07 August 2010

Hayek about pleasure and civilization

Excerpt from an 1979 interview of Friedrich Hayek by Bob Chitester:

CHITESTER: it seems to me that individuals, in coming at the questions of value, questions of society, the question of enjoyment has to be in there. 
HAYEK: Oh, yes. 
CHITESTER: And it seems it is so often corrupting.  Why is it corrupting? 
HAYEK: Because our instincts, which of course determine the enjoyment, are not fully adapted to our present civilization. ... Let me put it in a much more general way.  What has helped us to maintain civilization is no longer satisfied by aiming at maximum pleasure.  Our built-in instincts -- that is, the pleasure which guides us -- are the instincts which are conducive to the maintenance of the little roving band of thirty or fifty people.  
The ultimate aim of evolution is not pleasure, but pleasure is what tells us in a particular phase what we ought to do.  But that pleasure has been adapted to a quite different society than which we now live in.  So pleasure is no longer an adequate guide to doing what life in our present society wants.  That is the conflict between the discipline of rules and the innate pleasures, which recently has been occupying so much of my work. 
CHITESTER: That suggests that we're outgrowing the usefulness of our native instincts. 
HAYEK: Yes, yes.  And it does raise the question whether the too-rapid growth of civilization can be sustained -- whether it will mean the revolt of our instincts against too much imposed restraints. This may destroy civilization and may be very counterproductive.  But that man is capable of destroying the civilization which he has built up, by instincts and by rules which he feels to be restraints, is entirely a possibility. 
CHITESTER: Yes, that's a kind of a terrifying thing. 
HAYEK: Oh, yes. 
CHITESTER: It suggests that there's no way out.
HAYEK: Well, there is no way out so long as -- It's not only instincts but there's a very strong intellectual movement which supports this release of instincts, and I think if we can refute this intellectual movement -- To put it in the most general form, I have to revert to [the idea that] two things happened in the last hundred years: on the one hand, an always steadily increasing part of the population did no longer learn in daily life the rules of the market on which our civilization is based.  Because they grew up in organizations rather than participating in the market, they no longer were taught these rules.  
At the same time, the intellectuals began to tell them these rules are nonsense anyhow; they are irrational.  Don't believe in that nonsense.  What was the combination of these two effects?  On the one hand, people no longer learned the old rules; on the other hand, this sort of Cartesian rationalism, which told them don't accept anything which you do not understand.  [These two effects] collaborated and this produced the present situation where there is already a lack of the supporting moral beliefs that are required to maintain our civilization.  
I have some -- I must admit -- slight hope that if we can refute the intellectual influence, people may again be prepared to recognize that the traditional rules, after all, had some value.  Whereas at present the official belief is, "Oh, it's merely cultural," which means really an absurdity.  That view comes from the intellectuals; it doesn't come from the other development.