Skip to main content

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. 

Leave a Reply