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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


(1692 — 1752)



Joseph Butler was born in Wantage, Berkshire. His father was a draper by trade and a Presbyterian in religion. Butler was educated at King Alfred's School in Wantage, at dissenting academies in Gloucester and Tewkesbury, and then at Oriel College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1718. Having converted to Anglicanism before entering Oxford, he was ordained priest and held a variety of ecclesiastical offices, eventually to be appointed Bishop of Bristol (1738) and then of Durham (1751). He died in Bath.



[1] [See Sermons, especially Preface, III, and XI; and Dissertation II.] Butler does not agree with the view that benevolence is the sole or even primary virtue. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, we cannot be sure that the intended consequences of our actions will turn out to contribute to the common good (and may even lead to injustice). Secondly, it ignores the fact that self-love is as natural to man as altruistic tendencies. However, he distinguishes between a general and natural concern for one's own happiness and an egoistic search for, say, sensual gratification. But while the latter, which Butler calls 'immoderate' or 'supposed' self-love, conflicts with benevolence, the former need not; one's feelings of concern for others may well themselves contribute to one's own happiness. He often calls this 'reasonable' or 'cool' self-love [a]. Moreover he argues that it is natural for such moderate self-love to prevail over our passions. Happiness arising from actions performed in the light of reasonable self-love is therefore entirely appropriate to our nature. However, the term human 'nature' is ambiguous. It can refer to some invariable principle common to all men, or to a man's strongest passion. But in ethics, Butler says, we must take account of the type and degree of intensity of our passions or affections; and he proposes a hierarchy of principles in man, at the apex of which is conscience, which he understands to be the "moral approving and disapproving faculty" [see Dissertation I] and as including both the heart (feeling) and the understanding — it is not just a moral sense. Conscience is the source of moral obligation; and to be virtuous is to recognise and act 'proportionately' on its authority [b]. We shall then be acting in accordance with our (moral) nature. This is linked to a view of personal identity as directly intuitable and indefinable. Butler rejects the view that consciousness should be taken as the criterion. Rather consciousness presupposes personal identity and hence individual responsibility for actions [Diss. I, 3-4] [c]. Butler also stresses that the principles or rules of action as discerned by conscience should take no account of the actual consequences of our actions (which are not easily predictable), only of consequences as included in our intentions [d]. Nevertheless, we find that following the dictates of conscience, without regard to any 'reward', usually leads to happiness. And even when self-love does not coincide with virtue or self-interest with duty we can be confident that divine providence will guarantee that the virtuous man will in the long run attain complete happiness [e]. In practice, Butler says, the ordinary man does not find it necessary to engage in detailed analysis of human nature or to deduce rules of conduct; for he has a kind of direct insight into the universal or objective rightness or wrongness of a given action. The goodness or badness of actions is not to be defined in terms of happiness or by the individual or any ruler [f]. It can be left to the moral philosopher to examine and make explicit the nature of conscience, the criteria for right action, the connections between self-interest and virtue, and so on.



Butler's moral philosophy is characterized by the primacy he accords to conscience and by his placing of the concepts of self-love and benevolence in the wider context of human nature as a whole. However, his ethics are inseparable from his Christian commitment; and his conviction that the following of one's own conscience will lead to happiness is grounded in his faith that the consequences are guaranteed by God. Perhaps the main problem (which also reflects his reliance on theology) is that, given his emphasis on conscience, the way it works and the standards it appeals to lack a detailed and critical treatment.



Butler: Fifteen Sermons (1726); Dissertations (1736): "On Personal Identity" and "Of the Nature of Virtue". See the edition of W. R. Matthews; or the selection in L. A. Selby-Bigge, British Moralists.


C. D. Broad, chapter on Butler in Five Types of Ethical Theory.

A. Duncan-Jones, Butler's Moral Philosophy.

T. Penelhum, Butler.






[1a] Benevolence not the primary virtue, but works together with 'reasonable' self-love; rejection of hedonism










[1a c]




[7c g]


[1b; cf. 1e] Obedience to authority; conscience (as feeling and understanding)






[1c] Personal identity intuitable but indefinable (consciousness not the criterion)    Locke [2h]


[1d; also 1a] Consequences in intentions as test of rules of action (but intentions not always realized)    Mill [3a]


[1e; cf. 1b] Following conscience without regard for 'rewards' but divine providence ensures happiness in long run






[1f] Goodness/ rightness of actions not to be defined (e.g., in terms of happiness or by any individual); we have direct insight into rightness or wrongness



[7a e]