catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Hayek on rule utilitarianism and justice

with 9 comments

With all the recent site changes I think I’ll take the opportunity to recycle some old posts from the ancient Catallaxy sites that deal with perennial issues of political philosophy.

In that spirit I refer readers for discussion to the following passages by the British political philosopher John Gray (whom I still regard as one of the best interpreters of Hayek notwithstanding his recent descent into a shade of Deep Green) in his book Hayek on Liberty.

These passages bring out very well the fact that Hayek is ultimately a rule-utilitarian, the tensions between a reformist liberalism and a Burkean conservatism in his thinking, the intellectual debts of rule-utilitarianism to Hume and Kant, what the features of rule-utilitarianism are and how it can be used to articulate a kind of ‘natural law’ based on the universality of the human condition that can transcend the alleged fact-value distinction. Finally these passages show that Hayek and John Rawls were actually on the same tracks in their modes of political philosophising, not surprising since Rawls’ thinking is ultimately also grounded in the same sort of rational choice and contractarian model as Hayek:

    Hayek follows Hume in supposing that in virtue of certain facts about the human predicament, the moral conventions which spring up spontaneously among all men have certain features in common …limited generosity and intellectual imperfection and unalterable scarcity of the means of satisfying human needs …gives rise to the “three fundamental laws of nature .. stability of possessions, of its transference by consent, and of the performance of promises … There is in Hayek as in Hume a fundamental utilitarian commitment in their theories of morality. It is a very indirect utilitarianism that they espouse .. The utilitarian component of Hayek’s conception of morality is indirect in that it is never supposed by him that we ought to or could invoke a utilitarian principle in order to settle practical questions: for given the greater partiality and fallibility of our understanding, we are in general better advised to follow the code of behaviour accepted in our own society …That code can in turn … be only reformed piecemeal and slowly…
    What is distinctive in Hayek’s Kantian ethics is his insight that the demands of justice need not be competitive with the claims of general welfare: rather a framework of justice is an indispensable condition of the successful achievement of general welfare … the utility of rules depended on their not being liable to abridgement for the sake of an apparent gain in welfare .. Just how are we to assess different systems of rules in regard to their welfare promoting effects? Here Hayek comes close to modern preference-utilitarianism but gives that view an original formulation, in arguing that the test of any system of rules is whether it maximises an anonymous individual’s chance of achieving his unknown purposes. In Hayek’s conception we are not bound to accept the historical body of social rules just as we find it; it may be reformed in order to achieve the unknown man’s achieving his goals. It will be seen that this is a maximising conception, but not one that represents utility as a sort of neutral stuff, a container of intrinsic value whose magnitude may vary. Indeed in taking as the point of comparison an hypothesised unknown individual, Hayek’s conception parallels John Rawls’ model of rational choice behind a veil of ignorance.

Note that this kind of justification for libertarianism ties in perfectly with the rule-utilitarian justification for libertarianism which I have articulated here.


Written by Admin

November 15, 2006 at 11:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Jason, after Rafe’s post re ‘some poor students are supplementing their other sources of income with sex for money on the side’ I was expecting lots of smutty stuff here (with a veneer of politico-philosophico-economico gloss to give it respectability) – but look, catallaxy is back to being straight and narrow!


    November 15, 2006 at 12:19 pm

  2. V nice.


    November 15, 2006 at 12:34 pm

  3. Good lord. There are ads on this site. How long have they been there?! (Sorry, I know it’s off topic, but I was rather surprised to see the Google placement on donating for voting reform. They’re a clever little crowd).


    November 15, 2006 at 12:51 pm

  4. I think its just the last couple of days they appeared.

    Steve Edney

    November 15, 2006 at 12:58 pm

  5. Kodjo – c8to just started putting in ads a few days ago. very strategic choices these guys make. I saw an ad for ‘Libs on climate change’ just this morning!

    Ian – we aim to please. something for everyone, from vagrant to scholar.

    Jason Soon

    November 15, 2006 at 1:42 pm

  6. Yikes. They really do have us pegged. This one says, “High salary, no time limits, at home. No need of higher education.” The credentialism of the higher education thing aside, I feel so like a loser.


    November 15, 2006 at 3:15 pm

  7. Hmm – I got “Speed Reading Made Easy” and “Presents for lawyers”. So not so accurate.I am married to an accountant, not a lawyer.

    Andrew Reynolds

    November 15, 2006 at 8:00 pm

  8. Pretty clever piece of software. It runs ‘alcohol rehab’ ad above Helens’ drug post!
    I’m having fun just clicking on individual posts to see what sort of customised ads get run.

    Jason Soon

    November 15, 2006 at 10:51 pm

  9. The Leunig Left post had an ad linking to an art gallery selling a heap of Michael’s stuff.

    The Presents for lawyers (if it’s the one I’m thinking of) page is pretty good. I got a really nice, really cheap wig off that site.


    November 15, 2006 at 11:20 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: