Monday, December 20, 2010

Life needs no justification

The Fatal Conceit is Hayek's final manifesto in defense of capitalism and against socialism. In a fascinating sense, however, it is not a political but a scientific argument. Hayek's thesis is that our moral traditions, which have enabled the survival of as many humans as now exist, have evolved through a process of "cultural evolution" and are not, and never could be, the product of deliberate human reason. This requires some explanation.

Through the process of biological evolution, humans came to acquire brains which allow us to learn from one another through imitation. (It is noteworthy that this imitation precedes reason; reason, Hayek argues, is the result, and not the cause, of cultural evolution.) With this power of learning, a new form of evolution begins, analogous to but distinct from biological evolution. As we imitate one another, we pass on cultural practices and traditions. These practices undergo a process of selection, not primarily in that certain humans die out if they have not acquired the fittest practices, but in that certain populations with their practices will tend to grow faster and be able to support more newcomers than others. It is through this process, Hayek argues, that we came to develop both language and morals. The process of cultural evolution "selects" those systems of morals which allow for the most growth. Thus it does not particularly matter so much what the original justification for any of these morals was, but only what is the long-term effect of a group of people adopting these morals.

Since cultural evolution is distinct from biological evolution, we should not expect humans to be "hard-wired" with any of the morals we have inherited. Indeed, since moral traditions are passed down by imitation, and not by genes, they will inevitably conflict with our "instincts"--the desires ingrained in us by biological evolution. Thus morals fall "between instinct and reason"--that is, they conflict with instincts, and they could never be derived from reason. Our instinctual moral reason, Hayek argues, hearkens back to when we lived among small groups of people. The values of a small tribe are much different from that of an extended society. Everything ought to be done for the sake of the tribe: if you find a source of food, you let everyone know; if you find one of the tribe hurt, everyone helps him to recover; if you know of a more efficient way of accomplishing a desired task, you share it with everyone. It may be natural for a tribe to have a leader who gives out particular tasks, but it would be unnatural for a small tribe to have everyone simply choose his own path in life. The necessities of life dictate against this: only the tribe that sticks together will survive.

It is not so in an extended society. The moral traditions of a culture that is able to grow beyond the level at which all members of that society can be known by one another are very different from our instinctual values. Morals must exist as abstract principles rather than concrete goals. In particular, morals will tend to be prohibitions of certain actions, with all other actions left open as possibilities. As these kinds of morals develop, an "extended order" is allowed to come into being. Trade begins to occur among people who have no prior existing relationship. Money comes to be used as a common medium of exchange. Thus comes into being, without human beings ever realizing what's happening, a remarkable mechanism for reallocating resources to accomplish new tasks, which we now call the free market (or, as Hayek would call it, the catallaxy).

Now the essential difference between capitalism and socialism can be explained. Capitalism is the set of moral values, inherited from the process of cultural evolution, which has allowed the extended order in which we now live, in which our very life depends on the processes of the market. Socialism, by contrast, is essentially a throwback to our more instinctual values of doing all for the good of the small tribe. Ironically, we run into socialism by way of rationalism, the belief that we should only accept what we can rationally demonstrate as true. Because our morals did not come into being by way of reason, rationalism will seek to destroy these morals. However, since there is no way to replace these morals with reason, our instincts must fill the gap. Hayek thus argues consistently through this work that socialism is essentially a superstition born of rationalism, a return to the animism of our ancestors based on the presumption that all social order must be the product of design--and if this design is not that of a transcendent being, then it must be human design.

It's worth mentioning that our instinctual values need not be eliminated in the extended order in which we live. The desire to care for our neighbors and to share with those whom we personally know is, of course, laudable. These values don't necessarily translate that well when applied to the extended order, as Hayek points out with a simple illustration: "If we were, say, to respond to all charitable appeals that bombard us through the media, this would exact a heavy cost in distracting us from what we are most competent to do, and likely only make us the tools of particular interest groups or of peculiar views of the relative importance of particular needs. It would not provide a proper cure for misfortunes about which we are understandably concerned."

The main point, however, is that we don't know what the value of morals are except by their long-term consequences, especially those consequences which we cannot yet perceive, either because they are in the future or because they are happening to people in remote parts of the world whom we do not even know to exist. This creates a problem for the rationalist. It will never be possible to gain all the information necessary to evaluate particular morals. Socialism, however, is based on the assumption that we can evaluate and develop our own morals (and other traditions upon which the success of society is based) purely on reason. This factual error, Hayek argues, is the "fatal conceit"--by which he literally means that it could mean the death of billions of people and the impoverishment of the rest, were it consistently put into practice.

Capitalism and socialism, then, are not simply two rationally constructed ideas between which we have to choose based on our personal moral preferences. Capitalism is a system which arose out of cultural evolution to allow the survival of the number of people who now exist in the world. It is, moreover, a system which allows the continuation of cultural evolution. It is essential for the continued survival of civilization that we allow humans to continue learning from one another through imitation, so that we can discover new techniques of using the resources available in the world. Socialism would not allow the process of cultural evolution to continue, since it would require that we proceed only through rationally constructed principles, rather than through imitation and cultural inheritance. The fatal irony is that this desire to be "rational" would utterly cripple the mechanism by which the extended order is able to coordinate all the information dispersed among the many individuals and groups living in the world. Thus rationalism would lead to an irrational allocation of resources.

Hayek's argument has moral import only if we assume that human life needs no justification. This is clear if we look at the many times Hayek tries to hedge the question whether the market is, in fact, the "right" system of social order. For instance:
The extended order depends on this morality in the sense that it came into being through the fact that those groups following its underlying rules increased in numbers and in wealth relative to other groups. The paradox of our extended order, and of the market--and a stumbling block for socialists and constructivists--is that, through this process, we are able to sustain more from discoverable resources (and indeed in that very process discover more resources) than would be possibly by a personally directed process. And 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. [The emphasis is Hayek's.]
From Hayek's point of view, "Life Has No Purpose But Itself":
Life exists only so long as it provides for its own continuance. Whatever men live for, today most live only because of the market order.
I can see why Hayek avoids attempting to justify his presupposition that life needs no justification. I, for one, am thankful that he takes this as a presupposition. If we truly need arguments to justify this, then we are in a worse position than I thought. But I fear that it may be the case that human beings are capable of rejecting this presupposition. The more we contemplate the conflict between what it takes to preserve our civilization and the many other desires we wish to satisfy--the desire for comfort, happiness, fulfillment, or even the desire for meaning and purpose (especially if the traditional answers no longer satisfy)--the more we may be led gradually to conclude that not all human life is worth preserving, and that "sacrifices must be made" to achieve our goal of a society that satisfies our desires.

There is at least some historical precedence for this fear. The project of eugenics in the 20th century is probably the most obvious example. It is always tempting to replace the desire to preserve human life with the desire to perfect human life. This kind of shift in thinking still influences many of our debates today over bioethics, even if only to a lesser degree. Sometimes I hear things like abortion justified almost explicitly on the grounds that some lives are not worth living. It would be moral, it is argued, to bring a child into the world under certain circumstances. Euthanasia is similarly justified: some say it would be immoral not to allow people to order their own deaths, if they judge their own lives not to be worth living. Such practices as abortion and euthanasia suggest that our commitment to preserving human life is not as absolute as would be perhaps necessary to accept Hayek's argument.

(I have made some attempt to see what were Hayek's own views on bioethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia, but I have not been successful. I suspect he must have been hesitant to speak on these issues, and I'm not convinced he would have considered himself "pro-life." But it is worth thinking about these issues in light of Hayek's presupposition that human life needs no justification. Is this presupposition consistent with anything but a pro-life ethic?)

It is crucial to note that Hayek has given us only a very realistic choice. Capitalism cannot satisfy every desire. Indeed, the moral structures on which it depends will necessarily frustrate many of our desires. In particular, it will be hard to see some have so much less than others. It will be painful to see how so much depends on the "ovarian lottery," i.e. on where we were born and to whom. It will be difficult to accept that success doesn't necessarily correspond to our intuitive sense of moral merit. Perhaps most painful will be to see others succeed based on what we find morally detestable, especially greed. For these reasons, Hayek's exhortation must seem rather austere. Yet the alternative, Hayek maintains, is that we will no longer be able to sustain the people now living in the world.

In some sense, then, it is a choice between happiness and life. Not that happiness is impossible in a market order--far from it. But happiness in a market order is only an opportunity, and for many people it may never come. The only thing we can guarantee is the preservation of as many human lives as possible, "and there is something perhaps to be said for that."

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