Was Hayek a moral relativist?

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.

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James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

Stimulating as always, Don.

I wonder whether it’s necessary to couple radical with utopian. The philosophical radicals of James Mill’s circle, with whom I imagine Hayek would identify to a large extent, were not utopian. Indeed, if your starting point is utilitarianism, that would seem to imply simulatneously a radical appraisal of morals and a repudiation of utopian blueprints. You didn’t mention Hayek’s attitude to utilitarianism (though you may have done so elsewhere), but that would be an obvious point of departure for an analysis of his ethics.

I’m sure Jason or Andrew Norton could should some light on that, too.

JC
JC
13 years ago

Don:

Why do you assume that conservatives would be impressed with Hayek?

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

Hayek was a utilitarian – the arguments that Don has paraphrased Hayek as making for liberal civilisation cannot be described any other way but as being utilitarian.

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.

A non utilitarian would be arguing instead about how there was an inherent ‘right’ to private property because of your mixing labour with land, etc.

What Hayek objected to was a more micromanaged form of utilitarianism – he thought it was more prudent to worry about broad outlines as above (e.g. rising material progress) in assessing forms of governance than aiming for some element of false precision (e.g. maximising utility by ensuring everyone’s happiness level at any time was always high) – and his objections to this form of utilitarianism were themselves utilitarian.

There is no conflict between moralising within one’s own society as a utilitarian like the Benthamites and Millians did and moral relativism of the form that Don roightly notes Hayek adheres to – this form of moral relativism only prohibits by logic immanent criticism. Within your own society, you may take certain outlines of preexisting norms as given and then work from there in a piecemeal direction.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
13 years ago

The difference between classical liberalism ‘relativism’ and left or left-liberal relativism is the difference between the concepts of tolerance and ‘celebrating diversity’. Classical liberals believe that diversity should be tolerated, partly through accepting that there are many possible paths to a good life, partly because experimentation can lead to better ways of life, and partly because intolerance leads to conflict. But under a tolerance-based system, nobody has to accept that somebody else’s way of life is actually morally equal, and they are free to criticise or ostracise people they disagree with. They just can’t beat them up or use the law against them. Left-liberals (at least in the caricature version) believe that all cultures are worthy of respect, and that this should be enforced via vilification laws and anti-discrimination law, both of which are typically opposed by classical liberals.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

…(at least in the caricature version)…

Exactly. Andrew, your ‘classical liberal’ position is a standard, enlightened, liberal position on culture and ethics. The only real difference I can think of regards the ethics of collective action, as revealed in the attitudes of classical liberals and social democrats toward ‘union thugs’ and ‘scabs’ respectively. But as far as cannibalism and wife-stoning are concerned, let’s do away with the stereotyping and rejoice in our agreement. Then we can concentrate on quarreling about the benefits of public health and education.

gregorylent
gregorylent
13 years ago

just to reply to the headline, of course he was a moral relativist. Everything is relative in the manifested world.

Nicholas Gruen
13 years ago

Great post as usual Don.

This statement of yours strikes me as silly “the conservative approach is to treat every piece of timber as sacred and untouchable”.

Which conservatives did you have in mind? Not very interesting ones.

On another point, as you say Hayek “He never explained how we should draw the line between enforcement and tolerance.” Hayek is the master of drawing crucial distinctions and then not really making it clear how you make them.

Geoff Robinson
13 years ago

The puzzle is that those who keenest on deploring moral relativism in the abstract are usually complete pragmatists in their real world lives, remember Tony Abbott channeling Fitzjames Stephen in his defense of the Howard govt’s refugee policy.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

In reply to Don’s question

:
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 actually though the comparison was less novel than that and could well be drawn from a common law example of duty of care (given Hayek was such a fan of the common law I wouldn’t be surprised). Nsmely the argument is analogous to the argument that if you save someone from drowning, pulling him out of the river but place him in a situation where he is basically for all intents and purposes in your hands, you can’t then just leave him on some isolated river bank to freeze to death but have subsequent responsibility of taking him in and feeding him soup at least if you’ve decided not to call an ambulance.