Philosophy 433                         History of Ethics                                   Darwall                        Winter 2008




I.  Teleological strategy (theological).  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."


II.  Filling out the teleological picture: private/public.  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.


III.  Principle of reflection (conscience).  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.


IV.  Authority of conscience/the teleological argument.  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)


            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.


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.]