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John Hare’s God’s Command, 4.3, Prescriptivism

Summary by David Baggett 

The third and fourth sections of this chapter are about a debate between RMH’s views about the objectivity of moral judgment and the contrasting attempt by Philippa Foot in Natural Goodness and Rosalind Hursthouse in On Virtue Ethics to deduce conclusions about moral goodness by what Foot called a “natural-history story” from the characteristic form of life of the human species. Foot scholars divide up her career, like Plato’s, into three periods: an early Foot, a middle Foot, and a late Foot. Natural Goodness was late Foot. Hursthouse has added significant structure to Foot’s account. There are some ways that late Foot is more like RMH than early or middle Foot. But there still differences, and one of them is that Foot affirmed and RMH denied the deducibility of conclusions about moral goodness from facts about human nature. Hare will argue that we should accept some of the positions of each side in this dispute, but that form-of-life deductivism should be rejected.

One theme in this discussion of Foot will be that we need to disentangle her deductivism from her attack on what she calls “subjectivism.” Hare will argue we can be opposed to both subjectivism of various kinds and to deductivism. What is subjectivism? RMH didn’t like being dubbed either a subjectivist or non-cognitivist, though Foot called him this. The central error she was concerned with was the error of thinking that value is desire-based, rather than being (“objectively”) there whether it is desired or not. But there are at least three things this might mean, and they can be distinguished under three headings: “motivation,” “moral properties,” and “ideals.” RMH’s views can be helpfully separated under these headings.


4.3.1 Motivation

RMH held that when we make a moral or evaluative judgment we are expressing a pro-attitude toward, or an endorsement of, some prescription. The position Foot was attacking was what we might call “judgment internalism,” the view that motivation is internal to moral and evaluative judgment. Why did RMH care about this? He thought it was a true analysis of the logic or grammar of evaluative language. But something else needs emphasis. RMH, through his life, was concerned for the possibility of communication about moral matters between different cultures and different generations within the same culture. He thought that his account of the difference between the meaning of evaluative terms such as “good” and “wrong” and the criteria for the use of such terms in evaluative and moral judgment was important for the preservation of this possibility. He thought we were more likely to be capable of genuine dialogue over moral issues if we shared the meaning of these basic terms, and could then talk together about what criteria to employ for their use.

Whare god's commandhat did he think was the difference between meaning and criteria? He thought that it was given in the meaning of evaluative terms that, when we use them sincerely in an evaluative judgment, we commit ourselves to an imperative. If the judgment is a moral judgment about action, the imperative is a command to act a certain way. For RMH, the criteria for an evaluative judgment were the descriptive facts about the world that we use in our evaluations. An endorsement of the goodness of something is called “a decision of principle.” The principle here is that, say, knives are good when they are sharp, and my decision is to endorse this principle in commending the knife.

Here is one place the early Foot and RMH disagreed. She held that we can’t simply decide what criteria to apply; some are internal to the moral point of view. RMH didn’t think a claim that it’s wrong to run around a tree right-handed was unintelligible (the way Foot did), but of course he did think it wrong. He agreed to this point: we have the pro-attitudes that we have, and therefore call the things good which we do call good, because of their relevance to certain ends which are sometimes called “fundamental human needs.” This passage is remarkable because of its similarity to many things in late Foot. The difference is just that these considerations about the human form of life and its evolutionary history were located by RMH as constraints on criteria, whereas Foot did not admit the meaning/criteria distinction.

There is a second, more significant, place that RMH and Foot disagreed, and this gives one reason for Foot’s rejection of judgment internalism. Foot referred to the category of shamelessness. She thought it showed that a person may make a full-fledged moral judgment without endorsing the norms he is referring to in the judgment. RMH’s response to this was that shamelessness is most probably a rejection of conventional morality, thinking there’s something nonstandard or defective about such a case.

We could put this in terms of a natural-history story. The human form of life needs not only norms—for example, norms of justice—to hold us together, but also ways to express to each other that we are committed to such norms. We need a form of expression that conveys, across a huge range of evaluations, “if I were you, I would.” We need this function because we can’t carry out our characteristic human projects without it. Being social animals is a feature of our thought life as much as our action. Moral language is plausibly construed as having this social function. But as with all functions, misuse or defective use is possible. It’s like not being able to use a chisel except as a screwdriver.

This point about the function of evaluative language is what is essentially right about judgment internalism. It’s true that each side in the dispute can explain the same phenomena. For Foot, shamelessness is making a full-fledged moral judgment but one that can’t be lived by; for RMH, it is not making a full-fledged, but rather a defective moral judgment. But the internalist account preserves one central contribution that evaluative language makes to our form of life. The key is the implication of this disagreement for deductivism. RMH thought that this internalism about judgment meant that no deduction of evaluative judgment from descriptive facts was legitimate. But surprisingly, even if they were to agree that a full-fledged evaluative judgment is an expression of some state of desire or emotion or will, they could still disagree about whether the state of the world being commended in such a judgment is a state of the world with natural properties and evaluative properties that have some kind of mutually implicative relation.

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