Objective Prescriptions, and Other Essays

By R. M. Hare | Go to book overview

I
OBJECTIVE PRESCRIPTIONS

1.1. I OFFER no apology for presenting a simple paper about what is essentially a simple subject: the objectivity of moral judgements. Most of the complications are introduced by those who do not grasp the distinctions I shall be making. I am afraid that they include the majority of moral philosophers at the present time. These complications can be unravelled; but not in a short paper. I have tried to do it in my other writings (see esp. MT chs. 1, 12, and refs., and SOE).

The term 'objective prescriptivity' was introduced by John Mackie ( 1977: ch. I). Mackie thought that not only some misguided philosophers but even ordinary people think that when they use moral language they are uttering objective prescriptions. Hence his well-known 'error theory' of ethics. According to this, when we utter a sentence containing a word like 'right' or 'wrong', we all think both that we are saying something prescriptive, i.e. action-guiding, and that we are stating some fact about the world; and we are always mistaken, because there are no such prescriptive moral facts existing in the world. I agree with Mackie that, in the sense in which he used that expression, there can be no objective prescriptions. That is to say, if by 'objective' we mean 'factual', in the sense of 'merely factual', a prescription could never be that. An imperative like 'Shut the door' does not state any fact about the door. And a statement of fact like 'The door is locked' cannot be used to tell somebody to do something. It only becomes a guide to action when conjoined with some general prescription like 'If a door is locked, do not try to open it'.

The idea that there are no moral facts has a respectable history in philosophy, going back supposedly to Hume and even to Protagoras. Its re-emergence in recent times has been a cause of Angst and anguish. If one had thought that there were moral facts, especially if one had thought that they were established by God's command, and then came to see that there were not, it might seem that the bottom

'Objective Prescriptions.' From E. Villanueva, ed., Naturalism and Normativity (Atascadero, Calif.: Ridgeview, 1993). Also in A. E. Griffiths, ed., Ethics, The Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures for 1992/3 ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

-1-

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