Richard Mervyn Hare, ethics at heart

Said law or guillotine de Hume does not cut heads: only undue conclusions or inferences. Those who move from “what is” to “what must be”, from what describes a fact (Paul is a doctor) in what is an imperative or a prescription (Anna must close the window). This “cut” is not so simple. May Paul is doctor is true or false, that Anne must closing the window is neither true nor false, but seems fair to those in the room suffocating, and bad to those who are cold or cold. Forward descriptions belong to empirical science, the statements prescriptive to moral disciplines. It is in this last area that things get tough: Paul must treat his patients, but if in an emergency he can treat only one of those who present with the same symptoms, should he choose the person the youngest, the one who would better withstand intensive care, the one who does not have chronic pathologies, and let diabetic, cardiac, older subjects die? The answer depends on the moral option we have taken: utilitarianism, kantism, consequentialism, deontology, ethics of virtue …


The debates around these questions knew a particular awakening from the 50s and 60s in Anglo-Saxon analytical philosophy, then a sacred awakening at the moment when, in 1971 (1987 in France), the Theory of justice by John Rawls. When is a decision fair? Under what conditions can conduct be said to be good or bad? Is it enough common meaning, of feeling, of the’intuition (immediately everyone sees that it is “not good” to torture an old man to steal his poor savings), or is it possible, to judge good and bad, to apply an analysis rational comparable to that which governs empirical judgments? One of the main protagonists of these debates was the English philosopher Richard Mervyn Hare – born in Backwell in 1919, died in Ewelme, Oxfordshire, in 2002.

With The Language of Morals (1952) and Freedom and Reason (1963), devoted to the development of a “Metaethics” (moral language analysis), Think in morals, translated thirty-nine years after its original edition, is the best known of Hare’s works, already considered a classic of contemporary ethics. Very great teacher, courteous, passionate and demanding, training his students in argumentative discussion (among them, Peter Singer and Bernard Williams), Hare made his career mainly at Oxford (1947-1983) then, until his retirement (1994 ), taught at the University of Florida. His thinking was marked by Kant, by George E. Moore, Wittgenstein, the philosophy of ordinary language by John L. Austin or the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham and Henry Sidgwick. But in his life also counted a lot his voluntary engagement in the Royal Artillery and the fact of having been taken by the Japanese during the battle of Singapore, and detained in prison from 1942 to 1945. Experience which will strengthen his will to build a moral philosophy capable of guiding men – on questions about which “They are ready to fight and kill each other”, which require that we find “A way to talk about it rationally” and of “come to an agreement”, if you don’t want to see the world “To ruin oneself permanently in violence”. This philosophy will be known as “Universal prescriptivism”.

It is customary, in morality, to oppose the ethics of consequences, inspired by Bentham’s utilitarianism, athomework ethics, dear to Kant. The first prescribes that an action is good if it maximizes good, well-being or happiness, and minimizes evil. The second relates to the categorical imperative of “you must”, and judges good the action which, regardless of the consequences, refuses to use people as means. In one case, it would therefore not be illegitimate, to relieve a sinking boat, to throw two people into the sea if the operation saves the remaining ten. But who will we sacrifice? In the other, the only choice is to respect the absolute of moral command, for example “Do not lie”. But what if my lie is used to save lives?


Hare set himself the goal of breaking out of these dead ends, of reconciling utilitarianism (so criticized, among others by Rawls) and Kantian morality, by “repairing” their shortcomings. To this end, it adds to the level of analysis intuitive which governs one (spontaneously, we think that lying is not good) a level critical, where, by comparison procedures, are identified the criteria that best meet the requirements of impartiality and universality of judgment, and, for the other, by modifying the terms of utilitarian maximization, either by choosing not to maximize that preferences rational where the “Prudence requirements” (in other words, by removing from the calculation of utilities antisocial preferences, based on envy, sadism, pure personal pleasure, resentment, bad information, false beliefs, etc.). It thus results in a moderate utilitarianism, containing both a “Formal element” – namely the “Reformulation of the requirement that moral principles must be truly universal” – and one “Substantial element”, whose role is to “Take into account the preferences of the people who will be affected by our actions”, and, thus, to do “Bringing our moral reflection into contact with the world.

“Contact” more than necessary, because if the theoretical analyzes of philosophers did not have practical “fallout”, they could hardly “serve as a guide” for everyone. However, moral dilemmas, the difficulties of knowing whether one is acting well or not, are not absent from anyone’s life, and, if not resolved well, can endanger everyone’s life.

Robert Maggiori

Richard Mervyn Hare Think in morals. Between intuition and criticism Translated from English

by Malik Bozzo-Rey, Jean-Pierre Cléro and Claire Wrobel,

introduction by Jean-Pierre Cléro.

Hermann, 462 pp., € 38.


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