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Friedrich Hayek: In later life he worked on his moral philosophy

A quarter of a century ago, Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992), winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, published his final contribution to his considerable corpus, an eloquent exposition of his enduring concerns. But The Fatal Conceit (1988) sought not to recapitulate the intricacies of his economic thought (despite its subtitle,"The Errors of Socialism"), or to revisit his postulated and widely celebrated connection of economic collectivism and political tyranny. Rather, he was now, four years from his death, occupied in this short and forgotten volume with one of the most fundamental questions of humankind: the basis and preservation of our civilisation.

By civilisation, Hayek meant the "extended order of human cooperation", also known ("misleadingly") as capitalism. This order, and, more specifically, the traditional morality upon which it rested, Hayek claimed, has been enabled by something other than human instinct and other than reason. The fatal conceit itself, he explained, is excessive faith in reason, based on an erroneous and dangerous notion that we can construct what in fact we must inherit or learn. This conceit is fatal because it results in the collapse of society and the return to savage instinct. Rather, morality lies between instinct and reason, and "learning how to behave is more the source than the result of insight, reason, and understanding".

Unlike his economic and political philosophies, Hayek's moral philosophy is less known, and yet it formed the culmination of his life's work. His critique of reason is profound, but his own understanding of traditional morality is found lacking, and he appears to have agreed.

Hayek sees the centralising impulse of contemporary Western political economy as stemming from a "presumptive rationalism" which he calls "scientism" or "constructivism", and which expresses the "spirit of the age". This presumption is the product of a "litany of errors", which he seeks to disentangle and expose. Specifically, he cites four basic philosophical concepts which, during the past several hundred years, have formed the basis of this way of thinking: rationalism, which denies the acceptability of beliefs founded on anything but experience and reasoning; empiricism, which maintains that all statements claiming to express knowledge are limited to those depending for their justification on experience; positivism, which is defined as the view that all true knowledge is scientific, in the sense of describing the coexistence and succession of observable phenomena; and utilitarianism, which "takes the pleasure and pain of everyone affected by it to be the criterion of the action's rightness".

Hayek asserts that "in such definitions, one finds quite explicitly...the declarations of faith of modern science and philosophy of science, and their declarations of war against moral traditions", because "the leading moral traditions that have created and are creating our culture...cannot be justified in such ways".

To clarify, Hayek induces from these definitions several related presuppositions on the part of the critics of traditional morality: that it is unreasonable to follow what one cannot justify scientifically or prove observationally; that it is unreasonable to follow what one does not understand; that it is unreasonable to follow a particular course unless its purpose is fully specified in advance; and that it is unreasonable to do anything unless its effects are not only fully known in advance, but also fully observable and — as far as utilitarianism is concerned — seen to be beneficial. When morality is founded on reason, moreover, it follows that what is unreasonable also becomes morally dubious.

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January 16th, 2014
9:01 AM
The platonic Noble Lie revisited?

January 1st, 2014
7:01 AM
Never mind of course that all of the contributors of Standpoint worship at the tabernacle of reason. As do all of the propaganda hacks that infest the right-wing think tanks in the USA - the AEI and the Heritage Foundation for instance. Newt Gingrich's infamous "contract with America" was the epitome of such thinking. As far as I know it was drafted by the propaganda hacks from Heritage.

Phil Hayward
December 30th, 2013
8:12 AM
There is a fascinating passage in "The Road to Serfdom" (1946) which says: "...It was men's submission to the impersonal forces of the market that in the past has made possible the growth of a civilization which without this could not have developed; it is by thus submitting that we are every day helping to build something that is greater than any one of us can fully comprehend. It does not matter whether men in the past did submit from beliefs which some now regard as superstitious........ The crucial point is that it is infinitely more difficult rationally to comprehend the necessity of submitting to forces whose operation we cannot follow in detail, than to do so out of the humble awe which religion..... did inspire....."

Screaming Eagles
December 26th, 2013
11:12 PM
Hi, In AntiFragile, Taleb makes an updated case that heuristics can have a logic that people may not understand. In The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practal Aphorisms, he wrote, Academia is to knowledge what prostitution is to love; close enough on the surface but, to the nonsucker, not exactly the same thing. Also, he wrote, It takes extraordinary wisdom and self-control to accept that many things have a logic we do not understand that is smarter than our own.

Mark Adam
December 26th, 2013
1:12 PM
Sounds like Hayek got of whiff of the future; Robert Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality. In the MoQ there are 4 levels of evolution starting with the lowest, inorganic, biological, social and finally intellectual as the highest. Dynamic Quality is that force which allows new patterns of Quality to be found; it is the creative force. When a Static Pattern of Quality is found it is saved or latched in position to be used as a base for current and future growth. In the case of our societal patterns, they were revolutionary because man has found that living in a society with other men, practicing the division of labor allows for higher standard of living and greater survival than doing it own his own could ever accomplish. But with our intellectual evolution, a higher pattern of quality than society, we can step back, look at our social patterns, analyze how and why those came to be and keep what is of value and discard what is not. We can create out of the past patterns leaner, more effective social patterns that can be understood clearly with reason. As far as morality is concerned: "The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics--the standard which one judges which is good or evil--is man's life, or: that which is required for man's survival qua man. Since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys is the evil. Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are: thinking and productive work." Ayn Rand

Bruce Caldwell
December 24th, 2013
11:12 PM
I think the flaw in your excellent essay begins at your question, "what is it, according to Hayek, that justifies traditional morality?" The Fatal Conceit was edited by the Popperian philosopher Bill Bartley, whose most famous contribution philosophically was to renounce justification of knowledge claims. The book reflects that view. (Whether Bartley's views were also Hayek's is an interesting question in interpretation that is best left to the side here.) Hayek was trying to explain how certain moral practices that were not understood and even despised (because they offended both our reason and our instinct) ended up persisting, and by persisting allowed the great society to emerge. Hayek saw himself as making a scientific contribution. Given that he was propounding an evolutionary approach to the explanation of ethics, it would have been quite inconsistent to then elevate a particular ethical stance.

December 24th, 2013
3:12 AM
Every human activity relies on language. Including thinking. It’s difficult to imagine what ‘extra-linguistic’ reasoning would look like. The familiar experience of speaking and writing feels like we are simply putting into words what we think, as if the thought precedes the expression. But thinking itself is entirely language-based. An idea is not an inarticulate figment, but must be rigorously confined in the traditional conventional terms of grammar and syntax. With words we create ideas. Words are all we have, to make sense. ‘Extra-linguistic thought’ is an oxymoron. Without the words to manufacture ideas, illiterate thought is literally inconceivable. While using language certainly feels like we are simply describing ‘the world around us’, that is a universal and therefore compelling illusion. Thinking is ‘talking to yourself’. Ideas are rhetorical constructs. Without access to the appropriate words, we can’t be aware of anything. Language is the bricks and mortar of consciousness. The words enable us to construct awareness and critical reasoning. The first person singular pronoun ‘I’ is the only universal position for achieving ‘self-consciousness’. You cannot see or be ‘yourself’, without saying ‘I’. Everything we say relies on the unassailable assumption, in any language, that the person speaking has no other choice but to adopt the first person position, in order to mobilise the singular pronoun ‘I’. With the word “I” create the individual. Why is the illusion so compelling that language enables us to describe reality? A newborn baby is as conscious as a blind newborn kitten. It doesn’t know that it knows nothing. The brain is not pro-active but reactive. Ever since its development in the womb, the vast network of neurones that is my brain has been firing in unique, highly specific sequences, in response to every discretely perceived sensory stimulus. Every day thereafter, from the cradle to the grave, each sequence of stimuli is ‘re-cognised’ (positively identified each time, again and again), some consciously, all the rest sub-consciously, causing the same complicated neuronal sequences to fire, every time again, which we then experience as memory. All the available evidence seems to suggest that all the animal species have their own peculiar means of communication, to enable them to function socially in herds, packs or elaborately organised nests, such as bees and ants. But only Homo sapiens evolved the specialised larynx to articulate speech. Our consciousness of ‘the self’ may be no more mysterious than our having intuitively learned in infancy to articulate the first person singular pronoun “I”. If any other species had evolved with the anatomical architecture to enable speech, they would likewise be able to reason critically and instinctively construct a ‘sense of self’, expressed in conventional words. Speech comes naturally to us and naturally persuades us that our words describe what we casually label, ‘the world out there’. But all language relies on highly subjective, circumstantial interpretation, according to how and where each of us grew up, our formal and informal education and training, socio-cultural orientation and everything we have gradually learned to verbalise along the way. That is always going to be different for every one of us, at any given time, throughout the countless elaborate narratives we call ‘history’. The solipsist (convinced that only one’s own mind can be said to exist) never tires of asking, how can I be sure I exist? Can the external world and other minds be known, or even be said to exist at all, outside my mind? Linguistic deconstruction renders all such existential questions moot. Everything we talk about exists, as surely as everything we can see, hear and touch exists. God, love, time, gravity, dead parents, history, the human mind. If we have a word for it and we know how to use it in a coherent sentence, the thing exists. Language enables us to create our realities. Every reality, to each their own, is made sensible by our judicious use of words. Every waking moment of our lives, we literally ‘make sense’ of our own subjective reality, according to whatever our ever-vigilant brain is able to re-cognise of the continuous and relentless stream of sensory input. That includes all our habitual, introspective, random, meditational musing. Being awake and alert, also known as ‘thinking’, is nothing more mysterious than our habitual, deliberate and intuitive verbal ‘self actualisation’. By always mentally talking to ourselves, we mobilise the ‘I’ position of consciousness. When we consider the concept of ‘reality’ from that perspective, nothing can exist if we don’t have a word for it. But whatever we do talk about must, by dint of our formally and informally acquired vocabulary of verbal definitions, exist. Not ‘out there’, but in here. That is to say, even what we think of as ‘out there’ must also be linguistically constructed in order to exist. We can’t know anything else. To ‘know’ is to rely entirely on memory and imagination. Knowing and believing are not conflicting, incommensurate functions of our verbal capacity for ‘making sense. Knowing and believing are like two sides of the same coin. Our most cherished ‘established scientific facts’ are nothing more than linguistic constructs, elaborate compilations of disparate sub-routines of cognitive data, relying on traditional, conventional and habitual, socio-cultural assumptions and theories, literally, verbally and emotionally quite incomprehensible, if they were not essential figments of our imagination. As such, all our intuitively contrived verbal confabulations are absolutely essential to preserve our indispensable sense of sanity, order and normality. What about the First and Second World Wars? And the horrors of the Holocaust, the Crusades, the Inquisition and Abu Ghraib? What about the extinction of the Dinosaurs, the invention of the wheel and how to safely harness electricity, penicillin and the Apollo Moon landings? What about the Internet? Aren’t they all irrefutable facts? Of course they are, all ‘historical artefacts’, unified, consolidated, discrete ‘pieces of knowledge’ that are all understood differently by each person who hears and talks about them and reads and writes about them. We all seem to be using the same words, but we all understand them differently. We understand everything about which we believe we know something, in terms of discrete ‘facts’, concise, complete, distinct and therefore understandable and thus manageable ‘chunks’ of knowledge. But all of what we habitually, even carelessly, take for granted as ‘the facts’ that we must suppose comprise our familiar, ‘factual world’, are all verbally manufactured, made of linguistic constructs, all dependent on conventionally and therefore conveniently accepted, rules of grammar and syntax. To talk about the Crusades and everything else, we are all obliged to resort to articulating the accepted jargon (clichés, discipline-specific colloquialisms and scientific, industrial or academic terminology). And, above all, we must avoid the detail. It is simply not practical to describe in complete detail what was involved to invent the wheel, to build a modern automobile, aircraft, computer, or how to bake a cake. Consensus and general agreement always depends on agreeing at the outset to ignore the detail. You don’t even need to be married for any length of time, to understand that. At all ‘meetings of great minds’, from your local PTA to imposing boardrooms, from international conventions to national Parliaments or Congresses, including the United Nations General Assembly, all the ‘Terms of Reference’ and Procedures at Meetings must be meticulously prescribed and ‘taken as read’ before any deliberations can begin. This is specifically intended to avoid the unspeakable risk of any creative novice, or liberal-minded, ‘free-thinking’ participant, inadvertently straying into uncharted philosophical, dialectical territory, whence there is no known means of escape, beyond plain political suicide. This, as everyone knows, who has ever sat on a Chair, is the dreaded outer darkness, where there is much creeping and smashing of teeth. Likewise, ‘the physical world’ is also one of those classic, rock-solid, utterly dependable, incontrovertible ‘facts’. We all know what chocolate tastes like. And we know where the Sun and the Moon are and where the Universe is, how old it is and what it means to ‘walk the dog’. We all know what it means to know lots of stuff. And we all know we can be pretty damn sure everyone else knows the same stuff. More or less. So we habitually ignore the sneaking suspicion, because life’s too short, that whatever we must believe we know something about, depends entirely on all the words we have learned to use. We confidently expect each word to have a precise meaning, so we can safely expect everyone else to understand what we say. And we naturally call that ‘effective communication skills’. We simply take all this for granted. In fact, we have no other choice, if we want to get any work done, put food on the table, pay the mortgage, raise the kids and plan the next holiday. So much so, that, whenever we say something that, to us, is so bleeding obvious that ‘blind Freddy can see it’ and somebody else just ‘doesn’t get it’, we fly off the handle. Why? Because we expect language to work. Because language always works. So why not now? Because I’m not stupid, so it must be the other guy. I know the truth when I see it, even if you don’t. And so on, ad infinitum. The trouble is that language does indeed appear to work and work remarkably well. But not in the way we have been carefully taught and have come to expect. Life is nothing, if it were not for our eminently realistic and our incredibly unrealistic expectations, flawed memory, vivid imagination … and illusions. We all expect things to go right, not to get sick, but to get rich, if not quick, at least sooner rather than later. We all know what the weather is like. And yet, we simply expect the weather to hold, the climate to remain the same, ‘the world situation’ to improve, the company to make a profit, to get promoted, the kids to graduate … and the car to start. And we are absolutely right to expect all of this and more. Because we have no alternative but to believe, with undying conviction, that we are at least entitled to the truth. But, when next you find yourself lying in bed, still awake at three, or on the beach, say, for argument’s sake, at a resort you can’t afford, and you allow yourself the time to take a breath and think about things, then you just might come to the unsettling conclusion that it’s not really like that. If, on such rare, navel-gazing occasions, you take the time to take the time, you might even find yourself asking yourself, ‘Am I kissing myself goodbye here, or do I dare to ask myself, am I missing something?’ Or words to that effect. So, if every human activity relies on language, what about eating and sleeping? Or breathing? What about going for a walk? Of course, we don’t need to think, that is talk, let alone talk about what we are doing, while we are engaged in such ‘activities’. But we do anyway. If ‘thinking’ is nothing more or less mysterious than talking to your ‘self’, then we can’t help, no matter where we are and what else we are doing, but be tirelessly playing with words. And our brain cannot stop thinking, dreaming the wildest, most unbelievable dreams. Especially while we are asleep. We don’t need to talk about breathing or keeping the heart going, or digesting our food. But, without a conscious, morally responsible, rhetorically active brain, we wouldn’t know what’s to eat and what ain’t, how to avoid unbreathable air, so our heart and lungs get the vital oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to ‘drive to the beat’. We can’t walk the dog or drive to work without ‘talking’ about it. Everything we do, we must rationalise by mentally ‘talking’ about it. We have no other choice. But none of our words has a concrete, immutable meaning. Of course your dictionary isn’t a pack of lies. We take it for granted that all words have distinct, more or less well-understood, etymological origins. Like every other species on the planet, words have evolved, subject to all sorts of convoluted, historical influences. But that’s not how we use them. Like it or not, of the veritable cornucopia of meanings at our disposal, ‘being human’ can also be taken to mean we’re far too imaginative, inventive, creative and therefore far too morally, politically, legally and culturally perverse, to stick to the rigid rules of grammar and syntax. 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.' 'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.' 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.' Here we can see Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was not kidding. He wasn’t only writing for children. Or if he was, he knew, in 1872, that those kids lucky enough to read his books, could be any age. There’s nothing wrong with the language we are used to and there’s nothing wrong with the way we use language. Why we get confused where we get confused is that we don’t have the time to spend the time on examining what is really going on when we speak and listen, read and write. As we walk, so we talk. We have all learned during infancy, more by natural intuition than formal instruction and long before we could reason critically, how to speak impulsively. As a result, we just naturally assume that ‘meaning’ is something that lives independent of those for whom the meaning matters. We are obliged to make those sorts of assumptions all the time, just to get through the average day. But the meaning is not ‘out there’. No text, speech, book, film, social occasion and certainly none of the dramatic or everyday events can be said to possess, or come equipped with, inherent meaning. No, it’s us, you and I. No matter how, when, where or why we seek to live on ‘this mortal coil’, all of us, no matter how intelligent or not, inarticulate or not, rich or poor, great and small, we are the absolute, indefatigably imaginative authors of meaning. And that’s because there has never been even one word, in any language, in any society, in any historical epoch that could not be invested with more than one possible meaning. All the sense that we understand must be made, that is, linguistically constructed, at both ends of each verbal transaction. This means war. Due to the virtually unlimited repertoire of human situations in which language plays a role, the range of possibilities for how the words are understood is beyond even the prodigious scope of our imagination. For a start and to that end, there’s national and social divergence in vocabulary and elocution, intonation, mood, inflection, vocal colouration, regional and national dialects and traditions, transient popular slang, education, occupation and ethnic, racial, religious, socio-cultural, moral, political and sexual orientation. And the whole thing stands and falls on three essential premises of all understanding: the pretext (all the a priori assumptions and presumptions I bring to each transaction); the context (circumstances relevant to the moment); and the sub-text (what only I can manage to read between the lines).

Dylan Kiewel
December 23rd, 2013
9:12 PM
I don't get it. Isn't it obvious that morality is precisely the evolving behavioral software that societies run to form successful civilizations? Why does the author of this article repeatedly dance right up to the threshold of this conclusion and then reject it as somehow patently absurd? Morality IS the means to some end, it has instrumental value, just as agreeing to drive on the right (or left) hand side of the road helps traffic move more efficiently than failing to adopt such agreement. Morality is the accumulated private and especially social customs that form or at minimum coincide with the relative fitness of one culture as opposed to another. It is no accident that the leading societies are abandoning the revelatory framework for teaching social custom to their children: the traditional demand for broad credulity, or "faith" simply does undermine the currently prevailing demand for broad exercise of reason. In practice, the "reasoning" individuals of secular societies may stand as credulous before the offerings of the technologists as those before the ancient priests. Moreover, every society is a more or less functioning symbiosis of opposing yet complimentary moral experimentation at the levels of individuals and groups in combination with the more or less ardent adherence to its various inherited traditions.

December 23rd, 2013
12:12 PM
If we assume that individuals have inherent, irreducible, and inalienable value, then we must be exceedingly concerned about the accumulation of power and the exercise of that power. Moreover, the power that is accumulated must be controlled and channeled. This is true for political power, economic power, and cultural power. People have a

james wilson
December 20th, 2013
6:12 PM
I loved Fatal Conceit. It is unfortunate that he did not have an editor (essentially, a translator) who could rephrase his idioms and thoughts. In just one example, his use of the term "moral" is very conflicting.

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