John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 1, Section 1.2, “The Argument from Grace”

The second way of establishing a dependence relation of morality on God is by means of the argument from grace, again an argument from Kant’s Religion. Kant saw revelation as two concentric circles, with historical revelation in the larger circle and in the smaller the revelation to reason. The project of Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason is then to determine whether doctrines in the outer circle can be translated into the language of the inner circle by means of the moral concepts. Kant attempts this translation with the four doctrines of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Second Coming, and this project dictates the structure of the work as a whole.

At the end of part one, the topic is “effects of grace.” Kant is here discussing a problem he refers to elsewhere as “Spener’s problem,” after the great Lutheran Pietist. We humans are born, Kant says, under the evil maxim, which subordinates duty to happiness. Evil doesn’t just come from our sensory inclinations, but is a choice in the will to rank happiness over duty. Kant agrees with Luther here, putting locus of evil in reason and will rather than the lower affections. Since we are born under this ranking of happiness over duty, we can’t reverse the ranking by our own devices, for this would require a choice that was already under the opposite ranking. Kant says the propensity to evil is not to be extirpated through human forces, for this could only happen through good maxims—something that can’t take place if the subjective supreme ground of all maxims is presupposed to be corrupted.

Hare has called this problem elsewhere the “moral gap,” a gap between how we ought to live and how we can live by our own devices. Ought implies can, but in this case we ought to give duty the priority ranking, yet we seem to have a radical incapacity to do so. To talk about a radical incapacity or about being “under the evil maxim” is not to say that we are fundamentally evil. We are born, Kant thinks, with both the predisposition to good and the propensity to evil, and of these two only the predisposition to good is essential to us. Nonetheless, it is natural to us, when forced to rank the two, to put our own happiness first and duty second. This means that legislators should try to set up laws so that we are forced to rank the two as seldom as possible.

By presenting the problem in terms of a ranking of incentives, Kant puts himself again in the tradition of Luther and Augustine. Augustine says that God bids us do what we cannot, in order that we might learn our dependence on God. In On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine says both that we have lost our freedom to choose to act rightly and that we do have the ability to ask God for assistance. (But this is an early text, and his later work is different on this topic. See Retractations: “And unless the divine grace by which the will is freed preceded the act of will, it would not be grace at all.”)

The key to a solution to the problem of the moral gap is to see that, while ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, ‘ought’ does not imply ‘can by our own devices’. There are things we can do, but only with assistance from outside. Kant thus appeals to God’s assistance in accomplishing what he calls a “revolution of the will,” by which the ranking of happiness over duty is reversed. This divine assistance is an effect of grace. Kant says we can admit an effect of grace as something incomprehensible, but can’t incorporate it into our maxims for either theoretical or practical use. We can’t make theoretical use of effects of grace because they go beyond the limits of our understanding, and Kant thinks we need to confine the theoretical use of reason within these limits. We can’t make practical use of effects of grace because they are things God does and not things we do. But still, the appeal to effects of grace is the solution to what would otherwise be a contradiction in practical reason: we both ought to and can’t live by the moral law.

Hare goes beyond Kant here by adding that one of the effects of grace that makes the moral life livable is that grace makes forgiveness possible, in cases where we can’t forgive ourselves for moral failure, because we don’t have the right moral status to do so. The view of the effects of grace that Hare defends is that God intervenes in our situation, and enables us to live by the high moral demand placed on us by divine command.

There’s a large theological problem here. Does not God put all human beings under the moral demand? But does not this mean that God gives all human beings the means to comply with it? It’s incoherent, after all, to put someone under a demand that she can’t reach. This is the meaning of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. There is a tendency in this thought towards universalism, the view that all human beings are saved. Kant may have been a universalist. At least he thought that the doctrine of double election (of some to salvation and others to damnation) was the salto mortale (the death leap) of human reason. There is also a tendency in Barth towards universalism.

Hare writes that Christians may, in a weak sense, hope that all are saved. They should not, however, have hope in the strong sense of expectation that this is so, for two reasons. The first is that there are too many contrary texts in the Scriptures. There are passages (mainly from Paul) that suggest universalism, but the texts from the Gospels are predominantly opposed to it. The second reason is that Christians have the experience of people who die denying God, or at least their picture of God. The best conclusion is that God does make the moral demand of all human beings and God does offer assistance to all human beings to meet this demand. But this assistance, though sufficient for all, is not efficient for all; that is to say, it does not bear the fruit of obedience in every human life. The grace offered by God to meet the divine command is not irresistible. [To me, if I’m understanding Hare here, this sounds more Arminian than classically Calvinist.]

A moral gap was recognized before Kant by Augustine, Luther, Aristotle, and the Neo-Confucian Chu His. But some Kantian details in fleshing it out are peculiar to him. He thought he’d identified the supreme principle of morality, which he called the “Categorical Imperative,” and he thought that this imperative was part of the content of the religion of reason, the inner circle. He sometimes suggested that this conception of the moral demand is present to all human beings at all times and places. Hare thought this was wrong, though empirical evidence does, Hare notes, suggest that at the beginning of human society hunter-gatherer groups had some sense of fairness, and this topic will return in a later chapter (8).

A tendency to repudiate is to reduce God’s grace to help in meeting the demands of the moral law. Kant is occasionally guilty of this (though it’s important to note where he is in his translation project), but he does make morality too important a part of the godly life, Hare thinks. In the next life, contrary to Kant, the moral law will probably not be relevant any longer. We’ll no longer be under the constraint of proscriptions; even the command to love our brothers and sisters will not have any longer the character of obligation. Even in the present life, there’s something unwholesome about the focus on the moral gap.

Here Hare echoes a theme in a similar way as does Jerry Walls at the end Jerry’s chapter in his recent book on heaven, hell, and purgatory; but I think, though there’s some insight in what they’re saying, they make the same mistake of failing to see that heavenly living isn’t so much leaving morality behind as the achievement of its ultimate purpose. That obligations are to be left behind for gift and sacrifice is not to say morality per se is left behind, unless we buy into Kant’s characterization of its sum and substance as bound up in duty, but that seems to be a huge mistake. Is not a selfless life of love in which motivation by duty has become a rarity a deeply moral life? Is not to be entirely conformed to the image of Christ the ultimate and appropriate limiting case of the holy life for which we were made?

Hare concludes this section by admitting that one might evade the argument by reducing the moral demand. One way to reduce the demand is to say that, unlike the Good Samaritan in Jesus’s parable, we should consider that we have obligations only to the people we know, who are related to us in special relations of family or friendship or community. But this is unacceptably parochial. (See the article on this site called Interstellar and Partiality for more reflection on this issue.)

Christianity does not require Kantian morality, and this is true also of the Abrahamic faiths as a whole. But there is, nonetheless, a congruity between Kant’s formulation and the Lutheran pietism in which he was raised. To the extent we lower the demand, we also lower the need for grace.