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December 2014

Self-Interest and Social Order in Classical Liberalism: Joseph Butler, Continued

Smith continues his discussion of Butler’s theory of moral psychology, and summarizes his ideas about conscience and rational self-interest.

In my last essay I explained some basic themes found in Bishop Butler’s theory of ethics, much of which includes what we now call “psychology.” In this essay I recap those themes, expand upon them, and summarize Butler’s theory of conscience. I strongly recommend that you read the previous part before tackling this one.

In regard to our egoistic tendencies that promote our private good, in contrast to those benevolent tendencies that promote the public good, Butler claimed that these ends “do indeed perfectly coincide; and to aim at public and private good are so far from being inconsistent, that they mutually promote each other.” (Here as elsewhere we see the influence of Shaftesbury’s ideas, discussed in Part 1 of this series, on Butler’s thinking.) Butler continued: 

[T]hough benevolence and self-love are different; though the former tends most directly to public good, and the latter to private: yet they are so perfectly coincident, that the greatest satisfactions to ourselves depend upon our having benevolence in a due degree; and…self-love is one chief security in our right behavior towards society. It may be added, that their mutual coinciding, so that we can scarce promote one without the other, is equally a proof that we were made for both.

Suppose we were motivated solely by narrow self-interest and never desired to help others. Even here, Butler contended, in an early version of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, that actions based solely on self-interest will often benefit others: “by acting merely from regard (suppose) to reputation, without any consideration of the good of others, men often contribute to the public good.” But self-interest is not the only principle that actuates our behavior; we are also motivated by a general principle of benevolence, a disinterested desire to help others. Introspection and experience reveal this other-regarding propensity of human nature with as much certainty as they reveal our self-regarding propensity. That disinterested benevolence motivates many of our actions is evident to common sense, so most people rarely if ever question the existence of the benevolent principle. Only philosophers, said Butler, would deny so obvious a truth, typically by redefining ordinary words in an effort to reduce benevolent actions to disguised forms of self-interest. According to psychological egoists, all actions involve a desire of the self and are efforts to satisfy that desire, so all actions are ultimately self-interested. I discussed Butler’s objections to this specious reasoning in my last essay; here I will only mention one of his interesting examples. Butler pointed out that the basic argument of psychological egoism would also apply to our reasoning. Suppose we wish to solve a mathematical problem. Well, we desire to solve the problem, and in seeking for a solution we attempt to satisfy that desire. Does this mean that all mathematical reasoning, indeed all reasoning, is self-interested per se? According to Butler, this would be an abuse of language, an absurd way of speaking. But such is the inner logic of psychological egoism.

As I also noted in my last essay, Butler denied that every human action is motivated either by self-love or by benevolence. On the contrary, a vast range of actions results from particular desires to attain concrete objectives. When we eat because we are hungry, it is hunger, not self-interest, that motivates us to act. When we pity a person in pain and seek to relieve his suffering, it is the desire to lessen his pain, not benevolence, that motivates us to act. As is clear from these examples, some particular impulses are more closely related to self-interest than to benevolence, and vice versa, but it does not follow that the actions stemming from such impulses are motivated by either self-love or benevolence. This is because we frequently act on particular impulses without considering their broader implications. Here is how Butler put it:

[M]en have various appetites, passions, and particular affections, quite distinct both from self-love and from benevolence; all of these have a tendency to promote both public and private good, and may be considered as respecting others and ourselves equally and in common; but some of them seem most immediately to respect others, or tend to public good; others of them most immediately to respect self, or tend to private good: as the former are not benevolence, so the latter are not self-love: neither sort are instances of our love either to ourselves or others; but only instances of our Maker’s care and love both of the individual and the species, and proofs that he intended we should be instruments of good to each other, as well as that we should be so to ourselves.

It is only when we rationally examine a specific impulse and place it within the broader context of self-love or benevolence that such actions become either self-interested or benevolent. Thus if I attempt to help a person in pain because I view benevolence (in certain circumstances) as morally right, then my action involves more than satisfying a specific desire; now it also entails an attempt to do what I regard as right. The same reasoning applies to particular impulses that may appear self-interested but are not truly so unless they are evaluated as proper means to my happiness. When particular impulses, of whatever type, are not evaluated in this manner, they are apt to be pursued without moderation (or insufficiently) and thereby prove detrimental to our happiness. In any case, only when we take an action because we believe it will further our own self-interest should that action be classified as self-interested, for only here is our own welfare and happiness the purpose of our action.

According to Butler, happiness can be achieved only with the proper balance of our many passions and appetites. Both self-love and benevolence are natural and praiseworthy, and they work in tandem. The benevolent principle restrains our egoistic impulses and tends to hinder us from hurting others in our pursuit of happiness, and the selfish principle likewise restrains our benevolent impulses from being pursued in excess, to the point of harming our essential interests. The proper exercise of both principles is therefore necessary to happiness, and this requires that many particular impulses be subsumed and evaluated within the broader framework of the general principles of self-love and benevolence.

In addition to the features of human nature that I have mentioned so far, Butler included “a principle of reflection in men, by which they distinguish between, approve and disapprove their own actions.” This principle of reflection is what Butler called “conscience.” This is an extremely important subject in its own right, one that is too often omitted in discussions of the moral theories affiliated with classical liberalism. I hope eventually to devote some essays to the subject of conscience (sometimes called the moral sense), but here, for the sake of completeness, I shall simply touch upon some basic points. Butler wrote:

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 thereupon. In this survey it approves of one, disapproves of another, and towards a third is affected in neither of these ways, but is quite indifferent. This principle in man, by which he approves or disapproves his heart, temper, and actions, is conscience; for this is the strict sense of the word, though sometimes it is used to take in more. And that this faculty tends to restrain men from doing mischief from each other, and leads them to do good, is too manifest to need being insisted upon.

Butler gave the example of the natural affection that parents feel for their children. This natural impulse typically causes parents to provide basic care for their children, but more is added when parents deliberately reflect on their parental obligations. At this point, thanks to the reflective faculty of conscience, “the affection becomes a much more settled principle” and motivates parents to undergo “more labour and difficulties” for the sake of their children than affection alone might bring about. In other words, conscience, after distinguishing between good and bad impulses, transforms our good impulses into matters of moral principle—general rules that we ought to follow (and generally do follow) in the absence of extenuating circumstances. Unlike some moral sense theorists, for whom conscience is an innate feeling, in effect, Butler viewed conscience as our ability to rationally assess the pros and cons of our particular impulses, rank them according to their importance in the attainment of happiness, and evaluate specific actions accordingly. The categorization of particular passions and affections as either self-regarding or other-regarding is an important part of this process, one that enables the reflective conscience to consider the essential characteristics of actions rather than getting bogged down in nonessential differences.

In a manner similar to Immanuel Kant’s later defense of moral autonomy, Butler declared that it is “by this faculty [of conscience], natural to man, that he is a moral agent, that he is a law to himself.” We are self-legislating insofar as we must decide for ourselves which moral principles to follow, and in making these decisions conscience has final authority. Unlike Kant, however, Butler did not defend moral duty for its own sake. Rather, Butler regarded happiness as the ultimate end of human action, and happiness cannot be attained by any random means. Like the ancient Stoics, Butler argued that we must follow our nature to achieve happiness; and well before David Hume called attention to the various meanings of “natural” Butler acknowledged the same ambiguity. As a result, he discussed and excluded several meanings of “nature,” after which he explained that in dubbing certain actions “unnatural” he meant actions that are “utterly disproportionate to the nature of man.” Happiness requires that the passions and affections that comprise the emotional nature of man must be ordered according to rational principles, as determined by conscience; this is the “natural supremacy, of the faculty which surveys, approves or disapproves the several affections of our mind and actions of our lives, being that by which men are a law to themselves, their conformity or disobedience to which law of our nature renders their actions, in the highest and most proper sense, natural or unnatural.”

Butler argued that “natural,” morally considered, does not mean acting on a strong impulse or fleeting desire, for such actions will not further the pursuit of happiness, which is natural to man. In no instance should we permit unreasoned desires to trump our rational self-interest.

[I]f passion prevails over self-love, the consequent action is unnatural; but if self-love prevails over passion, the action is natural: it is manifest that self-love is in human nature a superior principle to passion. [I]f we will act conformably to the economy of man’s nature, reasonable self-love must govern.

As with all sketches, my sketch of Butler’s theory of moral psychology has omitted a good deal of important material, including some of the arguments he used to defend his ideas. I have devoted considerable space to Butler’s ideas for three reasons: first, because of their inherent interest; second, because of their immense influence on subsequent British Moralists, many of whom were classical liberals; and, third, because they illustrate the inextricable connection between psychology and ethics—a connection that was well understood and extensively discussed by classical liberals.

This is part of a series