Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel Analysis

Joseph Butler


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Joseph Butler was the most influential Anglican theologian of the eighteenth century. During his own time and for some time thereafter, his fame as a religious philosopher rested primarily on his very influential book The Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (1736), in which he argued for an enlightened theology designed to woo the Deists back into the fold of the church. However, his enduring philosophical reputation rests on his Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel and A Dissertation Upon the Nature of Virtue (appended to his 1736 work), in which he expounds his views about human nature and morality. Indeed, his refutation of psychological egoism, the doctrine that people are always motivated by their own self-interest, is a classic. Butler’s refutation and the analysis of human nature on which it is based are also dealt with in the preface to the Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, in Sermons 1, 2, 3, 11, and 12, and in the dissertation.

Human Nature

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Butler’s analysis rests on the thesis that an examination of human nature will reveal not only how people behave but also how they ought to behave. This thesis, in turn, rests on the assumptions that God wants people to act in certain ways, that he has given humans such a nature that they will naturally act in these ways if that nature is not corrupted, and therefore, that these ways can be discovered by examining God’s handiwork. Human nature has a hierarchical structure, with people’s many impulses, passions, and desires providing the base, the more general and reflective concerns for oneself and others providing the intermediate level, and the supreme faculty of conscience providing the apex. Consequently, human nature is expressed fully and properly not in a life dominated by impulse but in one in which these are exercised under the guidance of self-love and benevolence and in which the latter are controlled in turn by conscience.

Prior to the exercise of rational control, people are creatures of impulse, appetite, passion, and desire, acting in a multitude of ways. Without direction, they seem to be impelled by a host of specific desires to a host of specific and unrelated ends. These desires, or affections, seem to have several important characteristics that distinguish them from the higher principles. On their first appearance, and usually thereafter, they occur spontaneously, without premeditation or deliberation. These affections exist before they become subject to any control or regulation that the mature personality exercises over them, and...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

We do desire our own welfare, but this desire is not to be classified with the affections because it is not a passion or an appetite that arises spontaneously and drives impulsively toward a specific goal only to die away when it has been satisfied. Rather, it is a deliberately cultivated, long-enduring desire whose object is such that it cannot be satisfied once and for all at any given time or through the occurrence of any particular event. Furthermore, it functions not merely as a psychological drive but as a principle according to which we deliberately plan what ends to pursue to enhance our overall welfare. Finally, as experience shows, it is a very powerful motive that exerts a natural authority over the affections; the affections ought to be subordinated to it.

Nevertheless, while it is superior to affections, self-love cannot achieve its object unless they achieve theirs, for pleasures occur only as a by-product of the pursuit and satisfaction of affections. Although Butler is not specific, he has in mind such things as the pleasure we experience in pursuing our objective, the satisfaction we experience because we have attained it, and any other pleasures that may follow upon its attainment. For example, although one goes to the fields because of a desire to obtain food, one may enjoy the walk, enjoy digging in the earth, enjoy the satisfaction of gathering the number of potatoes intended for the meal, and enjoy the physical satisfaction that...

(The entire section is 522 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

There are such actions, Butler says, for most people do act part of the time in a genuinely benevolent fashion. He realized that he would have to defend this position against the most sophisticated egoist. Hobbes argued that what appears to be benevolence is really subtly disguised selfishness. Thus Hobbes claimed that when one feels pity for another person, one is really feeling thankful that one has escaped the calamity and fearful lest such a thing should happen to oneself in the future. One feels more “sympathetic” toward one’s unfortunate friend than one does toward strangers because one’s friend’s life is much more like one’s own, and therefore the probability of a similar calamity befalling one is higher.

Butler admits that such selfish reflections might occur, but he insists that they must be distinguished from genuine compassion. Hobbes’s view requires equating compassion with fear. If this view was correct, the more compassionate one is, the more fearful one would be, but this is simply not the case. In addition, the more compassionate a person is, the more people admire that individual; but the more fearful a person is, the less people admire him or her. Also, although it is true that the sight of friends in distress evokes greater compassion than the sight of others in distress, it is quite questionable whether the sight of friends in distress raises in us greater fear for ourselves than does the sight of others in distress. This is the classic refutation of Hobbes’s doctrine, a refutation that was accepted and polished by philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith.

Butler supports his position, not simply by criticizing his opponents but by drawing our attention to the way people behave. Human behavior will show, he says, that we do have a propensity to help each other, a propensity that cannot be confused with self-love. He offers examples to support this view. In some cases, an apparently benevolent action may be performed solely for the satisfaction it gives the agent or for the sense of power experienced. Yet, what of the person who was not in a position to help another but who nevertheless rejoiced when a third party assisted the second? Also, what of the person who assist one individual rather than another where the choice between the two could not be accounted for in terms of the sense of power? Are there not cases where the choice is made in...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

These two principles, self-love and benevolence, do not involve duty, but in humans there is a faculty whose function it is to point out what is right and wrong, the faculty of conscience. It should be noted that we must distinguish between action motivated by compassion or benevolence on the one hand and that motivated by a sense of duty on the other. Of course, benevolence and conscience may, and frequently do, suggest the same course of action, but the motivation is different. As the supreme faculty, conscience should stand above and coordinate the activities of the other principles. Its supremacy does not rest on its power, for impulse and self-love often override it, but it carries the mark of authority, as is evidenced by the feeling of wrongdoing or guilt we experience when we do not heed it. “Had it strength as it has right, had it power as it has manifest authority, it would absolutely govern the world.” The existence of conscience indicates in yet another way the inadequacy of the egoist’s position.

Conscience is not a criterion used in reaching decisions or planning courses of action, as are the rational principles of benevolence and self-love, but a faculty that makes pronouncements about what is right or wrong. It tells us what to do and what to approve of, but not why. Butler suggests that God might be a utilitarian, but he insists that we cannot be, for certain things are simply seen to be praiseworthy or...

(The entire section is 522 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Sources for Further Study

Butler, Joseph. Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature. 1853. Reprint. Edited by B. F. Tefft. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2003. An apologetic for the Christian faith, regarded by some as Butler’s masterpiece.

Butler, Joseph. Five Sermons. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983. Contains five of Butler’s sermons, three focusing on human nature and two on the love of our neighbor. Includes his “A Dissertation on the Nature of Virtue.”

Cunliffe, Christopher, ed. Joseph Butler’s Moral and Religious Thought. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. An excellent collection of essays on Joseph Butler’s philosophy; the central topics are illuminatingly treated.

Darwall, Stephen. The British Moralists and the Internal “Ought,” 1640-1740. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A contemporary philosopher’s philosophical and historical exploration of early modern moral philosophy in Britain, including the ideas of Butler.

Duncan-Jones, Austin. Butler’s Moral Philosophy. Hammondsworth, England: Penguin, 1952. This book-length discussion of Butler’s moral philosophy also contains the best short biographical sketch on the bishop.

Jeffner, Anders. Butler and Hume on Religion. Stockholm: Diakonistyrelsens Bokforlag, 1966. Excellent discussion of Butler’s philosophy of religion.

Mossner, E.C. Bishop Butler in the Age of Reason. New York: B. Blom, 1971. Places Butler’s view in the intellectual controversies of his time.

Penelhum, Terence. Butler. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985. A clear, careful, judicious discussion of Butler’s philosophy.

Waring, E. Graham, ed. Deism and Natural Religion. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1967. A generous selection from the English deists, whose beliefs Butler addressed in his works.