13 April 2011

Hayek on the evolution of ethics

From a February 1983 interview with F. A. Hayek, Cato Policy Report, republished in Toward Liberty: The Idea that Is Changing the World edited by David Boaz.

These [intellectualist or constructivist ideas derived from many decades of French philosophers] taught: Don’t believe anything which you cannot rationally justify. This was at first applied to science, but then was equally applied to morals. ‘Do not regard as binding upon you any morals which you cannot intellectually justify.’ ...

Now the great merit of traditional morals is that they have evolved and developed by long-run effects which people never foresaw and understood. ... Any philosopher who says, ‘I should admit only what I can rationally justify’, must exclude effects which are not foreseeable, must refuse to acknowledge a moral code which has been evolved because of its de facto effect. The utilitarian theorists believed, and Mises strongly believed, that man had chosen his morals with an intelligent understanding of the good effects. But that is wrong. Most of the effects of the moral we can’t foresee. They are beyond our vision. ... We simply must realize that our traditional morals are not to be approved because we can show how they are beneficial to us, but only because they have been proved in a process of selection. ...

It is not the intelligence of our ancestors that has left us with more efficient morals, but—as I like to express it to shock people—our ancestors were really the guinea pigs who experimented and chose the right ways which have been transmitted to us. It was not necessarily their superior intelligence. Rather, they happened to be right, so their successes multiplied, and they displaced the others who believed in the different morals.