Nothing seems to excite conservatives as much as the spectre of moral relativism. For conservatives, relativism is one of the great errors of the postmodernist left. If it is allowed to spread through the classrooms, lecture theatres and legal system, Western civilization will surely collapse. But what few conservatives seem to have noticed (or choose not to mention), is that some of the most revered figures on the right were also moral relativists. One of these is the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek.
Hayek was what moral philosophers call a ‘metaethical moral relativist’. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, metaethical moral relativists hold that "The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons."
Hayek denied that there were any absolute moral values. When he addressed the Canberra Branch of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand in 1976 he said that: "However much we dislike it, we are again and again forced to recognise that there are no truly absolute values whatever. Not even human life itself."
He contrasted his views with those of conservatives saying that: "The conservative is generally happy to cling to his belief in absolute values. While I envy him, I cannot share his beliefs."
Hayek argued that it wasn’t possible to criticise a society’s moral code from some Archimedean point outside of the tradition any particular society. He believed that it was impossible to take a stand on moral issues that was tradition or culture neutral. However, Hayek did not argue that our own society’s moral rules and values must be accepted just as they are. In Volume 2 of Law, Legislation and Liberty, he wrote:
… we do not maintain that all tradition as such is sacred and exempt from criticism, but merely that the basis of criticism of any one product of tradition must always be other products of tradition which we either cannot or do not want to question; in other words, that particular aspects of a culture can be critically examined only within the context of that culture. We can never reduce a system of rules or all values as a whole to a purposive construction, but must always stop with our criticism at something that has no better ground for existence than that it is the accepted basis of the particular tradition (p 25).
This is the technique of ‘immanent criticism’ — a form of critique Will Wilkinson calls, "a hallmark of a genuinely liberal, non-utopian cast of mind". Reforming morals in this way is a bit like repairing a wooden ship a plank at a time while sailing the open seas. In contrast, the radical utopian approach is to set fire the hull and rebuild the ship from the keel up while the conservative approach is to treat every piece of timber as sacred and untouchable.
Hayek believed that the moral timbers of our society need to be periodically replaced as the circumstances of its inhabitants change. A moral code adapted to the way of life of a small tribal society could never support the way of life we have now. As a result Hayek believed in a kind of ‘moral progress’. By progress he meant adaptation. Societies like ours are dynamic. Technological change is constantly improving productivity and allowing society to support increasing numbers of people in conditions of material affluence. If we were to revert to the old morality of the pre-industrial West, our economies would collapse and much of the population would starve to death. It is too late to reinstate a ban on usury or demand that factory managers to look after their workers as if they were medieval serfs.
To allow adaptation, Hayek argued that dynamic societies like ours need to allow a certain amount of moral experimentation. We needed to both enforce our society’s moral code as a whole but also be tolerant enough to allow deviation from some individual norms. He never explained how we should draw the line between enforcement and tolerance.
Hayek’s relativism raises the question of how we should deal with other societies. His answer was that if the society is relatively self-contained, we should leave its members to order their own affairs:
It would seem to me, for instance, to be clearly morally wrong to revive an already unconscious old Eskimo who, at the beginning of their winter migration, in accordance with the morals of his people and with his approval, had been left behind by his group to die — and to be right only if I regarded it as right, and in my power, to transfer him into a wholly different society in which I was able and willing to provide for his survival (p 27).
His last point about taking responsibility is interesting. Does it imply that if we interfere in another society, that we become responsible for the welfare of the people whose way of life we have disrupted? I’m not sure what Hayek would have said.