John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 2, “What is a Divine Command?” Section 2.1.4: Permissions

Another kind of speech act that characteristically uses an imperative tropic is “permission.” A permission is not a command because, if a person is commanded, he is permitted to comply but he is not permitted not to comply. If a person is permitted, he is permitted both to do the thing and not to do it. An illuminating comparison is with necessity and possibility. God permits me if God does not command me not to, in the same way that what is possible is what is not necessarily not the case. But the comparison is not exact. In the cases we’re interested in, permission is not simply the absence of a prohibition, or negative command. When God permits Adams to eat of the fruit of all of the other trees in the garden, God expresses consent to this eating.

In the cases we’re interested in, there needs to be a mental act of permitting, not just the absence of the mental act of prohibiting, and there needs to be a speech act. God’s speech acts of permission express a divine mental act, but to explain what mental act, we need to return to the scholastic distinction between God’s revealed and God’s disposing will. The revealed will is a type of antecedent will (a divine will antecedent to our willing), and the disposing will is a type of consequent will. Regarding the consequent will, Ockham says that it is that by which God wills efficaciously in positing something in being, but in antecedently willing from eternity that a given created will should act in a certain way God does not determine the created will to act in that way. So, even though everything that happens is in accordance with God’s consequent permissive will, it is not necessarily in accordance with God’s antecedent will. Most of the divine prescriptions we have been considering should be taken as expressions of God’s antecedent will.

hare god's command

But now we need to make another distinction, within the antecedent divine will. Consider tragic cases in which there does not seem to be anything good to do. The classic case is hiding a Jew in the Second World War and lying to the Nazi officer at the door. Rather than saying it’s never right to lie, Hare says it’s better to say that lying in such a case can be the least bad thing to do. But does this mean that God permits it? If so, divine permission seems to be different from divine command, where God’s command is said to select which good things to require. If we allow the existence of tragic cases (as experience seems to compel), we should say that God may command saving a life in a case where this requires and God permits a lie. We should then distinguish the antecedent revealed will in the Ten Commandments, which give prohibitions (and thus negative obligations) that are not absolute, from the antecedent divine permission that may be revealed to a particular person in a tragic situation. It’s better to call this prescription “permission” than “command,” because it may still be necessary to repent of the lie, even though it was the least bad thing to do.

Hare finishes this section with a more ordinary example of a divine permission. A person has been going to a church for eight years, and has been happy there, though recognizing that the congregation is not well integrated racially. Then one day he takes an African-American friend to church, and realizes that she is the only black person in the room, and he starts to hear the whole service with different ears. After the friend has left, he is overcome with a sense of grief while driving on the highway, to the point that he is unable to drive and pulls over to the side. Then he hears as it were a voice in his head telling him that it’s all right for now to go on worshiping in that place, with those people he is fond of; but that there are some changes there that need to be made. This he interprets as a divine permission. Divine permissions are very often in situations where human defect has made a mess of things, but obedience is still possible even though purity is not.