Joseph Butler Additional Biography


(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

In his sermons, Butler focused on various topics, including human nature and the love of one’s neighbor. Humans and animals both have instincts, but humans also have a conscience, a superior inner sense of direction that holds authority over all other principles. Indeed, human government is possible only because people have this moral nature. One’s conscience will direct one toward behavior that is most appropriate in the long run. It is possible, Butler conceded, to violate one’s conscience in favor of some passion, but such behavior that gratifies the appetites at the expense of the conscience is unnatural. Conversely, acting in one’s long-term self-interest is both rational and natural. Likewise, Butler contended, the conscience urges one to act benevolently toward other people, since such behavior is also in one’s long-term best interest. Thus, love of one’s neighbors is as natural as love of oneself. Virtues such as temperance and sobriety are traceable to the exercise of benevolence, and vices to ignoring it. Butler disagreed with Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747), however, that benevolence is the sum of virtue in human beings, though he thought it to be so in God. In humans, conscience dictates that one should never approve on the grounds of benevolence such acts as falsehood, violence, and injustice.