Skip to main content

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

Leave a Reply