He repeatedly stresses the importance of the claims that Christianity makes and the rashness of disregarding them. Probability, he tells us famously, is the guide of life. This assertion, though it is not accompanied by any philosophical analysis of the concept of probability, has two implications in Butler's thought. First, just as we have, in daily life, to base decisions on likelihoods rather than certainties, so in religious matters we must recognize our intellectual limitations and base our faith on what experience and reflection teach us is likely to be true rather than demand an unattainable certainty. Second, just as in life we often have to base decisions on the fact that there is a small chance of events that it would be foolish not to be prepared for, so in religious matters we should take the claims of revealed religion seriously as along as they have some degree of probability, even if it is a very modest one.

Butler opens the first part of the Analogy, on natural religion, with a case for a future life, a case that makes no appeal to providence. The key argument that he uses rests on a distinction between a person's possession of powers and the possession of means for their exercise. Although physical death clearly removes all sign of the capacity to exercise our powers, we cannot assume that it destroys those powers themselves; just as there are many examples in nature of radical transformation in the history of living creatures, so we can reasonably expect the continuance of human powers hereafter. (In a well-known appendix to the Analogy, "Of Personal Identity," he further argues that our consciousness reveals to us that we are identical beings in the "strict and philosophical" sensethat is, fundamentally unchanging spiritual substances.)

In the remainder of Part I, Butler draws an analogy between the early and mature stages of human life on the one hand and the present life and the future life taken together on the other. He argues that we can discern clear signs that God teaches us the value of prudent and moral behavior in the early years of life in order to equip us to make good choices in our adult years and that we can reasonably infer that the exercise of virtue in the present life should be viewed as a training that fits us to enter the next. We are, he says, in a state of moral probationa concept that partially anticipates John Hick's "soul-making" theodicy of the mid-twentieth century. God's government of the world is a "scheme imperfectly comprehended"; our ignorance of it, which Butler repeatedly emphasizes, is nevertheless only partial.

Part II defends revealed religion against deist criticisms. There should be no general presumption against miracles, because occasional divine violations of natural law might still be manifestations of "general laws of wisdom" and thus teach us, even though we could not predict them; and even though biblical prophecies may not have involved foresight on the part of their writers, if one thinks of God as the ultimate author of the book in which they are recorded, they can still reveal a divine purpose. Butler's basic defense, however, is that the recognition of our limitations should deter us from supposing that we know enough of God's purposes to dismiss the claims of revelation without careful study and that the overwhelming importance of Christian claims, if they are true, makes it frivolous and imprudent not to consider them with care, even if their probability may not at first seem high. He insists that with our limitations we should not expect more certainty in religious matters than we do in comparable secular ones, where our knowledge is also often merely partiala form of argument that anticipates later demands by Christian apologists for philosophers to accord intellectual parity to the claims of religion. He also tells us that the claims of Christianity should be considered as a whole rather than piecemeal and that the case for its acceptance must be a cumulative one.

Butler's theology suffers in retrospect because Hume has made us question whether we can properly draw the analogy between this life and another on which the arguments of Part I of the Analogy depend, because only one of the terms of this analogy has been an object of experience. It has also seemed dated because the assumption of divine government that Butler and the Deists shared are no longer current. But many features of his reasoning can be detached from these two handicaps. His emphasis on our intellectual limitations, his doctrine of probation, and his insistence that the case for Christianity is a cumulative and probable on, all have present-day counterparts, and his detailed defenses of revealed religion are easily detachable from their contexts.

See also Clarke, Samuel; Conscience; Deism; Egoism and Altruism; Ethical Egoism; Ethics, History of; Evil; Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; Moral Motivation; Revelation; Self-Interest.


There is no complete edition of Butler's works in print at present. The best available is The Works of Joseph Butler, edited by J. H. Bernard, 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1900. Next best is The Works of Bishop Butler, edited by W. E. Gladstone, 2 vols., Oxford, 1897. (Gladstone breaks up Butler's paragraphs, which Bernard numbers but leaves intact; and Bernard's notes are often helpful.) Butler, Joseph, Fifteen Sermons and Dissertation upon the Nature of Virtue, edited by T. A. Roberts, London: S.P.C.K., 1970, is a good recent edition of the Rolls Sermons. The most accessible reprint of the sermons it contains, and of the Dissertation, is Five Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel and a Dissertation upon the Nature of Virtue, edited by Stephen L. Darwall, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983. There is no extant edition of the Analogy of Religion, although libraries and bookstores often have nineteenth-century reprints of it because it was required reading for Anglican ordinands for many years. As of this writing, a new edition of Butler's sermons is expected from Oxford University Press (U.K.) in 2006, edited by David McNaughton.

There are two general books about Butler and his times that are valuable: W. A. Spooner, Bishop Butler, London: Methuen, 1901; and Ernest Campbell Mossner, Bishop Butler and the Age of Reason, New York: B. Blom, 1971. A recent collection that contains fine essays on all aspects of Butler's life and work is Christopher Cunliffe, ed., Joseph Butler's Moral and Religious Thought: Tercentenary Essays, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. Terence Penelhum, Butler, London: Routledge, 1985, covers his ethical teachings and attempts to rescue his philosophical theology from undeserved neglect. Austin Duncan-Jones, Butler's Moral Philosophy, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1952, is a high-quality treatment of the ethics.

There are many good essays and chapters about Butler. On the ethics, the best beginning is Chapter 3 of C. D. Broad's Five Types of Ethical Theory, London: Routledge, 1930. A severe critique of Butler that argues his doctine of the naturalness of virtue leads to incoherence is Nicholas L. Sturgeon, "Nature and Conscience in Butler's Ethics," Philosophical Review 85 (1976), 316356. On this and the issue of the supremacy of conscience, see Stephen Darwall, "Conscience as Self-Authorizing in Butler's Ethics" in Cunliffe (1992), 209242. The notion of the naturalness of virtue is explored with originality in Alan Millar, "Butler in God and Human Nature" in Cunliffe, 293315. Another excellent essay is Jerome Schneewind, "The Divine Corporation and the History of Ethics," in Philosophy in History, edited by R. Rorty, J. B. Schneewind, and Q. Skinner, 173192, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

For a long time the only good treatment of Butler's theology was C. D. Broad, "Bishop Butler as Theologian," in C. D. Broad, Religion, Philosophy, and Psychical Research, London: Routledge, 1953, 202219. The situation improved with Anders Jeffner's Butler and Hume on Religion, Stockholm: Diakonistyrelsens Bokforlag, 1966. Penelhum, Butler (above), carries the debate further. See also especially the essays by David Brown ("Butler and Deism," 728), Basil Mitchell ("Butler as a Christian Apologist," 9771116), and T. A. Roberts ("Butler and Immortality," 169188) in Cunliffe. The importance of Butler's thinking as a stimulus to Hume is explored in Paul Russell, "Butler's 'Future State' and Hume's 'Guide of Life,'" Journal of the History of Philosophy 42 (2004): 425448. It is clear that Section 11 of Hume's Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, "Of a Particular Providence and Of a Future State," is for the most part an attempt to undercut the use of analogical reasoning found in Butler's Analogy. John Hick's "soul-making" theodicy is to be found in his Evil and the God of Love, London: Macmillan, 1966.

The best place to begin study of Butler's religious thought, however, is Sermon 15 of the Rolls Sermons, "Of the Ignorance of Man," which prefigures much of the prudential apologetic that the Analogy develops in detail.

Terence Penelhum (2005)

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