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R.M. Hare's preference utilitarianism


To: Maureen O.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: R.M. Hare's preference utilitarianism
Date: 2 December 2002 14:33

Dear Maureen,

Thank you for your e-mail of 21 November, with your second essay for the Associate program, entitled, 'R.M. Hare is a maximiser. This means that his theory of preference act-utilitarianism misidentifies the main point of morality, which is (fair) distribution.'

One considerable merit of this essay is the careful account which you give of the steps which Hare takes in arguing for the preference utilitarian theory.

However, I have a problem with the title. (I assume that this was a set question from your moral philosophy course.) It requires you not only to show why Hare's preference utilitarianism fails to capture the point of morality, but also to show what that point is, namely, fair distribution. But surely it ought to be possible to do the critique without committing oneself to a specific view about the point of morality. As it happens, I do not agree either with Hare, or with the view that the main point of morality is fair distribution.

So there is a question here about just where the critique of Hare takes us. One great merit of his position is that it apparently requires so few premisses to get going. The main point of morality is non self-preference, i.e. taking a disinterested view. Any moral view which seeks to impose one's own preferences on others - one's views about the good life, or what makes for happiness, or anything of this kind - is deemed by Hare to be 'fanatical', incapable of being justified in the light of reason alone. The only theory consistent with this requirement is preference utilitarianism.

Now, of course, one can argue that it is very difficult in practice to know another person's true preferences. This is one issue you go into. But how relevant is this criticism, given Hare's starting point? All it shows is that in the real world, given the limits of our imagination and ability to communicate, it is very difficult to know what is the right thing to do according to preference utilitarian principles. It does not show that there *is* not, in reality, a 'right thing to do', i.e. in the eyes of an all-seeing deity. (The point about personal identity is stronger. As Leibniz remarks somewhere that to imagine my being Napoleon is to imagine Napoleon not existing, and my existing in his place.)

The example of Nazis and Jews appeared back in the 70's in Hare's essay 'Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism', in Contemporary British Philosophy H.D Lewis Ed. Unwin 1976, cf. pp. 121 2). This is what I say about the example in the Pathways Moral Philosophy program:
Is there any way to emend Hare’s principle so as to avoid its spectacularly counterintuitive consequences? The problem, one wants to say, is that some desires are in themselves morally unacceptable. It is not enough to satisfy the demands of morality that they be balanced against the desires of others. Yet it is not immediately clear how one could design an extra 'filter’ that would disallow such desires without thereby contravening the principle of non-fanaticism. Absurd as it may seem, on Hare’s view a small group persecuted by a large one would not only lack moral grounds for protesting against such treatment, but would be morally obliged to aid and abet their persecution, on the grounds that it led to the maximisation of desire satisfaction! One might argue, however, in defence of a modified version of the theory, that there seems to be a clear distinction between desires for things conceived to be 'good’ for some purpose or other (as food is 'good’ for hunger, or extra land is 'good’ for a people in search of lebensraum), and desires whose sole object is the *denial* of a good to others. Envy and malice may ultimately be ineliminable features of the human condition, but it is surely not 'fanatical’ to call such emotions a perversion of desire that ought, in the ideal calculation, to be discounted altogether.

I am not sure now that this distinction can be defended. But why is the Nazi example a problem for Hare? Because the result is obviously wrong? We can't simply import our intuitive ideas of 'right' and 'wrong' from outside. Hare's aim is to define 'right' and 'wrong' purely in terms of reason and logic. In reply, one can either say, 'It can't be done,' or 'Here's another way to do it.' If the answer is that it can't be done, then the way is open to a plurality of alternative moral theories (including the one which I prefer, according to which everyone counts in my deliberations, but there is no requirement that every individual should count equally.)

We are onto much firmer ground considering whether Hare's view is logically sound. If it can be shown that, even with the capacity for godlike knowledge of other people's preferences there is no single, rational way to make a maximizing judgement, then that would amount to a fatal criticism of Hare's theory. Unfortunately, I floundered on your account of Persson's case of the motorist and two cyclists, which - if only I understood it! - looks as though it could provide the necessary wedge here. Surely, Hare *does* allow the summing of weaker desires? You simply consider every possible outcome and the total amount of desire satisfaction that results.

My recommendations: The essay is well up to the standard required. But it needs to be shorter (4400 words is far too long). The crucial arguments don't appear until near the end and don't get nearly enough space devoted to them. You cannot assume that the reader will be familiar with the examples cited: the cyclist example is a case in point.

All the best,