Morals and the Free Society: 6. Hayek

Here is the sixth chunk of the argument. To return to the fifth chunk, click here. To advance to the seventh chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here. An Addendum to the present chunk, on cultural group selection theory, is posted here.


Nozick’s is a split view. There is the morality of the side constraints, and there is the egoistic morality of the market, and they have essentially nothing to do with each other. From the perspective of either, there is no intrinsic reason to care about the other. A similar critique ultimately applies to Hayek’s otherwise very interesting take on a moral vision for a free society in The Fatal Conceit (1988).

Hayek believes human behavior is structured in three tiers. The lowest tier is instinctual and includes genetically supported behavioral patterns and impulses that evolved over the thousands of years of our hunter-gatherer prehistory. The second tier is that of culture. Cultural customs, traditions, mores, and practices are transmitted through social learning. They evolved through a blind, quasi-Darwinian process of relatively random variation and selection through the success or failure of those who adopt them. They are not the product of reason. Reason itself, which is the third tier, is a late product of this process of cultural evolution. It enables us to consciously and critically evaluate evidence, hypotheses, and proposals. It is the only self-aware capacity of the three, but it is a very weak instrument. It is almost entirely incapable of grasping the reasons or justification or purposes of our actions or of predicting their effects. Hayek believes reason across the board is highly overrated. It serves mostly as a source of post hoc rationalizations of our behavior. One should not trust reason, whether theoretical or practical, very far at all. (The hostility to reason betrayed in this book is stunning. But further discussion of this point is a topic for another time.)

The different tiers are the source of different and sometimes conflicting behavioral imperatives, particularly “moral” imperatives. Our more primitive instinctual impulses evolved to promote the success of people living in small bands of 25 or so, whose members not only know each other but usually have familial relations and can easily meet face to face and make decisions by consensus or under the influence of a leader. Our instinctual impulses are therefore appropriate to small groups whose members have common interests and a shared context of knowledge. These impulses accordingly promote collective values of social cohesion (obedience to rules and authority, loyalty to group members and goals) and sympathetic regard for others (willingness to share one’s own rewards with others). Hayek summarizes these principles as “solidarity and altruism.”

Being genetically evolved over millennia, solidarity and altruism are deeply ingrained impulses. So it is unfortunate that they are ill-suited to the successful functioning of large-scale societies—what Hayek calls the extended order. In the extended order, most people do not even know each other, much less are they kin. They do not have particularly common interests or agreed-upon shared goals or a shared context of knowledge. In the absence of some widely shared, unifying goal, obedience to collective decisions or directives issued by a central authority is unlikely to serve the interests of most agents very well. Similarly, strong feelings of loyalty to members of one’s “group,” when that group extends to thousands (not to talk about millions) of people, is misplaced, inasmuch as one probably has little more in common with the typical member of one’s own group than one has with the typical member of the rival group. Again, altruism—sympathetic giving—will often be misplaced when people have no real knowledge of others’ contexts and actual needs. In short, an extended order is not a family unit, and it is a mistake to behave as if it were.

Instead, the extended order requires an entirely different, culturally evolved set of traditions. Indeed, Hayek thinks, it is only such culturally evolved traditions that allowed extended orders to emerge from small bands in the first place. These are traditions that present themselves as abstract rules—as principles—rather than as shared goals. The rules of an extended order may vary widely, but to the extent that they enable the extended order to be vigorous and prosperous, they will be rules that promote free market activity. These are rules that impose private property (which he calls “several property”), honesty, contract, exchange, trade, competition, gain, and privacy. He summarizes these principles as “several property and personal responsibility.” Clearly these are more individualistic values than those that stem from the instincts.

As I noted previously, he thinks the cultural principles of several property and personal responsibility have evolved through cultural evolution, not design. The process, interestingly, is one of group selection. That is, the cultural principles that promote the free market have evolved by promoting the greater strength and prosperity of some groups relative to others. These principles spread because the groups that adopt them displace other groups (or inspire other groups to emulate them). Significantly, this process does not require the principles in question to be optimally beneficial to individuals. This is important, because we have seen economic reasons to believe that they are not optimally beneficial to individuals.

Hayek thinks he can explain a lot of bad social theory and policy in terms of the conflict between the earlier, genetic instincts and the later, culturally evolved social rules. Both are deeply embedded in our psyches, and they can pull us in opposite directions in certain situations. For example, altruistic impulses make us want to help strangers halfway around the world, although truthfully we don’t know the strangers’ situation very well and are usually poorly qualified to help them, whereas the market, if allowed to operate, would automatically find the most efficient ways to satisfy people’s wants. Again, impulses of solidarity push us to favor our friends, family, ethnic, or other group members despite what the abstract, impersonal rules dictate, generally to the detriment of the economy as a whole. Thus, our instincts, which did not evolve by promoting the success of large groups, typically disrupt the successful functioning of such groups. But, being instinctual, it is emotionally satisfying to follow them and emotionally painful to neglect them, whereas abstract cultural dictates carry less emotional weight. Since we now live in large groups whose successful functioning depends on abstract rules of several property and personal responsibility, we do best to follow those rules and suppress our instinctual impulses. But of course, for reasons just explained, this is easier said than done. Hayek thinks a large part of the problem we have making modern society work, and a large part of the appeal of socialism, is due to the strong emotional pull of our “atavistic” instinctual impulses.

From the point of view of my project in this essay, Hayek’s approach is interesting because, like me, he proceeds by asking which moral principles are required by the thriving social order, not which principles of social order are required by thriving individuals. Our approaches also agree in taking the view that only a free society is capable of thriving. We differ, however, in that I also take seriously the question of what principles will produce thriving individuals and the problem of integrating the two sets of principles, whereas Hayek seems remarkably uninterested in individuals as such. It is noteworthy, for example, that he denigrates happiness as a goal and denies that the moral principles that make for a thriving social order should be expected to produce happiness (1988, 64, 69). It also seems clear that he regards the whole enterprise of moral philosophy—except where moral principles are the culturally evolved principles of the extended order—as a hopeless muddle and a waste of time (1988, especially ch. 5).

The distinction between genetically driven principles and culturally evolved principles has a certain plausibility, as does the particular assignment of altruism and solidarity to the first and several property and personal responsibility to the second, and it is amusing to read the erudite Hayek accuse his socialist adversaries of being in the grip of primitive and superannuated impulses and of being unable to come to terms with the more advanced cultural principles necessary to support large-scale societies. We should not accept these claims uncritically, however. For one thing, genetic and cultural evolution do not appear to be as distinct and hierarchically related as this model assumes (Richerson and Boyd 2005). For another, our genetically determined emotions (along with other genetically determined elements of our psychology) are not all bad from the point of view of an extended social order (Wilson 2002). If they were, the extended social order would hardly be possible. For example, as we shall see shortly, Robert Frank (1988) argues that certain genetically inherited emotional dispositions benefit the operation of a free market economy and may have evolved in part for that reason. Thus, both our genetic emotional dispositions and our culturally evolved practices should be scrutinized for appropriateness. And the standard by which they should be evaluated is—Hayek says—roughly the efficient functioning of the free market.

Hayek’s ideas about cultural evolution also seem questionable. Although some social orders have been observed to implode under the weight of their own economic and political incompetence—the Soviet Union and the imperial Spain of the 16th and 17th centuries come to mind—this does not seem to be usual. Most of the economies of Latin America and Africa, for example, have suffered from massive inefficiency from the time they gained independence from their colonial overlords to the present. But few of these economies have either disappeared or become imitators of the practices of developed economies. For that matter, Russia and Spain did not disappear or have their social orders replaced with more efficient ones. They’re still here and still largely incompetent. This raises a second point, which is that the dominant informal mores and practices of a society do not as a rule seem to change very quickly or easily. I do not mean the laws of the land or other formal institutions, but the informal customs and mores. For instance, property rights apparently have been reasonably well respected in England since the 13th century, despite the many vicissitudes that country has endured from then till now (Stark 2005, 153; McCloskey 2010, 315, 334–5). Thus, there does not seem to be very great scope for a quasi-Darwinian process of cultural variation and selection by resulting success or failure. Although quasi-Darwinian cultural evolution may well operate to some degree (to some degree perhaps it is inevitable), it may be a more fruitful line of inquiry to ask what forces induce and maintain the relevant cultural mores and practices. Another advantage of North’s new institutionalism is that it provides tools for this investigation, which, however, will have to be pursued in another place.

Finally, to repeat what I said at the outset of this excursion into Hayek, rich as his view is in many ways, it does no better than Nozick’s at solving the key problem that confronts any attempt to provide a morality for the free society; namely, to integrate the moral principles that are necessary to maintain a free society with the apparently egoistic behavior that is licensed within a free society. For Hayek, the moral principles of several property and individual responsibility that sustain the free society are arbitrary cultural imperatives with nothing to recommend them except their ability to allow the extended order to exist and thrive (cf. 1988, 70). This provides no reason for the members of the extended order to obey these principles if they can successfully evade them to their own advantage. And it sets up the paradox that people should selflessly devote themselves to these community-oriented values to create a space for the selfish behavior of the free market. To solve these problems, we shall have to look elsewhere.

Works Cited

  • Frank, Robert H. 1988. Passions within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions. Norton.
  • Hayek, F. A. 1988. The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. Edited by W. W. Bartley III. University of Chicago Press.
  • McCloskey, Deirdre N. 2010. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. University of Chicago Press.
  • Richerson, Peter J. and Robert Boyd. 2005. Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Evolution. University of Chicago Press.
  • Stark, Rodney. 2005 The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Random House.
  • Wilson, David Sloan. 2002. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. University of Chicago Press.

12 thoughts on “Morals and the Free Society: 6. Hayek

  1. Pingback: Morals and the Free Society: 5. Nozick | Policy of Truth

  2. Once again, the best I can do is offer my agreement, express amazement in advance that anyone could disagree with your argument, and offer a bibliographical suggestion that elaborates somewhat on your observation about Hayek’s hostility to reason. The bibliographical recommendation is David Kelley’s “Rand Versus Hayek on Abstraction,” Reason Papers 33.1 (Fall 2011). Read carefully, I think it exposes some weaknesses in Rand’s view as well as Hayek’s, but the weaknesses in Hayek’s are more obvious (and are, of course, the intended target).

    I’m thinking that maybe we should try to rustle up some real-live Hayekians to respond to your post. I’m not sure we have all that many here. Cafe Hayek is one possibility, The Hayek Project is another. Then there is the Hayek Center. If there is any way of working Salma Hayek into the discussion, I’m amenable to that as well.

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  3. I can’t recall if I have read The Fatal Conceit or not. I have surely read other books by Hayek. From those I don’t get the level of hostility to reason that David does here. Hayek was very critical of a particular kind of thought that he called “constructive rationalism”, but I don’t believe that extended at all reason. One of Hayek’s concerns was to repudiate the “constructivist” view that man is able to consciously construct or invent social institutions such as law and morals because he possesses “reason.” He argued that proponents of such top-down design theories misunderstand the processes responsible for the growth of civilization and attribute unjustified authority to human reason in regard to both cultural advance and the creation of a Good Society.

    Anyway, I wish to bring to David’s attention an essay on the ethics of both Hayek and Rand. It is ‘Two Worlds at Once: Rand, Hayek, and the Ethics of the Micro- and Macro-cosmos’ by Steven Horwitz in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2 (link). It can be read on-line with even a free account at JStor.

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  4. Thanks for the reference, Merlin. I found the whole essay here at Horwitz’s website. It looks interesting.

    Your description of Hayek on reason and “constructivist rationalism” is correct—or anyway it matches what I found in The Fatal Conceit. But what astonished me was how extreme he is about it. He just doesn’t seem to think that reason has any power at all to understand anything about the social world. He puts himself in the position almost of having to deny that there is any such thing as economic knowledge! Of course, he can’t quite do this, but his position of embarrassment on this score is evident in several places in the book (e.g., 70, 72). He argues explicitly that the evolutionary process by which our social rules evolved was/is not driven by people’s noticing that some rules work out better than others (76). Reason has no such power. The cultural evolutionary process is unconscious. Only after that fact can “some people gradually […] become aware of what they owe to the whole system” (76). (There may be a little something right about this, of course. But surely the main problem in getting free market institutions is not that people lack the abstract power to see that they would be good; the main problem is overcoming the forces, conscious and unconscious, that stand in their way.)

    He denies that we have any rational understanding or justification of scientific laws, such as the laws of physics (67–68). Here admittedly he is writing under the malign influence of Popper, but he embraces it eagerly.

    There is also the bizarre idea that cognition itself is a cultural artifact that developed by the same process of blind cultural evolution as the “extended order.” Innately all we have is a peculiar ability to learn from others by imitation.

    Interestingly, the idea that the moral principles that allow the market system to work may have evolved culturally, and through a process of group selection, is gaining steam. And Hayek is typically given credit for having advocated it. I will post a separate comment about this.

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    • David’s interpretation of Hayek’s Fatal Conceit is spot on. I once attended a conference focused on that one book, read it pretty carefully (a couple of times over), and came to exactly the same conclusions as David has. I may not have put the criticisms as cogently at the conference as David has here, but I was amazed at the recalcitrance with which my criticisms were met by Hayekians. I was (I was told) “missing Hayek’s point,” employing “the very constructivist rationalism Hayek criticizes,” etc. etc. And then the inevitable apologetic defense, “Well, it’s important to read other work by Hayek, not just The Fatal Conceit.” Except that The Fatal Conceit was supposed to be a kind of summary statement of his work as a whole.

      Whether it involves outright self-contradiction or not, there is no getting around the self-defeating character of this commitment of Hayek’s, which is clearly there in the text:

      He just doesn’t seem to think that reason has any power at all to understand anything about the social world.

      We can split hairs about the exact meaning of “any power at all,” but whatever power Hayek concedes is a pretty feeble affair, and doesn’t cohere very well with what he wants to say on behalf of “the market.”

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    • David wrote: “Here admittedly he is writing under the malign influence of Popper, but he embraces it eagerly.”

      There is controversy about how much of The Fatal Conceit was written by Hayek. See here. Especially note the part about Popper’s influence on the editor W. W. Bartley III.

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      • Yes, I knew about this controversy, actually, including the very page you link. I discovered it when I was reading The Fatal Conceit. It’s particularly disturbing that Jeffrey Friedman reports that suggestions he submitted to Bartley (not for text but just for further research, as I recall) found their way verbatim into “Hayek’s” text. Friedman is writing as an opponent of libertarianism by this time, but that doesn’t make him a liar.

        Since I haven’t read The Constitution of Liberty or Law, Legislation, and Liberty, this makes me slightly nervous about my interpretation of Hayek. But, on the other hand, people generally seem to be comfortable citing TFC as Hayek’s despite the controversy, and I’m explicitly presenting myself as interpreting that book, not Hayek’s total body of work. Plus—I know this is subjective, but—TFC is a work of sufficient power as to persuade me that it was not too much influenced/written by Bartley (a hack, in my opinion).

        I do think that when I come to revise the essay on the basis of comments and discussion here, I’ll tone down my claim about Hayek’s hostility to reason—though just a tad. It is incidental to what I want to say about Hayek, so its extremity may be a distraction.

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  5. Pingback: Morals and the Free Society: 6a. Addendum on Cultural Group Selection | Policy of Truth

  6. I’m not going to deny it but I am actually pretty fond of Popper’s work and his attack on the justificationist model in science. I like how he showed a nice way forward (in spite of induction) while accepting Hume’s critiques of induction which I have to say are pretty solid.

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    • Hi Michael. I myself at one time admired Popper quite a bit, and for just the reason you state. He seemed to be taking seriously Hume’s challenge concerning induction, and he seemed to have worked out a reasonable way of showing how objective knowledge can exist in spite of Hume’s strictures. It also seemed to me—it still does—that many of the people who are so violently opposed to Popper are in denial about the seriousness of Hume’s challenge. It seemed to me that you could gauge whether someone would admire Popper directly by the degree to which they were alive to the problem of induction. It was irritating that people who seemed frankly rather ignorant and complacent about the problem of induction nevertheless were quick to disparage and even despise Popper. Popper—like Ayn Rand, actually—inspires staunch adherence on the one hand and violent opposition on the other, without a whole lot in between. It’s curious why this should be so in the case of Popper—but his system is a tad ideological, as was his attitude toward it, I think.

      Anyway, the point is, don’t associate my opposition to Popper with the intemperance-cum-ignorance just described. I assure you, I know all about Popper and have felt his appeal very strongly. I still think I learned a great deal of good philosophy from him.

      Howsomever, the fact that Popper had his virtues doesn’t mean that his system succeeds in providing an epistemological foundation for objective knowledge. There are several devastating problems, but the most fundamental is that he must regard every unfalsified theory as epistemically equivalent. Thus, if theory T’ is theory T with one epicycle added, and theory T” is T with two epicycles, and theory T”’ is T with three, and so forth, then the whole infinite set T, T’, T”, T”’, T””, …, are equally worthy of being believed according to Popper. Of course, strictly speaking they aren’t worthy of being believed at all, only worthy of not being disbelieved. But the fundamental problem is that an infinite number of theories are all equiprobable, epistemically speaking. There is no epistemic way of choosing between them. Of course, you can do an empirical test, which might wipe out the whole series except for T itself—all the epicycles falsified in one fell swoop—but since epicycles can always be added to any theory, a new infinite series of epistemically equivalent theories instantly pops into existence in place of the old.

      Nor are the epicycles always testable. Consider the “theory” that you are a brain in a vat. This is basically the theory of “reality” plus an epicycle. Note that the epicycles are infinite: besides being a brain in a vat, you could be being deceived by an evil demon, by God, you could be dreaming, etc. Popper must say that all these theories are equally epistemically reasonable. Which is absurd. Popper knows this, of course, but, terrified of the problem of induction, he thinks it’s just the price we have to pay for an epistemically justifiable theory of knowledge. But he doesn’t have a theory of knowledge! A theory of knowledge that dictates that we can never know whether we have hands or whether there’s a red brick house on Elm Street, much less whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa, is not a real theory of knowledge.

      Which is more likely, that you don’t know you have hands or that you don’t know that the problem of induction is insoluble?

      Popper says that certain theories, being untestable, are unscientific. But this is mere name calling. So what if a theory is “unscientific”? Why do we care about this? Untestable epicycles may be cumbrous or useless, but these are merely practical considerations, not alethic ones. Falsifiability, as a criterion of being scientific, is a pragmatic criterion, not an epistemic one. And that is what Popper’s philosophy ultimately is: a form of pragmatism. In this respect, his views are practically equivalent to Quine’s, and inadequate for the same reasons.

      An excellent old paper that details these problems and more, and thus indicts a large swath of 20th century epistemology, not just Popper, is Larry Laudan and Jarrett Leplin’s “Empirical Equivalence and Underdetermination.”

      The classic deconstruction of Popper is David Stove’s Anything Goes: Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism. When I first read Stove, I thought his linking of Popper with Kuhn and Feyerabend was unfair. But I have come to see that it isn’t. It’s really a brilliant analysis.

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  7. Pingback: Haidt—The Righteous Mind, Chs. 7 & 8 | Policy of Truth

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