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John Hare, summary of “Divine Command Theory” of Christian Ethics: Four Views

by Jeff Dickson

Moral Right and Wrong

In his chapter on divine command theory (DCT), John Hare argues that “what makes something morally wrong…is that God forbids it, and what make something morally right…is that God requires it.” To this end, Hare first defines moral obligation (moral right and moral wrong). Although Hare reveals that other explanations for moral obligation exist (divine command consequentialism, divine command virtue ethics, etc.), he decides to couch moral obligation within a Kantian framework, particularly the categorical imperative. Any moral consideration that is capable of being willed as a universal law and treats individuals as ends instead of mean is understood as right (morally obligatory). Any decision that transgresses/distorts these formulas are understood as wrong.

Divine Command

For Hare, “the purpose of commands is for the speaker to effect change in the world through the expression of her will.” But how? Hare is especially concerned about those divine commands that can be characterized as precepts and prohibitions. When given by divine authority, these seem to bring about a reason for acting in accordance with the command issued. To frame how this happens, Hare returns to Kant for an analogy. Kant understood the state as an arbiter of external freedom. It issues commands and establishes “sanctions” in an effort to supply such freedom to its citizens. Similarly, God provides commands and endorses sanctions for noncompliance in an effort to provide something good for morally free beings to enjoy. Such commands ought to be followed (like the laws of the state), not out of fear of punishment, but out of respect for what is being provided.  In both cases, there is a union of wills between authority and subject—the authority seeks good for his subjects and the subject complies with commands to that end.

The Relation between Moral Obligation and Divine Command


To highlight the relationship between moral obligation and divine command, Hare discards Philip Quinn’s assertion that divine commands cause obligation and rejects the notion that divine commands constitute obligation (Robert Adams). In their place, Hare offers his own proposal—God wills obligations via commands by means of what John Austin refers to as an “explicit performatives.” Like a king who declares laws into existence, God commands obligations simply “because of the necessity of the judgment that God is to be obeyed.”

Answers to Objections

Against those who believe that such a theory leads to an infinite regress (Why does one obey what God says? Why does someone do that? and so on),  Hare argues, along with Ockham, that if God exists and is impeccably good, obedience to him is required. This conclusion keeps the “vicious regress” from progressing ad infinitum.  Against those who claim God’s commands are arbitrary, Hare concludes, along with Adams and others, that God chooses what is right from what is good and this is rooted in who he is. Against those who believe DCT renders humans infantile, Hare argues that human sophistication is sustained by how commands and given and how humanity fits within the arc of God’s grand metanarrative. Against those who believe that DCT establishes an unassailable gulf between theists and non-theists, Hare states that divine commands provide a basis for obligations felt by believers and nonbelievers alike.


Virtue Ethics Response

Virtue ethics expositor Brad Kallenberg admires Hare’s commitment to moral obligation as “internally related” to the command of God. That said, there are three primary objections Kallenberg has with DCT in general and Hare’s delineation of this program in particular. First, Kallenberg does not appreciate how Hare couches DCT in individualistic terms. He wonders why Hare does not make more of the fact that divine commands are typically issued to a group. He also wishes that a distinction had been drawn between the compelling nature of commands as revealed to individuals verses a collective.  Second, Kallenberg asks how someone is supposed to tell the difference between divine invitation, advice, and command, as Hare does not articulate any meaningful ways of deciphering such. Finally, Kallenberg takes issue with the way in which Hare conflates what he refers to as an “overly generic” interpretation of Kant with J. L. Austin’s speech act theory.

Natural Law Response

In her response to Hare’s presentation, Claire Brown Peterson concedes two of DCT’s major commitments: 1) “certain actions can be objectively good or bad even if God does not command those actions” and 2) “any action, (good, bad, or neutral) becomes obligatory once God commands it (and wrong once God prohibits its).” However, she disagrees with the idea that “no action is obligatory unless God has commanded it (and no action is wrong unless God has prohibited it).” Peterson believes that if obligations are rooted in revealed speech acts of God, then it becomes difficult to explain morality in those who are not cognizant of such communication. Many who may not be privy to revealed speech acts seem to understand something of what is right and wrong and behave accordingly (at least some of the time and even then imperfectly). Ultimately, Peterson does not believe that if people know God would want people to do X then God has issued a command to do X.

Prophetic Ethics Response

Prophetic ethicist Peter Goodwin Heltzel is skeptical of what he identifies as Hare’s reliance on “Kant of Konigsberg” over “Jesus of Nazareth.” In fact, Heltzel goes so Hare as to suggest that “Kant provides Hare with a philosophical vehicle…for a distinctively Christian command ethics.” This heavy endorsement of Kant is suspect inasmuch as Kant mistakenly advocated for racial and gender hierarchies. Heltzel would have preferred that Hare construct his argument on the foundation of Christ, not the philosopher who (according to Heltzel) proved to be an inspiration behind western imperialism.

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