Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Freedom of Reason

A Critique of R.M. Hare’s “Freedom and Reason”

Descriptive Meaning

Hare wants to argue that words and judgements share “descriptive meaning”. By this he wants to make the following logical argument. If I call something “red” then I am forced to describe everything else with the same essential properties, which cause me to describe this object as “red”, “like in the relevant respects” to use Hare’s phrase, as also being “red”. Similarly, if I describe something as “good” the “relevant respects” which cause me to make this judgement must, if they occur in some other instance, cause me to conclude that this other is also “good”. This is the basis of “universalisability”. Hare makes clear that in defining “descriptive meaning” he is not talking about things being “exactly like” each other because they never are, and this would, in any case, mean that such “descriptive meaning” and, by implication, moral rules were trivial.

But, Hare seems unaware that his looser “like in the relevant respects” suffers essentially the same problem. It is not just that different people will see red differently, which Hare recognises, but that the change from being red to orange is not a discrete but a continuous one. At some point red stops being red and starts being orange, and yet identifying this point is in fact impossible, because at this point red is both red and orange, just as at the point of tangency a circle is both flat, and not flat. Hare is unable to come to terms with this because his logic is based on the syllogistic logic of Aristotle which denies such contradictions. At these inflexion points syllogistic logic breaks down, and dialectics takes over.

For the same individual if the length of light waves is gradually changed then red becomes orange. Through a whole range the “relevant respects” allow him to continue to describe every hue he sees as “red”, but at some point he will describe the colour not as “red” but “orange”. It will always be possible to make smaller and smaller adjustments to the wavelength such that our individual will change his description between “red” and “orange”, and may even over very small time periods describe the same frequency at one time as “red” and at another as “orange”. Nor is this problem resolved by describing “orange” as a type of “red”, as Hare does with “Scarlet” etc., because applying the same process we would end up through “yellow” and “green” to “blue”, thereby arriving at the ridiculous conclusion of describing “blue” as a variant of “red”. Blue can, of course be described as a variant of red only in the sense that red is a variant of blue i.e. they are both colours.


But it is precisely at the inflexion points that the importance and non-triviality exist. If we transfer the issue over to the real purpose of Hare’s concern – morals – then a thesis which only allows the development of rules for situations which are as clear-cut as the difference between “red” and “blue” is trivial indeed. The non-triviality is to provide a basis for those situations which are not clear-cut. To transfer the argument used above to a moral dilemma let us try to put this into the kind of formulation that Hare proposes.

“It is good to kill someone if this is done as an act of self-defence of another innocent human being.”

There may be many clear-cut instances where this judgement is true. A policeman shoots a known serial killer and child molester holding a knife at a young child’s throat, for instance. Though even here the policeman cannot be sure the individual would actually kill the child. But there may be many gradations of this which possess the “like in the relevant respects”, but which may cause a different course of action. For example, I hear X in the pub say “I am going to kill Y.” Few people would say this justified me in killing X in order to save Y’s life. For one thing I would want to know whether X was speaking literally, what was the seriousness of his intent? Moreover, such a situation lacks immediacy. Other courses of action are open such as warning Y, informing the police etc.

The Truth Is Always Concrete

Lenin summed up the basis of
dialectics in the phrase "The
truth is always concrete."
But, suppose I know that X has some reason to threaten Y, and Y is about to come into the pub? Still there may be other options rather than me killing X. Suppose Y comes into the pub, and I see X pull a gun out of a bag under the table? But, still I don’t know if this is a real gun, if it is loaded, if X really does intend to kill Y or just scare him. Suppose, X attracts Y’s attention by firing into the ceiling causing plaster to fall and shouting out to him in abusive terms. I now know that the gun is real and had at least one bullet. Yet Y may escape, X might not be a good shot, he could miss etc. etc. Would I be entitled to shoot him if I had my own gun? Suppose I knew that X was a crack shot in the army and unlikely to miss, and had killed before, would I be acting morally if I shot him then?

Only by using rules which are completely prescriptive could these questions be resolved, but with such a level of prescription rather than a universal rule we have a particular rule rather than a universal one. In the end, Hare’s formulation comes down to what he wanted to avoid by trying to escape describing situations as exactly the same. “Like in the relevant respects” merely allows us to provide universal rules for clear-cut instances i.e. it becomes trivial, whereas the more tricky instances where philosophical analysis should be most important demonstrates the impotence of Hare’s approach.

Hare argues that what is important about words like “good” is their prescriptive meaning. He contrasts this with other moral words like “industrious”. For “industrious” its descriptive meaning is primary and its prescriptive meaning secondary. A society may see “industriousness” not as a moral positive, but as a negative. Its descriptive meaning would remain the same, but its prescriptive meaning i.e. as a recommended action would have changed. However, Hare says, if we considered a man “good” because he was industrious the change in the prescriptive meaning of industrious does not mean we no longer consider the man “good”. There may be other reasons for calling him “good”. If the descriptive meaning of “good” changes to no longer include industrious as one of its attributes, one of the “relevant respects” which cause us to describe someone as “good”, this does not change the prescriptive meaning of “good”. In other words Hare wants to set aside words like “good” from other words like “industrious” which may form attributes of what constitutes “good”. "Good" will then always have a prescriptive meaning which is positive, however much its descriptive meaning changes.

But this is the problem with language. For example, it became part of the language of youth to refer to people/things positively as “bad”, as in “that brother is bad”, or “that is one bad piece of music”. Here the meaning of “bad” is positive not negative, and to give the converse of this it is often that people use the term “do-gooder” not in a prescriptively positive but negative sense.

Hare also uses the example of the word “nigger” to show that this could not be used if one wanted to speak to a black person as an equal. Yet it is perhaps an indication of the increased confidence of black people that they now refer to each other in those terms without any sense of shame.

Hare argues that differences of opinion over descriptive meaning can be resolved by agreeing a definition whereas such differences in relation to value terms cannot. He uses the example of cutting down trees, and the question of what constitutes a tree rather than a bush. This would appear straightforward. But as the line he draws demonstrates it is not so straightforward. He suggests it does not matter if we call the thing in question a tree or a bush provided we agree to cut down everything under 15 feet with the lowest branch at least 3 feet from the ground. Yet this would include young trees, which are not bushes. In fact a far more detailed description is required to distinguish trees from bushes, and there is no reason why two individuals should agree to every aspect of these details. If the requirement is to cut down every bush then unless an agreement on what constitutes a bush can be reached then an agreed course of action cannot follow. To simply say cut down everything below 15 feet etc. is to change the terms of the problem, not to resolve the problem.


Hare sets out a definition of “Universality” which is different from Kant's  Categorical Imperative, although later on the difference is somewhat fudged in his application of “Universality”. The CI says I can only judge a decision to be moral if I could will such an act to be adopted by everyone. Hare’s “Universality”, however, only requires that the act be capable of being adopted by people in the same situation, or “relevantly similar circumstances” as Hare puts it. It is in the definition of what constitutes “relevantly similar circumstances” that the blurring occurs later on. So, for example, suppose I am poor. I ask myself “Is it moral to steal from the rich?" (I might use Hare’s method of defining rich used in the example of the bush and the trees i.e. wealth above a certain amount). I think yes. Then I ask is this universalisable to others in the same position? Again I think yes, because, being poor, I am in no danger of willing an act of theft against myself to be moral. Under, Hare’s approach then it is quite logical for the poor to consider stealing from the rich to be moral. This is not the case with the CI because it is not limited to people in the same position. I would have to ask is it possible for everyone to adopt this rule and it would be clear that the rich would have no reason to adopt it. Hare faced with the contradiction which his formulation creates in practice, changes the formulation so that instead of the individual asking could he accept such a rule being adopted by others in the same situation he changes the test so that the individual is asked to step outside reality, and to put himself in the position of someone who might suffer from the application of the rule, in other words someone not in the same position. But this effectively removes the difference with the CI.

Petit-Bourgeois Morality

Hare gives the example of someone being forced to shore in a boat to distinguish the question “Shall I be forced on to shore?” as being really “Will I be forced on to shore” rather than a request for guidance. From this he gives an example of an honest and dishonest cashier. The dishonest cashier suggests to the other he take money for his holidays. Hare argues that although neuroscience might show that such a person would never commit such an act they would still ask the question, and their action is still a moral act resulting from asking the question. But does this hold in reverse. If neuroscience shows the dishonest cashier will inevitably take the money can we say they would even ask the question. If I am hungry and have appetising food placed in front of me, I do not ask myself the question “Shall I eat”, I just eat. If the dishonest cashier is physically conditioned, either by nature or by nurture to take what they need then if they need money and see the opportunity to take some, why would they ask whether or not they should? Hare also says that scientific advancement showing that people are conditioned to act in a particular way does not mean we can then abstain from making moral judgements of people’s actions. But either this is sterile or contradicts Hare’s thesis. If “universal” only means other people in the same condition and circumstances then how can I judge whether someone else acted morally. I can ask myself whether I would have acted as they did knowing my condition and circumstance, but this tells me nothing about the morality of their action because their position and circumstance is not mine.

The rules of all games favour the strengths of some players
as against the weaknesses of others.  The important question is,
"Who creates the rules?"
Hare argues that ethics is morally neutral. He makes a parallel with the rules of games, arguing that the rules of a game are neutral between the players. But this is clearly false. If I know the strengths and weaknesses of the players, then it is a simple matter to construct rules, which favour the strengths of one player and diminish the chances of the other. A moral equivalent might be to say that no one should steal. Is such a rule neutral? No. If you are rich you have not the same need to steal as someone poor. The important question here then is who makes the rules. It is invariably the most powerful, wealthy and privileged, and it is not surprising then that the rules they make, whilst masquerading as neutral, in fact are designed to ensure their supremacy, power, wealth and privilege is maintained.

Hare’s version of “universalisable” as compared with Kant’s, however, does provide the freedom for those not part of this dominant group to define their own morality in contrast to it. Because Hare’s “universalisable” is limited to those in similar circumstances not to everyone. So the working class could, for instance, decide its members were all in the same circumstance and find it morally positive to deprive the capitalists of their property. As such a decision for each member of the working class only has to pass the test “could this decision be universalisable to others in the same position i.e. other workers” then this meets Hare’s criterion. As this results in conclusions which infringe Hare’s Liberal ideology he is forced in practice to abandon this formulation later on without recognising he has done so.

Morality - Uncomfortable Conclusions

Hare then gives an example of how his formulation could be applied. He gives the example of someone (B) owed money by (A) who asks himself whether A should be put in gaol. The example seems to fail for a number of reasons, some of which Hare admits. Hare suggests that in deciding the person should consider his position if he owed a third person (C) money, and whether his rule would then justify this third person having him gaoled. Hare argues that as in general people do not want to be put in gaol he would not wish C to do this to him, and therefore could not adopt it as a principle in relation to A. But as Hare recognises B could feel that C should indeed put him in prison even though he would lose out from this. Secondly, the “in similar circumstances” here does not explore what else might need to be known about A, B and C. For instance, A might be rich and capable of paying B but refuses. B might be poor and only owes C because A has not paid him. The sensible course then might be for B and C to combine and threaten A with gaol unless he paid up because essentially A owes both B and C.

This is the problem with the concept of “universalisable”. Nearly every situation is different. In this latter case the shared interest of both B and C puts them both in a class as against A, but leads B to conclude morally that A should go to gaol, but also to conclude that C should not send him to gaol, because the situation is different. Hare’s reasoning seems to result in strange conclusions, which he finds himself having to go into contortions later on to resolve. If we change the above example this can be demonstrated. B considers whether A should be punished for committing murder. He concludes that as he would not want to be punished if he committed murder then A should face no sanction!! Hare retorts in the case of B arguing for imprisonment on the basis of his principled belief in the sanctity of property and contracts that such a position could be defended if he can show that laxity of enforcement would have serious consequences for society. But again this is to assume that all members of society have the same interests and this is a false assumption. In a society made up of debtors and creditors the creditors would no doubt agree with B’s principled stand, but it is unlikely the debtors would share it. The issue then resolves not into questions of freedom or reason, but of power and control, of who sets the rules.

The views of the Nazis were morally abhorrent
but using Hare's rules were "universalisable" to all
others in a similar position i.e. other white Nazis.  That
contradicts Hare's Liberal sentiments, so his only response
is to brand those who arrive at such "irrational" conclusions
as "fanatics".
Hare retorts on the question of there being differences between A and B’s cases that first of all he has hypothesised the case away. But rules including moral rules are only useful if they deal with actual reality rather than hypothesised fantasy. If in reality the hypothetical equivalence of A, B and C cannot exist (and it cannot) then rules based on that equality are at best useless, and at worst misleading. The appeal to “universalisability” that Hare uses as his second response does not work either. If I am poor and always expect to be poor there is little point in asking me to put myself in the place of the rich. If I am a white, Aryan Nazi, there is little point in asking me to put myself in the place of the Jew. Whilst I might, and do, abhor the moral decisions the Nazi arrives at I cannot deny using Hare’s own method of developing moral rules the Nazi’s are as justified as anyone else’s. He examines the “facts” as he sees them, and asks “Could others in the same position as me (i.e. white, Aryan, Nazis) arrive at the same decisions", and concludes “Yes”.

In the end, Hare's Moral rules come down
to the same presentation of the ideas and
interests of the petit-bourgeois, as universal,
as that of Bentham.
But it is here that Hare moves away from his original formulation when confronted with this result, effectively adopting the Kantian position. He no longer sees “universalisability” as the ability to view things from the actual position of the given real individual, and all others in the same position, but from the standpoint of some non-existent, abstract individual. Once again we are led into making moral rules not based on reality, but fantastic hypotheticals. The consequence is that instead of Hare’s philosophy providing a basis for understanding human behaviour and morals it does the opposite. He is left describing people like the Nazis as fanatics because although the true Nazi is untouched by Hare’s theory, in order to justify the rationality of his moral rules i.e. he has to say “if I were a Jew I would want to be killed and persecuted”, this belief in itself must be seen as so irrational that only a few could hold it consistently. But it is only by understanding that given the circumstances Nazis can view their morality, ideas and actions as rational that we can understand the development of those ideas. On Hare’s philosophy the development of such forces and ideas is inexplicable other than by labelling them as fanatical. The converse of this of course is that there is some set of rational ideas and morals that is “universalisable” to everyone, and effectively Hare sees these as being those that come under the heading of “Liberalism”.

Fanaticism and Rationality

Hare goes on to phrase the question as “What do you say in a hypothetical case in which you are in your victim’s position?” If we put this back to the example I gave earlier where A is a murderer, B faces the question “should I punish A?” If B puts himself in the hypothetical situation of being a murderer would he want to be punished? The question is in many ways ludicrous because B can never know what he would feel unless he were actually in that position. But, were B to say “Yes, I should be punished”, would we want to call him a fanatic. But for the Nazi with a deep seated hatred of Jews based on what they believe to be facts, the idea that as a race they were responsible for the death of Christ, that they are sub-human and all the other nonsense, it is quite logical for such a Nazi to say “If I were one of these people I would expect to be punished”, just as it is logical for most humans to say they would expect to be punished if they were a murderer.

Who were the real fanatics?  The Spanish Inquisition
or the heretics they persecuted?
Hare’s problem is that he wants to use his own perceptions and prejudices to define what is rational for everyone else. For although, he says there is no logical reason for someone not to hold these views he labels those that do “fanatics” and bases this on the idea that those that hold them are a minority. But by this token if they were a majority then the minority that didn’t hold them would be fanatics. This seems to be moral decision making by populism. A similar approach is taken when Hare retorts to the issue of criminal behaviour. He says that a judge when faced with the question “would I like to be put into prison were I the criminal” has to take into consideration the interests of society. Besides the fact that this is removed from Hare’s original methodology of how to decide on moral issues it does not seem to provide the solution he requires. As a member of society and moral individual doesn’t the creditor take this into account too, indeed doesn’t the Nazi take into account what he sees as the interest of society. Moreover, the quantity of people involved doesn’t logically seem to change the end decision. If all individuals were asked the question “would you like to be put in prison?” according to Hare’s version of what a rational response would be unless they were fanatics the answer would be “No.” And if as Hare argues the judge is there to represent the community his response should also be that the criminal should not be imprisoned otherwise his view is contrary to the view of society.

Hare’s argument that the judge can say to the criminal “I find it easier to adopt the maxim ‘thieves should be put in prison’” is a cop-out because it is answering a different moral question than the one he has posed. All he has demonstrated is that different moral rules conflict with each other. Suppose I adopt a moral rule “People ought not commit murder”. This does not tell me what the consequence should be if someone does commit murder. If I have another moral rule that says “Murderer’s should not be punished” based on my own aversion to punishment then I am left merely with the fact that in committing murder they act immorally but cannot punish them without acting immorally myself. If I then act immorally and punish them, who punishes me, and so on.

Moreover, the argument Hare uses to arrive at this new maxim is very dangerous. He says the judge might reason that unless the criminal is punished he might rob others, or other people might follow his example and rob. If we then use these two arguments the judge might be askedWould you like to be punished for things you have not yet done?” Or, “Would you like to be punished for things done by other people?” This kind of argument would lead to all kinds of arbitrary punishment.

Hare gives another example using a chocolate bar. He says if three equal people come to share a chocolate bar they can morally agree to have a third each. If one does not like chocolate they can reach a universal decision that those that don’t like chocolate should not be given any, and consequently it be divided into two. But the third party could equally logically come to the conclusion that no one should have any. They have nothing to gain by the first decision, and might even feel deprived as a result of it. They may feel better with the second decision though the other two will likely disagree. The decision of both groups is universal only to its own group.


Hare goes on in some detail in respect of utilitarian methods of arriving at moral decisions. He says he has some sympathy with the “rule-utilitarian” system modified by particular instances to arrive at less general rules. I have little to say here other than that “utility” as a concept in morals suffers the same problems it does in economics i.e. it is unmeasurable. It is, therefore, impossible to maximise because to do so requires the ability to compare one quantity of utility with another. Like its economic counterpart utility in this context is fine for those sitting in ivory towers developing theories based on fantastic hypotheticals but has no grounding in reality.

Hare then moves on to a discussion of aesthetics, which takes us back to the beginning of the discussion and the issue of “like in the relevant respects”. Hare uses the example of Siamese cats to say that if we describe one as “beautiful” then we are compelled to say that all others “alike in the relevant respects” are also beautiful. But there is a logical problem here similar to that encountered at the beginning. If I take two cats, not identical but “alike in the relevant respects” then if I call the first beautiful then I will call the second beautiful too. But suppose I introduce a third cat, which is like the second in all the relevant respects but less like the first than the second. As I introduce further cats they may be almost identical to the one before it but less and less like the first. The more cats we introduce the less reason we have to call these cats beautiful just because that was how we categorised the first. Quantity has been transformed into quality. The only way to avoid this is to give the words “alike in the relevant respects” the meaning “identical”, but that is what Hare wants to avoid because he knows that such identity does not exist.

Morality - Idealism v Materialism

Churchill, the arch-imperialist was as happy to enslave and kill
millions of British Colonial subjects as Hitler and the Nazis were Jews.
In the 1920's, and early 1930's, Churchill and other representatives
of "Liberal" ideas were glad to see Mussolini come to power in Italy,
 and Hitler in Germany as a means of putting down the workers in
those countries, as they rallied behind the banner of Stalinism, and
Social Democracy.
Hare wants to argue that conflicts of interest are resolvable through negotiation and bargaining whereas conflicts of ideals are not. But this is somewhat facile. If there is a fundamental conflict of interest e.g. between workers and capitalists a modus vivendi may be reached based on bargaining as happens with Trade Unions, but this does not resolve the conflict which continues to exist and to manifest itself over and over until such time as the basis of the conflict is removed. The same is true of Hare’s example of World War II which he wrongly ascribes as being a conflict of ideals between Nazism and Liberalism. Such a description is clearly false when one considers that not only did liberal democracy fail to counter fascism in Italy during the 1920’s or in Germany in the 1930’s, but leading representatives of Liberal democracy openly welcomed it. And during the Spanish Civil War democracy failed to come to the support of those fighting fascism even with such modest means as the supply of arms. The real basis of the war was not a conflict of ideals, but was precisely a conflict of economic interest. Both groups had no difficulty in universalising their own respective economic interest into a moral justification of their actions. Moreover, far from the intractability of the Nazis ideals being a barrier to resolution with the Liberal ideals in Britain and the US, it did not prevent the US from staying out of the war until it was half way through, nor of many in the US believing then and afterwards that they should have been fighting on the other side, nor indeed of America and Britain supporting regimes with similar ideals both then and since.

Contrary to Hare’s assertion, experience particularly since WWII has been that conflicting ideals are negotiable in terms of which states to support and deal with provided that it is to the end of promoting economic or other strategic interest. This was demonstrably true of the US during WWII, which, despite the fact of knowing exactly what ideals the Nazis had and how they were treating Jews, continued to trade with them, US companies continued to operate in Germany including those being used to manufacture weapons used against Jews and British soldiers. The US did not have the same economic conflict with Germany that Britain did. The US had an economic conflict with Japan, with whom it went to war, thus bringing it into war against Germany as Japan’s ally.

But it is in the question of ideals that Hare needed to make the change in the way he defines “universalisable”. Originally, his definition was “could other people like me in the relevant respects make the same decision on questions like this one.” On this basis the Nazis logic does not require resort to “ideals” but merely to imagine that other Nazis can come to the same conclusion. To ask him to put himself in the place of the Jew as Hare now requires him to do is to ask him to put himself in the place of someone different to him “in the relevant respects” and thereby to contradict the original formulation.

Nazi propaganda depicting Jews as vermin
was vile, but using Hare's methodology,
those Nazis that actually viewed Jews
 in that light could be defined as acting morally
by acting on their belief.  Hare's only response
to that uncomfortable result is to brand those
that acted consistently fanatics.
Hare then uses a different argument based upon his discussion of aesthetics. He argues that just because I hate a piece of music does not mean I have a moral duty to disrupt its performance. Similarly, the Nazis hatred of Jews does not mean they have a moral duty to persecute them. But this is a straw man. Changing the terms of this argument defeats it. If instead of a piece of music I place the smallpox bacteria then my hatred of it, and concern for its effects on others would logically lead me to believe I should act on this and try to eradicate it. However perverse and disgusting, the Nazis viewed the Jews almost exactly in this light so Hare’s argument does not seem to apply.

He proposes a trick to expose the Nazis illogicality or fanaticism. He proposes making the Nazi believe that he is a Jew, and seeing if his opinion then changes. If it does then his moral rule is illogical, if it does not then he is a fanatic. A bit like the old test for witches by drowning them. If they didn’t drown they were a witch, if they did they were not. But this trick fails Hare’s original formulation of “like in the relevant respects”. If we go back to Hare’s original discussion about red, and what is necessary for something to be called red, we could put red in the place of Nazi and see that the condition is not met. If a condition of redness is not being blue, and a condition of being a Nazi is not being a Jew (at least in the sense of being a 1930’s German Nazi) then it is clear that a significant failure of Hare’s argument arises here. Hare proceeded to say that everything else containing the essential elements of “red” lead us to say that everything else containing these must be red, and that we are committed to saying so. In order for universalisability to happen it is necessary that everyone who is like mein the relevant respects” should be able to come to the same conclusion that this is red. Presumably a blind person could not because they are not like me.

But as soon as I trick the Nazi into believing he is a Jew “the relevant respects” of what made him a Nazi have changed. He is now free to assess his new position and to adopt a new set of rules appropriate to it. If we ask the Nazi then to apply Hare’s rule he says “I am a Nazi, I should exterminate Jews, can I universalise this rule by saying anyone else in similar circumstances i.e. being a Nazi should act the same?” He says “Yes.” Once he no longer believes himself to be a Nazi because of being a Jew this link to others being “in relevantly similar circumstances” is broken.

The argument Hare then uses about people being very rare who would want to be killed themselves e.g. if they were themselves a Jew is weak. Suppose I ask myself “Were I to contract an awful infectious disease and might infect my family causing a horrible death, and the only way to avoid this would be to be killed and have my body burned, should I do this?” The fact that the prospect is remote might help me to assent to such a principle, but there are many who would do so, and be considered very moral for it. As the Nazi feels the same way about the Jew it is not unrealistic to believe that such a principle would be rational. It does not matter that the basis on which the Nazi bases his evaluation is a gross perversion of truth, because people can only be requested to base their decisions on the basis of the facts as they perceive them. Given that there are not a few supposedly reputable psychologists in the liberal democracies who over the years have presented papers supposedly showing that black people, or working class people have lower IQ’s, it is not surprising that people can be convinced of such ideas.

If we then go back to Hare’s trick then if the Nazi changed his mind when made to believe that he was a Jew this could be interpreted as moral weakness, just as the man who agrees to the principle he should be sacrificed rather than infect his family would be guilty of moral weakness if they changed their mind when faced with putting it into practice.

Hare needs the concept of ideals as opposed to moral rules in order to set up the real basis of his argument, which is that although people can logically set themselves rules by which they can feel that they are acting morally, whilst undertaking actions which most people would consider immoral, they can only achieve this at the cost of committing themselves to a set of ideals, and these ideals involve them in committing themselves to accept rules which if applied to them as victims most people would reject. By this route Hare wants to demonstrate that it is only Liberal ideals which people can not only accept as logical rules by which to live by, but also which do not involve those who accept them committing themselves to persecution and suffering in order to maintain these ideas logically. In short the Liberal does not need to be a fanatic. This does not mean that the Liberal ideal is any less of an ideal, but an ideal of a different type.

The Liberal Ideal

Liberal Capitalism in the 19th Century was "fanatical" in its
pursuit of profits both at home and throughout its Empire.
But Hare’s conception of the Liberal Ideal is both logically and historically flawed. It is historically flawed for the simple reason that, during the period that most people would consider the “Golden Age” of Liberalism i.e. the 19th century, particularly as far as Britain was concerned, this was specifically the time when these Liberal ideals and all the paraphernalia that goes with them were being foisted on the world militarily. Yet this is in direct contradiction to what Hare says is a fundamental difference between Liberalism and fanatical ideals i.e. that it does not try to impose itself on to others by force. Of course the way in which this Liberal ideal was imposed on other countries also did not live up to the standards of Liberal behaviour that Hare sets for it. It did not include the basic idea of political freedom for instance for all those unfortunate enough to be one of Victoria’s colonial subjects. At the end of his book Hare has no problem in justifying this basic contradiction of the concept of Liberty by explaining that, of course, some people do not understand the idea of political liberty so they can hardly be seen to be deprived of it, no doubt the Nazi could use pretty similar arguments for persecuting the Jew. The main difference between the British Empire’s imposition of the Liberal Ideal and the Nazis imposition of their ideal was that Britain’s was imposed, particularly with its economic interest in mind, with more zeal and barbarity, and with more notable success given the size of the Empire compared to the Nazis conquests.

There is no evidence for the existence of a God that
has created a series of absolute rules of moral behaviour
that we only have to discover, nor some Pure Reason
from which such rules can be deduced. 
Logically, Hare’s concept is flawed too, because what he fails to draw out is the extent to which the ideal simply reinforces the status quo. In a stable society Liberalism can afford to grant permission to others to hold different ideals so long as those ideals represent no threat, so long as the existing power relations in society continue. It can do so precisely because its ideal is dominant. But ideas and ideals are not something that exist separate from reality and outside men’s heads. Hare may want to make the assumption that God or Pure Reason has set out some coda of absolute rules which all we have to do is discover, but there is no empirical proof to substantiate such an assumption, and therefore it must be rejected. It was precisely a change in reality which brought about a change of ideas and ideals which led many of those who previously held “Liberal” ideals to support the Nazis when their economic power and privilege was challenged, and they had rational reasons for doing so. The reason this change of ideal was rational is precisely because they had contradictory interests to those who would challenge their wealth and power. Whilst their ideas and ideals were universalisable, in Hare’s context, within their own class, they are not universalisable to society. In short, Hare forgets that society is not some amorphous mass of individuals whose interests can be reconciled through negotiation, and who can, therefore, establish some set of common rules, but is composed of classes each with their own set of rational ideas, and morals.

Hare comments that the Liberal novelist is at an advantage over the novelist in the pay of the fanatic because individuals from their own experience can relate to sentiments, and these in the novel of the Liberal will be closer to their own. It would be interesting then to know Hare’s attitude to the various stories concerning Robin Hood, who is held to be a national hero, if only a mythical one, and with whom most people can relate. Yet, what did Robin’s activities amount to in these stories – stealing, lying, kidnapping etc. etc. In particular attacks on the life and property of the rich in order to provide for the poor. Yet these are precisely the ideals, which the modern Liberal would denounce as the ideals of the fanatic. Hare has the problem of most Liberals, he does not want to face the fact that real people have material conflicts of interest. Consequently, he wants to impose his own middle class interests as being the interests shared by everyone. If I am on a desert island where there is only sufficient resources to feed my family, then put myself in the position of anyone else as I might try to do, empathise with them no end as I might, I will still in the end look after the interests of my family, and justify it rationally in the process.


Hare proposes another scheme. He suggests we assume that we are omnipotent and propose to the fanatic that we place him on a planet with others sharing his ideals, on condition that each share in rotation being those who suffer as a result of the ideal. The first thing to say is what does this have to do with the real world? The second thing to say is that which I have repeated several times, which is that Hare’s own formulation only requires that people universalise by considering others in the same relevant position as themselves. Why should the Nazi consider the position of the Jew in formulating his ideas. This is like asking the lion to put himself in the position of the gazelle.

Hare comes close to recognising the truth once he tries to apply his ideas to the practical issue of racism in South Africa. He says that any treatment of the issue of conflict between races (he means ethnic groups) that doesn’t include history, psychology and politics is bound to be truncated and superficial. But it is precisely because it is these sciences which investigate the conditions under which people live and react that they tell us the more important facts about how people’s behaviour is determined than the moral philosophy of how they “ought” to act. In the end a rational philosophy will grasp that how they “ought” to behave is in fact determined by the material facts and conditions, including man’s own effects on his environment and condition, which in turn determine their ideas and ideals and within which they derive a set of moral principles rational for them, but not necessarily rational for others in different conditions.

When Hare says “It is no use hoping by philosophy alone to convince such people (those with fanatical views) or to make them change their behaviour”, and then goes on to say that “Here a deep understanding of psychology is required before any progress can be hoped for”, he ironically mimics the attitude of the totalitarian who says, “My view is rational, you disagree with me so you must be irrational, therefore you require psychological treatment.” The fact is that the real counter to the views of the Nazi and the racist is not psychological treatment or moral argument. The counter is to show that the facts on which the prejudices are based are fraudulent and to change the social conditions under which people are prone to accept such fraudulent facts in the process of looking for scapegoats i.e. poverty, insecurity, fear etc. It is all these latter which can group people together as being “in the same condition” and allow them to “universalise” their prejudices into what appears to be for them rational moral action.

In furthering his argument it is precisely to challenging the facts that Hare is forced to resort. But simply challenging facts is inadequate because this implies that there is some “absolute truth”. In reality the same “fact” may be different for different people. Take the rocket scientist who needs to account for the “fact” that the earth is round. He will be absolutely correct in asserting the roundness of the earth as a “fact” to the man levelling the snooker table. But for this man the relevant “fact” is that the earth is flat, and it is on the basis of the “fact” of this flatness that he bases his calculations and actions in levelling the table. For the capitalist profits are the result of him employing his capital. For the worker profits are the result of capital exploiting his labour. For the racist the discrimination against blacks is justified on the basis of the “fact” that blacks perform badly in IQ tests and educationally, “proving” their inferiority. For the anti-racist blacks perform badly in these areas because of the “fact” they suffer discrimination, deprivation etc. (not to mention the flawed nature of IQ tests)

Freedom and Reason

Finally, I want to turn to the actual title of Hare’s book and examine what is Freedom, and what is Reason. Freedom appears to come down to the ability to control action. God would be completely free because by definition God would be capable of doing anything he wished without regard for even any rules of what is possible because he would make the rules. In other words God would have complete, unrestricted control over his actions. As we are not God, clearly our freedom is not absolute, but operates within some limits. A rock has very little freedom. It has no control over where, when and how it is formed or anything that happens to it subsequently. But provided we assume the non-existence of God or other supernatural forces, there are rules and limits governing what can happen to it, which in a certain context could be seen as a kind of freedom. In other words the things that can happen to it are governed by natural laws rather than its fate being completely arbitrary or pre-determined.

Every game of snooker is different because although the same physical laws apply in each game the application of these laws is different. Although the trajectory of each ball is governed by the laws of physics and geometry the moment it is struck a chain reaction of events occurs, which means that the snooker players original intention (however skilled) of where the balls should end up can and frequently is frustrated. Humans are different from either rocks or snooker balls. Although they are subject to the same kind of natural laws they possess the ability to analyse the world in which they exist, to uncover the laws which govern all material things, and human behaviour, and to use that knowledge to exert some control over their environment, and to influence and control their environment and their actions. But, the fact that on this spectrum of freedom and control Man stands closer to God than the rock, and the greater man’s knowledge and development the further he moves from the rock, should not lead us to forget that this freedom and control is not absolute, but continues to operate within limits and according to rules and physical and social laws.

Just as man’s freedom operates within limits rather than being absolute, his reason is similarly constrained. There can be no Absolute or Pure Reason applicable for all time and every instance. The worker can apply the same set of moral reasoning and reach a different conclusion than the capitalist for instance. Nor might there be agreement on the method of reasoning. The natural and social laws which govern the development of the capitalist will determine the reasoning he applies, and the facts he observes in applying this reason. These will undoubtedly be different from the facts and reasoning used by the worker because of their different development, just as a snooker ball made of ivory will act differently from a snooker ball made of plastic.

It is unfortunate that Hare should use the argument alluded to earlier about the inability of some to recognise the meaning of political liberty, and that he refers to the inability to govern even if he uses the caveat that these things can be learned. I doubt were he writing the book today, rather than in the 1960’s or even when it was reprinted in the late 70’s, he would have used this argument, but in a sense it shows what is wrong with Hare’s thesis. Attitudes change because conditions change, people change, and perceptions change. What appear to be moral principles derived from rational thought today turn out tomorrow to be prejudice and self-interest.

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