Joseph Butler

How could Kant’s system could possibly fulfil the function of any Practical Philosophy (i.e., ethics) if even the Kantian specialists’ mastery of it is questionable, unless it is an ethical system entirely for the use of a highly rarefied breed of academic philosopher.  Kant’s system grounded in duties, runs into predictable problems when different duties conflict, such as whether to lie in order to prevent someone from taking another’s life, and it is dead easy to construct these scenarios where the issues are straightforward, as when I decide to conceal an innocent party from some powerful people intent on immorally doing harm to them.  The issue is clear: I have decided to conceal, to mislead, to lie to a group of people in order to prevent them form carrying out a terrible crime.  Kant stuck to his guns and insisted that we must not lie, but if there was ever any doubt in the case, after what happened in Europe in the 1930s, it is manifestly clear that this is the wrong answer, which hasn’t prevented some highly intelligent people, such as Elizabeth Anscombe, from reaffirming it.

There is a real problem here if you don’t really believe that people should cling to abstract principles when the consequences of doing so are manifestly dire.  That suggests that there is something quite fundamentally amiss with Kant’s system, as those that have proposed ways of patching it up are clearly doing so according to some ethical principals that the system is incapable of providing.  Quite simply we must incorporate the anticipated consequences of our actions; this is after all what makes us unique as rational agents, an ability to use predictions to make predictions about the future, and to realise that we have hit a corner case, that our previous rules are no longer going to work.

While Kant acknowledges that Good Will (i.e., good motivation) is essential, his measure of it is our intention to stay loyal to our ethical system even when it is against our own narrow self-interest to do so, but note that neither can we sacrifice our ethics for some wider good, for the benefit of others.

We might be tempted to think that the motivation that makes an action good is having a positive goal—to make people happy, or to provide some benefit. But that is not the right sort of motive, Kant says. No outcome, should we achieve it, can be unconditionally good. Fortune can be misused, what we thought would induce benefit might actually bring harm, and happiness might be undeserved. Hoping to achieve some particular end, no matter how beneficial it may seem, is not purely and unconditionally good. It is not the effect or even the intended effect that bestows moral character on an action. All intended effects “could be brought about through other causes and would not require the will of a rational being, while the highest and unconditional good can be found only in such a will.” (Ibid., 401) It is the possession of a rationally guided will that adds a moral dimension to one’s acts. So it is the recognition and appreciation of duty itself that must drive our actions.

— Matt McCormick, Immanuel Kant, 8(c) ‘The Good Will’

Let us consider what Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) had to say about Practical Philosophy in his Dissertation II: Of the Nature of Virtue.  It is worth quoting at length (with the key sentence highlighted).

For as much as it has been disputed wherein virtue consists, or whatever ground for doubt there may be about particulars; yet, in general, there is in reality an universally acknowledged standard of it.  It is that, which all ages and all countries have made profession of in public: it is that, which every man you meet puts on the show of: it is that, which the primary and fundamental laws of all civil constitutions over the face of the earth make it their business and endeavour to enforce the practice of upon mankind: namely justice, veracity, and regard to common good.  It being manifest then, in general, that we have such a faculty or discernment as this, it may be of use to remark some things more distinctly concerning it.

First, It ought to be observed, that the object of this faculty is actions, comprehending under that name active or practical principles: those principles from which men would act, if occasions and circumstances gave them power; and which, when fixed and habitual in any person, we call his character.  It does not appear that brutes have the least reflex sense of actions, as distinguished from events: or that will and design, which constitute the very nature of actions as such, are at all an object to their perception.  But to ours they are: and they are the object, and the only one, of the approving and disapproving faculty.  Acting, conduct, behaviour, abstracted from all regard to what is, in fact and event, the consequence of it, is itself the natural object of the moral discernment; as speculative truth and falsehood is of speculative reason. Intention of such and such consequences, indeed, is always included ; for it is part of the action itself: but though the intended good or bad consequences do not follow, we have exactly the same sense of the action as if they did.  In like manner, we think well or ill of characters, abstracted from all consideration of the good or the evil, which persons of such characters have it actually in their power to do.  We never, in the moral way, applaud or blame either ourselves or others, for what we enjoy or what we suffer, or for having impressions made upon us which we consider as altogether out of our power: but only for what we do, or would have done, had it been in our power: or for what we leave undone, which we might have done, or would have left undone, though we could have done it.

­— Joseph Butler, Dissertation II: Of the Nature of Virtue, pp. 305

While this requires a little patience to absorb, it is perfectly comprehensible to the layman, and it is quite consistent with what classical philosophy (and the wisdom of the ages).  It also stands up.

Butler also explains the relationship between practical philosophy (ethics) and speculative philosophy (natural philosophy or science).  While speculative philosophy filters out ‘experimenter effects’ to study pure physical causation, practical philosophy filters out physical causation to understand mental causation.

This is not always understood clearly.  Consider the pioneers of natural philosophy: Kepler for celestial mechanics with his mathematical model of the solar system and Galileo in terrestrial mechanics and Newton unifying the two.  In celestial matters the models make astronomical predictions where there is no prospect of human intervention, but Galileo had to carefully filter out all extraneous effects—including mental effects—to derive his laws of motion.  So if Galileo had a pet cat that had interfered with any of the balls he was rolling down the inclined plain he would have discarded the results of that run, as everyone would expect him to.  This is so obvious that it is hard to see.  Physicists study pure physical causation with all mental causation abstracted.

The study of ethics is concerned with just the reverse, the study of mental causation with all physical causation abstracted, and we are especially trying to determine to what extent the motivation was to help or to harm others.  We see evidence of this all the time in the law, with a conviction for theft only succeeding once it can be shown that there was an intention to permanently deprive the victim of their property, and a conviction for murder only succeeding if it can be shown that there was the intention to kill the victim, with special exemptions if the defendant can be shown to be in such a deranged state of mind that no clear intention could have been formed.

Why doesn’t Butler get more attention, especially as we know that Hume was shaping his Treatise to get Butler’s approval.  Unfortunately Butler is admired more than he is read—I had to cut the pages of the 1851 edition of his collected works to get at the above quotation.  While there is a vast amount of material on Kant and Hume in the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy there are no articles on Joseph Butler.  When I enquired as to whether the Oxford World Classics had any plans to produce an edition on Joseph Butler’s works they told me that there wasn’t because that there was no demand in the universities for his writing.


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