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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XIV. Philosophers

§ 20. Paley and his Theological Utilitarianism

In a somewhat similar way, the exhaustive analyses of Tucker led to the theological utilitarianism of William Paley, sometime fellow of Christ’s college, Cambridge, and senior wrangler in 1763. Paley was not a writer of marked originality. If, in his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), he owed much to Tucker, in his View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794), he depended on the Criterion (1752) of John Douglas, bishop of Salisbury—a reply to Hume’s argument against miracles—and on Nathaniel Lardner’s Credibility of the Gospel History (1723–55); and, in his Natural Theology (1804), he drew much material from John Ray’s The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of the Creation (1691), from William Derham’s Physico-Theology (1713) and from the work of the Dutchman Nieuwentyt, which had been translated into English in 1730 as The Religious Philosopher. His Horœ Paulinœ (1790) is said to be the most original, and to have been the least successful, of his publications. These four books form a consistent system. Probably, no English writer has ever excelled Paley in power of marshalling arguments or in clearness of reasoning; and these merits have given some of his works a longer life as academic text-books than their other merits can justify. Paley was, essentially, a man of his time and his views were its views, through expressed with a skill which was all his own.

In his Moral Philosophy, there is no trace of the vacillation at critical points which marks most of his empirical predecessors. The only criticism to which it lies open is that morality vanishes when reduced to a calculation of selfish interests. A man’s own happiness is always his motive; he can seek the general happiness only when that way of acting is made for his own happiness also; and this can be done only by the rewards and punishments of a lawgiver. Locke distinguished three different sorts of law, and Paley followed him rather closely. But the law of honour is insufficient, as having little regard to the general happiness; and the law of the land is inadequate for it omits many duties as not fit objects for compulsion, and it permits many crimes because incapable of definition; there remains, therefore, only the law of Scripture (that is, of God) which, alone, is obviously sufficient. Hence, the famous definition, “Virtue is the doing good to mankind, in obedience to the will of God, and for the sake of everlasting happiness.”

This conclusion leads up to the argument of his later works. His Horœ Paulinœ and Evidences have to demonstrate the credibility of the New Testament writings and the truth of the Christian revelation; and this position assumes the existence of God which, in his Natural Theology, he proves from the marks of design in the universe and, in particular, in the human body. In these works, we see how complete is the shifting of interest to which reference has previously been made. Attention is concentrated on the question of external evidences, and the content of religion is almost entirely overlooked. God is the superhuman watchmaker who has put the world-machine together with surprising skill, and intervenes miraculously, on rare occasions, when the works are getting out of order. Paley developed a familiar analogy with unequalled impressiveness; he should not be blamed for failing to anticipate the effect upon his argument which has been produced by the biological theory of natural selection; but he did not pause to examine the underlying assumptions of the analogy which he worked out; he had no taste for metaphysics; and his mind moved easily only within the range of the scientific ideas of his own day.