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John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 2, “What is a Divine Command?” Section 2.3.2: Three Puzzles:

Summary by David Baggett

We end with three puzzles about the four Barthian constraints, that we are individual centers of agency, in time, free, and language-users. The first puzzle is about why beings like us in these four ways could not bind themselves morally without bringing in God. Darwall in The Second-Person Standpoint raises this objection to Pufendorf’s theory that “moral entities” (such as obligations) are produced through God’s “imposition” of his will in commands. Darwall first offers an objection from Cudworth: “It was never heard of, that any one founded all his Authority of commanding others, and others’ Obligation or Duty to Obey his Commands, in a Law of his own making, that men should be Required, Obliged, or Bound to Obey him.”

Hare thinks Scotus solved this problem earlier, but now he adds that Pufendorf has the same solution, seeing justification of obedience to God terminating in something that does not itself need justification. For Scotus, the principle that God is to be loved is known from its terms, and therefore does not require any justification from any antecedent principle. We know that God is to be loved, and so that God is to be obeyed, just by knowing that God is the supreme good. Pufendorf also takes God’s authority as not needing justification. Darwall interprets Pufendorf as trying to justify the principle that we ought to obey God by deriving it from an antecedent principle that we owe gratitude to our benefactors, but Pufendorf takes divine sovereignty as already granted, and is interested in showing that we have no reason to question it, if hesitations should arise. Pufendorf takes God’s authority as not needing justification. Lipscomb makes this point in an article in which he uses the distinction between justifying and explaining a requirement. Like Calvin, Pufendorf is giving us a double motivation for obedience, but he’s not justifying. As several commentators have noted, Pufendorf could not use gratitude, which he regards as an imperfect duty, as a justification for God’s right to demand obedience, which he regards as a perfect duty. Rather, he regards God’s authority as axiomatic, in the same way mathematics has axioms or first principles, which “merit belief upon their own evidence.”

Darwall then objects to Pufendorf that, by acknowledging that God’s command presupposes our competence as free and rational responders, he has in fact undermined the need for bringing in God at all in understanding moral obligation. If we can already form such a community ourselves as mutually accountable free and rational persons, a Kantian “realm of ends,” appeal to a divine sovereignty is unnecessary. But Darwall does not see that the relevant competence here is the competence to bring about what Kant calls the highest good. In the Groundwork Kant introduces the notion of a kingdom of ends because he has an important point to make: the kingdom of ends has a king. The sovereign can only be God, because only God is without needs and with unlimited resources adequate to the divine will. Korsgaard prefers to talk about a “republic of all rational beings,” but Mackie is more accurate when he says “but for the need to give God a special place in it, [the kingdom of ends] would have been better called a commonwealth of ends.” If Chapter 1 is right, the kingdom needs a sovereign who can bring about the highest good, the union of happiness and virtue, which is the end given us by morality itself.

Kant agrees that we belong together with God in a kingdom of ends, but he also holds that God is superior to us because God runs this kingdom, and judges us according to whether we live by the laws of this kingdom. When we think about rightness and wrongness, we’ll think in terms of a court, and the consciousness of an internal court in the human being is conscience. The judge has to be considered as a figure outside the individual, because he has to be pictured as having qualities that are inconsistent with being human at all. Kant says pointedly that this pictured judge may be actual or not, but must be conceived as one who scrutinizes hearts (a role humans can’t play) and who imposes all obligation (this is God’s role as legislator) and who has all power to give effect to his laws (this is God’s role as executive). Kant is conceding here that, even though I can entertain within myself the thought of what an actual God would prescribe and the verdict that an actual God would reach, and I can repeat in my own will the legislating and the verdict, I cannot repeat within my own will the omnipotent supervision of the world.

hare god's commandThis shows what kind of equality we do and don’t have with God. We humans do have, on this picture, equal membership in the kingdom of ends with God. We, like God, make the moral law; in our case we make it by making the law a law for us. This is what Kant means by “autonomy.” He does not mean that we create the law. We will in our wills what God wills for our willing. The answer to the first puzzle, in Kantian terms, is that the realm of ends needs a sovereign.

The second puzzle about the Barthian constraints is whether there are constraints from the limits of our understanding on what God can command. Adams takes a robust, common-sense approach: Normally communication between human beings requires using words how they’re understood. In communications between God and us, though, we have to be careful about assuming that God does not say to us what goes beyond our current understanding. Barth defends an account of language according to which the same words do not mean the same things used by us and by God, but God enables us nonetheless to understand God’s language by the gracious sending of the Holy Spirit. Hare suggests, more modestly, that some distance between what God means and what we understand is at least congruent with, if not required by, our freedom and our being in time. Sometimes Jesus’ words may have been a bit unclear to his followers. God reveals enough about destinations (which he sees clearly but we only see glimpses of) to keep us going, but does not reveal the whole thing, because God is respecting our need to work out how to live. Kant puts this by saying that God did not intend us to be marionettes that could be manipulated by pulling their strings. Here’s an analogy: we may use the word “cherish” in our wedding vows without understanding what it involves until much later.

A third puzzle is that the model of a human command suggests that the recipient has to be able to recognize that she has been commanded by the commander. Is this necessary for accountability? Hare thinks it is not necessary even in the case of human commands—as when various rules in place can be authoritative without our knowing who signed off on them originally. In any case, it’s true about divine commands that their audience may not know their origin. God, in the divine legislative authority, promulgates the commands, but those to whom they are promulgated do not necessarily know that it is God who has promulgated them. This is a version of the doctrine of general revelation. Even if people do not know God is the author, they can still be accountable to what has been revealed, and they can still have obligations. They may even have a sense of being commanded without knowing who it is that is commanding them. We can receive divine commands in the words presented to us by people we know, or even people we don’t know. Nathan played this role for King David. Allowing for this sort of divine communication requires discretion and discernment, and it’s possible to get it wrong, but the answer to the third puzzle is that the people who receive divine command don’t always know that it’s divine command they are receiving.

In sum, this chapter tried to do three things. First, it gave a general account of prescription, and then distinguished five different kinds of divine prescription, giving examples of the main kinds. Then it isolated one kind, divine command in the narrow sense that generates obligation and that’s tied to the authority of the commander, and it discussed what “authority” means here. Finally, it mentioned some features of our own agency and God’s that follow from God’s commanding us, and it discussed in a preliminary way some puzzles about these features.


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