Article in Society / Philosophy / Metaphysics & Epistemology
Is there a basis for morality? This piece seeks to explore the moral implications of F.A. Hayek's work on evolution, and put that work into conversation with ideas from postmodern philosophy and moral psychology.

Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Nomoi.

“Ecce homo – behold, what a human being!”–Dietrich Bonhoeffer[1]

I. Introduction

“Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge,” writes economist Friedrich Hayek. “But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.” These observations from Hayek’s 1945 essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” remain as relevant today as they were sixty years ago.

But they also place Hayek at odds with much of mainstream economics, which focuses on the ability of equations to predict the outcomes of any number of policies or influences. Because of the complexity of life, states Hayek, “economic theory is confined to describing kinds of patterns which will appear if certain general conditions are satisfied, but can rarely if ever derive from this knowledge any predictions of specific phenomena."[2]

Hayek’s position fits more closely with that of the heterodox Austrian School with which he is often identified. He had close ties to their views through his relationship with Ludwig von Mises, who emphasized humans as the source of economic action rather than merely as actors responding to a series of variables.[3]

But even here, Hayek staked out a unique stance. As John Gray notes, “Hayek never accepted the Misesian conception of a praxeological science of human action which would take as its point of departure a few axioms about the distinctive features of purposeful behavior over time.”[4]

Hayek instead shifted his focus to the contingency of knowledge and the development of spontaneous order. Perhaps in part as a result of this singular vision within the field, his work has had a powerful impact on economics and political philosophy.

An equally intriguing aspect of his work, though, is how it spills over into the study of ethics and morality. This is the case because Hayek applied the same evolutionary approach to moral reasoning that he did to economics. It is the implications of this approach that this paper seeks to explore, for his unique views may offer a helpful lens as discussions regarding the basis for morality become increasingly more prevalent.

Specifically, while Hayek’s views seem to presage developments in postmodern philosophy, they also hint at understandings in moral psychology. Hayek’s thought on evolution, however, remains controversial in each of these fields. Building upon the work of Hayek, exploring tensions between his life and work, and incorporating both streams of thought pre-dating postmodernism and new research into the roots of morality may together allow space for the possibility of moral foundations that exist beyond cultural influences.

II. Modernism and Postmodernism

Hayek’s lifelong work in many ways was to undermine the “fatal conceit” that humanity possessed the rational capacity to direct itself. In spite of our pride in our intelligence, we are too much the product of our circumstances to ever assume the responsibility of designing a society that will serve us better than that which has emerged organically.

In many ways, this position was a forerunner to ideas within the stream of postmodernism. Philosopher Richard Rorty, for instance, states in his seminal work Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that any belief in foundations beyond ourselves is a denial of the fullness of our limited knowledge and understanding. Indeed, humans must be “always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies, and thus of their selves.”[5]

Such a recognition requires us to hold truths lightly, rather than claim access to any ultimate Truth. We are called to be ironic observers of the world around us, with the understanding of an ironist here being someone who fulfills the following:

(1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered;

(2) she realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts;

(3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one's way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old.[6]

So, the “problem” confronting those in postmodernity with an “ethical scruple” is the acknowledgment that beliefs are “caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstance.”[7] As philosopher Richard Kearney asks the question, how do we “do justice to the other if, as most post-modernists claim, there is no concept of universal right or regulation to guide our interpretations?”[8]

Granting nothing the authority on which to rest ethical claims – be that God, Truth, the state, or even any “core self” or essential humanity – philosophers operating from a perspective of complete contingency are left to either deny the possibility of justice toward the other or to attempt utilizing the tools most familiar to them – images and simulacra – to foster beliefs that, in spite of their lack of a foundation, “can still regulate action, can still be thought worth dying for.”[9]

For Kearney and Rorty, then, the answer is in the narrative. Rorty is devoted to the printed word almost exclusively – to “the books which help us become less cruel.”[10] In a 2002 conversation, for instance, he even goes so far as to agree with the statement, “I always think that I would give my children to somebody that has read the same books I have; this seems to me a moral education.”[11] Kearney on the other hand, is more open to using the multiplicity of media that comprise the postmodern landscape to address the ills of postmodernity. “It is not only in novels and paintings that the crisis of imagination is to be addressed but also in television, video and cinema… The labyrinth must be confronted from within as well as from without.”[12]

Regardless of the vehicle for this moral uplifting, however, the intent is the same. Both seek the encouragement of imagination – specifically, imagination focused on the experience of the other. This imaginative process allows for “the ability to think of people wildly different from ourselves as included in the range of ‘us.’”[13] In Kearney’s words, “narrative imagination…can serve an indispensable function of ethical responsibility.”[14]

Indeed, given the perceived dangers associated with assuming anything other than contingent historical circumstance, both Kearney and Rorty see the use of anything other than narrative as ill-conceived. “Societies which admit that they constitute themselves through an on-going process of narrative,” explains Kearney, “are unlikely to degenerate into self-righteousness, fundamentalism or racism.”[15]

III. Hayek’s rejection of purposeful order and free will

It can be argued that Hayek’s position on morality echoes much of this discussion. Late in life Hayek argued that all we know, all morality and social order, is a product of evolutionary process. If we recognize that economic order arises from chaos without intervention, the assumption must be that the same principle applies to the universe. Because of the limits of human understanding and knowledge, once any process (economic or otherwise) achieves a certain level of complexity, it can only arise from spontaneous rather than purposeful order.

One can even argue that Hayek acknowledged the need for narratives to guide this process. One of the ongoing debates surrounding Hayek is whether he was inconsistent by articulating the impossibility of successful planning and then outlining an approach to successful governance in works such as The Constitution of Liberty. If we see these latter efforts as less prescriptive than descriptive, however, then Hayek perhaps becomes more consistent. He offers us a narrative stream to influence our political imagination without setting forth a final vocabulary for political structure.

In taking this position, Hayek acknowledged he was breaking with Mises and the Austrian tradition. “We do not owe our morals to our intelligence: we owe them to the fact that some groups uncomprehendingly accepted certain rules of conduct – the rules of private property, of honesty, and of the family – that enabled the groups practicing them to prosper, multiply, and gradually to displace the others.” He further argued that while morality leads to success in social terms, it is in opposition to our instincts.[16]

Once he takes the step to suggest morality as a product of evolution rather than intelligence, it becomes clear how he makes the further step to deny the existence of free will. If our understanding of right and wrong is imposed externally rather than emerging from within, and this understanding continues to develop over time rather than being static, and we ourselves – our physical, mental, and moral aspects – are products of a dynamic evolutionary process, then we are caught up in the flow of the stream rather than sitting above it making rational decisions about our position and direction. We cannot, in other words, step outside of ourselves and history to turn around.

But, Hayek does not go so far as to imply that we either believe ourselves to be merely cogs in a machine or should behave as such. As Gary Dempsey points out, while our being a product of a process while also an ongoing part of it may erode the basis of free will, ironically it does not change the way we must interact with the world. “[W]e cannot avoid acting as if we are free because we are never in a position to know how we are determined to behave,” he says. “In other words, Hayek does not assert that our will is free, but that we are incapable of knowing how to behave like our will is unfree” (emphasis original).[17]

IV. Applying the limitations of knowledge to the idea of ultimate Truth and purposeful order

Coming to grips with such a paradox presents significant challenges. Further, in keeping with postmodernity, it is useful to consider that Hayek’s vision is not without alternatives. The 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for instance, offers an intriguing concept – what he terms the ultimate and penultimate. According to Bonhoeffer, humanity operates in the realm of the penultimate – a realm subject to the kinds of limits described above.

Despite these limitations, though, despite our contingency, there remains something beyond – something ultimate. Humanity must “base life on a foundation outside myself,” he says, in preparation for the ultimate while fully acknowledging the reality of the penultimate. Further, explains Bonhoeffer, “Penultimate things must still be done in responsibility for this world that God created.”

Bonhoeffer shares the belief in a foundation beyond with his theological mentor, Kierkegaard. While it is true that Kierkegaard engages in ironic critique of the world around him, “Clearly,” though, argues Mark Miller, “Kierkegaard believes there is truth to be known.”[18] To explain this distinction, Kierkegaard distinguishes between pure and mastered irony.

“Pure ironists,” explains Brad Frazier, “fundamentally want to be free from the obligations, restrictions, and long-term commitments that accompany taking seriously one’s given place in a complex social order.”[19] Thus, for Kierkegaard, “pure irony is a radical and thoroughgoing stance of critical disengagement from human society.”[20] The individual who has mastered irony, on the other hand, “maintains an eye for what is crooked, wrong, and vain in existence”– but takes from that a desire for change rather than an excuse to dismiss existence.[21]

Out of this paradigm, Stephen Prickett labels the irony of Rorty as that of a “pure” form. He even goes so far as to suggest that Rorty engages in a form of fundamentalism. This is because of his commitment to “his real final vocabulary which states the principle of linguistic relativity.”[22] Richard John Neuhaus refers to this pure form of irony as the “aesthetic life.” He describes it as “one of pleasure, of sophisticated humanism, of a refusal to make life-determining decisions that might set limits on all that seems possible.”[23]

But the absence of limits comes with a cost. “[S]ince from the standpoint of pure irony ‘everything becomes nothing,’” says Frazier, “such persons become alienated because actuality ‘loses its validity’ for them.”[24] The ironic result, from Kierkegaard’s perspective, is a life that differs little from the unexamined lives of the masses. Because both allow others to set limits for them, they essentially allow fate to dictate their paths.

What pure ironists fail to realize is that true freedom lies within the acceptance of one’s responsibilities. “[W]hen one commits oneself to responsible community with other persons in this way,” explains Frazier, “one experiences a kind of freedom within the boundaries set by this commitment that cannot be realized outside of these boundaries.”[25]

This dialectic between the ultimate and penultimate allows for freedom in responsibility. “For Bonhoeffer,” states Neuhaus, “the cost of discipleship was attended by a Christian liberty that frees a person to engage the aesthetic, as well as one’s responsibilities in Church, marriage and family, culture and government.”[26]

Is such a tension evident in Hayek’s firm commitment to evolutionary morality and his equally firm commitment to offering educational guideposts to ordered liberty? Hayek would likely deny the existence of an ultimate level of ethics, but his career indicates an equally strong resistance to what has been described above as pure irony.

V. The scientific search for understanding morality continues

Scientists are becoming increasingly interested in exactly these kinds of tensions in how morality is formed and fostered. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt is one of a number of such researches exploring the foundations of human ethics. His work suggests that the link between intuitions and virtues points to morality being “both innate and learned.”[27] Meanwhile, John Mikhail, a legal scholar at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and others are testing the concept of “universal moral grammar.” As Marc Hauser, a cognitive scientist at Harvard University, says of the initial results, "it's looking like there's a lot of similarity across widely different cultures."[28]

Perhaps the truth about morality will never be fully known. But that need not mean the end of morality – or truth itself – altogether. As psychologist Stephen Pinker notes, “far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend.”[29]

Indeed, one of the lessons of postmodernity is to suggest that we be more reflective and less possessive about the claims we make. Hayek and others certainly have made bold claims about the nature of ethics and the ability of humans to reason their way to truth. But his own life indicates a willingness to live in the tension between truth and contingency – to marvel at what humanity has accomplished and its unrealized potential as well as to question the hubris of humanity’s claims to full responsibility for these accomplishments.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ethics, Clifford J. Green, ed. and Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West and Douglas W. Stott, trans. Volume 6 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr., general ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 82.

[2]John N Gray."F. A. Hayek and the Rebirth of Classical Liberalism,"Literature of Liberty. vol. v, no. 4 (Arlington, VA: Institute for Humane Studies, Winter 1982), 19-101. Available at: Gray quotes from Hayek’s "The Theory of Complex Phenomena.”

[3] See Ludwig von Mises. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (San Francisco, CA: Fox & Wilkes, 1996).

[4] Gray."F. A. Hayek and the Rebirth of Classical Liberalism."

[5] Richard Rorty, Contingency, irony, and solidarity (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 74.

[6]Ibid, 73.

[7]Ibid, 189.

[8] Richard Kearney, Poetics of Imagining: Modern to Post-modern (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1998), 219.


[10] Rorty, Contingency, irony, and solidarity, 141.

[11] Rorty and Gianni Vattimo, The Future of Religion, ed. by Santiago Zabala (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005), 74.

[12] Kearney, Poetics of Imagining, 236.

[13] Rorty, Contingency, irony, and solidarity, 192.

[14] Kearney, Poetics of Imagining, 247.

[15]Ibid., 249.

[16] Hayek. Knowledge, Evolution and Society (London: Adam Smith Institute, 1983), 46-7.

[17] Gary Dempsey. "Hayek's Evolutionary Epistemology. Artificial Intelligence, and the Question of Free Will," Journal of Evolution and Cognition, 1996. Vol. 2, No. 2. Available at:

[18] Mark C Miller. “The Hipness Unto Death: Soren Kierkegaard and David Letterman-Ironic Apologists to Generation X,”Mars Hill Review, Winter/Spring 1997, Issue 7: 38-52. Available at:

[19] Brad Frazier. “Kierkegaard on the Problems of Pure Irony,”Journal of Religious Ethics, Volume 32, Number 3, Winter 2004, 421.

[20]Ibid. 419.

[21]Ibid. 420.

[22] Stephen Prickett. Narrative, Religion and Science: Fundamentalism versus Irony, 1700-1999 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 204.

[23] Richard John Neuhaus. “Kierkegaard for Grownups,”First Things, October 2004. Available at:

[24] Frazier. 419.

[25]Ibid. 425.

[26] Neuhaus.

[27]Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph. “Intuitive ethics: how innately prepared intuitions generate culturally variable virtues,”Daedalus, Fall 2004, Vol. 133 Issue 4, 55-66.

[28] Greg Miller. “Neurobiology: The Roots of Morality,” Science 9 May 2008: Vol. 320. no. 5877, 734 – 737.

[29] Steven Pinker, “The Moral Instinct,”The New York Times, 13 January 2008. Available at:

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Matthew Hisrich
Matthew Hisrich received his MDiv in teaching and theology from the Earlham School of Religion, where he now serves as Director of Recruitme

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