Tuesday, 13 March 2007

R. M. Hare (1919-2002) on Exceptions

A more serious example is provided by the question, whether it is ever legitimate to use torture in police interrogations. A police officer might determine as a matter of principle never to use it; and I should approve of his doing so. This is not, however, because I think it logically impossible that situations should arise in which, by a form of moral reasoning such as I can now accept (similar to that outlined later in this book), I could satisfy myself that torture ought to be used. It is in fact very easy to imagine such situations: suppose, for example, that a sadistic bacteriologist has produced and broadcast an infectious bacillus which will cause a substantial part of the world’s population to die of a painful disease; and that he alone knows the cure for the disease. I should certainly not condemn the police if they tortured him to make him reveal it. But when I say that I approve of a police officer accepting it as a matter of principle not to use torture, I do not mean to deny that fantastic cases could be thought up in which it would be legitimate; what I mean is that, although a completely watertight set of moral principles covering all logically possible circumstances (if there could be such a thing, which is unlikely) would include a clause to allow an exception in such cases, it is unlikely to be possible in practice for a police officer (however intelligent and sensitive) to do the moral thinking which would be necessary to distinguish such cases from others, superficially similar, in which the principle forbidding torture ought to be adhered to; and it would be dangerous for him to try, because in the sort of circumstances in which torture is sometimes advocated and practised it is extremely difficult to think clearly and to consider all sides of the case. Moreover, in cases which actually occur—as contrasted with those which are logically possible—I hold, having seen the sort of things that happen, that the ill effects on society of this insidious evil are always such as far to counterbalance any good that might come of it, even if the most important consideration, the suffering of the victim, be left out of account. I have, therefore, no hesitation at all in saying that police officers, however desperate the circumstances, ought to make it a matter of principle never even to contemplate such methods.

The sort of consideration of hypothetical and fantastic cases which I have implicitly condemned is to be distinguished from that quite different use of hypothetical cases in moral reasoning which we shall later see to be both necessary and useful. . . . It is always legitimate, in order to apply to moral argument the requirement of universalizability, to imagine hypothetical cases which really are, apart from the fact that the roles of the people concerned are reversed, precisely similar in the relevant respects to the actual case being considered; and this may properly be done, however fantastic the assumptions that have to be made, in matters which do not affect the moral issue, in order to make the hypothetical case seem possible. This perhaps holds even for people faced with urgent practical problems, provided that they have time to think at all; and most of us should, when we have time to think, think more about such matters. Indeed, there is nothing to prevent moral philosophers in their studies considering cases which fall outside even this limit—which, that is to say, are in their morally relevant particulars quite dissimilar from cases which are likely actually to occur. It may not be so useful to do this, as to consider cases in which the morally relevant features of actual cases are reproduced; but it may all the same be instructive. But for people in situations which expose them to a particular moral danger, it may sometimes be best to put altogether out of their minds the possibility of exceptions to a principle. It is a very difficult matter to decide just when it is right to make something ‘a matter of principle’ in this way—it depends so much on the circumstances and on the psychology of particular people. But we cannot say that it is never right.

We clearly do sometimes use the word ‘principle’ in this sense, though it should be equally clear that this is not the way in which I have been using it. Burke, strangely to our ears, uses the word ‘prejudice’ ironically in a favourable sense for the same kind of thing: ‘Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.’ All but a few philosophers would commend a man for making some of his decisions in the way Burke advocates; but few of us (and probably not Burke) would think it right for all decisions to be made in this way.

(R. M. Hare, Freedom and Reason [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963], 43-5 [italics in original; footnote omitted; ellipsis added])

Corrupting the Language

Here is Thomas Sowell’s latest column. Nobody understands the mindset of progressives better than Sowell.

Addendum: While we’re on the subject of corrupting the language, you might want to read (or reread) George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.”


I just purchased a 60-gigabyte portable hard drive (the WD Passport) from Western Digital (via Amazon.com). It doesn’t work. Okay, it works, but only on my regular USB port. My Dell computer has four USB ports: three in the back of the tower and one in the front. The one in the front is a regular USB port. The three in the back are USB 2.0 ports. Why would it work only in the front? The Quick Install Guide says that “A special cable may be needed for computers with limited bus power.” No cable, other than a USB cable, came with the hard drive. This is unbelievable! Does anyone know what’s going on?

Addendum: I see from the WD Passport page to which I linked that there’s a special cable available for sale. I didn’t know this when I ordered the hard drive. But I’m still puzzled. Why would only one of the four USB ports on my computer—the slowest one at that—have power? I assure you, my next computer will have several USB 2.0 ports on the front of the computer, and all of them will be powered. If Dell doesn’t make such a computer, then Dell has lost a customer. This is infuriating.

Best of the Web Today



If this isn’t the best album ever made, then I’m an armadillo‘s cousin.


General Peter Pace, like most people, believes that homosexual intercourse is wrong, and the other day he said as much in an interview. Now, predictably, he is being vilified by progressives, some of whom are demanding an apology. What would he apologize for? He has every right to believe that homosexual conduct is wrong and to say so. (Whether it was prudent of him to say so is another matter. He appears now to regret it.) I’m not saying that his belief about the immorality of homosexual conduct should have any bearing on his enforcement of the law. It should not. He is a public official, with public responsibilities. He should enforce the law as written, even if he disagrees with it. If he disagrees with it, for any reason (moral or otherwise), he should work to change it—on his own time.

Addendum: I laughed when I read the comment of one of the homosexual activists. He described General Pace’s moral judgment as “personal bias.” That’s interesting. According to this view, if I say that lying is wrong, I’m biased. If I say that there is a duty to relieve suffering, I’m biased. If I say that promises should be kept, I’m biased. If I condemn the killing of innocent human beings, I’m biased. If I say that abortion is morally permissible, I’m biased. If moral judgment is “personal bias,” then everyone is biased all the time, for everyone makes moral judgments all the time. That drains the term “bias” of its meaning. The activist might reply that not all moral judgments are “personal biases”; only some of them are. But which ones, and why? He must provide a criterion that sorts moral judgments into the proper categories. I suspect that by “bias” he means “moral judgment with which I disagree.” In other words, he’s using manipulative rhetoric.

Addendum 2: Here is another source of data on what people believe. Key paragraphs:

Another GSS item administered over the past quarter century asks whether sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are “always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all.” Between 1973 and 1993, more than two-thirds of the public considered homosexuality to be “always wrong.” The proportion responding “never” or “only sometimes” wrong ranged around 20%.

Since 1993, however, a shift has been apparent in responses to this item. The proportion saying homosexual behavior is “always wrong” began to decline in 1993, dropping to 54% in 1998 and 53% in 2002. Although a majority still regards homosexual behavior as wrong, the trend is clearly in the direction of less condemnation.

Any interpretation of responses to this item must acknowledge the response bias invited by its wording: The question’s phrasing strongly suggests that homosexual relations are wrong to at least some extent. Data from other surveys with differently worded items assessing the morality of homosexual behavior, however, are consistent with responses to the GSS item. In a 1996 Gallup poll, for example, 59% of the public believed that homosexual behavior is morally wrong, compared to 34% who believed that it is not morally wrong.

Keep in mind that these are polls of Americans. When you factor in nonAmericans, most of whom are either Roman Catholic or Muslim, the percentage of people who believe that homosexual intercourse is wrong is probably close to 80.

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Your editorial argues that President Bush should dismiss Alberto R. Gonzales and “finally appoint an attorney general who will use the job to enforce the law and defend the Constitution.”

Difficult as it may be for you to believe, Mr. Bush believes that Mr. Gonzales is enforcing the law and defending the Constitution.

The president, his attorney general and most of the Republican members of the Congress simply have a different conception of the law and the operation of the Constitution.

In 2008, perhaps the people of the United States will vividly demonstrate their disdain for the Republican disdain for the rule of law under the Constitution and sweep the G.O.P. from control of the government.

Mark Stern
Shepherdstown, W.Va.
March 11, 2007

Note from KBJ: The letter writer ignores the fact that George W. Bush was elected twice by the American people, once after the war in Iraq began. If that’s not ratification of the president’s policies, I don’t know what is.


If you want to match wits with me, act now. See here for details. Post your picks there, not here.

A Year Ago