Philosophy 433                         History of Ethics                       Darwall                        Winter 2008




I.  Transcendental argument. 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
               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.
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.
II.  Against psychological egoism and egoistic anti-moralismIn Sermon IV Butler turns to trying to show that, at the least, there is no necessary conflict between self-love and benevolence, indeed, that in large measure the ends of these two desires coincide.  The strongest claim for which he argues here is that these ends coincide exactly, if not in this life, then . . .
               He argues first that any simple egoistic psychology is likely to be based on confusion. 
               A.  It cannot be the case that "particular appetites and passions" all have as their objects simply some pleasure that arises from satisfying desire.  "That all particular appetites and passions are towards external things themselves, distinct from the pleasure arising from them, is manifested from hence; that there could not be this pleasure, were it not for that prior suitableness between the object and the passion:  there could be no enjoyment or delight from one thing more than another, from eating food more than from swallowing a stone, if there were not an affection or appetite to one thing more than another."  (4.6)  The idea here is that pleasure itself involves having a favorable attitude toward something in which we take pleasure--pleasure has an object as much as does any desire.  If I enjoy eating food, and am disgusted by swallowing a stone, then I have a favorable attitude toward the former and an unfavorable attitude toward the latter.  But this attitude itself underlies, or simply becomes, a desire or aversion for these respective objects themselves when the object is not present but only in prospect.  Thus, the desire
will have as object the very thing in which pleasure will be taken if it is satisfied, and this will not be the state of pleasure itself.  That does not mean that one cannot desire pleasure; rather, that pleasure can only come if there is some thing that one can take pleasure in and which could become an object of desire directly.
               B.  Butler makes a related point in the part of the Preface relating to this Sermon.  No person could possibly have only self-love as a motive since the object of self-love is one's own pleasure or happiness, and that can only be realized if there are specific things that can give one pleasure, and hence, that one can want intrinsically.  "The very idea of an interested pursuit necessarily presupposes particular passions or appetites; since the very idea of interest or happiness consists in this, that an appetite or affection enjoys its object.  It is not because we love ourselves that we find delight in such and such objects,
but because we have particular affections towards them.  Take away these affections, and you leave self-love absolutely nothing at all to employ itself about . . . " (Pr.37)
               C.  Moreover, it will do no good, in arguing that all of our actions are motivated by self-regarding motives, to point out that we only do what we want, because the issue then is what we want, and it may be that some of our desires are other-regarding.  "Every particular affection, even the love of our neighbour, is as really our own affection, as self-love; and the pleasure arising from its gratification is as much my own pleasure, as the pleasure self-love would have, from knowing I myself should be happy some time hence, would be my own pleasure." (4.7)
               D.  Now none of this shows that we do in fact have other-regarding desires.  It is consistent with the arguments in A and B that while we have various desires for various objects, these all have as objects some state of oneself.  Thus, the desire for a hot shower on a cold day is a specific desire for a specific object, and not simply for pleasure or happiness, nonetheless it is a desire to be in a certain state oneself.  And perhaps all of our desires are like that.  Nonetheless, Butler argues, mainly in Sermon I, that the hypothesis that all human desire are self-regarding, and that we can have no direct desire for the good of another, only looks plausible so long as one thinks it to be supported by some a priori argument, and that such arguments are generally based on some confusion as in A,B, or C.  If we consider the question simply on empirical grounds the hypothesis is not well-supported.  "let it be observed, that whether man be thus, or otherwise constituted, what is the inward frame in this particular, is a mere question of fact or natural history, not provable immediately by reason.  It is therefore to be judged of and determined in the same way other facts or matters of natural history are . . . .  Now that there is some degree of benevolence amongst men, may be as strongly and plainly proved in all these ways, as it could possibly be proved, supposing there was this affection in our nature."  (1.6n)
               E.  Now if the object of self-love can only be accomplished if we satisfy our desires for specific objects, among which may be the good of others, we already have the result that a person's interest may not be advanced to the degree that he concerns himself with it.  It will be advanced only insofar as he realizes the objects of his various desires.  Moreover, Butler argues, a person may have too great a concern for his own good for his own good, so to speak.  Like the person at the party who constantly asks, "Are we having fun yet?" he may be too focused on being happy to enjoy the things that would make him happy.  "Disengagement is absolutely necessary to enjoyment; and a person may have so steady and fixed an eye upon his own interest, whatever he places it in, as may hinder him from attending to many gratifications within his reach, which others have their minds free and open to." (4.9)  He calls this a kind of paradox, and it has been often referred to, falling this discussion as the paradox of egoism (or hedonism):  "Immoderate self-love does very ill consult its own interest:  and, how much soever a paradox it may appear, it is certainly true, that even from self-love we should endeavour to get over all inordinate regard to, and consideration of ourselves."  (4.9)
               F.  In particular, Butler thinks that among the most important satisfactions to us are those we get from relations of affection and love of various types:  "the greatest satisfactions to ourselves depend upon our having benevolence in a due degree." (1.6)
               From all of this, Butler concludes that virtue and self-interest substantially coincide.  In a famous passage, known as the "cool hour passage", he writes:
               "It may be allowed, without any prejudice to the cause of virtue and religion, that our ideas of happiness and misery are of all our ideas the nearest and most important; that they will, nay, if you please, that they ought to prevail over those of order, and beauty, and harmony, and proportion, if there should ever be, as it is impossible there ever should be, any inconsistence between them . . . Let it be allowed, though virtue or moral rectitude does indeed consist in affection to and pursue of what is right and good, as such; yet, that when we sit down in a cool hour, we can neither justify to ourselves this or any other pursuit, till we are convinced that it will be for our happiness, or at least not contrary to it." (4.20)
               Now there is controversy over how to interpret this passage.  Some commentators argue that it shows that Butler really believes that when it comes to questions of final justification these can only be settled by looking to the agent's interest, that self-love is final in the order of justification.  I think this is mistaken.  First, the passage hardly requires this reading.  Both "let it be allowed" and "it may be allowed" should put us on our guard about whether Butler means to be endorsing the hypothesis he is "allowing".  Moreover, the Sermon has a paragraph (3) that suggests that Butler is willing to make these "allowances" in order to persuade people that they can be benevolent at no real cost to themselves.  Second, in addition to the fact that Butler's central doctrine of the authority of conscience seems to require a conflicting interpretation, the paragraph just following suggests this same conflicting interpretation:  "Common reason and humanity will have some influence upon mankind, whatever becomes of speculations; but, so far as the interests of virtue depend upon its being secured from open scorn, so far its very being in the world depends upon its appearing to have no contrariety to private interest and self-love." 
III.  Dissertation  Although we hardly have time to discuss A Dissertation Upon the Nature of Virtue in any detail, there is one paragraph I want to point out, viz., para. 8, in which Butler explicitly considers Hutcheson's thesis that "virtue is resolvable into benevolence."  Against this, Butler argues that there are many things we approve and disapprove on reflection other than benevolence and the want of it, respectively.  One reason for examining his counter-instances carefully is that they read like a catalogue of similar arguments that came to be made against utilitarianism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  If benevolence were the sum of virtue "we should neither approve of benevolence to some persons rather than to others, nor disapprove injustice and falsehood upon any other account than merely as an overbalance of happiness was foreseen likely to be produced by the first, and of misery by the second."  He then makes the fascinating suggestion that while benevolence may be God's only virtue, a benevolent God would constitute the human psyche with a disposition to disapprove of "falsehood, unprovoked
violence, and injustice."  Sound like rule-utilitarianism?