Posted on Leave a comment

Joseph Butler (1692-1752)

Joseph Butler was born into a Presbyterian family at Wantage. He attended a dissenting academy, but then converted to the Church of England intent on an ecclesiastical career. Butler expressed distaste for Oxford's intellectual conventions while a student at Oriel College; he preferred the newer styles of thought, especially those of Locke, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, leading Hume to characterize Butler as one of those "who have begun to put the science of man on a new footing, and have engaged the attention, and excited the curiosity of the public." . Butler benefited from the support of Samuel Clarke and the Talbot family.

This Life as a Prelude to a Future Life

Butler considered the expectation of a future life to be the foundation of all our hopes and fears. He does not state exactly why this is so, and most commentators have concluded that he is referring to hopes and fears regarding what will happen to us as individuals when we die. Such an intention would be contrary to Butler's general line of thought. More consonant with what Butler does say is the Platonic point that one cannot truly benefit by acting viciously and then escaping punishment. Since that is what appears to happen in this world, appearances must be denied. Secondly, and here Butler would agree with Hume, in this world there is an appearance that the superintendence of the universe is not entirely just. Given the three logical options (1) the universe is ultimately unjust, (2) contrary to appearances, this world is somehow just and (3) the universe is just, but only when viewed more broadly than we are able to see now, Butler thinks there are good practical reasons for accepting the third in practice.

The first chapter of the Analogy is devoted to the argument that what little we know of the nature of death is insufficient to warrant an assurance that death is the end of us, and when we lack sufficient warrant for acting on the presumption of a change, we must act on the presumption of continuance. The recurrent objection, offered by such otherwise sympathetic readers as Swinburne, is that in the physical destruction of the body, we do have sufficient warrant. Chisholm (1986) has proposed a counter to this criticism.

Butler appends to his discussion of a future life a brief essay on personal identity, and this is the only part of the Analogy widely read today. That it is read independently is perhaps just as well since it is difficult to see how it is related to the general argument. Butler says he needs to answer objections to personal identity continuing after death, which he certainly must do, but the view that he proposes to refute is Locke's, and Locke seemed not to see that his theory personal identity presented a problem for expectation of a future life. Locke's theory was that memory is constitutive of personal identity, and even if Butler is right in his objection to Locke's theory, he certainly needs personal memories to be retained since they are presupposed by his theory of rewards and punishments after death.