Front Page Titles (by Subject) Hume\'s Influence on Hayek\'s Social Philosophy - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4
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Hume's Influence on Hayek's Social Philosophy - 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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Hume's Influence on Hayek's Social Philosophy
Hayek does not, then subscribe to any sort of ethical relativism or evolutionism, but it is not altogether clear from these statements if he thinks humanity's changing moral conventions have in fact any invariant core or constant content. In order to consider this last question, and to attain a better general understanding of Hayek's conception of morality, we need to look at his debts to David Hume, whose influence upon Hayek's moral and political philosophy is ubiquitous and profound.
Hayek follows Hume in supposing that, in virtue of certain general facts about the human predicament, the moral conventions which spring up spontaneously among men all have certain features in common or (in other words) exhibit some shared principles. Among the general facts that Hume mentions in his Treatise, and which Hayek cites in “The Legal and Political Philosophy of David Hume” (in B-13), are men's limited generosity and intellectual imperfection and the unalterable scarcity of the means of satisfying human needs. As Hayek puts it succinctly: “It is thus the nature of the(se) circumstances, what Hume calls ‘the necessity of human society,’ that gives rise to the ‘three fundamental laws of nature’: those of ‘the stability of possessions, of its transference by consent, and of the performance of promises.’” And Hayek glosses this passage with a fuller citation from Hume's Treatise: “Though the rules of justice be artificial, they are not arbitrary. Nor is the expression improper to call them Laws of Nature; if by natural we understand what is common to any species, or even if we confine it to mean what is inseparable from the species.”70
Hume's three rules of justice or laws of nature, then, give a constant content to Hayek's conception of an evolving morality. They frame what the distinguished Oxford jurist, H. L. A. Hart, was illuminatingly to call “the minimum content of natural law.”71 The justification of these fundamental rules of justice, and of the detailed and changing content of the less permanent elements of morality, is (in Hayek's view as in Hume's)that they form indispensable conditions for the promotion of human welfare. There is in Hayek as in Hume, accordingly, a fundamental utilitarian committment in their theories of morality. It is a very indirect utilitarianism that they espouse, however, more akin to that of the late nineteenth-century Cambridge moralist Henry Sidgwick72 (1838–1900) than it is to Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill. The utilitarian component of Hayek's conception of morality is indirect in that it is never supposed by him that we ought or could invoke a utilitarian principle in order to settle practical questions: for, given the great partiality and fallibility of our understanding, we are in general better advised to follow the code of behavior accepted in our own society. That code can, in turn, Hayek believes, never properly be the subject of a rationalist reconstruction in Benthamite fashion, but only reformed piecemeal and slowly. In repudiating the claims that utilitarian principles can govern specific actions and that utility may yield new social rules, Hayek shows himself to be an indirect or system utilitarian, for whom the proper role of utility is not prescriptive or practical but rather as a standard of evaluation for the assessment of whole systems of rules.
[70.] Hayek, µB-13Õ, Studies, p. 113. Hayek acknowledges earlier in his Hume essay (p. 109, note 5: “My attention was first directed to these parts of Hume's works many years ago by Professor Sir Arnold Plant, whose development of the Humean theory of property we are still eagerly awaiting.”) Hayek is alluding to his discussions with Sir Arnold in the early 1930s at the London School of Economics, where Hayek had migrated to take up The Tooke Professorship. See Sir Arnold Plant, “A Tribute to Hayek—The Rational Persuader.” Economic Age 2, no. 2 (January-February 1970): 4-8, especially p. 5: “I myself had returned to LSE in the middle of 1930 after six years at the University of Cape Town, where I had developed a special interest in the scope of and functions of property and ownership, both private and public. It was a delight to find Hayek as well seized of the economic significance of the ramifications of property law as I was myself. I recall his excitement when I called his attention to the profound discussion of these matters in David Hume's Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals: section III, Of Justice, and my own gratitude to him for his influence on my own thinking about so-called intellectual and industrial property law.” The entirety of Sir Arnold's article should be consulted for the light it sheds on LSE during the 30s as a seedbed for transmitting Austrian economics (One visitor described LSE as “ein Vorort von Wien”—a suburb of Vienna; Plant, p. 6). See also Hayek's important Inaugural lecture delivered at LSE March 1, 1933, “The Trend of Economic Thinking,” (A-20) and his revealing article on the history of “The London School of Economics, 1895–1945,” (A-60). During the 1940s Hayek was also editor of LSE's journal, Economica.
[71.] H. L. A. Hart, The Concept of Law, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.
[72.] See, especially, Henry Sidgwick's masterpiece, The Method of Ethics, in which Sidgwick defends an indirect form of utilitarian morality.