Universal prescriptivism

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Universal prescriptivism (often simply called prescriptivism) is the meta-ethical view which claims that, rather than expressing propositions, ethical sentences function similarly to imperatives which are universalizable—whoever makes a moral judgment is committed to the same judgment in any situation where the same relevant facts obtain.

This makes prescriptivism a universalist form of non-cognitivism. Prescriptivism stands in opposition to other forms of non-cognitivism (such as emotivism and quasi-realism), as well as to all forms of cognitivism (including both moral realism and ethical subjectivism).

Since the concept was introduced by philosopher R. M. Hare in his 1952 book The Language of Morals, it has been compared to emotivism and to the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant.[1][2]

For an illustrative example of the prescriptivist stance, consider the moral sentence "Murder is wrong." According to moral realism, such a sentence claims there to be some objective property of "wrongness" associated with the act of murder. According to emotivism, such a sentence merely expresses an attitude of the speaker; it only means something like "Boo on murder!" But according to prescriptivism, the statement "Murder is wrong" means something more like "Do not murder"—what it expresses is not primarily a description or an emotion, it is an imperative. A value-judgment might also have descriptive and emotive meanings, but these are not its primary meaning on a prescriptivist account.

Hare would allow utilitarian considerations to enter into such a formulation, but he would not base the formula or his ethical theory solely on a principle of utility. Hare believed that all of our ethical propositions ought to conform with logic.

Peter Singer has expressed sympathy with Hare's position,[3] though he has since endorsed Derek Parfit's view of objectivism.[4]


Three components define Hare's system: Prescriptivism, universalizability and overridingness. Though universalizability is usually meant to infer at least one of the other two components (if not both), Hare separates them. This is the strength of prescriptivism, but also its weakness. For example, if one prescribes something but does not find it to be overriding of anything, one would be hardpressed to call it ethical. However, it seems the internal logic of prescribing something demands a certain level of overridingness. The logical component is referred to by Hare as universalizability, which seems to be instantly missing.

A less esoteric criticism is the matter of Akrasia, or weakness of will. Simply knowing what is right, does not seem to motivate people to do right. Though this is generally accepted as a valid criticism, it can be countered by narrowing the parameters of prescriptivism. These are the physical and psychological limitations of the individual. A similar move is made against Singer and other utilitarians (which Hare is not), when "too much" is demanded. Utilitarians will argue that ethics simply is demanding and one should not make it easier simply because most (if not all) people fail at maximizing happiness. Hare does not make such an argument. Instead, he divides the ethical system into components, which in turn has caused others to attack the (arguably main) component: Prescriptivism.

See also


  1. Brandt, Theory, 221: "[The Language of Morals] by R. M. Hare has proposed a view, otherwise very similar to the emotive theory, with modifications …"
  2. Brandt, Theory, 224: "Hare's [universalizability] proposal is reminiscent of Kant's view that an act is morally permissible if and only if the maxim in terms of which the agent thinks of it could possibly serve as a universal rule of conduct, and if the agent is prepared to accept it as such."
  3. Singer, Peter, Practical ethics, second edition 1993, Preface
  4. Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer, The point of view of the universe, Oxford University Press, 2014.


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