Kant’s Divine Command Theory and its Reception within Analytic Philosophy

  • John E. Hare
Part of the Claremont Studies in the Philosophy of Religion book series (CSPR)


The purpose of this paper is to look at how Kant’s views about the autonomy of the moral life fit with his less well-known claim that we should see our duties as God’s commands, and to examine how this complex of views has been received in the analytic tradition of moral philosophy in this century.1 My claim will be that Kant has usually been interpreted in this tradition as showing in the Groundwork that a divine command theory of ethics is heteronomous. Here, to give just one prominent example, is R. M. Hare’s verdict: ‘Ever since Kant,’ (and it is the Groundwork he is thinking of) ‘it has been possible for people to insist on the autonomy of morals — its independence of human or divine authority. Indeed, it has been necessary, if they were to think morally, in the sense in which that word is now generally understood.’2 I want to dispute this interpretation of Kant’s argument and to attribute to him an alternative which I think is largely defensible. This will take most of the paper. But I also want to advance some speculations briefly at the end about why Kant has been misunderstood on this matter by philosophers in the analytic tradition, and then to mention a sustained minority opinion within this tradition.


Analytic Philosophy Analytic Tradition Moral Concept Divine Command Divine Command Theory 
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  1. 2.
    R. M. Hare in ‘The Simple Believer’, reprinted in Essays on Religion and Education (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 30. See also Sorting Out Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 27. This argument in the Groundwork has had the same kind of status in ethics as the treatment of the ontological argument in the first Critique has had in metaphysics.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans, and analysed by H.J. Paton (New York: Harper, 1964), p. 141. For Crusius’ views, see the selection from ‘Guide to Rational Living’, in Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant, Vol. II, ed. J. B. Schneewind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 568–85 (henceforth GRL). See also Giorgio Tonelli, ‘La question des bornes de l’entendement humain au XVIIIe siècle’, Revue de métaphysique et de morale (1959), pp. 396–427. In the second Critique (KpV, 40), Kant mentions Crusius as the source of the view which locates the practical material determining ground of morality externally in the will of God.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    One statement of necessary conditions for a divine command theory is given by Philip Quinn, in Divine Commands and Moral Requirements (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), p. 27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 6.
    Other examples of the kind of interpretation I am objecting to are A. C. Ewing, Value and Reality (London: Allen and Unwin, 1973), pp. 183–7, and James Rachels, ‘God and Human Attitudes’, reprinted in Divine Commands and Morality, ed. Paul Helm (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 34–48, especially pp. 44f. One vivid example is Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 80: ‘Kant’s man had already nearly a century earlier received a glorious incarnation in the work of Milton: his proper name is Lucifer.’ The argument itself, without explicit attachment to Kant, is pervasive. One nice statement of it is in P. H. Nowell-Smith’s Ethics (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1954), pp. 192–3.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Lewis White Beck, Six Secular Philosophers (New York: Harper, 1960), p. 72. But it is not in general true for Kant that a prescription has authority only if we know about its source. As I shall argue, Kant thinks that the prescriptions of a legitimate political ruler have authority and have their source in his will; but we do not have knowledge about this will.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Kant, Lectures on Ethics, trans. Louis Infield (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1963), p. 97.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    I have given a detailed account of this passage in The Moral Gap (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 41–5.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    See Lewis White Beck, A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 107, ‘Either Crusius surreptitiously introduces ethical predicates into the concept of divine perfection’ (and Beck refers to this passage of Crusius), ‘with the result that theological perfection no longer grounds the moral principle but presupposes it; or a hedonistic motivation is postulated as the ground of obedience to God’.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    See Robert M. Adams, ‘Autonomy and Theological Ethics’, in The Virtue of Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 123–7. Adams approves of Tillich’s notion of theonomous ethics: ‘The theonomous agent acts morally because he loves God, but also because he loves what God loves.’ Kant on my reading, but not Crusius, has a theonomous ethics. I will return to Adams at the end of this paper. Crusius himself would not be worried by this objection. See Tonelli, op. cit., p. 410 (my translation): ‘Crusius underlines the importance of mysteries of reason, mainly theological doctrines which have to be admitted, even though we do not understand how certain things can be joined together or separated in such a way.’Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    Mary Gregor, translator’s introduction to The Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 10.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    Kant, Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 26.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    See Roger J. Sullivan, Immanuel Kants Moral Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 17.
    Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 25f. and 105–7. She goes on to argue against Hobbes and Pufendorf that our moral obligations have authority because of the internal sanction of a painful conscience. But Kant, I am arguing, preserves the need for an external imposition of sanctions, though they are not arbitrary sanctions (KpV, 130). The fact that we feel badly if we break the law is not, for him, enough. The presence of these sanctions does not by itself lead to heteronomy, unless the ground for obedience is the fear of hell or hope of heaven.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 20.
    One recent exception is Anthony Rudd, Kierkegaard and the Limits of the Ethical (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), who says in his preface, ‘One aim of this book is to show analytical philosophers that Kierkegaard is relevant to their concerns.’ See also my review, in Studies in Christian Ethics, vol. 8, no. 1, 1995, pp. 138–43. For my own response to Kierkegaard’s reading of Kant, see ‘The Unhappiest One and the Structure of Kierkegaard’s Either/Of, in International Kierkegaard Commentary, Either/Or, 1, ed. Robert L. Perkins (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1995), pp. 91–108, and The Moral Gap, pp. 191–221.Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    Within Kant scholarship, this shift is signalled by the volume I have already referred to, Kant’s Philosophy of Religion Reconsidered. Its editors start by questioning the commonly held views which ‘have generally held that this peripheral status (of Kant’s treatment of religion) and lack of originality issued from the relentlessly reductionistic character of Kant’s account, which sought to make religion — or at least those elements of religion which can be critically justified — wholly identical with or reducible to morality.’ Other sources are Donald Rutherford, Leibniz and the Rational Order of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), and James E. Force and Richard H. Popkin, eds. The Books of Nature and Scripture: Recent Essays on Natural Philosophy, Theology and Biblical Criticism in the Netherlands of Spinoza’s Time and the British Isles of Newton’s Time (Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1994).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 22.
    Heinrich Heine, History of Philosophy and Religion in Germany, trans. John Snodgrass (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), p. 119.Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    Allen Wood, ‘Kant’s Deism’, in Kant’s Philosophy of Religion Reconsidered, ed. Philip J. Rossi and Michael Wreen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp. 1–21, especially p. 14. See also the phrase in E. Troeltsch, ‘utterances of prudence’, quoted in Michel Despland, Kant on History and Religion (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1973), p. 105, and the phrase ‘cover’ techniques in Yirmiahu Yovel, Kant and the Philosophy of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 114 and 215.Google Scholar
  18. 26.
    In addition to the article by Adams already referred to, there are two papers, ‘A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness’ and ‘Divine Command Metaethics Modified Again’, both of which are reprinted (the second only in part) in Helm, op. cit. Baruch A. Brody’s views can be found in ‘Morality and Religion Reconsidered’, Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Baruch A. Brody (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1974), pp. 592–603. Philip L. Quinn’s views can be found in Divine Commands and Moral Requirements (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978). I am not claiming that any of these authors agree with me in my attribution of a particular kind of divine command theory to Kant.Google Scholar
  19. 27.
    Adams, op. cit. Autonomous submission to political authority (‘fredo-nomy’?) has the same structure.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2000

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  • John E. Hare

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