Hayek, Joas and the Ends of Value — Part Five

The Temple of Whollyness — Burning Man 2013

At the beginning of this series, I referred to Corey Robin’s discussion of Hayek in “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children”. There Robin argues that Hayek’s account of value bears an elective affinity with Nietzsche’s promotion of an aristocratic “will to power” over democratic ideals as the basis for social values. (I think there is another, far more interesting way to read Nietzsche which I hope to write about soon.) For Hayek and the Austrian School, Nietzsche’s “noble types” or legislators of value emerge in and through success in the market. As Robin paraphrases the Austrians’ justification for linking the market to value formation: “Economic activity, which involves deploying our limited resources in order to achieve some end, involves making choices which reveal which of our ends matter most to us.” And later, quoting from Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Robin writes: “Money in a capitalist economy, Hayek came to realize, could be best understood and defended in Nietzschean terms: as ‘the medium through which a force’ — the self’s ‘desire for power to achieve unspecified ends’ — ‘makes itself felt.”

Robin’s interpretation of Hayek is based primarily on The Constitution of Liberty. In the essay I’ve been looking at, “Three Sources of Human Values”, Hayek doesn’t make this argument. Instead he claims that culture (at least for the period of human civilization) has been the primary determinant of human conduct. But Hayek seems to make an exception when he discusses capitalism, because he also argues that under capitalism it is not culture but the “abstract rules” and “impersonal signals” of the market which organise society. It is these remarks on capitalism which links the Hayek which emerges from Robin’s reading to the Hayek of “Three Sources”. The role which the independently wealthy play in The Constitution of Liberty as legislators of value would, on this line of thought, be the means by which the market as a social institution determines culture. But this, as we have seem, is inconsistent with the overarching claim of “Three Sources” that cultural traditions and customs are the primary determinants of value.

A related issue that I’ve highlighted in my reading of Hayek’s essay is that he conflates norms and values, treating them interchangeably. This is at odds with the view of many thinkers of value which Joas surveys in The Genesis of Values: for these thinkers, the attractive quality of values is to be distinguished from the obligatory character of norms. Indeed, Hayek himself is forced to implicitly draw such a distinction when he explains the motivation for following moral rules in a free society in terms of an “ethos”. But he otherwise draws no implications from this point, and does not qualify his general tendency in the essay to treat values and norms as the same.

This is related to the question about the predominance of culture or society in determining behaviour because values can be seen as expressions of cultural integration, while norms are a means of social integration. If Hayek tends to treat values and norms as the same, then it is easy to see why he might be ambivalent about treating social order as the outcome of culture, or culture as the outcome of social-economic relations — he simply fails to appreciate the difference between cultural and social integration. If by contrast we do want to give these distinctions their due, how should we understand the relationship between values and norms?

This is the question Joas considers in the final chapter of The Genesis of Values. He takes as his starting point the pragmatist conception of action: rather than understanding action primarily as the initiative of an actor directed towards some preconceived goal, action is taken to be a reflective process which emerges within specific situations whenever an actor’s routine or habitual behaviour becomes frustrated. It is through the experience of encountering resistance that an actor is pushed to articulate and reflect on their goals within a situation in the light of the means available to them. Action is “creative” on this account in the sense that a goal arises from within the action itself, as an imaginative response to a problematic situation, and can be adapted as the action progresses.

Taking this pragmatic conception of action as his starting point, Joas explains the respective roles of values and norms within the action situation. On the one hand, and as we have seen in the previous post, values are closely tied to an individual’s sense of identity. Imparted to the individual through culture, upbringing and personal life experiences, values shape an actor’s pre-reflective “conations,” their orientation towards what they take to be good, desirable, and so on. This often manifests itself through emotional responses or moral feelings to certain circumstances. On the other hand, all action has a social dimension, and the need to coordinate action with others is the basis of regulation through norms. Norms make a claim about what is right or acceptable from the perspective of society as a whole, and they are justified and revised primarily through modes of moral and legal discourse about the universal applicability of a certain conception of what is right.

An actor’s personal orientation towards the good, influenced through cultural interpretations of a situation, will inevitably come up against the pressure to coordinate action exerted by social norms. The result is that actors need to assess and revise their personal orientations in the light of normative expectations about what is right. On this picture, neither values nor norms are the ultimate determiners of social behaviour; rather, action involves a negotiated outcome between the two in the form of a “reflective equilibrium” — a process by which cooperating actors reflect on their need to coordinate action and their respective cultural values.

Let us return to Hayek. The quotes cited by Robin above suggest that Hayek was aware of what Joas calls the creative dimension of action, since Hayek clearly thinks that the ends an individual pursues in a market society are at least partially determined by the financial means available to them. But that’s really where the similarity ends. We have seen that Hayek has no interest in the moral feelings or self-formation of individuals when it comes to explaining values. According to Hayek, culture exerts its influence through traditions and customs which fuse together cultural interpretations of the good with the normative regulation of action, making reflection on the need to reconcile norms and values completely redundant (and by implication making the participants out to be unthinking cultural dupes). The norms which emerge through the pressure to coordinate action in a market society (“abstract rules”) are not grounded in discourse but the imperatives of economic systems (“impersonal signals”).

(In other writings, Hayek does discuss the role of law in protecting individual liberties, but far from understanding this in terms of the universal justification of right that is in tension with cultural interpretations of the good, he treats the law as a continuation of cultural customs and traditions. This is only possible because he fails to distinguish values and norms, cultural integration and social integration; and as an explanation of law his thesis falls apart as soon as one takes seriously distinctions such as these.)

Hayek’s failure on this score also has more sinister consequences. He completely ignores the role of rational communication in establishing norms of justice in modern societies, whether in the form of moral, legal or democratic discourse, choosing to recognise only a false choice between the systemic imperatives of the market, on the one hand, and authoritarian directives on the other. The arguments from the left for a more equitable distribution of material resources are stripped of all rational content by Hayek, who recognises in them only “the revival of primordial instincts.” Today one is more likely to hear from libertarians the charge of “virtue signalling”, but the point is the same — to discount the need to take such claims seriously by refusing to treat them as having rational import. (At least “virtue signalling” doesn’t have the fascist overtones that Hayek’s language does; leftists, along with Jews, homosexuals, etc. have historically been portrayed by fascists as less evolved or sub-human.)

Is it really necessary to point out how absurd Hayek’s claims are on this point? As best as I can tell, he seems to think that calls for social justice are grounded in a sentiment or emotion which is not an expression of cultural values (he has already dismissed the role of emotion on this score), but an instinct which hearkens back to an earlier evolutionary phase in which the objectives of individuals and the group were one and the same. Now, I have no doubt that moral feelings play a role in people’s reactions to perceived injustices. Just as obvious to me is the fact that moral feelings are strongly related to cultural interpretations of value. The point I wish to emphasise here, however, is that arguments in favour of just outcomes are not limited to feelings but are articulated as normative claims within public discourse. Such arguments are a prime example of the “reflective equilibrium” that Joas discusses with respect to the relationship between values and norms.

To claim that such arguments are merely manifestations of primordial instincts is to dismiss the role of discourse generally as illegitimate with respect to normative regulation. Hayek may well have believed such a thing (he is constantly seeking to undermine the role of reflection with respect to human behaviour, see for example his discussion of the social sciences in “Three Sources”), but that does not make such a thought any less spurious when it comes to accounting for human action. It’s also worth highlighting just how profoundly anti-democratic such a notion is, since it effectively denies that the process of democratic will-formation through debate in the public sphere is a legitimate basis for ordering society. Today’s libertarians seem only too happy to advance such an argument. We ought to ask, in the spirit of reflective equilibrium: what values are being promoted by such arguments? And to what ends?