A Philosophical Self-Portrait
The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, London, 1997, pp. 234-235

My parentage was English. After studies at Balliol College, Oxford, which were interrupted by war service in the East and by being held prisoner of war by the Japanese, I taught at Oxford 1947-83, and after retiring from my chair there, I served at the University of Florida until 1994.

Theoretical and applied ethics have been my main interests. I have insisted on a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive elements in the meaning of moral statements. Their descriptive meaning is the properties (themselves non-moral -e.g. being an act of promise-breaking, or marrying a person of another race) which are the reasons for making moral statements about actions or people. The reasons for the moral statements vary from culture to culture, so that if their descriptive meaning were the only element in their meaning, the consequence would be relativism. Objectivity is attained only because of the prescriptive element, common to different cultures which share a moral language, and the logic governing this. The logic of the prescriptive element requires moral prescriptions to be applied universally to all similar cases, and hence constraints them to be impartial.

Moral thinking takes place at two levels. At the lower, or intuitive, level we simply applied principles that we have learnt, without questioning them. At this level descriptivism (the view that moral judgments are purely descriptive) can seem plausible, and so can intuitionism, which is one of its main versions. We do, at this level, have moral convictions which we cannot easily doubt. However, these convictions support rather simple general principles, which can conflict in awkward cases. For this reason, and because we need to be sure that the convictions are the right ones to have (many people are completely convinced of the most deplorable moral principles), a higher level of thinking is required, to justify them and decide conflicts between them. This higher or critical level of thinking will be rational if we take seriously the requirement of universalizability mentioned above: that is, that we accept only those moral prescriptions which we are prepared to prescribe for all similar cases, no matter what position we ourselves occupy in them. This is a version of Kant's Categorical Imperative, similar to one kind of utilitarianism; for this method makes us treat all others on equal terms with ourselves and seek the good of all equally. Apparent conflicts between utilitarianism and intuition can be resolved by showing that conflicting intuitions are generated at the lower, or intuitive, level, and will not necessarily yield the right answers in unusual cases with which this levels is not suited to deal. Sound critical thinking at the higher level will, however, recommend the cultivation of these good intuitions for use in all ordinary cases that we are likely to meet.

In applied ethics, I have used this theory to illuminate questions in many fields, including bioethics, political philosophy (especially questions about rights), environmental ethics, education and philosophy of religion.

Books I have published are The Language of Morals (1952), Freedom and Reason (1963), Moral Thinking (1981), and collections of my essays on various topics in analytical and applied moral philosophy.


Utilitarian Philosophers :: R. M. Hare :: 'A Philosophical Self-Portrait'