Paley, William (1743–1805)

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William Paley was an English theologian and moral philosopher. His father, William, was vicar of Helpston, Northamptonshire, and a minor canon of Peterborough; he later became headmaster of Giggleswick grammar school, where the younger Paley was educated. Paley entered Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1759, where he studied mathematics and became a senior wrangler. After an interlude of school teaching, he was elected a fellow of his college in 1766 and was ordained a priest in the established church in 1767. He taught at Cambridge for nine years, leaving the university only on his marriage. He held successively a number of different offices in the church, rising to be the archdeacon of Carlisle. Paley was the author of three books, one on morals and two defending Christian belief, all of which were widely read and accepted as textbooks. As late as 1831, Charles Darwin, studying for his BA examination at Cambridge, had to "get up" Paley's A View of the Evidences of Christianity, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, and Natural Theology. The Moral and Political Philosophy contains Paley's famous satire on property, in which he describes the plight of a flock of pigeons in which private property is permitted. Although he immediately proceeds to list the advantages of a system of private property, his satire is savage ("the weakest perhaps, and worst pigeon of the flock" controls and wastes all the grain as he pleases), and Paley's friends are said to have assured him (correctly) that the publication of the passage would cost him a bishopric. It did earn him the nickname "Pigeon Paley."

Paley's The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (London, 1785) is a handbook on the duties and obligations of civil life rather than a philosophical treatise. The subtlety of the work may be gauged by its opening sentence: "Moral philosophy, Morality, Ethics, Casuistry, Natural Law, mean all the same thing; namely, that science which teaches men their duty and the reasons of it." Paley's definition of duty follows from his theological utilitarianism. The nature of the human frame implies that it is God's will for us to be happy in this life as well as in the next. Virtue is doing good to humankind, in obedience to the will of God and for the sake of everlasting happiness. Allegiance to God's will and a desire for everlasting happiness are sufficient grounds for moral obligation. Paley offers this account of moral obligation after finding that such obligation follows from the command of a superior, which is made persuasive by the prospect of a reward.

We may discover the will of God by consulting either Scripture or "the light of nature," both of which lead to the same conclusion. The will of God with regard to any action may be found by inquiring into its "tendency to promote or diminish the general happiness." We should carry out those actions that promote the general happiness and avoid those which diminish it. Promoting the general happiness requires paying attention to the general consequences of our actions. Paley offers a rule for assessing general consequences that resembles Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative: "The general consequence of any action may be estimated by asking what would be the consequence if the same sort of actions were generally permitted."

Paley believed that no special faculty is required to enable us to have moral knowledge. Thus he dismissed the views of those who have argued that morality requires either a moral sense, or an intuitive perception of right and wrong, or any other innate or instinctive capacity. All that is required for the foundation of morality is that each man has the wit to see that certain actions are beneficial to himself. Then the sentiment of approbation that naturally arises when these actions benefit him will continue to accompany his perception of these actions when they benefit someone else. Thus the custom of approving certain actions is begun, and children, who learn everything by imitating their elders, carry it on.

The bulk of the Principles is a detailed discussion of our duties to others, to ourselves, and to God. The final part is an outline of the elements of political knowledge. The wide acclaim accorded Paley's work is said to have stirred Jeremy Bentham to bring out his own version of the utilitarian doctrine in Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789).

Paley is the author of two theological works with the word evidence in their titles. The first, A View of the Evidences of Christianity (2 vols., London, 1794), is an essay in apologetics. The second, Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (London, 1802), is, as its title implies, an essay on natural theology. The books, which are similar in tone (they are both presented as judicious, lawyerlike statements of a case) doubtless owe much to Paley's lifelong interest in trials and the art of advocacy.

A View of the Evidences of Christianity demonstrates what can be said on behalf of Christian belief by an appeal to the behavior of the earliest Christians. Paley asks his readers to grant the possibility that God should have destined his human creation for a future state and that he should acquaint human beings with their destiny. If these possibilities are granted, then the need for miracles is clear, for they are the certification of revelation. The credibility of the Christian revelation hangs, therefore, on the issue of whether its miracles are genuine.

It is Paley's claim that the miracles on which Christianity is based (including those of the Old Testament) are genuine; and that indeed the only genuine miracles are those of Christianity (including its Jewish origins). Paley accepts David Hume's contention that the believability of Christianity rests ultimately on the reliability of the testimony of the earliest Christians, but he rejects Hume's thesis that no testimony for a miracle can ever be relied on because such testimony goes against universal experience. He argues that universal experience is too strong a test. By definition, miracles must be exceptions to universal experience or they would not be miracles. The real issue is whether there is a test for the reliability of witnesses who report an event that necessarily only they could have experienced. Paley finds such a test in our observation of whether the person who reports a miracle will cling to his report at the risk of his comfort, his happiness, and even his life. According to Paley, the original witnesses of the Christian miracles pass this test, since they labored and suffered "in attestation of the accounts which they delivered, and solely in consequence of their belief of these accounts."

Paley's hospitality for miracles is not quite so broad as we might at first think. The miraculous event must be in support of a revelation that is important to human happiness. Mere wonders are thus ruled out; and Paley also holds out against any event that may be resolved into a false perception and against any report that is guilty of exaggeration. But even after setting these limits, Paley maintains that a significant core of miracles stands as the guaranty of the Christian revelation. But the acceptance of these miracles must finally rest on the steadfastness of the original Christians; and the weakness of Paley's argument can be seen when we consider its close resemblance to a lawyer's defending his client by calling for the testimony of none but character witnesses. A View of the Evidences of Christianity had a huge success, and the bishops made Paley a prebendary of St. Pancras in the Cathedral of St. Paul's and the subdean of Lincoln.

In his Natural Theology, Paley appeals to a number of natural phenomena to establish the existence of a god. He states his argument at the very outset, and the remainder of the work is a train of examples illustrating that argument. The line of the argument runs as follows. If I found a stone while crossing a heath, and if I "were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever; nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be enquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch, as well as for the stone?" Paley answers, "For this reason, and for no other, viz. that when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose"that is, to tell the time. The care with which the parts have been made and the fineness of their adjustment can have only one implication, namely, that the watch must have had a maker who understood its construction and who designed it for the use for which it is fitted. The conclusion would not be weakened if we had never seen a watch being made or could not conceive of how to make one. Nor would it be weakened if there were parts of the watch whose purpose we could not understand, or even if we could not ascertain whether these parts had some effect in the general purpose of the watch. Nor should we be satisfied if we were told either that the existence of the watch is to be explained by a principle of order which exists in things and disposes the parts of the watch into their present form and situation, or that the watch is the result of the laws of "metallic nature." Finally, we should be surprised to hear that the mechanism of the watch is no proof of contrivance, but "only a motive to induce the mind to think so." In short, where there is mechanism, instrumentality, or contrivance, there must have been an intelligence who designed and made the machine, the instrument, the contrivance.

Paley then turns to nature with this argument in hand and, in his own words, applies it to adduce evidences of the existence of God. The bones and muscles of human beings, animals, and their insect equivalents, are of special interest to Paley, for the fitting together of joints and the adaptation of muscles are mechanisms that imply most forcefully a designing intelligence. The chemical side of physiology does not interest him much, for chemical action does not suggest the work of a divine mechanic. But Kiell's Anatomy is ransacked for appropriate examples, and the hare's backbone is picked apart at the end of the meat course to show the finesse of divine contrivance. The example that most interests Paley, and to which he often returns, is the eye, in its various parts and in the combination of these parts and their adaptation to function as an instrument of sight. As he remarks, he offers many examples of natural mechanism, but a single instance, the eye alone, should suffice to convince us of the existence of the divine intelligence that designed it.

The evidence drawn from nature, in addition to establishing the existence of God, permits us to infer certain of his characteristics. Because God has a mind, he must be a person. That there is a single intelligence at work is shown by the uniformity of the divine plan, as it is applied to all parts of the world. Finally, God's goodness is shown both by the fact that most contrivances are beneficial and by the fact that pleasure has been made an animal sensation.

At bottom, Paley's argument rests on his original decision to regard certain parts of nature as mechanisms or contrivances. If this decision is unquestioned, then his argument takes a long stride toward plausibility. Everything depends, however, on whether the human eye, for example, is analogous to a machine, and if so, how far this analogy takes us in the inference of other characteristics that the analogy might imply. These questions are raised and examined with devastating effect by Hume in the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, a work published a quarter of a century before Paley's Natural Theology. It is to be regretted that Paley does not meet Hume's arguments head-on in the Natural Theology, in the same way that he meets Hume squarely on the issue of the believability of miracles in A View of the Evidences of Christianity.

See also Bentham, Jeremy; Darwin, Charles Robert; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Miracles; Moral Sense; Revelation; Teleological Argument for the Existence of God; Utilitarianism.


works by paley

William Paley's collected writings are in Works, 8 vols. (London, 18051808). See also his Natural Theology, edited by Frederick Ferré (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963).

works on paley

Barker, Ernest. "Paley and his Political Philosophy." In Traditions of Civility. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1948.

Clarke, Martin. Paley: Evidences for the Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

LeMahieu, Dan. The Mind of William Paley. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976.

Nuovo, Victor. "Rethinking Paley." Synthese 91 (1992): 2951.

Oppy, Graham. "Paley's Argument for Design." Philo 5 (2002): 161173.

Schneewind, Jerome. Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Sweet, William. "Paley, Whately, and 'Enlightenment Evidentialism.'" International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 45 (1999): 143166.

Elmer Sprague (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)

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Paley, William (1743–1805)

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