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The Core Curriculum

Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752)

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Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) was an English philosopher and theologian in the Anglican Church. His most famous work, The Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, includes an extensive discussion of Hobbes’s moral psychology, which, as interpreted by Butler, included commitments to both psychological and rational egoism. Psychological egoism is the theory that the only ultimate objects of desire are self- interested, and rational egoism is the theory that the only ultimate objects of rational desire ought to be self-interest. Whether or not Hobbes’s considered views on moral psychology include commitments to either form of egoism is a matter of scholarly debate.

Still, it is commonly accepted that Hobbes did express the view that many of our strongest motives are egoistic. In his Sermons, Butler contests the egoism he attributed to Hobbes with a variety of different arguments aimed to show the possibility of as well as the rationality and ethical worth of altruistic motives. Butler’s arguments were hugely  influential in the history of British Moralism; one finds them explicitly rehearsed and/ or implicitly appealed to in the work of later moralists such as Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Thomas Reid. 


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