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John Hare’s God’s Command, 7.1 “Maimonides”

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

In Chapter 7, Hare explores the tensions between divine command theory and Jewish thinkers. Hare suggests that though there are important differences between the Abrahamic faiths, they nevertheless all “wrestle with the question of how divine command relates to human nature.”

In the first of three sections, Hare concerns himself with the thought of Maimonides, especially as he has been interpreted by Marvin Fox. One of the difficulties with understanding Maimonides is due to the esoteric nature of his work. On the surface, it seems that Maimonides presents and affirms many contradictory positions. Maimonides’ approach can sometimes obfuscate or confuse his meaning, so the first step to understanding his insights about the connection between natural law and divine command will be to determine how to interpret his The Guide for the Perplexed.

Hare considers three different hermeneutical approaches. The first approach comes from Leo Strauss. Strauss suggests that the seeming contradictions can be untangled by taking whatever position is least frequently mentioned as Maimonides’ actual view. But Hare thinks this approach is not well supported and leads to some awkward interpretations. Second, Fox argues that Maimonides wants his readers to hold the opposing views at the same time, but that these views are not actually contradictions. Fox thinks that this strategy is didactic; it is meant to ease the reader into deeper and deeper truths about God. Hare, however, thinks that such a practice will leave Maimonides’ thought forever in a fog and is uncharitable; therefore, Hare thinks we should adopt a third way. Hare thinks we should Maimonides as presenting opposing statements as only appearing to be contradictory and the right set of qualifications and context will dissolve the tension.

With a principled method for interpreting Maimonides in hand, Hare applies it Maimonides’ doctrine of the mean and account of the virtues. Hare takes Fox and his interpretation of Maimonides as a foil as he provides his own account. Fox thinks of Maimonides’ understanding of the virtues as deeply influenced by Aristotle. Even though Maimonides and Aristotle disagree, they both have a “doctrine of the mean.” Fox tries to show that Aristotle’s account of the virtues was established by appeal to nature. Supposedly, Aristotle determined what the virtues were and their character by grounding them in facts about human nature.

hare god's commandHare thinks Fox’s analysis of Aristotle goes wrong in two ways. First, the doctrine of the mean does not only seek to find the balance between human activities, like courage being between foolhardiness and cowardice. Often, virtue is correlated with a “peak” which might vary depending on context instead of a balance. The best number of calories to eat, for example, will depend on the activity and physiology of a particular person. There is no set number of calories that is exactly in the middle of two extremes which all people should eat. Secondly, Hare says that Aristotle never makes the connection between nature and the specific character of the virtues. Aristotle does, broadly, ground happiness in human nature and its proper function. But his specific characterization of proper function is primarily influenced by his own tradition, especially as it comes from Homer. Thus, Aristotle does not ground the specific requirements of the moral life in facts about nature and, therefore, Fox’s understanding of the disagreement between Maimonides and Aristotle is mistaken.

Hare thinks there are two fundamental differences between Aristotle and Maimonides. First, Maimonides is conscious of his use of sources outside his own tradition and argues for their legitimacy. This is important because it helps to demonstrate that Maimonides recognizes the cognitive value of philosophy in thinking about ethics. Aristotle, on the other hand, has his own sources but they come from within his tradition and he offers no argument for their use. The second difference has to do with the sources internal to their tradition. Aristotle says that God does not give commands, but that he serves the role of grounding what reason can determine. Maimonides, on the other hand, thinks God has given commands and that these commands have ontological and epistemic priority, but they can be shown to be consistent with proper human reason and nature. However, moral obligations are only obligatory because they are command by God. Man can see often that they are good, but their rightness supervenes on the divine command.

Hare’s final aim in his discussion of Maimonides is to correct the idea that he was a moral non-cognitivist. One motivation for the non-cognitivist view comes from Maimonides’ comments on the effects of the Fall. Prior to the Fall, Maimonides say that Adam could make “true judgments” and afterwards, he could only make judgments about what is “beautiful or ugly.” Fox argues, on the assumption that aesthetic judgments are non-cognitive, plus Maimonides’ relative pessimism about human ability to discern the moral law, that this makes Maimonides a non-cognitivist.

Hare disagrees for two reasons. First, he thinks it is anachronistic to apply the label to Maimonides. Second, he argues that it is simply not true that aesthetic judgments are non-cognitive. But then what did Maimonides mean in his comments about the Fall? Hare suggests that possibly Maimonides was merely indicating that human epistemic capacity is limited by the effects of the Fall. Maimonides intends for the move from truth to beauty to be a deterioration and Hare thinks that this deterioration has to do with man’s capacity to discern rightly objective truths. Without the proper relation to God, man can only judge from his perspective. These judgments will be based on convention and be provisional. However, God in his revelation of himself in the Torah, makes accommodation to man’s position while also providing them with moral truth. An example of this accommodation and restoration is the animal sacrifices. The moral truth is that God should be worshiped, but God accommodates this truth to man by allowing them to continue their “natural” practice of worship through sacrifice, but only when it is directed to him.

In this section, Hare wants to emphasize that Maimonides did not think that morality and reason are totally isolated; they are complementary. But this does not mean that the moral law can be discovered by reason, even if it can be shown to be rational after it is revealed.

 

Image: “Maimonides” By Unknown – Psychiatric News, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26202333

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.3.3, “Al-Maturidi”

summary by David Baggett

What’s the relation Al-Maturidi sees between reason and revelation? He claims there are three possible outcomes of reasoning. The first is that the thinker will be led to the knowledge of being created and to see that he has a Creator who will reward him for his good and punish him for his bad deeds, which will inspire him to adopt that which pleases Him. The second is that the thinker will deny all this, and indulge himself in all kinds of pleasure, which will have its consequence in the hereafter. The third is that the thinker will be led to the realization of the incomprehensibility of knowledge and its reality which inspired him to search, but then his heart will rest and the pain will disappear that afflicts him when he tries to think. He doesn’t think the second outcome will happen, and that reasoning, whether on the first outcome or third, will be a gain to the thinker in all of its aspects.

He thinks that God has both given us a sign by way of which we can know God’s command, and He has stirred our mind to thought and reminded us of the various consequences of our actions. So if we disobey God, it’s only because we abandon the pursuit of reasoning and this is our fault. So we’ll be judged by the very thing that could have excused us. This is a result of our own act. Ignorance is no excuse, and that’s because God has given both the sign and the prompting, which are in happy harmony. Reflection will lead to belief in the very God who gives the command.

The important point here is al-Maturidi’s use of the language of “both/and,” in what Hare calls “two methods.” They are both theoretical intuition and the way of revelation. The way of revelation is clear, accessible within the domain of perceptible things. The way of speculative thought is hidden. It may start from something like theoretical intuition, but it requires difficult reflection about things that are beyond the reach of the senses. He makes these partners, though not equal partners.

Al-Maturidi also gives a role to reason in checking the reliability of reports. We need speculative thinking not merely to reflect about that which is beyond the reach of the senses, but also to check the kind of reports that may or may not be erroneous. He accepts the principle of credulity: that human beings have to rely on the reports of others and should therefore give initial credence to what someone tells them, as well as to what they receive through the senses and through reason. But what is received may be true or false, and needs to be tested by a form of knowledge that can discriminate between reliable and unreliable testimony. Al-Maturidi holds that the divine report (the Qur’an) and the Prophet’s personal reports pass this test, and are supported by the consensus of the faithful and by clear miraculous signs. But historical reports in general, and some of the traditions about the Prophet, do not have this degree of reliability.

Reason also has the function of showing that the universe has a purpose, being made by a rational Creator, for whom to act unwisely is a bad thing, who combines that which is properly combined and divides that which is properly divided, and who directs human beings in their different desires, divergent natures, and their various passions. He does, however, acknowledge that our reason has its own proper limits. For example, he thought Aristotle was misled by too ambitious an account of analogy.

We might say that al-Maturidi gives the place of a junior partner to reason in relation to divine command. It’s not, as in al-Jabbar, that revelation merely gives us instruments to what are already known as ends by reason. It’s not, as in al-Ash’ari, that reason simply works out the implications of what is already given by revelation. We could put the matter this way. For both al-Jabbar and al-Ash’ari there is only one final place for access to our proper ends; for the Mu’tazilite it is reason, and for al-Ash’ari it is revelation. But for al-Maturidi there are two, and they are mutually reinforcing. This is not to say that they are equal in status, for our human rational faculties were originated as finite and therefore are short of grasping the absolute reality of things. This is because the rational faculties are parts of the world which is in its entirety finite. The Qur’an is, al-Ash’ari and al-Maturidi agree, God’s own eternal word, received by the Prophet. But in the view of al-Maturidi, God has stirred our minds to be receptive to another source of value, the reason that God himself has for his command, and though we are divided in our nature, and our access to this source of value is not always reliable, we have been given difficult and partial access if we do the necessary hard work.

What can a divine command theorist learn from al-Maturidi? Many things, but here are three. First, it is consistent to hold both that God makes the divine command intelligible to us, even sometimes giving us access to the divine reason for the command, and to say that our access is only partial and difficult. The combination here comes from the fact that our nature is divided. God’s commands are more helpful even than our knowledge of ourselves. Second, it is consistent to hold both that we have the power to act in opposite ways, and that what we do is determined by the divine decree. This decree needs to be distinguished into what God reveals to us as the divine preference, which we can disappoint, and God’s final effective command, which always brings overall good. The three linked distinctions—between two kinds of power, two kinds of divine attitudes, and two kinds of divine decree—start to give us a way to hold together God’s sovereignty with our freedom. Finally, we can see in al-Maturidi an acknowledgment of the authority of both reason and revelation. He refuses to reduce the final authority of revelation to that of reason or vice versa. Reason is a junior partner; the idea is we need both, and not merely instrumentally. This is important for anyone living in a pluralistic culture. To some limited extent (because reason is the junior partner), we can rely on what is common between traditions to adjudicate disagreements between them.

In all three of these ways it’s instructive to compare al-Maturidi with Scotus. The two play some of the same mediating roles in the debates within their own communities. First, like al-Maturidi, Scotus is hesitant to allow a deduction from our nature to the moral law. They both thought there’s a consonance or fittingness of the commandments with our essence, and that our essence is to be pilgrims on the way to a certain relation to God. But our composite nature makes the deduction problematic, even though we can see the fittingness with our reason. Second, Scotus holds that we have the power of opposites, which is like al-Maturidi’s first kind of power. But God’s generosity leads to our good, despite our tendency towards what is not good. This generosity is consistent with the divine justice that punishes us when we fail to do what God commands by the revealed divine will. Finally, Scotus has the same combination of trust in human reason and emphasis on its limitations. He gives what is probably the most complex rational argument for the existence of God in the whole of Christian scholastic philosophy, and he is insistent on the need and capability of “right reason” to work out how we ought to live. On the other hand, he thinks we don’t know our own (individual) essence, or the essence of God, or who the people are that God has elected for salvation [I think that individualist take on election is wrong], and he is hesitant about saying that we know by reason what God must do.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.3.2, “Al-Ash’ari”

summary by David Baggett

Al-Ash’ari doesn’t reject the use of reason, but he does wish to reject the Mu’tazilite approach, but not to stop doing theology. Rather, he wished to use it for the defense of a more traditional doctrine. He uses reason conspicuously. But the relation between reason and revelation is approximately the opposite way round from how al-Jabbar describes it. Al-Ash’ari operates on the assumption that the Qur’an and the Traditions are to be interpreted literally wherever this is possible. He acknowledges that the Qur’an does also sometimes speak metaphorically, but he thinks the literal interpretation should be used when it isn’t impossible.

His second major criticism of the Mu’tazilites is that they hold the Qur’an to be created, whereas al-Ash’ari holds that it was recorded in time, but is itself eternal. The most important point for our purposes is that al-Ash’ari does not think we are justified in holding revelation to some standard of interpretation external to it. God gives guidance, he says, to the faithful, and not to the unfaithful (infidels). The Qur’an has a verse that teaches that the Prophet warns both the one who follows and the one who does not, the unfaithful one. Al-Ash’ari concludes from this that guidance and warning are different. The revelation warns both faithful and unfaithful, but only guides the faithful, and there are some warnings also that are given only to the faithful. The point is just that al-Ash’ari can’t allow what the Mu’tazilites assert, namely, that the guidance gives all human beings what they then recognize as means to what their reason already prescribed for them.

We can relate al-Ash’ari’s position about the sources of theological knowledge to the four traditional sources of Islamic law: the Qur’an, the Traditions, the consensus of the faithful, and analogical deduction from Scripture. Of these the first two are given by revelation. For al-Ash’ari, the third (consensus), as it applies to theological knowledge, is also given by special divine grace. But this is not because of a general truth about communities of religious believers, but because of a special dispensation given to Muslims. The fourth source, analogy, is likewise strictly restricted in its theological use to what is implied by the revealed texts themselves. Sometimes we can tell from a scriptural prescription what God’s reason is for prescribing in this way, and sometimes we can apply that reason to cases analogous to the original case. But the point is that al-Ash’ari, in accepting these four traditional sources, is not putting them under two mutually independent headings, revelation encompassing the first two and reason the second two. Rather, the second two depend for their authority on special revelation.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.3, “Revelation and Reason”

summary by David Baggett

All three of our authors have an important place for both revelation and reason, but they describe the relation between the two sources of knowledge differently. The term ‘revelation’ is a convenience, but is potentially misleading. It would be better, but cumbersome, to talk about God’s deliverances through the Scriptures and the Traditions.

6.3.1 “‘Abd al-Jabbar”

Al-Jabbar makes a distinction between necessary knowledge and acquired knowledge. Necessary knowledge, unlike acquired knowledge, is known immediately and is known by all sane adult human beings. This includes knowledge from sense perceptions and rules of logic and knowledge of one’s own mental states. The most important for present purposes are certain moral truths and reliable reports. An adult with sound mind necessarily knows the evil of wrongdoing, the evil of being ungrateful to a benefactor, and the evil of lying if it is not intended to bring about benefit or to repel harm. One also knows the goodness of compassion and giving. These moral principles are the basis for rational obligations. Knowledge of reliable reports is also necessary for knowledge, and is required for religious obligation, which is a part of obligation not known by reason—like the obligation to pray and fast.

So al-Jabbar gives a kind of priority to reason over revelation. Neither revelation nor reason makes something right or wrong. But the right that revelation indicates, reason sees is instrumental towards a right that reason already knows. We know by necessary knowledge that we should choose our duty, and revelation tells us that prayer is conducive to this end. There is a difference between intrinsic wrongs and things that are wrong by relation to their consequences, such as the wrongs of the Law, which are only wrong inasmuch as they lead to the performance of a rational wrong or ceasing to perform certain duties. This does not mean, however, that revelation is redundant. One may not know, before being told, how to achieve the end in question, and one also may be insufficiently motivated.

The opponents of the Mu’tazilites tended to object that the moral principles that are supposed to be necessarily known, and so known to all sane adults, are in fact not known by all. There is, in fact, widespread disagreement. For example, the nomadic Bedouins of Arabia approve the practice of plunder. But this does not mean that there is disagreement here about the principle that injustice is prohibited; it’s just that Bedouins have a different conception of private property. But it’s hard to see that the objection from disagreement can be overcome in this way. To be sure, ‘injustice’ is named together with the wrong and so anyone who agrees that some act is unjust is going to agree that it is wrong; but the relevant disagreement is surely about what kinds of act are unjust.

So take lying. One might object that this is not something about which all sane adults agree, and indeed many of al-Jabbar’s own opponents disagreed with him, holding that it would be right to lie to save the life of a prophet. But the case of lying is anomalous here, and it may be that the operative conception of lying is already evaluatively laden. There is nothing implausible, Hare writes, about holding that there are very general principles that are very widely shared across human cultures, as long as one does not insist that they generate absolute prohibitions.

According to al-Jabbar, we need to distinguish rational worship and religious worship. Both kinds involve obligations that are assigned by God. This seems to imply that we can worship rationally by obedience to the principles that are necessarily known, even if we do not know about God, and even if the obedience is not consciously directed towards God. On this view, it is only in relation to religious worship that God must be “described with every and each action,” to use al-Maturidi’s terms.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.2.3, “Al-Maturidi,”

summary by David Baggett

Al-Maturidi’s complex views on human freedom and divine command are best understood through three distinctions that he makes, distinctions between two kinds of power, two kinds of divine attitude, and two kinds of divine decree. Let’s start with the two kinds of power. Of these, the second kind of power is relatively straightforward. It’s the power not definable except as the power to perform the act at the time of the act. But acknowledging this kind of power is consistent with acknowledging a different kind of power, the first kind. What is this kind? It’s the human capacity to act in two opposite ways.

Al-Maturidi says God makes us responsible for things that are hard and easy, steep and level, and gives us principles by which to attain every virtue. He holds that everyone knows that he is the one who chooses to do what he is doing, even though the theological determinists deny this. The picture of the two powers we are given is that the first power precedes the act, and it is a power to choose, and the second power performs the act and is concurrent with the action. Both powers are the gift of God. The action that is taken by the second power must be the action that is chosen by the first power, since al-Maturidi says the action is performed “through” the choice made by the first power.

This brings us to the second distinction, between two kinds of divine attitude. It’s similar to the earlier distinction between decreeing and determining in the sense of producing something and decreeing and determining in the sense of commanding it. But whereas al-Ash’ari resists the implication that there exist things of which God disapproves (because he doesn’t want to attribute weakness to God), al-Maturidi gives us a way to take the distinction inside God’s will, without losing God’s global providential control. This solution distinguishes between satisfaction and will in general. But this isn’t intelligible until we have described the third distinction al-Maturidi makes, namely, the distinction between two kinds of divine decree.

The first decree is the definition with which things come into existence. In something like this sense God has said, “Surely we have created everything by a decree.” About the second kind of decree, al-Maturidi says, “Nor with regard to the second is it possible for human beings to determine their actions with respect to time and place, nor does their knowledge attain this. And so in this respect, too, it is not possible for it to be by them, such that their actions do not come to be from God.

What is the difference between these two kinds of decree, which we can refer to (somewhat imprecisely) as the “absolute decree” and the “detailed decree”? It’s noteworthy that the “absolute” decree is an evaluation that is all good for the object because the decree comes from divine wisdom and knowledge. The “detailed decree,” though, is of the coming-to-be of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, wisdom and foolishness. When al-Maturidi talks of the distinction between satisfaction and will, he has in mind (under “will”) that everything is good that is created by the absolute decree in its final connection with everything else in the history of the universe, and is under God’s working all things together for good. But when each type of action is put together with its results and circumstances, but still isolated from the final disposition of the whole universe, it can be good or evil. [Is the intimation that in ultimate context it ceases being, say, bad when it was bad before? That seems to confuse something being good versus something being used for good. An evil redeemed doesn’t mean it’s not evil.] God chooses to reward in accordance with the “detailed decree” only what satisfies Him and to punish only those “He does not like.” But God by His absolute decree and in His absolute power turns even the evil that we choose into good. [How can evil change into good?] One way to put this would be to use a distinction al-Maturidi does not: a murder can still be wrong even though God turns it to good. [Yes, and this is exactly the confusion: it’s not turned into something good, but it’s rather used to bring about some good.] Hare says if this is al-Maturidi’s picture, he has a way to repair the fissure in the providential circle that would otherwise result. It will still be the case that we can attribute the whole final circle to God’s good care.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.2.2., “Al-Ash’ari”

 summary by David Baggett

Of al-Ash’ari’s ten objections to the Mu’tazilites, three have to do with the matters discussed here (human freedom). The Mu’tazilites assert that human beings create evil, they think that God may wish what is not and that what He does not wish may be, and they think that they alone, and not their Lord, have power over their works. Al-Ash’ari responds that he who doesn’t will the existence of anything except what exists, and nothing exists except what he wills, and nothing is remote from his will, is the worthier of the attribute of divinity. If there are under His authority the existence of things of which He disapproves, this shows an attribute of weakness and poverty. Such a being would be weak in comparison with the sovereign omnipotent God of the tradition.

It’s tempting to think of al-Ash’ari as privileging God’s omnipotence over God’s justice, but this is not how he sees it. He is completely convinced of God’s justice (though he thinks we have to be careful not to think it is the same thing as human justice), and he’s convinced that we are responsible for our actions, and that God rightly holds us responsible. To understand this, we need to describe his notion of “acquisition.” This is the view that a single act can both be created by God and “acquired” or performed by a human being. We can distinguish between the one who lies, who is not the one who makes the act as it really is, and the one who makes it as it really is (namely, God) who does not lie. Similarly, we can make the distinction familiar from experience between cases of casual constraint and cases where we have the power to act, and so responsibility for our action. Al-Ash’ari calls these two cases “necessary motion” and “acquired motion,” and he gives the examples of shaking from palsy or shivering from fever, for the first case, and coming and going or approaching and receding, for the second.

We can ask al-Ash’ari whether God creates evil (or wrong). The answer is not straightforward. Has not God, then, created the injustice of creatures? Al-Ash’ari replies that God created it as their injustice, not as His. But then we deny that God is unjust? Al-Ash’ari replies that one who’s unjust is not unjust because he makes injustice as another’s injustice and not as his. The same reply comes with the question about whether God creates evil and whether God creates lying. God creates evil for another, and lying for another, but God Himself can’t do evil, or lie. Does this mean that God has decreed and determined acts of disobedience? Here al-Ash’ari makes another distinction, between decreed and determined acts of disobedience in the sense that He has commanded them. This is the difference Hare identified in Chapter 2 between two different kinds of prescriptions, namely, “precepts” (or “prohibitions”) and “directly effective commands.”

Someone might worry about God’s commanding things when God does not provide the recipients of the command with the power to carry it out. The interlocutor asks, “Has not God charged the unbeliever with the duty of believing?” Al-Ash’ari answers that He has. But this does not mean that God has given the unbeliever the power of believing, because, if God had given that power, the unbeliever would believe. It seems to follow that God enjoins on him an obligation that he cannot fulfill. Here, al-Ash’ari makes another distinction. Strictly, an inability is an inability both for some act and for its contrary. A stone has the inability to believe, because this inability is also an inability to disbelieve. But the unbeliever has the ability to disbelieve, and so does not strictly have the inability to believe. Al-Ash’ari considers an objection to this account of inability: namely, that he has denied that a power is for an act and its contrary. How can he deny this of powers and affirm it of inabilities? The reason is that, on al-Ash’ari’s conception of power and inability, they are necessarily concurrent with their exercise. The exercise of the inability both for the act and the contrary (to believe and to disbelieve) makes sense (as in the case of the stone). But the exercise of the power both for the act and the contrary does not make sense. It would require a thing to have two contrary attributes at the same time. His opponent could try to reverse the argument and say that it is obvious we have the power both to act and not to act, and so a power can’t be necessarily concurrent with its exercise. This dialectic will continue with the next section (on al-Maturidi).

 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.2.1, “Human Freedom”

summary by David Baggett

Hare now takes up the same three figures, but in relation to the different question whether human beings have freedom of choice in what they do, or whether our actions are only the product of divine causation. This question is the subject of prolonged discussion by all three, but we will focus on material that has implications for the relation between divine command and human obligation.

6.2.1: “’Abd al-Jabbar”

Al-Jabbar starts from the premise that it is irrational to assign an obligation to perform an act, unless the addressee is capable, or has the power to perform it, in order to be considered truly his action. The maxim that it is bad or irrational to impose unbearable obligations is taken from the Qur’an. What kind of power are we talking about? Two things are important to say about it: it has to precede the act and it has to be a power over opposites—that is, a power to perform an action or its opposite. It’s humans who do the wrong that create it. God does have the power to do wrong, but it is impious to think He does it, and there is no reason to think He does it.

Al-Jabbar uses a distinction here that descends from Aristotle’s discussion of the “mixed” cases of voluntary action in the Nicomachean Ethics, which was available in Arabic, though he reaches a slightly different conclusion from Aristotle about praise and blame. Aristotle holds that an action is involuntary if it is done either by force or by ignorance, and it is done by force if the origin of the action is outside the agent. But there are three kinds of mixed cases of “force.” One is where the action is done from fear of greater evils—like acting under a threat to one’s family. Such a case is “mixed” because it resembles both the voluntary and the involuntary, but Aristotle says it’s more like the voluntary. The second case is where one receives not praise or blame, but pardon, when one does what he ought not under pressure which overstrains human nature, and which no one could withstand. The third case is where the action is so base that no one could be forced to do it, like matricide.

Al-Jabbar extends Aristotle’s treatment of the third kind of case (like matricide) to cover all actions wrong in themselves (a category Aristotle does not have). He agrees with Aristotle’s assessment that in some mixed cases we do not receive praise and blame, but he says this not about cases of pressure that overstrains human nature (where Aristotle says we receive pardon), but about all cases where we are motivated by self-preservation. Again, this is because he has a category Aristotle does not have, that of actions to benefit others without reference to oneself, which do deserve praise. Finally, he reflects Aristotle’s point about the pleasant and the noble (which for Aristotle are ingredients of the agent’s own eudaimonia), but he says, not that we can’t be compelled by them, but that we should not be praised for pursuing them as our own advantage. Each of these three changes to Aristotle is highly illuminating about the structure of the Mu’tazilite’s thought as a whole, which denies eudaimonism and embraces the view that we can be moved by what is good in itself, independent of our own advantage.

Al-Jabbar has a complex picture of desire, motivation, and will. The central point for our purposes is that he is concerned to deny that there is any determining cause of our actions, either external or internal. He does not have, just as Aristotle does not have, a Kantian sense of “will,” in which it is the center of agency. If he had thought in the Kantian way, he might not have been so reluctant to posit an internal determining cause. But his notion, though rendered “will,” is closer to wanting than what Kant would call “willing.” One final point is that al-Jabbar holds that it is obvious that we have the relevant kind of power over our actions (a power that precedes the act, and that is a power both to act and not to act). In this way the Mu’tazilite resembles Scotus, and the resemblance is a deep one; the power over opposites is something we know from ordinary experience.

Image: “Quran” by Urganci. CC license. 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.1.2, “Al-Ash’ari”

 summary by David Baggett

Al-Ash’ari issues several criticisms of the Mu’tazilites, but we’ll focus on those relevant to DCT. According to one story, he was persuaded to attack them by three dreams in which Mohammed himself spoke to him and commanded him to defend Islam as it had traditionally been taught. In chapter seven of Kitab al-Luma, he answers the charge that God’s unjust in relation to unbelievers, since he wills their perversity. Basically his answer is that God is gracious to some and not to others, and it’s all justice on God’s part. It wouldn’t be wrong for God to do whatever he might choose. God is the Supreme Monarch, subject to no one, with no superior over him who can permit or command or chide or forbid or prescribe what he will do. So nothing can be wrong on the part of God.

Al-Ash’ari is committed to the view that there is no standard for wrongness among human beings other than God’s setting a bound or limit for us, and there is no one to set a bound or limit for God, so there is no such thing as a wrong that God could so.

The objector then asks whether this means that lying is wrong only because God has declared it to be wrong. Al-Ash’ari thinks yes. If God declared it to be right, it would be right. If God commanded it, no one could gainsay him. This does not mean, though, that God can lie. There is a difference, al-Ash’ari maintains, between what God can do and what God can command. Thus God can command us to pray and to be submissive, but this doesn’t mean that God can pray or be submissive. God can’t lie, but that is not because it is wrong, but simply because that is not a power God can have. It is like the power to be ignorant, which is another power God can’t have. (My thought: God can’t be submissive because of his perfection; but likewise God can’t command us to do irremediable evil because of his perfection. God’s commands are part of what he does; I think al-Ash’ari misconstrues the import of disanalogies between us and God.)

Al-Ash’ari holds that our human perception of what is wrong is a reception of God’s command, and not (as for the Mu’tazilites) a faculty of reason independent of revelation. This is a point about Mu’tazilite moral epistemology, and not their moral ontology. God controls who hears the command and who does not. Al-Ash’ari uses the Qur’an extensively to make this point. God hardens the hearts of the infidels.

He presents a dilemma to the Mu’tazilites. According to the Qur’an, knowledge of the command comes with a gift of power to the faithful. The dilemma is that the Mu’tazilites have to say whether God gives the infidels the same sort of gift. If they say no, they are no longer maintaining that we humans have the power to determine our acts. If they say yes, then they have to say how the “settlement” produces for the Prophet the state of being settled, but for the infidels it does not produce this. Al-Ash’ari’s conclusion is that, since it does not produce this result, this means the divine settlement is not given to them.

His critics may quote the Qur’an to the effect that it gives guidance both to the infidels and to the faithful. But such a verse, al-Ash’ari claims, has particular meaning. Elsewhere it says it doesn’t guide the infidels, and the Qur’an doesn’t contradict itself. So the particular interpretation is justified. His principle of interpretation is that the Qur’an interprets itself, so that we can legitimately choose a particular meaning over a universal meaning if there are texts elsewhere that prohibit the universal meaning. One of the frequent refrains against the Mu’tazilites is that they are not careful about this principle of interpretation, and pick out verses independently of the sense of the text as a whole.

The next section will consider al-Maturidi’s attempt to stake out middle ground between al-Jabbar’s extreme natural law account and al-Ash’ari’s radical DCT.

Image: “Quran  4” by Themeplus. CC License. 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.1.1, Intrinsic Value, “‘Abd al-Jabbar,”

 summary by David Baggett

Hare begins by roughly translating al-Jabbar’s language of “hasan” and “qabih” as “right” and “wrong,” respectively, but this will introduce a strain in certain contexts. Hare then makes two qualifications: al-Jabbar doesn’t distinguish between two normative families of terms (value and obligation) the way Hare does. But he does have an account of obligation. The second qualification is to distinguish qabih (wrong) from “zulm,” meaning injustice, something a bit narrower.

Al-Jabbar defines “wrong” by connecting it to that which deserves blame, but there are two qualifications. An act can be wrong without a person being blamed—if the action is such that, if certain conditions held (like the person was awake), performing the action would have been blameworthy. Also, sometimes the wrongness of an action can be overridden by a greater or equal right-making property. The second qualification is that there is no such neutralizing or overriding right-making property in the act that deserves blame.

The contrary of wrongness is obligation, where the person who omits the act (if he’s able to do it) deserves blame. Distinguished from both wrong and obligation are two other kinds of right, the “merely right” and the “recommended.” Cases of the “merely right” are breathing the air or eating harmless food, where the agent doesn’t deserve praise or blame. But they’re not simply neutral, for they are good things to do (as we’d put it in English). Cases of the “recommended” are praying or fasting beyond what’s required, where the agent is praised for the act but would not be blamed for the omission. [Supererogatory?]

Al-Jabbar holds that the right and wrong acts distinguished in his system are evident to human reason in their right and wrong character. They are “known immediately,” independently of revelation. Revelation does indeed inform us of the obligations we already have, but these truths are known by reason when they are revealed, and this knowledge by reason is primary in justification. These standards that we learn from reason apply also to God. “The Eternal Glorious One is able to do what would be wrong if He did it.” Because God in fact only commands and does what is right (though he could do what is wrong), we can use these standards to judge what God is and is not commanding us to do.

Al-Jabbar claims that there are “aspects” by which wrong acts are wrong and right acts are right, and that we can discern these aspects with our reason. “Lying” and “wrongdoing” are aspects that necessarily bring wrong with them, on his account, unlike “injury,” which may bring wrong or right depending on the situation. He distinguishes between the aspect of an act and the genus of an act. The genus does not make an act wrong. Entering a house is a genus of act, as is bowing in prayer. But neither is necessarily right or necessarily wrong. But “injustice” is not a genus of act, because injustice is named together with the bad. But lying is an aspect, not a genus. Al-Jabbar holds that lying necessarily brings wrong with it, but he also holds that a small lie may be exempt from blame, on account of the good past deeds of the speaker and the amount of praise he has earned.

The aspect of injustice is not to be attributed to God’s acts, according to al-Jabbar, but not because there is some difference between aspects as ascribed to humans and to God. He allows that we might seem to judge God’s acts differently from our own, when, for example, we judge that his goodness is consistent with causing pain to children. But in fact there is a difference of circumstances here, because we are assuming that God compensates the children in the next life, and so in fact the same standard is being applied. A key difference between the three authors in this chapter is that they disagree about whether God could do something wrong, even if he does not in fact do so.

Two more preliminary matters: first, previous chapters assumed an affinity between natural law theory and eudaemonism. One value of studying Islamic medieval moral theology is that we can see a school where this pairing does not obtain. The Mu’tazilites, and al-Jabbar in particular, hold that the right in all of its aspects attracts us in itself, intrinsically, not because it leads to a benefit for us as agents of the action. Al-Jabbar recognize that his opponents will claim that people do not avoid injustice and lying intrinsically, but only because of some benefit to themselves. He replies that people will do wrong for the sake of some benefit, but they will do right without any benefit to themselves. Even a heartless man would warn a blind man against falling into a well. Al-Jabbar replies that it is possible to act without thinking about one’s own interest at all. [Seems right to me, contra Piper.]

hare god's commandSecond, al-Jabbar offers explicit arguments against divine command theory. DCT can be found in all three Abrahamic faiths, and it creates much the same difficulties in all three. Al-Jabbar offers at least seven arguments against it, and Hare presents four of them. The first is that commands do not imply obligation. Al-Jabbar quotes the Qur’an: “Surely God bids to justice and good doing and giving to kinsmen.” Al-Jabbar thinks such virtues are indicated by the command but not produced by it. This sort of objection is frequently made by those who can’t see what normativity is added by a command, even a divine one. Either, they think, the thing commanded is already right or it is not; the commanding can’t change it from one to the other, though it can inform us of a character that the act already has. (Hare had earlier rejected this view that reduces imperatives to an indicative indicating that someone wants something. Hare thinks the best response, on al-Jabbar’s own terms, is to point out that al-Jabbar has the concept of obligation, distinct from rightness, and that God’s command might make something right but not obligatory into what’s both. This wouldn’t involve the command making the action right, because it already is.)

On al-Jabbar’s second objection to DCT, the account of wrong as what is forbidden by God does not fit our normal language. We don’t say it’s forbidden of God to do evil, for example, even though it would be evil of him. Moreover, there are things that are virtuous and would still be virtuous even if God told us not to do them. [Here I think al-Jabbar’s mistake is rejecting DCT instead of God’s ability to issue such hideous commands. Hare’s response is similar but a bit different, saying God’s commands are based on what’s good. I resist that because on occasion it seems to me God’s command might be predicated on what’s less evil, not what’s good. Perhaps even God chooses to break a tie.]

Third, if DCT were right, we couldn’t know our obligations without knowing they were commanded by God. But al-Jabbar says the sane man knows his obligation even though he doesn’t know that there is a commander. (Hare’s reply is to punt to Adams’s reminder that we can distinguish between what a term for a characteristic means and what makes a thing have that characteristic.)

Fourth, DCT has a problem understanding the goodness of God. If we say God’s acts are not wrong because God is not commanded, we can’t say God’s acts are right either. But we need, and the Qur’an gives, standards of value intelligible to us in terms of which we can praise God for doing right. [Hare says one reply is to say that ‘good’ means “attracting us and deserving to attract us” (where both conditions are necessary), and that we can say that God and God’s acts are the paradigm case of what is good in this sense. My own reply to these last two objections would also punt to the ontology/epistemology distinction and their different orders.]

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 6, “Divine Command in Some Medieval Islamic Thinkers,” Introduction

Summary by David Baggett:

This chapter is about the concept of divine command theory (DCT) in three medieval Islamic thinkers: al-Ash’ari, al-Maturidi, and ‘Abd al-Jabbar. Hare will argue that al-Maturidi takes a plausible mediating position between an extreme form of DCT (in al-Ash’ari) and an extreme form of natural-reason theory (in the Mu’tazilites, especially ‘Abd al-Jabbar). Despite reservations, Hare took up this part of the book because the concept of DCT is central outside the Christian tradition as well as within it, and there is a great deal to be learned from the comparison. Within medieval Islam, and within contemporary Jewish appropriations of medieval Judaism, there is very much the same range of options in understanding the relation between a sovereign God who gives us commands and our own reason, as we try to determine how to live our lives.

Hare is assuming, without arguing for it, that the three Abrahamic faiths worship the same God, though they say very different things about this God. He additionally argues that a useful side effect for a Christian of examining DCT in Judaism and Islam is that new light gets shed on areas of the Christian’s own faith that had tended to get obscured. Psalm 119, for example, acquires fresh meaning, and likewise doctrines of divine concurrence.

The chapter covers just three thinkers, and has no pretension to be talking about Islamic ethics as a whole. The scope is relatively modest, and Hare admits he’s on a big learning curve in this area. But he thinks there’s an obligation, if one thinks one has something useful to say about divine command, to relate this to the faith of over a billion people for whom divine command is a central concern. It is the confinement to a discussion of Christianity that requires justification, not the inclusion of a discussion of Islam.

This chapter locates al-Maturidi against the background of a dispute between Mu’tazilites and Ash’arites about three questions. The first is whether acts and persons have intrinsic value (or whether that value is to be understood only as a divine willing or commanding), and what kind of access we have to that value. The second question is whether human beings have freedom of choice in what they do, or whether our actions are only the product of divine causation. The third question is whether there is any proper use of human reason independent of divine revelation, or whether the proper use is only derivative from what we are given in the Qur’an and the Traditions.

There are many differences between Mu’tazilites (especially between the schools from Baghdad and from Basra), and this chapter relies mainly on the texts of ‘Abd al-Jabbar (from Basra, d. 1025), who gives the fullest account. Al-Ash’ari (d. 935) and al-Maturidi are roughly contemporaries, though there is no evidence that they met. They are both responding to Mu’tazilites, and indeed al-Ash’ari started off as a Mu’tazilite under the tutelage of al-Jubba’i of Basra (d. 915). ‘Abd al-Jabbar lived almost a hundred years after them, and they are therefore not responding to his version of the arguments (which is, in many cases, a refinement of them). Hare will start with the Mu’tazilite position, and continue with the Ash’arite response. He then locates al-Maturidi between the two, taking something from each side. But both al-Ash’ari and ‘Abd al-Jabbar also see themselves as taking middle positions, and indeed we should expect this because the Qur’an itself recommends this strategy [“Thus We have made you to be a community of the middle [road]” (2: 143).] Middle-ness is not itself truth-marking; everything depends on what the extremes are between which middle ground is being claimed. But Hare thinks it’s instructive to compare al-Maturidi’s middle ground with that of Duns Scotus.

Two other general comments will be helpful in what follows. First, understanding and interpreting law is chronologically antecedent in Islam to questions in theology (kalam) about the relation between divine command and human reason. Of the four main Sunni traditions or schools of jurisprudence (Hanafite, Shafi’ite, Hanbalite, and Malikite), al-Ash’ari comes out of the Shafi’ite school and al-Maturidi from the Hanafite school. The last of these is the school that gives the most leeway of the four to legal reasoning that is not itself derived from the Qur’an and the Traditions. The Hanbalite school, by contrast, is the most conservative in terms of the attempt to confine legal reasoning to what can be derived from the Qur’an and the Traditions. Al-Ash’ari constructs his own “middle” position as being between the Hanbalites and the Mu’tazilites.

hare god's commandThe second general point before we get to the three questions is that some influential secondary sources associate DCT in Islam with fundamentalism, and oppose it to enlightenment. The project of defending the Mu’tazilites within Islam is correspondingly seen as rescuing Islam from obscurantism and hostility to the modern world. But so far as the thesis of Hare’s book is correct, there is no conceptual requirement to connect DCT with fundamentalism, Christian or Muslim or Jewish. The term ‘fundamentalism’ is itself prejudicial here, but DCT can give us an account of the ground of human dignity in a way that simply making human dignity “a truth of reason” can’t. As a meta-ethical theory, DCT doesn’t tell us what the commands of God in fact are. But it gives no grounds for inferring that these commands will be any less or any more liberal than the prescriptions generated by the various versions of natural law. Having said that, Hare notes that it’s also true that a theory that has an honored place for both revelation and reason will find conversation with other traditions easier to sustain.