History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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Butler Lecture 2

I. As we discussed last time, Butler maintains that conscience, or the principle of reflection is authoritative, it should govern the deliberations of a moral agent. To put this claim in the language of Hutcheson's discussion, conscience obligates us; we ought to follow it.

Now I will be distinguishing two different kinds of argument that Butler gives for this claim. One argument is teleological and functional. It appeals to the function of conscience in a human agent, and its relation to the functions of his various other appetites and affections. One version of this argument appeals to the proposition that this function is intended and designed. But implicit in Butler's text is a second line of argument which does not appeal on claims about natural teleology, whether deriving from Divine intention or otherwise. This is a transcendental argument which attempts to exhibit the place that the principle of reflection has as a necessary condition for the very possibility of moral agency. We shall examine this second argument next time. This time we will study Butler's natural teleology.

II. Butler takes it as uncontroversial in Sermon I that the human body can be seen as a teleological whole (1.4), with the various parts or members having different functions, such that the whole is healthy only if the parts function properly. He proposes to give a similar analysis of the different principles, as he calls of them, of human practical mind (i.e. the human mind insofar as it is practical).

The various appetites, passions, and affections have their respective functions. Butler distinguishes between private affections and public affections. The former is the class of principles that "tend" to the good of the individual, not just in the sense that they usually lead to good consequences for the agent, but in the sense that promoting the good of the individual is part of their function. Thus, hunger is not a desire for the agent's good; it is simply the desire for food. But it is a private affection in that its function in the human psychological system is to get the person to ingest nutrition needed for him to flourish.

Likewise, Butler believes that there are various principles in the human psyche which are best explained by seeing them as public affections: as principles whose function is to promote the public good. He lists the following examples at 1.7: "desire of esteem from others, contempt and esteem of them, love of society as distinct from affection to the good of it, indignation against successful vice." None of these is explicitly a desire for the public good, but, he claims, it is reasonable to suppose that the function these principles serve in the human psyche is to promote the good of all.

Note, by the way, that the same principle may be both a private and a public affection.

III. To the idea that our psyches are teleological/functional wholes, Butler adds the notion that they are designed to be by God. The specific principles mentioned above (from 1.7) "are plainly instruments in the hands of another, in the hands of Providence, to carry on ends, the preservation of the individual and good of society, which they themselves not in their view or intention."

IV. Now Butler believes that all appetites, passions, and other principles, when functioning properly, tend to the promotion of individual good and/or public good. There is no principle in us, he thinks, whose function is to produce harm, either to ourselves or others. He grants, of course, that people act, on affections that they really have, sometimes to the detriment of themselves, sometimes to the detriment of others. But in no case, when they do so, are they motivated by a principle whose function is to produce evil. It follows that people bring evil to themselves or to others only when they are not functioning properly:

"mankind have ungoverned passions which they will gratify at any rate, as well to the injury of others, as in contradiction to known private interest: but that as there is no such thing as self-hatred, so neither is there any such thing as ill-will in one man towards another, emulation and resentment being away; whereas there is plainly benevolence or good-will: there is no such thing as love of injustice, oppression, treachery, ingratitude; but only eager desires after such and such external goods; which, according to a very ancient observation, the most abandoned would choose to obtain by innocent means, if they were . . . " (1.12)

As we shall see in more detail in Sermons IV and V, Butler believes that, far from being in conflict, individual and public good are not only compatible, they require each other. Our social nature is such that we will not be happy unless we are in flourishing relationships of varying kinds of mutual affection with others; and the public good will not be promoted unless we take care of our own individual needs.

V So far this picture has not brought out what Butler regards to be our distinctively moral nature: the principle of reflection or conscience. He describes this in the following way:

"There is a principle of reflection in men, by which they distinguish between, approve and disapprove their own actions. We are plainly constituted such sort of creatures as to reflect upon our own nature. The mind can take a view of what passes within itself, its propensions, aversions, passions, affections, as respecting such objects, and in such degrees; and of the several actions consequent upon them." (1.8)

We get a clearer idea of what he has in mind when we examine the example he gives to convince us that we in fact have such a conscience: "Suppose a man . . .to need being confuted." (1.8) Note the following elements:

(i) it is reflexive. Butler is most interested in our capacity to judge our own motives;

(ii) it is a capacity for dispassionate reflection;

(iii) it is a capacity for disinterested reflection.

Note also the contrast Butler draws between a parental affection and approval of parental care, and how Butler seems to be envisioning the motivational role of the latter.

VI. Thus far, Butler has only considered conscience "as another part in the inward frame of man, pointing out to us in some degree what we are intended for, and as what will naturally and of course have some influence." But "the particular place [is] assigned to it by nature, what authority it has, and how great influence it ought to have, shall be hereafter considered." (1.8)

This is the task he turns to beginning in Sermon II. Here he takes it that he has already shown that we are so designed as to "do good to others, when we are led this way, by benevolence or reflection." But, this is not enough to validate "virtue and religion". To do that he needs to show, he says, "that the whole character be formed upon thought and reflection; that every action be directed by some determinate rule, some other rule than the strength and prevalency of any principle or passion." (2.3)

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