The Excessive Demands of Impartiality

Thomas Nagel

  • Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method and Point by R.M. Hare
    Oxford, 250 pp, £11.00, December 1982, ISBN 0 19 824659 5

According to Professor Hare, most contemporary moral philosophers are benighted. They cannot get through their thick skulls the clear principles of moral reasoning which he has set out and developed in two previous book-length studies of ethical theory, The Language of Morals and Freedom and Reason, and which he spells out again and develops further in this one. Like a teacher of dim-witted children, he can’t always conceal his impatience at having to repeat himself, but the importance of the issues keeps him at it.

He finds the subject infested with ‘intuitionists’. These are philosophers who limit their moral thinking to one level – that of the rough, general, prima facie principles that they have been brought up to follow in everyday life, when they must act without having too much time to think and without perfect knowledge of the facts. Intuitionists take these principles, and the moral feelings associated with them, as the basis of moral thought, when actually they are derived from something else and can be justified or criticised only by moving to a different level, where moral intuitions are not relied upon.

This is the level of what Hare calls ‘critical thinking’, and its rules are determined entirely by the logic of the moral concepts – a logic that is discovered by investigating ordinary linguistic usage, and not by the exercise of any form of moral intuition or judgment. It is only by getting outside morality in this way, he believes, that we can hope to provide morality with a firm foundation instead of going around in circles. Once we do so, we shall discover that the unique moral position that it is possible to justify on the basis of the logic of the moral concepts is utilitarianism. It also turns out that utilitarianism, properly interpreted, is what underlies those common moral intuitions which intuitionists erroneously take to be basic, and which they use to try to refute utilitarianism.

Hare has come to this view gradually. He did not formerly believe that one could derive a single substantive moral position from the logic of the moral concepts – and for good reason. What is so implausible about this claim is its implication that all fundamental moral disagreements are in a sense illusory. Provided the parties to a disagreement are really making moral claims at all, they can reach different conclusions only because they disagree about the non-moral facts, or because at least one of them has made a logical error in applying the moral concepts. There are no disagreements that are moral all the way down. A libertarian who believes in the inviolability of individual property rights and a socialist who believes in promoting equality by progressive taxation will discover, if they consider carefully what they both mean by the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’, that they are both committed to a single method of deciding which of their positions is correct – an empirical method that depends on which social system will most effectively satisfy the preferences of all the people affected by it.

How does Hare manage to extract this large moral rabbit from what looks at first like a rather small and empty linguistic hat? His theory about the logic of the moral concepts – universal prescriptivism – seems innocent enough. It says that a judgment about what ought to be done on a particular occasion commits one to prescribing that the same thing be done in any situation which is similar in all its universal characteristics – in particular, any situation in which the individual persons involved are different, or in which they occupy different roles.

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