Front Page Titles (by Subject) Clarifying Hayek\'s Moral Theory - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4
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Clarifying Hayek's Moral Theory - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Clarifying Hayek's Moral Theory
Given that we recognize governmental intervention to be the greatest subverter of spontaneous order in the realm of economic exchange, what legal framework is to be adopted for the regulation of economic life? Here we come to one of the most fascinating and controversial of Hayek's contributions to social philosophy, his account of individual liberty under the rule of law. Before we can address ourselves to some of the problems surrounding Hayek's contribution to philosophical jurisprudence, however, a few words must be said about Hayek's moral theory, since few aspects of Hayek's work are so often misunderstood. Hayek has been characterized as a moral relativist, an exponent of evolutionary ethics and, less implausibly but nonetheless incorrectly, as a rule-utilitarian. Let us see if we can dissipate the confusion.
In the first place, moral life for Hayek is itself a manifestation of spontaneous order. Like language and law, morality emerged undesigned from the life of men with one another: it is so much bound up with human life, indeed, as to be partly constitutive of it. The maxims of morality, then, in no way presuppose an authority, human or divine, from which they emanate, and they antedate the institutions of the state. But, secondly, the detailed content of the moral conventions which spring up unplanned in society is not immutable or invariant. Moral conventions change, often slowly and almost inperceptibly, in accordance with the needs and circumstances of the men who subscribe to them. Moral conventions must (or Hayek's account of them) be seen as part of the evolving social order itself.
Now at this point it is likely that a charge of ethical relativism or evolutionism will at once be levelled against Hayek, but there is little substance to such criticisms. He has gone out of his way to distinguish his standpoint from any sort of evolutionary ethics. As he put it in his Constitution of Liberty:
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... It is not only in his knowledge, but also in his aims and values, that man is the creature of his civilization; in the last resort, it is the relevance of these individual wishes to the perpetuation of the group or the species that will determine whether they persist or change. It is, of course, a mistake to believe that we can draw conclusions about what our values ought to be simply because we realize that they are a product of evolution. But we cannot reasonably doubt that these values are created and altered by the same evolutionary forces that have produced our intelligence.68
Hayek's argument here, then, is manifestly not that we can invoke the trend of social evolution as a standard for the resolution of moral dilemmas, but rather that we are bound to recognize in our current moral conventions the outcome of an evolutionary process. Admittedly, inasmuch as nothing in the detailed content of our moral conventions is unchanging or unalterable, this means that we are compelled to abandon the idea that they have about them any character of universality or fixity, but this is a long way from any doctrine of moral relativism. As Hayek observes in his remarks on the ambiguity of relativism:
...our present values exist only as the elements of a particular cultural tradition and are significant only for some more or less long phase of evolution—whether this phase includes some of our pre-human ancestors or is confined to certain periods of human civilization. We have no more ground to ascribe to them eternal existence than to human race itself. There is thus one possible sense in which we may legitimately regard human values as relative and speak of the probability of their further evolution.
But it is a far cry from this general insight to the claims of the ethical, cultural or historical relativists or of evolutionary ethics. To put it crudely, while we know that all these values are relative to something, we do not know to what they are relative. We may be able to indicate the general class of circumstances which have made them what they are, but we do not know the particular conditions to which the values we hold are due, or what our values would be if those circumstances had been different. Most of the illegitimate conclusions are the result of erroneous interpretation of the theory of evolution as the empirical establishment of a trend. Once we recognize that it gives us no more than a scheme of explanation which might be sufficient to explain particular phenomena if we knew all the facts which have operated in the course of history, it becomes evident that the claims of the various kinds of relativists (and of evolutionary ethics) are unfounded.69
[68.] Hayek, µB-12Õ, The Constitution of Liberty, pp. 35-6.
[69.] Hayek, µB-13Õ, Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, p. 38.