Friday, 17 December 2010

Butler and the conscience

 In this video I explain what Butler said about the conscience and some of the strengths and weaknesses of his theory.

Joseph Butler and the conscience
Butler was a Church of England Bishop and theologian.
He tried to include revelations from God which appeared to be missing in Aquinas’ notion of the conscience.
Without providing any justification Butler asserts that the conscience was the voice of God Given that the conscience is God given he claims it is always right and must always be followed.
He sees the conscience at the top of the hierarchy of human values. At the bottom there is animal needs such as hunger, lust etc and this followed by two general impulses self-love and benevolence. At the top is the principle of reflection which is essentially the conscience. This is the deciding factor on how to meet those animal needs. 
‘There is a principle of reflection in men by which they distinguish between approval and disapproval of their own actions...this principal in conscience’
He recognised that people make mistakes in interpreting the conscience which leads to evil deeds . He said that people make themselves believe something is right easily when it is wrong and this he terms the ‘corruption of the conscience’. For Butler though mistakes wasn’t a big deal because most people know intuitively what the right thing to do is. 
He describes the conscience as something automatic that ‘magisterially exerts itself’ spontaneously ‘without being consulted’. 
  1. His hierarchy of human values seems logical and realistic.
  2. He recognises people make mistakes unlike Augustine
  3. The descriptions seem realistic about the conscience being automatic.
  4. It seems to fit in with the Christian faith very well promoting ideas about conscience being sovereign
  1. People can justify almost any action based on Butler’s account of the conscience
  2. Butler does not analyse whether the conscience is reason based like Aquinas.
  3. It is not universal as atheists would disagree that the conscience is the voice of God.
  4. There is no justification of why it is the voice of God. It is just a statement.
  5. It is a vague and unclear theory when decision making is considered
  6. One may not have any self-love for themselves

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