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John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 5: Introduction and 5.1.

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

In the previous chapter, Hare argued that it is not possible to deduce the human good from human nature. But if the human good cannot be determined this way, then where should we look? Hare suggests that those who believe in God may find that God’s commands provide a rationally satisfying and sufficiently specific account of the human good. Therefore, in chapter 5, Hare takes a theological turn. Hare utilizes the insight of the prodigious theologian Karl Barth to flesh out some of the implications of God’s commands.

Hare emphasizes that though Barth is a theologian, he ably interacts with key philosophical ideas (especially Kant’s ideas) and he brings an awareness of the whole Christian theological and philosophical tradition to bear in his works. Barth thus provides Hare with a synthesis of exegetical, theological, and philosophical reflections on the commands of God.

Hare focuses on three themes in Barth’s treatment of God’s command: “the particularity of God’s commands, our freedom in response to the command, and our access to the command.” Barth suggests that the simple fact that we are commanded implies several things. First, God’s commands are given to particular people at a particular time. They are given to “responders,” who are “centers of agency.” Being commanded further implies that we can be obedient and bring about change in the world. We must also persist through time, through the hearing of the command to the realization of it. God’s command of us also suggests that we are sufficiently free to obey or not. And, if God commands us, we must be competent users of language to be able to understand the command.

The first Barthian theme that Hare explores is the particularity of the command (and this is the subject of section 1). Though there is a universal command to respect life, God commands specific persons. This respect begins with respect for one’s own life. But what does it mean to respect one’s own life? Barth rejects the notion that the substance of this command can be fleshed out through autonomous human reason. To attempt to establish what one must do on our own steam is both a denial of what we are (finite and fallible creatures) and a denial of who God is (utterly sovereign). Further, Barth holds that God’s has a highly specific form of life for every person. It is this form of life to which God calls us, and not to some merely general human good. Therefore, God’s plan cannot be captured in generalized statements about what humans ought to be. Rather, God has intimate and specific desires for each individual. We relate to God not only as a species, but person to person in the mode of “Thou-I.” Barth thinks we ought to allow God to completely determine for us what we are to do in every situation because of who he is and what we are in relation to him.

hare god's commandHare argues that in this regard Barth stands more in the tradition of Scotus than of Aristotle and Plato. Rather than think that all humans have the same essence, Barth holds that each human being is a unique essence and this distinguishes them from other human beings (each person is a “haecceity”). Humanity shares a common nature, but we each have a distinct essence. Hare quotes the passage from Revelation that teaches that God has a name for each human written on a white stone. Hare suggests this name is a representation of God’s purpose for our life and our haecceities. It is something only God knows and if we are going to live according to it, we must rely on God’s commands to us. For Barth, the end of man is to love God and others in a particular way as a reflection of the love in the Trinity.

Kant thought that all our moral obligations could be captured in terms of the categorical imperative, which is universally applied to all humans in all cases. No reference to particular people (either as subject or object) could be allowed or else the imperative could not be universalized.

Hare thinks this universal morality is too restrictive because there are clear cases where moral obligations rightly are limited to particular people in specific circumstances. To help support this point, Hare distinguishes four positions in moral judgment: addressee, agent, recipient, and action. Any of these elements may take on a specific, non-universal character. God may, for example, tell Joshua (the addressee) that the priests (the agent) should march around Jericho seven times (the action). Hare also points out Jesus’ greatest commandment, which is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind,” is not universalizable in the recipient position. Jesus is not saying, “love whoever or whatever is God with all your heart.” He is saying, “Love this specific God, who has a historical connection with Israel, with all your heart.” Thus, there seem to be cases where we have moral obligations that cannot be captured in all universalist terms. Of course, if these are genuine moral obligations, then Kant’s formulation, that “we have to treat humanity, whether in our own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end in itself, and never merely as a means,” would need to be qualified.

To further support his case for qualifying the categorical imperative, Hare produces the hypothetical case of his friend, Elizabeth, who needs a bat removed from her house. Hare argues that he does have a moral obligation to help Elizabeth, but that this obligation is not generated by an appeal to Elizabeth’s humanity. In other words, it does not obtain by appeal to the Kantian maxim as stated above. If it did, then Hare would be obligated to help anyone who needed bats removed whoever they were. What grounds the obligation is Hare’s relationship to Elizabeth in her particularity. The obligation exists just because Elizabeth is Elizabeth and Hare stands in special relation to Elizabeth that he does not share with humanity in general. Hare adds that he loves Elizabeth for her haecceity (her unique essence), and not merely because she is human. And since loving another for her own sake is characteristic of a moral relation, then it would seem he does have an obligation to Elizabeth just because of who she is and his relation to her. Of course, the particularist nature of this moral obligation does not mean that morality reduces to particularities. Usually, universal moral judgments accompany the particular. For example, “One ought to help one’s friend” accompanies “Hare ought to help Elizabeth.”

Finally, Hare wants to show how Barth’s view of God’s commands can be understood to be both particular and universal. So far, the discussion has emphasized the particularity of God’s commands to specific people, but Barth also thinks that many of God’s commands have universal validity.

To help show the consistency of Barth’s view, Hare lays out some important distinctions. First, Hare notes that Barth makes a distinction between instruction and reflection. By “instruction,” Barth has in mind something like the Ten Commandments. These commands give instruction and provide an opportunity and context for us to think through what we know about God and ourselves. After instruction comes reflection. In reflection, we take what he learned from instruction and apply to our own case; we hear God’s command to us in our place and time. Though the instruction is given to a particular people in a particular place, instruction provides the basis for our knowing what God is like and preparing ourselves to act as he wishes.

The narrative of the Bible in which the commands are embedded are to shape our moral sense. Hare clarifies Barth’s discussion of this by introducing the distinction between the good and the obligatory. All of God’s commands are good, but God does not command all that is good. So in every case of God’s commanding, he commands something good and this connection to goodness is universal. All of God’s commands are objectively and universally good. God’s commands as instruction show us what God values and they teach us the character of the good. The commands of God in the Bible, then, are not abstract laws that admit of no exceptions. Instead, they are didactic, shaping our moral sense. We can through instruction, know goodness in advance and that goodness is universally required, per Barth, but we cannot know what our obligation will be in a given case. This is because we need God to tell us “which good kind of thing we are now to realize, to which particular recipients.” Knowing what we are to do in a particular case requires reflection and dependence upon God and his Word. (One may wonder, given this dependence, what need we have for moral deliberation. Hare promises to address this later in the chapter.)

Hare sees some similarities between the morality of Barth and Kant. Both Barth and Kant agree that our obligations come to us independent of what we desire, though this does not mean desire and obligation are ultimately in conflict. But more importantly, both Barth and Kant have a “public” morality. For Kant, the formulation of the categorical imperative must be endorsable by all members of the kingdom of ends. For Barth, the act of obeying a divine command means making the claim that the “commander whose commands establish the covenant obligations for all human beings.” Further, Barth says that all divine commands are given to members of a body, humans in a community. This community provides accountability and a way to test the commands, through the communal hearing of the instruction and through reflection, whether the commands are from God or not.

 

 

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