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Butler on Benevolence and Conscience

  • Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (a1)

It is tempting and even useful to read the history of ethics from Hobbes to Rousseau, and even to Kant, as a response to the devastation of making self-interest—the movement to the satisfaction of particular ego-oriented desires—either the basic motive, or the basic form of motivational explanation. After Hobbes, philosophical ingenuity allied with Christian sensibility to search for countervailing forces.

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1 Butler does not go as far as he himself might wish; despite the Platonic stance, he does not drop the mechanistic language of motivation altogether. Against his own better intentions, he speaks the language of mechanics, looking for balances to outweigh self-love. He uses three leading metaphors: metaphors of natural growth; those of weights and counter-balances; and those of a system of parts designed for an end. Cf. Sermon I, ‘Upon the Social Nature of Man’, and The Analogy of Natural Religion, Part I, Chap. 5 (The Works of Joseph Butler (Oxford University Press, 1844). All references will be to this edition).

2 Cf. Sturgeon Nicholas, ‘Butler's Ethics’, Philosophical Review, 85 (1976).

3 ‘The common virtues and the common vices of mankind may be traced up to benevolence or the want of it… Benevolence seems… to include in it all that is good and worthy’ (Sermon XII, ‘Upon the Love of our Neighbour’).

4 ‘The practical reason of insisting so much upon this natural authority of the principle of reflection or conscience is that it seems in great measure overlooked by many…’ (‘Preface’, Sermons). ‘Had it [conscience] strength as it hath right; had it power as it hath manifest authority, it would absolutely gorern the world’ (Sermon II, Sec. III).

5 ‘Preface’, Sermons: ‘Besides, the very idea of an interested pursuit necessarily presupposes particular passions or appetites.…’

6 Hobbes , Leviathan, Part I, Chap. 7.

7 ‘A Dissertation upon the Nature of Virtue’, The Analogy of Religion.

8 Sermons V and VI, ‘Upon Compassion’.

9 ‘Preface’, Sermons: ‘Nothing can be more contrary to nature than vice.…’

10 As its etymology suggests, benevolence is a disposition for general good will, a disposition to be moved by the public interest, to contribute to the good of others. Although Butler sometimes uses ‘compassion’ synonymously with ‘benevolence’, it seems to be more particular, a specific sharing or expression of fellow-feeling, a direct affection.

11 ‘Upon Compassion’, Sermon V.

12 Sermon I, ‘Upon the Social Nature of Man’, footnote 5.

13 Butler buffs will recognize that we left the text a long time ago. But I now drop all pretence of interpreting what he actually said and move to constructing the best possible argument for a position standing roughly on Butler's grounds. (This is like starting out by performing a score unspecified for instrument, and moving on towards improvising on a theme suggested by the composer.)

14 Sermon I, footnote 5.

15 This is what Sturgeon calls ‘The Full Transparency Thesis’, op. cit., p. 328.

16 This is what Sturgeon calls ‘The Full Naturalistic Thesis’, op. cit., p. 328.

17 Op. cit., p. 351.

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  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
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