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September 2014

Being a Good Rationalist

Hayek’s insights are important for building a sucessful rationalist ethics.

Being a good Hayekian, I argued last week, entails taking ethical rationalism seriously. Today, we’re going to flip that on it’s head: being a good ethical rationalist entails taking Hayek seriously.

I’ve already talked about one big reason rationalists should take Hayek seriously in “What’s Ethics All About, Anyway?” and “Hayek on Customs, Laws, and Ethics.”  Hayek gives us sufficient grounds to think that a rationalist ethics cannot hope to describe completely and accurately the norms people actually have. A good rationalist ethics must not attempt to predict people’s moral intuitions in the way theories in physics make complex empirical predictions using simple, elegant models.

Let’s say you develop a rationalist ethics, avoiding the trap of trying to predict (i.e. describe) what norms people in society actually do hold. Even once this first hurdle has been cleared, Hayek still has a lot to say, especially for certain kinds of ethical systems.

Hayek’s insights have special import for “consequentialist” ethics, ethics that care primarily about the consequences of acts, because he tells us about the possible consequences of changing norms and customs with top-down planning. (The best-known consequentialist theory is utilitarianism, which says we should prefer acts that cause more happiness to acts that cause less happiness.) Hayek also has important advice regarding what sorts of new customs people are likely to adopt. This is important for ethical rationalists of all kinds because it will help them to replace old morally deficient customs with new ones that might be better.

What does Hayek say about the potential consequences of messing with emergent customs? In Law, Legislation, and Liberty he writes:

It will be one of our chief contentions that most of the rules of conduct which govern our actions, and most of the institutions which arise out of this regularity, are adaptations to the impossibility of anyone taking conscious account of all the particular facts which enter into the order of society.

Later on, he writes:

The problem of [the individual] conducting himself successfully in a world only partially known to him was thus solved by adhering to rules which had served him well but which he did not and could not know to be true in the Cartesian [i.e. rationalist/deductive] sense.

Throwing out customs means risking throwing out people’s means of navigating their daily lives and achieving their aims. Evolved customs incorporate distributed knowledge much like prices do. A good rationalist needs to understand this risk when suggesting reforms. For example, a utilitarian would need to weigh the potential utility gains of a proposed change against the risk of utility losses from disrupting customs, which can be hard to estimate. Indeed, if we could predict exactly the full effects of disrupting certain customs, then it is likely that we would be able to develop a complete rationalist account of all our norms and customs and how they interrelate. That’s the kind of ethical theory Hayek says is impossible.

Rationalists should heed Hayek’s warnings about demolishing old customs, but Hayek also has important insights about getting people to adopt new ones. Suppose you want a way for people to speak with one another when they learned different languages as infants. Should you solve the problem by constructing a language from scratch?

Human language is a great example of Hayekian emergent order. Languages are really just a type of convention or custom—so much so that philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein compared learning a language to being initiated into a tradition. Natural languages like English, Spanish, or Japanese were not designed by any central authority, nor are they governed by one. Meaning and usage are determined by the actions of people employing the language to communicate, and new meanings and usages emerge, as the saying goes, as the product of human action, but not human design.

Designed languages, most famously Esperanto, have not been as widely adopted as natural languages. Part of this is explained by network effects—a big part of the value of knowing a language is determined by the number of other people who know it, and natural languages had a huge head start on designed languages. Understanding Hayek lets us know that there’s another reason. Designed languages lack the expressive richness of natural languages. In natural languages, words carry subtle connotations based in the history of their use. Invented languages lack that history by definition. Furthermore, the ability of natural languages to change and adapt to the needs of speakers on the fly. If you modify the grammar or vocabulary of Esperanto, it ceases to be Esperanto and instead becomes a “degenerate” dialect.

About the only ones daft enough to try and regulate the evolution of a natural language as though it were a constructed language are the members of the Académie française, a centuries-old semi-official advisory body so comically self-serious that not only do its members wear ceremonial swords and green robes on special occasions, they also are referred to as “the immortals.” These “immortals” busy themselves these days defending French against the horrors of English loanwords, and putting out “authoritative” dictionaries at a glacial pace. Rationalists, don’t act like the Académie française.*

When two or more different language groups meet in real life, you typically see the development of what’s called a “pidgin” language—a stripped-down mish-mash of elements of the languages of both groups—which sometimes takes on a life of its own and becomes a full-fledged, independent tradition.

The upshot of all of this is that it’s easier to adapt existing frameworks to deal with new cases, or reframe an old practice so that it becomes less problematic,  than it is to draw up a new practice and try to get people to adopt it. At least in some cases, bootstrapping is a better strategy than fabricating a new solution whole cloth, because people will be able to understand and adopt bootstrapped solutions more easily.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been discussing the conflict between Hayekianism and rationalism on a mostly theoretical level. Next week I want to talk about how that conflict plays out in the context of a specific topic: feminism.


*It is sort of appropriate that I draw an example from France. Hayek often identified the sort of rationalism he disliked as being a French intellectual tradition, which he contrasted with evolutionary English thinking. That said, the French/English distinction simply doesn’t hold water. Murray Rothbard noted that these categories erase the contributions of well-regarded libertarians like Frédéric Bastiat and Gustave de Molinari. Tyler Cowen makes a similar but broader criticism in his August 1987 article for The Freeman, “Which Liberalism?,” which explodes Hayek’s dichotomy of French rationalism and English evolutionism as being simply ahistorical.