Hayek, Joas and the Ends of Value — Part Four

Burning Man — 2017

What are values? The answer to be inferred from Hayek’s essay is that values are whatever determines human social behaviour. It is by treating value in such general terms that he can claim instinctual drives, cultural traditions, and practical reasoning as distinct sources of value. The point of Hayek’s essay is to show that those values which can be broadly construed as cultural have a privileged role in explaining the development and maintenance of capitalist or market-based societies.

Hayek’s conception of values is so broad, even when we restrict it to the cultural domain, that his account of order in capitalist society is threatened with incoherence. On the one hand, such societies are supposed to be organised according to “abstract rules” and “impersonal signals” — mechanisms which are devoid of cultural content and can be construed as “values” only in the broadest possible sense of determining behaviour. On the other hand, the theory of culture by which he explicates this account depends on treating social norms as the expression of cultural traditions and customs. The problem is that these accounts are actually in tension with one another. Either the influence of culture is weakened to such an extent under capitalism that it no longer counts as a determinant of behaviour, ceding that role to the market; or cultural traditions continue to exert a powerful influence on people’s behaviour, with the consequence that social order is not “spontaneous” in the sense that it is the emergent outcome of individuals constrained only by the imperatives of a functioning market.

At this point, I want to consider an alternative approach to values. This is the approach of an entire line of social thinkers, from William James to Charles Taylor, which Hans Joas considers in his book The Genesis of Values. The contrast with Hayek’s argument lies first of all in the acknowledgement of a fundamental difference between norms (or rules) and values. William James, for example, expressed this difference in terms of morality and religion: whereas moral rules were concerned with what one should and should not do, religion (whose essence, James thought, could be distinguished from its moral strictures) opened up new possibilities and motivations for action. Generalising beyond religion, one can explicate this difference as that between the obligatory force of norms and the attractive power of ideals or values.

This distinction is virtually inevitable once one appreciates, as these thinkers did, the role which values play in the self-formation of the individual. Evidence for this point lies in the emotional resonance which religious, moral, and political values have for those who are strongly committed to them. It is not just that these values elicit strong emotional responses, something which cannot be said for norms not already imbricated with values. In addition, values are so deeply implicated in a person’s emotional life that they come to form a core part of an individual’s identity, such that a person comes to understand herself, and evaluate her own motivations and desires, on the basis of the values she holds. As John Dewey argued, it is through an allegiance to ideal ends that a person can conceive of themselves as a whole self; a wholeness that is never realised in actuality but can be used to sustain them through dark periods and personal setbacks.

Describing values in terms of individual self-formation should not mislead us into thinking that values are a purely personal matter. While an individual’s moral feelings are instrumental in determining the values they hold, these feelings are always interpreted within the context of a particular culture. Whereas one culture might attribute great honour or shame, for example, to certain deeds, another culture might attribute the opposite or no significance to them. (And sometimes this disjunction is true of the same society undergoing a profound cultural shift — see for instance Jonathan Lear’s discussion of the Crow in his book Radical Hope.)

It should be noted that Hayek is at least aware of this intersubjective dimension of values, as is shown by his reference to social esteem as an important influence on social behaviour in free societies. That being said, Hayek is still a long way from the accounts of value surveyed by Joas. On the role played by emotions, Hayek writes: “The morals which maintain the open society do not serve to gratify human emotions — which never was an aim of evolution…” Leaving aside the completely fallacious appeal to an “aim” of evolution here, Hayek appears to treat our moral feelings as purely subjective phenomena which fail to refer to anything beyond themselves. (Elsewhere he seems to associate our “ingrained feelings” with regressive instincts.) Hayek also writes that: “Ethics is not a matter of choice,” which seems obviously false until one realises that Hayek does not distinguish between the obligatory force of social norms and the teleological pull of ethical ideals. Finally, Hayek’s idea of socialization is so crude — consisting as it does of the repression of our “animal instincts” — that it is incapable of incorporating the notion of values as an attractive rather than a repressive force.

If Hayek had fully appreciated the relationship between values and self-formation, he would not have treated values and rules as interchangeable. Values have a motivating force closely tied to our sense of self. They point to something greater than ourselves and illuminate possibilities for action which may be inconceivable without them. Norms and rules, on the other hand, consist of imperatives or obligations which constrain our actions according to social expectations. This is not to say, of course, that there is no relationship between them. In the final part of this series, I will look at Joas’ account of how they are related as well as offering some critical remarks on the reactionary conclusion to Hayek’s essay.