Universal Prescriptivism

Universal prescriptivism is a compromise between emotivism and the commonsense conviction that morality is a rational enterprise. Its chief exponent, R. M. Hare, argues in The Language of Morals (1952) that moral imperatives carry certain inexorable rational constraints. If I make the moral judgment, "Active, involuntary euthanasia is wrong," I am in effect declaring that one ought not to perform active, involuntary euthanasia on someone, and thus commanding, "Do not perform active, involuntary euthanasia," where the ought command is issued to anyone in the relevant situation, including me, the speaker. So while moral judgments have an imperative or prescriptive component—like Moore, Hare rejects naturalism—they exhibit a universality that binds the speaker's deeds to her claims, and enables the speaker to use reason to draw further moral conclusions on the basis of prescriptions that function as premises in deductive arguments.

In affirming the role of deductive reason in ethics, Hare's universal prescriptivism challenges the emotivist's assumption that only indicative premises are beyond suspicion in valid argumentation. For surely the following argument is a valid deduction:

(2a) I ought not to lie to my patients and thus intentionally mislead them. (2b) My patient Bill asked me to tell him about his medical condition. (2c) I ought not to lie to Bill about his condition.

All its premises are meaningful, and since the major premise is prescriptive, the taboo against deducing an "ought" from an "is" is not violated. Furthermore, (2a) itself could be justified by being a valid conclusion drawn from more general prescriptions:

(2d) I ought not to be unjust.

(2e) To lie to one's patients and thus intentionally mislead them is unjust. (2f) I ought not to lie to my patients and thus intentionally mislead them.

However, there cannot be an infinite hierarchy of such deductions. For the prescriptivist, one's ultimate prescriptive or evaluative premises are chosen rather than deduced: One cannot ground one's moral convictions in premises more basic. The foundations for moral reasoning cannot themselves have a foundation; they reflect one's basic stance or attitude toward persons and things. No "ought" can be derived from an "is." One's moral first principles, being prescriptions, cannot be rooted in indicative soil.

This might lead one to wonder whether universal prescriptivism is more a refinement of emotivism than a genuine advance on it. It seems to push the point where ethical discourse is a matter of attitude and criterionless choice back to the most general evaluation the agent wishes to make. For example, substitute the following premise for (2a) above:

(2a1) I ought not to lie to my patients and thus intentionally mislead them unless I have ample reason to judge that doing so will confer some psychological or medical benefit to them.

If a physician were to judge that some such benefit were to be obtained from intentional deception, then the conclusion that one may intentionally deceive a patient will follow, in direct contradiction to (2c) and (2f). Given the initial moral orientation, certain principles for action are validated, but the original moral orientation cannot itself be validated; it can only be accepted, endorsed, chosen. Since this nonrational, inaugural choice provides the basis for all subsequent moral reasoning, the content of an agent's morality appears to be ultimately arbitrary, even if it is not arbitrary in all its detail.

Hare disagrees. In Freedom and Reason (1963) he argues that universal prescriptivism sets limits on the kinds of fundamental moral choices an agent can make. Consider the following:

(3 a) Certain people ought to be persecuted because, and only because, their skin is black.

If moral imperatives using "ought" are, as Hare claims, universal prescriptions, then the agent uttering these words is, or ought to be, committing himself to the proposition that if his skin were black he, too, ought to be persecuted. It is clear that few individuals who make such assertions, apart from those Hare dubs "fanatics," would assent to the latter claim. Yet it is entailed by the universal prescription (3a); hence, the morality of any agent who asserts (3a) and refuses to extend it to cover himself is, for that very reason, rationally inadequate.

Of course, there is no possibility of genuine argument with a genuine "fanatic": The fanatic's assertion of ultimate principles or fundamental commitments, however odious or bizarre they may be, can only be met with counterassertion and not counterreasoning. Hare seems willing to accept this lack of logical resources against fanaticism. Nevertheless it seems reasonable to ask universal prescriptivists such as Hare whether, by cutting off rational argument at fundamental principles, they are granting too much to fanatics by ruling out any way in which their convictions can be criticized, rather than their unpleasant characters. The fanatic may be vile and depraved, but by universal prescriptivist standards, he is not necessarily defective in reason.

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