Chapter 6, John Hare’s Moral Gap, “Reducing the Demand”

By David Baggett  Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

This chapter is focused on the other strategy to close the moral gap: reducing the moral demand. Namely, Hare will concentrate on attempts to claim that impartiality is not always required in moral judgment. These attempts can be seen as driving a wedge between two formulations of Kant’s categorical imperative. Impartiality is a construal of the first formulation—of universal law. Hare uses “universalism” for this construal of the moral demand and the insistence that all moral judgments must be impartial in this sense. The second formulation of the categorical imperative is that we must always treat humanity, whether in our own person or the person of another, as an end in itself, and never merely as a means.

Kant thought these two formulations were formulations of the same supreme principle of reality. But in this chapter, Hare will consider the possibility that we may be able to treat another person as an end in herself without being impartial in the sense required by the first formulation. Hare will explore the thought that we can make the ends of another person our ends not because she is a center of rational agency, but because she is related to us in some special way. If we allow this, have we reduced the moral demand? Hare will argue no.

Hare will consider objections to universalism in ethics made by feminists. He will distinguish four objections, claiming they are valid against some types of universalism, but not against the sort of universalism he will define. Then Hare will give a fifth objection that he claims to be valid against universalism as defined. If the objection is valid, we should accept the ‘particularist’ thesis that not all moral judgments are universalizable, but, nevertheless, this doesn’t after all reduce the moral demand.

The first objection is that moral judgments must often be specific, whereas the universalist requires them to be general. He cites Gilligan and Noddings here. Gilligan demurs from Kohlberg’s moral hierarchy by pointing to another equally valuable kind of moral thinking she dubs “care” thinking, where the rival claims are weighed not in the abstract, in terms of the relative priority of the principles behind them, but rather in the particular. She says this kind of thinking tends towards “the reconstruction of the dilemma in its contextual particularity.” Noddings says that if we care, what we do depends not on rules or a prior determination of what is fair or equitable, but on a constellation of conditions that is viewed through both the eyes of the one-caring and the eyes of the cared-for. An ethic of caring, she says, won’t embody a set of universalizable moral judgments.

But Hare wants to make two distinctions here. First: between general and specific, and second: between universal and particular. A principle is universal if it is stated in purely universal terms, without singular reference. It’s particular if it’s not. A situation can be described in universal terms and still be described in minute and completely specific detail, though. There can also be general particular judgments, like the claim that all Americans are morally good. The distinction between specific and general is, unlike that between universal and particular, one of degree. In order to count as general a principle must abstract from some of the detail of the situation to which it prescribes.

Now contextual particularity, as Gilligan and Noddings describe it, seems to be a matter of specificity, of detail. But a maxim can be universal and yet concrete, in the sense of mentioning (in universal terms) anything that distinguishes this situation from any other. In this first objection there is, then, a valid point against any account of the moral demand that fails to acknowledge the need for sensitive moral perception of the relevant details in particular situations. It may be that the required sensitivity is not, itself, a rational capacity, in Kant’s sense. But we don’t yet have a valid objection against universalism as Hare’s defined it.

Now for a second objection: that caring requires taking on the perspective of the other person. Care must be a response to what a particular person actually needs or wants or what will serve a particular relationship. People must be perceived as having access to others in their own terms. As far as Hare can see, this objection doesn’t work against universalism as he’s defined it. To determine whether another person’s maxim passes the test of the categorical imperative requires an understanding of that maxim in the other person’s own terms. This may not be entirely possible to do, but universalism doesn’t preclude such considerations. Perhaps a version of universalism is susceptible to this challenge, but not to the version Hare’s laid out.

A third objection: universalism is not sensitive to the existence of divergent personal ideals. A moral particularity thesis allows certain individuating and defining features of an agent’s life to matter what they do in some cases in a way that is not universally generalizable. She has in mind that different people have different views about what is morally most important. Morality does not require the same responses from those facing the same sorts of situation. Margaret Walker pushes this line.

But is this inconsistent with universalism as Hare’s defined it? The key is what’s meant by the phrase “universally generalizable.” Walker seems to want to allow the moral agent discretion, but only within certain limits. Hare thinks this sounds right: an account of morality should not countenance any and every view about what is morally important. But this leaves us with a theory of moral permissions which apply to everybody and an area within these permissions which is discretionary. As far as Hare can see, this isn’t inconsistent with universalism. Kant himself distinguished between perfect and imperfect duties. The only sort of universalism susceptible to criticism here is one that would say there’s one right answer to every question about what a person should do in a situation of a certain sort, where the situation was defined independently of the person’s own aspirations—not a plausible view.

Now Hare mentions a fourth objection, from the tension between universalism and close personal relations. McFall claims that universalism is incompatible with friendship and love. Friendship often requires unconditional commitments. These are identity-conferring, in the sense that they determine what counts for an agent as a reason for acting and they are not themselves justified by reference to other commitments. But this is inconsistent with impartiality, says McFall.

But Kant observes in The Doctrine of Virtue that it is no violation of impartiality to spend more time with the people we care about, or to look after them in circumstances or in ways in which we would not look after others. There is a version of universalism vulnerable: it might be said there’s not enough time to meet the commitments of friendship and to meet the moral demand of service to strangers. Hare thinks a distinction is needed between levels—like his dad’s between intuitive and critical moral thinking.

Next Hare wants to defend the thesis that there are moral judgments that are not universalizable—there are moral judgments from which singular terms are not eliminable. He calls moral judgments of this type “particular moral judgments.” He is going to discuss judgments that prescribe action, even though there are equally important moral judgments that do this only indirectly. He thinks it helpful to see particular moral judgments as intermediate between prudence and universalizable morality. They are like prudence in that they do not eliminate singular reference. But at the same time, note that what I prescribe for myself in prudence is standardly specified in universal terms, or at least can be. Particular moral judgments are like judgments of prudence in both these ways. They contain ineliminable singular reference, in this case to some other particular person as well as to myself, and what they prescribe I should do for that person is specifiable in universal terms. I ought, let’s say, go and visit my friend because he’s feeling wretched. And this gives me a reason, this time a moral reason, for my action. But particular moral judgments are also like universalizable morality, for they override self-interest in the interest of another person. They are, though not in Kant’s sense, treating another person as an end in himself.

At this point Hare distinguishes four positions within a prescriptive judgment, to see how universalization relates differently to them. The first two are the position of “addressee,” the person to whom the judgment is addressed, and the position of “agent,” the person whose action is being prescribed. These aren’t always the same. Third, there is the position of the “recipient,” the person to whom the action is to be done. Finally, there is the position of the “action,” which is what the speaker judges should or should not be done by this agent to this recipient. Now, it’s usual to think that universalizability has to be a feature of the terms in all four positions at once, but this is not so. It’s possible to replace a term with purely universal terms at some positions in a judgment but not others. Hare thinks the Ten Commandments are a case where the terms in the addressee and the agent positions are not universalizable. On the other hand, the term in the action position is already universal. The people of Israel are not to commit adultery at any time or in any place. Or take the greatest commandment, which features for the term in the recipient position something (God) not universalizable; the command isn’t prescribing that the believer should love anyone who is the same as God in universally specifiable respects.

So what Hare’s claiming is that there is a claim of moral judgments that are like judgments of prudence in the following respect: they are judgments in which the terms in addressee and agent and recipient positions are not, but the term in the action position is, necessarily universalizable. Why does Hare insist particular moral judgments are moral? For Kant they are not moral, because they are not universalizable. Hare makes three points against him. First, he’s not speaking for the ethical tradition as a whole; Aristotle for example thought moral relations are always to members of this family or polis. Kant’s claim is a recent one. Second, particular moral judgments can exemplify what seems to Hare paradigmatic of morality, namely, regard for another person for his or her own sake. To put it this way makes it seem like the two formulations of Kant’s categorical imperative can diverge, though the second isn’t being construed here as in Kant’s original formulation. Third, it’s characteristic of moral judgments that they give reasons for action that treat others as ends in themselves. Since the term in the action position is universal or at least universalizable, we can talk of particular moral judgments giving reasons for action.

A moral judgment requires more than universalizable terms in the action position; it also expresses care or regard for another person for his or her own sake. In Kant, this is done when I respect his practical rationality. In Aristotle, I do so when I love his nous. But it may not be possible to say what it is about a person I care about when I care for her for her own sake. Why care about a daughter’s distress? To say it’s because she’s my daughter may be right causally, but it isn’t right phenomenologically. We simply care for the person’s own sake.

Suppose a mother whose part of a cause is torn between staying with her daughter and contributing to the cause. There’s a conflict, and in principle the universalist analysis might suggest she should go to the meeting. But Hare wants to suggest that privileging the daughter may well be the right moral decision, despite that it’s not derivative in its moral value from justification at the critical level, as the universalist describes. Hare knows of no way to deny this except by begging the question in favor of the universalist.

Nonetheless Hare now makes three points against “extreme particularism” that denies we have obligations toward everyone. Noddings is an extreme particularist. Caring is only possible for an agent within a comparatively small group of people, so she rejects the notion of universal caring. Even if this is true, though, Hare says it doesn’t allow us to violate the rights of people who are outside the caring relationship. Not just negative duties, but positive duties apply; but Noddings denies universal caring. So for Hare’s three points: First, the institution of morality we are familiar with does include fully universalizable obligations. We use ought language in this way. Second, consequences of the disappearance of fully universalizable morality would be serious. Many feel like responding to needs of strangers is the human thing to do. Partiality is justified, but has limits. Unconstrained it can lead to a reduction of the number of people who can be adequately protected by partiality. Third, special relations, like those of friendship and family, are liable to certain kinds of internal corruption from the lack of the sense of justice. Dividing up morality into ‘care’ for the private and ‘justice’ for the public sphere damages both spheres. Relations within families or between friends need regulation by justice of an impartial kind. Take a mother who cares for her children and family so much she neglects herself. Or a mother who neglects to teach her child not to expect privileged treatment.

Hare thinks particular moral obligations don’t lessen moral obligations overall. Hare doesn’t think particular and universal requirements tend to conflict very much in any significant way. Particular moral obligations don’t do away with perfect duties, just adds new ones. Part of the difficulty nowadays, exacerbating the perceived tension between the universal and particular, is that the world has shrunk and we’re more aware of needs around the world, without intermediate social arrangements between family and large-scale bureaucracies of government or national church. But we can still belong to communities that make organized outreach to the needy more possible and workable. The Bible would seem to counsel to do so.


Summary of Chapter 5 of John Hare’s The Moral Gap

This chapter will continue to discuss the problems in the current philosophical literature that arise from failing to recognize the existence of what Kant called “radical evil.” It will focus on a “the strength-of-desire principle.” This is the principle that we can satisfy the requirements of justice by giving initial preference in moral discussion to the stronger of two desires, independently of whose that desire is. Hare begins by raising an objection to the principle, namely, that it can’t account for the importance we give to the centrality of a desire in a person’s life. Then he’ll discuss responses to the objection. He won’t answer the objections beyond trying to show that they don’t account for radical evil.

According to the strength-of-desire principle, if two people are in competition for some good, and the first desires the good more strongly than the second, the good should be awarded to the first, other things being equal. Singer embraces such a view. Hare wants to propose that it’s unfair to give this weight to how much a desire is felt. There are some people who simply feel their desires very intensely. Hare calls them “Triggers.” Others know at least roughly how important it is to their lives as a whole and that their various desires be satisfied, even though they are felt less strongly. Hare calls these “Eeyores.” The principle discriminates in favor of Triggers. The principle encourages people to have as many strong desires as possible, which means that it encourages the development of the kind of person who makes life less happy for other people.

The first utilitarian response is “minimalist” in taking “strength” in the strength-of-desire principle to be a measure of either intensity or the tendency to action. “Intensity” is taken phenomenologically, as a matter of internal experience. Hare’s assuming a correlation between intensity of desire and tendency to action (though he realizes it doesn’t always obtain). Sometimes the principle’s application seems eminently fair. But sometimes it is unfair, but the minimalist can say we need to look at the whole set of desires that each party has. So perhaps one person’s desire is weaker, but more integrated with other desires. Some less intense desires may be central in the sense of being backed up by higher order desires; and some more intense desires may not be so central. The minimalist can give greater weight to desires that have purchase over other desires in the way central desires do.

But Hare says this move by the minimalist to accommodate the sense of unfairness of applying the principle fails. Adolescents are living through a period of maximum potential desire-satisfaction and aversion-avoidance. Contrast them with the “fifty-year-old” whose motivational structure has this feature: the desires and aversions are flattened out but connected with each other into a more coherent pattern. There can still be strong commitment, but it is more to the structure as a whole than in an adolescent, with more tolerance for the frustration of individual desires. Hare thinks that if we could wave a magic wand and accommodate all the desires and aversions of the adolescent or fifty-year-old, the minimalist would say we must prefer the adolescent. The adolescent’s aversion to boredom, for example, will be far greater than the fifty-year-old’s. The very connectedness that provided the initial minimalist response about centrality also makes boredom for the fifty-year-old more tolerable.

The fifty-year-old also recognizes that there are many different kinds of links between lower-order and higher-order desires, so is more able to tolerate the frustration of a number of desires because of the link with her higher-order desires. This again leads to privileging the adolescent’s perspective, but it wouldn’t be fair to discriminate against fifty-year-olds in this way.

The minimalist might say that the fifty-year-old’s desires should trump after all because the adolescent desires tend to be so frustrated. But Hare says that even if this is right it’s only because of contingent features of the adolescent’s situation. Hare wants to draw a distinction between desires I identify with and desires I do not. The apostle Paul distinguishes between two sets of desires he has: there are the desires produced by sin, and the desires which he identifies as what he wants. One way to make the distinction is to point to the difference between authority and power. Those with authority are entitled to obedience even if they do not receive it. Those with power do receive it, even if they are not entitled to it. The person I want to be and thus the desires I want to have can be authoritative for me, even if they are not the most intense or the most likely to lead to action (the most powerful). The law of sin may still have some power, but it no longer has authority—there’s been a decisive shift from the old man to the new man, even though there may still be habits left over from the old way of life.

So here is one way to characterize what it means to identify with a desire: regarding the desire as sinful. Sin is a nature, a large-scale pattern of desires. In the fifty-year-old, potentially anyway, there’s a coming to terms with oneself—which can be seen as a measure of wisdom and maturity. Recognition of good and bad. The bad can be recognized without being endorsed. She sees herself more as a whole more than she once did. She doesn’t blame faults on isolated desires or traits of character but on the whole package turned in the wrong direction. Because she sees more of the connections between her desires, she can see how complicated and pervasive are the influences of both sin and good. So there’s such a thing as (1) acknowledging desires, (2) endorsing them, and (3) identifying with desires. To identify with desires is to acknowledge them and not want to change them or have them changed. It’s stronger than acknowledging but weaker than endorsing it.

Hare’s point so far is that the minimalist can’t rescue the strength-of-desire principle from the charge of unfairness by appealing merely to the distinction between higher-order desires and lower-order ones. We need an account of what it is for a desire to be central. Even if we could provide an account of identification and endorsement, we would still not know what centrality meant; for centrality requires, in addition, that one find the object of the desire important to life as a whole. We can’t get to the idea of importance simply by adding up the number of decisions controlled. That would be more a measure of power than authority.

Decision theorists have a variety of ways to get a person’s preference ordering, by asking, for example, what she would sacrifice for what else. But this alone doesn’t make for centrality, either. There are too many different ways in which people prefer things.

The second view Hare considers is what he calls “the naturalist view,” because of its reliance on a view of human nature. Griffins’ Well-Being is an example. On this view we should assess the strength of desires not in the sense of felt intensity, or tendency to action, but in a sense supplied by the natural structure of desire. Griffins starts with a list of what makes human life good. He sets up a list of prudential values, which he calls the “common profile.” Autonomy, deep personal relations, accomplishment, etc. arranged in some hierarchy. The strength of a desire can be measured by the relative place of the desire in this hierarchy, which can be described as the natural structure of desire and the informed preference order. Hare thinks this preserves the strength-of-desire principle (interpreted in the naturalist way) and overcomes the objection from unfairness.

But he thinks there are objections, including that the list is parochial, or if expanded incoherent. Too much left out, like communal values and religious ones, or power and prestige. If the list is added to, the possibility of conflict arises.

The second objection: The list is too benign. It omits goals we actually have and which control much of our behavior, but which are not consistent with living morally. Power and prestige, for instance. We have all sorts of ignoble motivations. We shouldn’t be misled in constructing the list of prudential values by the names that people offer for them. Consider for example the abusive relations that have been tolerated in the name of deep personal relations. The root problem is the naturalist approach that reads these various values off our nature—some might be good and some bad, and radical choices might be called for. But how is this possible? (The question we saw earlier in the book.)

The third view Hare considers is the Rationalist View. Hare says we need a view that allows centrality to be considered in moral decisions alongside strength of desire in the minimalist sense, but which does not depend on too benign a view of human nature. Central desires need to be given weight independently of the desires’ intensity or tendency to lead to action, if we are going to avoid discriminating against Eeyores. But nature as the naturalist construes it doesn’t give us the notion of centrality we need. Here Hare wants to focus on a view of centrality that focuses on identifying with a desire (one of the three ingredients mentioned earlier). His interlocutor is the rationalist view of Susan Wolf (in Freedom within Reason). On this view, there is a kind of “deep” identification with a desire, or ownership of it, which allows us to hold a person responsible for an action which comes from such a desire, and thus enables us to apportion deep praise or blame to the action. We can apportion such praise and blame if we can determine whether the person whose desire it is possesses the ability to act in accordance with Reason.

Acting on a desire that bypasses my will is an example of not acting on a desire deeply mine. Hare here relies on the Humean (and Calvinist) compatibilist tradition, which distinguishes between necessity and compulsion. To value something, on the view that deeply identifying with a desire requires its going through one’s will, is to think it good or to think there is some reason to want it. Alternatively, to value something is to endorse the desire for it. Not all desires are endorsed. Endorsing or valuing is more than acknowledging a desire. We can value things inauthentically in some sense, so more needs to be said. The rationalist makes this move: She says that the agents in such cases of inauthentic valuing are not able by their own powers to act or choose in accordance with Reason. Reason means this: whatever faculty or set of faculties are most likely to lead us to form true beliefs and good values. The idea is that an agent is responsible for a decision if it is made in light of all the reasons there actually are for doing and for not doing it. The rationalist could say that an agent deeply identifies with a desire if the object of the desire is something she values and at the time of her valuation she is able to act or choose in accordance with Reason in this sense.

Hare’s contention is that the rationalist’s account does not allow for radical evil. Wolf exaggerates our natural capacities to live a moral life. Wolf tweaks her view to suggest that what is necessary for being responsible is that we recognize and appreciate a set of reasons sufficient to show which action or choice would be right. (But I’m still not responsible if the reasons I entertain for an action are not sufficient to show the action would be right.)

Note, Hare says, that the failures allowed on this account are cognitive failures or deficiencies of time. Hare’s already suggested that cognitive failures can be a product of moral failures. An agent’s own moral failings can cause her to be blind to certain moral considerations (or reasons for action). What considerations a person is open to depends in part on what sort of person she has allowed herself to become. The rationalist position is that a person is responsible for an action only if at the time of performance she possesses the ability to act for the sake of the reasons there are in favor of the action and against it. But a person can get into bad habits; and when she does, she can become insensitive to some of the considerations there are against an action. She gets used to seeing things the way it becomes in her interest to see them. But Hare insists she’s still responsible, and she’s owned those desires. This is true, he says, despite her inability to do otherwise, that she “can no longer act or choose on the basis of the reasons there are against her pattern of action.”

And there aren’t just failings from deterioration. Some failings start at the beginning. We may have grown up ignoring certain considerations. Considerations of cultural blindness should be a cause for hesitation about our moral capacities—think slave owners a few centuries back. Kant, contra these rationalists, would say we can’t overcome evil propensities on our own, despite faintly hearing the call of the moral law. On Kant’s view, we can nevertheless hold people responsible even if they can’t themselves overcome the desires which obscure the call of duty. They deeply own their desires. How to combine realism and accountability? The rationalist insists that the responsible agent must be able to act and choose by her own powers in accordance with Reason. But this is too optimistic, Hare says. What we need is a theory which both allows that morality is possible for us, and does not exaggerate our natural capacities. One theory of this kind is that the morally good life is possible for us, but not by our own devices.

The rationalist’s strategy for understanding responsibility is to move back from desiring to valuing (because not all desiring is deeply owned), and then to move back from valuing to Reason (because not all valuing is deeply owned). Hare thinks the rationalists have stopped too soon, for the faculty that leads us to form our beliefs and values doesn’t reliably track the True and the Good. Even if such a thing as Reason exists, our access to it is unreliable. Even in those in which a faculty for Reason survives, we shouldn’t go on to say that for these folks accountability means that they can by their own devices act and choose in accordance with it. This does not fit with the experience of the overwhelming difficulty, even in the best of circumstances, of leading a morally good life.



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.”

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.




Summary of Chapter 2 of John Hare’s The Moral Gap


This chapter is entitled “God’s Supplement,” and Kant will appeal to God’s assistance to close the gap between the high moral demand and our limited natural capacities. As a pure rationalist, Kant uses Christian doctrines, but tries to translate them within the “pure religion of reason.” Hare will eventually argue that this translation project fails.

Kant thought revelation can be held to include the pure religion of reason, but at least the historical part of revelation can’t be included in the pure religion of reason. Hare sees a parallel with Kant’s treatment of ethics here: the pure religion of reason, because it is universal like the pure principles of morality, has to be shorn of all reference to individuals and particular times and places.

Kant himself was not closed to special revelation; the pure rationalist can accept special revelation; nevertheless Kant did not think its acceptance is without qualification necessary to religion. We can and should believe various religious propositions, Kant thought; we just can’t claim to know these things. It wasn’t that Kant was, in the ordinary sense, an agnostic about God. He thought there are good moral grounds for theistic belief—Kant had a narrow sense of knowledge as “grasping the infinite through the senses.”

Kant thought a person who already understands the claims of duty will find the teachings of Christianity worthy of love, even though they are not objectively necessary. “[Christianity] is able to win itself the hearts of men whose understanding is already illuminated by the conception of the law of their duty.”

Perhaps owing to his Pietistic background, Kant shows in his work a primacy on practice over theory in the life of faith, a distrust in natural inclinations, and a vision of a world-wide moral and spiritual renewal. In this light, perhaps his polemic was against what he saw as a corruption of Christianity rather than against Christianity itself. Hare counsels to avoid hearing Nietzsche in Kant’s work louder than Luther.

For Kant a “mystery” was an object of reason that can be known from within adequately for practical use, and yet not for theoretical use. Theoretical reason can’t give him what he needs in order to make sense of the moral life, and the central Christian doctrines in their traditional forms are beyond his reach as a philosopher, in his estimation. Among things inscrutable are the original predisposition to do good, the subsequent cause of the propensity to evil, our re-ascent from evil to good, the divine assistance which makes this possible, and how the ethical commonwealth is translated into actuality. There’s thus inscrutability in creation, fall, redemption, and the second coming.

Kant tried an experiment of seeing whether he could use the doctrines about these focal points as mysteries, that is, as capable of being known from within adequately for practical use. It’s an experiment of translating items in the outer circle of revelation into the language of the moral concepts. The overall aim is to make ‘scrutable’ as much as he can the core of the traditional faith. We may have to believe that supernatural assistance is available, even though we can’t use this belief in theoretical or practical maxims.

Why is belief in divine assistance necessary? The problem is this that we encounter: how can be become other men and not merely better men—as if we were already good but only negligent about the degree of our goodness? Kant was profoundly skeptical we can do away with out sinful inclinations on our own. The problem is too deep.

A revelation of the will is called for. All of us, on Kant’s view, start off with our wills subordinate to the evil maxim which tells us to put our happiness first and our duty second. We are thus corrupt in the very ground of our more specific maxims, all of which take their fundamental moral character from this one. Our happiness comes first, duty second; this needs reversal, which we can’t effect on our own.

If such a revolution is our duty, it must be possible, since ‘ought implies can’. But it’s not possible on our own, since a propensity to evil is radical and inextirpable by human powers, “since extirpation could occur only through good maxims, and cannot take place when the ultimate subjective ground of all maxims is postulated as corrupt.” The result is an antinomy, an apparent contradiction, which is solved by appeal to a “higher, and for us inscrutable, assistance.”

Kant divides divine assistance into work of the Father, Spirit, and Son. Each person of the Trinity answers to a different difficulty arising within practical philosophy. Singular reference is removed by thinking of God the Son as humanity in its moral perfection, the Holy Spirit as the good disposition which is our comforter, and God the Father as the Idea of Holiness within us.

Regarding God the Father, three things must be held together: first, God is just and not indulgent; second, rational but finite beings never reach, at any point in their infinite progress, to holiness of the will; and third, God gives us (rational finite beings) a share in the highest good which is only justly given as a reward for holiness. How can they hold together?

Kant appeals to the world of experiences versus the world of things in themselves. After the birth of the new man, the heart, as seen by God, is “essentially well-pleasing to him”—even though all we can ever experience is gradual improvement, infinitely extended. God judges us as a completed whole “through a purely intellectual intuition.” Intellectual intuition in Kant’s doctrine is productive—God isn’t passive, he makes it so. When God looks at us, he sees his Son, because he is imputing to us his Son’s righteousness. Luther’s influence on Kant on such scores is obvious.

God the Son is translated as humanity in its moral perfection and God the Father as the Idea of holiness (the idea of a morally perfect life). The work of God the Spirit concerns primarily our present experience, while the work of God the Father concerns our fitness for future reward. Hare thinks Kant was attempting to provide a doctrine of the assurance of salvation. As we can’t see our disposition directly, we can see it only indirectly via actions. If there’s an improvement in those, we can hope there has been a revolution in our inner disposition.

Another troublesome triad arises; consider the tension between these three propositions: (1) God is just, not indulgent; (2) We humans have all lived under the evil maxim; and (3) God gives us a share in the highest good which is justly given only as a reward for holiness in an entire life.

Kant’s solution maintains all three, once more, by means of the distinction between the world of experience and the world of things in themselves. Vicarious atonement plays an important role in the Christian account, but two problems attend it before it can enter the domain of reason. The first is the objection to historical reference, and the second is that there is no transmissible liability for evil, which could be handed over to another person like a financial indebtedness. Hare will take up the second point in a later chapter.

What Kant does is translate God the Son as the new man, humanity in its complete moral perfection. The new man suffers sacrifices (remorse, self-discipline, reparation) vicariously, on behalf of the old man, who properly deserves them. It is thus, as in the traditional doctrine, the innocent who suffers. What God sees (by intellectual intuition) is revolution; what we experience is reform. We can’t see by introspection into our own hearts. We experience merely the outworking of the revolution in a gradual process of reformation which, Kant thought, we will not at any time experience as complete. We are still sinners so we’re still capable of subordinating duty to the inclinations, even though we’re moving in the direction of not being able to do so (which is holiness).

Hare considers Kant’s translation project a failure overall. Hare thinks it doesn’t give Kant “mysteries” which allow him to solve the antinomy within practical reason produced by the moral gap. In large part Kant’s failure pertains to his affirmation of the Stoic Maxim, which says a person must make or have made herself into whatever, in a moral sense, whether good or evil, she is to become. But this stands in rather obvious tension if not patent contradiction with the other part of Kant’s moral system that said supernatural assistance is needed. His failure was to show how we can appeal to such assistance given the rest of his theory, and in particular given the Stoic maxim. He had to show that he can appeal to such assistance given the rest of his theory. This is what he failed to do.

One illustration of the failure can be seen considering the work of God the Father. If the notion of extra-human assistance is retained, now Kant has additional resources to show the possibility of a revolution of the will, but can’t continue to insist on the Stoic maxim. If divine assistance is rejected, how can our fundamental disposition come to be characterized by the Idea of holiness as instantiating humanity in its moral perfection? How is this possible given the radical evil of our nature?

The reason for Kant’s failure? When he came to the project of seeing whether the doctrines of Christianity lead back within pure rational religion he carried this out in a way that does not make reference to extra-human assistance. This was true of all of these things: election, call, atonement, justification, assurance, and sanctification.

The incoherent result? Kant’s own account within the pure religion of reason assumed that we can by our own devices reach an upright disposition; but Kant was not justified, in his own terms, in supposing that we can do so. What produces this result is that Kant has subtracted from the traditional understanding of God’s work in salvation any mediating role for anything that is not already human.




Summary of Hare's The Moral Gap (Part 1)

John Hare’s The Moral Gap provides what we can call a “performative” version of the moral argument for God’s existence. Hare teaches at Yale and is the son of famed philosopher R. M. Hare, whose work John interacts with quite a bit in his own writings. In a series of extended blogs, I intend to go through Hare’s Moral Gap chapter by chapter to give folks who aren’t familiar with it an exposure to the sorts of arguments the book contains. This is not a critical review, just a quick and cursory summary of salient content. The book is about the “gap” between the moral demand on us and our natural capacities to live by it. It identifies what secularists attempt to do in the face of such a gap, and the way theism and Christianity offer powerful and better resources to close the gap. The book is much inspired by the writings of Immanuel Kant, an important influence on Hare.

The first chapter is entitled “Kant and the Moral Demand,” and it argues that Kant was vividly aware of the moral gap, both because he considered the moral demand to be very high and, as one influenced by the Lutheran pietistic tradition, recognized that we are born with a natural propensity not to follow it. Hare begins his analysis by laying out some key features of a Kantian ethical system, starting with the Categorical Imperative (CI). In this chapter Hare discusses the first two versions of the CI: the Formula of Universal Law, and the Formula of the End in Itself. The Formula of Universal Law says act only on maxims you can will as universal law. A maxim is the subjective principle of an action. To say the principle is subjective is to say that it’s the prescription made by the subject from which the action follows.

Kant talks as though each action has exactly one maxim from which it follows. This raises a problem concerning the level of generality of various maxims. A potential problem for Kant’s analysis is that for each action there may be ever so many maxims of varying levels of generality, some of which may be universalizable, some of which may not be. Hare bypasses this concern altogether by pointing out that Kant thought that there are, in the end, only two maxims: the good maxim and the bad maxim. All actions come from one or the other. The Good Maxim subordinates all desires to duty, whereas the Bad Maxim subordinates duty to the desires. For Kant duty trumps; in fact only those actions motivated by respect for the moral law, on his view, contains moral worth. So take suicide, a potential action whose maxim might look something like this: “From self-love I make it my principle to shorten my life if its continuance threatens more evil than it promises pleasure.” Such a maxim is bad, and thus suicide, on Kant’s view, is always wrong. Why such a maxim fails the test of universality is something we’ll consider in more detail in a moment. Good maxims are specific enough to give guidance, general enough to be taught to children, and exceptionless.

The CI tests maxims; if a maxim meets the test, the action that follows from it has moral worth; if the maxim doesn’t meet it, the action lacks moral worth. What is the test? Hare thinks the clearest account of the Formula of Universal Law is that it requires willingness to continue subscription to the maxim of an action even if all individual or singular reference is excluded from it. This isn’t how Kant himself put it, but Hare thinks it captures the gist of what Kant was after. In considering the performance of an action, I identify the maxim underlying the action, excluding the specifics such as the fact that I’m the one considering the action for myself, and I ask a question like this: Is this maxim an appropriate prescription for anyone and everyone in relevantly similar circumstances? If not, the action should not be performed. We’ll consider a few ways in which a maxim can fail this test in a moment.

The second formulation of the CI is the Formula of End in Itself. This version of the CI declares you should act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end. Other persons serve as a moral limit on our actions. Treating humanity as an end in itself is, for Kant, respecting our capacity for free and rational choice; it’s respecting autonomy. To treat another human being as merely a means is to ignore the other as a center of agency. Some, like Korsgaard, seem to push this Kantian idea in the direction of affirming the intrinsic value of persons; for Kant the focus was more specifically centered on agency, which entails that coercion and deception, for obvious reasons, represent rather paradigmatic violations of the principle. Kant even goes further to suggest that, so far as possible, we are required to share the ends of others, which is reflective of, among other things, a deeply communal aspect of his ethical theory.

Adherence to the CI avoids two sorts of self-contradiction, namely, contradiction in the conception, and contradiction in the will. An example of the former might be this: Consider a scenario in which you need a loan, but to get the loan you have to promise to repay it in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, you know you won’t be able to do so. But you want the loan nonetheless and are tempted to lie about repaying it in order to secure it. Lying would be wrong in such a case, Kant says, because it would be based on a maxim that can’t be universalized because it implicated you in a contradiction in the conception. By lying you’re acting on a maxim that, if everyone in relevantly similar circumstances were to follow, would potentially destroy the very institution of money-lending on which you’re depending to get the loan. So you want the institution to be there, but by following a maxim that if universally followed would destroy the institution, you don’t want it to be there. This is a self-contradiction.

The other form of contradiction is a contradiction of the will, which results from, for example, systematically denying assistance to others. There’s logical space for doing this that there isn’t in the loan example, but there is still a contradiction of sorts at play. For, again, Kant saw that we are deeply communal beings who rely and depend on each other all the time. Invariably there will be times when you need the assistance of others; but if everyone were to refrain from helping others, the help you’ll eventually need won’t be forthcoming. If you want the help to be available, yet affirm a maxim that would prevent it, as in this case, you’re implicated in a contradiction of the will. When a maxim falls prey to either form of contradiction, it’s unable to be consistently willed as a universal law. It implicates one in a contradiction and is thus irrational and immoral.

At this point in the chapter Hare spends time discussing the views of his father, who was much influenced by Kant. R. M. Hare thought that moral judgments, to qualify as such, need to be universalizable, prescriptive, and overriding. He also distinguished between intuitive and critical levels of moral thinking. Our intuitions are liable to mislead us on occasion, as critical reflection shows, but even our critical reflection can mislead us because it optimally requires complete information and complete impartiality—the perspective of the “archangel.” The position of the archangel is also taken to be the position of God—though the elder Hare had lost his faith along the way. Still, it’s only judgments at the critical level of the archangel (or God) that are overriding; thus there’s a gap between the divine and human capacities, for we are afflicted with all manner of deficiencies in our moral reflections, from lack of knowledge or impartiality to lack of sensitivity and sympathy. God, either real or hypothetical, would presumably not be similarly disadvantaged.

In Kant too we find poignant recognition of such a gap, for as we engage in moral deliberation we continually encounter the “dear self,” an inflated sense of our own interests and concerns, resulting in an unbridgeable chasm between ‘ought’ and ‘can’. The result is that morality, in its full critical form, is, first, something I ought to be practicing; second, something for which my natural capacities are inadequate (except by approximation); and third, something that I should treat as the command of some other at least possible being who is practicing it. On this picture, morality has three parts: 1. The moral demand; 2. Our defective natural capacities (lack of sensitivity, sympathy, etc.); and 3. The possible being (the authoritative source of the demand). Hare suggests this structure is a holdover from Christianity: Belief in a perfect and infinite moral being, whom we imperfectly resemble, and who created us to resemble him more than we do.

One result of such a structure is that it produces a constant and inevitable sense of failure of a variety of sorts. We fail by caring more for ourselves than others, we show failures of patience, failures of impartiality, etc. This makes the desire to avoid guilt a primary moral motivator, though love the moral law is the nobler moral motivation than the desire to avoid subjective feelings of guilt. We desire to close the gap between what we do and what we ought to do. Yet we seem to be under a demand too great for us to meet without God’s grace to transform us.

Hare identifies three strategies for addressing the gap from a secular perspective: 1. Produce a naturalistic substitute for God’s assistance; 2. Exaggerate our sense of what we can accomplish, so as to fit the demand; and 3. Reduce the demand so as to fit our capacities. A Christian solution will instead be God’s assistance to enable us to do what we can’t do on our own. Augustine says, “God bids us do what we cannot, that we may know what we ought to seek from him.” So the principle of deontic logic that ‘ought implies can’ may need tweaking; we may well be responsible for meeting a demand we can’t meet on our own resources, if there are additional resources outside of ourselves we can and should use that enable us to meet the demand.

Hare ends the chapter by suggesting that believers should value Kant, rather than seeing his work as opposed to their own convictions. Hare will offer criticisms of Kant, but nonetheless thinks there are resonances with Christian thought. For example, Christians should recognize Kant’s three-fold nature of morality: an original predisposition to do good, an innate propensity to evil, which can be overcome by a revolution of the will which requires divine supplement. Hare suggests that what we have here is quite analogous of the tripartite structure of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. Like Kant, too, believers should recognize the need for moral faith, which has two parts: faith in the actuality of virtue and in the consistency of happiness and virtue, both of which require belief in God’s work on our behalf.


Photo: "Mind the Gap" by Lisa. CC License.