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Chapter 6, John Hare’s Moral Gap, “Reducing the Demand”

By David Baggett 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

This chapter is focused on the other strategy to close the moral gap: reducing the moral demand. Namely, Hare will concentrate on attempts to claim that impartiality is not always required in moral judgment. These attempts can be seen as driving a wedge between two formulations of Kant’s categorical imperative. Impartiality is a construal of the first formulation—of universal law. Hare uses “universalism” for this construal of the moral demand and the insistence that all moral judgments must be impartial in this sense. The second formulation of the categorical imperative is that we must always treat humanity, whether in our own person or the person of another, as an end in itself, and never merely as a means.

Kant thought these two formulations were formulations of the same supreme principle of reality. But in this chapter, Hare will consider the possibility that we may be able to treat another person as an end in herself without being impartial in the sense required by the first formulation. Hare will explore the thought that we can make the ends of another person our ends not because she is a center of rational agency, but because she is related to us in some special way. If we allow this, have we reduced the moral demand? Hare will argue no.

Hare will consider objections to universalism in ethics made by feminists. He will distinguish four objections, claiming they are valid against some types of universalism, but not against the sort of universalism he will define. Then Hare will give a fifth objection that he claims to be valid against universalism as defined. If the objection is valid, we should accept the ‘particularist’ thesis that not all moral judgments are universalizable, but, nevertheless, this doesn’t after all reduce the moral demand.

The first objection is that moral judgments must often be specific, whereas the universalist requires them to be general. He cites Gilligan and Noddings here. Gilligan demurs from Kohlberg’s moral hierarchy by pointing to another equally valuable kind of moral thinking she dubs “care” thinking, where the rival claims are weighed not in the abstract, in terms of the relative priority of the principles behind them, but rather in the particular. She says this kind of thinking tends towards “the reconstruction of the dilemma in its contextual particularity.” Noddings says that if we care, what we do depends not on rules or a prior determination of what is fair or equitable, but on a constellation of conditions that is viewed through both the eyes of the one-caring and the eyes of the cared-for. An ethic of caring, she says, won’t embody a set of universalizable moral judgments.

But Hare wants to make two distinctions here. First: between general and specific, and second: between universal and particular. A principle is universal if it is stated in purely universal terms, without singular reference. It’s particular if it’s not. A situation can be described in universal terms and still be described in minute and completely specific detail, though. There can also be general particular judgments, like the claim that all Americans are morally good. The distinction between specific and general is, unlike that between universal and particular, one of degree. In order to count as general a principle must abstract from some of the detail of the situation to which it prescribes.

Now contextual particularity, as Gilligan and Noddings describe it, seems to be a matter of specificity, of detail. But a maxim can be universal and yet concrete, in the sense of mentioning (in universal terms) anything that distinguishes this situation from any other. In this first objection there is, then, a valid point against any account of the moral demand that fails to acknowledge the need for sensitive moral perception of the relevant details in particular situations. It may be that the required sensitivity is not, itself, a rational capacity, in Kant’s sense. But we don’t yet have a valid objection against universalism as Hare’s defined it.

Now for a second objection: that caring requires taking on the perspective of the other person. Care must be a response to what a particular person actually needs or wants or what will serve a particular relationship. People must be perceived as having access to others in their own terms. As far as Hare can see, this objection doesn’t work against universalism as he’s defined it. To determine whether another person’s maxim passes the test of the categorical imperative requires an understanding of that maxim in the other person’s own terms. This may not be entirely possible to do, but universalism doesn’t preclude such considerations. Perhaps a version of universalism is susceptible to this challenge, but not to the version Hare’s laid out.

A third objection: universalism is not sensitive to the existence of divergent personal ideals. A moral particularity thesis allows certain individuating and defining features of an agent’s life to matter what they do in some cases in a way that is not universally generalizable. She has in mind that different people have different views about what is morally most important. Morality does not require the same responses from those facing the same sorts of situation. Margaret Walker pushes this line.

But is this inconsistent with universalism as Hare’s defined it? The key is what’s meant by the phrase “universally generalizable.” Walker seems to want to allow the moral agent discretion, but only within certain limits. Hare thinks this sounds right: an account of morality should not countenance any and every view about what is morally important. But this leaves us with a theory of moral permissions which apply to everybody and an area within these permissions which is discretionary. As far as Hare can see, this isn’t inconsistent with universalism. Kant himself distinguished between perfect and imperfect duties. The only sort of universalism susceptible to criticism here is one that would say there’s one right answer to every question about what a person should do in a situation of a certain sort, where the situation was defined independently of the person’s own aspirations—not a plausible view.

Now Hare mentions a fourth objection, from the tension between universalism and close personal relations. McFall claims that universalism is incompatible with friendship and love. Friendship often requires unconditional commitments. These are identity-conferring, in the sense that they determine what counts for an agent as a reason for acting and they are not themselves justified by reference to other commitments. But this is inconsistent with impartiality, says McFall.

But Kant observes in The Doctrine of Virtue that it is no violation of impartiality to spend more time with the people we care about, or to look after them in circumstances or in ways in which we would not look after others. There is a version of universalism vulnerable: it might be said there’s not enough time to meet the commitments of friendship and to meet the moral demand of service to strangers. Hare thinks a distinction is needed between levels—like his dad’s between intuitive and critical moral thinking.

Next Hare wants to defend the thesis that there are moral judgments that are not universalizable—there are moral judgments from which singular terms are not eliminable. He calls moral judgments of this type “particular moral judgments.” He is going to discuss judgments that prescribe action, even though there are equally important moral judgments that do this only indirectly. He thinks it helpful to see particular moral judgments as intermediate between prudence and universalizable morality. They are like prudence in that they do not eliminate singular reference. But at the same time, note that what I prescribe for myself in prudence is standardly specified in universal terms, or at least can be. Particular moral judgments are like judgments of prudence in both these ways. They contain ineliminable singular reference, in this case to some other particular person as well as to myself, and what they prescribe I should do for that person is specifiable in universal terms. I ought, let’s say, go and visit my friend because he’s feeling wretched. And this gives me a reason, this time a moral reason, for my action. But particular moral judgments are also like universalizable morality, for they override self-interest in the interest of another person. They are, though not in Kant’s sense, treating another person as an end in himself.

At this point Hare distinguishes four positions within a prescriptive judgment, to see how universalization relates differently to them. The first two are the position of “addressee,” the person to whom the judgment is addressed, and the position of “agent,” the person whose action is being prescribed. These aren’t always the same. Third, there is the position of the “recipient,” the person to whom the action is to be done. Finally, there is the position of the “action,” which is what the speaker judges should or should not be done by this agent to this recipient. Now, it’s usual to think that universalizability has to be a feature of the terms in all four positions at once, but this is not so. It’s possible to replace a term with purely universal terms at some positions in a judgment but not others. Hare thinks the Ten Commandments are a case where the terms in the addressee and the agent positions are not universalizable. On the other hand, the term in the action position is already universal. The people of Israel are not to commit adultery at any time or in any place. Or take the greatest commandment, which features for the term in the recipient position something (God) not universalizable; the command isn’t prescribing that the believer should love anyone who is the same as God in universally specifiable respects.

So what Hare’s claiming is that there is a claim of moral judgments that are like judgments of prudence in the following respect: they are judgments in which the terms in addressee and agent and recipient positions are not, but the term in the action position is, necessarily universalizable. Why does Hare insist particular moral judgments are moral? For Kant they are not moral, because they are not universalizable. Hare makes three points against him. First, he’s not speaking for the ethical tradition as a whole; Aristotle for example thought moral relations are always to members of this family or polis. Kant’s claim is a recent one. Second, particular moral judgments can exemplify what seems to Hare paradigmatic of morality, namely, regard for another person for his or her own sake. To put it this way makes it seem like the two formulations of Kant’s categorical imperative can diverge, though the second isn’t being construed here as in Kant’s original formulation. Third, it’s characteristic of moral judgments that they give reasons for action that treat others as ends in themselves. Since the term in the action position is universal or at least universalizable, we can talk of particular moral judgments giving reasons for action.

A moral judgment requires more than universalizable terms in the action position; it also expresses care or regard for another person for his or her own sake. In Kant, this is done when I respect his practical rationality. In Aristotle, I do so when I love his nous. But it may not be possible to say what it is about a person I care about when I care for her for her own sake. Why care about a daughter’s distress? To say it’s because she’s my daughter may be right causally, but it isn’t right phenomenologically. We simply care for the person’s own sake.

Suppose a mother whose part of a cause is torn between staying with her daughter and contributing to the cause. There’s a conflict, and in principle the universalist analysis might suggest she should go to the meeting. But Hare wants to suggest that privileging the daughter may well be the right moral decision, despite that it’s not derivative in its moral value from justification at the critical level, as the universalist describes. Hare knows of no way to deny this except by begging the question in favor of the universalist.

Nonetheless Hare now makes three points against “extreme particularism” that denies we have obligations toward everyone. Noddings is an extreme particularist. Caring is only possible for an agent within a comparatively small group of people, so she rejects the notion of universal caring. Even if this is true, though, Hare says it doesn’t allow us to violate the rights of people who are outside the caring relationship. Not just negative duties, but positive duties apply; but Noddings denies universal caring. So for Hare’s three points: First, the institution of morality we are familiar with does include fully universalizable obligations. We use ought language in this way. Second, consequences of the disappearance of fully universalizable morality would be serious. Many feel like responding to needs of strangers is the human thing to do. Partiality is justified, but has limits. Unconstrained it can lead to a reduction of the number of people who can be adequately protected by partiality. Third, special relations, like those of friendship and family, are liable to certain kinds of internal corruption from the lack of the sense of justice. Dividing up morality into ‘care’ for the private and ‘justice’ for the public sphere damages both spheres. Relations within families or between friends need regulation by justice of an impartial kind. Take a mother who cares for her children and family so much she neglects herself. Or a mother who neglects to teach her child not to expect privileged treatment.

Hare thinks particular moral obligations don’t lessen moral obligations overall. Hare doesn’t think particular and universal requirements tend to conflict very much in any significant way. Particular moral obligations don’t do away with perfect duties, just adds new ones. Part of the difficulty nowadays, exacerbating the perceived tension between the universal and particular, is that the world has shrunk and we’re more aware of needs around the world, without intermediate social arrangements between family and large-scale bureaucracies of government or national church. But we can still belong to communities that make organized outreach to the needy more possible and workable. The Bible would seem to counsel to do so.


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