Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel

by Joseph Butler
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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...

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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

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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 they tend to move spontaneously toward particular goals. Although the goal is sometimes sought deliberately, it is not chosen deliberately. Finally, Butler says, affections have external objects such as eating food, kicking someone, or building a house—objects external in the sense that they are not states of the agent. That is, for instance, the object of hunger is the consumption of food, not the relief of a feeling of discomfort or the production of a pleasant sensation. Note that when Butler speaks of hunger he is not speaking of a state of metabolism or of a feeling in the stomach but of a desire for something, the desire for food.

Butler’s point is that the crudest form of psychological egoism is false, for in many, if not most, cases, when people desire something, they do not have in mind their own welfare. If an angry person springs up and attacks a persecutor, the attacker would not ordinarily be thinking that this is the appropriate action to maximize happiness. If asked what he or she wanted, the angry person might speak of a wish to get even, to save face, or to kick the other person; these are the things the individual intends to accomplish.

Of course, Butler agrees, many of our impulsive or passionate acts do bring pleasure to ourselves or to others, whether we had this result in mind or not. Indeed, affections can be classified according to whether they promote the private or the public good. Thus, the desire for food does tend to keep one alive, even though this is not usually what one has in mind; and the desire for esteem does lead one to treat others considerately, even though the object of one’s desire is not their welfare. According to Butler, intelligent agents will recognize these tendencies of the affections to augment either their own or others’ general welfare, come to value these two wider possibilities as ends in themselves (if they do not already), and hence be led to satisfy their affections as a means to the achievement of these ends. Emerging from this heterogeneous group of affections are two more general and comprehensive desires: the desire to maximize our own happiness and the desire to maximize that of others. These two desires are present in every normal person.


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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 follows the meal. Though an affection and self-love may seek the same thing, the one seeks it for itself, whereas the other seeks it insofar as its pursuit and attainment bring pleasure to the pursuer. Self-love can attain its own end only by letting selected affections pass into action.

Butler suggests that the intimate relationship between self-love and the satisfaction of affections has led some noted egoists, such as Thomas Hobbes, into the error of identifying the particular affections with the principle of self-love or of regarding them as just so many expressions of it. However, the fact that our actions do lead to enjoyment, which is exploited by self-love, does not indicate that the only thing we seek is such enjoyment or that because such enjoyments occur we must have been seeking them. Indeed, if we did not seek something other than pleasure, we would experience no pleasure. The conclusion that we must be egoists does not follow from the fact that all affections belong to the self, from the fact that we never act unless we have such affections, or from the fact that all satisfied affections bring pleasure to the self.

However, there is still room for a subtler egoism, for the egoist might admit that the object of an affection is not the welfare of the agent but insist that insofar as the affections are under the direction of self-love, the overriding consideration is always one’s own welfare. Insofar as one acts reasonably, one acts prudently. This type of egoism can be refuted only if there are actions that are not subsumed under the principle of self-love or subsumed under it alone.


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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 terms of need? If you examine your own behavior, will you not find it ridiculous to try to explain your benevolent behavior entirely in terms of your love of power, of being dominant, or of hoped-for reciprocation? Nor will it do to reply that acting benevolently gives you pleasure. First, this does not mean you sought that pleasure, and second, the action would not have given you pleasure unless you had a concern for the other person. In this way, Butler answers the more sophisticated egoist.

Although Butler clearly maintains that there is genuinely benevolent action that cannot be explained away, he is not as clear as he might be about the status of benevolence. There are some passages in which benevolence is spoken of as an affection, but there are many others in which it is spoken of as a rational principle. It is true that benevolence is not as strong a motive as self-love, and it is also true that the scope of its application is more restricted, for whereas every affection has consequences that affect the agent, not every affection has consequences that affect others. Most of the passages in which Butler speaks of benevolence as an affection occur when he is making these contrasts, and consequently they seem designed to emphasize the contrasts rather than to express his full view about benevolence. In view of the numerous passages in which benevolence is spoken of as a principle, it seems reasonable to conclude that Butler was not being inconsistent, that he meant that insofar as benevolence transcends spontaneous compassion, it becomes a principle functioning as a guide and having a relationship, like that of self-love, to a multitude of affections. Because it is psychologically weaker, it needs to be fostered and cultivated in a manner in which self-love does not, but it has a similar function and enjoys the same sort of authority over the affections.

Because these principles are coequal in authority, one might expect conflicts in interest between them, but Butler believes that if self-love is really enlightened, the course of action it prescribes will coincide with that of benevolence. No one who is callous to one’s fellows will be really happy, not only because this involves thwarting natural affections of sympathy and the like but also because such behavior invites a similar reaction on the part of those so treated. Furthermore, even though it should appear that the selfish will prosper more on this earth than the benevolent, one should not overlook the fact that there is an afterlife in which God will at least compensate for the earthly imbalance. Once again, because two different motives suggest the same actions, we must be wary of falling into the error of identifying them or repudiating one of them. Butler sometimes leaves himself open to misunderstanding on this point when he writes that we are never required to act against our own self-interest. However, when he said this he was pointing out to his worldly and sophisticated congregation that benevolent action does not have consequences that are incompatible with those pursued by self-love. He was not suggesting that benevolence should be placed under the dominance of self-love but rather that if there is a conflict, we had better check to see if we really have discovered what is to our self-interest, for the conflict provides prima facie evidence that we have not.


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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 unpraiseworthy quite apart from any tendency they might have to further or hinder the public welfare. Thus, for instance, conscience reveals the baseness of treachery and the meanness of a small mind as well as the praiseworthiness of fidelity, honor, and justice. Conscience does not proceed by reasoning, nor does it seek to justify its deliverances in terms of some underlying principle; it simply pronounces on specific matters and does so with authority. It functions in all “plain honest men” as the vice-regent of God, cutting in a direct and simple manner through the moral perplexities of their daily lives.

Butler believed not only that there is no conflict between conscience and benevolence but also that there is none between conscience and self-love. There cannot be if we are clear about what is to our self-interest. After all, God intends that we should be happy, and conscience is the faculty he has given us to ensure that we do as he intends. Consequently, as Butler saw it, human nature exhibits a complexly structured system of motives, resting on the affections that are controlled by the principles of self-love and benevolence and capped by the faculty of conscience that has authority over all. When developed as God intended it should be, it is a nature in which these various factors supplement and complement one another to produce an integrated and harmoniously organized life.

Butler did not develop his views fully, but he traced out in bold outline a view that embodies the classic refutation of psychological egoism, ancient or modern. Butler is one of the most important moral philosophers of the eighteenth century.


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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.

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