Throughout the whole of the Analogy it is manifest that the interest which lay closest to Butler's heart was the ethical. His whole cast of thinking was practical. The moral nature of man, his conduct in life, is that on account of which alone an inquiry into religion is of importance. The systematic account of this moral nature is to be found in the famous Sermons preached at the Chapel of the Rolls, especially in the first three. In these sermons Butler has made substantial contributions to ethical science, and it may be said with confidence, that in their own department nothing superior in value appeared during the long interval between Aristotle and Kant. To both of these great thinkers he has certain analogies. He resembles the first in his method of investigating the end which human nature is intended to realize; he reminds of the other by the consistency with which he upholds the absolute supremacy of moral law.
In his ethics, as in his theology, Butler had constantly in view a certain class of adversaries, consisting partly of the philosophic few, partly of the fashionably educated many, who all participated in one common mode of thinking. The keynote of this tendency had been struck by Hobbes, in whose philosophy man was regarded as a mere selfish sensitive machine, moved solely by pleasures and pains. Cudworth and Clarke had tried to place ethics on a nobler footing, but their speculations were too abstract for Butler and not sufficiently "applicable to the several particular relations and circumstances of life."
His inquiry is based on teleological principles. "Every work, both of nature and art, is a system; and as every particular thing both natural and artificial is for some use or purpose out of or beyond itself, one may add to what has been already brought into the idea of a system its conduciveness to this one or more ends." Ultimately this view of nature, as the sphere of the realization of final causes, rests on a theological basis; but Butler does not introduce prominently into his ethics the specifically theological groundwork, and may be thought willing to ground his principle on experience. The ethical question then is, as with Aristotle, what is the τέλος of man? The answer to this question is to be obtained by an analysis of the facts of human nature, whence, Butler thinks, "it will as fully appear that this our nature, i.e. constitution, is adapted to virtue, as from the idea of a watch it appears that its nature, i.e. constitution or system, is adapted to measure time." Such analysis had been already attempted by Hobbes, and the result he came to was that man naturally is adapted only for a life of selfishness, - his end is the procuring of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. A closer examination, however, shows that this at least is false.
The truth of the counter propositions, that man is φύσει πολιτικός, that the full development of his being is impossible apart from society, becomes manifest on examination of the facts. For while self-love plays a most important part in the human economy, there is no less evidently a natural principle of benevolence. Moreover, among the particular passions, appetites and desires there are some whose tendency is as clearly towards the general good as that of others is towards the satisfaction of the self. Finally, that principle in man which reflects upon actions and the springs of actions, unmistakably sets the stamp of its approbation upon conduct that tends towards the general good. It is clear, therefore, that from this point of view the sum of practical morals might be given in Butler's own words - "that mankind is a community, that we all stand in a relation to each other, that there is a public end and interest of society, which each particular is obliged to promote." But deeper questions remain.
The threefold division into passions and affections, self-love and benevolence, and conscience, is Butler's celebrated analysis of human nature as found in his first sermon. But by regarding benevolence less as a definite desire for the general good as such than as kind affection for particular individuals, he practically eliminates it as a regulative principle and reduces the authorities in the polity of the soul to two - conscience and self-love.
But the idea of human nature is not completely expressed by saying that it consists of reason and the several passions. "Whoever thinks it worth while to consider this matter thoroughly should begin by stating to himself exactly the idea of a system, economy or constitution of any particular nature; and he will, I suppose, find that it is one or a whole, made up of several parts, but yet that the several parts, even considered as a whole, do not complete the idea, unless in the notion of a whole you include the relations and respects which these parts have to each other." This fruitful conception of man's ethical nature as an organic unity Butler owes directly to Shaftesbury and indirectly to Aristotle; it is the strength and clearness with which he has grasped it that gives peculiar value to his system.
The special relation among the parts of our nature to which Butler alludes is the subordination of the particular passions to the universal principle of reflection or conscience. This relation is the peculiarity, the cross, of man; and when it is said that virtue consists in following nature, we mean that it consists in pursuing the course of conduct dictated by this superior faculty. Man's function is not fulfilled by obeying the passions, or even cool self-love, but by obeying conscience. That conscience has a natural supremacy, that it is superior in kind, is evident from the part it plays in the moral constitution. We judge a man to have acted wrongly, i.e. unnaturally, when he allows the gratification of a passion to injure his happiness, i.e. when he acts in accordance with passion and against self-love. It would be impossible to pass this judgment if self-love were not regarded as superior in kind to the passions, and this superiority results from the fact that it is the peculiar province of self-love to take a view of the several passions and decide as to their relative importance. But there is in man a faculty which takes into consideration all the springs of action, including self-love, and passes judgment upon them, approving some and condemning others.
From its very nature this faculty is supreme in authority, if not in power; it reflects upon all the other active powers, and pronounces absolutely upon their moral quality. Superintendency and authority are constituent parts of its very idea. We are under obligation to obey the law revealed in the judgments of this faculty, for it is the law of our nature. And to this a religious sanction may be added, for "consciousness of a rule or guide of action, in creatures capable of considering it as given them by their Maker, not only raises immediately a sense of duty, but also a sense of security in following it, and a sense of danger in deviating from it." Virtue then consists in following the true law of our nature, that is, conscience. Butler, however, is by no means very explicit in his analysis of the functions to be ascribed to conscience. He calls it the Principle of Reflection, the Reflex Principle of Approbation, and assigns to it as its province the motives or propensions to action. It takes a view of these, approves or disapproves, impels to or restrains from action. But at times he uses language that almost compels one to attribute to him the popular view of conscience as passing its judgments with unerring certainty on individual acts.
Indeed his theory is weakest exactly at the point where the real difficulty begins. We get from him no satisfactory answer to the inquiry, What course of action is approved by conscience? Every one, he seems to think, knows what virtue is, and a philosophy of ethics is complete if it can be shown that such a course of action harmonizes with human nature. When pressed still further, he points to justice, veracity and the common good as comprehensive ethical ends. His whole view of the moral government led him to look upon human nature and virtue as connected by a sort of pre-established harmony. His ethical principle has in it no possibility of development into a system of actual duties; it has no content. Even on the formal side it is a little difficult to see what part conscience plays. It seems merely to set the stamp of its approbation on certain courses of action to which we are led by the various passions and affections; it has in itself no originating power. How or why it approves of some and not of others is left unexplained.
Butler's moral theory, like those of his English contemporaries and successors, is defective from not perceiving that the notion of duty can have real significance only when connected with the will or practical reason, and that only in reason which wills itself have we a principle capable of development into an ethical system. It has received very small consideration at the hands of German historians of ethics.
See T. Bartlett, Memoirs of Butler (1839). The standard edition of Butler's works is that in 2 vols. (Oxford, 1844). Editions of the Analogy are very numerous; that by Bishop William Fitzgerald (1849) contains a valuable Life and Notes. W. Whewell published an edition of the Three Sermons, with Introduction. Modern editions of the Works are those by W.E. Gladstone (2 vols. with a 3rd vol. of Studies Subsidiary, 1896), and J.H. Bernard, (2 vols. in the English Theological Library, 1900). For the history of the religious works contemporary with the Analogy, see Lechler, Gesch. d. Engl. Deismus; M. Pattison, in Essays and Reviews; W. Hunt, Religious Thought in England, vols., ii. and iii.; L. Stephen, English Thought in the 18th Century; J.H. Overton and F. Relton, The English Church from the Accession of George I. to the End of the 18th Century.
(R. Ad.; A. J. G.)