Objective Prescriptions, and Other Essays

By R. M. Hare | Go to book overview

4
IMPERATIVES, PRESCRIPTIONS, AND THEIR LOGIC

4. 1. IT can hardly be doubted that there exists a class of speech acts or utterances that can be called prescriptions. They are so called because their use is to prescribe or direct actions and conduct. This has the consequence that one cannot sincerely assent to a prescription without becoming disposed to comply with it or to wish others to comply with it. The most obvious members of this class are those typically expressed in the imperative mood. The fact that many languages devote a grammatical mood specifically to this kind of speech act shows that their speakers assign a particular role to them. We must not assume, however, either that imperatives are the only kind of prescriptions, or that all imperatives are similar to each other in all their features. The imperative mood can be used to express military commands, polite requests, instructions for using hair-driers or cooking omelettes or finding a friend's house, entreaties, prayers, and any number of other kinds of prescriptive speech act. The most general term for speech acts of this kind is telling someone to do something, in contrast to telling him (or her) that something is the case. This applies even to prayers, where the speaker has no authority or power of enforcement, but is in a completely subordinate relation. Even in that case, the person praying has to tell God what he is praying him to do.

All of these have in common that sincere assent to them involves doing the thing one is told to do, if one is the person who is being charged with doing it. We may call this person the charge. He is to be distinguished from the person to whom the imperative is spoken, and from the person who, or thing which, is the referent of the subject of the imperative sentence. These may all be different, as when the battalion commander gives an order to his adjutant that the battalion is to march at 0800 hours (see H 1996 = SOE 1. 6).

Imperative speech acts vary enormously in the relation of the

____________________
"'Imperatives, Prescriptions, and their Logic.'" English version of "'ImpU+00E9ratifs, prescriptions et leur logique'", in M. Canto-Sperber, ed., Dictionnaire de philosophie morale ( Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1996).

-43-

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