Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel

by Joseph Butler
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 749

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.

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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 guide we are given by God, our creator and governor. Moreover, it is the reasonable thing to do because self-love and living according to our consciences coincide. That is, there is rarely a conflict between self-interest and morality (if we truly understand what genuine happiness is, we will see this), and when an exception rarely does occur, we can know that justice will prevail in the end, because God ultimately will set things right.

From this theoretical framework, in the subsequent sermons Butler examines several practical moral and religious topics. Butler relates compassion to the social aspect of human nature and conceives of it as aimed at reducing or relieving the suffering of others. Since human beings are imperfect, reason alone does not motivate us to act. We need affection and emotion to motivate us as well. While compassion is directed at reducing other people’s suffering, we ourselves are satisfied when we are compassionate. Moreover, Butler notes that we are better able to prevent misery in others than we are to promote their positive happiness, and so we should seek to do the former. He also draws from these observations the lesson that our aim in life should be to keep free from pain and sorrow, rather than seeking pleasure. It is easier to keep free from pain than obtain pleasure (by which he means deep and authentic happiness), given our human nature.

Butler also examines the concept of self-deceit. He takes self-deceit to be the characteristic of being too fond of ourselves and controlled by some passion or desire. This self-preference can influence our judgment of others as well as of ourselves. The danger of self-deceit is that it has a corrupting effect on conscience. Butler therefore offers some advice related to self-deceit. If we have never been aware of self-deceit operating in our lives, then we have probably been misled by it. Butler believes that we should assume that we possess this trait to some degree, unless and until we find good reason to believe otherwise after extensive self-reflection. If one wants to know how self-deceit operates in one’s life, Butler recommends that one think about what one’s enemy would pick out as a character flaw. If one can identify the character flaw that an enemy could most easily convince others one possesses, one can gain insight into the real state of one’s moral character, previously veiled by self-deceit. The foregoing serves to illustrate how Butler seeks to connect the theoretical aspects of his thought about human nature with the practical, everyday lives of human beings.

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