John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.5, “Transcending our Evolutionary Situation with God”

 Photo by  Mahkeo  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mahkeo on Unsplash

The story at the beginning of this chapter was treated as a Kant-like translation from biblical theology into the language of contemporary (non-theological) anthropology, though it is still a story and not science. We can now go back and put God back into the story, and doing so helps make sense of the story. We can do this in three moments: the encounter, the command, and the punishment.

First of all, God meets our ancestors, though they were probably not monotheists. The story described this in terms of awe and joy. When we feel awe, we have a sense of something’s greatness, and this requires some standard of comparison. There are many kinds of greatness. Kant distinguishes, for example, between the mathematical sublime that responds to greatness in amount and the dynamic sublime that responds to greatness in power. Both kinds of greatness can make everything else seem small by comparison. It is probably impossible to specify a kind of greatness that is the object of all kinds of awe. But it’s plausibly something personal early on. We’re looking after all at agency detection. Such awe is something like reverence. It doesn’t go far enough to say one respects the Torah, and “respect” may also not be adequate as a translation of Kant’s Achtung, which is the feeling occasioned by the moral law that we “recognize as God’s command.”

Bringing in an encounter with God at this first moment explains how we might arrive at the silencing or subordinating of self-interest. Suppression is not the same as subordinating. It doesn’t mean that in the presence of what is good in itself we lose the affection for advantage, but its salience can be radically decreased. This produces a double-source account of motivation. The encounter with divinity might have been with something experienced as great, not merely terrifying but deeply attractive (in Otto’s terms of fascinans as well as tremendum).

The second moment at which God enters the story is the command. This command, in the story, is not connected in any intelligible way with nature. We are invited to think that God selects within the divine prerogative (arbitrium) the fruit as a test, and the test is to see whether the humans will try to usurp the divine function of establishing what is good and bad, or what is right and wrong. For present purposes, the significant feature of the command is that it is not deducible from our nature or from any nature, and it can therefore stand in for the whole series of divine commands that are within God’s arbitrium in the same way. The basic command is not about the fruit, but is the command to love God that comes out of the experience of being loved by God. Refraining from the fruit is merely a symbol of that response. But, if we generalize to all the divine commands for which we do not see the whole reason, we get some sense of how introducing God into the picture might help from an explanatory point of view.

The third moment is God’s punishment. In Genesis there is expulsion from the Garden, and the condemnation to wearisome work, pain in childbirth, and distorted sexual relations. Despite the punishment, there’s hope that continues, and an ongoing high moral demand. The theistic version of the story tells us that divine punishment doesn’t exclude divine love, and that God intervenes in our predicament to rescue us. The possibility of that redemption is already implicit in the original encounter, but is made explicit in the form of covenant. God goes on making initiatives towards us, and we go on refusing them. Redemption returns us to the argument from grace in Chapter 1.

It’s not surprising that the story fits the theistic explanation, because the original version had God as a central character. But to the extent that the translated version fits what actually happened to our ancestors, it is significant if a theistic explanation is coherent and helpful. Evolutionary psychology gives us an excellent background against which to see why bringing in God might give us a good explanation. There is a fit between what we need and what God’s presence, guidance, and assistance give to us.

Hare now goes back through the discussions of evolutionary psychology to see how our situation as evolved makes some independent guidance helpful. In terms of Greene, we need something both to include us, so that we can get beyond the tragedy of the commons, and to push us beyond the group, so that we do not end up with mere within-group altruism. The failures in psychological altruism that Kitcher posits as the origin of ethics infect both our intra-group and our inter-group lives, and we can see the preachments of the great religious traditions helping us with both. In Arnhart we see our devotion to the competitive goods such as wealth, power, and honor. We have seen Haidt’s claim that because of our evolutionary background we care more about reputation than about truth or sincerity, and that our reasoning is often better seen as an “inner lawyer” managing this reputation than an “inner scientist” trying to work out what is right to do. We have seen Greene’s claim that from an evolutionary perspective our reasoning systems are designed for selecting rewarding behaviors.

We don’t have to accept all of these claims in order to conclude that even within the group our ability to care for others is fragile. Our list of failures could be expanded to include unrighteous anger, importunate lust, and craven fear. To make such a list is not “Calvinistic Sociobiology,” because it’s consistent with saying that we also have tendencies to the good, “better angels” of our nature, so that we end up a mixture. But we need something other than just an appeal to our nature to get us to follow the parts of the mixture that we should follow and not the parts we should not.

Now consider the preachments of the traditions. God is luminous, severe, disinfectant, exultant, and the law of the Lord is cast in the same terms, giving light and cleansing us, to be rejoiced in, more than gold or honey. The Sermon on the Mount is full of commands that go inside the mind. The Qur’an says to give money to kinsmen, orphans, the needy, etc. In all these ways, the resources of religious traditions have responded to the problems within groups posed by our evolutionary heritage. The same is true of the second class of psychological-altruism failures between groups. For Greene, the tragedy of our between-group hostility can be overcome by utilitarianism, but he cuts this school off from its theological roots and the common ground they provide. A variety of commands takes the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths towards a universal morality. These faiths both include their adherents into a community, and then push them beyond it.

Does the picture of divine command, mixed natural capacity, and divine assistance actually work to produce morally better lives in those who accept it? There is some empirical evidence that the answer is “Yes.” Shared religious life binds people together. More importantly, Robert Putnam and David Campbell compared how religious and non-religious Americans behave in terms of giving money and time to charities and social organizations. The religious Americans gave more money not just to religious organizations but to the American Cancer Society, and they volunteered not just in church and synagogue and mosque but in civic associations across the board. They conclude, “By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.”

When we look at the great movements towards the recognition of human value over the last sixty years, we will often find a religious motivation. Hare is thinking of Martin Luther King and the civil-rights movement, and the Lutherans in East Germany and the fall of the totalitarian state. Why is this? Hare suggests it’s because of the nature of the God they worship. It’s true that belonging to a community is very important, but the God of Abraham not only includes us in community but pushes us out beyond community, to meet the needs of the poor and the marginalized who are the object of God’s care just as much as we are. God commands both the inclusion and the moving-out. And these do not need to be competing goals.