“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."
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.
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.”
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.