Hayek, Joas and the Ends of Value — Part Three

Burning Man Festival 2017

Although Hayek’s essay is called “Three Sources of Human Values”, he barely mentions the word “value” in it at all. Instead, he appears to use the terms “value” and “rule” interchangeably. Whether he is discussing the biological, cultural or rational sources of value, it is always in terms of their relation to “rules” or “rules of conduct”.

One of the problems with this conflation of values and rules is that we can, and often do, draw a distinction between them. Giving to charity, changing religion, voting in elections, or sacrificing one’s life for one’s country, for example, are all things people do even in the absence of rules requiring them to do so and no obvious rewards. It makes sense in such cases to appeal to a person’s values in order to explain their actions.

There are, however, a couple of points in his essay where Hayek implicitly draws such a distinction. It relates to culture, and his claim that the establishment of the “moral rules” needed to secure the rise of modern market societies (by which he means liberal principles) were specifically adopted by those who held a particular “ethos”, one which “esteemed the prudent man, the good husbandman and provider who looked after the future of his family and his business by building up capital…” Hayek’s point is that this concern with esteeming and being esteemed by one’s fellows for achieving material success gradually came to replace co-operation in the pursuit of common goods as a basic motivator of human action. What I want to highlight is that this thesis involves making values, in the form of an “ethos”, a motivating factor in the adoption of “moral rules” or the liberal principles which make capitalism possible. Later, Hayek will affirm this distinction between rules and values by insisting that the only thing which can make “free men” follow moral rules is “the differentiating esteem of their fellows”.

The problem is that Hayek does not draw any implications from this distinction. For most of the essay, he treats values and rules as interchangeable. We need to turn elsewhere to clarify the relationship between the two. This is an issue which Hans Joas makes a central theme in his book The Genesis of Value. In the first chapter, the issue arises in the context of a sociological debate between “utilitarians” — who explain human action primarily in terms of self-interest — and “normativists” — who emphasise the normative dimension of action. For utilitarians, values are like preferences in that they motivate action internally; while norms represent an external influence on people’s behaviour. For normativists, however, this cannot be right, because in order to be efficacious norms need to be internalised by social actors. The difference for the normativist lies instead in the degree of generality: values exist at the most general level of culture, and are given expression in particular social contexts as norms, which then shape the preferences of individuals.

Hayek appears to be much closer to the normativist’s position than the utilitarian’s. As we have seen above, he does not attribute the emergence of a market society purely to individuals pursuing their own interests, but first of all to an “ethos” in which human behaviour shifts from securing common goals to esteeming individual financial gain. The “moral rules” which made capitalism possible are internalised as values by actors, and not just imposed on them externally.

A problem with the normativist account which Joas draws attention to is that it seems to reduce the social to the cultural. Social actors appear to be merely the puppets of cultural values, internalising the rules which give expression to those values with little say on how those values are to be applied in given situations. There are aspects of Hayek’s account which seem to propose just such an idea. For example:

“The mind is embedded in a traditional impersonal structure of learnt rules, and its capacity to order experience is an acquired replica of cultural pattern which every individual mind finds given.”

Moreover, Hayek emphasises the “irrational” (or pre-rational) nature of the cultural traditions which people follow with little understanding of why they do so: “man has certainly more often learnt to do the right thing without comprehending why it was the right thing, and he still is often served better by custom than understanding.”

At the same time, however, there are aspects of Hayek’s argument which appear to contradict this privileging of the cultural over the social. Hayek’s account of cultural evolution depends on “innovations” undertaken by individuals who break with tradition; for selfish rather than considered reasons, but either way it means social actors on his account are not completely under the sway of cultural values. Moreover, and this will prove to be decisive, Hayek’s description of modern market societies as being governed by “abstract rules” and “impersonal signals” arising from the market seems to reassert the primacy of the social over the cultural. While actors may have internalised the ethos which, Hayek claims, have made modern markets possible, he also maintains that actual behaviour in a market society has become detached from the cultural bonds (customs and traditions) which previously co-ordinated action. Norms or rules of conduct are now “abstract” and collaboration “impersonal”. It’s not at all clear, however, that Hayek recognises a tension between his account of capitalism and the historical sweep of his claim that it is culture which has become the primary source of human values.

When Hayek writes that “the one inducement by which free men can be made to observe any moral rules” is “the differentiating esteem by their fellows,” this could be read either as taking norms to be the expression of existing cultural values (e.g. esteeming the hard work and prudence of the family man in the quote cited above), or as making values a reflection of unequal social outcomes (this is the aspect of Hayek’s thought which Corey Robin highlights). When it comes to capitalism, Hayek seems to have both readings in mind. But whether or not this is a coherent position, or whether it simply confuses two levels of societal integration, depends on first getting a handle on the relationship between culture and society, values and the norms which govern social action; something which Hayek, in this essay at least, appears to show little interest in.

In the next part, I will look at how Joas attempts to account for this relationship before moving on to consider the implications for Hayek’s argument.

This has been retrospectively edited in order to better cohere with what comes later.



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