Philosopher Who Argued for Logic in Moral Questions
Daily Telegraph, February 4, 2002
Professor R M HARE, who has died aged 82, was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford from 1966 until 1983, and a staunch believer in a rational approach to ethical questions.
Although the idea that moral behaviour can be measured against universal truth is not now fashionable in academic circles, Hare's theories, which were first outlined in The Language of Morals (1952), were highly influential in post-war Anglo-American philosophy. Certainly, for Hare - who had as a young man spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war in Changi jail and on the Burma-Thailand railway - their solidity and their importance for behaviour in everyday life were not in doubt.
Hare held that the identification of mental data, such as intentions, was bound to be philosophically uncertain; instead, he argued, we had better say that a man is morally the set of his actual choices. His logically ingenious theories, derived in part from the linguistic analysis of J L Austin, but chiefly from Immanuel Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, came to be known as "prescriptivism".
Like Kant, Hare argued that "imperatives" - orders to which one responds by acting, rather than statements which one judges true or false - could be universally applied. What is good, then, can be subject to rational analysis, and is not merely dependent on emotion; nor is it no more than subjective simply because acting morally inevitably involves personal decisions.
Richard Mervyn Hare was born on March 21 1919 in Somerset, the son of a manufacturer of linoleum, who died when the boy was 12. Richard won a scholarship to Rugby, where he was head of school, before going up to Balliol (again, as a scholar) in 1937. But his time at Oxford was interrupted by the war. After taking a First in Classical Moderations, he was commissioned in the Royal Artillery in 1940 and the next year served as a lieutenant in the Indian Mountain Artillery.
He served in the Malayan campaign and began to commit his thoughts on philosophy to paper, but was captured by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore in 1942. In Changi, and while being forced to work as a coolie on the river Kwai, Hare contrived to keep his mind active with philosophy and by learning Persian, as well as struggling against the appalling physical conditions.
After the liberation of Singapore in August 1945, Hare returned to Oxford, taking a First in Literae Humaniores in 1947. He was appointed a Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Balliol that year and held the position until 1966; from 1963, he was also Wilde Lecturer in Natural Religion. He was made an Honorary Fellow of Balliol in 1974.
After the publication of The Language of Morals, Hare was established as a significant figure in contemporary philosophy, but as linguistic analysis fell from fashion during the late 1950s and 1960s, his theory of ethics also came under attack.
Critics asked, for example, why, if we cannot believe that something is wrong without also wishing to avoid it, as Hare suggested, we so often yield to temptation. In Freedom and Reason (1963) he attempted, without complete success, to answer such questions about weakness of will.
Bernard Williams - one of Hare's pupils - also addressed the problem posed by dilemmas, or competing demands. Hare seems to argue that accepting one moral injunction is a simple rejection of the competing claim; but that seems to deny that such dilemmas are possible at all.
Other philosophers, such as J R Searle and Phillipa Foot - who argued that Hare's stress on the logical structure of morality ignored the criteria of "human benefit and harm" - advanced additional arguments for the "moral realism" which Hare had dismissed.
But, while attempting to meet these objections, Hare continued to defend his basic thesis, expanding it to include aspects of Utilitarianism, arguing that the greatest good for the greatest number sprang naturally from the logical nature of morality which he had advanced.
His later works included Essays on the Moral Concepts and Applications of Moral Philosophy (both 1972), Moral Thinking (1981) and Essays in Ethical Theory (1989). As the title of one of his last books, Sorting Out Ethics (1998), suggested, Hare believed that he had satisfactorily resolved all apparent contradictions in his theory. Others disagreed.
Hare was White's Professor of Moral Philosophy from 1966 until 1983, during which time he served as a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Other academic appointments included visiting professorships and fellowships at the universities of Florida at Gainesville (from 1983-1994), Princeton, Stanford, Michigan and Delaware. He became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1964 and was President of the Aristotelian Society in 1972-73.
In addition to philosophy, Hare grappled with the eternal, and equally impenetrable, questions surrounding road traffic management in Oxford, and was a member of the National Road Safety Advisory Council from 1966 to 1968.
Hare was a serious man who clung stubbornly to his own vision of moral behaviour. True to his view that a man's actions illustrate his beliefs, he also lived by it. He was a pillar of his local church in Ewelme, near Wallingford in Oxfordshire, and served on the Church of England's working party on medical questions from 1964 until 1975. He relaxed by gardening and listening to music.
Richard Hare married, in 1947, Catherine, daughter of Sir Harry Verney, Bt, who survives him with their son, also a philosopher, and three daughters.