Thursday, January 10, 2019

Metaethics 0003: R.M. Hare's Prescriptivism

Richard M. Hare held that moral claims are not sentences at all. They are commands. The statement that "lying is wrong" is like the statement "do not lie."

Is the statement "do not lie" true or false? No. It makes no sense to attach terms like "true" and "false" to commands. If a Sergeant tells a Private to dig a hole, the private cannot say that the order is false. He can say it is a bad idea. He can say that no sensible person would issue such a command. But he cannot sensibly say that the command itself is false. Similarly, if somebody were to say "lying is wrong," somebody can object that the command not to lie is a bad idea. He can say that no sensible person would issue such a command. But he cannot sensibly say that the command itself (understood as "do not lie") is false.

This is a rough account of Hare's position in R.M. Hare's, The Language of Morals.

For me, the very idea that Hare's thesis implies that moral claims cannot be true or false is enough to defeat the theory. At least, it shows that Hare is not talking about something that the rest of us are talking about when we talk about morality. When we are talking about morality, we are talking about something that has claims that are capable of being true or false. So, if Hare is talking about something that cannot be true or false, then he cannot be talking about morality.

Be that as it may, let me at least address the study questions associated with Hare's account.

How do imperatives acquire their meaning?

For the sake of the reader, let me be thorough in this.

Hare considers the option that imperatives are like statements. For example, if I tell you "close the door," what I am really saying is "I want you to close the door." However, imagine that I were to say "close the door" and my identical twin cousin was to say, "do not close the door". If these were statements of preference this would be like my saying, "I want you to close the door" and my identical twin cousin saying "I want you not to close the door." The two expressions of sentiments do not put you in a bind the way that the two commands would. Similarly, Hare argues that imperatives such as cooking instructions, "Take four eggs . . ." hardly express the desires of the author of the recipe, "I want you to take four eggs . . ." Now, in this case, I do not think that Hare makes a strong point.

Certainly, instructions do not express the desires of the author. Instead, they express a hypothetical, "If you want to make this type of omelette, first, take four eggs . . ." This is a statement which, if false, means that the individual isn't going to be making that type of omelette. We can make the same claim about the two commands to close the door. The do not express the wishes of the speaker, but they do tell the hearer, "If you want to be spared my wrath, you will close the door." Meanwhile, my identical twin cousin is saying, "If you wish to be spared my wrath, then you will not close the door." Now, we have an account that puts the agent in a bind - assuming the agent wants to avoid everybody's wrath.

I think that if we want to take the commandment, "do not lie" and convert it into a statement, we can do quite well by saying, "if you do not want to be the type of person that people generally have reason to condemn and, perhaps, to punish, then do not lie." Insofar as moral statements are commands, then it seems that it is not entirely clear that we cannot express them in terms of declarative statements that link the behavior commanded to some implicit or explicit consequence related to the agent's desires.

Of course, I deny that moral statements are commands. I hold that - among other things - moral statements are meant to have an effect on the brains of others regardless of what those others may think. This is a relationship of pure cause and effect. If I were to tickle you, then you would laugh (involuntarily) - but my tickling use does not have any type of propositional content that entails you laughing. If I were to condemn you, this would cause your brain to form an aversion to doing that for which you were condemned, but this does not imply that my condemnation has some sort of propositional content that entails you forming that aversion.

Mind you, moral claims do have propositional content, and they can be proved true or false, but that is because they are complex.

Hare also considers the thesis discussed in the entry, which I discussed recently under Metaethics 0002: C. L. Stevenson - Emotivism that moral claims were meant to "effect causally the behavior or emotions of the hearer". I agreed with Ayer on persuade or to change behavior. I agree with this, though Stevenson argued about producing a more immediate effect regarding a specific act, and I argued for producing a long-term effect by altering a person's desires and aversions.

However, Hare needs to reject the thesis that this is also true of commands. We can see this in the case of the command to "take four eggs . . ." if one wants to make an omelette. This instruction is clearly not meant to cause the hearer to take four eggs. That is to say, it is not a command to make an omelette. It is merely the instructions for doing so. Consequently, would be a mistake to interpret commands or instructions as efforts to change behavior. As I see it, this is another strike against Hare's prescriptivism. Moral claims do aim to change behavior and, if commands fail to do so, moral claims are not commands.

Hare objected that the persuasion theory made it difficult to distinguish moral claims from propaganda. However, in the case of desirism, moral statements are also, at the same time, propositions capable of being true or false. Much of what counts as propaganda is false. Hare also objects that the persuasion theory cannot separate moral claims from "threats, bribes, torture, mockery, promises of protection, and other expedients." To the contrary, it distinguishes between incentives and deterrence (which plays on the desires and aversions an agent already has) and tripping the reward system to create new rewards and aversions that the agent ought to have. Of course, this does not help to defend Stephenson from Hare's criticism.

The final answer to Hare's instructions is that moral commands are instructions. However, I see this as problematic, since instructions generally aim at a goal (such as building an omelette), and it is difficult to determine the end or goal of moral imperatives in Hare's account.

According to Hare, what is the difference between prescribing and convincing?

This question has been answered in the passages above. Prescriptions are instructions. A cookbook does not aim to "convince" somebody of anything, it simply announces how to get from having a pile of ingredients to having a particular prepared meal. Hare distinguishes between "telling a person to do something" and "getting them to do it". The cookbook tells a person what to do (if the reader desires a particular end), but does not give him a reason to do it. As I wrote above, I think this is a flaw with Hare's prescriptivist account - moral claims aim at getting people to behave in a particular way by altering their desires and aversions. They are more than mere instructions.

What points does Hare believe are established by the case of the missionaries and cannibals?

One purpose seems to be to show that value is not a secondary quality such as redness. It is possible that two people, speaking two different languages, each knowing what the term "good" means, can still use it to refer to two different things. However, it is not the case that two people, each knowing what the term "red" means, can use it to refer to two different things. If the people of one language were to see the people of another language pointing only to what he sees as "blue" and calling it "red", he would draw the conclusion that "red" in their language means "blue" in his. However, if he seems them pointing to a group of things that he thinks is bad and calling it "good", and - this is important - commending it to others - he would say that they find such things to be good.

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