MandM header image 2

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

January 18th, 2018 by Matt

In my last post, I explained the position of Theological Utilitarianism as expounded in William Paley’s The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. I pointed out The Principles was first published in 1785, four years before Jeremy Bentham published An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. In this post, I want to look at the influence Theological Utilitarianism had in the 18th and 19th centuries. Was Paley expounding some novel idiosyncratic position? Or was he simply repeating a fairly mainstream position on the relationship between Gods law and happiness which had been around for decades?

  1. The influence of Theological Utilitarianism in the 18thand 19th centuries

Theological Utilitarianism sounds novel to contemporary ears. But it wasn’t an innovative position in the late eighteenth century. Paley notes in the preface that he is a “compiler” of earlier writers of moral theory. Schneewind, states that the theory he proposed was in fact “an assemblage of ideas developed by others and is presented to be learned by students rather than debated by colleagues. “[1] Some trace theological utilitarianism back to the divine command theory of John Locke[2]  However, the earliest clear exponent of this position appears to be George Berkeley’s sermons in 1712.[3]

It is worth looking at Berkeley in some detail.  According to Berkeley, things are “denominated good or evil” as “they are fitted to augment or impair our own Happiness” Good or Evil. On the other hand, “Moral Goodness” consists in a “Conformity to the Laws of God.” Berkley articulates the relationship between moral and non-moral goodness as follows:

For Laws being Rules directive of our Actions to the end intended by the Legislator, in order to attain the paleyKnowledge of God’s Laws, we ought first to enquire what that end is, which he designs should be carried on by human Actions. God is a Being of Infinite Goodness. it is plain the end he proposes is Good. But God enjoying in himself all possible Perfection, it follows that it is not his own Good, but that of his Creatures. Again, the Moral Actions of Men are entirely terminated within themselves, so as to have no influence on the other orders of Intelligences or reasonable Creatures: The end therefore to be procured by them, can be no other than the good of Men. But as nothing in a natural State can entitle one Man more than another to the favour of God, except only Moral Goodness, which consisting in a Conformity to the Laws of God, doth presuppose the being of such Laws, and Law ever supposing an end, to which it guides our Actions, it follows that Antecedent to the end proposed by God, no distinction can be conceived between Men; that end therefore itself or general design of Providence is not determined or limited by any Respect of Persons: It is not therefore the private Good of this or that Man, Nation or Age, but the general well-being of all Men, of all Nations, of all Ages of the World, which God designs should be procured by the concurring Actions of each individual. Having thus discover’d the great end, to which all Moral Obligations are Subordinate; it remains, that we enquire what Methods are necessary for the obtaining that End.[4]

When Berkeley says God is  infinitely good, he like Samuel Clarke seems to mean that God  has “an unalterable disposition to do and to communicate good or happiness.”[5] [6] God’s goal in issuing the commands he does is the happiness, impartially considered of all human beings.

Berkeley proceeds to note two ways that God could promote this happiness. One would be “without the injunction of any certain universal Rules of Morality, to to oblige “every one upon each particular Occasion, to consult the publick Good, and always to do that, which to him shall seem in the present time and circumstances, most to conduce to it.”  The second is  “by enjoining the Observation of some determinate, established Laws, which, if Universally practised, have from the Nature of things an Essential fitness to procure the well-being of Mankind” Berkeley argues that “”there lie several strong Objections.” Berkeley then anticipates the “self-effacing” objection to act utilitarianism arguing that anyone committed to promoting the happiness of others wouldn’t promulgate act utilitarianism as a decision procedure. Public endorsement and acceptance of the rule “do whatever maximises utility” would probably not maximise utility. Consequently, Berkeley concludes that God has followed the second method.

Stephen Darwall suggests that the best way to interpret Berkeley is to distinguish between his meta-ethical theory and normative theory. His meta-ethical theory attempts “to answer metaphysical questions of what goodness and rightness themselves, respectively, are.” On the other hand, his normative theory “concerns what actions or things are good and right.” Meta-ethically Berkeley is a divine command theorist “moral goodness consists” consists in a “Conformity to the Laws of God”. However, Berkeley’s normative theory was rule-utilitarian, God commands “Laws, which, if Universally practised, have from the Nature of things an Essential fitness to procure the well-being of Mankind”.[7]

A position very similar to Berkeley is hinted at in Butler’s writings[8] but is expounded more clearly in the writings of, John Gay [9] John Brown, and Abraham Tucker.   It’s clear that Paley clearly draws upon this earlier tradition.  In the preface to The Principles Paley acknowledges that he is attempting to compile and articulate the positions of John Gay, and Abraham Tucker. Book II chapter 1 of The Principles proposes a line of argument that closely resembles the argument of John Gay “Concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue or Morality”.

Similarly, Paley’s emphasis on rules is, as we saw, found in Berkeley’s Passive obedience and performs the same function. Berkeley’s initial advancement of this distinction and advocacy of rule utilitarianism was part of a broader argument to argue against violent resistance to the state during the Jacobite agitation in Ireland. He was concerned that people were advocating the violation of certain negative rules of the law of nature such as: “do not commit adultery”, “do not steal”, “don’t rebel against the government”, whenever they perceived doing so would further the public good. Paley uses the distinction for similar purposes, to respond to the objection that utilitarianism allows people to break with impunity moral rules against theft and murder whenever they perceive it will make people happy.

In fact, the proximate source for Paley’s stress on rules appears to be Abraham Tucker. Tucker. Wrote

  As we cannot upon every occasion see to the end of our proceedings, he [the moralist] will establish certain rules to serve as landmarks for guiding us on the way.  These rules, when he has leisure and opportunity for mature consideration, he will build on one another, erecting the whole fabric upon the basis of the summum bonum before described.  (Original emphasis)[10]

Similarly, Paley’s argument that God wills the happiness of his creatures and so the commands God issues must be coextensive with promoting the happiness is ubiquitous in the tradition that preceded him. This argument is s found in Berkeley, Gay, and Brown Louden also documents the same argument occurs in Adam Smith and Joseph Butler [11]

Finally, Paley’s exposition of this tradition was very influential. The principles became required text at Cambridge university Schneewind points out “utilitarianism first became widely known in England through the work of William Paley.[12] Paley, not Bentham being its most well-known exponent.  Similarly, Smith points out that Paley’s writings were once as well known in American colleges as were the readers and spellers of William McGuffey and Noah Webster in the elementary schools.[13]

In fact, Paley’s influence is still seen clearly in John Austin’s work on Jurisprudence, in the early and late nineteenth century.  Mill himself appeals to the tradition:

We not uncommonly hear the doctrine of utility inveighed against as a godless doctrine. If it be necessary to say anything at all against so mere an assumption, we may say that the question depends upon what idea we have formed of the moral character of the Deity. If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that this was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other. If it be meant that utilitarianism does not recognise the revealed will of God as the supreme law of morals, I answer, that a utilitarian who believes in the perfect goodness and wisdom of God, necessarily believes that whatever God has thought fit to reveal on the subject of morals, must fulfil the requirements of utility in a supreme degree. …Whether this opinion is correct or not, it is superfluous here to discuss; since whatever aid religion, either natural or revealed, can afford to ethical investigation, is as open to the utilitarian moralist as to any other. He can use it as the testimony of God to the usefulness or hurtfulness of any given course of action.[14]

Mill here explicitly rejects the idea that Utilitarianism does not recognize the revealed will as the supreme law of morals, and uses a line of argument very similar to Paley, whose writings Mill was aware of, to argue the contrary.

Consequently, Utilitarianism then wasn’t a new or novel theory of ethics proposed by secular thinkers such as Hume and Bentham in the late 18th century. Nor did it develop in response to or in opposition to a conception of morality based divine commands or divine laws. Divine command theorists, in fact, had been advocating Theological Utilitarianism for decades before Bentham, and the popularity of utilitarianism in Anglo-American thought had a good deal to do with the popularity of theological utilitarianism.


[1]J B Schneewind Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2002) 446.  Paley was, therefore, summarising an already existing, popular, school of thought.

[2] See for example A. P. Brogan “John Locke and Utilitarianism” Ethics 69: 2 (1959), 79-93.

[3] See Berkeley’s A Discourse on Passive Obedience (1712) and dialogues I-III of the   Alciphron (1732). Berkeley had included a systematic treatise on moral theory in the draft of A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), but the manuscript was lost, leaving historians to piece together his theories from his occasional writings.

[4] Passive obedience: or, the Christian doctrine of not resisting the supreme power, proved and vindicated … In a discourse deliver’d at the College-chapel. By George Berkeley, M.A. Fellow of Trinity-College, Dublin. Available at https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/004899015.0001.000/1:3?rgn=div1;view=fulltext

[5] Clarke, Demonstration, Prop. XII; in Works, vol. II, p. 572.

[6] Robert Louden notes this conception of God’s goodness was common in the 18th century and similar arguments can be seen in Smith and Butler see Robert Louden “Butler’s Divine Utilitarianism,” History of Philosophy Quarterly, 12:3 (1995):265–280

[7] See Stephen Darwall “Berkeley’s Moral and Political Philosophy,” in, The Cambridge Companion to Berkeley, Kenneth Winkler, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

[8] Robert Louden “Butler’s Divine Utilitarianism,” History of Philosophy Quarterly, 12:3 (1995):265–280

[9] John Gay “Concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue or Morality” in Lewis Amherst Selby-Bigge, British Moralists, being Selections from Writers principally of the Eighteenth Century, vol. 2 [1897] available at http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/bigge-british-moralists-vol-2 accessed 26 Aug 2016

[11] Robert Louden “Butler’s Divine Utilitarianism,” History of Philosophy Quarterly, 12:3 (1995):265–280.

 [12] Schneewind, Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant 446.

[13] Wilson Smith “William Paley’s Theological Utilitarianism in America” The William and Mary Quarterly Third Series, 11:3 (1954) 402–424

[14] John Stuart Mill “What is Utilitarianism” available at https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645u/chapter2.htm

Tags:   · · · · · · · · · · 1 Comment

Leave a Comment


1 response so far ↓

  • Hello Matthew!

    I have really enjoyed reading your blog lately as it contains some excellent stuff! Is there a possibility of you writing a blog refuting Kant’s moral ontology and his first formulation of the Categorical Imperative? Kant seems to ground morality in “reason” (at least that’s what he appears to claim in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals). And his first formulation of the Categorical Imperative (the universalizability principle as it is often called) seems to be in conflict with Divine Command Theory if it is true. Could you respond sometime? Thanks!