Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Universal Prescriptions and Preference Utilitarianism

R.M. Hare held that moral judgments are universal prescriptions. Thus:
it is a misuse of the word 'ought' to say 'You ought, but I can conceive of another situation, identical in all its properties to this one, except that the corresponding person ought not'. (MT p.10)

This places certain constraints on sincere moral judgment. You can't think it's okay to hurt another, unless you also endorse being hurt yourself when in their situation. But what if you will endorse this? Consider the fanatical Nazi, so committed to the cause that he's willing to prescribe his own extermination were he to turn out to be a Jew himself. Is Hare then committed to saying that the fanatic makes no error when he says that all Jews should be exterminated?

I think his view does entail this, though Hare himself thought otherwise. Universalizabilty requires that we can endorse the outcome even after imagining ourselves in others' positions, with their desires, preferences, and moral ideals. Crucially, Hare thought that in doing this, we would inevitably come to share their preferences about the situation they are in. So, in thinking about what we can endorse after considering all positions equally, we must ultimately prescribe preference utilitarianism: maximizing the net weight of preference satisfaction across all involved.

However, Hare's 'crucial step' seems simply mistaken. It conflates counterfactual desires with desires about counterfactuals. Note the difference:
(1) In situation S, I would desire that P
(2) I do desire that, were I in situation S, P.

So merely imagining a situation where I have some desire, doesn't entail my (now) endorsing it. The fanatical Nazi can say, "Wow, yeah I can see I'd feel really unjustly abused if I were a Jew. I'd certainly oppose the Final Solution. How misguided I would then be! Such unpatriotic preferences should not be given normative weight."

Peter Singer ('Reasoning towards Utilitarianism') notes that Hare's non-cognitivism may be used to undermine this last claim, for it means that no personal preferences/ideals are intrinsically superior to any others. So the fanatic cannot ground his stubborn preference on claims of objective truth or warrant. Fair enough. But did he ever need to? For non-cognitivists, preferences don't need to be 'grounded' or justified at all. So why not a higher-order preference to the effect that such-and-such other preferences -- even if they come to be one's own -- should be thwarted? It may be an uncomfortable preference to sincerely hold, but if the fanatic is willing to really bite this bullet, then I don't see how Hare has the resources to criticize him.

It's important to note that the fanatic really is making a universal prescription here. He's not just claiming that anti-Nazi preferences should be thwarted given that only other people have them. He's also willing to endorse this prescription for all possible situations that are relevantly similar, including that possible situation where he himself is anti-Nazi. This willingness to universalize is precisely what makes him a fanatic rather than an amoralist. Granted, when he fully and vividly imagines being Jewish himself, part of what he imagines is opposing the prescription of Nazism. But he can imagine opposing a prescription without thereby actually opposing its application to the imagined scenario, as we saw in distinguishing (1) and (2) above.

This is exactly like the point that I can imagine a scenario where I [perhaps falsely] believe that P, but it doesn't follow that I (actually) believe, of that scenario, that P is true in it. We must take care to separate the content of the scenario being imagined (including the attitudes I am stipulated to have within or according to the fiction) from the attitudes I have towards the imagined scenario. Once we're clear about this, I don't see how the non-cognitivist can accuse the fanatic of error in his (non-utilitarian) universal prescriptions.

Update: It's been pointed out to me that Hare was actually careful to distinguish (1) and (2). He just thought that a full appreciation of the first would necessarily bring about the second -- otherwise one must not have been imagining the counterfactual preferences vividly enough, or some such. That doesn't strike me as a plausible claim, though.


  1. "another situation, identical in all its properties to this one"

    Identical in /all/ properties suggests that this is going to be useless for getting the fanatic to admit anything. You're imagining we have him imagine the same situation but with him in the place of the Jew. But then the facts just aren't identical: different people are in different situations, the Nazi is no longer non-Jewish, and so on. An *identical* situation just looks like it's going to be, well, the same situation as the one in hand. And how can reference to that add anything to the argument to make someone change their mind?

    It needs to be changed to something like "another situation, identical in all *relevant* respects to this one". But that won't work, since the fanatic can just disagree about which respects are relevant.

  2. You're conflating properties and facts. If properties are purely qualitative, one might hold them fixed while changing the identity facts. I take it that's what's meant to be going on here.

    But that's a tangential issue anyway. My point was that even if universalization would cause some people (e.g. opportunistic evil-doers) to change their minds, the fanatic is precisely someone who is willing to universalize his prescription. So he doesn't have to "disagree about which respects are relevant", or any of that. He can play along as well as we like; he's still not forced to change his preferences in the end if he's willing to bite the bullet and prescribe his own suffering in those other scenarios.

  3. Richard,

    you ask whether universal prescriptivism would accept that the fanatic makes no error in universalising his point of view.

    It may be worthwhile distinguishing different types of error that might lead to the fanatic continuing to hold their preferences

    1. They might fail to consider the perspective of others who would be affected by this.
    2. They might hold false beliefs about the perspectives of others (for example the rapist who believes that his victim enjoys being raped) or
    3. they might accurately assesses the perspectives of those (for example jews) who would be affected, but disregard the moral importance of this.

    The fanatic in your example seems to fit into this last group.

    Hare argues that universalisability is inherent in the meaning of moral language.
    I don't know his work as well as I should, but it seems that he could be making one of two claims.
    He could be endorsing the empirical claim that you mention in your postscript.
    ie if people consider the perspectives of others who are affected by their actions they will surely come to take the interests of others into consideration.

    Your scepticism is based upon the intransigence of some individuals, who would appear to be willing to submit themselves to suffer if they were the other party.

    But I think that Hare is making the stronger claim that when individuals universalise in the way that he thinks we are committed to do when we use moral language, they are necessarily committed to consider the interests of others as equally important to their own interests.
    The fanatic in your example believes that "such unpatriotic preferences should not be given normative weight". But in this he demonstrates the error in his universalisation. He has failed to genuinely universalise because he weighs some interests more readily than others.
    Thus (in my reading of Hare), impartiality is a necessary result of true universal prescriptions.


  4. Dom - 'interests' is perhaps a loaded word. I take it that Hare is merely talking about preferences.

    Now, does universalization necessarily involve a commitment to treating others' preferences as (equally important as) one's own? This could mean a couple of things. For one, it could mean that we imagine the scenario in which we are the ones to have those preferences, and we reflect from our external vantage point about what we now want for that given situation in which we come to have those imagined preferences. The fanatic does this just fine.

    On the other hand, you might mean that we are committed to currently share those preferences, i.e. to make our decision through the lens of those other preferences. But this does not seem remotely plausible. I certainly do not take myself to be committed to any such thing. For example, if I imagine a scenario S where I have racist preferences, I do not want those preferences to be satisfied or respected. I much prefer that my racist counterpart instead be exposed to greater diversity in the hopes that this will help him to change his racist attitudes, and become the sort of person I find more admirable. That's what I really hope would happen to me, if I were ever in such a position.

    Anyway, that's just a vivid illustration of the problem. (We are all 'fanatics' in this sense, and rightly so. Not all ideals are bad ones.) The more principled objection was stated in my post, as follows:

    "It's important to note that the fanatic really is making a universal prescription here. He's not just claiming that anti-Nazi preferences should be thwarted given that only other people have them. He's also willing to endorse this prescription for all possible situations that are relevantly similar, including that possible situation where he himself is anti-Nazi. This willingness to universalize is precisely what makes him a fanatic rather than an amoralist."

    If you think the fanatic isn't really offering a universal prescription, then what do you think he's doing? That just seems to deny the plain facts of the situation. Maybe we don't like his universal prescription -- maybe it even fails according to some additional (preference utilitarian) norm we would like to prescribe. But there's no denying that this really is the fanatic's universal preference, i.e. to apply to all possible situations, and not just his actual one. (If you deny this, how do you distinguish the fanatic from the amoralist?)

  5. Richard,

    OK, so the fanatic could be making a universal, prescription - in the sense that he is prescribing it for everyone.
    But we might question (I might anyway) whether his prescription is universal-isable in the sense that it could be equally prescribed by any other.
    This is to distinguish a preference to be applied to anyone, from a preference that would be or could be endorsed by anyone affected.
    So it is not so different from the idea that Scanlon later gives as a principle that "noone could reasonably reject"

    Hare thought that a form of the golden rule could be derived from universalisation. It requires us to do unto others as we wish them to do to us. (Hare. Abortion and the Golden Rule. Phil Pub Affairs 1975)

    The fanatic might say, "if I were an animal I would want you to eat me", or "if I were a Jew I would want you to kill me", though if he did he would be committing the second type of error that I alluded to above.

    If the fanatic admits that if he were an animal he would not want to be eaten, but then claims that he should eat the animal anyway, then (excluding any other morally relevant considerations that might justify this conclusion), he is ignoring the moral relevance of the other's point of view (or claiming partiality) in a way that is not consistent with universalisation. He is not an amoralist - since he thinks that he is doing what is right. Yet he fails to adequately weigh the relevant interests (yes I know, but Hare uses the term a lot - often loosely) .

    As for non-rational preferences of others, I am not sure what Hare's prescriptivism would yield.
    To take your example further. Imagine a small ethnic group within a large racist community. When we consider whether the majority should discriminate against the minority, do the racist preferences of the larger group get to outweigh the anti-discrimination preferences of the minority?
    (I am with you in thinking that a weighting of preferences on the basis of their 'rationality' appears to be the way to go, but I don't know how Hare would get to this)


  6. "But we might question (I might anyway) whether his prescription is universal-isable in the sense that it could be equally prescribed by any other."

    Thanks Dom, that clarifies things. One worry is that this makes the step to preference utilitarianism too short. Compare: "we might question whether his prescription is universalizable in the sense that it maximally satisfies all preferences." One might ask that question, but the answer is unlikely to interest anyone but a preference utilitarian.

    (It would be very different if we were to add some substantive constraint, as per the Scanlonian question whether a principle could be reasonably rejected. I'm fine with that. But since non-cognitivists think all preferences are on a par, your proposed sense of universalizability really is, to them, just a restatement of preference utilitarianism. So I have trouble seeing this crude sense of universalizability as especially morally relevant, and as a purely 'ad hominem' point I can't see how a non-cognitivist has the philosophical resources to insist upon it. The fanatic makes no factual mistake, and the non-cognitivist doesn't believe in objective normative constraints, so what's left for the fanatic to be mistaken about?)

    I don't think Hare intended to build preference utilitarianism so directly into the definition of universalizability. Yet I agree with you that he's not making a merely empirical claim. Rather, I take it he thinks it is somehow metaphysically necessary that fully imagining oneself in another's position will lead one to inherit their preferences about it. (Much like a vivid appreciation of suffering arguably entails some aversion to the imagined state. If you don't feel any such aversion, Hare suggests, you must not have understood that it involves suffering.) I take the 'racism' case in my previous comment to serve as a counterexample to this strong claim, however. It seems perfectly possible for us to fully imagine having some repugnant preference, and yet continue to oppose it. So Hare's claim that [full knowledge of] (1) entails (2) is just false.


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