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  • Fifteen Sermons and Other Writings on Ethics by Joseph Butler
  • Ralph Wedgwood
Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons and Other Writings on Ethics. Edited by David McNaughton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xl + 204. Paper, $24.95.

As a young Anglican clergyman, Joseph Butler (1692–1752) published the first edition of his Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel in 1721; a revised edition appeared in 1729. Almost immediately, it was widely understood that these sermons present a strikingly subtle and careful form of a relatively traditional conception of ethics, in contrast to the more radical views of other philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes. Only a few years later, David Hume was much concerned to assimilate Butler's insights, while himself arguing for more radical views; and those who sought to respond to Hume, such as Richard Price and Thomas Reid, drew deeply on Butler's thought.

Such early utilitarians as Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill seem less influenced by Butler. However, Butler's sermons appeared on university syllabuses in Oxford and Cambridge from the 1830s, giving them great influence on nineteenth-century British thought. Henry Sidgwick was deeply impressed by Butler's work; and, through Sidgwick, Butler influenced both G. E. Moore and C. D. Broad. His fame did not wane until the mid-twentieth century.

Unlike Hobbes, Hume, Bentham, and Immanuel Kant, Butler does not have even the outlines of a complete ethical theory. Indeed, he deliberately steers clear of many controversial issues. His goal is just to clear away certain philosophical errors that in his view undermine our disposition towards virtue. Clearing up these errors reveals certain fundamental ethical truths; and a firm grasp of these truths, he believes, is of real practical value in the course of life.

These truths are, in Butler's view, perennial truths, which were appreciated, at least implicitly, by the stoics, by the church fathers like Augustine, and by the authors of the Bible itself. Butler sets out to give a careful defence of these perennial truths, and to make it clear that they are compatible both with the form of Christianity to which he adhered, and with all genuine insights of an age that was shaped by the influence of John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Lord Shaftesbury.

For Butler, the most important of these truths is that, as he puts it, we have "an obligation to the practice of virtue" (Butler's preface to the 1729 edition, paragraph 12). Such truths of ethics are in a way written into "human nature," and so can be investigated empirically, by studying the human mind and the role and function of its various dispositions and capacities.

This empirical investigation reveals three motivating principles in the human mind. Firstly, we have conscience, which more-or-less reliably informs us of what virtue requires, [End Page 563] and of how we have an "obligation" to live (although unfortunately we are liable to deceive ourselves about what our conscience is telling us). Secondly, we have self-love, which inclines us to seek our own happiness and pleasure. Thirdly, we have numerous particular passions, which impel us to seek various particular ends—typically, ends involving some relationship between ourselves and the external world.

According to Butler, these motivating principles are hierarchically structured: the role or function of conscience is to regulate how we are motivated both by the particular passions and by self-love; the role of self-love is to regulate how we are motivated by the particular passions; and the role of the particular passions—when they are properly regulated by conscience and self-love—is to help us to lead a life that is both happy and virtuous.

In this volume, David McNaughton has produced the first annotated complete edition of the sermons since the edition of J. H. Bernard (1900). It also includes Butler's other important ethical writings: the first appendix, "A Dissertation upon the Nature of Virtue," to Butler's great theological work, The Analogy of Religion; his Sermon Before the House of Lords; and part of the correspondence, written while still a student, with his older contemporary Samuel Clarke.

Bernard's edition included all the differences between the...


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