Joseph Butler's Sermons on Human Nature

By William Whewell

An attempt to publish Bishop Butler's Treatises on Human Nature and on Virtue in a perspicuous form, may perhaps not be without interest for the general reader; but it has been made, in the present instance, mainly in consequence of the place which the works occupy in the course of reading prescribed in one, at least, of our Colleges at Cambridge. They were introduced into that course fifteen years ago, it being conceived that they would be useful additions or corrections to other works which enter into the University course. This recommendation they are still conceived to possess: but there appears to be reason to believe that, in consequence of a certain degree of obscurity in Butler's style, his doctrines are often misapprehended by young readers. An attempt will here be made to avert such misapprehension, partly by an arrangement of the text, and partly by a few prefatory remarks.

I hope it will not be considered that I have taken too great a liberty with the text, in dividing it into paragraphs, and numbering the Articles, with reference to the Syllabus which I have drawn up, marking the steps of the argument. I think this arrangement will help to make the reasoning on the doctrines clearer to most readers.

With regard to Butler's doctrines, I suppose it is not questioned that they are, on several points, directly opposed to those of Paley. And those who judged that, on such points, Paley is in error, and that his errors are likely to mislead or perplex those to whom his "Moral Philosophy" is presented with the recommendation of authority, conceived that the evil might be in some measure remedied by recommending an attention to Butler's ethical views at the same time.

Butler's name stands so high among us, that the selection of such a work for this purpose could not be considered either as a capricious act, or as any mark of disrespect towards his adversary.

The points of opposition between Butler and Paley are obvious enough. Paley declares his intention (B. 1. c. vi.) to omit the "usual declamation" on the dignity and capacity of our nature; the superiority of the soul to the body, of the rational to the animal part of our constitution; upon the worthiness, refinement and delicacy of some satisfaction, or the meanness, grossness, and sensuality of others. Butler, on the contrary, teaches that there is a difference of a kind among our principles of action, which is quite distinct from their difference of strength;* that reason was intended to control animal appetite, and that the law of man's nature is violated when the contrary takes place. Paley teaches us to judge of the merit of actions by the advantages to which they lead; Butler [58 and 70] teaches that good-desert and ill-desert are something else than mere tendencies to the advantage and disadvantage of society. Paley makes virtue depend upon the consequences of our actions; Butler makes it depend upon the due operation of our moral constitution. Paley is the moralist of utility; Butler, of conscience.

(*The preface stands exactly as it did before the second edition of the Sermons.)

We must take care, however, that we do not press the antithesis of the two moralists too far; especially as both of them have, by their mode of writing, given openings for misapprehensions. Paley, aiming above all things to say what was lucid and what was practical, often selects modes of expression which violate the habits of previous moral writers, for the very reason that they do so; as in the passage just quoted, when he calls it "declamation," to speak of the dignity and capacity of our nature, the superiority of the soul to the body, of the rational to the animal part of our nature; adding, "I hold that pleasures differ in nothing but in continuance and intensity." So also in his declaration that "whatever is expedient is right." Such expressions as this last, if taken in the usual sense of the words, are altogether immoral; since they acknowledge no necessary moral superiority of truth over falsehood, or kindness over cruelty; and the preceding tenet, recognizing no necessary superiority of human pleasures over those of animals, might be called brutish. Yet Paley's own right feeling leads him to explain away the greater part of that which is vicious and debasing in these expressions. He had no turn for speculative morality; and the errors of his fundamental principles are compensated by other errors in applying them and reasoning from them, so that most of his practical conclusions admit of a harmless sense; although there is likely to remain, in the mind of his readers, a pernicious influence, produced by his disparaging rejection of so many of the most familiar and significant forms in which the moral convictions of all ages have been expressed.

Nor is Butler free from the danger of being misunderstood. There is especially one expression of his, which is likely to lead his readers into an erroneous doctrine; a doctrine, as may easily be shewn, not held by the writer himself. He speaks [34] of the natural supremacy of Conscience. Now this might easily be understood, and has often been understood, as implying the doctrine that Conscience is the supreme and ultimate judge of human actions; — that there is a special faculty so denominated, which is held by the writer to be the ultimate criterion of right and wrong; — that there is a General Conscience in man, which, by its own powers, discloses to him a standard or law of human action: — or perhaps, that each individual person has such a faculty, which is the proper judge or standard of his actions; and that if he conform his conduct to his conscience, he must act rightly. And this impression may have been much strengthened by the kind of personification of Conscience in which Butler repeatedly indulges; as when he [34] speaks of its prerogative; and says [38] that if it had strength as it has right, if it had power as it has authority, it would rule the world. And I in like manner, other writers may have confirmed such an impression by speaking of Conscience as an Accuser, a Witness, a Judge, and a Punisher of crime.

The arguments against Conscience, in this sense, being the foundation of morality, are obvious and irresistible. If conscience be the supreme judge of right and wrong, whose conscience is to be taken? If that of the individual, what crimes have not been committed with a tranquil conscience, and even for conscience' sake? If that of the human species, how is it to be found, among the conflicting moral judgments of different persons, nations and ages? These are the arguments never satisfactorily answered, by which the assertion of the Supremacy of Conscience, in the exact sense of the phrase, has always been repelled. If Butler held the Supremacy of Conscience in this sense, those who follow him have to provide replies to these interrogations.

But it will be evident to an attentive reader, that such a supremacy of conscience was not intended by Butler. He did not hold an original and independent faculty of conscience, whose decisions were to be accepted as rules of right action. With him, conscience was a faculty, if you choose, but a faculty, as reason is a faculty; a power by exercising which we may come to discern truths, not, a repository of truth already collected in a visible shape. Conscience, indeed, is the Reason, employed about questions of right and wrong, and accompanied with the sentiments of approbation or disapprobation which, by the nature of man, cling inextricably to his apprehension of right and wrong. This, I think, is plainly Butler's view; see, for instance, the passage [54], where he speaks of "a moral faculty; whether called conscience, moral reason, moral sense, or divine reason; whether considered as a perception of the understanding, or as a sentiment of the heart; or, which seems the truth, as including both." And I may observe, that the caution with which Butler, in this and other passages, avoids fixing upon any one term as the permanent designation of the moral faculty, and purposely, as it might seem, accumulates both simple and compound descriptions of it; (besides those already quoted, "Reflection or Conscience, an Approbation of some principles and actions, and a Disapprobation of others;" "Reflex Approbation or Disapprobation;") is evidence that he had no intention of laying down the distinct and independent existence of such a Faculty, as a psychological doctrine.

I have (Elements of Morality, Third Ed. Art. 262, &c.) described Conscience as the Faculty or Habit of referring our acts to a moral standard; — as the stage at which we have arrived in our moral progress; — as an authority, not ultimate and supreme, but depending, for its validity, upon its coincidence with the supreme rule; the supreme rule being one which requires the exercise of reason for its discovery and application. I conceive that this teaching agrees with that of Butler.

And this is illustrated by observing that when Butler has to establish particular Duties he does not prove them to be Duties by direct reference to conscience, as a supreme internal guide which directly tells us that they are so. He refers to the consequences of actions, and to the purpose for which the various affections and principles of action are implanted in us by our Maker.[2] That which we thus learn, is the dictate of Conscience; — the law written in the heart. It is written there, but it requires the use of the Understanding to enable us to read it.

Thus Conscience, though according to Butler she has a natural authority over Appetite, Desire, and Affection, has not a supreme authority, but is herself subject to the Supreme Rule which enjoins all Virtue and Duty, and which is, in reality, the Law of God. And we may remark that this view explains the relation of two maxims of morality which are generally and justly assented to, but which appear, at first sight, to be somewhat inconsistent: namely, these two: — that to act against ones Conscience is always wrong;[3] but that to act according to ones Conscience does not ensure being right. For the Conscience may be darkened or misled or perverted in various ways, and so, may lead men into error and even into crime; but still Conscience, however erroneous, is superior to mere appetite and desire, and is in the right when she controls those inferior springs of action.

If Butler's mode of speaking of Conscience may possibly place him more entirely in opposition to Paley than his real view does; on the other hand, his doctrines may appear to approach more nearly to Paley's than is their true position, ill consequence of his speaking of Virtue sometimes as identical, in the main, with the pursuit of our real Happiness, and sometimes as tending to promote in the greatest degree the Happiness of mankind. Thus [47] he employs himself in shewing that if we seek Happiness, we shall find virtue the best way to it, and asserts [50] that self-love generally coincides with virtue. And in other places, he makes the like assertions or concessions. Thus in his eleventh Sermon (upon the Love of our Neighbour) he says, "It may be allowed, without any prejudice to the cause of virtue and religion, that our ideas of happiness and misery are of all our ideas the nearest and most important to us; that they will, nay, if you please, that they ought to prevail over those of order and beauty and harmony and proportion, if there ever should be, as it is impossible there ever should be, any inconsistence between them; — though these last two [that is, order and beauty, and harmony and proportion.] as expressing the fitness of action, are as real as truth itself." The passages which I have marked in italics shew how far Butler is from giving up our internal standard of Virtue, when he acknowledges its ultimate coincidence with the pursuit of Happiness; yet an adherent of Paley, by omitting these notices of Butler's real opinion, might assert an agreement between the two writers. And in the next sentence, he again says, "Let it be allowed, though virtue or moral rectitude does indeed consist in affection to and pursuit of what is right and good, as such; yet that when we sit down in a cool hour, we can neither justify to ourselves this or any other pursuit, till we are convinced that it will be for our happiness, or at least not contrary to it."

The agreement in the results of two systems of morality, constructed by two thoughtful and virtuous men, is what we might naturally look for: and a very little attention will suffice to shew how it comes to pass that Butler so readily assents to a formula which is mainly characteristic of a school very different from his: although it is true, that the use of this formula, as the motto of a school, has become much more distinct and frequent since Butler's time. Butler, in asserting that virtue is the right road to happiness, asserted what was in entire consonance with his own more peculiar doctrine, that virtue consists in the right operation of man's internal constitution; because Butler necessarily includes, in his idea of happiness, the tranquillity and peace of mind and satisfaction which arise from a harmonious operation of man's inward faculties and principles. He may well allow that virtue is the pursuit of happiness, because he cannot allow happiness to exist where virtue is not. He allows that we ought to aim at happiness; and one element of the happiness at which we ought to aim, is the approval of our actions by our own conscience. We have to seek happiness under the impulse of various desires, affections, and principles of action; and among these principles, is that which approves and disapproves of our actions, and which, as Butler has shewn, is superior in kind and authority to the rest. This, as well as the others, must exercise its due sway, and must be duly satisfied, in order that we may approach towards happiness. Butler could not allow that state to be happiness, in which we gratify the desires and affections, and disregard the voice of conscience. Upon his doctrine, this would be a most unhappy discord and disorder of our nature.

It would not have been possible, therefore, for Butler to assent to such an account of happiness as that given by Paley (B. 1. c. vi.), that it consists in the exercise of the social affections, of the faculties of body and mind, the prudent constitution of the habits, and health. He would naturally say that all these, without the pursuit of good ends by good means, could not make a man happy; still less could they do so, if, with all these, a man were pursuing criminal purposes, or living a life of vice, or labouring under self-accusation or remorse; in all which there is nothing inconsistent with Paley's account of happiness. And thus, whatever casual coincidence there may be in the phrases used here and there by Butler and by Paley, there is a very wide difference in reality between the moral philosophy of the one and of the other.

Paley's chapter on Human Happiness is, indeed, a curious example of his combination of good sense and good feeling with an entire inaptitude for systematic thinking and writing. The chapter might be read as a very pleasing and sensible essay upon those elements of happiness which have least to do with the foundations of morality: (for even the social affections are considered only so far as they affect "the spirits";) but it has not any connexion with anything which goes before or comes after it. The chapter is indeed verbally connected with the beginning of the succeeding one, in so far that the word happiness is prominent in both places. "Virtue is the doing good to mankind in obedience to the will of God, and for the sake of everlasting happiness." But it is evident that there is scarcely the vestige of a connexion between the sense of the word happiness in the one passage and in the other. The passage in which this word happiness comes in, so as to shew its real place in Paley's scheme of morality, is Chapter v. of the second Book; where he says "that the method of coming at the will of God concerning every action by the light of nature, is to inquire into the tendency of that action to promote or diminish the general happiness." This mode of determining the moral character of actions, by tracing their influence upon the general happiness of mankind, is the mode professed by Paley; but not followed out by him with any logical coherence, in consequence, among other things, of his not having given any account of human happiness which can be used for such a purpose. More recent writers on morals have endeavoured to execute his plan more completely, by following the course which it obviously suggests; — analysing happiness into its elements, and using this analysis in estimating the moral value of actions. I conceive it might be shewn that the analysis thus given, besides being precarious, is in all cases either incomplete, or is itself dependent upon moral ideas; but I shall not here pursue the subject.

But I may point out what is Butler's view of such a system of morality. In Art. [58] and [70] he teaches us that good desert is not mere tendency to the good of society, and that benevolence is not the whole of virtue:and in [76] he says, with reference to Shaftesbury, what we may say with reference to Paley: that writers "of great and distinguished merit have expressed themselves in a manner which may occasion some danger to careless readers": namely, the danger of imagining the whole of virtue to consist in aiming rightly at promoting the happiness of mankind in the present state; and the whole of vice in the contrary:than which mistakes, Butler emphatically says, none can be conceived more terrible. Again: in a note on his twelfth Sermon (upon the Love of our Neighbour) he says:

"As we are not competent judges what is upon the whole for the good of the world, there may be other immediate ends appointed us to pursue, besides that of doing good, or producing happiness. Though the good of the creation be the only end of the Author of it, yet he may have laid us under particular obligations, which we may discern and feel ourselves under, quite distinct from a perception, that the observance or violation of them is for the happiness or misery of our fellow-creatures."

"And this is in fact the case." And he then goes on to shew, that "there are certain dispositions of mind, and certain actions, which are in themselves approved and dis- approved by mankind, abstracted from their tendency to the happiness or misery of the world; — approved or disapproved by that principle within which is the guide of life, the judge of right and wrong." He proceeds to mention treachery, indecency, meanness, as dispositions which we disapprove: greatness of mind, fidelity, "honour, justice, as things which we approve, "in quite another view than as conducive to the happiness or misery of the world."

It would be easy to adduce from Butler other passages of the same import: but from what has already been said, it must be obvious how far he is removed from those who define and measure virtue by its tendency to promote human happiness. He does not say that virtue does not do this; but he says that we are not competent judges of what is upon the whole for the good of the world. He willingly grants that the good of the creation may be the only end of the Author of it; but he holds that the same Author of Creation has laid us under particular obligations, which we are to discern and feel in some other way. And this way is, in his creed, a reference to our internal Faculties and Powers, not to external objects and effects. The means of discovering our Duty which he mainly recommends are, the consideration of the plain office and authority of our various faculties, and the judgment of our minds in our calmer hours, when passion and interest are silent. By such a consideration he conceives that we cannot fail to see the moral value of such ideas as benevolence, justice, veracity, decency, and the like.

Among the other phrases which Butler suggests as used to describe the moral Faculty of man [54] he introduces Moral Sense; a term which has become more celebrated in consequence of its being employed, or supposed to be employed, by some moralists to imply a sense which discerns the moral qualities of its objects directly and immediately, as the sight discerns colours, or the taste savours. It may be doubted whether such a crude and physical notion of a Moral Sense was ever entertained by any thoughtful moralist: for the judgment of man concerning actions as good or bad cannot be expressed or formed, without reference to language, to social relations, to acknowledged rights: and the apprehension of these implies the agency of the understanding in a manner quite different from the perceptions of the bodily senses. It is plain, at least, as I have already said, that Butler never dreamt of asserting a Moral Sense in any such use of the term as this. Paley, with his usual love of clearness, and his usual inaptitude in what concerns systems, has stated the question of the Moral Sense in the most exaggerated physical form. He supposes a case of parricide to be stated to "a savage without experience, and without instruction, cut off in his infancy from all intercourse with his species, and consequently under no possible influence of example, authority, education, sympathy, or habit"; and he enquires whether such a creature would disapprove of the parricide. To this we might reply, that such a creature would be no evidence of what is the natural operation of the faculties of man, as man, a social creature, necessarily educated by social intercourse; any more than Caspar Hauser, the wild boy, who, after being kept pinioned from childhood to manhood, tottered into the streets of Nurenberg, is evidence of man's natural faculty of walking. Such a creature as Paley describes is, for the present, not so much a man, as a brute. But we may add further, that though a brute, he would, as a brute, disapprove of parricide, if his disapproval be collected from his actions; which, language being supposed to be excluded, is the only way in which the sentiments of brutes can be collected. The mutual affection of the parents and offspring among brutes is a germ of the human affections which make us condemn parricide and child-murder as unnatural crimes.

With regard to Paley's subsequent remarks in the same chapter, that we approve at first those qualities in others which are beneficial to ourselves, that the sentiment thus becomes associated with the quality, and that this is the way in which men come to a general agreement with regard to the moral qualities which they admire, — I conceive that Butler would by no means agree with him, or allow that we are led at first to admire fidelity, honour, justice, magnanimity, by considering that these qualities are beneficial, or likely to be beneficial, to ourselves. Nor do I conceive that either the nature of the admiration which we bestow, or the manner in which it grows up, so far as we can observe its growth (for instance, in children,) agrees with this account of it. As I have said, Butler does not assert a floral Sense to exist in any technical or distinct form; but I conceive that he does assert it to be the natural tendency of the human mind to approve benevolence, veracity, justice, and the like, without waiting for a calculation of the consequences of such qualities. And this doctrine is not inconsistent with the actual and unblamed practice, among men, of actions which are not benevolent, faithful, and just; because it may be that the acts in question are considered by the actors under some other point of view; if indeed they are treated at all as matters of morality, and are not rather the results of ungoverned impulses of passion. Thus, cruelty to enemies is, perhaps, considered as fidelity to friends, or as justice; and however narrow and blind this morality be, it does not approve of cruelty as such. To see what benevolence, veracity, and justice really require of men, under given circumstances, is, no doubt, the office not of any simple Sense or Faculty, operating by direct perception, but of the rational and moral Faculties of man, guided by the best light that can be procured for them. But this does not prove that men must arrive at their decision by calculating the total amount of pleasure or happiness which any given course of conduct would produce. This, Butler, in a passage which I have already quoted, conceives to be a point of which we are not competent judges; and he refers us to other methods of determining what is our Duty.

But though to calculate the consequences of actions be not a safe way, nor generally a practicable way, and still less, the only way of determining how far the actions are virtuous or vicious, no thoughtful moralist ever doubts that virtuous acts do really, and upon the whole, promote the good and happiness of mankind, when all the elements of good and happiness are taken into the account. And though many of these elements may be too subtle and various to be described and measured in our calculation, (as the state of mind and heart) and though the operation of our actions upon these elements (that is, the effect of our actions upon our own minds and those of others) may be impossible to appreciate, — yet, we can, to a certain extent, trace the way in which virtuous actions tend to the happiness, and vicious actions to the unhappiness, of mankind. And so far as we can do this, it is a pleasant and healthful employment of our minds. In several instances Paley has pursued this employment in a lucid, lively, and sensible manner; and in this point of view, parts of his work may be read with profit and pleasure. If the work had been entitled Morality as derived from General Utility, and if the Principle had been taken for granted, instead of being supported by the proofs which Paley offers, the work might have been received with unmingled gratitude; and the excellent sense and temper which for the most part it shews in the application of rules, might have produced their beneficial effect without any drawback.

I will now proceed to make a few remarks with a view of illustrating particular parts of the treatises of Butler here printed.

The first Sermon has for its object to shew that man's nature is as truly social as it is selfish. The occasion of this is the same as that which is stated in the Preface with regard to the eleventh Sermon. "There is a strange affectation in many people of explaining away all particular affections, and representing the whole of life as one continuous exercise of self-love." And he proceeds to instance this in the Epicureans, Hobbes, and La Rochefoucault. And in the first Sermon also, he refers to Hobbes, and especially to that part of his "Human Nature," in which he gives his account of good-will or charity, as being a form of the love of power, (chap. ix. sect. 17). "There is yet another Passion sometimes called Love, but more properly Goodwill, or Charity. There can be no greater argument to a man of his own Power, than to find himself able not only to accomplish his own desires, but also to assist other men in theirs; and this is that conception wherein consisteth Charity. In which, first, is contained that natural affection of parents to their children, which the Greeks call Στοργὴ), as also that affection wherewith men seek to assist those that adhere unto them." This strange and arbitrary dogma Butler refutes. (Note to Art. [3]).

The truth of the distinctions established by Butler on this subject, has been recognised and confirmed by succeeding writers; for instance, Dugald Stewart, Brown, and Mackintosh. The result of such true distinctions appears naturally in a systematic enumeration and arrangement of the principles or springs of human action. In the Elements of Morality I have had occasion to make such an enumeration; and I have arranged the springs of human action as — the Appetites, (Hunger, Thirst, &c.) the Affections, (Love of various kinds, and Anger), the Desires; namely, the Desire of Safety, the Desire of Having, the Desire of Society, the Desire of Superiority, the Desire of Knowledge, the Desire of Esteem, with other Desires. After these I have arranged Self-love, as a more complex, derivative, and reflective principle than the others. It is evident, indeed, that Self-love, in any precise use of the term, is, as Butler says, both distinct from the elementary appetites and desires, and in its operation presupposes the particular appetites and desires belonging to that self which we love, and which we wish to gratify.

Perhaps some light is thrown upon the inclination that some men have to call all our springs of action selfish, by what is said on the subject of Mental Desires; (Elements of Morality, Art. 49) that the Mental Desires include the Appetites and Affections, and take the place of them in our contemplation. Though the Love of Money is different from the Love of Good Eating, it may take the place of it, in him by whom money is sought mainly as the means of procuring good cheer: and though Self-love may be different from the Love of Money, yet Self-love exists there especially where a man's aim of life is to gratify his own Love of money and similar desires. And thus however different Self-love may be from elementary Appetites and Desires, it is a mental habit which sums up in an abstract form the results of appetites and desires; and it may be confounded with its elements, by men seeking to shew their sagacity in the analysis of human principles of action.

In fact however, as we see by this remark, the term selfish does not apply with any propriety to the appetites, or affections, but to the man himself. It is not his Elementary Desires which are selfish, but his habit of mind which makes him so. It is not that either Hunger or Maternal Love can, with any meaning, be called Self-love, but that the character involving these elements, may be selfish, as it may also be unselfish, however much these springs of action exist. A man may be unselfish, however hungry he be, and however heartily he eat, if he give to others what they need; a mother, however fond of her child, would be called selfish, if she were to allow him to burn down a neighbour's house for his amusement.

When the character, or mental habit, is thus selfish, it is evident that the springs of action, the elementary affections and appetites, are not under that control of which we can approve. And thus the term selfish denotes not a positive and definite attribute, but a comparative quality to which some blame inevitably clings. This agrees with what Stewart says, (Outlines of Moral Philosophy, Art. 168): "The word Selfishness is always used in an unfavourable sense; and hence, some authors have been led to suppose that vice consists in an excessive regard to our own happiness. It is remarkable, however, that, although we apply the epithet selfish to avarice, and to low and private sensuality, we never apply it to the desire of knowledge, or to the pursuits of virtue, which are certainly sources of more exquisite pleasure than Riches or Sensuality can bestow." And Mackintosh says, (Dissertation, p. 193): "The weakness of the social affections and the strength of the private desires constitute selfishness."

With regard to the subject of the second and third Sermons, the peculiar character and "supremacy" of the conscience or moral faculty, many modern writers, and especially Mackintosh, ascribe to Butler the merit of having first brought these doctrines into a clear light. I have already stated the objection which may, I think not unreasonably, be urged against the use of the term supremacy in this case.

In this place, where we are familiar with the study of the great moral writers of antiquity, it is interesting to us to note the points of resemblance between their doctrines and those of our most admired modern moralists. The agreement between the moral philosophy of Plato and of Butler is, indeed, very striking. In Plato's Dialogue on the Republic, as in Butler's Sermons, the human soul is represented as a system, a constitution, an organized whole, in which the different elements have not merely their places side by side, but their places above and below each other, with their appointed offices; and virtue or moral rightness consists in the due operation of this constitution, the actual realization of this organized subordination. We may notice too, that Plato, like Butler, is remarkable among moralists for the lucid and forcible manner in which he has singled out from man's springs of action the irascible element, (his θυμοειδὲς; Butler's Resentment;) and taught its true place and office in a moral scheme.

Aristotle's ethical doctrines are less philosophically definite than those of Plato; but in their general import they agree very nearly with those asserted by Butler. Thus Aristotle begins by treating of the end of human action, Happiness; and though he thus appears to make an external end the sovereign guide of action, and thus to differ from Butler, he soon introduces an element which makes this guide cease to be an external one, by telling us (Ethika Nikomacheia i. 7), that the happiness of man involves "the activity of the mind in the way of virtue." For thus, Virtue and Happiness always and necessarily coincide, which Butler everywhere asserts; while Virtue is not derived from external objects, which would be contrary to Butler's scheme.

Butler's sympathies, however, as to philosophical doctrine, are undoubtedly with the Stoics. In order to describe the peculiar sentiment of rejection and disapproval with which we regard actions unjust or otherwise wrong, he borrows the formula of the Stoics, which Cicero had borrowed before him, and in which such actions are said to be contrary to nature. See the passage in Cicero's Offices: (iii. 4: "Redeo ad formulam. Detrahere ahquid alteri, et hominem hominis incommodo suum augere commodum magis est contra naturam quam mors, quam paupertas, quam dolor, quam caetera, quae possunt aut corpori accidere aut rebus externis.") And in the Dissertation on Virtue [52] Butler quotes the commencement of that classical work of the later Stoics, Arrians Epictetus: in which we read that "Of the other faculties, you will find none which contemplates itself, (αὐτὴν αὐτῆς θεωρητικὴν), still less which approves and disapproves its own acts": (δοκιμαστικὴν ἢ ἀποδοκιμαστικὴν): which way of speaking, Butler says, he has adopted as the most full and the least liable to cavil.

It is indeed evident that the two opposite moral schools of antiquity, the Stoical and the Epicurean, have had their antagonism prolonged into modern times; nor can it cease to subsist so long as there is a school of Independent Morality, which, like Butler, seeks the ground of virtue or moral rightness in the faculties of man and their relation to each other; and another School of Dependent Morality, which, like Paley, looks for the criterion of rightness to external things; — pleasure, utility, expediency, or by whatever name it may be called. That Paley is the successor of the Epicurean, as Butler is the adherent of the Stoical school, is evident on the face of his system. And this is a view which probably he would not himself have repudiated. His first literary production, I believe, was a "Bachelor's prize" Essay, to which the prize was adjudged by the University in 1765. The subject of this essay was a comparison between the Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, and in this he had, as was natural with his habits of mind, taken the Epicurean side. Nor was this an effusion hastily and lightly flung from his pen; for it was accompanied with elaborate notes in English, and is still recollected as bearing marks of that vivacity of thought and expression, for which his writings were afterwards so justly admired.

I have inserted the whole of the Author's Preface to the Sermons. The introductory part of this Preface contains an able and instinctive Apology for the obscurity which is sometimes alleged as a defect of these discourses. The notice of Sermon xi., which occupies the most, space after that of Sermons i., ii., iii., applies also to Sermon i. The notices of the other Sermons are very brief, and may serve to remind the reader that the Sermons here printed extend to a small portion only of. the subject of Morality according to Butler's view.

Trinity Lodge, March 14, 1848

In the preceding Preface, it is stated as one of the recommendations of the study of Butler's ethical works, that this study may be useful in correcting the impressions which may be produced by the study of Paley's "Moral Philosophy," as required by the University for the B.A. Degree. It may therefore be proper to notice that by a Grace of the Senate, passed February 7, 1855, an acquaintance with Paley's work is no longer required by the University. But the University has shewn that this step was not taken from any disposition to reject the study of Ethics; for Moral Philosophy is one of the Subjects in which a Certificate of a satisfactory Examination given by the Professor is accepted as a condition for the B.A, Degree; and also one of the Subjects for which Honours are assigned in the Moral Sciences Tripos. And whatever may be thought of Paley, Butler's ethical views are, I believe, generally accepted in the University. If his works had contained a System of Morality, and not mere fragments of a system and discussions of principles, probably he would have been installed in the place from which Paley has been removed.

Trinity Lodge, February 8, 1855


1^ The references are to the articles in this edition.

2^ See for instance, Sermon IX., On Forgiveness of Injuries.

3^ A passage from a popular drama may shew how familiar this doctrine is, (Lovers' Vows, Act V. Scene 2.)
  Baron. Ah, Anhalt, I am glad you are come. My conscience and myself are at variance.
  Anhalt. Your conscience is in the right.
  Baron. You don't know yet what the quarrel is.
  Anhalt. Conscience is always right, because it never speaks unless it is so.

  If Anhalt had said "never contradicts your likings except when it is right," he would have uttered his maxim in a less dangerous form. The opponents of utilitarian morality have often been charged with holding an instinctive sense of right and wrong; but I think that doctrine has been mainly confined to the sentimental dramatists.

Top ↑

Butler's Preface

Though it is scarce possible to avoid judging, in some way or other, of almost every thing which offers itself to one's thoughts; yet it is certain, that many persons, from different causes, never exercise their judgment, upon what comes before them, in the way of determining whether it be conclusive, and holds. They are perhaps entertained with some things, not so with others; they like, and they dislike: but whether that which is proposed to be made out be really made out or not; whether a matter be stated according to the real truth of the case, seems to the generality of people merely a circumstance of no consideration at all. Arguments are often wanted for some accidental purpose: but proof as such is what they never want for themselves; for their own satisfaction of mind, or conduct in life. Not to mention the multitudes who read merely for the sake of talking, or to qualify themselves for the world, or some such kind of reasons; there are, even of the -2- few who read for their own entertainment, and have a real curiosity to see what is said, several, which is prodigious, who have no sort of curiosity to see what is true: I say, curiosity; because it is too obvious to be mentioned, how much that religious and sacred attention, which is due to truth, and to the important question. What is the rule of life? is lost out of the world.

For the sake of this whole class of readers, for they are of different capacities, different kinds, and get into this way from different occasions, I have often wished, that it had been the custom to lay before people nothing in matters of argument but premises, and leave them to draw conclusions themselves; which, though it could not be done in all cases, might in many.

The great number of books and papers of amusement, which, of one kind or another, daily come in one's way, have in part occasioned, and most perfectly fall in with and humour, this idle way of reading and considering things. By this means, time even in solitude is happily got rid of, without the pain of attention: neither is any part of it more put to the account of idleness, one can scarce forbear saying, is spent with less thought, than great part of that which is spent in reading.

Thus people habituate themselves to let things pass through their minds, as one may -3- speak, rather than to think of them. Thus by use they become satisfied merely with seeing what is said, without going any further. Review and attention, and even forming a judgment, becomes fatigue; and to have anything before them that requires it, is putting them quite out of their way.

There are also persons, and there are at least more of them than have a right to claim such superiority, who take for granted, that they are acquainted with every thing; and that no subject, if treated in the manner it should be, can be treated in any manner but what is familiar and easy to them.

It is true, indeed, that few persons have a right to demand attention; but it is also true, that nothing can be understood without that degree of it, which the very nature of the thing requires. Now morals, considered as a science, concerning which speculative difficulties are daily raised, and treated with regard to those difficulties, plainly require a very peculiar attention. For here ideas never are in themselves determinate, but become so by the train of reasoning and the place they stand in; since it is impossible that words can always stand for the same ideas, even in the same author, much less in different ones. Hence an argument may not readily be apprehended, which is different from its being mistaken; -4- and even caution to avoid being mistaken may, in some cases, render it less readily apprehended. It is very unallowable for a work of imagination or entertainment not to be of easy comprehension, but may be unavoidable in a work of another kind, where a man is not to form or accommodate, but to state things as he finds them.

It must be acknowledged, that some of the following Discourses are very abstruse and difficult; or, if you please, obscure; but I must take leave to add, that those alone are judges, whether or no and how far this is a fault, who are judges, whether or no and how far it might have been avoided — those only who will be at the trouble to understand what is here said, and to see how far the things here insisted upon, and not other things, might have been put in a plainer manner; which yet I am very far from asserting that they could not.

Thus much however will be allowed, that general criticisms concerning obscurity considered as a distinct thing from confusion and perplexity of thought, as in some cases there may be ground for them; so in others, they may be nothing more at the bottom than complaints, that every thing is not to be understood with the same ease that some things are. Confusion and perplexity in writing is indeed without excuse, because any one may, -5- if he pleases, know whether he understands and sees through what he is about: and it is unpardonable for a man to lay his thoughts before others, when he is conscious that he himself does not know whereabouts he is, or how the matter before him stands. It is coming abroad in disorder, which he ought to be dis- satisfied to find himself in at home.

But even obscurities arising from other causes than the abstruseness of the argument may not be always inexcusable. Thus a subject may be treated in a manner, which all along supposes the reader acquainted with what has been said upon it, both by ancient and modern writers; and with what is the present state of opinion in the world concerning such subject. This will create a difficulty of a very peculiar kind, and even throw an obscurity over the whole before those who are not thus informed; but those who are will be disposed to excuse such a manner, and other things of the like kind, as a saving of their patience.

However upon the whole, as the title of Sermons gives some right to expect what is plain and of easy comprehension, and as the best auditories are mixed, I shall not set about to justify the propriety of preaching, or under that title publishing, Discourses so abstruse as some of these are: neither is it worthwhile -6- to trouble the reader with the account of my doing either. He must not however impute to me, as a repetition of the impropriety, this second edition,[1] but to the demand for it.

Whether he will think he has any amends made him by the following illustrations of what seemed most to require them, I myself am by no means a proper judge.

(I, II, III.) There are two ways in which the subject of morals may be treated. One begins from inquiring into the abstract relations of things: the other from a matter of fact, namely, what the particular nature of man is, its several parts, their economy or constitution; from whence it proceeds to determine what course of life it is, which is correspondent to this whole nature. In the former method the conclusion is expressed thus, that vice is contrary to the nature and reason of things: in the latter, that it is a violation or breaking in upon our own nature. Thus they both lead us to the same thing, our obligations to the practice of virtue; and thus they exceedingly strengthen and enforce each other. The first seems the most direct formal proof, and in some respects the least liable to cavil and dispute: the latter is in a peculiar manner adapted to satisfy a fair mind; and is -7- more easily applicable to the several particular relations and circumstances in life.

The following Discourses proceed chiefly in this latter method. The three first wholly. They were intended to explain what is meant by the nature of man, when it is said that virtue consists in following, and vice in deviating from it; and by explaining to shew that the assertion is true. That the ancient moralists had some inward feeling or other, which they chose to express in this manner, that man is born to virtue, that it consists in following nature, and that vice is more contrary to this nature than tortures or death, their works in our hands are instances. Now a person who found no mystery in this way of speaking of the ancients; who without being very explicit with himself, kept to his natural feeling, went along with them, and found within himself a full conviction, that what they laid down was just and true; such a one would probably wonder to see a point, in which he never perceived any difficulty, so laboured as this is, in the second and third Sermons; insomuch perhaps as to be at a loss for the occasion, scope, and drift of them. But it need not be thought strange that this manner of expression, though familiar with them, and, if not usually carried so far, yet not uncommon amongst ourselves, should want explaining; -8- since there are several perceptions daily felt and spoken of, which yet it may not be very easy at first view to explicate, to distinguish from all others, and ascertain exactly what the idea or perception is. The many treatises upon the passions are a proof of this; since so many would never have undertaken to unfold their several complications, and trace and resolve them into their principles, if they had thought, what they were endeavouring to shew was obvious to every one, who felt and talked of those passions. Thus, though there seems no ground to doubt, but that the generality of mankind have the inward perception expressed so commonly in that manner by the ancient moralists, more than to doubt whether they have those passions; yet it appeared of use to unfold that inward conviction, and lay it open in a more explicit manner, than I had seen done; especially when there were not wanting persons, who manifestly mistook the whole thing, and so had great reason to express themselves dissatisfied with it. A late author of great and deserved reputation says, that to place virtue in following nature, is at best a loose way of talk. And he has reason to say this, if what I think he intends to express, though with great decency, be true, that scarce any other sense can be put upon those words, but acting as any of the several parts, without -9- distinction, of a man's nature happened most to incline him.*

(*Rel. of Nature delin. ed. 1724. pp. 22, 23.)

Whoever thinks it worth while to consider this matter thoroughly, should begin with stating to himself exactly the idea of a system, economy, or constitution of any particular nature, or any particular thing: and he will, I suppose, find, that it is a one or a whole, made up of several parts; but yet, that the several parts even considered as a whole do not complete the idea, unless in the notion of a whole you include the relations and respects which those parts have to each other. Every work both of nature and of art is a system: and as every particular thing, both natural and artificial, is for some use or purpose out of and beyond itself, one may add, to what has been already brought into the idea of a system, its conduciveness to this one or more ends. Let us instance in a watch — Suppose the several parts of it taken to pieces, and placed apart from each other: let a man have ever so exact a notion of these several parts, unless he considers the respects and relations which they have to each other, he will not have any thing like the idea of a watch. Suppose these several parts brought together and any how united: neither will he yet, be the union ever so close, have an idea which will bear any resemblance -10- to that of a watch. But let him view those several parts put together, or consider them as to be put together in the manner of a watch; let him form a notion of the relations which those several parts have to each other — all conducive in their respective ways to this purpose shewing the hour of the day; and then he has the idea of a watch. Thus it is with regard to the inward frame of man. Appetites, passions, affections, and the principle of reflection, considered merely as the several parts of our inward nature, do not at all give us an idea of the system or constitution of this nature; because the constitution is formed by somewhat not yet taken into consideration, namely, by the relations which these several parts have to each other; the chief of which is the authority of reflection or conscience. It is from considering the relations which the several appetites and passions in the inward frame have to each other, and, above all, the supremacy of reflection or conscience, that we get the idea of the system or constitution of human nature. And from the idea itself it will as fully appear, that this our nature, i.e. constitution, is adapted to virtue, as from the idea of a watch it appears, that its nature, i.e. constitution or system, is adapted to measure time. What in fact or event commonly happens is nothing to this question. Every work -11- of art is apt to be out of order: but tins is so far from being according to its system, that let the disorder increase, and it will totally destroy it. This is merely by way of explanation, what an economy, system, or constitution is. And thus far the cases are perfectly parallel. If we go further, there is indeed a difference, nothing to the present purpose, but too important a one ever to be omitted. A machine is inanimate and passive: but we are agents. Our constitution is put in our own power. We are charged with it; and therefore are accountable for any disorder or violation of it.

Thus nothing can possibly be more contrary to nature than vice; meaning by nature not only the several parts of our eternal frame, but also the constitution of it. Poverty and disgrace, tortures and death, are not so contrary to it. Misery and injustice are indeed equally contrary to some different parts of our nature taken singly: but injustice is moreover contrary to the whole constitution of the nature.

If it be asked, whether this constitution be really what those philosophers meant, and whether they would have explained themselves in this manner; the answer is the same, as if it should be asked, whether a person, who had often used the word resentment, and felt the [12] thing, would have explained this passion exactly in the same manner, in which it is done in one of these Discourses. As I have no doubt, but that this is a true account of that passion, which he referred to and intended to express by the word resentment; so I have no doubt, but that this is the true account of the ground of that conviction which they referred to, when they said, vice was contrary to nature. And though it should be thought that they meant no more than that vice was contrary to the higher and better part of our nature; even this implies such a constitution as I have endeavoured to explain. For the very terms, higher and better, imply a relation or respect of parts to each other; and these relative parts, being in one and the same nature, form a constitution, and are the very idea of it. They had a perception that injustice was contrary to their nature, and that pain was so also. They observed these two perceptions totally different, not in degree, but in kind: and the reflecting upon each of them, as they thus stood in their nature, wrought a full intuitive conviction, that more was due and of right belonged to one of these inward perceptions, than to the other; that it demanded in all cases to govern such a creature as man. So that, upon the whole, this is a fair and true account of what was the ground of their conviction: of what they intended to refer -13- to, when they said, virtue consisted in following nature: a manner of speaking not loose and undetermined, but clear and distinct, strictly just and true.

Though I am persuaded the force of this conviction is felt by almost every one; yet since, considered as an argument and put in words, it appears somewhat abstruse, and since the connexion of it is broken in the three first Sermons, it may not be amiss to give the reader the whole argument here in one view.

Mankind has various instincts and principles of action, as brute creatures have; some leading most directly and immediately to the good of the community, and some most directly to private good.

Man has several which brutes have not; particularly reflection or conscience, an approbation of some principles or actions, and disapprobation of others.

Brutes obey their instincts or principles of action, according to certain rules; suppose the constitution of their body, and the objects around them.

The generality of mankind also obey their instincts and principles, all of them; those propensions we call good, as well as the bad, according to the same rules; namely, the constitution of their body, and the external circumstances which they are in. [Therefore it is not a true -14- representation of mankind to affirm, that they are wholly governed by self-love, the love of power and sensual appetites: since, as on the one hand they are often actuated by these, without any regard to right or wrong; so on the other, it is manifest fact, that the same persons, the generality, are frequently influenced by friendship, compassion, gratitude; and even a general abhorrence of what is base, and liking of what is fair and just, takes its turn amongst the other motives of action. This is the partial inadequate notion of human nature treated of in the first Discourse: and it is by this nature, if one may speak so, that the world is in fact influenced, and kept in that tolerable order, in which it is.]

Brutes in acting according to the rules before mentioned, their bodily constitution and circumstances, act suitably to their whole nature. [It is however to be distinctly noted, that the reason why we affirm this is not merely that brutes in fact act so; for this alone, however universal, does not at all determine, whether such course of action be correspondent to their whole nature: but the reason of the assertion is, that as in acting thus they plainly act conformably to somewhat in their nature, so, from all observations we are able to make upon them, there does not appear the least ground to imagine them to have any thing else in their nature, -15- which requires a different rule or course of action.]

Mankind also in acting thus would act suitably to their whole nature, if no more were to be said of man's nature than what has been now said; if that, as it is a true, were also a complete, adequate account of our nature.

But that is not a complete account of man's nature. Somewhat further must be brought in to give us an adequate notion of it; namely, that one of those principles of action, conscience or reflection, compared with the rest as they all stand together in the nature of man, plainly bears upon it marks of authority over all the rest, and claims the absolute direction of them all, to allow or forbid their gratification: a disapprobation of reflection being in itself a principle manifestly superior to a mere propension. And the conclusion is, that to allow no more to this superior principle or part of our nature, than to other parts; to let it govern and guide only occasionally in common with the rest, as its turn happens to come, from the temper and circumstances one happens to be in; this is not to act conformably to the constitution of man: neither can any human creature be said to act conformably to his constitution of nature, unless he allows to that superior principle the absolute authority which is due to it. And this conclusion is abundantly confirmed from hence, -16- that one may determine what course of action the economy of man's nature requires, without so much as knowing in what degrees of strength the several principles prevail, or which of them have actually the greatest influence.

The practical reason of insisting so much upon this natural authority of the principle of reflection or conscience is, that it seems in great measure overlooked by many, who are by no means the worst sort of men. It is thought sufficient to abstain from gross wickedness, and to be humane and kind to such as happen to come in their way. Whereas in reality the very constitution of our nature requires, that we bring our whole conduct before this superior faculty; wait its determination; enforce upon ourselves its authority, and make it the business of our lives, as it is absolutely the whole business of a moral agent, to conform ourselves to it. This is the true meaning of that ancient precept. Reverence thyself.

The not taking into consideration this authority, which is implied in the idea of reflex approbation or disapprobation, seems a material deficiency or omission in Lord Shaftesbury's Inquiry concerning Virtue. He has shewn beyond all contradiction, that virtue is naturally the interest or happiness, and vice the misery, of such a creature as man, placed in the circumstances which we are in this world. But -17- suppose there are particular exceptions; a case which this author was unwilling to put, and yet surely it is to be put: or suppose a case which he has put and determined, that of a sceptic not convinced of this happy tendency of virtue, or being of a contrary opinion. His determination is, that it would be without remedy.* One may say more explicitly, that leaving out the authority of reflex approbation or disapprobation, such a one would be under an obligation to act viciously; since interest, one's own happiness, is a manifest obligation, and there is not supposed to be any other obligation in the case. 'But does it much mend the matter, to take in that natural authority of reflection? There indeed would be an obligation to virtue; but would not the obligation from supposed interest on the side of vice remain?' If it should, yet to be under two contrary obligations, i.e. under none at all, would not be exactly the same, as to be under a formal obligation to be vicious, or to be in circumstances in which the constitution of man's nature plainly required that vice should be preferred. But the obligation on the side of interest really does not remain. For the natural authority of the principle of reflection is an obligation the most near and intimate, the most certain and known: whereas the contrary obligation can at the utmost appear no more -18- than probable; since no man can be certain in any circumstances that vice is his interest in the present world, much less can he be certain against another: and thus the certain obligation would entirely supersede and destroy the uncertain one; which yet would have been of real force without the former.


In truth, the taking in this consideration totally changes the whole state of the case; and shews, what this author does not seem to have been aware of, that the greatest degree of scepticism which he thought possible will still leave men under the strictest moral obligations, whatever their opinion be concerning the happiness of virtue. For that mankind upon reflection felt an approbation of what was good, and disapprobation of the contrary, he thought a plain matter of fact, as it undoubtedly is, which none could deny, but from mere affectation. Take in then that authority and obligation, which is a constituent part of this reflex approbation, and it will undeniably follow, though a man should doubt of every thing else, yet, that he would still remain under the nearest and most certain obligation to the practice of virtue; an obligation implied in the very idea of virtue, in the very idea of reflex approbation.

And how little influence soever this obligation alone can be expected to have in fact upon mankind, yet one may appeal even to interest -19- and self-love, and ask, since from man's nature, condition, and the shortness of life, so little, so very little indeed, can possibly in any case be gained by vice; whether it be so prodigious a thing to sacrifice that little to the most intimate of all obligations; and which a man cannot transgress without being self-condemned, and unless he has corrupted his nature, without real self-dislike: this question, I say, may be asked, even upon supposition that the prospect of a future life were ever so uncertain.

The observation, that man is thus by his very nature a law to himself, pursued to its just consequences, is of the utmost importance: because from it it will follow, that though men should. through stupidity or speculative scepticism, be ignorant of, or disbelieve, any authority in the universe to punish the violation of this law; yet, if there should be such authority, they would be as really liable to punishment, as though they had been beforehand convinced, that such punishment would follow. For in whatever sense we understand justice, even supposing, what I think would be very presumptuous to assert, that the end of divine punishment is no other than that of civil punishment, namely, to prevent future mischief; upon this bold supposition, ignorance or disbelief of the sanction would by no means exempt even from this justice: because it is not foreknowledge of the punishment which -20- renders us obnoxious to it; but merely violating a known obligation.

And here it comes in one's way to take notice of a manifest error or mistake in the author now cited, unless perhaps he has incautiously expressed himself so as to be misunderstood; namely, that it is malice only, and not goodness, which can make us afraid. (Characteristics Vol. i. p. 39.) Whereas in reality, goodness is the natural and just object of the greatest fear to an ill man. Malice may be appeased or satiated; humour may change, but goodness is a fixed, steady, immoveable principle of action. If either of the former holds the sword of justice, there is plainly ground for the greatest of crimes to hope for impunity: but if it be goodness, there can be no possible hope, whilst the reasons of things, or the ends of government, call for punishment. Thus every one sees how much greater chance of impunity an ill man has in a partial administration, than in a just and upright one. It is said, that the interest or good of the whole must be the interest of the universal Being, and that he can have no other. Be it so. This author has proved, that vice is naturally the misery of mankind in this world. Consequently it was for the good of the whole that it should be so. What shadow of reason then is there to assert, that this may not be the case hereafter? Danger of future punishment -21- (and if there be danger, there is ground of fear) no more supposes malice, than the present feeling of punishment does.

(VII., X.)* The Sermon upon the Character of Balaam, and that upon Self-Deceit, both relate to one subject. (*Sermon iv. is Upon the Government of the Tongue: Sermon v. and vi. Upon Compassion. W.) I am persuaded, that a very great part of the wickedness of the world is, one way or other, owing to the self-partiality self-flattery, and self-deceit, endeavoured there to be laid open and explained. It is to be observed amongst persons of the lowest rank, in proportion to their compass of thought, as much as amongst men of education and improvement. It seems, that people are capable of being thus artful with themselves, in proportion as they are capable of being so with others. Those who have taken notice that there is really such a thing, namely, plain falseness and insincerity in men with regard to themselves, will readily see the drift and design of these Discourses: and nothing that I can add will explain the design of them to him, who has not beforehand remarked, at least, somewhat of the character. And yet the admonitions they contain may be as much wanted by such a person, as by others; for it is to be noted, that a man may be entirely possessed by this unfairness of mind, without having the least speculative notion what the thing is. -22-

(VIII.) The account given of Resentment in the eighth Sermon is introductory to the following one upon Forgiveness of Injuries. It may possibly have appeared to some, at first sight, a strange assertion, that injury is the only natural object of settled resentment, or that men do not in fact resent deliberately any thing but under this appearance of injury. But I must desire the reader not to take any assertion alone by itself, but to consider the whole of what is said upon it: because this is necessary, not only in order to judge of the truth of it, but often, such is the nature of language, to see the very meaning of the assertion. Particularly as to this, injury and injustice is, in the Sermon itself, explained to mean, not only the more gross and shocking instances of wickedness, but also contempt, scorn, neglect, any sort of disagreeable behaviour towards a person, which he thinks other than what is due to him. And the general notion of injury or wrong plainly comprehends this, though the words are mostly confined to the higher degrees of it.

(IX.) Forgiveness of injuries is one of the very few moral obligations which has been disputed. But the proof, that it is really an obligation, what our nature and condition require, seems very obvious, were it only from the consideration, that revenge is doing harm merely for harm's sake. And as to the love of our enemies: -23- resentment cannot supersede the obligation to universal benevolence, unless they are in the nature of the thing inconsistent, which they plainly are not (see the Sermon).

This divine precept, to forgive injuries and love our enemies, though to be met with in Gentile moralists, yet is in a peculiar sense a precept of Christianity; as our Saviour has insisted more upon it than upon any other single virtue. One reason of this doubtless is, that it so peculiarly becomes an imperfect, faulty creature. But it may be observed also that a virtuous temper of mind, consciousness of innocence, and good meaning towards every body, and a strong feeling of injustice and injury, may itself, such is the imperfection of our virtue, lead a person to violate this obligation, if he be not upon his guard. And it may well be supposed, that this is another reason why it is so much insisted upon by him, who knew what was in man.

(XI., XII.) The chief design of the eleventh Discourse is to state the notion of self-love and disinterestedness, in order to shew that benevolence is not more unfriendly to self-love, than any other particular affection whatever. There is a strange affectation in many people of explaining away all particular affections, and representing the whole of life as nothing but one continued exercise of self-love. Hence arises that surprising -24- confusion and perplexity in the Epicureans* of old, Hobbes, the author of Reflections, Sentences, et Maximes Morales, and this whole set of writers; the confusion of calling actions interested which are done in contradiction to the most manifest known interest, merely for the gratification of a present passion. Now all this confusion might easily be avoided, by stating to ourselves wherein the idea of self-love in general consists, as distinguished from all particular movements towards particular external objects; the appetites of sense, resentment, compassion, curiosity, ambition, and the rest (see the Sermon). When this is done, if the words selfish and interested cannot be parted with, but must be applied to every thing; yet, to avoid such total confusion of all language, let the distinction be made by epithets: and the first may be called cool or settled selfishness, and the other passionate or sensual selfishness. But the most natural way of speaking -25- plainly is, to call the first only, self-love, and the actions proceeding from it, interested: and to say of the latter, that they are not love to ourselves, but movements towards somewhat external: honour, power, the harm or good of another: and that the pursuit of these external objects, so far as it proceeds from these movements (for it may proceed from self-love†), is no otherwise interested, than as every action of every creature must, from the nature of the thing, be; for no one can act but from a desire, or choice, or preference of his own.

(*One need only look into Torquatus's account of the Epicurean system, in Cicero's first book De Finibus, to see in what a surprising manner this was clone by them. Thus the desire of praise, and of being beloved, he explains to be no other than desire of safety: regard to our country, even in the most virtuous character, to be nothing but regard to ourselves. The author of Reflections, etc. Morales, says, Curiosity proceeds from interest or pride; which pride also would doubtless have been explained to be self-love. Page 85. ed. 172.5. As if there were no such passions in mankind as desire of esteem, or of being beloved, or of knowledge. Hobbes's account of the affections of good-will and pity are instances of the same kind.)

(†See the Note, Art. [5].)

Self-love and any particular passion may be joined together; and from this complication, it becomes impossible in numberless instances to determine precisely, how far an action, perhaps even of one's own, has for its principle general self-love, or some particular passion. But this need create no confusion in the ideas themselves of self-love and particular passions. We distinctly discern what one is, and what the other are: though we may be uncertain how far one or the other influences us. And though, from this uncertainty, it cannot but be that there will be different opinions concerning mankind, as more or less governed by interest; and some will ascribe actions to self-love, which others will ascribe to particular passions: yet it is absurd to say that mankind are wholly actuated by -26- either; since it is manifest that both have their influence. For as, on the one hand, men form a general notion of interest, some placing it in one thing, and some in another, and have a considerable regard to it throughout the course of their life, which is owing to self-love; so, on the other hand, they are often set on work by the particular passions themselves, and a considerable part of life is spent in the actual gratification of them, i.e, is employed, not by self-love, but by the passions.

Besides, the very idea of an interested pursuit necessarily presupposes particular passions or appetites; since the very idea of interest or happiness consists in this, that an appetite or affection enjoys its object. It is not because we love ourselves that we find delight in such and such objects, but because we have particular affections towards them. Take away these affections, and you leave self-love absolutely nothing at all to employ itself about (see Sermon XI.); no end or object for it to pursue, excepting only that of avoiding pain. Indeed the Epicureans, who maintained that absence of pain was the highest happiness, might, consistently with themselves, deny all affection, and, if they had so pleased, every sensual appetite too: but the very idea of interest or happiness other than absence of pain, implies -27- particular appetites or passions; these being necessary to constitute that interest or happiness.

The observation, that benevolence is no more disinterested than any of the common particular passions (see Sermon XI.) seems in itself worth being taken notice of; but is insisted upon to obviate that scorn, which one sees rising upon the faces of people who are said to know the world, when mention is made of a disinterested, generous, or public-spirited action. The truth of that observation might be made appear in a more formal manner of proof: for whoever will consider all the possible respects and relations which any particular affection can have to self-love and private interest, will, I think, see demonstrably, that benevolence is not in any respect more at variance with self-love, than any other particular affection whatever, but that it is in every respect, at least, as friendly to it.

If the observation be true, it follows, that self-love and benevolence, virtue and interest, are not to be opposed, but only to be distinguished from each other; in the same way as virtue and any other particular affection, love of arts, suppose, are to be distinguished. Every thing is what it is, and not another thing. The goodness or badness of actions does not arise from hence, that the epithet, -28- interested or disinterested, may be applied to them, any more than that any other indifferent epithet, suppose inquisitive or jealous, may or may not be applied to them; not from their being attended with present or future pleasure or pain; but from their being what they are; namely, what becomes such creatures as we are, what the state of the case requires, or the contrary. Or in other words, we may judge and determine, that an action is morally good or evil, before we so much as consider, whether it be interested or disinterested. This consideration no more comes in to determine whether an action be virtuous, than to determine whether it be resentful. Self-love in its due degree is as just and morally good, as any affection whatever. Benevolence towards particular persons may be to a degree of weakness, and so be blameable: and disinterestedness is so far from being in itself commendable, that the utmost possible depravity which we can in imagination conceive, is that of disinterested cruelty.

Neither does there appear any reason to wish self-love were weaker in the generality of the world than it is. The influence which it has seems plainly owing to its being constant and habitual, which it cannot but be, and not to the degree or strength of it. Every caprice of the imagination, every curiosity of -29- the understanding, every affection of the heart, is perpetually shewing its weakness, by prevailing over it. Men daily, hourly sacrifice the greatest known interest, to fancy, inquisitiveness, lore, or hatred, any vagrant inclination. The thing to be lamented is, not that men have so great regard to their own good or interest in the present world, for they have not enough (Art. [21]); but that they have so little to the good of others. And this seems plainly owing to their being so much engaged in the gratification of particular passions unfriendly to benevolence, and which happen to be most prevalent in them, much more than to self-love. As a proof of this may be observed, that there is no character more void of friendship, gratitude, natural affection, love to their country, common justice, or more equally and uniformly hardhearted, than the abandoned in, what is called, the way of pleasure — hard- hearted and totally without feeling in behalf of others; except w^hen they cannot escape the sight of distress, and so are interrupted by it in their pleasures. And yet it is ridiculous to call such an abandoned course of pleasure interested, when the person engaged in it knows beforehand, and goes on under the feeling and apprehension, that it will be as ruinous to himself, as to those who depend upon him. -30-

Upon the whole, if the generality of mankind were to cultivate within themselves the principle of self-love; if they were to accustom themselves often to set down and consider, what was the greatest happiness they were capable of attaining for themselves in this life, and if self-love were so strong and prevalent, as that they would uniformly pursue this their supposed chief temporal good, without being diverted from it by any particular passion; it would manifestly prevent numberless follies and vices. This was in a great measure the Epicurean system of philosophy. It is indeed by no means the religious or even moral institution of life. Yet, with all the mistakes men would fall into about interest, it would be less mischievous than the extravagances of mere appetite, will, and pleasure: for certainly self-love, though confined to the interest of this life, is, of the two, a much better guide than passion (Art. [47]), which has absolutely no bound nor measure, but what is set to it by this self-love, or moral considerations.

From the distinction above made between self-love, and the several particular principles or affections in our nature, we may see how good ground there was for that assertion, maintained by the several ancient schools of -31- philosophy against the Epicureans, namely, that virtue is to be pursued as an end, eligible in and for itself. For, if there be any principles or affections in the mind of man distinct from self-love, that the things those principles tend towards, or that the objects of those affections are, each of them, in themselves eligible, to be pursued upon its own account, and to be rested in as an end, is implied in the very idea of such principle or affection (Sermon XII.). They indeed asserted much higher things of virtue, and with very good reason; but to say thus much of it, that it is to be pursued for itself, is to say no more of it, than may truly be said of the object of every natural affection whatever.

(XIII., XIV.) The question, which was a few years ago disputed in France, concerning the love of God, which was there called enthusiasm, as it will every where by the generality of the world; this question, I say, answers in religion to that old one in morals now mentioned. And both of them are, I think, fully determined by the same observation, namely, that the very nature of affection, the idea itself, necessarily implies resting in its object as an end.

I shall not here add any thing further to what I have said in the two Discourses upon -32- that most important subject, but only this: that if we are constituted such sort of creatures, as from our very nature to feel certain affections or movements of mind, upon the sight or contemplation of the meanest inanimate part of the creation, for the flowers of the field have their beauty; certainly there must be somewhat due to him himself, who is the Author and Cause of all things; who is more intimately present to us than any thing else can be, and with whom we have a nearer and more constant intercourse, than we can have with any creature: there must be some movements of mind and heart which correspond to his perfections, or of which those perfections are the natural object: and that when we are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our mind, and with all our soul; somewhat more must be meant than merely that we live in hope of rewards or fear of punishments from him; somewhat more than this must be intended: though these regards themselves are most just and reasonable, and absolutely necessary to be often recollected in such a world as this.

It may be proper just to advertise the reader, that he is not to look for any particular reason for the choice of the greatest part of these Discourses; their being taken from amongst many others, preached in the -33- same place, through a course of eight years, being in great measure accidental. Neither is he to expect to find any other connexion between them, than that uniformity of thought and design, which will always be found in the writings of the same person, when he writes with simplicity and in earnest.

Stanhope, September 16, 1729

Top ↑

By William Whewell, D.D.
Master of Trinity College,
Professor of Moral Philosophy,
The University of Cambridge

William Whewell


Butler, Joseph. Butler's Three Sermons on Human Nature and Dissertation on Virtue. Edited By W. Whewell, D.D. Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, 4th Ed. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts and Co., 1865.