Skip to main content

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 3, Section 3.3.3, “The Third Defense: Thomist”

Summary by David Baggett 

The third defense of eudaemonism is drawn from the picture of Aquinas’s account of the relation between morality and happiness described by Jean Porter. She starts with a difficulty about understanding Aquinas, which is that he seems both to affirm eudaemonism and to assert that charity loves God for the sake of God and the neighbor for the sake of the neighbor, and not for our own sakes. Porter tries reconciling these. Aquinas expresses his eudaemonism by saying we all act with the goal of happiness, which sounds like a denial of the picture Hare attributed to Scotus and Kant featuring two fundamental motivations behind human action. But Aquinas also says that the love of God for God’s own sake is the distinctive mark of charity, and that charity towards the neighbor requires us to promote the neighbor’s good for the neighbor’s sake and not our own. There’s a paradox here. Porter tries resolving it in two steps.

The first step is to say that whatever overarching good the agent loves as her final end, she must regard it as in some way a meaningful goal for her own actions. But the Kantian would say this begs the question. For Kant and Scotus there are two fundamental sorts of motivations. For Aristotle and Aquinas-Porter, just one. For Aquinas the actualization of one’s final end is natural, but for Kant it’s free, not in this sense natural. Scotus says if an angel had the affection for advantage but not for justice, it wouldn’t be free. It begs the question to assert that we know, just on the basis of understanding human agency, that there is just one final end.

It might be thought almost unavoidable to say any action of mine must be directed at my own good, but recall some distinctions here. The first, from Butler, is that there are two senses in which every good aimed at by an agent might be a good for the agent, and the first does not imply the second. The first sense is that the good aimed at is good for the agent just because it is aimed at. In the second sense, the good for the agent is an object whose definition includes internal reference to the agent. Now, the moral law occasions in the agent a feeling of respect. Respect is my feeling, but it is not occasioned by a self-indexed object. Rather, it is occasioned by the moral law, which has no reference to me at all. The second distinction was between cases where the explicit description under which the object is loved is self-indexed and cases where it is not. Here Aquinas-Porter and Scotus-Kant would share common ground in saying that the self-indexed description need not be present to the mind of the agent. But what is at issue between the two positions is the former question: must the object be self-indexed if it to be intelligible to an agent? Aquinas-Porter says yes, and Scotus-Kant no.

Aquinas-Porter gives a second step in the proposed solution to the apparent contradiction of asserting both eudaemonism and the thesis that we should love God and the neighbor for their own sakes. The solution is to point to the fact that the individual belongs in a nested series of comprehensive general goods: the political community, the natural world, and God’s friends.

hare god's commandBoth sides agree God brings virtue and happiness together, but the anti-eudaemonist insists this is not a necessary connection, but one due to God’s providential care. This makes a difference to the kind of gratitude we have to God. It also reminds us of the possible conflict, and the need for a ranking. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things shall be added unto you.

Is it the case that the interest of the individual necessarily coincides with the true interests of the polis? Not necessarily, for what the polis might need is for me to hand the reins over to another, yet that might not be in my own interest. Even if we leave the Aristotelian framework, the possibility of tension between the true interests of the individual and of the state arises in the so-called problem of dirty hands. The state needs in its leadership people who are willing to compromise moral standards in a way that is inappropriate for private individuals. Moral compromises need to be made, and this is a cost to moral character that our leaders have to bear. Or consider surgeons who have to cut into living tissue on a regular basis, and who have to develop a certain kind of hardness of heart if they are going to do their jobs. This, too, is a kind of sacrifice of moral sensitivity they make. Or take the case of soldiers who have to be willing to become hardened to some degree about killing other people. It seems likely that there is some conflict between the interests of the state and of the individual. Remember the modal claim of Porter-Aquinas that there can’t be a conflict. For Kant divine assistance is needed to ensure there’s no conflict.

The second level in the nested series is the level of the natural world, or cosmos. Can we say that the interests of all the individuals who suffer and die in the course of evolution are somehow realized in the development of human beings? It seems doubtful that the whole created order exists for our sake. Kant’s own position is one that sees no natural coincidence of interest, but he agrees that humans can’t survive or flourish without the laws of nature in place.

The third level in the nested series is the community of the redeemed, the “friends of God.” Is it possible that the loss of salvation by some persons might be to the glory of God, and that charity might therefore require them to accept damnation? In previous generations, Calvinist congregations would regularly contain people who thought they were among the reprobate, but nonetheless attended divine worship with devotion, and no doubt tried to do their duties recognizing them as divine commands. Is such a frame of mind incoherent? If not, then surely there is not a necessary coincidence between my greatest good, in this case my salvation, and the glory of God. This mere possibility is enough to reject the necessary connection of the modal claim.

The point is just that God is not constrained here by necessity any more than we have necessity at the other two levels of the nested series. (I think I disagree with Hare here.) About all three levels we can that, if there is a harmony, it is a contingent harmony established because God is both, in Leibniz’s terms that Kant also uses, sovereign of “the kingdom of nature” and sovereign of “the kingdom of grace.”

Leave a Reply