The Guardian, February 1, 2002
Professor Richard Hare, who has died aged 82, was one of the most influential moral philosophers of the mid-20th century.
When he began teaching at Oxford after the second world war, he was determined to refute the fashionable "boo-hooray" theory of ethics - emotivism - propounded by AJ Ayer and Charles Stevenson, which held that moral statements were really no more than expressions of emotion. Hare's theory of prescriptivism argued that moral statements can achieve objectivity, but of a rational rather than factual sort. First expounded in Language And Morals (1952), and refined in Freedom And Reason (1963) and his later books, prescriptivism - and the opposition to it - took centre-stage in moral philosophy throughout the 1950s and 60s.
Hare was born of dissenting English stock - landowners and small businessmen. His father owned a paint and floorcloth company founded by an 18th-century ancestor, and Hare maintained that one of the things that turned him to moral philosophy was guilt at his family's comparative prosperity during a time of high unemployment. As a scholarship boy at Rugby school, he did a lot of work with the unemployed.
But the recession of the 1920s hit the family firm, and the fruitless struggles of Hare's father to save it brought on a fatal heart attack when Hare was only 12. His mother died five years later, and, for the next 17 years, until his marriage to Catherine Verney in 1953, his life was, in his words, "a night of bad dreams".
In 1937, Hare won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. A further spur to his becoming a moral philosopher came from agonising over whether or not to be a pacifist in the impending war. Munich finally decided him: he joined the Officers Training Corps in 1938, and, when Germany invaded Poland, immediately volunteered for the Royal Artillery. Failing his first medical, due to bad eyesight, he contrived to override the restrictions and get active service overseas.
Discrepancies of wealth in India, where he was posted, provided further material for philosophical reflection, as did the straightforwardly mercenary attitudes to war of the "delightful" Punjabi soldiers he trained. While on leave, he sat down in his uncle's billiard-room and wrote a 20-page treatise, "my philosophy", but it was lost to the enemy among baggage captured during the Malayan campaign. Hare himself got lost twice in the Malayan jungle, suffered severe malaria, and was taken prisoner after the fall of Singapore in 1942.
In later life, he was characteristically reticent about the ordeals of his 3 years as a Japanese PoW, except to say that he and his fellow-prisoners were kept alive by the vegetables they grew; he learned Persian and Italian; and he managed to write a page or two every few days of philosophical thoughts in "a beautiful ledger" he had looted from the office of the notorious Changi jail. He nearly died on the long march up the River Kwai, but carried the ledger on his back throughout. For eight months, he worked as a coolie on the Burma railway.
Hare returned to Oxford in 1945, and was appointed a fellow of Balliol (1947-66); he went on to become White's professor of moral philosophy, also at Oxford (1966-83), and a professor at the University of Florida (1983-94).
Emotivism, in its heyday in the late 1940s, must, after the horrors of war, have seemed still more irksome than when he had challenged it before. For if approval or disapproval is all that moral statements convey, then how can they avoid being merely arbitrary and subjective, or exert any weight except by means of propaganda?
Hare accepted the emotivist premise that moral judgments do not, in the same way as ordinary statements do, state matters of fact that are either true or false, but denied that therefore they must be forms of exclamation. Rather, he argued, they are forms of command. However, unlike normal commands, which simply reflect one's preferences, they are "universalisable" - they commit one, in saying an action ought or ought not to be done (or in calling it good or bad) to similarly prescribing (or commending) a similar action to anyone else in similar circumstances.
Thus, in morally choosing, one is forced to take account of other people's preferences, and to bind oneself to one's own prescriptions. Hare's account seemed cleverly to reconcile the contradictory but essential elements in morality - that it necessarily combines both choice and compulsion, emotion and reason, the intensely personal and particular with the universal.
Prescriptivism was eagerly taken up, and, for a time, moral philosophy was dominated by Hare, and then by the combat between Hare and fellow Oxford philosopher Philippa Foot, after an article by her in 1958. Foot accused Hare of being too concerned with the logical structure of moral language to capture what is important in morality: human well-being - just because one can universally prescribe the practice of clasping hands together thrice a day does not make doing so into anything recognisably moral.
But Hare insisted that prescriptivism generated substantial content out of logical form, that a structure drawn from Kant concerning individual decisions resulted in preference-satisfaction utilitarianism (the maximisation of the preferences of the greatest possible number of people). He thus purported to combine two moral theories, Kantianism and utilitarianism, normally considered polar opposites. As for the jarringly counter-intuitive conclusions to which utilitarianism can lead, he sought to avoid these by distinguishing two levels of moral thinking: an intuitive "prole" level for everyday use, and a critical "archangelical" level to which we resort when needing to resolve conflicts between those automatic, routine convictions.
There were also objections that prescriptivism fails to account for weak-willed people who sincerely - Hare would have to say "insincerely" - prescribe actions they fail to perform themselves; or for the fanatic who is happy to prescribe frightful principles even if they hurt him (the Jewish Nazi); or for the amoral person who refuses to prescribe at all.
Hare professed to have satisfactorily adjusted prescriptivism so as to resolve these problems, thus achieving "my life's ambition - to find a way of answering moral questions rationally". He felt, he once said, that all philosophers were sitting in a basement room, and he had found the way out to a beautiful garden, although no one else could see it.
For prescriptivism went out of fashion. The moral debate became less centred, both in geography, as Oxford was supplanted by various American universities, and in subject matter. Moral philosophers became less concerned with meta-ethics (analysing moral concepts) than with ethics itself - evaluating human conduct and character, and tackling practical moral issues. Hare himself did work in the latter field, especially in bio-ethics, and he also worked on urban planning. But, until the end of his life, he continued to refine and clarify his original theory: Sorting Out Ethics appeared in 1997, and Objective Prescriptions And Other Essays in 1999.
Hare always claimed that his critics misunderstood him. Saddened by the decline of prescriptivism's star, he once had a half-waking vision of having victoriously scaled a mountain, only to find the graves of philosophers who, buoyed up by the same perhaps illusory aspirations as himself, had been nibbled away by "philosophical worms" into surprisingly similar skeletons. But he said he was lucky, unlike Plato and Kant, who changed their minds, to have started off on the right track almost at the outset. However, according to his most illustrious student, Bernard Williams, Hare, in fact, changed his theory considerably over the years, although he himself never admitted this.
The stubborn determination that had sustained Hare as a PoW informed his idiosyncratic mores, his insistence that present-giving is illogical, and his refusal to wear socks or drink coffee. So, too, did the heroic moral seriousness which made him so intensely concerned not just with moral philosophy but, above all, with how to live morally.
He leaves his much-loved wife Catherine, daughters Bridget, Louise and Ellie, and son John, who teaches philosophy at Calvin College, Michigan.