History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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Butler Lecture 3

I. From here Butler argues that judgment, direction, and superintendency are part of the very nature of the principle of reflection. ``you cannot form a notion of this faculty'' without including these. ``This is a constituent part of the idea, that is, of the faculty itself.'' How are we to take this remark. Plainly one thing that Butler intends is that that function of conscience is to direct the agent's whole conduct, or conduct as a whole. That is what conscience is for, and there is no other good explanation of why we would have one. Therefore, we will function properly (and as intended) only if we govern ourselves by this ``authoritative'' principle.

II. What I have been calling Butler's teleological/functional (and we might add theological) argument for the authority of conscience, i.e., for the claim that we ought to act as the principle of reflection directs, has something like the following structure:

(a) Just as it is evident that the eye's function is to see, so is it evident that conscience's function is to govern.

(b) Therefore, we ought to acknowledge this authority and be governed by conscience (or, alternatively, govern ourselves by conscience). That is, we ought to act on motives which on reflection we approve (disinterestedly and dispassionately).

Now, how do we get from (a) to (b)?

(1) Butler sometimes stresses that this function of conscience is intended by God. Let us suppose that this is an essential premise. How then might the argument work? Would the idea be that we ought to do what God intends? What would ground that proposition? There are many ways philosophers have tried to do so, e.g. with the idea that we owe God obedience as gratitude, or as His property, or as creatures subservient to Him, or even with the idea that moral obligation simply consists in the will of God. Butler, however, fills in none of these steps for us, and it will be hard, I think, to suppose that he really believes that the obligation to follow conscience depends on our nature's being intended. I say this because his many remarks to the effect that our having a principle of reflection makes us a law to ourselves, and that following conscience is the law of our nature, seem to depend only on what our nature intrinsically is, and not on its being designed or intended.

(2) Alternatively, we might think that Butler means to be arguing in an Aristotelian fashion that, as we function properly only when we guide our conduct by conscience, we will therefore only flourish or realize our good by recognizing the authority of conscience and using it to guide our lives. But this suggestion is not without problems either. First, it seems to make conscience's authority conditional on its exercise realizing our good. And, while Butler says in various places that there cannot be any conflict between duty and interest (in the longest run) [e.g.: ``Reasonable self-love and conscience are the chief or superior principles in the nature of man: because an action may be suitable to this nature, though all other principles be violated; but becomes unsuitable, if either of those are. Conscience and self-love, if we understand our true happiness, always lead us the same way.'' (2.9)], he also says frequently that conscience is authoritative by its very nature (and this, it would seem, is independent of whether conscientious conduct realizes our good). Second, in the Preface, he explicitly takes Shaftesbury to task for this very position: ``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.'' (Pr.26)

(3) Another possibility might be that he thinks that, since the function of conscience is to govern, it is fitting that it do so. Butler may well believe this, but such an approach belongs to the ``other'' of the two methods of ethics than the one he is pursuing in the Sermons. ``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.'' (Pr.12)

[There is a more subtle version of (2) that Butler might be assuming. The idea would not be, as with Shaftesbury, that obligation itself consists in a motive of self-interest (recall Hutcheson's second kind of obligation), but just that we realize our good in functioning properly, and that our functioning properly itself consists in our governing ourselves, that is to say, our obligating ourselves, through the principle of reflection.]

III. Since none of these alternatives is entirely happy, it seems worthwhile to look for another interpretation of Butler's thesis that we are obligated to follow conscience by its being the law of our nature, and through our being, because we have a conscience, a law to ourselves.

We may start with the following passage:

``It is by this faculty, natural to man, that he is a moral agent, that he is a law to himself: by this faculty, I say, not to be considered merely as a principle in his heart, which is to have some influence as well as others; but considered as a faculty in kind and in nature supreme over all others, and which bears its own authority of being so.'' (2.8)

Thus, it is a necessary condition of the possibility of moral agency that the agent have a principle of reflection, with authority intrinsic to it. I suggest we interpret Butler as advancing the following claims:

1. A being who can have reasons or justifications for acting requires the capacity to frame a conception of which motives she ought to act on and to act on this conception (i.e. to act on those motives by which she judges she should be guided). This is so because a reason for a person to do something just is a motive by which, other things equal, she should be guided. But to frame a such conception she requires the capacity to reflect on her motives and assess them critically.

2. At its most fundamental level, the question, What motives should I act on? is really the same question as What motives should a person like me act on? That is, if there is a truth about what motives any given individual should act on, that would seem to hold in virtue of some universal truth about persons or agents generally. Thus, if it is the case that self-interest is a motive I ought to act on, that must be in virtue of some universal truth (say, that this a motive on which anyone should act), perhaps applied to my particular situation.

3. Thus, while self-love provides one with a perspective from which one can reflect on one's motives (i.e. by examining their respective contributions to one's own happiness or good on the whole), it does not seem to provide one with the necessary standpoint to assess whether any motive is one that one should be guided by, since the standpoint of one's own interests can hardly be appropriate for assessing the universal question: By which motives should a person (like me) be guided? Another way of putting this point is that a person with Butlerian self-love will not yet have a conception of his own interests as providing him with reasons or justifications to act. He will have a desire for his own greatest happiness or good, but this is different from thinking that his own interest is a reason to act. To think that he has to be able to take a critical standpoint towards the motive of self-love itself as a motive in a person (or an agent) generally.

4. From 3, it seems that an agent requires a disinterested standpoint (and we could add dispassionate, for similar reasons) from which she can reflect on and critically assess her own motives, and, thereby, frame a conception of which she ought to act on and form an intention to act on those she thinks she ought.

But now we have a Butlerian principle of reflection. And we can restate 4 by saying that in order to act for reasons an agent requires a principle of reflection, i.e. a reflective standpoint from which she makes judgments about which motives she should act on, by which judgment she is then able to be guided. Acting for reasons itself requires accepting the authority of the principle of reflection. To put the point in the general form of what in philosophy is called a transcendental deduction: accepting the authority of the principle of reflection is a condition of the very possibility of acting on any justification at all. Or: accepting the authority of the principle of reflection is a condition of the very possibility of being obligated.

IV. Another way of getting to the same point is that, in Butler's rational psychology, the principle of reflection is the faculty of practical judgment. Only by engaging this principle can an agent make a judgment about what he has reasons or justification for doing. To ask, therefore, what reason there is for an agent to follow his principle of reflection will be tantamount to asking what reason is there for an agent to do what he thinks he has reason to do.

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