Summary of Chapter 4 of John Hare’s The Moral Gap


This chapter marks the beginning of the second part of the book, dealing with human limits and various attempts in contemporary moral philosophy to make sense of morality given these limits. The first part of the book asked, with Kant, how we can become other men and not merely better men? Kant refused to exaggerate our powers or reduce the moral demand to fit our powers. This chapter (and the next) will deal with the first of these strategies: exaggerating our powers. This chapter will look at some recent utilitarian writing to illustrate this strategy of puffing up the capacity. To eliminate the gap some utilitarians puff our capacities to godlike proportions to live the moral life. Shelly Kagan does this in The Limits of Morality. He makes the claim that if all our beliefs were vivid, including especially our beliefs about the interests of others, we would tend to conform to the impartial standard that utilitarian morality requires.

For a utilitarian, the moral demand is that we are to perform those acts which can reasonably be expected to lead to the best consequences overall, impartially considered. The moral demand, Hare wishes to stress, is far higher than most people are comfortable with. On utilitarianism, a great deal of the expenditure entailed by our current standard of living would be forbidden. The price of a movie ticket, given to famine relief, could do much more good. Some might think that this construal of the moral demand is too great for human nature to bear. This aspect of the utilitarian demand concerns the demand for impartiality between persons, but there are other demanding features of the utilitarian principle, like the need to resist the human tendency to give more weight to the agent’s own interests than the utilitarian principle allows.

Kant put such a point negatively: our initial condition (before the revolution of the will) is one of preferring happiness to duty. In our initial condition, our own interests tend to have more motivational force for us than the utilitarian principle allows. We are prone to give more weight to our own interests, just because they are ours, than we should, on utilitarianism. Now, if it’s the case that I ought to do something, it must be the case that I can do it. This does not mean merely that I must be able to do it if I want to do it, but that I must be able to want to do it. Kant thinks we’re under the sway of our desires as a whole (before the revolution of the will), so the desire to do my duty will not have the requisite force to overcome my other desires. It’s not clear, then, that I am able to want most of all to do my duty; at least, it is not clear that I am able to do so regularly. If it’s not the case I can, it’s not the case I ought, and Practical Reason, which prescribes a life of duty, will not be practical or prescriptive for me. Impartiality, for the utilitarian, is in the same predicament as Practical Reason is for Kant.

How might a utilitarian reply? One reply is to say that humans do in fact have the resources to empower themselves to live by the moral demand. Hare calls the proponent of this view “the optimist.” The optimist points out that prudence counsels that we not (generally) privilege what we want now over what we’ll want in the future. The optimist claims that I can be moved by the thought of what prudence would prescribe, even if I am not presently moved equally by the future interest. By attending to the future interest, I can make the belief about it more vivid. The optimist then returns from prudence to morality, saying we can say the same thing about morality. We have a bias towards our own interests, but morality is still binding on us. We can be motivated by the thought of what we would be motivated by if our beliefs about the interests of others were as vivid as our beliefs about our own interests. The optimist makes a counterfactual claim: If my beliefs were vivid, I would tend to conform to the impartial standpoint.

Hare, though, asks if this counterfactual is true. The optimist claims it is. It’s easier to sacrifice my own interests for others as I acquire more vivid beliefs about their interests. This can be true, for example, when I form a close and long-lasting relationship with someone. And we can be moved towards our duty by imagining in detail the plight of the people we are affecting by our decisions. There’s moral power in vividness.

But Hare doesn’t think the counterfactual true. Vividness might capture the idea of degree of clarity and distinctness attending a belief we hold. Or it might pertain to the degree of wholeheartedness with which we care about the belief, or the degree of importance we attach to it. We can be quite clear about someone’s pleasure, but not care about it much at all. The counterfactual is about cognitive shortcomings. Increased tendency towards impartiality doesn’t necessarily result from greater clarity, and even if it did, it wouldn’t necessarily result in an overall tendency towards impartiality. It’s not just an increase that’s needed, but that the tendency to impartiality becomes greater than half. And this is supposed to apply to everyone, but there are misanthropic people who are either indifferent to the interests of others or enjoy causing them distress. Love of power, envy, fear, resentment are often operative even in families where awareness of the needs of others is great. Often, too, there’s a willful blindness; folks choose not to be vividly aware of the need for, say, famine relief. Another strategy is rationalization in terms of some normative principle which takes the appearance of objectivity, but derives its motivational power for him from its convenience as a disguise for self-interest. Induced crisis might be yet another strategy. There may be an underlying bias which has numerous techniques of self-persuasion at its disposal. And if we stop thinking of vividness as a cognitive matter, but a matter of caring, one may simply not care about morality enough, even if one recognizes that morality calls for a certain response.

How would the optimist respond? He might stress that most of us have some motivation to overcome our bias towards our own interests. Most don’t endorse the pull to self-interest. But Hare thinks this inadequate. For there may be an endorsement by the agent to the pull of self-interest after all. We may convince ourselves we’re being altruistic or something like that without actually being so. Second, can we try to do what we know we will never be able to do by our own efforts? Nothing more than marginal improvement may be able to be realistically envisioned; there has to be a point in trying. But impartiality as it is construed by the utilitarian principle requires no bias towards the agent’s own interests. This is like trying to jump to the moon, and recognizing this we see it’s futile to try to do it if more than marginal improvement is the goal.

Does this mean we shouldn’t try to achieve it? The Christian tradition counsels perfection after all. But this is possible by God’s gift of grace, not by our striving to achieve it. So utilitarianism has a problem if it’s suggesting an exaggeration of human capacities. Hare adds this at the end: “Utilitarianism could be construed as a theory, like Kant’s theory in the Groundwork, about what our lives would be like after such a revolution [of the will]; but then the theory needs a supplement about how human beings can get to the position in which the demand of the utilitarian principle can be lived.”