R. M. Hare

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Western Philosophy
Twentieth century philosophy
Name: R.M. Hare
Birth: March 21, 1919
Death: January 29, 2002
School/tradition: Analytic philosophy
Main interests
Notable ideas
Universal prescriptivism
Influences Influenced
Immanuel Kant, A. J. Ayer, J.L. Austin, Ludwig Wittgenstein Peter Singer, Bernard Williams, Thomas Hurka, Brad Hooker

Richard Mervyn Hare (March 21, 1919 – January 29, 2002) was an English moral philosopher who held the post of White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford from 1966 until 1983, and then taught for a number of years at the University of Florida. His meta-ethical theories were influential during the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, during that time, he was one of perhaps a half-dozen of the leading philosophers of ethics in the English speaking world.

Some of Hare's students, such as Brian McGuinness and Bernard Williams went on to become well-known philosophers themselves. The one who is perhaps best known outside philosophical circles, Peter Singer—known for his work in animal rights and animal liberation—has explicitly adopted many elements of Hare's thought.


Hare was born in Backwell, Somerset, and attended Rugby School in Warwickshire, followed in 1937, by Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Greats (Classics). Although he was a pacifist, he volunteered for service in the Royal Artillery and was taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese from the fall of Singapore in 1942, to the end of the Second World War. This experience had a lasting impact on Hare's philosophical views, particularly his view that moral philosophy has an obligation to help people live their lives as moral beings (King 2004). His earliest work in philosophy, which has never been published, dates from this period, and in it he tried to develop a system that might "serve as a guide to life in the harshest conditions," according to The Independent.

He returned to Oxford after the war, and in 1947, married Catherine Verney, a marriage that produced one son and three daughters. (Hare's son, John E. Hare, is also a philosopher.) He was elected fellow and tutor in philosophy at Balliol from 1947–1996; honorary fellow at Balliol from 1974-2002; and was appointed Wilde Lecturer in Natural Religion, 1963–66; and White's Professor of Moral Philosophy, 1966–1983, which accompanied a move to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He left Oxford in 1983, to become Graduate Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Florida at Gainseville, a post he held until 1994.

He died in Ewelme, Oxfordshire, on January 29, 2002, after suffering a series of strokes.


A product of his time, Hare was greatly influenced by the emotivism of A. J. Ayer and Charles L. Stevenson, the ordinary language philosophy of J. L. Austin, the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, utilitarianism, and Immanuel Kant.

Hare held that ethical rules should not be based on a principle of utility, though he took into account utilitarian considerations. This distinguishes him from classical utilitarians, such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. His book, Sorting Out Ethics, might be interpreted as saying that Hare is as much a Kantian as he is a utilitarian, but others disagree with this assessment. Although Hare used many concepts from Kant, especially the idea of universalizability, he is still a consequentialist as opposed to a deontologist, the latter of which Kantianism is usually identified with.

Hare's work

Hare himself wrote that his main interests were theoretical and applied ethics. He insisted on a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive elements in the meaning of moral statements. (This distinction is very close and possibly equivalent to the distinction between descriptive or observational ethics—the observation of what ethical beliefs or principles actually follow or observe—and normative ethics, or the study of what ethical beliefs or principles people ought to or should hold and observe.) Hare noted that the reasons for moral statements differ from culture to culture, and if that were the only thing that counts, the result would be relativism. But, he held, objectivity is attained because of the prescriptive element. Moreover, it is the universalizability of a prescriptive statement, common to different cultures that share a moral language, that makes possible the development of a cross-cultural normative ethics ("A Philosophical Self-Portrait").

Universal prescriptivism

According to universal prescriptivism, moral terms such as "good," "ought," and "right" have two logical or semantic properties: Universalizability and prescriptivity. By universalizability, Hare meant that moral judgments must identify the situation they describe according to a finite set of universal terms, excluding proper names, but not definite descriptions. By prescriptivity, he meant that moral agents must perform those acts they consider themselves to have an obligation to perform whenever they are physically and psychologically able to do so. In other words, he argued that it made no sense for someone to say, sincerely: "I ought to do X," and then fail to do X. This was identified as a major flaw in Hare's system, as it appeared to take no account of akrasia, or weakness of the will. Jordan Whyatt also offered many influential ideas on this topic.

Hare argued that the combination of universalizability and prescriptivity leads to a certain form of consequentialism, namely, preference utilitarianism.

Hare departed from Kant's view that only the most general maxims of conduct be used (for example, "do not steal"), but the consequences ignored, when applying the categorical imperative. To ignore consequences leads to absurdity: For example, that it would be wrong to steal a terrorist's plans to blow up a nuclear facility. All the specific facts of a circumstance must be considered, and these include probable consequences. They also include the relevant, universal properties of the facts: For example, the psychological states of those involved.


An example of Hare's argument would be this:

Supposing one require a large sum of money, and asked a friend to lend it to him. She refuses. One claims that it is wrong for her to refuse. "Wrong" is a moral term, so, according to Hare, one must abide by its logical properties. The first property, universalizability, demands that one formulate a description of the situation using only universal terms. So one says:

Whenever I ask a friend for a large 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 one tries again:

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

This new description satisfies the universalizability requirement, because all its terms are universal. Now the description must also satisfy the second requirement, that of prescriptivity. That is, one must determine whether he is willing to act on the universal formulation.

At first, one might argue that it does not apply to someone else. If one considers it wrong for his friend to refuse to lend him a large sum of money, it is his friend, not him, who should be acting accordingly.

However—and here is where the two properties combine and the philosophically interesting results appear—universalizability requires that the same judgment be made, and prescriptivity that the same action be taken, irrespective of one's particular position in the situation. In other words, just as one had to deprive the description of its particular (non-universal) terms, it is now impossible for one to exclude himself from the possibility of being in the situation that your friend was in. According to universalizability, if one were not the one asking for money, but the one who was being asked, the same moral judgment—that whenever someone asks a friend for a large sum of money, it is wrong for them to refuse the request—ought to apply; and, according to the rule of prescriptivity, one would have to act accordingly.

If one were not prepared to act accordingly, he would be violating this rule; and in fact one wouldn't be uttering a moral judgment at all, according to Hare.

To re-enter the moral discourse, one would have to modify your original judgment so that, once universalized, one would still be able to act in the way it would ask him to act. By a series of universal conjectures and prescriptive refutations—akin to philosopher Karl Popper's falsificationism (Freedom and Reason, chapter 4)—one would eventually arrive at the right moral judgment, which would be the one he 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 one could will that her maxim be a universal law, is to ask the moral agent to prescribe the judgment that she could accept were she in any of the positions involved, which of course, is exactly Hare's point.


Hare was resigned to the idea that the content of moral propositions could not be shown to be subject to truth conditions, and, therefore, could not be subject to objective, universal standards of truth. While this suggests that moral relativists have the upper hand from a foundational standpoint, Hare said they were mistaken in one important respect: All moral propositions and arguments are subject to at least one universal standard, namely, logic. According to Hare, this fact also makes moral discourse intelligible.

Hare's work in applied ethics

Besides his interest and work in meta-ethics, Hare also worked in applied ethics, using his normative theory to illuminate many fields. These included bioethics, political philosophy (especially questions about rights), environmental ethics, education, and philosophy of religion. He published books of essays in each of those fields.

In addition to his work in ethics, Hare wrote on Plato, Greek Philosophy, practical inferences, and philosophy of religion.

Some other philosophers have also used Hare's universal prescriptivism in applied ethics. Peter Singer, for example, uses it as a means of judging conduct, though, unlike Hare, Singer bases his system on a principle of utility.

Major Works

  • The Language of Morals. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1952. ISBN 0198810776
  • Freedom and Reason. Oxford: Oxford Universiy Press, 1963. ISBN 0195085655
  • Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method, and Point. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981. ISBN 0198246609
  • Applications of Moral Philosophy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. ISBN 0333114213
  • Essays on the Moral Concepts. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972. ISBN 0520022319
  • Essays in Ethical Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York Oxford University Press, 1989. ISBN 0198240716
  • Sorting Out Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. ISBN 0198237278
  • Essays on Political Morality. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. ISBN 0198249942
  • Essays on Bioethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. ISBN 0198239831
  • Essays on Religion and Education. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. ISBN 0198249977
  • Objective Prescriptions and Other Essays. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. ISBN 0198238533
  • Sorting out Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. ISBN 0198237278
  • "A Philosophical Self-Portrait," in The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy. London: Penguin, 1997, 234-235. ISBN 0141018402

In addition his works in ethics and applied ethics, Hare also published several other books:

  • Plato. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. ISBN 019287585X
  • Greek Philosophers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0192854224
  • Essays on Philosophical Method. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. ISBN 0520021789
  • Practical Inferences. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. ISBN 0520021797
  • Founders of Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Most of the anthologies in English on ethics published in the last two decades of the twentieth century contain one or more essays by Hare.

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External links

All links retrieved December 7, 2022.

General philosophy sources


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