Butler uses “benevolence” mainly to refer to a particular passion or a cluster of passions (McNaughton 1992), although sometimes he also refers to it and cognate terms (“love of thy neighbor”) as principles that might have particular passions as their objects. There is still a fair amount of scholarly disagreement as to which sense is more central in Butler’s arguments (nicely summarized in Irwin 2008).
Benevolence as a particular passion, like ambition or revenge, is never interested or disinterested in and of itself. It is only interested or disinterested in so far as it is guided by or in accordance with our self-love.
Acting in a benevolent manner might make us happy. Indeed it seems to be the case that benevolent actions and affections often do make people happy. And we might initially decide to gratify the passions of benevolence from self-love. But the passions themselves have no more or less connection to interest than any other passion does.
Not being made happy by benevolent actions would point to a defect of temper or a lack of balance in one’s nature if the result was diminished happiness and going against the dictates of conscience.
As noted, for both Butler and Shaftesbury, self-love and virtue converge when properly understood.
But importantly according to Butler, Shaftesbury erred in not recognizing that they could conflict in particular cases, and if they did conflict the distinctive authority of conscience would trump our apparent prudential motivations. This did not mean that our general interest conflicted with conscience, but rather that local prudential information could give reasons for particular reasons for action that conflicted with conscience.
There is also some (more contested) evidence that Butler thought of benevolence as a ruling principle (Rorty 1978). Butler referred to the general principle of charity or “love of our neighbor as thyself” as a virtuous principle or as the reason-guided endeavor to promote the happiness of proximate others to the same degree that one attempts to promote one’s own good (although he also identified “love of neighbor” with the particular passion of compassion). This was a regulating principle of action, perhaps distinct from benevolent passions. Butler suggested in Sermon IX that we have a fundamental obligation to the happiness of sensible creatures other than ourselves insofar as they are capable of pleasure and pain, an obligation that can only be ignored in order to bring about greater happiness (to be further discussed in Section 6). Although this appears to be a fundamental moral obligation to maximize welfare a few years later Butler strongly criticized theories on which the overall happiness is what makes an action good or evil and argued that our conscience holds actions to be morally good or bad independent of the expected or actual consequences for happiness (“Dissertation”, §5). Most of the secondary literature takes Butler to generally be an anti-utilitarian (but see Louden 1995 and in a different way see Frey), but there is disagreement as to whether Butler held a consistent position or changed his mind (see McPherson 1948–9). Some even argue that he might be able to embrace a form of consequentialism (see McNaughton 2017).
Finally, Butler claimed that benevolence is the whole of virtue in Sermon XII, although he qualified the claim later in Sermon XII and qualified it even more strongly in the “Dissertation on Virtue”. Butler did not mean that to act benevolently in each and every action was the entirety of virtue, for example as we shall see in the next section moral resentment was an appropriate attitude for a virtuous agent. Rather he meant that to act according to and to be motivated by the principle of loving one’s neighbor generally leads to virtuous and morally approved actions. Although self-partiality tends in the opposite direction, benevolence offsets this tendency and brings benevolent and self-partial affections in proper proportion. Conversely self-partiality brings benevolence in line with self-love such that it balances properly in our nature.
According to Butler when we approve of virtue in an agent this gives rise to benevolence towards the agent. The ultimate object of this love of benevolent moral agents is our love of God, the most benevolent agent. In stressing the continuity between love of neighbor and love of God, Butler also stressed the continuity between our approval of moral agents and natural theology. Finally, to have a character such that benevolent actions make one happy is normally to have a character that encompasses all of the virtues.