He was educated at Giggleswick school, of which his father was head master, and at Christ's College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1763 as senior wrangler, became fellow in 1766, and in 1768 tutor of his college. He lectured on Clarke, Butler and Locke, and also delivered a systematic course on moral philosophy, which subsequently formed the basis of his well-known treatise. The subscription controversy was then agitating the university, and Paley published an anonymous Defence of a pamphlet in which Bishop Law had advocated the retrenchment and simplification of the Thirty-nine Articles; he did not, however, sign the petition (called the "Feathers" petition from being drawn up at a meeting at the Feathers tavern) for a relaxation of the terms of subscription.
In 1776 Paley was presented to the rectory of Musgrave in Westmorland, supplemented at the end of the year by the vicarage of Dalston, and presently exchanged for that of Appleby. In 1782 he became archdeacon of Carlisle. At the suggestion of his friend John Law (son of Edward Law, Bishop of Carlisle and formerly his colleague at Cambridge), Paley published (1785) his lectures, revised and enlarged, under the title of The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. The book at once became the ethical text-book of the University of Cambridge, and passed through fifteen editions in the author's lifetime. He strenuously supported the abolition of the slave trade, and in 1789 wrote a paper on the subject. The Principles was followed in 1790 by his first essay in the field of Christian apologetics, Horae Paulinae, or the Truth of the Scripture History of St Paul evinced by a Comparison of the Epistles which bear his Name with the Acts of the Apostles and with one another, probably the most original of its author's works. It was followed in 1794 by the celebrated View of the Evidences of Christianity.
Paley's latitudinarian views are said to have debarred him from the highest positions in the Church. But for his services in defence of the faith the Bishop of London gave him a stall in St Paul's; the Bishop of Lincoln made him subdean of that cathedral, and the Bishop of Durham conferred upon him the rectory of Bishopwearmouth. During the remainder of his life his time was divided between Bishopwearmouth and Lincoln. In 1802 he published Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature, his last, and, in some respects, his most remarkable book. In this he endeavoured, as he says in the dedication to the bishop of Durham, to repair in the study his deficiencies in the church. He died on the 25th of May 1805.
In the dedication just referred to, Paley claims a systematic unity for his works. It is true that "they have been written in an order the very reverse of that in which they ought to be read"; nevertheless the Natural Theology forms " the completion of a regular and comprehensive design." The truth of this will be apparent if it is considered that the Moral and Political Philosophy admittedly embodies two presuppositions:
In his Natural Theology Paley has adapted with consummate skill the argument which Ray (1691) and Derham (1711) and Nieuwentyt (1730) had already made familiar to Englishmen. "For my part," he says, "I take my stand in human anatomy"; and what he everywhere insists upon is "the necessity, in each particular case, of an intelligent designing mind for the contriving and determining of the forms which organized bodies bear." A charge of wholesale plagiarism from this book was brought against Paley in the Athenaeum for 1848. Paley refers several times to Nieuwentyt, who uses the famous illustration of the watch. But the illustration is not peculiar to Nieuwentyt, and had been appropriated by many others before Paley. The germ of the idea is to be found in Cicero, De natura deorum, ii. 34 (see Hallam, Literature of Europe, ii. 385, note.) In the case of a writer whose chief merit is the way in which he has worked up existing material, a general charge of plagiarism is almost irrelevant.
The Evidences of Christianity is mainly a condensation of Bishop Douglas's Criterion and Lardner's Credibility of the Gospel History. But the task is so judiciously performed that it would probably be difficult to get a more effective statement of the external evidences of Christianity than Paley has here presented. His idea of revelation depends upon the same mechanical conception of the relation of God to the world which dominates his Natural Theology; and he seeks to prove the divine origin of Christianity by isolating it from the general history of mankind, whereas later writers find their chief argument in the continuity of the process of revelation.
The face of the world has changed so greatly since Paley's day that we are apt to do less than justice to his undoubted merits. He is nowhere original, and nowhere profound, but his strong reasoning power, his faculty of clear arrangement and forcible statement, place him in the first rank of expositors and advocates. He masses his arguments, it has been said, with a general's eye. His style is perfectly perspicuous, and its "strong home-touch" compensates for what is lacking in elasticity and grace. Paley displays little or no spirituality of feeling; but this is a matter in which one age is apt to misjudge another, and Paley was at least practically benevolent and conscientiously attentive to his parish duties. The active part he took in advocating the abolition of the slave-trade is evidence of a wider power of sympathy. His unconquerable cheerfulness becomes itself almost religious in the last chapters of the Natural Theology, considering that they were written dtiring the intervals of relief from the painful complaint which finally proved fatal to him.
For his life, see Public Characters(1802); Aikin's General Biography, vii. (1808); Lives, by GW Meadley (1809) and his son Edmund Paley, prefixed to the 1825 edition of his works; Leslie Stephen in Dictionary of National Biography; Quarterly Review, ii. (Aug. 1809), ix. (July 1813). On Paley as a theologian and philosopher, see Leslie Stephen, English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, i. 405 seq., ii. 121 seq.; R Buddensieg, in Herzog-Hauck's Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie, xiv. (1904).