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Summary of Chapter 5 of John Hare’s The Moral Gap

By David Baggett 

Summary of Chapter 1

Summary of Chapter 2

Summary of Chapter 3

Summary of Chapter 4

Summary of Chapter 5

Summary of Chapter 6

This chapter will continue to discuss the problems in the current philosophical literature that arise from failing to recognize the existence of what Kant called “radical evil.” It will focus on a “the strength-of-desire principle.” This is the principle that we can satisfy the requirements of justice by giving initial preference in moral discussion to the stronger of two desires, independently of whose that desire is. Hare begins by raising an objection to the principle, namely, that it can’t account for the importance we give to the centrality of a desire in a person’s life. Then he’ll discuss responses to the objection. He won’t answer the objections beyond trying to show that they don’t account for radical evil.

According to the strength-of-desire principle, if two people are in competition for some good, and the first desires the good more strongly than the second, the good should be awarded to the first, other things being equal. Singer embraces such a view. Hare wants to propose that it’s unfair to give this weight to how much a desire is felt. There are some people who simply feel their desires very intensely. Hare calls them “Triggers.” Others know at least roughly how important it is to their lives as a whole and that their various desires be satisfied, even though they are felt less strongly. Hare calls these “Eeyores.” The principle discriminates in favor of Triggers. The principle encourages people to have as many strong desires as possible, which means that it encourages the development of the kind of person who makes life less happy for other people.

The first utilitarian response is “minimalist” in taking “strength” in the strength-of-desire principle to be a measure of either intensity or the tendency to action. “Intensity” is taken phenomenologically, as a matter of internal experience. Hare’s assuming a correlation between intensity of desire and tendency to action (though he realizes it doesn’t always obtain). Sometimes the principle’s application seems eminently fair. But sometimes it is unfair, but the minimalist can say we need to look at the whole set of desires that each party has. So perhaps one person’s desire is weaker, but more integrated with other desires. Some less intense desires may be central in the sense of being backed up by higher order desires; and some more intense desires may not be so central. The minimalist can give greater weight to desires that have purchase over other desires in the way central desires do.

But Hare says this move by the minimalist to accommodate the sense of unfairness of applying the principle fails. Adolescents are living through a period of maximum potential desire-satisfaction and aversion-avoidance. Contrast them with the “fifty-year-old” whose motivational structure has this feature: the desires and aversions are flattened out but connected with each other into a more coherent pattern. There can still be strong commitment, but it is more to the structure as a whole than in an adolescent, with more tolerance for the frustration of individual desires. Hare thinks that if we could wave a magic wand and accommodate all the desires and aversions of the adolescent or fifty-year-old, the minimalist would say we must prefer the adolescent. The adolescent’s aversion to boredom, for example, will be far greater than the fifty-year-old’s. The very connectedness that provided the initial minimalist response about centrality also makes boredom for the fifty-year-old more tolerable.

The fifty-year-old also recognizes that there are many different kinds of links between lower-order and higher-order desires, so is more able to tolerate the frustration of a number of desires because of the link with her higher-order desires. This again leads to privileging the adolescent’s perspective, but it wouldn’t be fair to discriminate against fifty-year-olds in this way.

The minimalist might say that the fifty-year-old’s desires should trump after all because the adolescent desires tend to be so frustrated. But Hare says that even if this is right it’s only because of contingent features of the adolescent’s situation. Hare wants to draw a distinction between desires I identify with and desires I do not. The apostle Paul distinguishes between two sets of desires he has: there are the desires produced by sin, and the desires which he identifies as what he wants. One way to make the distinction is to point to the difference between authority and power. Those with authority are entitled to obedience even if they do not receive it. Those with power do receive it, even if they are not entitled to it. The person I want to be and thus the desires I want to have can be authoritative for me, even if they are not the most intense or the most likely to lead to action (the most powerful). The law of sin may still have some power, but it no longer has authority—there’s been a decisive shift from the old man to the new man, even though there may still be habits left over from the old way of life.

So here is one way to characterize what it means to identify with a desire: regarding the desire as sinful. Sin is a nature, a large-scale pattern of desires. In the fifty-year-old, potentially anyway, there’s a coming to terms with oneself—which can be seen as a measure of wisdom and maturity. Recognition of good and bad. The bad can be recognized without being endorsed. She sees herself more as a whole more than she once did. She doesn’t blame faults on isolated desires or traits of character but on the whole package turned in the wrong direction. Because she sees more of the connections between her desires, she can see how complicated and pervasive are the influences of both sin and good. So there’s such a thing as (1) acknowledging desires, (2) endorsing them, and (3) identifying with desires. To identify with desires is to acknowledge them and not want to change them or have them changed. It’s stronger than acknowledging but weaker than endorsing it.

Hare’s point so far is that the minimalist can’t rescue the strength-of-desire principle from the charge of unfairness by appealing merely to the distinction between higher-order desires and lower-order ones. We need an account of what it is for a desire to be central. Even if we could provide an account of identification and endorsement, we would still not know what centrality meant; for centrality requires, in addition, that one find the object of the desire important to life as a whole. We can’t get to the idea of importance simply by adding up the number of decisions controlled. That would be more a measure of power than authority.

Decision theorists have a variety of ways to get a person’s preference ordering, by asking, for example, what she would sacrifice for what else. But this alone doesn’t make for centrality, either. There are too many different ways in which people prefer things.

The second view Hare considers is what he calls “the naturalist view,” because of its reliance on a view of human nature. Griffins’ Well-Being is an example. On this view we should assess the strength of desires not in the sense of felt intensity, or tendency to action, but in a sense supplied by the natural structure of desire. Griffins starts with a list of what makes human life good. He sets up a list of prudential values, which he calls the “common profile.” Autonomy, deep personal relations, accomplishment, etc. arranged in some hierarchy. The strength of a desire can be measured by the relative place of the desire in this hierarchy, which can be described as the natural structure of desire and the informed preference order. Hare thinks this preserves the strength-of-desire principle (interpreted in the naturalist way) and overcomes the objection from unfairness.

But he thinks there are objections, including that the list is parochial, or if expanded incoherent. Too much left out, like communal values and religious ones, or power and prestige. If the list is added to, the possibility of conflict arises.

The second objection: The list is too benign. It omits goals we actually have and which control much of our behavior, but which are not consistent with living morally. Power and prestige, for instance. We have all sorts of ignoble motivations. We shouldn’t be misled in constructing the list of prudential values by the names that people offer for them. Consider for example the abusive relations that have been tolerated in the name of deep personal relations. The root problem is the naturalist approach that reads these various values off our nature—some might be good and some bad, and radical choices might be called for. But how is this possible? (The question we saw earlier in the book.)

The third view Hare considers is the Rationalist View. Hare says we need a view that allows centrality to be considered in moral decisions alongside strength of desire in the minimalist sense, but which does not depend on too benign a view of human nature. Central desires need to be given weight independently of the desires’ intensity or tendency to lead to action, if we are going to avoid discriminating against Eeyores. But nature as the naturalist construes it doesn’t give us the notion of centrality we need. Here Hare wants to focus on a view of centrality that focuses on identifying with a desire (one of the three ingredients mentioned earlier). His interlocutor is the rationalist view of Susan Wolf (in Freedom within Reason). On this view, there is a kind of “deep” identification with a desire, or ownership of it, which allows us to hold a person responsible for an action which comes from such a desire, and thus enables us to apportion deep praise or blame to the action. We can apportion such praise and blame if we can determine whether the person whose desire it is possesses the ability to act in accordance with Reason.

Acting on a desire that bypasses my will is an example of not acting on a desire deeply mine. Hare here relies on the Humean (and Calvinist) compatibilist tradition, which distinguishes between necessity and compulsion. To value something, on the view that deeply identifying with a desire requires its going through one’s will, is to think it good or to think there is some reason to want it. Alternatively, to value something is to endorse the desire for it. Not all desires are endorsed. Endorsing or valuing is more than acknowledging a desire. We can value things inauthentically in some sense, so more needs to be said. The rationalist makes this move: She says that the agents in such cases of inauthentic valuing are not able by their own powers to act or choose in accordance with Reason. Reason means this: whatever faculty or set of faculties are most likely to lead us to form true beliefs and good values. The idea is that an agent is responsible for a decision if it is made in light of all the reasons there actually are for doing and for not doing it. The rationalist could say that an agent deeply identifies with a desire if the object of the desire is something she values and at the time of her valuation she is able to act or choose in accordance with Reason in this sense.

Hare’s contention is that the rationalist’s account does not allow for radical evil. Wolf exaggerates our natural capacities to live a moral life. Wolf tweaks her view to suggest that what is necessary for being responsible is that we recognize and appreciate a set of reasons sufficient to show which action or choice would be right. (But I’m still not responsible if the reasons I entertain for an action are not sufficient to show the action would be right.)

Note, Hare says, that the failures allowed on this account are cognitive failures or deficiencies of time. Hare’s already suggested that cognitive failures can be a product of moral failures. An agent’s own moral failings can cause her to be blind to certain moral considerations (or reasons for action). What considerations a person is open to depends in part on what sort of person she has allowed herself to become. The rationalist position is that a person is responsible for an action only if at the time of performance she possesses the ability to act for the sake of the reasons there are in favor of the action and against it. But a person can get into bad habits; and when she does, she can become insensitive to some of the considerations there are against an action. She gets used to seeing things the way it becomes in her interest to see them. But Hare insists she’s still responsible, and she’s owned those desires. This is true, he says, despite her inability to do otherwise, that she “can no longer act or choose on the basis of the reasons there are against her pattern of action.”

And there aren’t just failings from deterioration. Some failings start at the beginning. We may have grown up ignoring certain considerations. Considerations of cultural blindness should be a cause for hesitation about our moral capacities—think slave owners a few centuries back. Kant, contra these rationalists, would say we can’t overcome evil propensities on our own, despite faintly hearing the call of the moral law. On Kant’s view, we can nevertheless hold people responsible even if they can’t themselves overcome the desires which obscure the call of duty. They deeply own their desires. How to combine realism and accountability? The rationalist insists that the responsible agent must be able to act and choose by her own powers in accordance with Reason. But this is too optimistic, Hare says. What we need is a theory which both allows that morality is possible for us, and does not exaggerate our natural capacities. One theory of this kind is that the morally good life is possible for us, but not by our own devices.

The rationalist’s strategy for understanding responsibility is to move back from desiring to valuing (because not all desiring is deeply owned), and then to move back from valuing to Reason (because not all valuing is deeply owned). Hare thinks the rationalists have stopped too soon, for the faculty that leads us to form our beliefs and values doesn’t reliably track the True and the Good. Even if such a thing as Reason exists, our access to it is unreliable. Even in those in which a faculty for Reason survives, we shouldn’t go on to say that for these folks accountability means that they can by their own devices act and choose in accordance with it. This does not fit with the experience of the overwhelming difficulty, even in the best of circumstances, of leading a morally good life.



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