Philo
Sophos
·org

philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy



PhiloSophos knowledge base

Philosophical Connections

Pathways to Philosophy programs

University of London BA

Pathways web sites

Philosophy lovers gallery

GVKlempner: complete videos

PhiloSophos home

Pathways to Philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


HARE

(1919 — 2002)

 

PRESCRIPTIVISM

Richard Hare was born in Backwater, Avon and educated at Rugby School and Balliol College, Oxford. He started writing philosophy when a prisoner of the Japanese in Singapore during the war. After his repatriation he took his degree and was elected a Fellow of Balliol in 1947. In 1966 he was appointed White's Professor of Moral Philosophy and elected to a Fellowship at Corpus Christi College. He taught at Stanford in 1981, and from 1983 until his retirement he was Graduate Research Professor at the University of Florida. He was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1964.

 

ETHICS

[1] Hare's main aim [see The Language of Morals and Freedom and Reason] is to reconcile 'non-descriptivist' theories of moral philosophy such as emotivism, which generally deny rationality to ethics, and naturalist and non-naturalist 'descriptivist' theories, which take moral judgements to be logically equivalent to factual ones [a], and which he thinks tend to preserve rationality but only at the expense of our freedom to form opinions. His approach is grounded in a detailed examination of the 'language of morals' and in particular of three central claims.

(1) He distinguishes between descriptive and prescriptive judgements [Freedom and Reason, chs 1 and 2]. What makes predicate terms descriptive is their determination by rules of discourse and consistency of usage. Hare argues that value terms such as 'good' and 'right' are descriptive just as, say, 'red' is. However, he denies that value words can be defined completely, whether in terms of natural properties (such as pleasure) or other non-natural value terms. Moral terms additionally have prescriptive meaning. By this he means that they are commendatory. For example, to say something or someone is good is to put it/ him/ her forward as a standard of rectitude, to be imitated by others. Descriptive meaning rules thus become synthetic moral principles. He also says that evaluative meaning changes as social attitudes change [b].

(2) Because moral judgements have descriptive meaning, they are, Hare says, universalizable (unlike other prescriptive judgements such as commands) [chs 2 and 3]. Thus, if we call something good (or red, say), the meaning-rules of our discourse [c] commit us to calling something like it in relevant respects good (or red) also. Hare stresses [3.3] that his universalism is a logical and not a moral thesis. (In Language of Morals [11.5] he had tended rather to think of universalizability as characterizing moral principles.)

(3) There are logical relations between prescriptive judgements; and this enables moral arguments to be developed. Hare offers an analysis of the logic of moral inferences. [See chs 4, 6, and 10.] He accepts that one cannot validly infer from logical premisses to evaluative conclusions — from an 'is' to an 'ought' [LM 2.5; FR 6.9]. But although he maintains that ethical premisses are neutral as between different moral opinions (in so far as the job of ethical theory is only to provide conceptual clarification), he argues that we can move to imperative conclusions from premisses, one of which is imperative and the other indicative (a 'practical' syllogism), by invoking the two central notions of prescriptivity and universalizability as the rules of moral reasoning [LM 4.1 & 4.2; cf. FM ch. 10] [d].

In a given situation we must decide on what we ought to do by looking for an action to which we can commit ourselves (thus acknowledging its prescriptivity) and which is also an action which can be universalized — thus exemplifying a principle to be prescribed for others in like circumstances. To test a moral principle Hare also suggests three other requirements: the facts of the case, the inclination of people to reject evaluative propositions forced on them by the logic of the argument, and their readiness to use imagination. [See FM 6.3.]

Hare argues further [ch. 5] that support for his distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism is provided by the existence of the problem of weakness of will ('backsliding'). Individuals who are weak and fail to act in accordance with their perceived obligations show by their remorse and feelings of guilt that they have in fact recognised the prescriptivity of a moral judgement. Their not being able to act appropriately is, Hare says, a psychological impossibility; assent to an imperative does not entail that they must (logically, analytically) act on it [e], for there are indeed occasions when they 'physically' or 'pathologically' cannot. Instances of weakness of will do not therefore constitute counter-examples to his prescriptivism. Of course, if a person believes it to be in his power to act on a moral imperative and yet does not act on it, then for Hare it must follow that that individual could not genuinely have been assenting to the imperative. [See also LM 2.2 & 11.2.]

In the light of his own thesis Hare argues that the supposed distinction between deontological and teleological theories is a false one. It is possible to distinguish only between different sorts of intended effects. He therefore sees his own prescriptivism as providing a formal basis for utilitarianism [ch. 7] [f]. However, he recognises a number of difficulties in the traditional doctrine that need to be resolved. Firstly, there are problems concerning desires — whether equal weight should be given to the same desires had by different persons; or to supposedly 'higher' and 'lower' desires; and how desires relate to inclinations and interests. Secondly, in view of the difficulties with the utilitarian concepts of happiness and pleasure, it might be preferable to reformulate the theory in terms of the interests of different parties. Thirdly, Hare argues that the distinction between act- and rule-utilitarianism collapses once the universalizability of moral judgements is granted.

However, implicit in the linking of his theory with utilitarianism is a conflict between interests and ideals [chs 8 and 9]. Moral disagreements arising at the intuitive level can be transcended at the level of critical thought through the provision of a standard of adequacy for moral principles in terms of satisfaction of interests and universalizability [see also Moral Thinking] [g]. Nevertheless there may still be moral disagreements if 'fanatics' seemingly disregard the preferences of other people and justify their own by appeals to 'ideals', even if the consequence is persecution — of others or themselves. But Hare says that the number of fanatics is relatively small and that a moral philosophy grounded in universalizability, imagination, clear critical thinking, and a genuine concern for facts will afford self-protection against propaganda, even if it will not undermine the commitment of determined fanatics.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Hare's impressive achievement is to have developed a subtle analysis of the language of morals and in-depth examinations of particular moral conflicts to show how his concepts can be applied. His key distinction is that between descriptivity and prescriptivity of judgements, the former facilitating universalizability, the latter being the commendatory function of moral terms. More generally, with his broadly utilitarian thesis he attempts to reconcile teleological and deontological theories of ethics. The acceptability of Hare's approach clearly depends on the tenability of his fundamental assumptions and distinctions — about which there has been much discussion. The following are some of the main issues.

(1) If a distinction between descriptivity and prescriptivity is sustainable in the way Hare suggests (and many would dispute this), there would seem to be difficulties for a non-naturalistic ethics in that (a) commendations are arguably in some sense private or subjective (unlike describable properties); and (b) commendation is not a uniquely differentiating feature of moral discourse.

(2) Hare follows Hume in his acceptance of the fact-value distinction. But in so far as he recognises that both our concepts and evaluations may change, depending on circumstances and context, it might be supposed that a language could be formulated in which it would be legitimate to reason from non-imperative premisses to imperative conclusions.

(3) Hare appeals to universalizability. but some commentators argue that this should be understood in a weak sense — reflecting linguistic usage rather than underpinning a Kantian type of ethics. If this is so, then the moral force of Hare's concept would have to be weakened. In any case, in so far as he seems to be committed to the view that having a desire to perform an action is a necessary condition of one's assenting to a moral judgement, it would seem that any personal moral belief has to be universalized; and clearly this can lead to many impractical consequences. In the light of this his assertion that only fanatics will perform such actions is somewhat optimistic, and indeed his position must lend support to fanaticism and intolerance.

 

READING

Hare: The Language of Morals (1952); Freedom and Reason (1962); Moral Thinking (1981). Hare was also the author of many articles.

Studies

There does not seem to be any comprehensive study of his work. However, there are numerous articles in various philosophical journals. The following, published in Ethics, will be found informative and helpful:

W. Frankena, 'Hare on Moral Weakness and the Definition of Morality'.

R. K. Fullwinder, 'Fanaticism and Hare's Moral Theory'.

A. Gettner, 'Hare and Fanaticism'.

W. Lyons, 'Is Hare's Prescriptivism Morally Neutral?'.

J. Narveson, 'Liberalism, Utilitarianism, and Fanaticism'.

D. S. Scarrow, 'Hare's Account of Moral Reasoning'.

See also:

W. D. Hudson, Modern Moral Philosophy, ch. 5, II, 'Hare's Account of Prescriptivism', ch. 5, III, 'Criticism', and ch. 8, II, 'Hare's Recent Moral Philosophy'.

J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, ch. 4, 'Universalization'.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Hare

 

[1a] Reconciliation of emotivist and descriptivist ethical theories

   [representative:]

   Hume

   Mill

   Moore

   Ayer

Searle

    

[3e]

[3b]

[3a]

[5a 5c]

[5a]

 

[1b] Descriptivity (and meaning-rules) and prescriptivity (commendations)

   Wittgenstein

Searle

[2c]

[5a]

 

[1c] Moral judgements universalizable because they have descriptive meaning

   Kant

   Wittgenstein

   Sartre

[6e]

[2c]

[5b]

 

[1d] 'Ought' not derivable from 'is' but inferences possible in 'practical' syllogism

   Hume

Searle

[3j]

[5b]

 

[1e] Weakness of will

   Aristotle

Davidson

[21b]

[2c]

 

[1f] Deontological-teleological distinction false — only different sorts of intended effects (→ utilitarianism)

   Aristotle

   Kant

   Mill

   Moore

[18c]

[6d]

[3a]

[3b]

 

[1g] Intuitive and critical levels in practical reasoning; former transcended with reference to satisfaction of interests and universalizability

   Aristotle

   Kant

   Mill

   Sartre

[20d]

[6c]

[3c]

[5b]