Skip to main content
Sermon on the Mount
Copenhagen Church Alter Painting

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 2: What is a Divine Command? Introduction and Section 2.1.1: “Prescription in General”:

Summary by David Baggett 

“Divine command” is the standard term in the literature, but God addresses us in all sorts of ways that are, in a broad sense, prescriptive, but are not, in a narrow sense, commands. A mnemonic device was used by scholastics for remembering the varieties of God’s revealed will. The revealed will is, first, distinguished from the disposing will, which is what God actually brings about. Here are the components of the scholastic learning device: “gives precepts to,” “prohibits,” “permits,” “counsels,” “fulfills.” We can call these five types of prescriptions “precepts,” “prohibitions,” “permissions,” “counsels,” and “directly effective commands.”

Let’s start with prescription as a genus, in contrast with a description. Anscombe noted that desire is satisfied when the world comes to be in conformity to it, whereas a belief is true when it is in conformity to the world. The same distinction can be made between prescriptions and descriptions. A prescription is satisfied when what is prescribed occurs, while a description is true when what is described obtains. If the fit fails, we might say, in the case of prescription or desire, it is a problem for the world; in the case of description, it is a problem for the mental act or belief.hare god's command

It’s no accident that this difference between prescription and description mirrors that of desire and belief. We have prescriptions in our language as a family of speech acts because we want to be able to express desires or will in a certain way. (This is different from how Aquinas thought commanding is an act of reason but not of the will, though the will can receive the command.) Writers after Aquinas, such as Scotus, often use a more robust notion of the will, and it became more natural to think of the will being the locus of commanding. In Scotus, the will already contains a ranking of the affection for justice and the affection for advantage, where the affection for advantage is an inclination towards one’s own happiness and perfection, and the affection for justice is an inclination towards what is good in itself, independently of any relation to oneself. A more robust conception of the will can be found even in later Thomists like Suarez.

We have imperatives because we want to be able to express our desires. We want to be able to effect change in the world, to make it fit our desire, by communicating the desire. This isn’t quite what John Austin called the “perlocutionary force” of an utterance, namely, what the speaker is intending to bring about through speaking. For God commanded Abraham to kill his son without intending to bring it about that Abraham obey the command. So it is not necessary, in order to have a fully functioning command, that the person giving the command intend that the addressee carry it out. This is an outlier, though, and generally we have imperatives as a grammatical form in our language because we want to be able to effect changes in the world through the communication of our desires.

Imperative sentences can have four different positions within it: the positions of (a) addressee, (b) subject, (c) action, and (d) recipient. A singular imperative sentence is one in which the term in at least one of the positions is singular. A universal imperative sentence is one in which the terms in all the positions, including the subject position, are universal. Proverbs are often like this, but they leave the term in the subject position unspecified. (a) The addressee is the person to whom the imperative is addressed. (b) The subject is the person commanded to do the action (which may not be the addressee, as in “John, Andrew is to take the package tomorrow to Marybeth,” a third-person imperative). In second-person cases, the addressee and subject are the same. Another example of a third-person imperative is God’s command at the beginning of Genesis: “Let there be light.” This is what Hare calls a “directly effective command,” where God effects the result just by commanding it. It is a prescription in the broad sense, but not a command in the narrow sense in which commands generate obligations. (c) The action is what is commanded (and there may be multiple sub-positions within the action position). (d) The recipient is the person or object to whom the action is commanded to be done (and there may be both a direct and indirect object).

The example of the Ten Commandments raises a complex exegetical and theological question about whether the prescriptions to “you” are just to the people of Israel, or to all human beings. Perhaps the right thing to say is that they are initially given to the people of Israel (both in addressee position and in subject position), as part of the covenant (see Deut. 9:4-6, Exod. 34:28), but that they are eventually intended by God to be commandments given to all human beings. If this is right, we have an example of what was a singular imperative becoming a universal imperative. (“The people of Israel,” despite containing many persons, functions as a singular term because it makes reference to a particular region of space and time.) Later in the book Hare will argue that, for a command to produce a moral obligation, it is necessary that at least the term in the action position be universalizable, but that this is not necessary for the terms in the other positions.

Ordinary logical relations such as entailment and negation apply to prescriptions as much as descriptions. R. M. Hare (John Hare’s father) tried showing this by making another distinction, between what he called “phrastic,” “tropic,” and “neustic.” The phrastic is the content common to a command like “Andrew is to take the package tomorrow to Marybeth” and the prediction “Andrew will take the package tomorrow to Marybeth.” We can say that this content is the state of affairs of Andrew’s taking the package tomorrow to Marybeth. The tropic is the mood indicator, distinguishing indicative (or declarative) from imperative and thus distinguishing statement from prescription. We’ve been discussing speech acts having the imperative tropic. The neustic is the sign of assent to the combination of phrastic and tropic. When the teacher says in a class, as a philosophical example, “The cat is on the mat,” she withholds the neustic. Using this new vocabulary, we can say that the phrastic can be the bearer of the same logical relations in both imperative and indicative sentences, and we can talk about “satisfaction conditions” for imperatives in the same way we talk about “truth conditions” for indicatives.

The example of a command is only one kind of use of an imperative. Sometimes “command” is taken for the sake of convenience to cover a whole family of speech acts, but this chapter uses “prescription” as the name for the family, and reserves “command” for the narrower sense in which commands generate obligation (and, by extension, “directly effective commands”). Some of the other members of the family of prescription are admonitions, exhortations, warnings, invitations, and calls. There is no need for present purposes to divide the whole family into species by genus and difference. But it is important to distinguish certain members of the family from each other, since God can do many of them, and what God is doing in one case is different from what God is doing in another. In all of them, though, the use of the imperative suggests that God wants to effect change in the world by the communication of the divine will.

Leave a Reply