R. M. Hare

From Academic Kids

Richard Mervyn Hare (1919-2002) was an English moral philosopher, whose meta-ethical theories were influential during the second half of the twentieth century.



Hare attended Balliol College at Oxford. He served in the Royal Artillery and was a prisoner of the Japanese from the fall of Singapore in 1942 to the end of the Second World War. This experience had a lasting impact on his philosophical views, particularly his belief that one had to imagine oneself in another person's position. After the war, Hare returned to Oxford (1947-1983), where he held various positions, including White's Professor of Moral Philosophy (1966-1983). His last academic association was with the University of Florida, where he was Graduate Research Professor of Philosophy (1983-1994). Some of his students would later become famous, such as Brian McGuinness, Bernard Williams and, perhaps best known outside of philosophical circles, Peter Singer, who has explicitly adopted many elements of Hare's thought.


A product of his time, Hare was greatly influenced by the emotivism of Alfred Ayer and Charles L. Stevenson, the ordinary language philosophy of J.L. Austin, and the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Hare was also greatly influenced by utilitarian philosophy and by the ideas of Immanuel Kant. Hare held that ethical rules should not be based on a principle of utility, though he was willing to take into account utilitarian considerations in making ethical judgments. This distinguishes his views from more classical utilitarians (e.g., Jeremy Bentham). Indeed, Hare is as much of a Kantian as he is a utilitarian, as he makes clear in his book, Sorting Out Ethics.

Universal Prescriptivism

In a series of books, especially The Language of Morals, Freedom and Reason, and Moral Thinking, Hare gave shape to a theory that he called universal prescriptivism. According to it, moral terms such as 'good', 'ought' and 'right' have two logical (i.e. semantic) properties: universalizability and prescriptivity. By the former, moral judgments must identify the situation that they describe by a finite set of universal terms (this excludes proper names, but not definite descriptions). By the latter, moral agents must perform those acts that they consider morally obligatory whenever they are physically and psychologically able to do them. Hare noted that the combination of the two properties leads to a certain form of consequentialism, namely, preference utilitarianism.

To see how this works, the reader can imagine the following situation. Suppose you require a big sum of money and ask a friend to lend it to you. He refuses. So you claim that it is wrong for him to do so. 'Wrong' is a moral term, so, according to Hare, you must abide by its logical properties. The first property, universalizability, demands that you give a description of the situation using only universal terms. So you say:

Whenever I ask a friend for a big sum of money, it is wrong for her to refuse to give it to me.

But this violates the universalizability requirement, insofar as the description contains the terms 'I' and 'me', which do not designate a universal property, but denote an individual instead. So you try again:

Whenever someone asks a friend for a big sum of money, it is wrong for her to refuse the request.

This new description satisfies the universalizability requirement, as all its terms are universal. This requirement arose from the first property of the moral terms; let us now examine that which arises from its second, i.e., prescriptivity.

We must, then, see whether you are willing to act according to your initial judgment. At first sight, it would seem that this does not apply to you: if you consider it wrong for your friend to refuse to lend you a big sum of money, it is your friend, not you, the one who should be acting accordingly. However -and here is where the two properties combine and the philosophically interesting results appear-, universalizability allows for the same judgment to be made irrespective of your position in the situation. In other words, as you had to deprive the description of its particular (i.e. non-universal) terms, it is now impossible for you to exclude yourself from the possibility of being in the situation that your friend was. So, by universalizability, if you happened to be, not the one asking, but the one asked for the money, the same moral judgment ought to apply; and, by prescriptivity, you would have to act accordingly.

If you were not prepared to do what the judgment asked you to do, i.e., lend the big sum of money, then you would be violating one of the requirements of morality, and in fact you wouldn't be uttering a moral judgment at all. To re-enter the moral discourse, you would have to modify your original judgment so that, once universalized, you would still be able to act in the way it would ask you to act. By a series of (universal) conjectures and (prescriptive) refutations -akin to philosopher Karl Popper's falsificationism (see Freedom and Reason, chapter 4)- you would eventually arrive at the right moral judgment, which would be the one you would prefer in all the possible situations. In each case, however, one cannot simply put oneself in another's shoes, as it were, one must also adopt the universal properties of the perspectives of the other person. Universal prescriptivism, thus, leads to preference utilitarianism. And so, according to Hare, does kantianism: to demand, as Kant's first formulation of the categorical imperative does, that you could will that your maxim be a universal law, is to ask the moral agent to prescribe that judgment that she could accept were she in any of the positions involved --which of course is exactly Hare's point.

Importance of Specificity

It is important to point out that Hare departs from Kant's views that one must use only the most general maxims of conduct (e.g., "Do Not Steal") and ignore consequences in applying the categorical imperative. Otherwise one ends up with absurdities, for example, it would be immoral to steal a terrorist's plans to blow up a nuclear facility, notwithstanding the fact it could result in many deaths and injuries. Hare believes that we must universalize our prescriptions only having considered the specific facts of a circumstance (including the probable consequences) and, in particular, the relevant, universal properties of the facts, including the psychological states of others.

Hare in Applied Ethics

While Hare was primarily interested in foundational and theoretical matters, some have used his universal prescriptivism in applied ethics, for example, Michael E. Berumen uses it as the technique for evaulating exceptions to certain moral rules, and Peter Singer uses it as a means of judging conduct, though, unlike Hare, Singer seems to base his system on a principle of utility.

External links

  • R. M. Hare ( Resources on Hare, including writings by and about him.
  • R. M. Hare ( Risorse in lingua italiana

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