Professor R. M. Hare
C. C. W. Taylor
The Independent, February 6, 2002
R. M. Hare was one of the most influential moral philosophers of the post-war era. His first book, The Language of Morals, did much to set the agenda for the subject in the English-speaking world for at least a generation after its publication in 1952.
Richard Hare had a conventional upper middle-class upbringing, at Rugby and Balliol, and combined the impeccable manners of that background with a passionate conviction of the practical importance of philosophy, and also with an unusually close identification of himself with his theoretical views. This arose in part from an agonising sense of the impotence of the analytic philosophy of the Thirties, which he had encountered at Balliol, to cope with the choice, forced on him by the imminent outbreak of war, between pacifism and enlistment; he eventually resolved that problem by volunteering in the Royal Artillery.
Another source of this deeply personal engagement with the subject was his experience as a prisoner of the Japanese from the fall of Singapore in 1942 to the end of the the Second World War; his earliest work in philosophy (never published) dates from that period, and he was conscious of attempting to develop a system which should serve as a guide to life in the harshest conditions. The experience marked him, as it did everyone who underwent it, but one of the many impressive features of his character was his total lack of rancour towards his captors and the Japanese people in general. Indeed, he was particularly pleased by the high reputation which his work enjoyed in Japan in the post-war era.
A characteristic feature of his philosophical method was its reliance on the imaginative feat of putting oneself in another person's position and choosing rules to follow when in that position; this too stemmed in part from his wartime experience. To critics who complained that this method required them to imagine being people whom they could not possibly be, he would reply, "I can perfectly well imagine being a Burmese coolie; I actually was one for a time".
Returning to Balliol after the war, he resumed his interrupted course in Greats, taking a First in 1947. Elected almost immediately to a tutorial fellowship he embarked on the arduous teaching duties required in a university swollen by several generations of returning ex-servicemen, and simultaneuosly on The Language of Morals.
Though very much a product of its time, in that it was heavily influenced both by the emotivism of A.J. Ayer and C.L. Stevenson, and by the ordinary language philosophy of J.L. Austin and the later Wittgenstein's view of meaning as use, the book was genuinely ground-breaking in its attempt to combine ethical non-cognitivism with constraints of rationality. The essential character of moral discourse consisted, not, as the emotivists had held, in its links with subjective attitudes, but with action; moral judgements were prescriptive, in that they expressed commitments to action on the part of the person uttering them, and at the same time their rationality was assured by their universalisability, ie their property of applying not merely to the person uttering them, but to all similar persons in similar circumstances.
A consequence of the first feature was that it was impossible for someone sincerely to make a moral judgement, such as "I ought to give more to charity" and not to act on it. This denial of the possibility of weakness of will (a view which Hare shared with Socrates, but for different reasons) was seized on by critics as a crucial weakness in the system, while universalisability was criticised as guaranteeing no more than consistency in a system which could be embraced by someone of the most appalling views, for example a fanatical Nazi.
Hare's response to these and other criticisms was, throughout his life, robust and uncompromising. He developed and refined his views in two other major books, Freedom and Reason (1963) and Moral Thinking (1981) and in many articles and responses to critics in volumes (in several languages) devoted to his work, but he made little or no concession to criticism. It has to be said that his insistence that criticism of his views stemmed from misunderstanding made discussion with him somewhat unrewarding and gave a certain repetitive quality to much of his later work.
His own views did, however, develop in one major respect. Utilitarianism, which had been a subsidiary theme in his earlier work, came to the fore in Moral Thinking, to such an extent that he claimed that it could be logically derived from prescriptivism and universalisablity, and he subsequently thought of himself primarily as a utilitarian. Here, too, the claim that commitment to one's own preferences logically requires one to embrace everyone's preferences as one's own, and thereby embrace utilitarianism, seemed to many to assume a simplistic philosophy of mind, however luminous its truth appeared to Hare himself.
As a tutor Hare was formidable, immensely challenging and stimulating to those with a bent for the subject. He carried his total commitment to his theories into the tutorial situation, meeting opposition with apparently infinite resource in argument, always expressed with total courtesy. Some of his pupils subsequently became major philosophers, including Brian McGuinness, John Lucas and Bernard Williams, who succeeded him in the White's Chair of Moral Philosophy at Oxford.
Hare's election to the Oxford Chair in 1966 took him from Balliol to Corpus, where he remained a Fellow till his retirement in 1983. He was a highly respected member of the Governing Body, where his few mild eccentricities, such as his habit of wearing shoes without socks, were less alarming to his colleagues than he perhaps imagined. His immediate predecessors in the chair, J.L. Austin and W.C. Kneale, had not been primarily moral philosophers, and the subject was at something of a low ebb when he took over. The present situation, by contrast, in which it is one of the live liest areas of graduate study in Oxford, owes not a little to his initiative.
On his retiral from Oxford he held for some years a Research Professorship at the University of Florida at Gainesville, dividing the year between Florida and his beloved Ewelme, in Oxfordshire, where he was a considerable figure in the local community and the parish church. He lectured widely in the US and in other countries, achieving an increasingly wide reputation in Europe, where his work was the subject of several conferences and composite volumes.
In 1947 he married Catherine Verney, who shared, among many other things, his love of music and of Ewelme, and who was by his side in all aspects of his professional life, not least as a generous hostess at the reading parties which he held for his Balliol pupils at his brother-in-law's farmhouse at Rhoscollyn, near Holyhead, Anglesey. In the last years of his life, when he was severely handicapped by several strokes, her devotion enabled him to attend many of the concerts and seminars which meant so much to him.