God, Hayek and the Conceit of Reason

The economist knew the survival of civilisation rested on belief but couldn't make the leap of faith

Jonathan Neumann

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.

The problems with these approaches, Hayek explains, are that they show no awareness that there might be limitations to our knowledge or reason in certain areas; they do not consider that part of science’s task is to discover those limits; and they show no curiosity about how the extended order actually came into being, how it is maintained, and what might be the consequences of undermining or destroying those traditions which did create and do maintain it.

The connection between constructivist rationalism (the construction of morality from scratch) and socialist thought, Hayek argues, is that they both flow from conceiving order as arrangement and control on the basis of accumulation of all the facts. But, as Hayek earlier showed in his landmark 1945 essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society”, the extended order could not be such an order, for accumulation of all the requisite facts is simply impossible. Now he asserts that, similarly, the practices of traditional morality not only do not, but cannot, meet the requirements or criteria demanded by scientism. Hence they are necessarily “unreasonable” and “unscientific”. Hayek insists, though, that this is not “news”, for      David Hume (1711-76) observed centuries ago that “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason”.

And this is not simply the case with traditional morals (including God, sex, family, and — particularly of interest to Hayek — private property, saving, exchange, honesty, truthfulness and contract), but “is also true of any possible moral code, including any that socialists might ever be able to come up with”. Hence were we to pursue this perilous path — as “all versions of scientism have advised” — we would soon “be back at the level of the savage who trusts only his instincts”. No argument about morals, therefore, can legitimately turn on the issue of scientific justification, because it cannot be achieved, so nothing can be gained-but everything can be lost.

Having established the limits of reason in a construction of morality, Hayek begins, however, to take a dubious turn. He asserts that “while our moral traditions cannot be constructed, justified or demonstrated in the way demanded, their processes of formation can be partially reconstructed, and in doing so we can to some degree understand the needs that they serve”. He sees this as a historical or natural-historical investigation, resembling what followers of Hume called “conjectural history”, and not as an attempt to construct, justify, or demonstrate the system itself.

Why would we want to engage in such “rational reconstruction?” Because doing so enables us “to improve and revise our moral traditions by remedying recognisable defects by piecemeal improvement based on immanent criticism, that is, by analysing the compatibility and consistency of their parts, and tinkering with the system accordingly”.

On the face of it, this may appear uncontroversial: after all, all moral systems, whether utilitarian, Revealed, or other, are tinkered in this way. Indeed, tradition itself is largely the accumulation over the ages of the sort of gradual “adaptations to the unknown” that Hayek is describing. On such a reading, Hayek’s enterprise is modest, and he is simply encouraging intellectual humility in the encounter with traditional morality.

But there is a pivotal difference between traditional moral tinkering and that which Hayek is suggesting: those traditional moral systems usually had Revelatory foundations and an associated telos which made the improvements philosophically coherent and intellectually rigorous. One wonders, then, what Hayek understands to be the source of traditional morality, the means by which morality can be tinkered with, and the end to which morality aims. Put differently, what is it, according to Hayek, that justifies traditional morality?

In trying to provide a “rational reconstruction” of morality, and thereby understand its formation, Hayek recognises the dilemma, finding himself “in the embarrassing position of wanting to claim that it must be the…economists” who are most able to explain those moral traditions that made the growth of civilisation possible. It is embarrassing because these are the same specialists who are “infected with constructivism”. This recognition is instructive for two reasons. First, because it is surely not coincidental that those best placed to comment on the formation of morality (its source, development and, based on its successes, purpose) are also those most inclined to construct a new morality, a relation that calls into question Hayek’s insistence on the differentiation between construction and reconstruction.

Second, because Hayek betrays a tacit telos of morality as he understands it. In speaking specifically of “those moral traditions that made the growth of civilisation possible”, he indicates why he considers traditional morality to be important; it emerges that a moral system is evaluated by its propensity to “nourish larger numbers” of people and enable its adherents to “outstrip others whose morals were better suited to the achievement of different aims”.

Hayek anticipates this reaction, though, and notes that, “although this morality is not ‘justified’ by the fact that it enables us to do these things, and thereby to survive, it does enable us to survive, and there is something perhaps to be said for that” (emphasis is his). In a sense, Hayek is of course correct: there is a great deal to be said for survival. But the insight is also deeply tautological, and it sheds further light on his affinity to Hume and reliance on “immanent criticism”. In effect, the assumption underlying Hayek’s approach is that we should aspire only to maintain and improve our material condition, without much thought as to whether such a goal is morally desirable. The system becomes its own justification, and the only rationale that we can advance is that it has enabled us to survive. Morality thus becomes the means by which we live together and prosper materially, rather than vice versa.

Again, though, one might retort that Hayek’s enterprise is more modest than the foregoing has implied. All he is doing, perhaps, is inoffensively presuming that suffering is generally bad; that alleviating suffering is generally good; that largely sticking with what we know, along with occasional marginal improvements, is the recommended course, for it has delivered the greatest prosperity known to man; and that this agenda is threatened by scientism and rationalism.

However, even this limited reading encounters problems of its own. Aside from its exposure to the criticisms outlined above, one might additionally observe that the greatest increases in Western prosperity have occurred during the last couple of centuries, coinciding with some of the greatest challenges to traditional morality. It is very possible that capitalism’s economic creative destruction might not be as independent of scientism’s moral creative destruction as Hayek might wish to imagine. With this possibility in mind, a staunch moral guide is surely needed to navigate the socio-economic upheavals of our day, and this modest interpretation of Hayek’s project, though surely on the right lines, does not quite deliver it.

Thus, the merits of his critique of reason notwithstanding, Hayek’s approach toward traditional morality is lacking. Interestingly, Hayek, troubled by the inadequacies of his inquiry, appears to have agreed with this assessment.

In his final reflections, Hayek concedes that his moral philosophy is deficient. After all, is it truly satisfying to live as though man’s, or at least society’s, moral purpose in this world is mainly to survive? In the final chapter, entitled “Religion and the Guardians of Tradition”, Hayek tries to answer how practices that people dislike, whose effects they cannot have anticipated, could have been passed down the generations. He notes that “part of the answer” is the evolution of moral orders through group selection (morality has survived because it has enabled its adherents to survive). “But,” he adds, “this cannot be the whole story.” Yet, he asks, if the beneficial effects of morality were not known in advance, whence did morality originate? And how has morality endured despite the opposition of instinct and, more recently, the assaults of reason? “Here we come to religion.”

Like it or not, Hayek writes, “we owe the persistence of certain practices and the civilisation that resulted from them, in part to support from beliefs which are not true — or verifiable or testable — in the same sense as are scientific statements”. Like others, he is “not prepared to accept the anthropomorphic conception of a personal divinity”, yet “the premature loss of what we regard as nonfactual beliefs would have deprived mankind of a powerful support in the long development of the extended order that we now enjoy.” The loss of these beliefs now would still create “great difficulties”, hence “even an agnostic ought to concede that we owe our morals, and…not only our civilisation but our very lives, to the acceptance of such scientifically unacceptable factual claims.”

These admissions, however, pose a further difficulty. Hayek appreciates the role of the monotheistic religions (and those which endorse private property) in sustaining our civilisation, and he recognises that, just as today’s specialists cannot construct a morality with knowledge of its effects, so these religions could not have been established by a conspiratorial elite serving some noble lie or opiate to the masses. But he is unwilling to take the faithful step and thereby understand these religions (and the moral systems they profess) on their own terms. He seems to share Napoleon’s sentiment that “I do not see in religion the mystery of the Incarnation, so much as the mystery of the social order.”

This hesitation leaves Hayek advising contemporary society to appreciate the limits of its knowledge but calling upon man to follow laws of morality largely based on religious ideas in which man need not believe. Why, though, should man do so? To this, Hayek can only offer the familiar answer that traditional morality is the only way of which we know that civilisation can endure. But the implication is that man should suppress instinct (and the prospect of immediate pleasure) or disregard reason simply in order to bequeath civilisation to the next generation. Hayek is aware of the deficiencies of this uninspiring rationale and appears to remain dissatisfied. 

“I long hesitated whether to insert this personal note here,” Hayek wrote, referring to these remarks on religion. He decided to do so, he explained, because hearing these arguments from a “professed agnostic” might encourage religious people “to pursue those conclusions that we do share”.

Hayek spent his life arguing for man’s freedom. The Fatal Conceit was his last contribution to that effort. The question, though, is how man should then use that freedom. And that is the question Hayek was unable to answer because he could not cross the faithful threshold. Nevertheless, he recognised, in his final published words, that “on that question may rest the survival of our civilisation”.

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