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God and Morality: A Philosophical History

John E. Hare
Published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2007

Modern philosophical ethics have tried often to show how ethics can be independent of theology—with limited success. John Hare is a Christian philosopher, currently holding the Noah Porter Chair of Philosophical Theology at Yale, who has devoted much of his career to exploring these limits. This book continues the exploration by presenting a history of philosophical ethics focusing on four main figures: Aristotle (384-322), Duns Scotus (1265-1308), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and R. M. Hare (1919-2002), the author ’s father, as representatives of four types of ethical theory (virtue theory, divine command theory, deontology and consequentialism) with special attention to their original theological context. The author argues that these four types of theory are not so radically opposed as they typically appear to be in most modern presentations, for when their theological presuppositions are retained, there is an intelligible unity between the different roles that God plays in each: a kind of magnet of desire in Aristotle, a gracious lover in Scotus, a sovereign ruler in Kant, and a ideal model of moral reasoning in R. M. Hare. These four roles can be combined in one coherent conception of God, thus raising the possibility that the four types of ethical theory could also be combined—not something one would have considered possible on the basis of most modern presentations, which tend to neglect or downplay the theological component.

The book devotes a chapter apiece to the four figures. Each chapter begins with a brief sketch of the preceding philosophical history (the chapters on Aristotle and Scotus illustrated by Raphael’s paintings of the School of Athens and the Disputation concerning the Sacrament, respectively) and concludes with a critique of a contemporary philosopher representing the same type of ethical theory unmoored from theism. A final chapter presents a preliminary sketch of how the four types of theory might be combined in a theistic context.

Hare’s chapter on Aristotle focuses on the well-known problem of the apparent inconsistency between the first book of his Nicomachean Ethics, where the supreme human activity is politics, and the last book, where the supreme human activity is philosophical contemplation (a conclusion that many modern writers find more Platonist than Aristotelian). Hare’s careful attention to how Aristotle uses the word “divine” in both books softens the inconsistency helpfully without simply eliminating it. Contemplation is a human activity that is also more than human, an activity of the divine in us, which is intellect or nous. But already in book 1, Aristotle calls the highest human happiness and goodness and political wisdom “divine,” using the word to indicate that aspect of human life that is not merely human. Without this more-than-human possibility inherent in humanity, Aristotle’s ethics loses much of its coherence and its point.

Hare is an unusually appreciative reader of Scotus, who is often branded a “divine voluntarist,” deriving all our moral obligations from the sheer will of God. Following the best informed scholarship on the subject, Hare shows that Scotus does not detach the divine will from the divine goodness or make it arbitrary, as if God could have commanded us to be cruel or selfish. But given the metaphysically necessary goal of loving union with God, God has the option of several routes by which to bring persons to this good goal, so he is not constrained to promulgate only one possible form of natural law. Hare is especially appreciative of Scotus’ metaphysics of particularity, according to which all human beings have their own particular essence (not just the essence of human nature in general) and thus their own particular route to their own unique perfection and happiness in loving union with God.

Hare argues that Kant’s conception of morality, with its robust focus on moral obligations that we legislate for ourselves autonomously, cannot be separated from his conception of religion, in which moral obligations are conceived as divine commands. The connection is that we are morally obligated to seek the highest created good, a social kingdom in which happiness belongs to those who morally deserve it, which we cannot believe is possible unless we postulate the existence of God; that is, a holy will that is sovereign over the natural world. On Hare’s reading of Kant, we cannot be coherently moral without the hope that this kingdom is actually possible, and this hope requires us to believe in God.

The choice of R. M. Hare as a representative figure is interesting because he represents the end of a line of thinking that few theistic ethicists have wanted to follow. Taking for granted an unbridgeable chasm between “is” and “ought,” R. M. Hare roots ethics in prescriptive judgments about what we ought to do, whose basis is not any objective goodness or value in things themselves but rather “decisions of principle” about what we value, whose only important constraint is the logic of universalizability: that what I prescribe for myself is what I must prescribe for others, and vice-versa. This results in a form of utilitarianism based on maximizing everyone’s preference-satisfaction (in contrast to classic nineteenth-century utilitarianism, which aims to maximize pleasure, taken to be the only objective good), and this utilitarianism is the representative form of consequentialism John Hare discusses (consequentialism being the ethical theory that says moral judgment should be guided by a concern to produce the best results or consequences).

In fact, John Hare rejects much of his father ’s theory for theistic reasons. His interest in combining the various types of theory means he must affirm a substantive conception of the good, which is central to virtue theories and necessary to keep divine command theories from arbitrariness. In this he joins the exodus of theologically-minded ethicists escaping the broad stream of twentieth-century ethics in English-speaking countries that culminated in R.M. Hare. A key moment in this exodus is Alasdair McIntyre’s advocacy of virtue ethics, motivated in part by his blistering critique of “emotivism,” the most important precursor to R. M. Hare’s “prescriptivism.” The key weakness in R. M. Hare’s theory, according to his son, is a failure to recognize the pervasive importance of “ideals,” which in this context means the peculiar kind of preferences that are based on the notion that some things are objectively good, quite apart from whether anyone happens to prescribe them or not. The elder Hare’s failure to find an adequate place for ideals in his theory resembles in many ways the well-known problem that philosopher John Rawls has accommodating substantive conceptions of the good in his political liberalism.

The theistic component John Hare finds in R. M. Hare’s ethics is a model of ideal moral reasoning, perfectly knowledgeable, unselfish and flawlessly logical, which results in moral judgments that eschew ideals and maximize preference satisfaction. John Hare insists that this hypothetical model requires God, although R. M. Hare insists on calling his ideal moral reasoners “archangels.” And John Hare puts this concept to a use that his father does not: as a standard by which to evaluate and rank ideals, some of which are better than others. That, rather than R. M. Hare’s prescriptivism or consequentialism, is the main use John Hare has for his father ’s theory.

A full-fledged attempt to combine the four types of ethical theory must await John Hare’s further publications, of which he gives us a very brief sketch here. But certain main points are clear: a conception of God as the supreme good; of good in general as what draws us and deserves to draw us; of divine command as grounded in divine goodness, drawing all humanity toward loving union with God; of moral obligation as grounded in divine command; of virtues as qualities of human beings being drawn in the right direction; and of moral hope as requiring belief in a sovereign God. Hare contends that this conception makes God a kind of consequentialist, concerned with producing the best consequences for all humanity. Since he derives the content of this divine consequentialism more from Scotus than from R. M. Hare or any other consequentialist thinker, I am not sure what is gained by this provocative contention. It seems to me to be part of an ongoing effort to reassess and re-situate the legacy of his father, which has not reached a conclusion in this book.

God and Morality is broadly informative and lucidly written, though a bit disorganized toward the end, where Hare treats the consequentialist component of his combined theory. The book contains many more intriguing insights than can be covered in this review. Its logical rigor and historical depth will make it difficult reading for those who do not have an extensive grasp of the history of Western philosophy but rewarding reading for those who do. Those who desire a more introductory treatment of these themes will do better to begin with Hare’s earlier book, God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands and Human Autonomy(Eerdmans, 2001).

Cite this article
Phillip Cary, “God and Morality: A Philosophical History”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:2 , 246-249

Phillip Cary

Eastern University
Phillip Cary, Philosophy, Eastern University