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The Logical Status of a Moral Judgment: An Assessment of Hare's Prescriptivism

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In recent years British moral philosophy devoted much of its attention to metaethical questions. Logical, epistemological or semantic considerations such as the meaning of “good”, “right”, or “ought” and the nature of a moral judgment dominated in their moral philosophies. Unlike traditional moral philosophers who examined the “good or moral life” and provided some guidance towards attaining it, British philosophers like G.E. Moore, A.J. Ayer, R.M. Hare and G.J. Warnock concentrated on the analysis and the clarification of fundamental moral concepts and problems.

This shift to metaethics can definitely be seen in Hare's moral philosophy. Although it would not be true to say that he has concentrated exclusively on metaethical issues, he has given them considerable attention. In his writings Hare develops an ethical theory which has come to be known as prescriptivism. It seeks to explain the meaning of “good” and other moral terms and to describe the chief characteristics of a moral judgment. In this essay I will be concerned first with presenting his analysis of a moral judgment as essentially prescriptive. Later I will comment on this analysis.

Hare attaches much significance to metaethics because for him the role of philosophy is to try to shed lights on problems of various sorts by clarifying the concepts in terms of which the problems were posed. As far as moral philosophy is concerned then, the contribution which a philosopher can make to the discussion of practical moral issues is the analysis of moral concepts. For instance, in a situation where one is demanding a “fair pay rise”, a moral philosopher can try to clarify what the concept of “fair” entails. Once this has been made clear, one can proceed to an examination of what “fair pay rise” would amount to. Hare maintains that the role of a moral philosopher is different from that of a moralist. A moralist is interested in making moral judgments or in thinking about what he or she or others in a given situation ought to do whereas a moral philosopher deals with concepts or words which are used in formulating moral judgments. Hare believes that the professional tool of a moral philosopher is conceptual or logical analysis. Thus, he defines ethics as “the logical study of the language of morals” and the function of ethics as that of helping us to think better about moral questions by exposing the logical structure of the language in which this thought is expressed. Although he accepts that the task of the moralist is important, he claims that a deeper investigation of live practical issues leads on to crucial problems in theoretical moral philosophy. Philosophers who think that they can get away from elucidating concepts and yet feel they can confront actual moral problems in real life are compared by Hare to a plumber who rushes out to work and leaves all his tools behind and forgets all he knew about plumbing. One can see in all of this that for Hare moral philosophy is first and foremost metaethics.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

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  • Ethical Contexts and Theoretical Issues: Essays in Ethical Thinking
    Compared to the traditional approach to the philosophical study of ethics, this book adopts a different strategy. It shows that such ethical thinking, in the concrete particulars, originates in various academic and professional contexts, among others. But inasmuch as theoretical issues require wider and more intensive attention, it argues that ethical thinking needs to be pursued further and that it can be aided by philosophical investigations. In its concluding chapters the book presents an alternative foundation for ethical decision-making. Philosophically grounded, it moves away from an individualistic ethical perspective to a relational one that has been shaped through dialogue with the various contexts in which ethical thinking arises.
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