Meta Ethics - Prescriptivism

Outline of R.M Hare's Prescriptivism

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Prescriptivism, RM Hare.

  • The basic notion of Prescriptivism (developed by R.M.Hare) is to combine the metaethics of Hume and emotivism with the normative ethics of Kant.
  • So morality turns out to be an expression of emotion, but of a very particular type, namely one which can be universalised.


  • The universalisation cannot be of its truth, since the theory is non-cognitivist, so it is a willingness to universally prescribe, endorse, commit to, recommend acceptance…
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  • Presumably this improves on emotivism because it eliminates a lot of emotional attitudes which seem to have no moral content (such as boredom, amusement, irritation), and also objects of emotional attitudes which seem to have no relevance to morality (such as liking a good curry, or a David Beckham free kick) – because in neither case would we have any desire to universalise such feelings.


  • Hare leans towards utilitarianism as the final outcome of this, because it is the attitude we are most inclined to universalise and endorse,


  • Presumably because we like living in a society full of mutual helpers (as Hume suggested).
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  • The best known objection to the theory is the Frege-Geach problem (that we reason about morality even where no emotion is involved – ‘IF stealing is wrong, then you shouldn’t have taken that money’).
  • But it strikes me as inviting all the objections to Kant (e.g. there are no values in the theory, and so it will accept any mad universalisation, such as passionately wanting the whole human race to stand on one leg, or all become thieves), AND all the objections to emotivism (that moral disagreements become meaningless, that unemotional people are immoral, that all universalised emotions are equal). If morality is based on emotion, how do you address the question of which emotions are the good ones? Anger, compassion…? You might deconstruct Hare’s theory by asking where its motivation comes from.
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