Thursday, August 11, 2011

Harris vs. Hayek

I'm used to seeing Friedrich Hayek as a foil to John Maynard Keynes these days, but after turning some thoughts in my head lately about science and value judgments, I think he belongs in the arena with Sam Harris.

I have heard Harris argue that science can help us choose what we ought to value, a position dangerously close to saying science can rank any and all values - and Steven Novella has recently stated that Harris indeed holds that view.

I've added emphasis to what Hayek wrote on page 99 of The Road to Serfdom on why specialist intellectuals are making a mistake when they support central planning:

In our predilections and interests we are all in some measure specialists. And we all think that our personal order of values is not merely personal but that in a free discussion among rational people we would convince the others that ours is the right one. The lover of the countryside who wants above all that its traditional appearance should be preserved and that the blots already made by industry on its fair face should be removed, no less than the health enthusiast who wants all the picturesque but unsanitary old cottages cleared away, or the motorist who wishes the country cut up by big motor roads, the efficiency fanatic who desires the maximum of specialization and mechanization no less than the idealist who for development of personality wants to preserve as many independent craftsmen as possible, all know that their aim can be fully achieved only by planning – and they all want planning for that reason. But, of course, the adoption of the social planning for which they clamor can only bring out the concealed conflict between their aims.
Hayek's case against the objective truth of values leads me to two conclusions:

First, assuming Novella's summary of Harris's perspective is accurate and he believes that science can determine what values are universally superior, than Harris is committing scientism - using the trappings of science to make claims which are not scientific in nature.

As Hayek said in The Pretense of Knowledge:
There is as much reason to be apprehensive about the long run dangers created in a much wider field by the uncritical acceptance of assertions which have the appearance of being scientific as there is with regard to the problems I have just discussed. What I mainly wanted to bring out by the topical illustration is that certainly in my field, but I believe also generally in the sciences of man, what looks superficially like the most scientific procedure is often the most unscientific, and, beyond this, that in these fields there are definite limits to what we can expect science to achieve. This means that to entrust to science - or to deliberate control according to scientific principles - more than scientific method can achieve may have deplorable effects.
So not only is Harris wrong, but he is playing with fire.

Second, the illusion that values can be objectively quantified and ranked is mandatory for anyone who believes in central planning. An individual who wants to march under a red banner with modern day Marxists must take Harris's side in the issue, for how could a central planner decide which elements of society to prioritize without a concrete, indisputable list of values?


  1. Hear, Hear! Big Hayek fan. I think it's time I re-read The Road to Serfdom, I've been looking for something new to pick up and having just re-read The Wealth of Nations, this is just the time to read me some Hayek.

  2. It appears you have this post up twice. Here is my comment from the other thread in case you delete it.

    Reminds me of my first Auburn Planning Board meeting the other night. The topic of relaxing the ordinances regarding the keeping of chickens came up. A few of the board members made it clear they didn't want to see chickens in the more congested areas of the city even though in some of the most congested residential areas, there are still yards.

    Based on the discussion, it was clear they were making subjective arguments about their vision of what a congested neighborhood should look like. Being my first night, I opted out of objecting to the methodology. Barring financial concerns (the costs of ordinance enforcement) or the wellfare of the chickens (of which I admittedly know little about) - I saw no reason not to let people with small yards keep a chicken or two anywhere.

  3. Good reasoning Jeremy. My understanding how always been that planning board members are there to interrupt the ordinances, not to decorate the city to their whims. I support your hands-off approach.

  4. As a huge Hayek fan myself, and a recent reader of Harris' book, I have to say that I think you are mischaracterizing Harris' argument. I think they jive quite well actually. Harris' book is all about arguing for the existence of the moral landscape, and Hayek's Constitution of Liberty, as I read it, is an argument for a political philosophy which allows humanity to search that same landscape for it's maxima.

    Harris says over and over in his book that he is not arguing that the moral landscape is possible to quantify in practice, but only that it exists in theory. He is not arguing for complete top down control of the political class, he is not arguing against individual liberty. But he is saying that it is possible to argue FOR individual liberty in a rational way, whereas many of the moral relativists would say that it is in principle impossible to argue for or against any one specific set of values which a society possesses.

  5. Adamimos, thank you for a thoughtful reply. I put the caveat in there that these comments assume the summary of Harris's views I have been presented with are correct. I have listened to one of his lectures on the subject, but I have not read his book, and it's entirely possible I was given an unfair summary.

    Could you provide some kind of evidence, such as quotes, that show Harris was not arguing that science can rank value judgments with great precision, but can merely hint that some are more valid than others?