History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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Butler Lecture 1

I. For an introduction to Butler's life and work, I refer you to the excellent introduction of your edition of the Sermons. This introduction is not wholly to be trusted, however, as the author suggests that Hume's moral sentiment is a direct descendant of Butler's conscience, whereas the former certainly derives from Hutcheson's moral sense. Ah, the impetuousness of youth!

II. It may seem odd to find an important work of moral philosophy published as a collection of sermons. Indeed, Butler himself seems to feel this: ``I shall not set about to justify the propriety of preaching, or under that title publishing, discourses so abstruse as some of these are.'' However, while moral philosophy was becoming increasingly secular during this period, the line between it and theology was not entirely sharp.

III. At Pr12, Butler distinguishes ``two ways in which the subject of morals may be treated.'' The first, which would have characterized rational intuitionists such as Samuel Clarke, is a metaphysical inquiry into the ``nature of things'' to discern relations of ``fitness and unfitness'', as Clarke called them, e.g., between benevolence and gratitude. The other is a more practical and empirical inquiry, into human nature, and, in particular, into our nature as agents. Butler's method in the Sermons is the second.

Like Hutcheson, he holds that our psychological nature is a complex of various affections, principles, and sentiments. Both he and Hutcheson agree that, in addition to particular passions and desires, human beings are subject to self-love and benevolence. Self-love is a desire for one's own happiness, and benevolence is a desire for the happiness of others. And, also like Hutcheson, Butler believes that human beings feel approbation and disapprobation when they reflect, disinterestedly, on motives and desires (Butler tends to use `principle' to refer to these). But, whereas for Hutcheson the moral sense can play no role in directing conduct, it is perhaps Butler's central idea that a moral agent will govern his conduct by what he (Butler) calls conscience or the principle of reflection. This is what enables the agent to be autonomous or self-governing. In these respects, Butler's thought looks forward to Kant. He anticipates the Kantian themes that a moral agent must have a capacity for directing conduct by self-critical reflection, exercise of which capacity realize autonomy, and that exercising this capacity is our fundamental moral task. For Butler, as for Kant, freedom is realized by acting morally, and we are moral agents by virtue of having the capacity to realize freedom in this way. [I should make explicit that I will be stressing this ``proto-Kantian'' aspect of Butler's work, and, in doing so, I will be emphasizing some elements and de-emphasizing others. I will mention some of these in passing.]

IV. We can begin to get some of the flavor of this ``autonomy'' theme by reading the beginning of the Preface carefully. (emphasis added)

  1. ``Though it is scarce possible to avoid judging, in some way or other, of almost everything which ofers 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 or holds.''
  2. ``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.''
  3. ``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.''
  4. ``The great number of books and papers of amusement, which, of one kind or another, daily come into 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 … spent in reading.'' (Can you imagine what he'd say about television?!)
  5. ``Thus people habituate themselves to let things pass through their minds, as one may speak, rather than to think of them.''
  6. ``Review and attention, and even forming a judgment, becomes fatigue; and to lay anything before them that requires it, is putting them quite out of their way.''
  7. `` … nothing can be understood without that degree of [attention] , which the very nature of the thing requires. Now morals, considered as a science … plainly requires a very peculiar attention.''

V. Butler expresses one of his major contentions, which he takes to have been the view of the ``ancient moralists'' [note that he refers to this as an ``inward'' feeling, perception or conviction], that virtue is the life which is ``correspondent to this [our] whole nature'' and that ``vice is more contrary to this nature than torture or death.'' (Pr13) The ``ancient moralists'' here are Socrates and the Stoics. The latter thesis, concerning vice, was a doctrine of Socrates's. And the idea that virtue consists in ``following nature'', or ``following our nature'' was a Stoic idea. Crucial to Butler's version of this thesis is that vice is contrary to our nature because it will violate the dictates of the principle of reflection or conscience, and it is part of our nature that this principle be authoritative. It is because we have this principle that ``man is … by his very nature a law to himself. '' (Pr29) Following this governing principle is both our fundamental moral project and what enables us to be autonomous.

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