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John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 1, section 1.4: “God’s Command and the Scope of Obligation”

Summary by David Baggett 

God’s command produces not only moral obligation, but obligations of other kinds, like ceremonial and dietary obligations in Judaism. But with moral obligation, we might say that God’s command not only lays the obligation on us, but also gives us the scope of the obligation. This needs more explanation.

Kantian morality requires that we give equal moral status, or dignity (as opposed to price), to all human beings. But it has proved hard to justify this status. Hare will try to show that divine prescription will not merely give us a justification for the claim that we are under obligation, but it will ground the particular kind of obligation that is peculiar to morality.

Kant says in the Groundwork, in the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative, that we are to treat humanity, whether in our own person or the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, and never merely as a means. Moreover, morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends. Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity. But there are different schools of interpretation of this point. The inclusive interpretation says only persons have moral status, all human beings have moral status, and therefore all human beings are persons. But the problem is that Kant’s criterion for personality (“the susceptibility to respect for the moral law as of itself a sufficient incentive to the will”) seems to rule out some human beings, such as two-month-olds. A second group holds that, on Kant’s criterion for personhood, many human beings, including normal human infants but also adults with Alzheimer’s disease, must lack moral status. Kant, on this reading, ends up disallowing important subgroups of human beings from having moral status.

hare god's commandIf we take Kant’s language about the predisposition to the good seriously, however, we have a partial answer to this difficulty. In his biological and psychological writing, Kant seems to privilege reference to belonging to the species of human beings. He treats children as entities to whom obligations are owed, and Kant thinks we have obligations only to persons. So he seems committed to the view of humans as persons from conception. What makes something a person, then, for him, is membership in a species in which some members have this kind of second potentiality for responding to the moral law.

This helps answer some concerns about children and Alzheimer’s victims, but a difficulty remains: it’s unclear why we should give status to members of a species who do not themselves have the relevant capacities (the second potentialities), for example, infants born with severe mental retardation, if it’s the existence of just those capacities in some of its members that is supposed to make the species valuable in the particular way that moral status implies.

Within the Abrahamic faiths we do have a way to do this, starting from the premise that humans are created in the image of God. Two ways of understanding this are not successful, but there is a third that works, and that takes us back to divine command.

The passages that mention the image of God tell us very little about what this image in a human being amounts to. Speculation has been continuous and manifold, referring to our rationality, or our freedom or our capacity for dominion or our capacity for relation. The problem with all these accounts is that they are based on the capacities we can exercise in this life. This is the first approach that is unsuccessful, because it is not clear how any such capacity-based account can cover all human beings and give them the same basic dignity.

One response to this point is to look for a theistic account of the basis of human dignity not in human capacities but in God’s activity of conferring or bestowing value. This is the second way that is unsuccessful. Wolterstorff takes this route, writing that being loved by God is such a relation; being loved by God gives a human being great worth. And if God loves equally and permanently each and every creature who bears the imago dei, then the relational property of being loved by God is what we have been looking for.

Hare is unconvinced. When God created human beings, God said it was “very good.” God is portrayed here not as reflecting on the divine attachment, but as seeing something good in the created order, and especially in the human life. The analysis of human value as imparted value makes this value too transparent, as though we see through it to God’s value without any value added. A successful theistic account of human value needs to accommodate both the relation to God, who is the ultimate source of all value, and the intrinsic value of what God creates.

Hare thinks there’s an account that can meet these conditions, traceable to Karl Barth. David Kelsey puts it like this: human beings’ inherent accountability for their response to God provides the theological basis on which the peculiar dignity of human creatures is to be understood. Dignity inheres in human creatures’ concrete actuality by virtue of the fact that the triune God has directly related to them as their creator. Human dignity is thus ex-centric, grounded and centered outside human creatures.

But if dignity is centered outside human creatures, how can it be intrinsic to the human creature? The justification for ascribing value to human beings is not from our capacities, but from God’s calling us to a certain vocation. This calling is particular, different for each concrete human person. In this way the ground is not something abstract or universal, like Kant’s ‘personality’.

There is a good reply here to the charge that locating the ground of human value in God’s attachment to us makes our value extrinsic. On the conception defended in the rest of Hare’s book, there is a call by God to each one of us, a call to love God in a particular and unique way. Rev. 2:17 refers to a unique name conferred on a person—and the name gives us insight into the nature into which we are being called (the way ‘Peter’ means ‘rock’). If we think of nature, as Scotus does, as a way of loving God, then we can think of the value of each of us as residing in us, in our particular relation to God. What we have here is an intrinsic good in a slightly odd sense; not that we have value, each of us, all by ourselves (which is one thing the phrase ‘intrinsic value’ might mean), since we have our value in relation. But the value is not reducible to the valuing by someone outside us, on this account, but resides in what each of us can uniquely be in relation to God.

Is dignity based on the call of God, or in the destination towards which God is calling us? Dignity in this discussion is incommensurable worth. This is how Kant distinguishes dignity from price, such as the price of a pen that can be exchanged for something else of commensurable or equivalent worth. If we grant that God has incommensurable worth, we should grant that the love by a particular person of God (which is her destination) shares in that worth, though it will not be of the same value. And what leads her to that love (namely, God’s call) will also have value. The idea that this love is of incommensurable value is suggested by texts like, “Or what will they give in return for their life?” To answer the earlier question, we should say that it is the destination that gives the final value, but it is the call that leads to the destination, and it’s the call that we already have; we are not yet there, even though it’s already our destination.

The beginning of Section 1.3 claimed that this theist reply to the request for a justification was an indirect use of Kant’s view that our dignity resides in our potential to respond to the moral law. What kind of use of Kant is this? Kant’s view throughout his published corpus is that we should recognize our duties as God’s commands. But in Religion he undertakes a translation project as a philosophical theologian, translating historical revelation into the revelation to reason, using moral concepts. Hare doesn’t read Kant as reducing historical revelation to the revelation of reason, but to leave what he calls “biblical theology” as it is. In the translation, he proposes to talk about the Trinity in relation to the problem of our falling short of the life we ought to lead, the problem of the moral gap.

With this in mind, we can see Kant’s language about our dignity residing in our potential to respond to the moral law as a translation of more traditional language about our potential to respond to God’s command or call. Kant does not have the idea of the particularity of the call. He does, though, have the idea that what gives us our dignity is our potential to respond, and not our actual response. As mentioned before, he ties this potential to our membership in the human species. The basic idea of locating our dignity in our potential to respond to God’s call is already in Kant, and is part of his inheritance from the Lutheran catechisms of his youth. We get valuable help in answering the normative question by returning to the pre-translated version that he does not discuss, but takes for granted.

To sum up the chapter, three arguments were distinguished for the dependence of morality on religion: the argument from providence, the argument from grace, and the argument from justification. The justification of obligation, that it is obedience to God’s commands, was shown, if Scotus is right, not to rely on a basic premise that itself requires justification. The justification also does not fall prey to the Euthyphro objection, if we make a separation between the good and the obligatory in the way suggested. Finally, this justification gives us a way to ground the basic Kantian morality (that gives the same dignity to every human being) in the notion of a unique call by God to each individual to love God in a unique way.

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