Explore Themes

Debates and Discussions

(page 7 of 13)
Skip to description
Video: What use is Moral philosophy?
Duration: 00:24:32
Date: 02-05-1973
Professor Michael Smith is McCosh Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University.
Image : Professor Michael Smith
Date: 2021

Moral Philosophy

 
“What use is moral philosophy?” was first shown in 1973. At that time, Anthony Kenny (the interviewer) was a Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford. He and R. M. Hare (the interviewee) had been colleagues at Balliol up until 1966 when Hare moved to Corpus Christi after being appointed White's Professor of Moral Philosophy. Hare had already published two influential books—The Language of Morals (1951) and Freedom and Reason (1963)—and, just two years earlier, had finished supervising a BPhil student, Peter Singer, who would go on to become perhaps the best-known living moral philosopher in the English-speaking world. 
 
Hare had an enormous influence on the way moral philosophy was done in Oxford. Singer's own early work provides ample evidence of this, but even those at Oxford who rejected his views found themselves having to explain why they didn't accept his arguments. The interview makes it clear why this was so. For one thing, there is the sheer force of his personality. Hare was intense, fearless, and spoke as he wrote. His sentences were short and crystal clear. Less was always more. For another, Hare had a philosophical system in terms of which he understood everything, and he demanded that everyone explain themselves to him in terms of it. There was descriptive language and non-descriptive language, an important sub-class of which was the language of imperatives where we find the language of morals. We use descriptive language to express our beliefs and imperatives to express our desires. In current parlance Hare was therefore an expressivist. The distinguishing mark of moral language, according to Hare, was that the associated imperatives are universalizable. Someone who makes a moral judgement is committed to making the same judgement about—that is, issuing the same imperative in—situations that are identical in their universal properties. When Kenny asks whether people who universally prescribe certain dietary practices are morally committed to that practice, he was therefore questioning the sufficiency of Hare's characterization of moral language. This was a line of objection for which Philippa Foot had become justly famous.
 
When I arrived in Oxford in 1981, Hare was still White's Professor and Kenny had become Master of Balliol. Back in Australia I had been a high school teacher. Having a BPhil from Oxford was one of the best ways to get a philosophy job, but scholarships to study overseas were difficult to get, so after completing an MA thesis in the philosophy of action at Monash, I had left academia and trained as a teacher. When I finally succeeded in getting a scholarship, my plan was to write my BPhil thesis in some area of moral philosophy. My hope was that having two research areas would make me a more competitive job candidate. New BPhil students were required to spend their first term being taught by the professor whose chair was in the area in which they hoped to do research. I was therefore assigned to Hare, and we met weekly to discuss the essay I had written the previous week. Watching the interview brings back vivid memories. My only complaint is that you don't see that he wore no socks. Or so I assume, as in my experience he was always sockless, no matter what the weather. I was terrified, but Hare couldn't have been more attentive. One week, as I walked down Merton Street at the end our session, I remember him running after me calling out, "I have one more point to make….!" 
 
Michael Smith
Michael Smith is McCosh Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University.
 
 
Related videos and essays:
  • Dostoevsky and Deontology: Bernard Williams debates Kant, utilitarianism and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment with A. Phillips Griffiths.
    Accompanying essay by Christine M. Korsgaard.
  • Utilitarianism: Bernard Williams’s 1986 Open University lecture.
    Accompanying essay by Sophie Grace Chappell.
  • Free Will: Geoffrey Warnock and psychologist B. F. Skinner discuss free will and determinism.
    Accompanying essay by Daniel C. Dennett.

Debates and Discussions (page 7 of 13)