John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.4.2, “Philip Kitcher”


Hare thinks Kitcher’s book The Ethical Project is ideally suited to the purposes of the present chapter. He argues for a pragmatist naturalism that is governed by the principle “No Spooks,” including God, but also a realm of values, faculties of ethical perception, and “pure practical reason” (in Kant’s phrase). Although Kitcher’s book isn’t an argument against God’s existence, he does briefly give two reasons for denying the existence of God. They are (first) that not all religions can be true because they contradict each other, and there is no core set of doctrines holding them all together, and (second) that the methods by which people reach religious belief are unreliable. Hare’s book has, in addition to pointing out overlaps between the Abrahamic faiths, defended a view of general revelation according to which all human beings get enough revelation of the divine nature to be without excuse if they reject God, even though they do not all have an innate sense of a single God.

In general, it doesn’t follow from the fact that some set of beliefs contains beliefs that contradict each other that they are all false, any more than disagreements across time about scientific claims show that all scientific claims are false. As to the claim about the unreliability of the methods by which humans reach their religious beliefs, Hare’s argued that the methods are natural to us, though not infallible. He’s also written about some of the ways internal to theology for correcting some of these beliefs. So we can’t settle the question of whether the communication with that divine being is reliable independently of a view about the existence of that being. In any case, the important question for the present chapter is not the truth of atheism but what follows for ethics from the assumption that God does not exist.

Kitcher starts from a distinction between different types of altruism. The most important for understanding the ethical project is “psychological altruism,” which differs from “biological altruism” and “behavioral altruism.” Psychological altruism involves the intention to promote what are taken to be the wishes or the interests of others. Kitcher suggests that ethics arises as a means of reducing psychological-altruism failure. In the kinds of groups that we can imagine our first human ancestors to have formed, it was crucial for survival to be able to trust each other not to defect from the various forms of cooperation that constituted their way of life.

One key step in this development is what Kitcher calls “normative guidance,” which is defined in terms of the ability to apprehend and obey commands. He makes the reception of supposed divine commands central to the development of ethics, even though he thinks there is no transcendent being to give such commands. He makes it clear that he thinks fear is the central original motivation, the fear of divine punishment. Unless there were sanctions for disobedience, fear could hardly be central to the initial capacity for normative guidance. This fear then gets internalized as conscience, and the commanding voice seems to come from within, initially and crudely as the expression of fears.

Hare notes a difficulty here. On the supposition that our original human ancestors were hunter-gatherers, it’s important to notice that the hunter-gatherer societies that we know about do not, on the whole, have moralizing high gods. After various principled exclusions, out of over 1250 societies, 23 societies are left in the sample (among those early hunter-gatherers), and of these only one has “moralizing high gods,” the Yahgan or Yamana. Hare thinks this matters because it suggests that worship of the divine is much older than what the narrative about an “unseen enforcer” implies. The idea that humans invented gods in order to enforce the law has a long tradition behind it, but the anthropological evidence doesn’t support this. The societies that didn’t have moralizing high gods may have had “enforcers,” but equally some emotion other than fear of punishment may have been the primary emotion involved in their religion. Something like awe or respect or reverence is a good candidate. This would make ancient religion more continuous with our own. We would then need to ask what accounts for this phenomenon. An encounter with God is one explanation, though not the only one. What is remarkable in Kitcher’s account is the absence of any recognition, especially for educated people, of the human desire for the divine. It’s striking that a central desire of so many of the world people both educated and not, and both now and in our history, is here excluded.

Another reason for worrying about making fear of punishment central to religion is that this makes it contradictory to think, in Kant’s phrase, of “recognizing our duties as divine commands.” Kant gives an argument in the Groundwork that we can’t base our duties on fear of divine punishment. But this is quite different from respecting God as the head of the kingdom of ends, who can maintain the system in which good is rewarded and evil is punished. The moral agent needs the state to punish, but not because her moral motivation is fear of punishment. Rather, she values freedom, and values punishment as a “hindrance to the hindrances to freedom.” The moral agent is to aim at the highest good (union of virtue and happiness), and this requires the belief that the system by which virtue is consistent with happiness is in place and the apparent disproportion of virtue and happiness that we experience in this life is not final. Hare, then, wants to distinguish two different motivations. One is fear, because punishment can force the costs of free-riding above the costs of cooperation. The other (more satisfactory to the Kantian) is hope: a belief in punishment is part of a belief in a world morally governed. There is a difference between being motivated by a fear of divine punishment and being motivated by love of justice, which is a system that divine punishment maintains.

When Kitcher comes to consider concrete cases where ethical decision is influenced by religious faith, he is concerned to deny that these cases involve anything like ethical “insight.” He has two reasons for saying this in the case of Quaker John Woolman’s realization about the wrongness of slavery. One is that Woolman is reflecting on the New Testament and not directly on experience, and the other is that he doesn’t mention the name of the slave whose sale “afflicted” his mind. But neither reason is persuasive.

Having accepted that divine command theory may reflect a deep fact about cultural competition, Kitcher rejects it. He has four main objections. The first is Plato’s argument from the Euthyphro. The main problem here is that he has not considered the versions of divine command theory that navigate between the horns of Plato’s dilemma. Mackie had already seen how to do this, and there are excellent versions in Adams and Evans. A second objection is that we get an infinite regress if we ask, “Why should we obey a divine command?” Recall Scotus’s answer is that God is to be loved (and so obeyed) is knowable from its terms (and so does not require prior justification).

A third objection is from horrible commands such as the commands to kill Isaac or slaughter the Canaanites. Abraham’s situation is quite different from ours. He points to Wolterstorff’s claim that the stories might be fictional, and to Baggett and Walls’ discussion in Good God.  The fourth objection is that religion leads to hierarchy of an oppressive sort, and so undermines what Kitcher takes to be our initial situation of equality. But Hare argues that such a hierarchy can’t be essential to religion (for it wasn’t a feature of the religion of hunter-gatherers). Religion, just like any social phenomenon, can be used for violent and oppressive purposes, but also for peacefulness and inclusion. We can add that the corruption of the best is often the worst.

Kitcher’s answer to the normative question is that humans have throughout history had an ethical project whose method can be idealized in a certain way, and that we need to appreciate how central the ethical project is to human life. But the skeptic may ask why he should be bound by the rules emerging from this project. Why adopt any ethical tradition? Kitcher’s answer to the normative question belongs in the same family as Greene’s (“We can grasp the principles behind nature’s machines and make them our own.”) The ethical project is central to human life, as we observe it, but so is self-preference. Our nature as evolved is a mixture. That is exactly why we need ethics; we are best by psychological-altruism failure on all sides.

The most important point may be that Kitcher thinks that ruling out any false beliefs about the natural world means that any modification of ethical practice invoking the commands of an allegedly transcendent being would rightly be rejected and excluded from the outset. Religious conviction, which is to say most people’s conviction, does not even get into the conversation. But surely, Hare counters, what we need are the conditions for settling disagreements on these central concerns without assuming religious grounds don’t even make the threshold for conditional mutual engagement. Kitcher’s account of ethical method would be a great deal more plausible, and more consistent with his overall pragmatism, if he allowed that religious disagreements could be consistent with conditional mutual engagement in this way.