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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2301

Early Life

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Born into a Presbyterian family, Joseph Butler was the youngest of eight children. He switched from Presbyterian to Anglican sympathies and entered Oriel College, Oxford, in 1714. He was ordained deacon, then priest, in 1718, and from 1718 to 1776 he was a preacher at Rolls Chapel, where he delivered the sermons that were published in 1726 as Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel. In 1722, he added the rectory at Haughton-le-Skerne, and in 1726, he left this for Stanhope, County Durham. Here he wrote The Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature, which, assuming Deism to be right in its positive claims, argues for a continued journey to full Christian belief. The Deists accept belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God and in life after death. To this, Butler adds the claims of orthodox Christian belief. Appointed Clerk of Closet in 1736, he was in constant attendance to Queen Caroline until her death in late 1737. In 1738, he was given the see of Bristol, added the deanery of Saint Paul’s in 1740, and became Bishop of Durham in 1750. He died in 1752.

Life’s Work

Joseph Butler’s thought is systematically complex because he continually balances two themes—an enough theme and a not too much theme. People have, he contends, enough evidence to determine that there is a God whose existence explains the order and intelligibility of nature and the obligations of conscience and who has given them the Bible as his Revelation. However, there is not so much evidence that people are coerced by it to believe in God or to live in accord with God’s revealed will. Butler insists on both the reliability of people’s rational capacities to provide them with the knowledge they need in order to do their duty and save their souls and the limits of those capacities and the data available to them to leave people free to wander if they choose. More formally put, there are elements of both constrained rationalism and subdued skepticism in Butler’s thought. The key to understanding him is coming to see exactly what is balanced and how that balance is created.

Butler’s self-appointed philosophical task is to answer Deistic criticisms of orthodox Christianity. Deism is the view that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, morally good God who created the world and placed in human nature the capacities necessary for proving that God exists and determining God’s will, along with the capacity to live in accord with that will. It rejects any notion of historical revelation, partly because historical claims are inherently logically contingent and partly because historical revelation is inherently given to some particular people at some particular time and thus is not equally available to all people at all times. Claims of religious importance, Deists hold, are always universal. Such claims make no reference to particular persons, groups, events, or times. Butler sees no reason to accept this assumption.

One important theme in Butler’s works is that probability is the guide of life. By the word “probability,” Butler has in mind something much simpler than the full doctrine of probability later held by John Maynard Keynes and Rudolf Carnap. For Keynes and Carnap, for any two logically contingent propositions A and B, each has some objective probability given the other, even if their meanings indicate no mutual relevance. Thus “Sheep grow wool, not silk” and “Some ice cream is peppermint flavored” each has some specific probability given the other. Further, each has an intrinsic probability—a probability given necessary truths and nothing else. Even necessary truths and self-contradictions receive probabilities, 1 and 0, respectively, according to this scheme. Butler’s account has no such complexity. When Butler speaks of probability, he has in mind that we can possess evidence in favor of some proposition being true without that evidence being sufficient for us to be sure that it is true. Although Mary can see the dirt on the newly mopped floor, she cannot be sure that it was Tim who tracked it in, though she may rightly take the presence of the dirt as evidence that he did.

Butler’s theory of knowledge is implicit; he produced no systematic work in epistemology. He was strongly influenced by John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), which says that probability “is likeness to be true, the very notation of the word signifying such a proposition, for which there be arguments or proofs to make it pass, or be received as true.” We can see that the statement “Nothing can have incompatible properties” is necessarily true; we need nothing more. However, for the statement, “The chair has one leg shorter than the others,” we need evidence. Some evidence is better than other evidence; sitting in the chair and finding that it is unstable confirms our visual sense that one is leg is short. A close examination of the chair provides better evidence than a quick look at the chair from a distance. Different degrees of evidence yield different “likenesses to be true.” Relative to at least the simpler among necessary truths, we can have certainty—justified complete confidence that what we believe is true. Relative to most of the logically contingent propositions that we believe, we lack certainty. This is not an escapable feature of things; it is an inherent part of our condition.

Butler is correct; any time you believe any logically contingent proposition whose truth, unlike your belief that you exist, is not entailed by your believing it, you could be wrong. Strength of belief makes no difference here. No matter how strong your belief, you may be wrong; you lack certainty, and this lack is inescapable. However, it might have been the case that every time you came to believe that a logically contingent proposition was true, you were right. You might also have superb evidence for everything you believe, evidence that yielded a very high degree of likeness to be true. This is not our typical condition. We usually deal with evidence that yields a much lower degree of likeness of truth. Butler claims that probability is our guide regarding religious beliefs as it is regarding other beliefs whose denial is not self-contradictory.

Butler holds that among our religious beliefs, we may properly include belief in our survival of the death of the body. One element in Butler’s argument for this is what is naturally called a principle of continuance. He writes, “There is in every case a probability, that all things will continue as we experience they are, in all respects, except those in which we have some reason to think that they are.”

This passage can be interpreted as referring to the existence of what philosophers call substances—things that have qualities, are not themselves qualities, and typically endure over time. It amounts to the claim that “If a substance X exists at time T then, without any reason to think otherwise, it is reasonable to suppose that it will exist at time T-plus-one.” It is a claim about things such as cats and mountains rather than about lights and noises. It is also an epistemological claim—a claim about what is reasonably believed. Behind this epistemological claim is some such thesis such that “If X exists at time T, then if X is not fatally interfered with, X will exist at T-plus-one.” This is a metaphysical claim—a claim about how things universally and necessarily are, independent of thought. Butler is, of course, a monotheist and thus believes that whatever exists other than God is created and sustained in existence by God. Therefore, he also holds the metaphysical and theological claim that “If God sustains X in existence at time T, then unless God has some reason not to do so, God will sustain X in existence at T-plus-one.”

Butler, however, wants to argue for people’s survival after death without appealing to T. The most obvious objection to the idea that humans survive death is the fate of the body. Because upon its death, the body makes none of the motions previously characteristic of it, it gives every appearance of having lost all of those powers whose exercise one associates with personhood. How, then, can Butler speak of survival?

There are several relevant considerations. First, he holds that what is essential to being a person is being a self-conscious substance—a mind. Second, he holds that there is no necessity that a mind be embodied. Third, he contends that a human person is a mind that is embodied in a human body; once that body dies, the mind is no longer able to use that body as a means of acting in the physical world. It is not the mind’s power to act but its power to act through (what was) its body that ends with death. Fourth, what one observes when someone dies is a body no longer capable of movement. One infers that the mind that acted through the body no longer exists. That inference requires some such claim as “A person is identical to his or her body or else his or her body, being a living organism, is a logically necessary condition of her existence.” However, this claim—a summary of several varieties of materialism—is not something confirmable by observation. The observed data relative to death no more require a materialist than a nonmaterialist metaphysic, and their significance sharply differs as one switches from on metaphysical view to the other.

Butler is also famous for holding a conscience view of ethics and for his denial of psychological egoism. His view of conscience is that this is the standard name for our rational capacity for understanding and judging the motives we have, enabling us to act in what we consider the proper way even if our strongest motives would lead us to act otherwise. He denies that a person is to be thought of as a prisoner of psychological forces with the prize of one’s actions going to the strongest forces. Instead we are able to judge our motives and act against them if they would lead us to act wrongly.

Psychological egoism is the view that we can act only from motives that target our own perceived self-interest—only in ways that we at least believe will benefit us. Acting for anyone else’s interest is not in our makeup. Butler distinguishes between selfishness—concern merely for our own interests—and self-interest. The latter term refers to our concern for our well-being as self-conscious beings, a condition of respect for the self as a self-conscious agent. We cannot hold this high view of ourselves consistently without granting an equal worth to other self-conscious agents; therefore, rational self-interest is inconsistent unless altruism—recognition of the worth of any self-conscious agents—is added.

Butler’s view relates to a contemporary criticism of the sort of moral philosophy that he espouses—more precisely, to the combination of ethics and metaphysics that he embraces. This criticism arises from a view that holds that a person is not an enduring self-conscious being but is rather composed of momentary states—of what might be called person bites (analogous to sound bites). The objection goes as follows. Suppose Joe, at time T, is composed of person bites A and B. Consider Joe at time T-plus-one-thousand and his contemporary Jill. Joe at this later time, let us suppose, is composed of person bites X and Y, and Jill is composed of person bites Q and R. The claim is that person bites A and B (Joe at T) is no more identical with persons bites X and Y (Joe at T-plus-one-thousand) than they are with person bites Q and R (Jill at T-plus-one-thousand). Therefore, this theory concludes, selfishness is irrational. However, in fact, selfishness is irrational in Butler’s view because it assumes the necessary falsehood that one’s own status as a self-conscious being is more worthy of respect than the same status as found in every other person. Further, Butler’s claim is that moral worth resides in enduring self-conscious persons, not in person bites. Although it seems clear that Butler’s persons can be responsible, have consciences, and operate as rational agents, it is not clear that this is true of a person bite or a series of person bites. Indeed, the very lack of identity on which the objection rests calls into question whether these things can be true of person bites, singly or in a series.


Butler made important contributions to moral philosophy and ethics through his analytical methods and influential arguments. His Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel and The Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature continue to be read as presentations of the argument from design and of conscience theory in ethics. His methods of argument influenced such diverse later thinkers as David Hume and John Henry Newman.

Additional Reading

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.

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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