John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 2, “What is a Divine Command?” Section 2.1.5: Counsels

Another speech act on the scholastic list is “counsel.” God can use imperative sentences to give us advice, instruction, or invitation. What is the difference between command in the narrow sense and these other speech acts? The most salient point of difference is that commands generate obligation, and there is standardly some expectation of condemnation if the command is not carried out. With advice, this is not so, though there may be an expectation of adverse consequences. This is a point emphasized by Stephen Darwall, who talks about the accountability internally contained within a second-person demand, and we’ll return to this shortly.

Traditionally Roman Catholic moral theology teaches that there are three “evangelical counsels,” or “counsels of perfection”: poverty, chastity, and obedience. The idea of counsels as a separate category of divine prescription seems right. Jesus tells us to be perfect as our Father in heaven in perfect. If this is a command, does it not follow that, when Jesus says to the rich young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go sell,” this is also a command, a command to carry out the means to the commanded end? Here Hare makes some distinctions. First, the difference between perfect (confusingly) and imperfect duties is helpful in seeing that the command to be perfect is in a certain way indeterminate.

Consider Kant’s examples in the Groundwork, where the duties not to lie and not to commit suicide are perfect, and the duties to help others and develop one’s talents are imperfect. The difference is that in the first case you are in a bad situation, you have an inclination to do some act to get out of it, and the perfect duty intervenes to stop that particular act. In the second case you are in a good situation, you have an inclination not to do anything to remove yourself from it, and the imperfect duty intervenes to tell you to do something, although it does not tell you what in particular to do. But, while this distinction goes some way toward explaining the imperative “Be perfect,” it is not enough. It captures the indeterminacy of how the imperative is to be carried out, but it doesn’t explain the way in which “Be perfect” gives us an ideal. The word “ideal” here does not imply that we are given merely an ideal, in the sense that the prescription is to be regarded as itself unattainable, and the realistic goal is not attainment but merely trying to be more like what is prescribed. Christian doctrine standardly sees Jesus as giving us in his own life a model for what perfection would be like. This has to be qualified by what Ch. 1 said about the uniqueness of each person’s perfection. But the Name into which we’re called to live is not merely what we should try to reach, or get closer to reaching; it is our destination. Imperfect duties do not all give us ideals in this way, though they give us indeterminacy about how they are to be realized. Thus “Eat more spinach” would meet the criterion for the prescription of an imperfect duty, but it does not give us an ideal.

What more do we need to say in order to capture the special nature of the prescription to be perfect? One point is that the calling towards our own perfection, which is itself a perfection of the common nature “humanity,” is continued in the next life. But obligations do not continue in the next life. Why is this, and what does it tell us about the nature of obligation? Here again Kant is useful to the extent that he sees that God does not have obligations, since God does not have any contrary inclinations that have to be disciplined, and the same is true of finite holy beings. In the case of both perfect and imperfect duties, the prescription is most often to do something other than what inclination is prompting one to do. But the process of sanctification and then glorification is one in which the inclinations come to be more and more in line with duty, so that there is less and less disciplining to be done. Kant did not think that we humans can ever be holy, but he did not give good justification for this claim within either the theoretical or the practical use of reason. It is better to say that there is a call to be holy, and that in this state we would no longer be under obligation. This suggests that even in this life, where there are competing inclinations, the call is to become somebody who does not feel resistance that has to be overcome. This makes the term “obligation” inadequate for what the call (unlike the command) creates.

There is another feature of obligation that will be more central when we discuss the nature of authority in the next section. Obligation is accountability to someone. But there are different types of accountability. Accountability brings with it the envisaging of a sanction of some kind for non-compliance, even if it is only the sanction of blame. Darwall puts the point by saying that accountability makes blame for non-compliance “appropriate,” and quotes Pufendorf, who says, “An obligation forces a man to acknowledge of himself that the evil, which has been pointed out to the person who deviates from an announced rule, falls upon him justly.” But, for calls and counsels, there is not the conceptually implied envisioning of condemnation and punishment. We can still be answerable, but not accountable in the sense that there’s a sanction in the offing. We are supposed to move from the fearful whip to a relationship of love and generosity in our relation with God.

So how should we understand the rich young man passage? One possibility is as a singular precept, according to which he had to give up his wealth. But another possibility is that Jesus is showing him that there is much more than the commands of the second table of the Ten Commandments, or than any commands in the narrow sense of “command.” There is a call to a destination beyond this life, treasure in heaven.

Here’s an example of a divine counsel. A person with tenure at a secular university is asked to consider leaving tenure to teach at a religious college. He considers there is an invitation here, a call that will in God’s providence bring blessing, even though it is hard to justify compliance from a common-sense point of view. He senses that for him to offer his heart to the Lord means to accept this invitation. On the other hand, he does not have the sense that there is something wrong with his current place of employment, or that he has some kind of obligation to go.

God’s prescriptions to us are often counsel of this kind. If we were to attribute emotions to God, we would say God was disappointed when we decline, or not as happy as God could have been, and not that God was angry. But this is anthropomorphic language. Perhaps an ingredient in the picture is that a call is often accompanied by a gift. The refusal of the call is in such a case the refusal of the gift, and an appropriate human response to the refusal of a gift is disappointment.