Summary of Chapter 3 John Hare's The Moral Gap

Chapter 2 dealt with one sort of moral faith—that virtue is possible—and Chapter 3 now deals with another: that virtue and happiness are deeply consistent. This is another moral gap that needs to be closed. This faith makes it possible for a person to combine her built-in desire for her own happiness with a commitment to morality. It requires that we postulate the existence of a being “who assigns not only the proper outcome to our good conduct, but also to our good dispositions whatever reward seems adequate to His good pleasure.” Hare notes there are two parts to this idea.

First, we believe that this being orders the world in such a way that we are often enough successful in our attempts to do good to make it worthwhile persevering in the attempt. Second, we believe that this being rewards our fundamental orientation to the good with happiness, so that we do not have to do evil in order to be happy.

This introduces the antinomy of practical reason—the apparent contradiction that the highest good is possible and that it isn’t. But what is the highest good? Happiness proportional to virtue; the more virtue, the more happiness, and the less virtue, the less happiness. What is virtue? For Kant, it is “the firmly grounded disposition strictly to fulfill our duty.” What is happiness? For Kant it’s lives as wholes that are happy or unhappy. Happiness for Kant is the maximum satisfaction as a whole of our needs and desires as rational but finite beings, creatures of need and not merely rational or moral agents.

Hare notes two interpretations of the highest good. The first, the less ambitious sense, is a world with a system in place in which virtue results in happiness. The second, the more ambitious sense, is a world in which everyone is virtuous and everyone is happy. Hare will try to argue that living morally requires believing in the possibility of the highest good in the more ambitious sense, and the actuality of the highest good in the less ambitious sense.

Is the highest good even coherent? If the good is to be motivated solely by respect for the moral law, why should happiness come in at all? If our end is not just virtue, but virtue conjoined with happiness, is not the purity of our respect for the moral law corrupted? Here Hare suggests a parallel in the Christian life, where following Christ should be done for its own sake, even though doing so is also recognized as conducing to our deepest joy.

Hare’s supposition is that it’s possible that some things can be pursued both for their own sakes and for their beneficial consequences. Perhaps I need to be able to foresee my own happiness as consistent with everything I desire, but not that I have to desire everything else at least partly as a means to my own happiness.

What is all-important to Kantian morality is whether the incentive provided by the agent’s happiness is subordinate to the incentive provided by the moral law, or vice versa. It’s okay for an incentive for happiness to be there, but it must take a back seat to the primary call of duty. (It may well be unavoidable that an incentive for happiness is there, emotional and finite creatures that we are.)

Hare thinks that the moral life requires believing in the possibility of the highest good. Hare think this follows from a number of assumptions necessary for a fully reflective living of the moral life.

Assumption #1: The moral good aimed at by action is possible.

Assumption #2: The moral good I am aiming at is a possible result of my attempt to produce it.

Assumption #3: It is possible for me know that the moral good I am aiming at is produced, when it is produced, by the means I have planned.

Assumption #4: I myself can will what is morally good.

Assumption #5: (Concerning everyone else) The moral good they aim at is possible. (social analogue of #1)

Assumption #6: The moral good they are aiming at is a possible result of their efforts to produce it. (social analogue of #2)

#7: It is possible for them to know that the moral good they are aiming at has been produced by the means they have planned. (social analogue of #3)

#8: It is possible for them to will what is morally good. (social analogue of #4)

Hare notes three ways to derive the social analogues:

  1. Assume that what makes things reasonable for me makes them reasonable for everyone.

  2. Morality requires equal respect, and equal respect requires the assumption that all other human beings are capable of willing the good.

  3. Because of the social obstacles to virtue, there are social conditions for the attainment and maintenance of virtue. Possibility of individual virtue requires the possibility of virtue-building and virtue-sustaining congregation.

From 1-8 Hare infers Assumption #9: Possibility of what Kant calls “the Idea of self-rewarding morality,” which says morality does its own rewarding. A world filled with people pursuing virtue and concerned with the welfare of others would be a world filled with happiness.

The highest good in the ambitious sense is a possibility, Hare argues: A world in which righteousness and peace kiss and people are not merely happy, but desirous of things consistent with the moral law.

What about the highest good in the less ambitious sense? Here the new assumption is simply that the virtue of a person results in that person’s happiness. Believing in the actuality of the highest good in the less ambitious sense requires me to believe that my virtue will be rewarded whether (roughly) everyone else is virtuous or not.

Hare wants to argue that we do ordinarily think that we will be happiest if we try to be moral; or that we at least think that being moral has a higher chance than any other strategy. Does this require others to be moral? No, Hare says. For the belief that being morally good is consistent with long-term happiness has been held by people who lived in societies in which they were persecuted and exploited.

Whatever else I desire, as a human being I am bound to desire my own happiness, and I will need to be able to foresee this happiness as consistent with my basic choices. As a human moral agent I have to believe that my continued well-being is consistent with my living a moral life as best I can.

If we are to endorse wholeheartedly the long-term shape of our lives, we have to see this shape as consistent with our own happiness. In a world in which there are many rational agents who have willed not to live by the moral law, I can’t rely on the virtue of others to get me from my virtue to my happiness. So I have to believe that there is in operation a system in which my virtue is rewarded without it.

The antithesis says the highest good in both senses is inachievable. Why might we think the highest good in the less ambitious sense is not rationally thought to be true? One reason: consider that experience suggests that the world seems not to reflect in any way the good man’s striving to bring about goodness in it. Another reason: lack of fit between virtue and happiness is not something we could confirm or disconfirm by experience. (So not knowable a priori.)

Because of so many people trying to be virtuous and yet overwhelmed by evil, a case can be made that life is tragic and human life just is vulnerable to evil. What’s Kant’s solution? He brings in the possibility that the relation between virtue and happiness is mediated by an intelligible Author of nature. Our failures to understand what is happening to us do not license the conclusion that the impact of chance is uncontrollable. Kant rejects the inference from our limitations to the denial of a moral order. He’s “limiting knowledge to make room for faith.”

Hare suggests that belief in moral order is needed; whether this requires moral orderer is another question. A moral argument for the existence of God needs to examine whether there are other ways to back up a moral order.

Those who think the problem of evil is intractable often lose moral faith. But Hare notes that many go through painful ordeals without losing faith in either morality or God. Hare: “The structure of the moral argument is that as long as reason in its theoretical employment cannot rule out the legitimacy of moral faith, reason in its practical employment requires it. If moral faith is possible, then it is necessary.”

Hare wraps the chapter up with these two points: (1) Moral faith is consistent with some doubt about whether your continued well-being is consistent with your trying to live a morally good life; and (2) Moral faith does not require believing that all your present preferences for the future will be secured if you try to live a good life.