Revue Internationale de Philosophie, vol. 23-24, 1953: pp. 72-86.

Berkeley's Theory of Morals

by C. D. BROAD

    1. The criterion for such precepts
    2. Relation of Berkeley's doctrine to Utilitarianism
    3. Positive and negative moral precepts
    4. Fundamental moral precepts and physical laws
    5. Fundamental moral precepts and tender emotion

Berkeley had intended to treat ethics systematically in Part II of the Principles , but the manuscript of this was lost and he never re-wrote it. The main source now available for his views on this topic is the Discourse on Passive Obedience. This can be supplemented in certain minor respects by statements in some parts of the Alciphron and in some of Berkeley's essays in the Guardian. Here I shall confine myself entirely to the Discourse.

The contents of this were originally delivered as sermons in the chapel of Trinity College, Dublin. Berkeley published them first in 1712. The subject was a delicate and exciting one at the time and for long afterwards. Queen Anne's reign was nearing its end; she was to die in the late summer of 1714. In accordance with the Act of Settlement of 1701 she was to be succeded by George, Elector of Hanover. In the end this change took place fairly smoothly, because the leaders of the Whigs were better prepared and more united than those of the Tories. But it was touch-and-go when it happened, and for years beforehand the question of who would succede Queen Anne had been a matter of controversy and political intrigue. Now the doctrine of passive obedience was regarded as a typically Tory and Jacobite principle; though it would, on certain interpretations of it, favour any government that was once firmly in the saddle. Berkeley was suspected at the time of Jacobitism in consequence of his support of this doctrine.

Berkeley's political conclusion is that rebellion of a subject against the supreme authority of the country of which he is a citizen is, in all circumstances, wrong. He carefully defines his terms; but I am not here concerned directly with the political question, and shall therefore not consider the precise meaning of the principle. Here I am concerned with the doctrine only as an introduction to Berkeley's general view of ethics.

In order to prove that rebellion is unconditionally wrong Berkeley thinks it necessary and sufficient to show that it is a breach of what he calls a negative, 'moral rule or law of nature', and that all such rules are rigidly binding on everyone at all times and places and under all conditions. Now, in order to show this, he has to discuss such general questions as the essential features and the sanctions of 'laws of nature' in this technical sense, the criterion by which to determine whether a proposed moral precept is or is not a 'law of nature', and so on. It is his answers to these general questions which constitute his theory of ethics. But some important points in his general theory emerge only in the replies which he makes to plausible objections to his doctrine that rebellion is a breach of the law of nature. I propose now to try to state the general theory in isolation from its particular political applications.


Berkeley conducts his discussion in terms of what he calls 'laws of nature'. He is aware that this phrase is ambiguous, and says that he uses it to mean:

'A rule or precept for the direction of the voluntary actions of reasonable agents'.
In the other sense, which is much the more usual nowadays, it means:
'Any general rule which we observe to obtain in the works of nature independent of the wills of men'.
I shall substitute for the phrase 'law of nature', when used in the ethical sense in which Berkeley uses it, the phrase 'fundamental moral precept'.

(1,1) The criterion for such precepts

Berkeley says that it is generally agreed that there are certain fundamental moral precepts which are unconditionally binding upon all men. But there are great differences of opinion about the criterion by which we are to judge whether a proposed moral precept is of this kind or not. He mentions various criteria which have been suggested, e.g., innateness and universal consent. Before considering his own criterion it will be worth while to note what he says about innateness in this connexion.

He does indeed assert that the fundamental moral precepts are 'stamped on the mind'. But he is careful to qualify this. All that he will admit is that there are innate antipathies to some kinds of action which are in fact wrong. But antipathies to certain kinds of action are often due simply to early training, and it is difficult or impossible to distinguish these from genuinely innate antipathies. Berkeley's conclusion is as follows. It is a mistake to assume that, when a strong antipathy is felt towards an act, the act must therefore be a breach of a fundamental moral precept. It is equally a mistake to assume that, where no such antipathy is felt, the act is not a breach of such a precept. In all cases, he says, we must decide what is and what is not a fundamental moral precept 'not by any emotion in our blood and spirits, but by ... sober and impartial reason'. This brings us to Berkeley's own criterion.

In the first place, we must remember that he held that the following factual propositions can be established by reason without appeal to revelation.

  1. That human beings survive the death of their present bodies and thereafter exist for ever.
  2. That God exists, that he is perfectly good, that he enjoys eternally all possible perfections, and that he alone can make a man eternally happy or miserable.
  3. That the only rational creatures whom a man can affect for good or ill by his actions are himself and other human beings.
These three factual propositions are essential premisses in Berkeley's arguments.

The argument from them may be put as follows. Suppose that a man had reason to believe that God commands him to act in a certain way in all situations of a certain kind. Then there would be two quite independent reasons for acting in that way in such situations.

  1. It is self-evident that the relationship of God as creator to men as his creatures imposes on them a moral duty to obey God's orders to them.
  2. It must also in the long run be to his interest to obey. Our welfare and illfare throughout eternity are in the hands of God, and it is reasonable to suppose that he will reward obedience and punish disobedience to his commands.

So far the argument is purely hypothetical. The next question is this. Have we any ground, independent of revelation, to believe that God has commanded or forbidden men to act in certain ways in all situations of a certain kinds. And, if so, how can we tell in detail what he has commanded or forbidden?

The next stage of the argument is as follows. Berkeley says that we must proceed by investigating two questions, viz.

  1. What is the general purpose of God with regard to mankind? And
  2. what methods would be best fitted to accomplish that end?
An intelligent and good being would not issue orders to others arbitrarily. He would do so only in so far as he had an end in view, which he desired to be achieved by their voluntary actions, and because he knew that that end would be most effectively attained by their always acting in accordance with certain rules in all situations of certain kinds.

As regards the end which God desires that human voluntary actions shall bring about, Berkeley's conclusion is as follows. That end is the general well-being of the whole human race throughout the whole of its life on earth. His argument for this may be put as follows: --

(1) Since God is perfectly good, the end which he desires to be achieved by human action must be some kind of good state of affairs somewhere. Since God's own state is automatically one of eternal bliss, this good state of affairs must be a state of some finite created being or beings. Since human action can affect only human beings, any good result attainable by human action must be a state of some one man, or some class of men, or the whole human race.

(2) Berkeley now argues that we must accept the third of these alternatives. He states clearly the premisses of his argument, but the argument itself is very condensed and I do not find it easy to follow. The explicit premisses are these.

  1. God, being perfectly just, would not favour one individual or one class of men over the rest of mankind on any other ground than the superior moral desert of that individual or of the members of that class.
  2. Moral desert arises entirely from conformity to the commands of God.
It is therefore logically impossible that any human being should have any moral desert prior to the issue of commands by God to men. Therefore, unless and until God had issued commands to men, and they had had opportunities to obey or to flout them, it is logically impossible that any individual or class of men should have deserved better or worse treatment from God than any other.

(3) So far the position is quite clear. I suggest that the argument would continue somewhat as follows, if the steps were made explicit.

  1. God could not have desired that one individual or class should become better off than another until after he had issued commands and some men had obeyed and others had disobeyed them.
  2. But before God issued any commands to men he must have had some end in view to be attained by human action. For, otherwise, he would have had no motive for issuing commands.
Therefore the end, in view of which God issued commands to men, cannot have had any reference to the welfare of any individual or class of men rather than any other. It must have been the welfare of the whole human race without regard to person or race or period.

Granted that this must be the end which God desires to be attained by human action, we now come to the second question. What means would God adopt? Berkeley says that there are prima facie two alternative ways in which the well-being of mankind as a whole might be promoted by issuing general injunctions to all individuals. These might be called the direct and the indirect method. The direct method would be to command everyone to act on each occasion in such a way as he then judges to be most likely to maximise human welfare The indirect method is described as follows by Berkeley. It would consist in enjoining upon everyone the observation of certain determinate established laws, which, if universally practised, have, from the nature of things, as essential fitness to promote the well-being of mankind.

The objection to the indirect method is that obedience to such determinate rules may, in particular cases, lead to great suffering on the part of many innocent persons. To the direct method there are at least two serious objections. One is its extreme vagueness. Even the wisest and the best of men would often be completely at a loss to know what to do and what to avoid doing, if be had nothing but the principle of universal beneficence to guide him. The second objection is that no-one could make a reasonably certain judgment about the rightness or wrongness of another person's action on any occasion. However ill the action may look, the agent could always say that he judged it to be the most benefic act open to him in the situation. Berkeley considers that the objections to the direct method are overwhelmingly greater than the objections to the indirect method. He therefore holds that we can safely conclude that God would adopt the indirect method.

If this argument be accepted, we can conclude that there must be various specific fundamental moral precepts, and we can give a criterion for deciding whether a proposed moral rule is or is not one of them. A fundamental moral precept is any rule of conduct which is enjoined by God upon all men in all situations of a certain assigned kind. It is a law binding upon men because enjoined upon them by God, who has a moral right to command his creatures. Now we can take as enjoined upon us by the will of God any rule of conduct with regard to which we can see that the general well-being of mankind would be promoted by all men acting in accordance with it on all relevant occasions.

Later on Berkeley restates this criterion more guardedly. Since all the fundamental moral precepts are enjoined by God with a single end in view, they will form a coherent system. Berkeley describes this as 'a system of rules or precepts, such that, if they be all of them at all times and places by all men observed, they will necessarily promote the well-being of mankind, so far as that is attainable by human action'. Presumably what he means is this. Any single rule of conduct, e.g., 'Never give a false answer to a question', might still be a fundamental moral precept, even if acting upon it in all relevant circumstances would not necessarily promote the well-being of mankind in a society in which certain other fundamental moral precepts, e.g., 'Thou shalt do no murder', were habitually flouted. Berkeley thinks it plain that such maxims as 'Thou shalt not forswear thyself' and 'Thou shalt not steal', answer to this revised criterion, and are therefore commands issued by God, which men are therefore under an obligation to obey.

(1,2) Relation of Berkeley's doctrine to Utilitarianism

Before going further it will be well to emphasize the following distinctions which Berkeley brings out very clearly. (1) We must distinguish between the criterion for deciding whether a suggested rule is or is not a fundamental moral precept, and the ground of our obligation to act in accordance with it if it is a fundamental moral precept. The criterion is whether universal action in accordance with it would or would not promote the welfare of mankind. This is a criterion, because it is safe to assume that God would command men to act on any precept which answers to it, and on no others. But it is not the ground of our obligation to act in accordance with such a precept. What makes any moral precept binding on us is simply that God has ordered us to act in accordance with it, and that we, as his creatures, have a manifest duty to obey the commands of our creator. Thus Berkeley's doctrine is fundamentally different from ordinary Utilitarianism. For that makes utility the one and only ground of obligation. (2) We must distinguish between the criterion for deciding whether a suggested rule is a fundamental moral precept, and the criterion for deciding whether a particular action in a particular situation is morally permissible. The latter criterion is simply whether the action in question does or does not conflict with any of the fundamental moral precepts which are relevant to the situation.

In view of all this, Berkeley quite consistently holds that it is never permissible to break a moral precept which answers to the criterion for being fundamental, even when it seems perfectly obvious that to obey it will be less conducive to human welfare than to disobey it. We must distinguish, he says, between the general tendency of obeying a moral rule and the accidental consequences of obeying it in a certain particular case. If and only if the general tendency is beneficent, we can conclude that the rule is enjoined on us by God; and in that case it is our duty to obey it, even in particular cases where the accidental consequences will be bad. It would be inconsistent with God's wisdom to allow a breach of one of his commands (e.g., his prohibition of adultery) to be retaliated by a breach of another of them (e.g., his prohibition of murder). But, on the other hand, it would be inconsistent with God's justice, if he did not eventually reward those who have obeyed his commands and punish those who have flouted them. There is another world for the recompense of virtue which has been unfortunate and of sin which has been successful here below, and we must await it patiently.

(1,3) Positive and negative moral precepts

We can now deal with a distinction which Berkeley regards as very important, viz., the division of moral precepts into positive and negative, or commands and prohibitions.

According to him, it may be logically impossible under certain circumstances for a person to obey all the positive precepts which are relevant to the situation in which he has to perform a voluntary action. Suppose, e.g., that he has been given certain information under promise of secrecy, and that he is now asked a question which he cannot answer truly without revealing the facts thus imparted to him. Then it is literally impossible for him to obey both the precepts 'Keep your promises' and 'Answer questions truly'. In regard to positive precepts Berkeley says: 'The exercise of them admits of suspension, limitation, and diversity of degree'. In case of a conflict, such as I have illustrated, the agent must consider the relative urgency of the various positive precepts involved. But, according to Berkeley there are no exceptions to fundamental negative precepts or prohibitions. For, he says, it is always 'plainly consistent and possible that any man should, at one and the same time, abstain from all manner of positive action whatsoever'. To go back to our example. You can obey both the negative precepts, 'Never break your promises' and 'Never answer questions falsely', by simply refusing to answer when asked a question such that a true answer to it would break a promise.

It will be of interest to consider the logical position for ourselves. A moral prohibition in such cases is precisely equivalent to a moral obligation to adopt one or other of two mutually exclusive types of response to the situation. One of these is positive and the other negative. Thus, e.g., to say that it is morally forbidden to give a lying answer to a question, is equivalent to saying that it is morally obligatory either to give a truthful answer or to decline to answer at all. Similarly, to say that it is morally forbidden to give an answer which will break a promise, is equivalent to saying that it is morally obligatory either to give an answer which respects the promise or to decline to answer at all. Now, if X is morally obligatory and Y is morally obligatory, then the conjunction X & Y is morally obligatory. In the present case both X and Y are disjunctions, and so X & Y is the conjunction of two disjunctions. It is in fact the complex disjunction: ' Either to give an answer which is both truthful and respects the promise or to decline to answer at all'. But by hypothesis the case under discussion is one where no answer can both be truthful and respect the promise. Therefore the first alternative is impossible . But, if it is morally obligatory either to do A or to do B. and it is impossible to do A, then it is morally obligatory to do B. Therefore, in the case supposed, it is morally obligatory to decline to answer.

It should be noted that the 'negativity' of the obligatory alternative in such cases must not be exaggerated. To give no answer to a question is 'negative', as compared with answering truly or answering it falsely, in the sense that it involves no overt bodily action relevant to the situation. But to maintain silence under threats and torture is a mode of response which involves immense positive effort of will.

Berkeley has now to deal with the objection that even some negative precepts, which seem to answer to his criterion for being enjoined on us by God, appear to admit of exceptions. An alleged instance would be the precept 'Do not kill', when considered in reference to a soldier in battle or an executioner performing the duties of his office. Berkeley was neither a pacifist nor an objector to capital punishment. His answer is as follows. A negative moral rule may be expressed in terms which are too vague or too general. In that case we must begin by substituting a more specific term, e.g., 'murder' for 'kill'. It seems to me that there is a risk that this expedient may reduce a prohibition to a platitude. What, after all, is 'murder' but unjustifiable homicide? And is it not a mere platitude to issue the command: 'Never commit unjustifiable homicide'?

However that may be, Berkeley's answer continues as follows. After making the appropriate substitution we must apply the old criterion. If you find that the intrinsic tendency of following the amended rule in all relevant situations is benefic, you can conclude that it is a fundamental negative precept and that no breach of it is permissible. Otherwise, the rule is not fundamental, and it may sometimes be permissible or even obligatory to break it. Berkeley holds, of course, that there are certain negative moral precepts which survive the test.

(1,4) Fundamental moral precepts and physical laws

As we have seen, Berkeley clearly recognizes the distinction between 'laws of nature', in the technical sense of fundamental moral precepts, and 'laws of nature' in the modern sense of established regularities of sequence and co-existence among natural phenomena. But he holds that there are certain analogies between the two.

On any form of theism which makes God a creator, the laws of physics and of psychology would presumably be expressions of God's will. But on Berkeley's form of theism they are much more direct expressions of it than they would be on most other forms of that doctrine. What we call 'the external world' is for Berkeley a series of sensations generated telepathically in our minds by God. In doing this God freely chooses to follow certain rules of co-existence and sequence, and these are the laws of physics.

The analogy between them and the fundamental moral precepts is this. The rules which God follows in generating sensations in us are well adapted to promote our welfare in general. In the first place, it is of immense advantage to us that there should be a system of rules of some kind, so that we may know what sensations to expect under assignable conditions. Secondly, Berkeley thinks that the particular rules which God has chosen to follow are such as are on the whole greatly to our benefit. Now, in spite of this, these rules lead in particular cases, e.g., earthquakes, explosions of atomic bombs, etc., to most unpleasant consequences. Yet even in such cases God does not forbear to generate sensations in accordance with his customary routine, though he could do so if he would. We know, then, that God does not depart from the rules which he has freely imposed on his own volitions in generating sensations in us, even in cases where to all appearance an exception would be more conducive to human welfare than strict observance. It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that he would not wish us to depart from the generally and intrinsically beneficent rules which he has enjoined upon our volitions, even when a breach of them would to all appearance be beneficial to mankind.

(1,5) Fundamental moral precepts and tender emotion

There is one other point worth mentioning before leaving Berkeley's doctrine of fundamental moral precepts. He insists that we must not allow either personal affection or a desire for the general happiness to induce us to break any of the fundamental negative rules. The following quotation expresses this very forcibly. 'Tenderness and benevolence of temper are often motives to the best and greatest of actions, but we must not make them the sole rule of our actions. They are passions rooted in our nature, and, like all other passions, must be restrained. . . Otherwise they may. . . betray us into as great enormities as any other unbridled lust'. He thinks that they are in a way more dangerous than the less respectable passions, because breaches of the fundamental moral rules motived by them have a specious appearance of goodness and generosity.


Berkeley says that self-love is 'the most universal' and the most deeply engraven in our hearts' of all principles. It is therefore natural to each of us to consider all things and events and actions from the standpoint of whether they are likely to. increase or diminish his own happiness. If and only if he thinks them likely to do the former, he calls them 'good'. If and only if he thinks them likely to do the latter, he calls them 'bad'. Berkeley goes even further in this direction. He says that it is the whole business of a person's life to apply his faculties to preserve his own happiness and to avoid his own unhappiness.

He asserts, however, that a person's judgments as to what constitutes or contributes to his own happiness alter with the degree of his enlightenment and the extent of his experience. At first one considers only sensible pleasure and unpleasure. But, even if we confine our attention to sensible pleasures, we soon learn that what produces immediate pleasure may lead to unpleasant sensations later, and that what produces immediate displeasure may be a necessary condition of highly pleasant sensations in the future. Such considerations may make us, even when we confine our attention to the pleasures and unpleasures of sensation, revise our earlier judgments as to what is good and what is bad.

Beside this Berkeley draws a distinction between what he calls the 'nobler' and the 'less noble' faculties of the soul. By the former he seems to mean those which involve specifically human powers and dispositions. By the latter he seems to mean those as which we share with non-human animals. He describes the measures connected with the exercise of the nobler faculties as 'far more excellent' than those of mere sensation. This would be true even if there were only this present life. But a rational being can know that he is immortal and that there is a Supreme Being who alone can make him eternally happy or miserable. He can know that this Being has issued certain commands, which it is obligatory upon him to obey. And he may reasonably assume that obedience to those commands will be rewarded, and disobedience to them punished. So each of us has to take account, in his estimates of good and evil, of the infinitely longer life which he will lead after death.

So far Berkeley seems to be committed to a form of psychological hedonism. If so, he could not consistently admit that anyone's motive for obeying God's commands is the fact that he sees them to be obligatory upon him and desires to do his duty as such. A person might, indeed, see clearly that obedience to the commands of his Creator is obligatory upon him as a creature. But this could not move him to obey them, since he would have no desire to do what is right as such or to avoid what is wrong as such. His only possible motive would be hope of happiness or fear of unhappiness either in this world or the next.

Berkeley seems also be to committed to a form of ethical hedonism rather like J. S. Mill's. Nothing is intrinsically good except pleasant experiences or intrinsically bad except unpleasant ones; but the degree of goodness or badness of such an experience depends, not only on its hedonic intensity and its duration, but also on certain of its non-hedonic qualities .

Both these positions are, I think, internally consistent; but whether Berkeley himself consistently maintains them, or clearly envisages their implications, is more doubtful. In this connexion we should notice the following points, which he makes in his answers to certain objections that he thinks might be brought against his views.

(1) In answer to the allegation that self-preservation is the first and fundamental law of nature, Berkeley says that he can admit this only if it be interpreted as follows. It is a psychological fact about men and other animals that there is implanted in each individual an instinct of self-preservation, which is the earliest, the deepest, and the most lasting of all appetites But, he says, it does not follow (and it is manifestly untrue) that a person is under a moral obligation to preserve his own life, which over-rides all his other obligations. Each of us is, no doubt, under a prima facie obligation to avoid doing things that may endanger the life of any man. But there is no moral rule which obliges a man to prefer the preservation of his own life or his own temporal good to the preservation of that of any other man. Still less is there any moral rule which obliges each man to prefer his own life or his own temporal good to the performance of every other moral duty . Berkeley remarks that the very fact that the instinct of self-preservation is so strong and so universal would make any such rule superfluous, and therefore we can have no reason to believe that God would have enjoined such a rule upon us.

(2) Berkeley says explicitly that ' there is implanted in mankind a natural tendency or disposition to social life '. We can safely draw this conclusion, he says, from the following two facts. (i) We find men of all races and at all periods living in societies of some kind. (ii) This tendency to form civil societies is bound up with certain specifically human characteristics. Berkeley is thinking, no doubt, of the power of speech, the power of remembering and of conceptually reconstructing the past in thought, the power of anticipating and providing against future contingencies, and so on.

(3) Berkeley seems to hold that specifically moral goodness consists in, or is derived exclusively from, obeying God's laws, and that specifically moral badness consists in, or is exclusively derived from, disobeying them. For he holds that it is in this respect and in no other that men acquire merit or demerit , and that God allots to each in the long run the amount of non-moral good or evil (i.e., happiness or unhappiness) which his moral goodness or badness deserves. So far as this result is not achieved in this life God brings it about by rewards and punishments in the life to come.

In conclusion we may perhaps sum up Berkeleys's position as follows. God's ultimate end for mankind is an eternal state of affairs in which non-moral good and evil (i.e., happiness and unhappiness) are distributed among men in accordance with their moral desert. This moral desert arises solely from obedience or disobedience to rules of conduct which are enjoined by God as a means to men's temporal happiness without regard to desert. Presumably, then, Berkeley recognises a purely non-moral value and disvalue in happiness and unhappiness respectively, and a purely moral value and disvalue in obedience and disobedience respectively to God's commands. Like Kant (and, I should be inclined to add, like all sensible persons), he holds that the complete good involves both moral and non-moral goodness. It is in fact a state of affairs in which moral goodness is unmixed with moral evil and is accompanied by the amount of non-moral good which it deserves. But, in so far as the former condition fails to be realised, it is fitting that the moral evil shall be accompanied by the amount of non-moral evil which it deserves.

Trinity College, Cambridge.