R.M. Hare (1919 – 2002) was an English moral philosopher who held the post of White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford from 1966 until 1983, after which he taught for a number of years at the University of Florida. He was one of the most important ethicists of the second half of the twentieth century.
Hare begins his essay, “Nothing Matters,” by telling the story of a happy 18 year old Swiss boy who stayed with Hare in his house at Oxford. After reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger, the boy’s personality changed, becoming withdrawn, sullen, and depressed. (The Stranger explores existential themes like death and meaning; its title character Meursault is emotionally alienated, detached, and innately passive.) The boy told Hare that after reading Camus he had become convinced that nothing matters. Hare found it extraordinary that the boy was so affected.
As a philosopher concerned with the meaning of terms, Hare asked the young boy what “matters” means, what does it mean to matter or be important? The boy said that to say something matters “is to express concern about that something.”[i] But Hare wondered whose concern is important here? When we say the something matters, the question arises, “matters to whom?” Usually it’s the speaker’s concern that is expressed, but it could be someone else’s concern. We often say things like “it matters to you,” or “it doesn’t matter to him.” In these cases we refer not to our own concern, but to someone else’s.
In Camus’ novel the phrase “nothing matters” could express the view of the author, the main character, or the reader (the young boy.) Now it’s not Camus’ unconcern that is being expressed, since he was concerned enough to write the novel—writing the novel obviously mattered to Camus. It is clear in the novel that the main character does think that nothing matters—he doesn’t care about hardly anything. Still, Hare thinks that even Meursault is concerned about some things.
Hare doesn’t think it possible to be concerned about nothing at all, since we always choose to do one thing rather than another thereby revealing, however slightly, what matters to us. At the end of Camus’ novel Meursault is so upset by the priest’s offer of religion that he attacks him in a rage. This display of passion shows that something did matter to Meursault, otherwise he would have done nothing. Yet even supposing that nothing does matter to a fictional character: why should that matter to the Swiss boy? In fact the boy admitted that he cares about many things, which is to say that things do matter to him. Hare thinks the boy’s problem was not to find things that matter, but to prioritize them. He needed to find out what he valued.
Hare claims that our values come from our own wants and the imitation of others. Maturing in large part is bringing these two desires together—the desire to have our own values and to be like others with the former taking priority. “In the end…to say that something matters for us, we must ourselves be concerned about it; other people’s concern is not enough, however much in general we may want to be like them.”[ii] Nonetheless we often develop our own values by imitating others. For instance we may pretend to like philosophy because we think our philosophy professor is cool, and then gradually we develop a taste for it. This process often works in the reverse; my parents want me to do x, so I do y. Eventually, through this process of conforming and non-conforming, we slowly develop our own values.
Hare concludes that things did matter to the young boy and he was just imitating Meursault by saying that nothing matters, just as he was imitating him by smoking. What the boy did not understand was that matter is a word that expresses concern; it is not an activity. Mattering is not something things do, like chattering. So the phrase “my wife chatters,” is not like the phrase “my wife matters.” The former refers to an activity; the latter expresses my concern for her. The problem comes when we confuse our concern with an activity. Then we start to look in the world for mattering and when we do not find things actively doing this mattering, we get depressed. We do not observe things mattering, things matter to us if we care about them. Mattering doesn’t describe something things do, but something that happens to us when we care about things. To say nothing mattes is hypocritical; we all care about something. (Even if what we care about is that nothings seems to matter.)
As for his Swiss friend, Hare says he was no hypocrite; he was just confused about what the word matter meant. Hare also suggests that we are the kinds of beings who generally care about things, and those who sincerely care about almost nothing are just unusual. In the end we cannot get rid of values—we are creatures that value things. Of course when confronted with various values, so many different things about which to be concerned, it is easy to through up our hands and say that nothing matters. When confronted with this perplexity about what to be concerned about, about what to value, Hare says we might react in one of two ways. First, we might reevaluate our values and concerns to see if they are really ours; or second, we might stop thinking about what is truly of concern altogether. Hare counsels that we follow the former course, as the latter alternative leads to stagnation: “We content ourselves with the appreciation of those things, like eating, which most people can appreciate without effort, and never learn to prize those things whose true value is apparent only to those who have fought hard to achieve it…”[iii]
Summary – We all generally care about some things, some things do matter to us. We don’t find this mattering in the world; it is something we bestow upon things and persons. Hare suggests we find value (or meaning) in things which are really worthwhile.