Butler, Joseph

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Butler, Joseph (1692-1752): English Philosopher.

Joseph Butler, Bishop of Durham, was an influential ethicist and Anglican critic of deism. Born, 18 May 1692, in Oxfordshire as the youngest son of a draper, he was expected to enter the Presbyterian ministry and was sent to dissenting schools in Gloucester and Tewkesbury. While still a student, Butler corresponded with the scientist and philosopher Samuel Clarke, debating precise metaphysical points in the arguments for the existence of God presented in Clarke’s Boyle Lectures.

Having decided to join the established church, Butler enrolled at Oriel College, Oxford, in 1715. While not impressed with the quality of the teaching at Oxford, Butler remained to earn degrees in Arts and Canon Law. He was ordained in 1718 and made preacher to the Rolls Chapel in London. In this position, which he held from 1719 to 1726, Butler preached regular sermons to the cream of London lawyers. His Fifteen Sermons preached at the Rolls Chapel (1726) rejects Thomas Hobbes’s egoism in favor of rational self-love. Butler shows that Hobbes’s moral psychology is simplistic, refutes psychological egoism (the doctrine that we are only capable of acting selfishly) and demonstrates that human beings are capable of benevolence. Butler further argues that we get moral guidance from conscience, a natural faculty which recognizes moral right and wrong. While somewhat similar to the moral sense of Hutcheson, Francis, conscience had, for Butler, an authority inconsistent with Hutcheson’s sentimentalism. Perhaps Butler’s most surprising doctrine was his rejection of the popular assumption that self-interested behavior is usually harmful to others. Rather, Butler thought that cool self-love leads us to do what will benefit us most in the long run, which is almost identical to the moral duties dictated by conscience. Thus, it is not morally bad to look out for yourself; rather, doing so efficiently makes one a morally upstanding person.

After holding a number of poorly paid clerical positions, Butler was made rector of Stanhope in 1725. This allowed him the time and resources to produce his second major work, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (1736) which was partly a reply to Tindal, Matthew’s deist tract Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730). The Analogy served as the standard Anglican response to deism for several generations. Butler argued that studying nature reveals to us the providential plan of God. Belief in revealed religion is at least as reasonable as belief in natural religion, and preferable in that it makes some questions (such as why we suffer) easier to answer. One influential theme of the Analogy was how, as fallible human beings, we must rely on probability reasoning. Butler thus abandoned the allegedly certain theological arguments used by Aquinas and Clarke in favor of a hopeful attitude to religious knowledge.

The Analogy attracted the patronage of the royal family, particularly Queen Caroline who was an avid follower of philosophy and a patron of Clarke and Berkeley, George. Her deathbed instructions lead, in 1738, to Butler’s appointment as Bishop of Bristol. He concurrently served as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral from 1740 to 1750, and may even have been offered, but declined, the post of archbishop of Canterbury in 1747. While serving in Bristol, Butler asked John Wesley to leave the area, since Butler disapproved of the enthusiasm of Wesley’s followers.

Butler was transferred to the more prestigious position of Bishop of Durham in 1750. His “Charge at the Primary Visitation of Durham in 1751,” a letter of instructions to the clergy of his new diocese, produced considerable controversy. While the incendiary accusation of being a closet Catholic was surely false, Butler angered some Anglicans by emphasizing the use of rituals to encourage faith. Butler died in 1752.

As a moralist, Butler always maintained a practical approach. Subtle and thoughtful as his works are, they reflect the concerns of a priest ministering to his flock. The Analogy has declined in importance as atheism has replaced deism as the main challenge to Christianity. It was said to have driven James Mill (father of John Stuart) to atheism, but led Cardinal Newman back to religious faith. Butler’s Sermons are still read and discussed by contemporary moral philosophers.

Further Reading:

C. Cunliffe, ed. Joseph Butler’s Moral and Religious Thought, 1992.

J. F. Worthen, “Joseph Butler’s Case for Virtue,” Journal of Religious Ethics 23.2 (1995): 239-261.


Nicholas Hunt-Bull

Southern New Hampshire University

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