Monday, November 22, 2010

Hayek Against Rationalism

All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wisest. Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant.
Perhaps the single most attractive part of Hayek's philosophy is, in my view, his epistemology. This is not something that the majority of people are likely to care about. Yet whether most people care about them or not, questions about what we know and how we know it are intensely important to the intellectuals who are often most influential in shaping society. The argument for a free society must have, as part of its foundation, an argument for the right kind of answers to these questions.

Hayek explicitly denounces "erroneous rationalism" in Chapter Fourteen of The Road to Serfdom. (This is a chapter to which I will most likely be returning, as it contains most of the overtly moral arguments Hayek has made in favor of the free market system.) He says,
"Man has come to hate, and to revolt against, the impersonal forces to which in the past he submitted, even though they have often frustrated his individual efforts.

This revolt is an instance of a much more general phenomenon, a new unwillingness to submit to any rule or necessity the rationale of which man does not understand; it makes itself felt in many fields of life, particularly in that of morals; and it is often a commendable attitude. But there are fields where this craving for intelligibility cannot be fully satisfied and where at the same time a refusal to submit to anything we cannot understand must lead to the destruction of our civilization."

This theme receives more special attention in the second chapter of The Constitution of Liberty, which opens with the statement, "The Socratic maxim that the recognition of our ignorance is the beginning of wisdom has profound significance for our understanding of society." In particular, the idea he develops in this chapter is that "civilization begins when the individual in the pursuit of his ends can make use of more knowledge than he has himself acquired and when he can transcend the boundaries of his ignorance by profiting from knowledge he does not himself possess." This is a profound statement. It not only acknowledges the dependence of one person upon another for goods and services, but even for knowledge itself.

One of Hayek's clearest and most compelling statements against rationalism comes just a few paragraphs later:
The whole conception of man already endowed with a mind capable of conceiving civilization setting out to create it is fundamentally false. Man did not simply impose upon the world a pattern created by his mind. His mind is itself a system that constantly changes as a result of his endeavor to adapt himself to his surroundings. It would be an error to believe that, to achieve a higher civilization, we have merely to put into effect the ideas now guiding us. If we are to advance, we must leave room for a continuous revision of our present conceptions and ideals which will be necessitated by further experience. We are as little able to conceive what civilization will be, or can be, five hundred or even fifty years hence as our medieval forefathers or even our grandparents were able to foresee our manner of life today.

The conception of man deliberately building his civilization stems from an erroneous intellectualism that regards human reason as something standing outside nature and possessed of knowledge and reasoning capacity independent of experience. But the growth of the human mind is part of the growth of civilization; it is the state of civilization at any given moment that determines the scope and the possibilities of human ends and values. The mind can never foresee its own advance. Though we must always strive for the achievement of our present aims, we must also leave room for new experiences and future events to decide which of these aims will be achieved.
Hayek goes on to argue that this is one of the essential arguments in favor of freedom. It is not merely an argument for intellectual liberty; it is an argument for liberty in general. He points out that the growth of knowledge depends as much on the conventions and traditions which are so often deemed "irrational" as on our rationally conceived beliefs and ideas. Knowledge thus conceived is not merely scientific knowledge, but incorporates all of our particular experiences. It is, most importantly, distributed among individuals so as not to be contained in any one mind.

From this he derives a compelling argument that freedom is not only a benefit to the individual who has it, but to those around him (insofar as they are allowed to reap those benefits). A corollary of this is that a free society must not simply desire certain "freedoms" but rather a comprehensive freedom, which in particular embraces behaviors that many people may not like. It is not simply those freedoms which the majority of people wish to take advantage of, but really any tolerable freedom that must be permitted in a free society. In fact, he argues, those freedoms which only a very small number of people are likely to take advantage of are the most important of all. Freedom is essential to the progress of society because it allows for totally unexpected changes to benefit everyone. If we could foresee the kind of changes that human beings are capable of realizing, i.e. if we had all the knowledge in the world, there would be no case for freedom. (This book was first published in 1960; do not all incredible discoveries we have made since then provide all the more evidence for his position?)

Hayek briefly mentions morals and aesthetics within this framework:
Most of what we have said so far applies not only to man's use of the means for the achievement of his ends but also to those ends themselves. It is one of the characteristics of a free society that men's goals are open, that new ends of conscious effort can spring up, first with a few individuals, to become in time the ends of most. It is a fact which we must recognize that even what we regard as good or beautiful is changeable--if not in any recognizable manner that would entitle us to take a relativistic position, then in the sense that in many respects we do not know what will appear as good or beautiful to another generation.
I'd like to come back to this at some point and explore it more deeply. I find there is at least some weakness in his argument about the ethics of society. He seems to imply that in the last analysis, ethics are only justified insofar as they survive. But he certainly wouldn't apply that metric to his overarching principle of liberty; it is, after all, very easy for a free society to grow to reject freedom, as he himself discovered in the early 20th century. Nevertheless, his intellectual humility is commendable. It seems to me that precisely because the pursuit of moral knowledge is the pursuit of principles that transcend human opinion, we ought to be all the more careful not to think of our own opinions as firmly established moral facts. To do so would require the presumption that we have come to transcend all other human beings.

Hayek ends his argument with a final challenge:
The rationalist who desires to subject everything to human reason is thus faced with a real dilemma. The use of reason aims at control and predictability. But the process of the advance of reason rests on freedom and the unpredictability of human action. Those who extol the powers of human reason usually see only one side of that interaction of human thought and conduct in which reason is at the same time used and shaped. They do not see that, for advance to take place, the social process from which the growth of reason emerges must remain free from its control.
Why do I find this point of view so attractive? Primarily it is because it is so true to life. It is sheer delusion to think that we have chosen all of our behaviors and ideas through a purely rational systematic effort. This is what I like to call the myth of rationality. Not that myths don't have good effects. The myth of rationality, in particular, has allowed for a lot of the scientific development our society has experienced in modern times. I suspect it is largely because a lot of people out there think themselves more rational than they really are that we have a functioning academy. On the other hand, there are side effects of this myth. Trivial side-effects may include the crusades of people like Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists. More serious side-effects may include political movements such as those Hayek was combating in the early 20th century.

Yet not only is this epistemology true to life; it also seems more moral to me than other philosophies of mind. So many philosophies today seem to be inherently embedded with a high degree of arrogance. Whether it's the fundamentalist claiming to know the precise interpretation of Scripture which all people must believe, or it's the academic who looks down on the beliefs of common people, or it's the relativist who is so presumptuous as to even invent his "own truth," anyone who bases their philosophy on the assumption that we as individuals must possess all the knowledge worth having seems to have fallen prey to human pride. The irony is that as much as Hayek defends the freedom of the individual, he is emphatically not an individualist in the modern American sense of the word. (For a further exploration on this topic, I highly recommend his essay, "Individualism: True and False" from the collection Individualism and the Economic Order.)

Not that Hayek's philosophy is perfect, and not that he has addressed every issue that we should be concerned with. But it's a great starting point.

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