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Sermon on the Mount
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John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 4, Section 4.2, “Consensus Deductivism”:

Summary by David Baggett

What about Adams’s claim that we can fix the reference of ‘good’ by the evaluations of most of the people most of the time? His analogy is water, which people refer to regularly; what constitutes water is something else, and on an imagined twin earth they do not have water at all, but something else, let’s assume, like XYZ. The structure of Adams’s account is that the meaning of ‘good’ does not give us the nature of ‘good’; what is given by the meaning is, instead, a role that the nature is to play. He limits the claim to the meaning of ‘good’ in certain contexts, those in which ‘goodness’ is naturally interpreted as meaning excellence.

Adams says that the role assigned by ordinary understanding to the good is that it is an object of pursuit. But here arises an objection: we don’t always pursue the good, and sometimes what we pursue is not good. Adams denies that this is a problem for his theory, because it’s not one of those theories that analyze the nature of the good as consisting in some fact about our desires. The role of our desires is only to help fix the signification of our value terminology to a property or object that has its own nature independent of our desires.

Hare asks whether the failure of our actual desires is a problem for Adams’s theory as well, even though Adams proposes that those desires only fix the reference of the good, rather than determining its nature. He is forced by his account to say that we can’t always or even usually be totally mistaken about goodness. Hare wishes to consider this claim. Surely it’s true that we can be and very often are deeply wrong about the good, but this is not quite the same as saying we are “usually totally mistaken.” But we are mistaken enough that we should be hesitant about our ability to fix the reference of ‘good’. Jesus overturns or “transvalues” (in Nietzsche’s term) our conception of the good, and Aristotle gives a more accurate picture of what we usually think of as “common sense.”

The chief contrast between Aristotle and Jesus has to do with what we might call “competitive goods.” A competitive good is one where, in order for one person to have it, another person has not to have it, or to have less of it. The chief good for Aristotle couldn’t be honor, because it would be to be honored by the best people. The chief good is activity in accordance with virtue. But being honored in this sense is a competitive good, and can be lost. Most of the time Aristotle seems to think the chief good for human beings usually requires wealth, power, and honor. To have the relevant virtue (like magnanimity) you have to be worthy of great honor and deem yourself worthy of it. What various passages indicate is that the chief good for a human being requires power over others. The claim is not simply that the competitive goods are good, but that they are necessary for a highly admirable life.

The Gospels portray Jesus as overturning this sort of view, and the rest of the NT follows suit. Aristotle says humility is the state in which persons are so low they should not even aspire to virtue; in the NT we are told in humility to consider others better than ourselves. Or consider the command to love your enemies. This overturning of the world’s values is a central Christian theme, and is abundantly discussed in the literature. There is an important and difficult question whether the difference of Christian virtue, as described in these texts, shows more continuity or discontinuity with pagan virtue. Can we know, by human reason, unaided by special revelation, what is the best human life? If we’re born under the evil maxim, we tend to prefer our happiness to our duty. It suffices for now to say that there is not enough truth in most people’s desires most of the time for those loves to fix the reference of the term ‘good’ and its related family.

hare god's commandThis claim is not shown to be true just because Jesus disagreed with Aristotle. It’s possible general revelation is progressive, after all. It’s also true that the culture of large parts of the world has been shaped by the Abrahamic faiths. But there’s also been a return to Greek ethics in some. The central point is not about whether most people get most of their evaluations and preferences right most of the time. Even if they do, this is not the right way to fix the reference of ‘good’. As RMH pointed out years ago, this approach to fixing the reference by consensus is inherently relativistic. We end up saying that the reference of ‘good’ is fixed by whatever most people say it is. We ought to have a way of being able to say that most people most of the time are wrong, even if it is not the case that they are. If we take the consensus model, we lost such a way.

Adams is aware of a problem here, and wishes to maintain the “critical stance.” Thus he says the truth behind Moore’s Open Question argument is that for any natural empirical property or type of action that we or others may regard as good or bad, right or wrong, we are committed to leave it always open in principle to raise evaluative or normative questions by asking whether the property of action-type is really good or right, or to issue an evaluative or normative challenge by denying that it is really good or right. Hare, though, thinks this openness extends only to limited questions within what Adams takes to be the overall massively reliable field. Adams is not willing to concede that the framework as a whole might have been largely distorted.

So how can we be constrained in what we take to be a divine command by our conception of the good, if not by consensus or actual belief and desire? Those within each religious tradition in which there might be a divine command have to use the resources of that tradition about what is good. The Abrahamic faiths share a commitment to the distinction between general and special revelation. This is one of the relevant conditions: a divine command theorist can say that what we take to be a new divine command has to be screened through both the general and the special revelation about the good that has already been given.

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