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Divine Command Theory and Utilitarianism forgotten bedfellows? Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (part one)

January 16th, 2018 by Matt

This post is adapted from a short essay I wrote on William Paley’s Ethics

In a widely used textbook, James Rachels refers to “revolution in ethics” which occurred in the 18-19th centuries.  Referring to upheavals such as the American Revolution, French Revolution, Rachel’s contends that people began to think differently about Ethics. There arose “A new conception of ethics” a conception we today call “utilitarianism”. Rachels states that this was a theory of ethics “proposed by David Hume (1711-1776) but given definitive formulation by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill ( 1806-1873)”  Rachel’s continues:paley

Bentham’s argument for a new conception of ethics had a powerful influence. Morality, he [Bentham] urged is not a matter of pleasing God, nor is it about following abstract rules; Rather, morality is nothing more than the attempt to bring about as much happiness as possible into the world[1]

This picture of the history of moral thought seems to be widely held. Stephen Nathanson, for example, writes that utilitarians:

[R]eject moral codes or systems that consist of commands or taboos that are based on customs, traditions, or orders given by leaders or supernatural beings. Instead, utilitarians think that what makes a morality be true or justifiable is its positive contribution to human (and perhaps non-human) beings.[2]

The story draws a contrast between moral theories which based morality on divine commands or divine laws and those based on human happiness. The claim is that Utilitarianism was a new or novel theory of ethics proposed by secular thinkers such as Hume and Bentham in the late 18th century. This new happiness based conception was in contrast to and replaced the divine command conception. Utilitarianism is associated with social and political radicalism and the upheavals that followed the American revolution and French revolutions and so is seen not just as secular, but radical.

I maintain this story is untrue, manifestly untrue when one examines 18th-century moral thought. I can’t spell all the ins and outs here, so will focus on one book that this narrative fails to come to grips with. This is William Paley’s The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (henceforth The Principles) which was first published in 1785, four years before Jeremy Bentham published An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

Paley book is significant for three reasons: First, it is a clear presentation of the position known as Theological Utilitarianism: “a doctrine according to which we have a duty to promote the good of humanity because God, our universally benevolent creator, wants us to do so.” [3]   Second, theological utilitarianism was highly influential in the eighteenth century and represented a common way people thought about morality and politics which had dominated English moral thought for several decades. Third, given the rise of classical utilitarianism under Bentham and Mill and its dominance in contemporary moral thought today, utilitarianism is often viewed as a thoroughly secular, liberal and radical moral philosophy at odds with conservative religious and moral viewpoints. Paley’s book provides insight into an alternative conservative religious tradition of utilitarian thought which predates Bentham by several decades.

  1. Paley’s Theological Utilitarianism

 In The Principles Paley summarizes theological utilitarianism succinctly: “Virtue is ‘the doing good to mankind, in obedience to the will of God, and for the sake of everlasting happiness.’[4]If we were to, anachronistically, expound Paley’s position in today’s philosophical categories, his summary offers an answer to three meta-ethical questions.

The first is the question of moral ontology: if moral requirements exist, what are they what is there nature? Paley proposes a divine command theory of meta-ethics whereby “the property of ethical wrongness is (identical) with the property of being contrary to God’ s command. ” [5]

The second, is the question “why be moral”? Sometimes doing my duty conflicts with my self-interest, or with goals I really want to achieve in such cases why should I follow duty and not prudence? Paley’s answer is to distinguish between “what we shall gain or lose in the present world”, and what “what we shall gain or lose in the world to come.” Because God is just and awards good behaviour with eternal life, it is never in our long-term best interests to disobey [6]

The third, question is:“what is the content of morality?” what types of actions do moral requirements supervene upon. Paley’s answer is that:

God wills and wishes the happiness of his creatures. And this conclusion being once established, we are at liberty to go on with the rule built upon it, namely, “that the method of coming at the will of God, concerning any action, by the light of nature, is to inquire into the tendency of that action to promote or diminish the general happiness.  [7]

An interesting feature of Paley’s answer is his appeal to rules. Contemporary moral philosophers distinguish between act and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarians hold that “we should perform the action that will create the greatest net utility.” [8]  The principle of utility is “applied on a case by case basis. The right action in any situation is the one that yields more utility (i.e. creates more well-being) than other available actions.” [9] By contrast rule utilitarians adopt a “two-part view… a) a specific action is morally justified if it conforms to a justified moral rule, and b) a moral rule is justified if its inclusion into our moral code would create more utility than other possible rules (or no rule at all).” [10]  In contemporary moral philosophy, this distinction “was not sharply drawn until the late 1950s when Richard Brandt and introduced this terminology”. [11].

The move from act to rule utilitarianism appears to have been motivated by problems which emerged in act utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism seemed to imply that a doctor who could save five people from death by killing one healthy person and using that person’s organs for life-saving transplants, should do so. Rule utilitarianism avoids this: while more good would be done by killing the healthy patient in a specific individual case. Having a publically acknowledged and accepted general rule which permits doctors to kill patients whenever they perceive there is the need for organs arguably would have bad consequences.

Interestingly, Paley draws this distinction in 1785 he contrasts the particular and general consequences of performing an action. The particular consequences are the total consequences of performing an action itself. The general consequences, however, are those that would occur “if the same sort of actions were generally permitted.” Paley identifies himself in what today we would call the rule utilitarian position. Interesting he does so, in anticipation of the problems act utilitarianism would face. Paley forsees that act utilitarianism would have the kind of implications that critics would later press and stresses that utility attaches to the rule to avoid the problem.

In my next post in this series, I will look at the important influence theological utilitarianism had in the 18th century.

[1] James Rachels The Elements of Moral Philosophy, (Random House: New York, 1993) 80

[2]  Stephen Nathanson “Act and Rule Utilitarianism” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy available at

[3] Matti Häyry “Passive Obedience and Berkeley’s Moral Philosophy” Berkeley Studies 23 (2012) 3

[4] William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy [1785] Book I chapter 7, available online at accessed 25/8/2016

[5] This technical definition comes from Robert Adams “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979) 76.  Paley of course does not use this level of precision; I am attempting rather to interpret Paley’s answers in light of more recent technical discussions of the issues.

[6] William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy Bk II Chapter 3

[7] Ibid Book II Chapter 5

[8] Stephen Nathanson “Act and Rule Utilitarianism” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy available at

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

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