Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Brief Bit on Paley

William Paley died on May 25, 1805. Today he is usually remembered only for his 'watchmaker argument', which is unfortunate, since it really doesn't sum up the man. He is brilliant at putting together interesting arguments and he is never sloppy or muddled. His criticisms of Hume, to name an example, are always at least insightful, and sometimes incisive. In addition he is a vivid writer; you get excellent passages like the pigeons in Book III, Part I, Chapter I of The Principles of Morality and Politics, which is an image of human institutions and customs concerning property that does not easily leave you.

He arguably has more right to be considered the father of modern utilitarianism than Bentham does, despite the fact that the latter is more to the taste of modern secular-minded utilitarians than Paley is. It wasn't always so, of course; and Bentham labored all his life with the burden, which he did noto hesitate to complain about, of being seen as putting forward a variety of Paleyan ethics.

He was a compassionate person, opposed to the slave trade, enthusiastic in a desire to help the poor. I've already mentioned the pigeon passage, which is actually the background to a criticism of the inequality between the rich and the poor; and he is everywhere intensely concerned with the welfare of the oppressed. He had many of the common weaknesses of his time with regard to this; but his strengths were not minor strengths.

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