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R.M. Hare (1919-2002)

by Piers Benn

Richard Mervyn Hare, who died on January 29th, was a prominent English moral philosopher noted for defending universal prescriptivism in ethics. He also wrote widely on applied ethics and public affairs, was the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford for many years and then Professor of Philosophy at the University of Florida. His first book, The Language of Morals (1952) attempted to show how moral concepts obey a logic that allows moral argument to be genuinely rational, even though moral predicates like ‘good’ are not fundamentally descriptive. Hare’s commitment to rationality in ethical argument, and to the indispensability of rigorous theory, was a central feature of his philosophy.

The theory of emotivism, defended in different ways by C.L. Stevenson and the young A.J. Ayer, formed the background to Hare’s early work, and he was concerned both to acknowledge its insights and correct its inadequacies. For example, in an entertaining but somewhat hurried account of the matter in Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer had tried to undermine what he saw as the pretensions of ethical discourse, claiming that ethical utterances had no factual content and were nothing more than expressions of feelings and attitudes, which could also, incidentally, serve to guide action. Ethical utterances, said Ayer, were incapable of truth or falsity, since they were neither analytic nor empirically verifiable. This made ethical utterances seem nothing more than crude propaganda with no rational force.

Hare didn’t entirely reject emotivism, but he latched onto the action-guiding or ‘prescriptive’ element to ethical language, claiming it was central to the logic of moral discourse. He was consistently opposed to the ‘descriptivism’ that held that the meaning of moral predicates – good, bad, right, wrong, ought etc. – was exhaustively descriptive of moral features of reality. He argued that prescriptive language – dealing in imperatives, commendations, exhortations – had a logical structure and could follow rational norms of reasoning. For instance, there could be imperative inference, just as there could be factual inference. Moral prescriptions entailed imperatives, but were more than imperatives; to say “you ought not to smoke” was to say more than “do not smoke”, in that ‘ought’ judgements, unlike ordinary imperatives, were universalisable. In other words, someone making an ‘ought’ judgement in a particular situation was committed to prescribing a similar ‘ought’ judgement for anyone in any relevantly similar situation. In this way, moral discourse could not be equated with non-rational attempts at persuasion.

In a fastidiously systematic manner Freedom and Reason (1963) clarified a number of issues and introduced some new ones. Hare allowed that moral predicates had a secondary, descriptive meaning, but insisted that their primary meaning was nondescriptive. He insisted on a logical distinction between facts and values, which barred any logical inference of moral judgements from descriptive features of the world. For a long time this view was orthodox, although to Hare’s annoyance, early attacks on it by Philippa Foot, and the later popularity of moral realism somewhat drove his theory from centre-stage.

In his analysis, prescriptions ultimately amounted to ‘decisions of principle’ subject only to the logical requirement of universalisability. This led to the problem of how to answer the ‘fanatic’, for example, a sincere Nazi who, in prescribing that all Jews should be killed, accepts that were he to turn out to be Jewish, then he too should be killed. The prescriptivity of moral judgements also led Hare to an eccentrically stretched position on weakness of will. If one sincerely addresses an ‘ought’ judgement to oneself (e.g. “I ought to give regularly to charity”), it follows from Hare’s theory that one intends to act on it. If the intention is absent (what most people call weakness of will) then it follows either that no universal prescription was ever made, or that it was psychologically impossible to act on it. Philosophers with a less inexhaustible theoretical determination would conclude that since weakness of will (akrasia) plainly is real, then any theory that entails its denial must be wrong.

Moreover, from universal prescriptivism, Hare unusually derived utilitarianism. To hold that others should take one’s own preferences into account entailed that one should also take others’ preferences into account; the implication was that a moral deliberator should logically take on all preferences as if they were his own. The utilitarian aspect of his theory was developed in Moral Thinking (1981) with its controversial ‘twolevel’ theory of ethical judgement. This was an attempt to avoid the traditional theories of act- and rule-utilitarianism by combining the best elements of each. At the ‘intuitive’ level – that of the ‘prole’ – there are firm commitments to truthfulness, beneficence et al., and we do very well to stick with this most of the time. But conflicts and emergencies can require us to think at the ‘critical’ level – that of the ‘archangel’. Critics charged the theory with being inherently unstable, unable to tell when we should think at each level.

Newspaper obituaries have made much of Hare’s formative experiences, in particular his spell as a Japanese prisoner of war, and his agonies about whether to be a pacifist. He looked to moral philosophy to help him answer real problems, which may seem surprising given the unrelenting dryness of his theoretical work. His intellect was acute, and he applied it in later life to central questions of applied ethics. His dismay at the fall of prescriptivism’s star earned him a reputation for not taking opposing views seriously; according to a former student, he tended to regard those who disagreed with him as either fools or enemies. But fashions come and go and posterity may well restore to his dry, rigorous philosophy the serious attention it deserves.

© Dr Piers Benn 2002

Piers Benn is lecturer in medical ethics at Imperial College London, and previously was lecturer in philosophy at the University of Leeds. He is author of Ethics (UCL Press 1998).

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