Richard Mervyn Hare
A. W. Price
In Edward Craig (ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London, 1998

R.M. Hare is the creator of the ethical theory called ‘prescriptivism’. This holds that moral statements differ from purely factual ones in prescribing conduct; they differ from simple imperatives in invoking universal principles that apply to all similar cases. The theory has three aspects: prescriptivity and universalizability as formal features of moral statements; appeal to the Golden Rule (that we should do to others as we wish them to do to us) for selecting moral principles; two levels of practical thinking, critical and intuitive.

1 Prescriptivity and universalizability

Richard Hare is a British philosopher, educated at Oxford, who has held chairs in moral philosophy at Oxford and Gainesville, Florida. His best-known work, The Language of Morals (1952), introduces a distinction between prescriptive and descriptive meaning. Prescriptive meaning is defined in relation to imperatives: a statement is prescriptive if it entails, if necessary in conjunction with purely factual statements, at least one imperative; and to assent to an imperative is to prescribe action.

Descriptive meaning is defined in relation to truth-conditions: a statement is descriptive to the extent that factual conditions for its correct application define its meaning. In this usage, the factual is that which is only contingently motivating: desire is no part of sincere assent to a purely factual statement. The meaning of a moral statement is prescriptive, but may also be partly descriptive. Thus ‘A [a person] ought to &phis;’ entails the imperative ‘Let A&phis;’, so that to assent to it sincerely is to have an overriding desire (which in application to oneself will amount, if its satisfaction is practicable, to an intention) that A. If there are agreed reasons for -ing within a linguistic community, for example that it is enjoyable, ‘A ought to &phis;’ may take on the descriptive implication ‘&phis;-ing is enjoyable’. ‘X [a person, object or whatever] is a good F [a kind of thing]’ prescribes choice within a certain range; it takes on a descriptive connotation if there are agreed standards for assessing F ’s. Cases of failing to try to do what one admits one ought to do may involve psychological incapacity, or an off-colour use of ‘ought’ whereby it retains descriptive meaning but loses its prescriptive meaning. What the modal ‘A ought to &phis;’ adds to the simple ‘Let A&phis;’ is universalizability: one who assents to the former is implicitly accepting a universal principle that applies equally to anyone else whose condition and situation are identical in kind (see Prescriptivism).

2 The Golden Rule

Freedom and Reason (1963) extracts from these features a mode of reasoning, the so-called ‘Golden-Rule Argument’, for selecting moral principles; this was subsequently clarified and fortified in writings leading up to Moral Thinking (1981). In wondering whether to assent to the statement ‘A ought to &phis;’, I have to reflect whether I can prescribe that everyone should act in the same way in every possible world, whatever my role within that world. (This talk of possible worlds is useful, though Hare denies it to be essential.) ‘I’ connotes no essence (for example, human): I occupy every possible role in some possible world. But there is a prescriptive aspect to its meaning: to take a role within some possible but non-actual world as my role is to give weight to the desires of the occupant of that role as if they were actually my own. Hence, I can rationally assent to a particular ‘ought’-statement only if it is derivable from some universal principle that I shall accept if I give impartial and positive weight to all preferences whose fulfilment would be affected by its fulfilment. Thus moral reflection generates a universalized prudence. Possibly it should also respect ‘external’ preferences, that is, the preferences of those (say the dead) who will experience no satisfaction; Moral Thinking leaves this as ‘unfinished business’. Moral ideals register within this framework simply as universal preferences; to allow one’s own ideals to override the stronger or more prevalent desires and ideals of others is a kind of egoism, and so excluded. The upshot is a variant of utilitarianism that aims at the maximization not of happiness, but of the satisfaction of preferences (see Utilitarianism §2). Human decision remains free, however rational and informed, because anyone can avoid the constraints of morality by declining to moralize; for this reason, ‘is’ still fails to entail ‘ought’.

3 Critical and intuitive thinking

Reasoning according to the Golden Rule will ascribe maximum observance-utility to highly specific universal principles. However, a greater acceptance-utility may attach to more general principles that it is easier to apply without error or self-deception. Moral Thinking elaborates a distinction between a ‘critical’ level of thinking, conducted by ‘archangels’ with the use of the Golden-Rule Argument, and an ‘intuitive’ level, conducted by ‘proles’ with the use of simple principles (often articulating emotional responses) whose acceptance can be justified at the critical level. These two levels define not two social castes, but two roles between which each of us learns to alternate as appropriate. Intuitive objections to utilitarianism (such as that it neglects rights) can often be accommodated at the intuitive level, and then cease to be objections (see Intuitionism in ethics §3).

Hare further argues that prescriptivism guarantees objectivity, while descriptivism collapses into relativism. How I can rationally apply the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is determined by what I can will universally, which rides free of the contingencies of my own tastes and intuitions. But if the correct application of such terms was determined by their descriptive meaning within some linguistic community, it would be relative to the culture and ideology of that community. Only a prescriptivist ethics can achieve moral universality. The theory has received much critical attention, and while few may accept it as a whole, the simplicity and fertility of its main ideas make it a paradigm of practical philosophy.


Utilitarian Philosophers :: R. M. Hare :: 'Richard Mervyn Hare', by A. W. Price