Self‐Interest and Social Order in Classical Liberalism: Joseph Butler
Smith discusses Butler’s influential theory of psychology and his ideas about self‐interest and benevolence.
Joseph Butler (1692–1752)—better known as Bishop Butler—was born into a Presbyterian family in Wantage (in the county of Berkshire), England. He enrolled in one of the many dissenting academies—private institutions that provided a university education for Protestant dissenters from the Established Church of England—and remained there until age 23. Around that time (in 1715) Butler converted to the Anglican faith and entered Oriel College, Oxford, to study for holy orders. He found the intellectual life at Oxford stifling—“our people here,” he wrote to the Newtonian philosopher Samuel Clarke, “never had any doubt in their lives concerning a received opinion; so that I cannot mention a difficulty to them”—but he stuck it out and graduated in 1718. Not long afterward he was ordained deacon, then priest, and was appointed Preacher at the Rolls Chapel, in London. Butler was consecrated Bishop of Bristol in 1738.
It was while preaching at the Rolls Chapel that Butler delivered his Fifteen Sermons on Human Nature, which were published in 1726. (A second edition followed in 1729). It is in these Sermons that we find Butler’s celebrated refutation of psychological egoism. (See my last essay for an explanation of this doctrine.) Although Butler was not a classical liberal, his extensive exploration of the relationship between “self‐love” and “benevolence” influenced many eighteenth‐century liberal philosophers. A case in point is David Hume, who, despite his religious skepticism, admired Butler—and not only for his Sermons. Hume also respected Butler’s Analogy of Religion (1736), the most famous critique of deism ever written from a Christian perspective. As Ernest Campbell Mossner wrote in The Life of David Hume (1954, p. 110): “The Analogy was to remain the one theological work of the century that Hume was to deem worthy of serious consideration and whose author was always to be highly respected by him.”
Eighteenth‐century philosophers were not alone in praising Butler’s treatment of psychological egoism; we find the same esteem expressed by modern philosophers. For example, according to the English philosopher C.D. Broad (Five Types of Ethical Theory, 1930, p. 55), psychological egoism “was killed by Butler.” Broad continued:
[Butler] killed the theory so thoroughly that he sometimes seems to the modern reader to be flogging dead horses. Still, all good fallacies go to America when they die, and rise again as the latest discoveries of the local professors. So it will always be useful to have Butler’s refutation at hand.
In the Preface to his Sermons, Butler characterized what we now call psychological egoism as follows:
There is a strange affectation in many people of explaining away all particular affections, and representing the whole of life as nothing but one continual exercise of self‐love. Hence arises that surprising confusion and perplexity in the Epicureans of old, Hobbes, the author [Rochefoucauld] of Reflections, Sentences, et Maximes Morales, and this whole set of writers; the confusion of calling actions interested which are done in contradiction to the most manifest known interest, merely for the gratification of a present passion.
This melding of all motives into the single category of self‐interest (Butler normally spoke of “self‐love’) brings about a “total confusion of all language.” True, all desires are desires of the self, and in acting to satisfy a desire we seek to satisfy a desire that belongs to the self—“for no one can act but from a desire, or choice, or preference of his own”—but such truisms tell us nothing about the objectives, or goals, of our desires, which may be “interested” (self‐regarding) or “disinterested.” This, as I explained in my last essay, became the standard refrain among critics of psychological egoism, but Butler went far beyond this criticism. His Sermons contain a fascinating account of the appetites, passions, affections, and propensities in human nature that must be taken into account when considering what constitutes happiness and a good life. Butler also made a significant contribution to the theory of conscience—a topic of great interest to eighteenth‐century British Moralists.
Before presenting a summary of Butler’s major points, I wish to establish some background. First, we should consider the meanings of “self‐love” (or “self‐interest”) and “selfish.” Although Butler usually used “selfish” without any negative connotations, it was not uncommon for British Moralists to distinguish between selfishness and rational self‐interest. (Butler used terms like “cool self‐love” to describe the latter.) This passage from Edward Montague’s Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Ancient Republics Adapted to the Present State of Great Britain (1759) is quite typical. After affirming “an essential difference between our ideas of self‐love and selfishness,” Montague continued:
Self‐love, within its due bounds, is the practice of the great duty of self‐preservation, regulated by that law which the great Author of our being has given for that very end. Self‐love, therefore, is not only compatible with the most rigid practice of the social duties, but is in fact a great motive and incentive to the practice of all moral virtue. Whereas selfishness, by reducing every thing to the single point of private interest, a point which it never loses sight of, banishes all the social virtues….
A similar distinction was drawn by James Mackintosh in Dissertation on the Progress of Ethical Philosophy, published in 1830. (I discussed the political views of Mackintosh in parts 5 and 6 of my series on Edmund Burke.) In his admiring discussion of Butler, Mackintosh wrote:
A regard to our own general happiness is not a vice, but in itself an excellent quality. It were well if it prevailed more generally over craving and short‐sighted appetites. The weakness of the social affections, and the strength of private desires, properly constitute selfishness; a vice utterly at variance with the happiness of him who harbours it, and, as such, condemned by self‐love.
Although Butler, unlike Mackintosh, did not condemn “selfishness” per se as a vice, he did agree with the overall point that Mackintosh was making. Given Butler’s attack on psychological egoism, we might expect to find him calling for fewer actions motivated by self‐love. But this was not his position; on the contrary, Butler maintained that we need more self‐love in the world, not less: “The thing to be lamented is, not that men have so great regard to their own good or interest in the present world, for they have not enough….” Butler repeatedly pointed to instances of people who sacrifice their authentic self‐interest by acting on frivolous impulses and transitory emotions, without considering how those actions will affect their overall happiness. To understand Butler’s approach to this problem, we need to understand a few things about his views of human psychology.
According to Butler, if we are to understand human beings and their actions from a moral perspective, we must look at human nature as a system of interrelated propensities. This system, or “constitution” of human beings, means that we should not view any particular propensity, such as self‐interest or benevolence, in isolation from other motives; rather, we need to understand how our motives are related and how they should be regulated by reason in order to attain happiness.
Butler identified four basic types of propensities. The first are “particular passions and affections,” or motives that cause us to seek or to avoid specific external objectives. The second propensity is “cool self‐love,” or a reasoned concern for our long‐range happiness. The third is benevolence, or a rational concern for the welfare of others. Finally, we have the principle of conscience; this is our power to deliberate rationally over conflicting motives and decide which action will best promote our happiness in the long run.
The most interesting feature of Butler’s taxonomy of propensities is his distinction between self‐love and particular passions and affections. Self‐love, for Butler, is a general principle, a rational power that enables us to evaluate the desirability of specific actions within the context of our long‐range happiness. This distinction was also the core of Butler’s rejection of psychological egoism. Consider the example of eating food when we are hungry. Many people would call this a self‐interested action, but Butler disagreed. We normally eat to satisfy our hunger, not because we assess eating to be in our self‐interest. Hunger, not self‐interest, is what normally motivates us to eat something. Of course, a consideration of rational self‐interest may play a role here, as when we decide that one type of food is better for us than another. Butler freely conceded that real motives are often mixed and difficult to segregate, but he insisted that certain theoretical distinctions should be made if we are truly to understand human action.
Butler applied his analysis of particular propensities to a wide range of actions. For example, when we seek revenge we do so because we want to hurt another person, not because we believe that a particular act of revenge will further our self‐interest. On the contrary, vengeful acts may be contrary to our rational self‐interest, but we may undertake them anyway without thinking through their long‐range consequences. The same general reasoning applies to particular acts of benevolence. If we give money to a panhandler, we do so because we want to help him out, and this motive is not normally accompanied by reflecting on whether our benevolence is consistent with our self‐interest. Such considerations come into play only when we rationally reflect on particular actions and types of propensities in order to assess their role, if any, in furthering our own interests, specifically, our long‐range happiness.
Butler’s analysis leaves a good deal of room for “disinterested” actions, i.e., actions that are not motivated by considerations of self‐interest. Such actions may or may not be consistent with self‐love, but in any case their moral worth does not depend on whether their primary objective is to benefit ourselves or whether we intend to benefit others: “Or, in other words, we may judge and determine, that an action is morally good or evil, before we so much as consider whether it be interested or disinterested.” Egoistic actions may be virtuous or vicious, but the same is true of every type of action. Even benevolence can be a vice when pushed too far, as when we inflict serious harm on ourselves in an effort to help others. Disinterested actions (those actions undertaken without regard to ourselves) may result in “the utmost possible depravity” of which human nature is capable, as we find in acts of “disinterested cruelty.”
Although I had planned to cover Butler’s ideas in one essay, his thinking—especially his claim than many motives are neither self‐regarding or other-regarding—was so outside the box that I now think it advisable to continue this discussion in my next essay, in order to clarify some essential points. In addition, I want to discuss some implications of Butler’s psychological and moral theories for liberal political thought.