Butler, Fanaticism, and Conscience

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Butler refused to be satisfied with just one leading principle, or rational basis for human action, but in the end settled for three: self-love, to provide for our ‘own private good’; benevolence, to consider ‘the good of our fellow creatures’ (II:II); and conscience, ‘to preside and govern’ over our lives as a whole (2:14). By so doing he hoped to ensure a completeness to our ethical scheme, so that nothing would be omitted from our moral deliberations. Yet by so doing he also exposed himself to severe criticism. For any such appeal to a plurality of principles, as Green remarked, is ‘repugnant both to the philosophic craving for unity, and to that ideal of “singleness of heart” which we have been accustomed to associate with the highest virtue’. More specifically, by appealing to a plurality of principles Butler faced the charges of (i) circularity, where the principles come to define and defend each other; (ii) inconsistency, where the principles ‘take turns’ at being primary and hence render each other superfluous; and (iii) incompleteness, where the ‘primary principle’ is itself undefined or undefended. As the tale has been told Butler stands accused of all three of these errors.

Original Citation

James, E.W. (1981). Butler, Fanaticism, and Conscience. Philosophy, 56(218), 517-532. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0031819100050555