Hare, Richard M. (1919–2002)

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Richard M. Hare, the White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford University from 1966 to 1983, is famous as the inventor of universal prescriptivism. This is a metaethical doctrine, a thesis about what moral words mean. But Hare uses his metaethic to generate an ethic. Anyone who employs the moral concepts consistently in full awareness of the facts must wind up a utilitarian. Hare claims that his utilitarianism is the product of conceptual analysis rather than of moral intuition. To rely on intuitions is a philosophical sin, since it leads to relativism (Hare 1981). His theory is developed in three books, The Language of Morals (1952), Freedom and Reason (1963), and Moral Thinking (1981).

Prescriptivism is a variant of noncognitivism. Moral judgments are action guiding, and the explanation of this is that they are prescriptive: They are not primarily designed to state facts but to prescribe actions. They are more akin to orders than statements or propositions. Nevertheless, moral judgments do have descriptive content, though this will depend upon the moral opinions of the speaker (Hare 1963). Thus, if Captain Bligh says that Burkitt is a scoundrel, we can assume he is disobedient. Indeed, even words such as ought have descriptive content, though this too will vary with the moral opinions of the speaker. Typically, the descriptive content of an ought judgment will consist in the factual considerationsthe reasonsthat can be advanced in its support. Thus, if Bligh asserts that Burkitt ought to be flogged, this will be because it would be an act of punishing disobedience. That the flogging would be such an act is the descriptive content of "Burkitt ought to be flogged." (Whence it follows that, if Burkitt has not been disobedient, the ought judgment will be factually false.) In Hare's view moral judgments are universalizable. Thus, if Bligh thinks that Burkitt ought to be flogged, he is committed to the view that anyone in relevantly similar circumstancesanyone who has been similarly disobedient to a king's officerought to be flogged likewise. He must assent to the imperative "Let me be flogged in the hypothetical case in which I am in Burkitt's position!"which includes having committed Burkitt's heinous acts of disobedience (Hare 1963). Finally, moral judgments are overriding. They take precedence over any other imperatives the subject may accept. Thus, if Bligh thinks himself morally obliged to have Burkitt flogged, this takes precedence over his aesthetic obligation not to sully the pure air of the Pacific with Burkitt's distasteful groans. Sincere moral commitment entails action. Weakness of the will as traditionally conceived is not a genuine possibility. Thus, Hare reinstates the Socratic paradox that we cannot willingly do wrong (Hare 1952, 1963).

What about utilitarianism? Hare first points out that the metaethic generates a method for refuting moral "conjectures." Bligh considers the maxim "I ought to have Burkitt flogged." He universalizes this to derive the principle that anyone in relevantly similar circumstances ought to be flogged likewise. This in turn entails the imperative "Let me be flogged if I am in Burkitt's position!" But Bligh cannot assent to this unless he is a fanaticsomeone who prefers flogging the disobedient to remaining unflogged himself. Thus, Bligh must rescind his original "ought" (Hare 1963). But this is only a method for vetoing moral maxims and a method, moreover, that leads to moral paralysis. As Hare himself points out, a guilty prisoner could challenge the judge to universalize the maxim that the accused ought to be put away and derive the imperative "Let me be imprisoned if I am in the accused shoes!"an imperative she could accept only if she had a fanatical preference for imprisoning the guilty rather than staying out of jail herself (Hare 1963). Nonfanatical judges would have to give up sentencing and justice would founder! But Hare offers a utilitarian solution. The correct course is to go the rounds of the affected parties and opt for the action that is subject to the weakest veto[es]. Thus, the judge must take into account the likely depredations of the prisoner and ask herself whether she can accept such imperatives as "Let me be robbed if the prisoner is released and allowed to carry on with his course of crime and I am one of his victims!" If not, and if the vetoes of the prisoner's potential victims outweigh his preference not to go to jail, then to jail he must go. The criminal-justice system can survive without fanaticism, and Hare's method becomes utilitarian. But does Hare derive utilitarianism from his conceptual analysis or assume utilitarianism to rescue that analysis from disaster (Roxbee Cox 1986)?

The fanatic remains a problem. She can consistently subscribe to a persecuting principle if she assents to the imperatives in which she is on the sharp end. In Moral Thinking Hare deprives her of this possibility. He claims it is a conceptual truth that if I fully represent to myself what an unpleasant experience is like for someonean experience that they would prefer to stopI now acquire an equally strong preference not to have that experience were I in their shoes. Hence, a fanatic who fully represents to herself the sufferings of her potential victims cannot assent to the imperative that she should suffer were she in their position. For she has a preference as strong as theirs that she should not. If, however, Hare's conceptual truth is neither conceptual nor a truth, then fanaticism remains an option (Seanor and Fotion 1991).

See also Metaethics; Noncognitivism; Utilitarianism.


works by hare

The Language of Morals. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952. Hare sets forth his metaethic.

Freedom and Reason. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963. Hare develops his metaethic and devises an engine of moral argument to enforce utilitarian conclusions. But he admits the fanatic is immune.

Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Methods, and Point. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981. Hare draws a distinction between intuitive and critical thinking and invents a conceptual truth to dispose of the fanatic. Only amoralists can avoid utilitarianism.

Essays in Ethical Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989a. Hare develops and defends his ideas and attacks his philosophical rivals. Contains a memorably savage critique of John Rawls for relying on intuition, a reply to J. L. Mackie, his chief Oxford opponent, and a bibliography of his extensive writings.

Essays on Political Morality. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989b. A collection on applied ethics.

works on hare

Roxbee Cox, J. W. "From Universal Prescriptivism to Utilitarianism." Philosophical Quarterly 36 (1986): 115. Challenges Hare's derivation of utilitarianism.

Seanor, D., and N. Fotion, eds. Hare and Critics: Essays on Moral Thinking with Comments by R. M. Hare. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. The best essays are by Brandt, Singer, Gibbard, and Vendler. Hudson's essay lists some of the important criticisms Hare has faced. Extensive bibliography.

Singer, P. Practical Ethics. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Hare's method is applied to practical affairs by his most gifted disciple.

Taylor, C. C. W. "Critical Notice of R. M. Hare's Freedom and Reason." Mind 74 (1965): 280290. Still perhaps the best critique of Hare.

Charles R. Pigden (1996)