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Max McLean in Fellowship for Performing Arts' C.S. LEWIS ONSTAGE THE MOST RELUCTANT CONVERT, photo by Jeremy Daniel 7

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part III

By David Baggett 

Part I 

Part II

We had been told to wait in the lobby of the second floor for Max McLean to arrive, which he did about fifteen minutes later. After one performance and before another, with a Q&A sandwiched in between, I marveled in advance at his generosity of time. We didn’t want to waste his energies, so we dove right in after quick introductions. He’d freshly turned 64 a week before, as it happens, which happened to be the age Lewis was when he died, but McLean exudes vitality and shows every appearance of being able to keep going like this for quite a while.

To prepare to interview him, we’d read all the interviews he’d done we could get our hands on, and in so doing we discovered that, from a young age, he’d suffered from a fear of public speaking, a severe form of social anxiety, sociophobia. As a certified introvert I wanted to ask about this because, seeing him on the stage performing, nobody would ever imagine this. He had actually turned to theatre originally in college to overcome his fears; we wanted to know if the fears were gone or if he’d simply learned to manage them.

“I think that if I’m not prepared the anxiety will come back. The fear makes you really prepare. I find that there’s an enormous fear of failure. I don’t think I’ve gotten over that.” Asked whether he considered himself an introvert or extrovert, he said he is definitely an introvert, getting his energy from reading and his quiet time. “Absolutely,” he added for emphasis.

After college McLean studied acting in London, always having been impressed by British actors and their use of language. Interesting to note, too, are the various English thinkers and writers who have left an impression on McLean—from Shakespeare to Shaw, Eliot to Chesterton, Spurgeon to Lewis. He will be returning to England this summer for Oxbridge, a triennial Lewis conference held at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and doing some of this performance there.

Prior to McLean’s conversion to Christian faith, he admitted that he’d tried to read the Bible but it made no connection; he couldn’t find a way of getting into it. “It was just a flat book. It could have been an engineering book, but it wasn’t a book that captured my imagination. Once Jesus became alive to me, I read the Bible differently. I read John’s Gospel; I thought Jesus was going to come out of the pages. He was a story, a human being that was a hero and an overwhelming one. So my emotions were engaged.”

So why are theatre and story so powerfully effective at capturing the imagination of people, and why is that important? McLean replied, “Well, that’s the critical thing, because the imagination serves up the raw material of what we think about. Romans 1 tells us we all have the knowledge of God. There’s that thing about how we all have eternity in our hearts. And these things are intact—like I mentioned in the Q&A that people want to talk about these things but they don’t know how to talk about them—so I think that the theatre captures people’s imagination and stirs the imagination—which then asks, could this be true? And then a person is more willing to invest intellectual capital. You know, you’re not going to invest intellectual capital unless your imagination is engaged, unless you want to know more. So I think theatre is an extraordinary tool for that.”

There’s that thing about how we all have eternity in our hearts.

In pursuing this goal, by what intentional steps does the FPA strive to engage a diverse audience? “People make their own choices about their entertainment options. So essentially we don’t do it in a church. We do it in a theater. We advertise in the New York Times, we advertise in the subway. We advertise at NPR. I think the main thing is this: our best audience is somebody . . . who’s able to use relational capital to say, ‘Okay, come with me to see this play, because you’re not going to be embarrassed. It’s going to be a safe space, and you’re going to enjoy it.’ And if they don’t want to engage, no harm done. You know, you go out to dinner, and when they have questions, that’s great, and when they don’t have questions, that’s great too.”

McLean thinks the theatre can do great good, but only if it’s done well. We’d been struck by the plethora of rave reviews his work had consistently garnered, by reviewers both sacred and secular. Accolades and awards are commonplace—from the DC Metro Arts to the Washington Post, the Chicago Critic and Splash, the Indianapolis Monthly to World Magazine to Stagebuddy and The Weekly Standard. Adjectives among reviewers describing his work abound like “fascinating,” “smart,” “brilliant,” “masterful,” “winsome,” “delightful,” “captivating,” “satisfying,” and “moving.” We asked him to talk about the importance of striving for excellence in his work.

“Doing it in New York . . . New York is kind of hyper in that way. To do theatre in New York is such a challenge, and if you make it known that it comes from a Christian worldview the bar just gets really much, much higher. And then to consider doing it in such a way as to engage a diverse audience in this highly polarized world that we’re in right now, it’s almost impossible. So you depend on these kind of things: the writing, the acting, the stagecraft . . . you don’t want it to be turned off at that level or you won’t get a fair hearing. And a fair hearing might be ‘I’ve heard it, I listened to it, I think it’s rubbish, but it was really well executed.’ As opposed to what mostly happens: the execution is terrible, and nobody even bothers . . . or the message is so trite that it’s just immediately dismissed. So what we do, in order to accomplish our mission, we spend a lot of time thinking about what material has the best possibility to reach a diverse audience, then we have to execute it to the highest levels that our budgets will allow. Which means that we hire all our designers. They’re professionals. Just like you go to the best doctor, the best dentist, we hire the best sound designer, the best set designer . . . because you don’t want it to be dismissed at the execution level. You want the message to be heard, and you don’t want anybody to say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to listen to the message because the messenger just doesn’t care.’”

We thought it particularly interesting that one of the most recurring descriptions we’d read of his work was “funny,” and especially all the references to self-deprecating humor. Why, we asked, does this seem to function so well as an ice breaker and bridge builder with his audience?

“Well, humor is a reaction. It doesn’t lie. I mean, there are things you can do to create it, depending on your sense of humor. So much of modern comedic humor is based out of anger, and putting somebody down. Lewis’s humor is based on wit, and surprise, and also his own making fun of himself. He didn’t take himself that seriously. He did, but he tried to act like he didn’t. So I think that humor does tear down barriers, that if you can get to it, that if you’re good enough to find the humor, theatre is built on it. . . . I do think it’s a very high priority. Chesterton thought humor was the bloom of his argument.”

Having seen McLean at work, I must say: if anybody can demonstrate that life is a comedy and not a tragedy, McLean’s channeling Lewis can. Still, he admits to mixed results among certain atheist reviewers. Plenty of “generous atheists” have accorded his work accolades because they enjoy a good time. Still, particularly among those who seem to think they have a stake in the game, there’s resistance. “A real true blue atheist is one for whom the possibility of the supernatural world breaking into the material world is just considered impossible. So any other possibility is more probable than the supernatural. That’s really hard core.”

When up against that level of settled conviction that theism isn’t so much as possibly true, perhaps McLean’s work is exactly what’s needed to chip away at the wall. Rather than just more discursive argument that only heightens defense, something that’s engaging, entertaining, and aesthetically pleasing might be what’s needed to break down the barriers. McLean agrees, adding: “People have these moments of joy, moments where the supernatural breaks in. Because there are two spheres. There’s the sphere of love, which isn’t just biochemistry.”

Using performance art to wake people up, stir curiosity, and generate conversation is what McLean and the FPA are all about. This summer this show will hit the road; readers are encouraged to find out if it’s showing near you; and if so, sell all you have and see it! It’s a world-class production, and it’s eminently worth it, irrespective of your worldview. And this fall in New York a new production will begin, again based on Lewis: “Shadowlands.” I think this may necessitate another death-defying trip to the City.

McLean has written, “I’m keenly aware that, despite the best of intentions, as soon as the word ‘Christian’ appears within an artistic context, red flags go up. That, obviously, creates a challenge.” He continues:

During our first season of four plays in New York City, several reviewers expressed misgivings. Realizing that the work was from a Christian perspective, one critic wrote “my heart sank.” Another made the understatement that “presenting what is unequivocally come-to-Jesus fare to a general audience is no easy thing.”

In both cases, it was the play itself that turned them around. The first declared, “I expected a preachy bore, not the deliciously witty, theatrical treat that still resonates and amuses the day after.” He went on, “I expect that, like the first, [the next production] will be entertaining, very well staged, canny, and imbued with serious Christian thought and an earnest invitation to introspection.”

The second reviewer began by clarifying his background: “I’m Jewish by birth, liberal by conviction, and an atheist by observation and introspection.” He went on to say “how much I admire the approach of Fellowship for Performing Arts. . . . They do their work through a careful combination of good story-telling—craft comes first—and avoiding overt preachiness, allowing any message implicit in the material to take care of itself.”

Such feedback is reassuring. Art hints at the deeper structures of reality. FPA desires to create theatre that contributes to a better understanding of it. To do that requires honest, clear-eyed storytelling that entertains and engages its audiences. If a work doesn’t do that, regardless of intent, it really doesn’t matter what else it does.

It’s inspiring to see a faithful worker in this field, laboring in the hardest of venues, speaking truth and spreading light. He and the FPA deserve our admiration, support, and prayers. He’s someone who knows, like Orson Welles knew, the power of story and the importance of the imagination to wake people up, evaluate their assumptions, and generate conversations worth having. For McLean, though, the message to look up is not one of fear, but of soaring hope.

In that connection, one might wonder what C. S. Lewis was doing in jolly England when Welles did his radio performance. I don’t know. But I do know that, just hours before, Mars came up in some of his correspondence. Evelyn Underhill, famous for her works on mysticism and a convert to Anglicanism in 1921, had written a letter to Lewis that arrived on October 26th of 1938. He replied to her on October 29th, the day before Welles’ American broadcast. Here is what Underhill had written to Lewis:

May I thank you for the very great pleasure which your remarkable book Out of the Silent Planet has given me? It is so seldom that one comes across a writer of sufficient imaginative power to give one a new slant on reality: & this is just what you seem to me to have achieved. And what is more, you have not done it in a solemn & oppressive way but with a delightful combination of beauty, humour & deep seriousness. I enjoyed every bit of it, in spite of starting with a decided prejudice against “voyages to Mars.” I wish you had felt able to report the conversation in which Ransom explained the Christian mysteries to the eldil, but I suppose that would be too much to ask. We should be content with the fact that you have turned “empty space” into heaven!

In chapter 5 of Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is in the spaceship on the way to Mars: “He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds . . . now . . . the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for the empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam . . . it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even from the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens.”

Lewis’s reply to Underhill, written on October 29th, after expressing his alarm and delight at hearing from such a notable writer as she, went like this: “I am glad you mentioned the substitution of heaven for space as that is my favourite idea in the book. Unhappily I have since learned that it is also the idea which most betrays my scientific ignorance: I have since learned that the rays in interplanetary space, so far from being beneficial, would be mortal to us. However, that, no doubt, is true of Heaven in other senses as well!”

True to form for a guy who recognized that a convert must gravely count the cost.

Max McLean in Fellowship for Performing Arts' C.S. LEWIS ONSTAGE THE MOST RELUCTANT CONVERT, photo by

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part II

By David Baggett

Part I 

Like others who have been privileged to see what next transpired, I was thrilled and transported. It was as if C. S. Lewis himself walked onto the stage. The makeup was exquisite, and the resemblance to Lewis uncanny. Even the voice was near perfect—I remember having listened to one of the few extant recordings of Lewis a year ago. McLean intentionally didn’t aim at enunciating quite so thick an accent as Lewis actually had, explaining why after the play in a Q&A session. For an American audience, in particular, this was a smart decision to avoid it becoming a distraction. McLean’s classical training in voice paid its dividends.

Most people are likely familiar with what happens when watching an inferior performance, show, or movie; it’s hard not to hold it at arm’s length because there’s something mildly insulting and off-putting about the shoddy craftsmanship. In patent contrast, we also know what it’s like when we watch a particularly excellent performance: we’re drawn in, we lose ourselves in the story, we become thoroughly engaged. This was my experience as I sat and watched FPA’s production. A virtuoso performance, it was by turns instructive and convicting, insightful and hilarious, poignant and memorable.

The crisp monologues by the pipe-wielding Lewis recounted the tale of his conversion, chronicling how, step by methodical step, he traversed a path from skepticism to belief. Included in the account were the seminal figures of his life: his father, his brother, his teacher the “Great Knock,” and literary influences from Yeats to Chesterton to George MacDonald, whose Phantastes “baptized” Lewis’s imagination prior to his conversion.

Lewis’s aversion to Christianity was hard for him to square with the fact that so many of his favorite writers, whose writing tasted most real, were Christians. His hard-thinking friend Owen Barfield’s conversion to Christianity upset Lewis, yet Lewis found Barfield’s logic unassailable. Too many aspects of life, to be taken seriously—from consciousness to morality to reason itself—require rock bottom reality to be intelligent. Coghill helped Lewis see the virtues as relevant to understanding reality; Tolkien enabled him to see that Christianity is the True Myth; and gradually Lewis became open to the Absolute, then to Spirit, then to God, then to the Incarnation, each incremental step ineluctably inching toward greater and greater concreteness. Acutely mindful that it took God’s initiative to draw him, Lewis finally relented to the Hound of Heaven, admitting defeat, allowing himself to be vanquished by love, and not the least bit happy about it.

In contrast with any theology of “cheap grace,” or an accommodating Christianity that readily capitulates to swirling cultural whims, blithely smearing the name “Christian” on views conditioned by secularity rather than scripture, Lewis seemed intuitively to grasp from the start that real Christianity would be costly, that its implications were radical, that its demands were all-encompassing. Little wonder he counted the cost, and, after finally relenting—first to theism, then to Christianity—he was, by his own admission, the most reluctant and dejected convert in all of England. Far more quickly than most, he was able to apprehend the paradox of Christianity: to find life we must lose it, to live we must die, and that ultimately we can’t hold anything back.

Lewis seemed intuitively to grasp from the start that real Christianity would be costly, that its implications were radical, that its demands were all-encompassing.

The play was simply spectacular, and we loved it. Most of the audience stayed for the Q&A, and about ten or fifteen minutes after the play was done, McLean re-emerged, this time as himself rather than Lewis. It was a remarkable metamorphosis! Donning salmon slacks and a coal shirt, his hour as Lewis was clearly over, and now it was time to hear from the actor and writer himself. He joked about his pants, exuded confidence, showed relaxed body language, sat in the chair, and patiently fielded questions from the audience. His answers were perspicacious and trenchant, revealing him to be well read and often quite eloquent and erudite.

Asked about obstacles doing a play like this in New York, he said that theatre is a great venue to have these sorts of conversations. He’s convinced that people want to have such dialogues, but are often unsure how to do it. He spoke of his admiration for Lewis, despite admitting that some of Lewis’s writings were an acquired taste, demanding effort to apprehend them well. He had largely relied on Lewis’s own words for this play, but had to work hard to thin out some of Lewis’s diction and elaborate explications to make the ideas more widely accessible and understandable.

The result, to my thinking, was a veritable “greatest hits” woven together masterfully. I had enjoyed the play immensely, and the Q&A only enhanced my appreciation for McLean, and in a few moments Marybeth and I would get the chance to speak with him personally.

Part III

Max McLean in Fellowship for Performing Arts' C.S. LEWIS ONSTAGE THE MOST RELUCTANT CONVERT, photo by Jeremy Daniel 5

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part I

 

by David Baggett

It was Halloween Eve, Mischief Night as it’s often dubbed, the penultimate day of October in 1938. At a time when the radio was the main source of news and entertainment, the big draw that evening was the legendary Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy. Popular lore says that a musical interlude in Bergen’s performance led many radio listeners to surf the channels and tune in to what would subsequently be called the most famous radio broadcast of all time.

Perched high in the Columbia Broadcasting Building on Madison Avenue, a precocious 23-year-old impresario Orson Welles was orchestrating a coup of the airwaves. Already reputed as Broadway’s most brilliant rising star, Welles made this particular Sunday anything but restful, directing the terrified eyes of his rapt listeners to quite the ominous October sky. It was a scant nine years before, almost to the day, that Black Tuesday had initiated the Great Depression, whose painful ripple effects were still felt. With Hitler’s foreboding rise to power and Europe so susceptible to his domination and imminent encroachment, the future was uncertain; people were already on edge and accustomed to hearing bad news.

That night, by the time they started listening to this storied adaptation of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898), much of the audience had missed the opening introduction identifying it as a dramatization. Welles’ magisterial depiction of an alien invasion in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey induced panic in lots of quarters, accounts varying as to its extent. The show was strategically punctuated by realistic breaking “news bulletins”; by a sudden impromptu and pregnant, protracted and deafening silence initiated by Welles himself; and by another voice actor emulating the rhythm and cadence of Herbert Morrison’s immortal heart-rending eyewitness radio report of the Hindenburg’s fiery destruction just a year before.

For a few hours, the show simply terrified a nation already fraught with fear. Amidst subsequent media outrage and furious calls for greater FCC regulation, Welles feigned shock and dismay over the tumult his broadcast had produced. In truth the whole scenario would catapult him into the stratosphere of international fame, issuing him his ticket to Hollywood.

On the one hand, the remarkable episode furnishes a cautionary tale against the power of propaganda; on the other, more positively, it’s a reminder of the remarkable ability of drama and story to capture and mesmerize the imagination and move the will. The broadcast was a production of the Mercury Theatre, founded by Welles and John Houseman (later of Paper Chase fame as Professor Charles Kingsfield), located on West 41st Street in New York City, a mere half mile from where my wife and I recently watched a different drama unfold—one more tethered to actual history.

H. G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in 1898, forty years before the Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation. The year of Wells’ book in England also marked the birth of C. S. Lewis in Belfast, Ireland, and it just so happens that the play that we recently saw was a one-man show about the great Oxford don’s reluctant conversion to Christian faith.

Inexplicably navigating the frenetic, frantic Manhattan traffic by sheer force of will and a deft defiance of physics, our taxi driver dropped us off at the Acorn Theatre on West 42nd Street. Until then we’d assumed the Amtrak train hurling along in northern Virginia at breakneck speed might be the most terrifying part of our journey, feeling suspiciously like the Knight Bus in Harry Potter’s London. The Acorn Theatre is part of “Theatre Row,” headquartered in the heart of NYC’s Theater District.

Surviving that harrowing freak show of vehicular congestion made receptive our hearts to the transcendent and miraculous, and indeed a magical afternoon at the theatre was about to ensue. It was less than an hour to the matinee show time. We were excited to relish the performance we’d heard so much about already, and just as enthused at the prospect, afterwards, of meeting its star, Max McLean, who co-directed the show with Ken Denison. His publicist had neatly arranged our post-show interview.

After procuring our tickets, we made it to the third floor theatre, its set smartly arranged as a cozy book-lined office replete with desk, virtual pictures on the back wall, and a requisite cushy chair—just the sort of environment for the bookish Lewis to make an appearance. The ostensible location is Lewis’s study at Magdalen College, Oxford, 1950. While we admired the décor and became acclimated to the surroundings—feeling more than a little giddy as quite the sophisticated NYC theatre-goers—I perused the play’s brochure.

The performance, it was explained, is a production of the Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA), which was founded by McLean in 1992, and which aims to create theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience. It has developed and presented award-winning plays such as The Screwtape Letters, which I saw in North Carolina some years ago, never imagining at the time I’d later get to meet McLean personally, aka Screwtape. Other productions—staged in theatres and performing arts centers in New York, London, and across America—have included The Great Divorce, Mark’s Gospel, Martin Luther on Trial, and of course this one: C. S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert. The outfit has also produced critically acclaimed audiobook narrations of classic Christian works, predicated on the power of not just reading scripture, but hearing it.

I read with particular interest the brochure’s “Note about the Play,” which helpfully explains the subtitle. In 1950, Lewis received a letter from a young American writer expressing his struggle to believe Christianity because he thought it “too good to be true.” Lewis responded, “My own position at the threshold of Christianity was exactly the opposite of yours. You wish it were true; I strongly hoped it was not. . . . Do you think people like Stalin, Hitler, Haldane, Stapledon (a corking good writer, by the way) would be pleased on waking up one morning to find that they were not their own masters . . . that there was nothing even in the deepest recesses of their thoughts about which they could say to Him, ‘Keep out! Private. This is my business’? Do you? Rats! . . . Their first reaction would be (as mine was) rage and terror.”

The Note goes on to say that this was Lewis’s mindset before he “gave in,” as he put it. Lewis had embraced ideologies like materialism, atheism, naturalism, determinism, and reductionism—views that hold in common the conviction that all of life, every action, emotion, or perception, is susceptible to deflation. Each can be reduced to pre-existing physical causes all the way back to the Big Bang. There is no need to appeal to a supernatural source. God is not required to explain or define origin, meaning, ethics, or destiny. “For many years, Lewis was a defender of this view. And given his rhetorical gifts and love of debate one could see him fit into the ‘New Atheist’ camp with the likes of the late Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris.”

This play, it was explained, would explore Lewis’s dramatic conversion from this position to Christianity. McLean, the author of the Note, adds that he thinks Lewis’s vibrancy and resonance as a Christian apologist is rooted in this experience. The primary sources for the play, the Note continues, would be Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, as well as his Collected Letters, a three-volume veritable treasure trove of insights and rich historical nuggets. McLean wrote the script by carefully cobbling together Lewis’s disparate words into a seamless tapestry and compelling narrative with a readily discernible and inherently fascinating trajectory. In addition to the primary sources, McLean also relied on several of Lewis’s books and essay collections, including The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory, Mere Christianity, God in the Dock, Present Concerns, and Christian Reflections. And he acknowledges his debts to various biographies and critical insights by Douglas Gresham (Lewis’s stepson), Walter Hooper (editor of Lewis’s literary estate), Devin Brown (from Asbury University), Tim Keller (whose church McLean attends in NYC, a church that has several pastors with specific ministries for the artists in the congregation), Alan Jacobs (Wheaton), Jerry Root (who’s written a book on Lewis and the problem of evil), Andrew Lazo, George Sayer, David Downing, Oxford’s Alister McGrath, Armand Nicholi (author of a book comparing and contrasting Lewis and Freud), Sheldon Vanauken, Kenneth Tynan, and A. N. Wilson, among others.

Finally, I read that the play takes place prior to the publication of Lewis’s first Narnia story and well before he met his wife, Joy Davidman—which introduces the tantalizing possibility of a sequel. My appetite thus whetted, I was primed to see the show.

Part II

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John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.2.2., “Al-Ash’ari”

 summary by David Baggett

Of al-Ash’ari’s ten objections to the Mu’tazilites, three have to do with the matters discussed here (human freedom). The Mu’tazilites assert that human beings create evil, they think that God may wish what is not and that what He does not wish may be, and they think that they alone, and not their Lord, have power over their works. Al-Ash’ari responds that he who doesn’t will the existence of anything except what exists, and nothing exists except what he wills, and nothing is remote from his will, is the worthier of the attribute of divinity. If there are under His authority the existence of things of which He disapproves, this shows an attribute of weakness and poverty. Such a being would be weak in comparison with the sovereign omnipotent God of the tradition.

It’s tempting to think of al-Ash’ari as privileging God’s omnipotence over God’s justice, but this is not how he sees it. He is completely convinced of God’s justice (though he thinks we have to be careful not to think it is the same thing as human justice), and he’s convinced that we are responsible for our actions, and that God rightly holds us responsible. To understand this, we need to describe his notion of “acquisition.” This is the view that a single act can both be created by God and “acquired” or performed by a human being. We can distinguish between the one who lies, who is not the one who makes the act as it really is, and the one who makes it as it really is (namely, God) who does not lie. Similarly, we can make the distinction familiar from experience between cases of casual constraint and cases where we have the power to act, and so responsibility for our action. Al-Ash’ari calls these two cases “necessary motion” and “acquired motion,” and he gives the examples of shaking from palsy or shivering from fever, for the first case, and coming and going or approaching and receding, for the second.

We can ask al-Ash’ari whether God creates evil (or wrong). The answer is not straightforward. Has not God, then, created the injustice of creatures? Al-Ash’ari replies that God created it as their injustice, not as His. But then we deny that God is unjust? Al-Ash’ari replies that one who’s unjust is not unjust because he makes injustice as another’s injustice and not as his. The same reply comes with the question about whether God creates evil and whether God creates lying. God creates evil for another, and lying for another, but God Himself can’t do evil, or lie. Does this mean that God has decreed and determined acts of disobedience? Here al-Ash’ari makes another distinction, between decreed and determined acts of disobedience in the sense that He has commanded them. This is the difference Hare identified in Chapter 2 between two different kinds of prescriptions, namely, “precepts” (or “prohibitions”) and “directly effective commands.”

Someone might worry about God’s commanding things when God does not provide the recipients of the command with the power to carry it out. The interlocutor asks, “Has not God charged the unbeliever with the duty of believing?” Al-Ash’ari answers that He has. But this does not mean that God has given the unbeliever the power of believing, because, if God had given that power, the unbeliever would believe. It seems to follow that God enjoins on him an obligation that he cannot fulfill. Here, al-Ash’ari makes another distinction. Strictly, an inability is an inability both for some act and for its contrary. A stone has the inability to believe, because this inability is also an inability to disbelieve. But the unbeliever has the ability to disbelieve, and so does not strictly have the inability to believe. Al-Ash’ari considers an objection to this account of inability: namely, that he has denied that a power is for an act and its contrary. How can he deny this of powers and affirm it of inabilities? The reason is that, on al-Ash’ari’s conception of power and inability, they are necessarily concurrent with their exercise. The exercise of the inability both for the act and the contrary (to believe and to disbelieve) makes sense (as in the case of the stone). But the exercise of the power both for the act and the contrary does not make sense. It would require a thing to have two contrary attributes at the same time. His opponent could try to reverse the argument and say that it is obvious we have the power both to act and not to act, and so a power can’t be necessarily concurrent with its exercise. This dialectic will continue with the next section (on al-Maturidi).

 

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John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.2.1, “Human Freedom”

summary by David Baggett

Hare now takes up the same three figures, but in relation to the different question whether human beings have freedom of choice in what they do, or whether our actions are only the product of divine causation. This question is the subject of prolonged discussion by all three, but we will focus on material that has implications for the relation between divine command and human obligation.

6.2.1: “’Abd al-Jabbar”

Al-Jabbar starts from the premise that it is irrational to assign an obligation to perform an act, unless the addressee is capable, or has the power to perform it, in order to be considered truly his action. The maxim that it is bad or irrational to impose unbearable obligations is taken from the Qur’an. What kind of power are we talking about? Two things are important to say about it: it has to precede the act and it has to be a power over opposites—that is, a power to perform an action or its opposite. It’s humans who do the wrong that create it. God does have the power to do wrong, but it is impious to think He does it, and there is no reason to think He does it.

Al-Jabbar uses a distinction here that descends from Aristotle’s discussion of the “mixed” cases of voluntary action in the Nicomachean Ethics, which was available in Arabic, though he reaches a slightly different conclusion from Aristotle about praise and blame. Aristotle holds that an action is involuntary if it is done either by force or by ignorance, and it is done by force if the origin of the action is outside the agent. But there are three kinds of mixed cases of “force.” One is where the action is done from fear of greater evils—like acting under a threat to one’s family. Such a case is “mixed” because it resembles both the voluntary and the involuntary, but Aristotle says it’s more like the voluntary. The second case is where one receives not praise or blame, but pardon, when one does what he ought not under pressure which overstrains human nature, and which no one could withstand. The third case is where the action is so base that no one could be forced to do it, like matricide.

Al-Jabbar extends Aristotle’s treatment of the third kind of case (like matricide) to cover all actions wrong in themselves (a category Aristotle does not have). He agrees with Aristotle’s assessment that in some mixed cases we do not receive praise and blame, but he says this not about cases of pressure that overstrains human nature (where Aristotle says we receive pardon), but about all cases where we are motivated by self-preservation. Again, this is because he has a category Aristotle does not have, that of actions to benefit others without reference to oneself, which do deserve praise. Finally, he reflects Aristotle’s point about the pleasant and the noble (which for Aristotle are ingredients of the agent’s own eudaimonia), but he says, not that we can’t be compelled by them, but that we should not be praised for pursuing them as our own advantage. Each of these three changes to Aristotle is highly illuminating about the structure of the Mu’tazilite’s thought as a whole, which denies eudaimonism and embraces the view that we can be moved by what is good in itself, independent of our own advantage.

Al-Jabbar has a complex picture of desire, motivation, and will. The central point for our purposes is that he is concerned to deny that there is any determining cause of our actions, either external or internal. He does not have, just as Aristotle does not have, a Kantian sense of “will,” in which it is the center of agency. If he had thought in the Kantian way, he might not have been so reluctant to posit an internal determining cause. But his notion, though rendered “will,” is closer to wanting than what Kant would call “willing.” One final point is that al-Jabbar holds that it is obvious that we have the relevant kind of power over our actions (a power that precedes the act, and that is a power both to act and not to act). In this way the Mu’tazilite resembles Scotus, and the resemblance is a deep one; the power over opposites is something we know from ordinary experience.

Image: “Quran” by Urganci. CC license. 

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John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.1.2, “Al-Ash’ari”

 summary by David Baggett

Al-Ash’ari issues several criticisms of the Mu’tazilites, but we’ll focus on those relevant to DCT. According to one story, he was persuaded to attack them by three dreams in which Mohammed himself spoke to him and commanded him to defend Islam as it had traditionally been taught. In chapter seven of Kitab al-Luma, he answers the charge that God’s unjust in relation to unbelievers, since he wills their perversity. Basically his answer is that God is gracious to some and not to others, and it’s all justice on God’s part. It wouldn’t be wrong for God to do whatever he might choose. God is the Supreme Monarch, subject to no one, with no superior over him who can permit or command or chide or forbid or prescribe what he will do. So nothing can be wrong on the part of God.

Al-Ash’ari is committed to the view that there is no standard for wrongness among human beings other than God’s setting a bound or limit for us, and there is no one to set a bound or limit for God, so there is no such thing as a wrong that God could so.

The objector then asks whether this means that lying is wrong only because God has declared it to be wrong. Al-Ash’ari thinks yes. If God declared it to be right, it would be right. If God commanded it, no one could gainsay him. This does not mean, though, that God can lie. There is a difference, al-Ash’ari maintains, between what God can do and what God can command. Thus God can command us to pray and to be submissive, but this doesn’t mean that God can pray or be submissive. God can’t lie, but that is not because it is wrong, but simply because that is not a power God can have. It is like the power to be ignorant, which is another power God can’t have. (My thought: God can’t be submissive because of his perfection; but likewise God can’t command us to do irremediable evil because of his perfection. God’s commands are part of what he does; I think al-Ash’ari misconstrues the import of disanalogies between us and God.)

Al-Ash’ari holds that our human perception of what is wrong is a reception of God’s command, and not (as for the Mu’tazilites) a faculty of reason independent of revelation. This is a point about Mu’tazilite moral epistemology, and not their moral ontology. God controls who hears the command and who does not. Al-Ash’ari uses the Qur’an extensively to make this point. God hardens the hearts of the infidels.

He presents a dilemma to the Mu’tazilites. According to the Qur’an, knowledge of the command comes with a gift of power to the faithful. The dilemma is that the Mu’tazilites have to say whether God gives the infidels the same sort of gift. If they say no, they are no longer maintaining that we humans have the power to determine our acts. If they say yes, then they have to say how the “settlement” produces for the Prophet the state of being settled, but for the infidels it does not produce this. Al-Ash’ari’s conclusion is that, since it does not produce this result, this means the divine settlement is not given to them.

His critics may quote the Qur’an to the effect that it gives guidance both to the infidels and to the faithful. But such a verse, al-Ash’ari claims, has particular meaning. Elsewhere it says it doesn’t guide the infidels, and the Qur’an doesn’t contradict itself. So the particular interpretation is justified. His principle of interpretation is that the Qur’an interprets itself, so that we can legitimately choose a particular meaning over a universal meaning if there are texts elsewhere that prohibit the universal meaning. One of the frequent refrains against the Mu’tazilites is that they are not careful about this principle of interpretation, and pick out verses independently of the sense of the text as a whole.

The next section will consider al-Maturidi’s attempt to stake out middle ground between al-Jabbar’s extreme natural law account and al-Ash’ari’s radical DCT.

Image: “Quran  4” by Themeplus. CC License. 

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John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.1.1, Intrinsic Value, “‘Abd al-Jabbar,”

 summary by David Baggett

Hare begins by roughly translating al-Jabbar’s language of “hasan” and “qabih” as “right” and “wrong,” respectively, but this will introduce a strain in certain contexts. Hare then makes two qualifications: al-Jabbar doesn’t distinguish between two normative families of terms (value and obligation) the way Hare does. But he does have an account of obligation. The second qualification is to distinguish qabih (wrong) from “zulm,” meaning injustice, something a bit narrower.

Al-Jabbar defines “wrong” by connecting it to that which deserves blame, but there are two qualifications. An act can be wrong without a person being blamed—if the action is such that, if certain conditions held (like the person was awake), performing the action would have been blameworthy. Also, sometimes the wrongness of an action can be overridden by a greater or equal right-making property. The second qualification is that there is no such neutralizing or overriding right-making property in the act that deserves blame.

The contrary of wrongness is obligation, where the person who omits the act (if he’s able to do it) deserves blame. Distinguished from both wrong and obligation are two other kinds of right, the “merely right” and the “recommended.” Cases of the “merely right” are breathing the air or eating harmless food, where the agent doesn’t deserve praise or blame. But they’re not simply neutral, for they are good things to do (as we’d put it in English). Cases of the “recommended” are praying or fasting beyond what’s required, where the agent is praised for the act but would not be blamed for the omission. [Supererogatory?]

Al-Jabbar holds that the right and wrong acts distinguished in his system are evident to human reason in their right and wrong character. They are “known immediately,” independently of revelation. Revelation does indeed inform us of the obligations we already have, but these truths are known by reason when they are revealed, and this knowledge by reason is primary in justification. These standards that we learn from reason apply also to God. “The Eternal Glorious One is able to do what would be wrong if He did it.” Because God in fact only commands and does what is right (though he could do what is wrong), we can use these standards to judge what God is and is not commanding us to do.

Al-Jabbar claims that there are “aspects” by which wrong acts are wrong and right acts are right, and that we can discern these aspects with our reason. “Lying” and “wrongdoing” are aspects that necessarily bring wrong with them, on his account, unlike “injury,” which may bring wrong or right depending on the situation. He distinguishes between the aspect of an act and the genus of an act. The genus does not make an act wrong. Entering a house is a genus of act, as is bowing in prayer. But neither is necessarily right or necessarily wrong. But “injustice” is not a genus of act, because injustice is named together with the bad. But lying is an aspect, not a genus. Al-Jabbar holds that lying necessarily brings wrong with it, but he also holds that a small lie may be exempt from blame, on account of the good past deeds of the speaker and the amount of praise he has earned.

The aspect of injustice is not to be attributed to God’s acts, according to al-Jabbar, but not because there is some difference between aspects as ascribed to humans and to God. He allows that we might seem to judge God’s acts differently from our own, when, for example, we judge that his goodness is consistent with causing pain to children. But in fact there is a difference of circumstances here, because we are assuming that God compensates the children in the next life, and so in fact the same standard is being applied. A key difference between the three authors in this chapter is that they disagree about whether God could do something wrong, even if he does not in fact do so.

Two more preliminary matters: first, previous chapters assumed an affinity between natural law theory and eudaemonism. One value of studying Islamic medieval moral theology is that we can see a school where this pairing does not obtain. The Mu’tazilites, and al-Jabbar in particular, hold that the right in all of its aspects attracts us in itself, intrinsically, not because it leads to a benefit for us as agents of the action. Al-Jabbar recognize that his opponents will claim that people do not avoid injustice and lying intrinsically, but only because of some benefit to themselves. He replies that people will do wrong for the sake of some benefit, but they will do right without any benefit to themselves. Even a heartless man would warn a blind man against falling into a well. Al-Jabbar replies that it is possible to act without thinking about one’s own interest at all. [Seems right to me, contra Piper.]

hare god's commandSecond, al-Jabbar offers explicit arguments against divine command theory. DCT can be found in all three Abrahamic faiths, and it creates much the same difficulties in all three. Al-Jabbar offers at least seven arguments against it, and Hare presents four of them. The first is that commands do not imply obligation. Al-Jabbar quotes the Qur’an: “Surely God bids to justice and good doing and giving to kinsmen.” Al-Jabbar thinks such virtues are indicated by the command but not produced by it. This sort of objection is frequently made by those who can’t see what normativity is added by a command, even a divine one. Either, they think, the thing commanded is already right or it is not; the commanding can’t change it from one to the other, though it can inform us of a character that the act already has. (Hare had earlier rejected this view that reduces imperatives to an indicative indicating that someone wants something. Hare thinks the best response, on al-Jabbar’s own terms, is to point out that al-Jabbar has the concept of obligation, distinct from rightness, and that God’s command might make something right but not obligatory into what’s both. This wouldn’t involve the command making the action right, because it already is.)

On al-Jabbar’s second objection to DCT, the account of wrong as what is forbidden by God does not fit our normal language. We don’t say it’s forbidden of God to do evil, for example, even though it would be evil of him. Moreover, there are things that are virtuous and would still be virtuous even if God told us not to do them. [Here I think al-Jabbar’s mistake is rejecting DCT instead of God’s ability to issue such hideous commands. Hare’s response is similar but a bit different, saying God’s commands are based on what’s good. I resist that because on occasion it seems to me God’s command might be predicated on what’s less evil, not what’s good. Perhaps even God chooses to break a tie.]

Third, if DCT were right, we couldn’t know our obligations without knowing they were commanded by God. But al-Jabbar says the sane man knows his obligation even though he doesn’t know that there is a commander. (Hare’s reply is to punt to Adams’s reminder that we can distinguish between what a term for a characteristic means and what makes a thing have that characteristic.)

Fourth, DCT has a problem understanding the goodness of God. If we say God’s acts are not wrong because God is not commanded, we can’t say God’s acts are right either. But we need, and the Qur’an gives, standards of value intelligible to us in terms of which we can praise God for doing right. [Hare says one reply is to say that ‘good’ means “attracting us and deserving to attract us” (where both conditions are necessary), and that we can say that God and God’s acts are the paradigm case of what is good in this sense. My own reply to these last two objections would also punt to the ontology/epistemology distinction and their different orders.]

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John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 6, “Divine Command in Some Medieval Islamic Thinkers,” Introduction

Summary by David Baggett:

This chapter is about the concept of divine command theory (DCT) in three medieval Islamic thinkers: al-Ash’ari, al-Maturidi, and ‘Abd al-Jabbar. Hare will argue that al-Maturidi takes a plausible mediating position between an extreme form of DCT (in al-Ash’ari) and an extreme form of natural-reason theory (in the Mu’tazilites, especially ‘Abd al-Jabbar). Despite reservations, Hare took up this part of the book because the concept of DCT is central outside the Christian tradition as well as within it, and there is a great deal to be learned from the comparison. Within medieval Islam, and within contemporary Jewish appropriations of medieval Judaism, there is very much the same range of options in understanding the relation between a sovereign God who gives us commands and our own reason, as we try to determine how to live our lives.

Hare is assuming, without arguing for it, that the three Abrahamic faiths worship the same God, though they say very different things about this God. He additionally argues that a useful side effect for a Christian of examining DCT in Judaism and Islam is that new light gets shed on areas of the Christian’s own faith that had tended to get obscured. Psalm 119, for example, acquires fresh meaning, and likewise doctrines of divine concurrence.

The chapter covers just three thinkers, and has no pretension to be talking about Islamic ethics as a whole. The scope is relatively modest, and Hare admits he’s on a big learning curve in this area. But he thinks there’s an obligation, if one thinks one has something useful to say about divine command, to relate this to the faith of over a billion people for whom divine command is a central concern. It is the confinement to a discussion of Christianity that requires justification, not the inclusion of a discussion of Islam.

This chapter locates al-Maturidi against the background of a dispute between Mu’tazilites and Ash’arites about three questions. The first is whether acts and persons have intrinsic value (or whether that value is to be understood only as a divine willing or commanding), and what kind of access we have to that value. The second question is whether human beings have freedom of choice in what they do, or whether our actions are only the product of divine causation. The third question is whether there is any proper use of human reason independent of divine revelation, or whether the proper use is only derivative from what we are given in the Qur’an and the Traditions.

There are many differences between Mu’tazilites (especially between the schools from Baghdad and from Basra), and this chapter relies mainly on the texts of ‘Abd al-Jabbar (from Basra, d. 1025), who gives the fullest account. Al-Ash’ari (d. 935) and al-Maturidi are roughly contemporaries, though there is no evidence that they met. They are both responding to Mu’tazilites, and indeed al-Ash’ari started off as a Mu’tazilite under the tutelage of al-Jubba’i of Basra (d. 915). ‘Abd al-Jabbar lived almost a hundred years after them, and they are therefore not responding to his version of the arguments (which is, in many cases, a refinement of them). Hare will start with the Mu’tazilite position, and continue with the Ash’arite response. He then locates al-Maturidi between the two, taking something from each side. But both al-Ash’ari and ‘Abd al-Jabbar also see themselves as taking middle positions, and indeed we should expect this because the Qur’an itself recommends this strategy [“Thus We have made you to be a community of the middle [road]” (2: 143).] Middle-ness is not itself truth-marking; everything depends on what the extremes are between which middle ground is being claimed. But Hare thinks it’s instructive to compare al-Maturidi’s middle ground with that of Duns Scotus.

Two other general comments will be helpful in what follows. First, understanding and interpreting law is chronologically antecedent in Islam to questions in theology (kalam) about the relation between divine command and human reason. Of the four main Sunni traditions or schools of jurisprudence (Hanafite, Shafi’ite, Hanbalite, and Malikite), al-Ash’ari comes out of the Shafi’ite school and al-Maturidi from the Hanafite school. The last of these is the school that gives the most leeway of the four to legal reasoning that is not itself derived from the Qur’an and the Traditions. The Hanbalite school, by contrast, is the most conservative in terms of the attempt to confine legal reasoning to what can be derived from the Qur’an and the Traditions. Al-Ash’ari constructs his own “middle” position as being between the Hanbalites and the Mu’tazilites.

hare god's commandThe second general point before we get to the three questions is that some influential secondary sources associate DCT in Islam with fundamentalism, and oppose it to enlightenment. The project of defending the Mu’tazilites within Islam is correspondingly seen as rescuing Islam from obscurantism and hostility to the modern world. But so far as the thesis of Hare’s book is correct, there is no conceptual requirement to connect DCT with fundamentalism, Christian or Muslim or Jewish. The term ‘fundamentalism’ is itself prejudicial here, but DCT can give us an account of the ground of human dignity in a way that simply making human dignity “a truth of reason” can’t. As a meta-ethical theory, DCT doesn’t tell us what the commands of God in fact are. But it gives no grounds for inferring that these commands will be any less or any more liberal than the prescriptions generated by the various versions of natural law. Having said that, Hare notes that it’s also true that a theory that has an honored place for both revelation and reason will find conversation with other traditions easier to sustain.

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Seven Reasons Why Moral Apologetics Points to Christianity

 

By David Baggett

Various moral arguments for God’s existence are usually deployed for the purpose of arguing for the truth of God’s existence per se, but they strongly hint at a more specific conclusion. Namely, they are plausibly taken to be evidence that Christianity in particular is true. The claim isn’t that by moral apologetics alone one can somehow deduce all the aspects of special revelation contained in Christianity, but rather this: in light of Christianity having been revealed, moral arguments for God’s existence point quite naturally in its direction. The following list is far from exhaustive, but offers a few reasons to think this is so.

First, one of the great virtues of moral arguments for God’s existence is that they point not just to the existence of God, but to a God of a particular nature: a God who is morally perfect. A. C. Ewing once said that the source of the moral law is morally perfect. Such a notion is described in various ways: omnibenevolent, impeccable, essentially good, and the like. What does it look like when omnibenevolence takes on human form? Jesus is a powerful answer. Moral apologetics works best when it’s Christological.

Second, to conceive of God as essentially and perfectly loving requires some sort of account. The right account, again, isn’t the sort of idea that we’re able to generate on our own; we depend on special revelation to tell us what it is. But Christianity has provided us with an account of the divine nature that’s Trinitarian in nature. C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love’. But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s Trinitarian.

Third, Christianity has a demonstrated track record historically in reaching people of every race and ethnicity, and every socioeconomic background, and radically transforming their lives. In a book chronicling the spiritual lives of various Christian saints called They Found the Secret can be found this description: “Out of discouragement and defeat they have come into victory. Out of weakness and weariness they have been made strong. Out of ineffectiveness and apparent uselessness they have become efficient and enthusiastic. The pattern seems to be self-centeredness, self-effort, increasing inner dissatisfaction and outer discouragement, a temptation to give it all up because there is no better way, and then finding the Spirit of God to be their strength, their guide, their confidence and companion—in a word, their life.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s individually transformational.

Fourth, Paul Copan speaks of an historical aspect of moral apologetics: the historical role played by Christ and his devoted followers to promote social justice. Morality demands deep cultural transformation too. Copan cites specific cultural developments that can be shown to have flowed from the Jewish-Christian worldview, leading to societies that are “progress-prone rather than progress-resistant,” including such signs of progress as the founding of modern science, poverty-diminishing free markets, equal rights for all before the law, religious liberty, women’s suffrage, human rights initiatives, and the abolition of slavery, widow-burning, and foot-binding.

Jürgen Habermas, who isn’t a Christian himself, writes the following: “Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and a social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s culturally transformative.

Fifth, Christianity holds out the hope for total moral transformation. Morality upholds a standard that all of us fall short of all the time, yet there’s nothing about morality that hints at accommodation or compromise. The right ultimate explanation of morality should be able to make sense of our aspirations for radical moral transformation, and even perfection as something more than a Pollyannaish pipedream. Christianity offers, by God’s grace through faith, moral hope instead of moral despair, forgiveness and liberation from guilt, and the prospect to be totally conformed to the image of Christ, in whom there’s no shadow of turning. The resurrection offers the prescription from both death and sin: abundant and everlasting life. Moral apologetics works best when it is soteriological (offering both forgiveness and transformation, both justification and sanctification).

Sixth, Christianity offers principled reason to think that the glory to come will not just outweigh, but definitely defeat, the worst evils of this world. Christian philosopher Marilyn Adams writes, “If Divine Goodness is infinite, if intimate relation to It is thus incommensurably good for created persons, then we have identified a good big enough to defeat horrors in every case.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s eschatological.

Seventh, Christianity gives compelling reasons to think that every person possesses infinite dignity and value. To be loved by God, the very archetype of all goodness—each of us differently, but all of us infinitely—and to have been made a person in his image is to possess greater worth than we can begin to imagine. And humanity isn’t just valuable in the aggregate, according to Christianity. Rather, each person is unique, each is loved by God, each is someone for whom Jesus suffered and died. And in the book of Revelation, for everyone who accepts God’s overtures of love, a white stone will reveal a unique name for each one of them—marking their distinctive relationship with God and vocation in him. Moral apologetics works best when it’s universal.

The way a labyrinthine maze of jumbled metal filings suddenly stands in symmetrical formation in response to the pull of a magnet, likewise the right organizing story—classical theism and orthodox Christianity—pulls all the moral pieces of evidence into alignment and allows a striking pattern to emerge.

 

 

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John Hare’s God’s Command, 4.4.3, “The Good Promise-Keeper”

summary by David Baggett

For human natural goodness, Foot gives the example of an anthropologist who made a promise to a Malayan native never to photograph him. Later he could get away with doing it, and the picture would have been valuable, but he had made a promise. Foot commented about this case that in giving a promise one makes use of a special kind of tool invented by humans for the better conduct of their lives, creating an obligation that (though not absolute) the harmlessness of its violation does not annul. Breaking the promise would have been defective. She thought there was a “natural-history story” to explain why the disposition to break a promise is defective, just as much as there is a natural-history story to explain why it is a defect not to be able to walk or see. She used Anscombe’s story about the need for the institution of promising if we are going to be able to get each other to do the sorts of things that constitute the human form of life.

RMH, in contrast, argued that promising creates an obligation in this way: if a speaker says sincerely that all promises are acts of placing oneself under (undertaking) an obligation to do the thing promised, he must himself be expressing his own subscription to the rule of the institution of promising and thus stating a moral principle. There is no deduction, therefore, from a fact to an obligation. It’s characteristic of words like “promise,” which have meaning only within institutions, that they can be introduced into language only when certain synthetic propositions about how we should act are assented to.

Foot thought there was a deduction of our obligation to keep our promises from our human form of life. Keeping our promises is an instance of justice, she thought, and she said that justice is one of the virtues that is an “Aristotelian necessity.” Foot was not an absolutist about keeping promises. Apart from killing the innocent, torture is the only absolute prohibition she mentioned. Torture was also an absolute prohibition for RMH, who spoke out of his own experience as a prisoner of the Japanese in WW2.

At any rate, Hare thinks Foot’s deduction doesn’t work. She treats our nature too much as a single unified package, and she was too optimistic in her account of practical rationality as sensitivity to the reasons this package gives us. Consider things like the fact that humans lie, cheat, or steal. Are these Aristotelian categoricals? Can we rule them out as irrelevant because they are not directly or indirectly related to our survival and reproduction? The accusation here is not that Foot was trying to deduce moral goodness from biology or from the inclinations we supposedly share with the hunter-gatherers who formed most of our evolutionary history. Other philosophers have tried to do this and failed.

For example, Arnhart argued that the good is the desirable (as in Aquinas) and the desirable is what is generally desired by human beings. By “generally desired” he meant that these desires are found in most people in every society throughout human history, and he thought evolution had given us these desires because they enhanced our chances of survival and reproduction. He listed twenty such desires, and his framework principle was that if a desire is general in this sense, belonging to this list, then its fulfillment is good. He did not find disinterested benevolence among these desires, and he concluded that it is merely utopian, beyond the order of nature, and foisted on us by religion.

Hare thinks it instructive to compare Arnhart with Foot on these points. Foot said that there is the same form of inference for humans and for wolves, from the Aristotelian categoricals about a form of life to conclusions about goodness. Unlike Arnhart she pointed out that Wittgenstein said at his end that he had had a wonderful life, but she said that he was not, in any ordinary sense, happy. Happiness is the human good only if we think of happiness in the way we discussed in relation to the letter-writers earlier, for whom it was already too late for happiness. But this kind of happiness is an ideal, and there is the same kind of difficulty as we found with RMH’s treatment of ideals. Foot had a worked-out theory about moral goodness in terms of natural facts and then had trouble integrating into it the distinction between the natural traits we should admire and the natural traits we should not. She included among Aristotelian categoricals seeking justice, but not the desire for power over others. This is better than Arnhart, but there’s a price. We know with Arnhart where his conclusions come from, even if we disagree with them. He faced the nasty as well as the nice aspects of our nature, and he was consistent about how we should live. In the same way Aristotle was. For Foot, by contrast, there was a gap. The categoricals for plants and non-human animals are supposed to be reached by saying how for a certain species nourishment was obtained, how development took place, what defenses were available, and how reproduction was secured. Answers to such questions for humans come in terms of deception and coercion, just as much as the recognition of rights. Foot was right to want a different way to think about the human good. But she did not give us a method for doing so that is “naturalistic” in the way the claim about the same “form of inference” from categoricals to virtues implies.

Hare thinks one basic problem is that the four natural ends given by Hursthouse don’t cohere, which means that our nature is not harmonious in the way she needs and claims. She wants to reject the view that human nature is “just a mess,” because she thinks this leads to moral nihilism and despair. But she does not consider the possibility that we are not exactly a mess, but a mixture of the kind Kant describes. This means that we are, as she denies, a “battleground.” There’s a dilemma here for her. Either the Aristotelian categoricals need to be already screened by ethical principle, in which case we get a deduction from nature only by this screening. Or we can allow that any typical feature leading to the four natural ends is a virtue, but then we will not get the deduction of a conclusion about moral goodness or the good human life. It’s better to allow that most of what we think constitutes a good human life comes from our ideals, which are not deducible from the four ends at all, though these ends are constraints on our ideals.

Another way to put the dilemma is that Hursthouse has two theses that conflict, when conjoined, with her admission that much of the work in deciding how to live does not come from the four ends, and that there is no fifth end characteristic of human animals from which to derive these decisions. These two theses are, first, what Hare calls “virtue dominance” and, second, deductivism about virtue. If the virtues are to be deducible from our nature, then they ought to give us a great deal more content about how to live than the admission that there is no fifth end implies.

We should concede that our nature puts a constraint on what we should say about a good human life and therefore about obligation. Foot and Hursthouse are right that it makes sense to talk about a human specific good, at least in ordinary speech, and so to talk about the kinds of human goodness that contribute to it. Even so, such facts don’t obligate us. Hare thinks the one exception is that we have a self-evident obligation to love God and neighbor, but none of the more specific obligations of the second table follow.

For DCT, it is God’s command that obligates. We should have the faith, though, that God wants our good, and commands us to live in a way that will be conducive to this end. So, even though obligations are not (with one exception) deducible from facts about human nature, those facts can serve as constraints on what we should believe about how God has commanded us to live. Does DCT derive an ought from an is? Hare thinks not, but defending his view is subtle. It’s true that God’s commanding something makes it obligatory, and that this is the right criterion (according to DCT) for the judgment that we ought to live a certain way. But we have to make what is the criterion our criterion, by a decision of the will.

Practical rationality can give us contradictory maxims, both of which fit the facts of human nature, unless we’ve rigged those facts by incorporating ideals into their specification. It’s not silly to be torn on occasion, even torn apart. When we bring the interests of others into the picture, especially the interests of those not related to us by friendship or family, most of us in the richer parts of the world fail most of the time. We simply do not think about the impact our own lifestyles have on those who are suffering in the rest of the world. Foot was herself not blind in this way, but she was too optimistic about the rest of us.

Hursthouse ends with the need for hope that we can flourish together, and not at each other’s expense, and she knows that this hope used to be called belief in (God’s) Providence. If we can’t rely on our nature to produce this ethical commonwealth, though, because our nature is a mixture of good and evil, then what is the ground of this hope? It must be something beyond our nature, and God’s sovereignty is an answer to be considered, as we did in the argument from providence in the first chapter.