Biography:R. M. Hare

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Short description: British moral philosopher (1919–2002)

R. M. Hare

Philosopher R.M. Hare at Princeton in 1957.jpg
Hare in 1957
Richard Mervyn Hare

(1919-03-21)21 March 1919
Backwell, England
Died29 January 2002(2002-01-29) (aged 82)
Ewelme, England
Catherine Verney (m. 1947)
ChildrenJohn E. Hare et al.
Academic background
Alma materBalliol College, Oxford
Academic work
School or traditionAnalytic philosophy
Doctoral studentsDenys Turner
Notable students
Main interests
Notable ideas

Richard Mervyn Hare[lower-alpha 1] FBA (21 March 1919 – 29 January 2002), usually cited as R. M. Hare, was a British moral philosopher who held the post of White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford from 1966 until 1983. He subsequently taught for a number of years at the University of Florida. His meta-ethical theories were influential during the second half of the twentieth century.

Hare is best known for his development of prescriptivism as a meta-ethical theory, which he argues is supported by analysis of formal features of moral discourse, and for his defence of preference utilitarianism based on his prescriptivism.

Some of Hare's students, such as Brian McGuinness,[1] John Lucas,[2] and Bernard Williams[3] went on to become well-known philosophers.[4] Peter Singer, known for his involvement with the animal liberation movement (who studied Hare's work as an honours student at the University of Melbourne and came to know Hare personally whilst he was an Oxford BPhil graduate student),[5] has explicitly adopted some elements of Hare's thought, though not his doctrine of universal prescriptivism.

Life and career

Richard Hare was born on 21 March 1919 in Backwell, Somerset. He attended Rugby School in Warwickshire, followed in 1937 by Balliol College, Oxford, where he read greats (classics). Having joined the officer training corps whist still at Rugby, on the outbreak of World War II, he volunteered to serve with the Royal Artillery.[6]

Hare was taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese from the fall of Singapore in 1942 to the end of the Second World War.[7] Hare's wartime experience had a lasting impact on his philosophical views, particularly his view that moral philosophy has an obligation to help people live their lives as moral beings. His earliest work in philosophy, which has never been published, dates from this period, and in it,[8][9][10] he tried to develop a system that might "serve as a guide to life in the harshest conditions", according to C. C. W. Taylor.[4]

He returned to Oxford after the war, and in 1947, married Catherine Verney, a marriage that produced a son and three daughters. (Hare's son, John E. Hare, is also a philosopher.) He was elected fellow and tutor in philosophy at Balliol from 1947 to 1966; honorary fellow at Balliol from 1974 to 2002; and was appointed Wilde Lecturer in Natural Religion, 1963–66; and White's Professor of Moral Philosophy, 1966–1983, which accompanied a move to Corpus Christi. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1972 to 1973. He left Oxford in 1983 to become Graduate Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Florida at Gainesville, a post he held until 1994.[4][7]

After suffering a series of strokes, R. M. Hare died in Ewelme, Oxfordshire, on 29 January 2002.[11]

At his memorial service held at St Mary's Church, Oxford, in May of that year, Peter Singer delivered (as he felt Hare would have wished) a lecture on Hare's "Achievements in Moral Philosophy" which concluded by giving three "major, lasting" ones, namely, "restoring reason to moral argument, distinguishing intuitive and critical levels of moral thinking, and pioneering the development of ... applied ethics".[5]


Hare was greatly influenced by the emotivism of A. J. Ayer and Charles L. Stevenson,[12] the ordinary language philosophy of J. L. Austin, a certain reading of the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein,[4] utilitarianism, and Immanuel Kant.

Hare held that ethical rules should not be based on a principle of utility, though he took into account utilitarian considerations. His hybrid approach to meta-ethics distinguishes him from classical utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham. His book Sorting Out Ethics might be interpreted as saying that Hare is as much a Kantian as he is a utilitarian, but other sources[13] disagree with this assessment. Although Hare used many concepts from Kant, especially the idea of universalisability, he was still a consequentialist, rather than a deontologist, in his normative ethical views. Hare himself addressed the possibility that Kant was a utilitarian like himself, in his "Could Kant Have Been a Utilitarian?"[14]

Universal prescriptivism

In a series of books, especially The Language of Morals (1952), Freedom and Reason (1963), and Moral Thinking (1981), Hare gave shape to a theory that he called universal prescriptivism. According to this, moral terms such as 'good', 'ought' and 'right' have two logical or semantic properties: universalizability and prescriptivity. By the former, he meant that moral judgments must identify the situation they describe according to a finite set of universal terms, excluding proper names, but not definite descriptions. By the latter, he meant that moral agents must perform those acts they consider themselves to have an obligation to perform whenever they are physically and psychologically able to do so. In other words, he argued that it made no sense for someone to say, sincerely: "I ought to do X", and then fail to do X. This was identified by Frankena, Nobis and others as a major flaw in Hare's system, as it appeared to take no account of akrasia, or weakness of the will.[15][16][17]

Hare argued that the combination of universalizability and prescriptivity leads to a certain form of consequentialism, namely, preference utilitarianism. In brief, this means that we should act in such a way as to maximise the satisfaction of people's preferences.

Importance of specificity

Hare departs from Kant's view that only the most general maxims of conduct be used (for example, "do not steal"), but the consequences ignored, when applying the categorical imperative. To ignore consequences leads to absurdity: for example, that it would be wrong to steal a terrorist's plans to blow up a nuclear facility. All the specific facts of a circumstance must be considered, and these include probable consequences. They also include the relevant, universal properties of the facts: for example, the psychological states of those involved.

Applied ethics and political philosophy

While Hare was primarily interested in meta-ethics, he also made some important contributions to the fields of political philosophy and applied ethics. Among his essays within these fields those on the wrongness of slavery, abortion[18] and the Golden Rule, and on demi-vegetarianism have received the most attention. Hare's most important work in political philosophy and applied ethics is collected in the two volumes Essays on Political Morality (1989) and Essays on Bioethics (1993), both published by Oxford University Press.

Select works

*For a more complete list of publications see the annotated bibliography by Keith Burgess-Jackson.

See also


  1. Pronounced /hɛər/.


  1. Obituaries, Telegraph (2020-01-09). "Brian McGuinness, world-renowned expert on Ludwig Wittgenstein – obituary" (in en-GB). The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. 
  2. Lucas, John Randloph (2002-12-23). "Balliol College – History – Past Members – Richard Hare – A Memoir". 
  3. McMahan, Jeff (2013). "Bernard Williams: A Reminiscence". The Moral Philosophy of Bernard Williams.. Perry, Alexandra; Herrera, C. D. (Christopher D.). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 21. ISBN 9781443866002. OCLC 887508392. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Taylor, C. C. W. (5 February 2002). "Professor R. M. Hare". The Independent. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Singer, Peter (2002). "R. M. Hare's Achievements in Moral Philosophy" (in en). Utilitas 14 (3): 309–317. doi:10.1017/S0953820800003629. ISSN 1741-6183. 
  6. Price, A. W. (2009). "Hare, Richard Mervyn (1919–2002), philosopher" (in en). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/76706. Retrieved 2021-05-05.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  7. 7.0 7.1 O'Grady, Jane (1 February 2002). "Richard Hare". The Guardian. 
  8. "OUP: R. M. Hare in Conversation ...". 2004-12-11. "Once, on leave from the Army, I sat down at home and wrote an essay of some twenty pages on 'My Philosophy' – a very pretentious thing to do, but pardonable, since we all thought we would be killed in the War, and I wanted to put it on record. ... When I was taken prisoner at the fall of Singapore, I looted a beautiful ledger from the office in Changi jail, and used it to expand the essay into a book of some 150 pages, written a few pages at a time in manuscript when I had the leisure during my three and a half years in prison. ... This book travelled with me on my back almost all the way to the Thai–Burma frontier." 
  9. Price, Anthony. "Richard Mervyn Hare > Hare's "An Essay in Monism" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)". "When Singapore fell, he looted a ledger from Changi jail, and started writing a monograph called "An Essay in Monism". He carried this on his back during the march, and completed it just before being released. He typed it out, making multiple copies, once he was free ... It remains very little known ... and is of interest both in itself, and for points of connection with his mature thinking. As it is only accessible within the archives of Balliol College, Oxford: it may be apt to supply a density of quotation. ..." 
  10. Singer, Peter (2002). "R. M. Hare's Achievements in Moral Philosophy" (in en). Utilitas 14 (3): 309–317. doi:10.1017/S0953820800003629. ISSN 1741-6183. "he [Hare] was never afraid to ask the most controversial questions, such as What is Wrong with Slavery? and his answers were always enlightening. (Indeed, that particular paper is one that he was able to write with an authority that few others could possess, since, as he notes, he had in a manner of speaking been a slave, when as a prisoner of the Japanese he worked on the Burma railway.)". 
  11. Fox, Margalit (17 February 2002). "R. M. Hare, British Philosopher, Dies at 82; Looked for Logic in Morals". The New York Times. 
  12. Benn, Piers. "R. M. Hare (1919–2002) | Issue 35 | Philosophy Now". "The theory of emotivism, defended in different ways by C. L. Stevenson and the young A. J. Ayer, formed the background to Hare's early work, and he was concerned both to acknowledge its insights and correct its inadequacies. ... Hare didn't entirely reject emotivism, but ... He was consistently opposed to the 'descriptivism' that held that the meaning of moral predicates – good, bad, right, wrong, ought etc. – was exhaustively descriptive of moral features of reality." 
  13. Curtler, Hugh Mercer (1971). "What Kant Might Say to Hare". Mind 80 (318): 295–297. doi:10.1093/mind/LXXX.318.295. ISSN 0026-4423. 
  14. Hare, R. M. (1993), Dancy, R. M., ed., "Could Kant Have Been a Utilitarian?" (in en), Kant and Critique: New Essays in Honor of W.H. Werkmeister, Synthese Library (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands): pp. 91–113, doi:10.1007/978-94-015-8179-0_4, ISBN 978-94-015-8179-0,, retrieved 2021-05-06 
  15. Nobis, Nathan. "CHAPTER 4: Hare's Universal Rational Prescriptivism". Morehouse College. 
  16. Frankena, William (July 1988). "Hare on moral weakness and the definition of morality". Ethics 98 (4): 779–792. doi:10.1086/293005. 
  17. Hare, R. M. (1991). "Universal Prescriptivism". A Companion to ethics. Peter Singer (ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Reference. ISBN 0-631-16211-9. OCLC 22762715. 
  18. "Abortion and the Golden Rule," R. M. Hare, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Spring, 1975), pp. 201-222

Further reading

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
William Kneale
White's Professor of Moral Philosophy
Title next held by
Bernard Williams
Preceded by
Hilary Putnam
Hägerström Lecturer
Succeeded by
D. H. Mellor
Professional and academic associations
Preceded by
Martha Kneale
President of the Aristotelian Society
Succeeded by
Charles H. Whiteley