Directions: Read to the bottom (scrolling
if necessary); then click "forward =>."

The British R.M. Hare is the most influential moral philosopher of the last fifty years in the area of moral theory. He starts by analyzing moral language. Then he investigates moral reasoning, which he applies to practical issues (like racism).

Hare's view at first seems like emotivism. Moral judgments express, not objective truths and falsehoods, but prescriptions (imperatives) about how we want people to live. But the logical structure of moral judgments leads to powerful ways of reasoning. So Hare ends up closer to the rationalist Kant than to the emotivist Ayer.

These summaries and problems deal with parts of Hare's Freedom and Reason. These materials are copyrighted (c) 1998 by Harry J. Gensler but may be distributed freely.

Freedom and Reason

R.M. Hare wrote Freedom and Reason to clarify two apparently conflicting features of moral thinking.

(1) We have the FREEDOM to form our own opinions on moral matters. The facts alone don't give us the answers. And to copy the views of others would compromise our freedom as moral agents.

(2) We must use our REASON to its limits when engaged in moral thought.

Subjectivists and emotivists deny moral reason, and naturalists deny moral freedom. But we need both. To see how both fit together, we must analyze the concepts used to express moral judgments. The key idea is that moral judgments are universalizable prescriptions.

U - Universalizability

Universalizability (U) says that evaluative judgments logically commit us to making similar judgments about similar cases. For example:

"X is good" entails "Anything like X in the relevant respects (those that led us to call X 'good') would also be good."

"X ought to be done" entails "Anything like X in the relevant respects also ought to be done."

Universalizability is a logical thesis. U is about logical connections and the meaning of words. It doesn't say what things are good or bad. It just forbids us to make conflicting evaluations about things we judge to be relevantly or exactly similar.

P - Prescriptivity

Prescriptivity (P) says that evaluative judgments prescribe or commend. They tell us what to do. They logically commit us to certain ways of living -- they don't just describe or categorize. "You ought to do this" (used evaluatively) logically entails the imperative "Do this."

Universal prescriptivism combines U and P. An ought judgment is a universal prescription: it says, roughly, "Do this, and let everyone do the same in similar cases."

Moral thinking can be FREE because of P. Evaluative judgments express our own prescriptions and can't be deduced from purely descriptive judgments.

Moral thinking can be RATIONAL because of U. Evaluative judgments commits us to making similar judgments about similar cases. U+P makes possible powerful ways of reasoning about moral issues.

Reasoning about ethics

Moral reasoning doesn't deduce moral conclusions from facts. Instead, it tests our consistency. We propose moral principles, explore their logical implications, and then reject (or keep) these principles depending on whether we can accept these implications.

To accept a moral judgment is to desire that a kind of act be done in all similar circumstances -- including cases where we imagine ourselves in the place of the other person. To test our consistency, we'd put ourselves in the place of the parties affected by the action. If we think we ought to do something to another, but don't desire that this thing be done to us in an imagined identical situation, then we're inconsistent.

Precisely put, the golden rule entailment says that "I ought to do A to X" logically entails (by U and P) "In the reversed situation, let X do A to me." So if I think I ought to do A to X, but don't desire that A be done to me in an imagined reversed situation, then I'm inconsistent.

Ingredients for moral reasoning

Golden rule reasoning can do a good job of mediating disputes between the interests of various people. In practice, it works much like the ideal observer or divine command theory. It rests on four ingredients:

LOGIC. We make universalizable and prescriptive judgments consistently.

INCLINATIONS. We care about what happens to us.

FACTS. We understand the facts of the case -- circumstances, alternatives, consequences, etc. History and the social sciences can be useful here.

IMAGINATION. We imagine ourselves, accurately and vividly, in the place of the other person on the receiving end of the action. Drama and literature can be useful here.


We can escape golden rule arguments in various ways:

LOGIC. Maybe we don't make moral judgments, or don't follow U and P. Then we aren't entering the moral arena and aren't disputing about morality.

FACTS and IMAGINATION. Maybe we're ignorant of the consequences of our actions on other people -- or haven't vividly imagined the action being done to us.

INCLINATIONS. Maybe we prescribe that the action be done to us in the reversed situation. We won't be able to do this for actions that blatantly violate our interests -- unless we are "fanatics."


To criticize pro-Nazi arguments, we must get clear on the facts (including the differences between races, and whether these are genetic or cultural). We must also see if the Nazis argue consistently (for example, if Jews are to be maltreated because they are greedy, then Nazis who are greedy must be maltreated too).

Golden rule reasoning will show the inconsistency of most Nazis. Only a few Nazi "fanatics" can desire that, if they and their family were found out to be Jewish, then they would be thrown into concentration camps and killed.

menu | forward =>
This set has 21 problems.