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Steve Wilkens’ Christian Ethics: Four Views, “Introduction”

 

Summary by Jeff Dickson

 

Though most Christians concede that moral goodness is rooted in and revealed by God, these are also divided on moral theory, particularly as it pertains to how God communicates moral knowledge, anthropological conclusions, and how the body of Christ fits in the moral landscape. As a result, relatively clear distinctions can be drawn between moral theories depending on how they explain these considerations. These distinctions have established named ethical systems that Steve Wilkens believes deserve a properly nuanced introduction. Such introductions must be made before a compelling juxtaposition/debate between these general ethical systems can be entertained. This is the expressed purpose of the first chapter of this collaborative volume.

Virtue Ethics

Wilkens begins his introductions with virtue ethics and distills its essence down to that moral theory which is more concerned about achieving good character than good actions. According to Plato and Aristotle, virtue ethics is teleologically focused on reaching a moral and transcendent “Form” that is consistent with specific impeccable ideals (like moderation, courage, prudence, justice, etc.) in the context of the polis. The context of this enterprise shifted in the medieval period to the church and more divinely-rooted virtues (especially love) were introduced. However, in reaction to corruption within the church, many during the Renaissance wanted to return ethics to the secular and political world. These became more concerned about what was pragmatic for society building. In the 20th century, Anscombe and MacIntyre returned the moral enterprise to its transcendent and teleological foundations. Such foundations, according to Hauerwas and other more current Christian ethicists, are understood in the context of the church and, according to Zagzebski, appropriately rooted in divine virtue.

Natural Law

Like virtue ethics, natural law theory is teleologically focused. However, unlike virtue ethics, natural law theories are more concerned about adhering to an external and preexisting code than they are about developing personal character. Inasmuch as humans possess a nature, natural law is the guide leading to the highest good and subsequent flourishing. Though reason is championed as the way in which natural law is discovered and followed in the secular world, Wilkens acknowledges that natural law is arbitrary unless it is governed by an appropriate authority and people can be helped to it. Enter Aquinas and Suarez who argue (respectively) that God draws the human person to goodness via the laws that govern human life and serves as the originator of the natural law via his perfect will.

Divine Command Theory

Quite unlike virtue ethics and natural law, divine command theory, in one way or another, delimits morality to what is determined by the commands and prohibitions of God. What is moral depends on God’s sovereign will and this, according to Wilkens, is “opaque to reason and ,…most clearly known by revelation.” However, divine command theory must provide a cogent answer to the age-old euthyphro dilemma which tries to render the supposed commander either subservient to a higher moral code or capable of determining otherwise abhorrent acts moral by divine fiat. Thankfully, Wilkens highlights the work of Robert Adams which satisfies the charge of euthyphro in a way that preserves God’s sovereignty and staves off the criticism that his commands are arbitrary. Adams’ iteration of divine command theory argues that ethics is not grounded in God’s commands, but in his character. He and other more recent modified divine command theorists believe that moral law is a natural implication of God’s nature and, as a result, such a God would only command certain things.

Prophetic Ethics

The final introduction Wilkens makes involves what he calls prophetic ethics. The author concedes that while this particular ethical theory endorses the broadest range of expression, prophetic ethics does share several distinct characteristics. First, its foundation is built on ecclesiology and mission rather than divine commands (see divine command theory) or human flourishing (see virtue ethics and natural law ethics). Second, it pays closer attention to the problem of corporate sin than do the other theories represented in this work. Third, prophetic ethics is more interested in engaging the world, especially the world in need, than it is in theory and doctrine. The Anabaptist movement, the social gospel movement of the early 20th century, and liberation theology are mentioned as rough expressions of this ethical formula as each of these movements endorse these and other corresponding characteristics.51oNubO+DcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Inasmuch as this work is most interested in Christian ethics and the various theories appertaining thereunto, Wilkens is right to demonstrate how each of these systems finds support in the Scriptures. For instance, virtue ethics is consistent with Paul’s encouragement in Philippians 4:8 to dwell on that which is moral and the apostle’s call to mimic the character of Christ (see Phil. 2:5-11). That all possess at least some awareness of a natural law seems to comply with what Paul observes in Romans 2:14-15—“…They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their conscience also bears witness,…”. Divine command theory appears to enjoy the broadest scriptural support given the copious commands and ordinances that proliferate both testaments of the canon. Even prophetic ethics enjoys support in passages where the needy and “least of these” are being cared for (Lev.19:9-10; 25:10) and where the standard of judgment is connected to one’s response to those less fortunate (Matt. 25:31-46).

The short introductions provided in this first chapter not only give the reader a brief understanding of the salient features of each position, they provide a brief history of the evolution each theory has endured, elucidate a current expression of these systems, and demonstrate how every one of them enjoys Scriptural support. In so doing, Wilkens is successful at setting a sophisticated table for four in which a robust debate can be had between representatives for each of these theories.

 

 

Image: By Ib Rasmussen – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2980809

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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.

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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).

 

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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. 

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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. 

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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.]

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Chapter 5 of God and Cosmos, “Moral Obligations.” Part 2

 Summary by Frederick Choo

Baggett and Walls next evaluate the Cornell realist account, advanced by those like David Brink, Nicholas Sturgeon, and Richard Boyd. Cornell realists view moral facts as natural facts (constituted by some complex collection of natural properties), but not reducible to non-moral natural facts. Some natural properties, for example, contribute to human flourishing. Baggett and Walls point out that even if Cornell realist accounts of the good are successful, this does not provide an effective account of moral obligations. C. Stephen Evans, for example, thinks such a theory of goodness is fully compatible with Divine Command Theory.

They then further evaluate Brink’s approach to accounting for moral obligations, which seems far from a Kantian understanding of moral obligations as categorical. Kant’s categorical imperatives fell on hard times for various reasons. One reason was due to potentially competing or conflicting moral demands which Kant provided no way of resolving. W. D. Ross extended Kant’s work by distinguishing between prima facie and ultima facie duties (ultima facie duties are one’s duties all things considered). This however loosened the perceived authority of certain moral obligations since they can be overridden. Another reason was due to the action-guiding nature of morality. Moral anti-realists took this as evidence to suggest that moral judgments can’t merely purport to state facts, otherwise they cannot fulfill their practical function. Those who resist this assessment typically affirm an internalist thesis, where there is an internal or conceptual connection between moral considerations and action or the sources of action. One can be an internalist about motives or reasons. And “reasons for action” may refer to explanatory reasons or justifying ones. Brink responds to the anti-realist challenge by identifying three distinguishable characteristics of internalism: (1) Moral considerations necessarily motivate or provide reason for action; (2) it follows that the claim about the motivational power or rationality of morality must be a priori; (3) it follows that the rationality or motivational power of moral considerations cannot depend on substantive considerations such as what the content of morality turns out to be, facts about agents, or the content of the correct theory of rationality. On motivation internalism, anyone who recognizes a moral fact will necessarily be motivated to act on it. This seems implausible. On reason internalism, anyone who recognizes a moral fact has a reason to act on it. Baggett and Walls think this is true, but resists Brink’s insistence that internalism entails (2) and (3). Brink himself admits that not all internalists embrace all three conditions.

9780199931194Brink rejects reason internalism because he thinks that someone can correctly identify their moral obligations and yet still wonder whether those obligations give him good reason for action. Hence not all moral facts are reason-giving. While he thinks moral obligations apply to agents independently of their desires, he thinks that moral obligations do not provide reasons for action independently of their desires. The sort of reasons he is interested in are the sorts of pro-attitudes that expressivists and prescriptivists affirm are constitutive of moral judgments. Baggett and Walls reject Brink’s account, then, because this waters down the concept of moral obligations. The sort of reasons that moral obligations give us to act are connected with the authority of morality, which is closely connected to a commitment to reason internalism. Certain moral facts themselves provide distinctive, and sometimes overriding reasons for acting, bringing deliberation to a halt and resulting in a guilty verdict if we do not perform the duties in question. Hence, Brink’s account cannot explain these kind of moral obligations and instead waters the concept down.
Baggett and Walls then look at non-natural normative realism advanced by those like Derek Parfit and Erik Wielenberg. On this view, moral facts are non-natural facts. Wielenberg claims that the secularist can posit that moral laws are normative in nature just like the laws of logic are. Both sets of laws are prescriptive. Since the law of non-contradiction can exist without a lawgiver, so can morality. Baggett and Walls however think that there are important dissimilarities. First, it may well be that all genuine norms have their locus in God, reflecting aspects of his nature. Second, only violation of the moral law properly generates guilt, a need to be forgiven, and alienation from others that forgiveness can fix. Making a logical mistake may cause us to feel silly or embarrassed, but not guilty.

Baggett and Walls also note that some secular philosophers lose the distinctive character of moral obligations when they assimilate moral obligations to having good reasons to act a certain way. What they do is provide a number of reasons to perform an action and act as though they have explained where a moral obligation comes from. Instead, Baggett and Walls claim that it often works the other way. Because we have a moral obligation gives us reasons to act. For example, we don’t look at a poor person and count up a distinct set of normative reasons to act and then infer we have an obligation as a result. We instead apprehend or feel the force or sense the authority of the obligation to help, which gives us overriding reasons to act.

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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.

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John Hare’s God’s Command, 5.3, “Barth and Our Access to the Commands”

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

In the last section of chapter 5, Hare explores Barth’s view of our access to divine commands. In order to get a clear picture of how Barth thought about access, Hare thinks it will be helpful to use Kant’s view of conscience as a foil. To this end, Hare first discusses Barth’s view of Kant, then Kant’s view of conscience, and finally Hare lays out Barth’s view.

Barth is a careful interpreter of Kant, but his analysis does not always hit the target. Hare proposes that Barth has missed the mark in a couple of ways. First, Barth understands Kant as saying that God is a merely regulative idea and not a constitutive one. By Barth’s lights, Kant thought of God as just a useful (regulative) idea—it doesn’t matter if God actually exists. But a right reading of Kant will show that though Kant did not think we could have knowledge of God by pure rationality, through practical reason God becomes a constitutive idea. Kant needs God to exist in actuality for his moral theory to work.

Hare further thinks that Barth has misunderstood Kant’s view of divine revelation and grace. Contrary to many of his interpreters, Kant did think that divine revelation was possible, but that it must be justified from pure reason. Further, Kant held that divine grace was necessary for moral transformation. These misunderstandings of Kant are major reasons for Barth’s rejection of Kant. Barth did appreciate Kant’s recognition of radical evil, but Barth thought Kant’s acknowledgement of human depravity resulted in a contradiction and the complete failure of Kant’s system. Hare again thinks Barth has misunderstood. Kant begins with the reality of radical evil and works out from that point and so his system, when read charitably, is consistent with this reality. Hare works as a peacemaker, suggesting that many of Barth’s objections are mistaken and that the real difference between Kant and Barth is epistemological. Barth inverts Kant’s “concentric circles,” where pure reason lies inside the circle of revelation to reason. In this way, Barth takes up Kant’s role of “biblical theologian.” Where Kant thinks that divine revelation must be justified by pure reason, Barth thinks that revelation is fundamental and undergirds human reason.

Despite Barth’s criticism of Kant, both Barth and Hare agree that Kant’s account isn’t intended to be reductive; Kant wants to retain a “vertical” or theistic element. This non-reductive element can be seen in Kant’s view of conscience. In Kant’s discussion of the conscience, he argues that to make moral judgments, we must imagine that there is a third party (or parties) who serves legislative, executive, and judicial roles. These figures serve as our inner voice or conscience, prescribing the moral law, enforcing it, and omnisciently judging the heart. However, Kant held that these roles cannot be fulfilled by a mere human. As judge, he must scrutinize all hearts. As legislator, he must legislate all obligation, and as executive, he must enforce the moral law. These are not human capacities. Thus, Kant thinks we must imagine that this person speaking to us about morality is God, who is uniquely qualified to serve in all three roles. This imagining of an actual God who serves these roles is God as a regulative concept and makes morality accessible to us by reason. Phenomenologically, Kant holds that this view of morality is necessary to explain the weighty feeling of our moral duty. But Kant thinks that we must conclude that God actually exists in order for there to be the possibility of the highest moral good, which is the union of happiness and virtue. Reason requires God to exist as a constitutive principle.

hare god's commandFor Hare, the key difference between Kant and Barth with respect to our access to divine command is that Kant thinks our knowledge of the commands is discerned by pure reason and Barth thinks that they are given by revelation. Hare carefully nuances Kant’s view on this point. Kant did not think God could not give commands by way of revelation, only that we would never be justified in believing that these commands, if they are so given, were from God. The problem for Barth is to answer how we know when God has commanded us. People claim to be commanded by God when they are not and some divine commands, like the command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, would be difficult to recognize as a divine command. To solve this dilemma, Hare argues that Barth provides phenomenological features of genuine divine commands.

First, the command will have a “certain kind of clarity or distinctness.” By this, Barth means that the command will have specific content. This does not mean we will always be able to discern the content easily. But the command will be persistent and will resist our effort to ignore it. Genuine commands, in a sense, pursue us and direct us in specific ways.

Second, the command will present itself as “having an external origin, either immediately or mediately.” Here Hare finds resonance between Barth and Kant. The command imposed on us must come to us from the outside; it is revealed and not invented.

Third, the command comes “in a familiar voice.” Barth’s central idea here is that we learn the “voice” of God through the practice of instruction, where instruction is grounded in both the individual meditation upon the Word of God and communally thinking together about God and his Word as is done in the church. The entire Christian tradition and one’s own history with God provide a knowledge of what God is like and shapes our expectations about what God will command and when he might do so.

Fourth, the command comes with “a sense of conviction or authority.” Barth thinks that genuine divine commands will carry a certain kind of weight. They make claims on us. Barth says that the divine command “must lay upon me the obligation of unconditional truth—truth which is not conditioned by myself. Its authority and power to do so must be intrinsic and objective, and not something which I lend to it.” Divine commands have the sense of obligation to a Person of immense authority. They are substantial, heavy things.

The fifth and most important phenomenological feature is that “the commands appear to be from a loving or merciful source.” For Barth, the chief exemplar of goodness and mercy is Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation, God has both acted rightly for us and to us. Jesus demonstrates God’s grace and mercy, and in the teaching of Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Golden Rule, God has clearly articulated the shape of the good. All of God’s commands should be ultimately consistent with the revelation of Jesus Christ.

At the end of the day, argues Hare, these phenomenological features of the divine command do not show that God has so commanded us. If one imagines he is commanded by a good God, her imagination may generate all the relevant phenomenology. However, on the assumption that God commands us, Barth’s five features of phenomenology can help us discern whether and when God has commanded us.