[lit-ideas] Re: SOS - BA vs Hare's prescriptive

  • From: Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 07 Jun 2006 21:04:24 -0700

Lawrence Helm wrote:

That statement led me to the aforementioned reviewer whom you say is not misleading who wrote, “He [Hare] argues that claims are moral if and only if they take the form of universalizable prescriptions. They are universalizable in that an agent must be willing to apply them to all cases that are alike in all the relevant respects. They are prescriptive in that they provide guidance about how to act and they are necessarily connected to motivation.”

I hope we aren’t going to get into one of our famous arguments that results in our being described as dogs, but I believe that I am being true to what the reviewer wrote. Explain to me why I am not. I see Kant’s Categorical Imperative here – a truth that is to be universalized. I can say “thou shalt not murder” and intend this to be universalizable. It is prescriptive and a guide for moral behavior. I can also see Geary’s “be kind” as universalizable within his framework.

I too hope that this won't lead to our being described as dogs, or fish for that matter. Here is where I think you misunderstand Hare (and Kant). Kant first. The Categorical Imperative is not 'a truth that is to be universalized.' It is a test of the 'maxims' one considers acting on. A 'maxim' is for all practical purposes a description of what one is thinking about doing (eating figs, e.g., or making a 'lying promise').
The CI comes in various formulations, but the one we're talking about, I think, is the one expressed as: 'Act only according to that maxim which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law.' This doesn't mean, in the case of eating figs, that you want to will that every rational beings eat figs: what it means is that it would not be self contradictory or destructive of any concepts of rationality if everyone did eat them. But when it comes to making lying promises, one is supposed to see that willing that everyone should be allowed to make lying promises would be incoherent for it would destroy the very notion of promise keeping. And so on.

In saying, 'Thou shalt not murder,' one may or may not mean that this should be universalized. One may be speaking to another person or group of people, whom one thinks shouldn't murder, and yet see oneself as exempt from this 'command.' In your example, it's clear that you think you're speaking to 'everybody' and that you're included (although not by name or reference) in 'everybody.' But this command comes too late. If you've already decided that 'Thou shalt not murder,' is an injunction binding on everybody, there's a sense in which you need neither Kant nor Hare. Kant provides a test not of commands and injunctions, but of proposed actions, some of which will and some of which won't pass the test of the first formulation of the CI. Even if 'don't murder' does pass the test of the CI, it doesn't thereby become a command. (If this is wrong, Walter, straighten me out.) You could say that that even if you find that you can (with consistency) will that a proposed maxim become a universal law, you aren't commanding or enjoining anyone to do anything.

So, I think that in this example, you begin your story too late. In Kant's analysis, you're not supposed to issue commands that you 'intend to be universalizable'; you're supposed to see if some 'maxim' _could be_ universalizable (although Kant nowhere talks of 'universalizability').

I haven’t read Hare but don’t see how he can hold the view that we must believe our moral choices to be universalizable prescriptions without the potential for evaluating consequent more actions. Jack was unkind to Jim. He violated Geary’s universalized prescription; therefore in Geary’s moral judgment Jack is guilty of moral turpitude.

Hare's test is different from Kant's in this way: if I propose that something ought or ought not to be done (in a moral tone of voice), then I must accept its being universalizable and prescriptive. If you're in a certain situation and I tell you you ought or ought not to do something, then, if I'm not trying to coerce you or whatever, I must grant that anyone in those circumstances should act as I now say you should (myself included) although I cannot mention myself (or you) in expressing this in universalized form.

Really, I only think you go wrong when you see Hare as proposing that there is anything like a framework (in what I sort of take to be Taylor's sense) which is not only 'true' but out of which come 'universal truths.' Again, Hare nowhere mentions the truth of a universalized moral statement. His only requirement is that if one claims that it is a moral statement (or judgment) one must be willing to see it universalized.

My dog is trying to tell me that he wants to go for a walk. Or maybe he's telling me that he has to go outside and pee. Sometimes it's hard to know the difference.

Robert Paul
Reed College
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