A Memoir of Professor R.M. Hare, FBA

An imperfect version of this was published in
The Balliol College Annual Record 2002, pp.30-32.

 

In my undergraduate days, around 1950, I picked up in New College a story, which I now believe to be apocryphal, of Catherine Hare and Jenifer Hart having tea together and bewailing the terrible treatment meted out to their husbands by their pupils. I was nettled. I did not think the Greats men at New College were up to giving their philosophy tutor as rough a ride as we in Balliol were giving %to ours. We organized: we would select some topic on which Dick Hare had settled opinions, and devise a campaign to make him change his mind. I was regarded as an early riser, and would go in first at 10am, and deploy somewhat plonking arguments against Dick's position, arguments which he would robustly refute, but with a subtlety I had not anticipated. I would report back to the Buttery at 11, and over coffee we would collectively think up objections, and insert them into the essay which Tom Sebestyen---or sometimes Dick Taverne or Alan Brooke Turner---was due to deliver at 12. Dick Hare was not to be defeated: over lunch we would hear of some radically new defence of his doctrine, and we would spend the afternoon working out how best to circumvent or undermine it. It was a race against time, and at five past six Bernard Williams would go in with a flurry of separate arguments on separate pages to administer, as we hoped, the coup de grāce. In vain. As we gathered in Hall, we would see our tutor, perhaps tired but certainly undefeated, while we licked our wounds, and vowed to do better next week.

Dick was very clever. His arguments were ingenious, but always models of cogency and clarity---I still find myself meditating on the two cars identical in all respects save that one was good and the other not. His clarity was especially valuable when he was expounding topics slightly off his own centre of interest: his lecture on books VIII and IX of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics gave coherent sense to an otherwise bitty and fragmented text. But there was a tutorial price. Just because his arguments were so clear and cogent, Dick found it hard to understand those who failed to agree with him. I was a particularly wayward pupil, with an addiction to metaphysics and a propensity for going on speculative trips unwarranted by any acceptable evidence. He complained to Lord Lindsay at Handshaking that I used the Republic as a source of texts on which I could deliver sermons. He had a point. My first essay, a review, or rather a refutation, of Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic took 59 minutes to read. Dick was right to cut undergraduates down to tutorial size and to focus on crucial issues, but the effect was to shift the focus of concern from the pupils' thoughts to the tutor's. This criticism comes out in a Balliol rhyme we made up:

My pupils I have always taught
You cannot get from `is' to `ought'.
This is the burden of my song:
``It's in my book, or else it's wrong.''

It is a valid criticism, but not a damaging one. There is no ideal tutor, any more than there is an ideal father, or ideal husband. Actual tutors, fathers, husbands, have different strengths and weaknesses, their very strengths being also weaknesses, their very weaknesses also strengths. Although I did benefit a lot from a term with J.P. Corbett, who argued about what I had actually said in my essay, we all benefited from Dick's intensity of vision and fixity of purpose. He had been through the fire, and our minds were vicariously tempered by his ordeal.

We knew that Dick had been a prisoner of war under the Japanese: the emotional scars were evident. Sometimes, it seemed, it was only by an effort of will that he managed to sustain his equilibrium. As we came to know them both, we attributed Dick's recovery to Catherine, and sometimes said that it was she who enabled him to be approachable in spite of what had been done to him. But that was too grudging: in our last year we once were discussing which of our tutors we would turn to in a real fix; Bernard Williams gave a brilliant impersonation of Marcus Dick counselling a shady undergraduate, but at the end we all agreed that it was to Dick Hare we should turn for advice and support. There was a depth there that would carry one through. There were no external supports for morality in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Moral principles could not be argued about with one's captors, only affirmed in the face of them by an act of will: ``Here stand I, I will no other.'' There was an existentialist strain to Dick's moral philosophy. In post-war Oxford, with its emphasis on linguistic analysis, Dick formulated his convictions in the claim that moral language was au fond imperative---though imperatives, he insisted against the logical positivists, were as much subject to logical constraints as indicatives. His claim encapsulated a truth, not the whole truth but at that time a needful one. It rightly stressed the link between morality and action. Aristotle had talked of aletheia praktike, truth in action, but for most thinkers it was the aletheia, truth, that principally concerned them: for Dick it was the praktike, in action; and this conferred a deep seriousness on all his thinking. In uttering a moral judgement one was telling all those who fell within its ambit to do something, and one could be said to accept a moral judgement sincerely only if one actually did the action prescribed. The doctrine itself was open to criticism, but the message was bracing. Many generations of Greats men went down from Balliol with an ingrained sense that if they were to be true to themselves they must be doers of the word and not hearers only.

The message was bracing, but the doctrine was open to criticism. Most obviously to the undergraduate mind it left no room for weakness of will. If one failed to do what one ought to do, it showed that one did not really believe that one ought to do it, and had paid only lip-service to the moral principle involved, not full-hearted commitment. One was guilty not of infirmity of purpose---something readily, if ruefully admitted by most of us---but of hypocrisy---which was, as always, anathema to the young. Aristotle had discussed the topic---akrasia was his word for it---and Dick had many seminars trying to massage Aristotle's unsatisfactory account into conformity with his own convictions. It was an educational experience, but it left us unconvinced, and we wondered how we could ever bring home a charge of akrasia on Dick, a man of steely determination and absolute integrity, immune alike to the temptations of the flesh and the conventional opinions of the multitude. But chance was on our side. One morning he was late for my 10 o'clock tutorial, and apologized as he recovered his breath, explaining that the car would not start. Knowing his enthusiasm for motoring, as well as his adherence to the moral principle of punctuality, I sympathized with the problems of cold ignition, and went on ``But you must have made up a lot of time, once it did start''. ``Yes, I touched 48 in the Banbury Road.'' I read my essay. We discussed the problem of political obedience---why should I obey the law? My reasons being unsatisfactory, I offered to exchange them for his. He had it as a moral principle that one ought to obey the law. The trap sprang. He confessed to knowing that there was a 30mph speed limit on the Banbury Road, and that the law laid down that one should not drive at more than 30mph on such a road. But it was time for the next tutorial, and I never got Dick actually to admit ``Et ego in Akrasia''.

Moral prescriptivism was open to criticism on other grounds too. Dick was sensitive to these, and hoped, like Kant, that the principle of universalisability would provide sufficient guidance to lead us to the one correct prescription. Illuminating controversy raged over the principle of universalisability but it became decreasingly plausible that it, or more generally the logic of evaluative terms, could deliver all that Dick required. He was often exasperated by criticisms, which, he felt, were fractious or based on a misunderstanding of what he had actually said. He felt obliged, again and again, to clarify his position, but failed to recognise that these clarifications involved significant alterations. He became a utilitarian. Utilitarianism saved the logic of universalisable imperatives from vacuousness. It also fitted Dick's intellectual personality. In the terminology of the theory of games, utilitarianism is a one-person game, having all decisions taken from one central point of view on the same basis and according to the same reckoning, though allowing that other people count as units to be considered, but not as agents to decide for themselves. Dick was a one-person man, meditating on his own, thinking through things on his own, deciding on his own what he should do, and how best he should live his life. He acknowledged that other people did exist, but found it hard to enter into their minds, and understand why they reasoned differently from him.

Dick's moral thinking was tempered by his Christianity. As with R.B. Braithwaite, his religion was a matter of commitment rather than belief. He loved his neighbour as a matter of principle, and tried hard to arouse in himself charitable feelings towards his critics who failed to understand his views. His commitment led him to undertake tedious work on commissions sorting out the Church's thinking on contentious issues, and it sustained some very definite, if non-cognitive, preferences in the matter of liturgy and worship. He commissioned me, on the patronage committee of another college, to secure for his parish a proper parson who would have the right services at the right time, celebrated in the right way using the right words according to the right rubric as the rational man would determine.

On his sixty-seventh birthday, Dick told me that his life had been a failure: he had converted nobody to his views, he had had no disciples. In vain I expostulated, pointing out that he had been the most influential moral philosopher in the second half of the twentieth century, whose arguments had had to be considered by everyone else who thought about the subject. Dick was determined to be disappointed. It was a wound from his time as a prisoner of war, an inability to see himself through the appreciative eyes of other people. Nobody completely agreed with him, but in philosophy nobody ever does. He altered perceptions. He had revitalised the link between morality and action. Even where we thought him wrong, we had learnt from what, we thought, were his mistakes. For a tutor, even more so than for a philosopher generally, disagreement is as valuable as agreement. In fighting him we had honed our own skills. In being regularly outwitted by his arguments we learned a humility that does not come naturally to Balliol men. But above all we were privileged: privileged to be in the presence of a mind, not only one of steely determination and absolute integrity, but a great and original one as well.

 

 


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