Richard Mervyn Hare argues for the philosophical position know as Universal Prescriptivism. Universal prescriptivism is fundamentally concerned with the way we normally use the word 'ought'.
For Hare, the only truly moral statements we make can be turned in to sentences of ought. 'Murder is wrong' then becomes 'everyone ought not murder'. This ought becomes a consideration because when we speak of morality we are not simply describing a fact. To use moral language as a means to describe facts would not entail any modification of action as a result. 'Murder is wrong' would have no more implication than a sentence such as 'lemons are yellow'. It does not follow from either sentence that we should do anything different, or even take it in to consideration except as a piece of trivia. To use moral terms as statements of 'ought' allows us to use them in the fashion we would normally use them in.
What we shall now inquire in to is Hare's description of the proper usage of the word 'ought'. When we make moral statements we are, as previouly discussed, making a prescription. When we say 'I ought not lie' we truly mean we will not lie. When we say 'Lying is wrong', we generally mean that we will not lie, and it would be ideal that nobody else lies. 'Ought' has a subject. We can say 'you ought to go' or 'I ought to get a drink' and so on. When properly speaking morally, we mean the subject of the ought statement is a universal. This is to say, when we make a moral statement such as 'stealing is wrong' we are not only saying 'you ought not steal', we are properly saying 'nobody ought to steal' and by extension 'I ought not steal'. This universality implies that we are held to the same moral rules we hold for others. We have, therefore, derived the meaning of the term Universal Prescriptivism . This requirement for universality requires that we take in to consideration the inclinations and feelings of others. The example Hare gives is that of a debtors prison, an institution which no longer exists but works as an example in either case. Three parties are involved in this example, and that is of a debtor (A) his creditor (B) and debtor to a third party (C). A, in this example, is defaulted on his payment to B, and B is defaulted to C. In a moral consideration, if B wishes to imprison A he must then justify it to a general rule that 'debtors ought to be imprisoned'. To generalize the rule in such a way would entail that B should also be imprisoned. Since B is not inclined to go to prison, the proper moral action would be not to imprison A.
Inclinations are the primary source for generating moral rules in universal prescriptivism . Our inclinations are what guide us to make moral prescriptions. To make a moral rule such as 'murder is wrong' is due to our own, and everyone's, inclinations not to be murdered. What Hare fails to allow for is the possibility of punishment for immorality. Assuming someone is otherwise moral, but commits a crime based on morality, such as theft, how are we then to persecute this person? If a person steals, it is immoral. By Hare's logic, since none of us wish to go to prison, punishing this person for their immorality would be similarly immoral. Hare does not offer a mechanism for resolving whose inclination trumps whom in this case.
Hare describes the three necessary requirements for a resolvable moral disagreement. The first of which are facts. If one lacks the facts of a situation, it stands to reason that one cannot accurately gauge the outcomes of it. If one does not know that pressing a button will result in the death of a person, it would simply be a matter of informing them of the outcomes for the moral discussion on whether or not to press it to become resolved. We must also be able to imagine ourselves in the situation of others in order to accurately make moral decisions. This is a requirement simple enough that we use it in order to teach our children morality. When they do something wrong, we can simply ask them “how would you like it if someone did that to you?” and be able to exact a meaningful understanding of the concept. Furthermore, we must be able to logically work out the consequences and be able to recognize 'ought' as a prescriptive term used universally.
Hare does offer a mechanism for "opting-out” of morality if moral arguments cannot be resolved. If we use moral terminology incorrectly than it is used normally, we are said not to be held to moral discussions. This is to say, if we use the word 'ought' non-prescriptively, or non-universally, we are not speaking of morality. The example for this is that of a mathematical discussion. If I have a conception of the number four which I use to mean the number five, then when I make a statement such as 'two by two is five', we are not, in actuality, having a disagreement about the logic or consequences of the statement, rather simply a disagreement as to the lexical meaning of the words 'four' and 'five'. This is not a problem for the logical positivist A.J. Ayer, who writes that all moral discussion is simply making noises of approval. So using the word 'good' is no more meaningful than grunting. Hare directly responds to Ayer in the line
“I hope that what I customarily express by the sound 'ought' is the same as what most people customarily express by it; but if I am mistaken in this assumption, I shall still have given a correct account, so far as I am able, of that which I express by this sound”
-R.M. Hare, Freedom and Reason, p506
Finally, to speak of morality properly, we must be able to imagine the inclinations of others properly. There is no resolution to a problem of imagination when one simply cannot imagine why others would have a certain inclination. It would be as if a blind man were choosing colours for painting a room. The blind man cannot imagine colours, nor could he recognize or imagine what preferences others would have. Hare does not allow for differing, or eccentric, inclinations. He essentially places people with eccentric desires in the same category as the fanatic.
Hare deals with skepticism and nihilism through the classification of the indifferent, and the fanatic. The indifferent is those people who choose not to make moral judgments. This covers both the skeptic and the nihilist. The skeptic is one who believes that there is no way of knowing what is and is not moral. The nihilist is one who believes that there is no morality at all.
Hare also offers an explanation for the fanatic. The fanatic is a person who has a definite code of morality for no reason of inclination. The reason given by fanatics in order to justify their morality is generally that of tradition or religion, however this justification is not necessary, just simply that the rules are not based on a utilitarian self-interest.
The example of the nihilist and skeptic illustrate Hare's final point that moral disagrements are resolvable, but all moral arguments are, in Hare's words, ad hominem. Skeptics and nihilists are opting out of moral discussion, which is perfectly alright by Hare's standards. It is the ability to remove one's self from the discussion which Hare alludes to in the title of his essay, “Freedom and Reason”.
What Hare fails to explain is how we are to recognize a moral ought from a non-moral ought. If we say something such as “lying is wrong”, meaning “I ought not lie”, most would not argue that this is not universal, or prescriptive. However, if we say something such as “I ought to quit drinking before class”, this could just be a personal resolution, not a moral statement. As mentioned earlier, Hare also fails to resolve conflicting inclinations in the case of judicial justice. It also seems as though Hare is offering a different justification for utilitarianism, in as much as the primary source of the moral good is the inclinations of everyone involved in the moral discussion.