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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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