Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel Summary

Joseph Butler


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Joseph Butler approached ethics through observing and considering the actual nature we have as human beings. For him, human nature is a teleological system that is made up of appetites, affections, passions, the principle of reflection, and their relationships to one another. A teleological system is one that has a purpose at which it aims, or is aimed. For example, a watch is a teleological system that is aimed at measuring time. All of the different parts of a watch function together to fulfill the purpose of the watch. Similarly, Butler viewed human beings as entities with a purpose or aim. For him, human nature is suited for a life of moral virtue as a watch is suited for measuring time.

Butler expands on these ideas in the first three sermons. Human nature is such that we are to do good to others and ourselves. We should exercise benevolence to others for the good of society and self-love for our own benefit. Fortunately, God has given us an internal guide for life, a conscience, which guides us to act on both principles: self-love and benevolence. We are satisfied in doing good for ourselves, but we are also satisfied in helping others, because of our constitution. For Butler, following our nature is not following whatever passion or impulse is the strongest at any given time. Rather, Butler holds that following our nature as human beings involves following the conscience that humans possess, which sometimes approves and at other times condemns our actions. It is this principle of reflection, or conscience—which passes judgment on us and our actions—that is superior and is a reasonable form of self-love.

To those who would ask why we should attend to and follow the dictates of conscience, Butler’s response is that we are obligated to obey it because it is the law of our own nature, and it is the...

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