Feser on Hayek

Possibly the philosophers say what is contrary to opinion, but assuredly not what is contrary to reason.—Cleanthes

It isn’t often that I get to read the work of a perceptive philosopher who isn’t dead. I am referring to Edward Feser, a socially conservative libertarian professor at Pasadena City College. He is the author of recent works on Aquinas, Locke and the new atheism. My father referred me to “Hayek on Tradition” in the Journal of Libertarian Studies. The main point of this interesting piece is that empiricism and tradition are not inherently incompatible. Feser contrasts genuine rationality with the  prejudices of so-called “rationalism,” which tends to theorize regardless of facts. At the same time he observes that “traditionalism” pursued for its own sake can be just as subjective as any form of pragmatism.

Hayek’s position is sometimes mistakenly taken to entail a kind of relativism—as if the traditional practices prevailing in one society must be the best for  that society, and the ones prevailing in another are the best for it, with there being no fact of the matter about which society’s traditions are superior. But Hayek believes nothing of the sort; indeed, he insists on the objective superiority of some traditions over others.

Feser argues along the lines of Edmund Burke that no society can survive without change. Normal social development,  however, demands continuity and reference to the past; not abrupt and radical transition. He says that we “manage best when we can operate within a stable environment.” This leads him to conclude that

in many cases (though obviously by no means in all), even a bad government is better than no government at all, precisely because the presence of even a flawed system of law and order provides a better framework for action than an atmosphere of sheer lawlessness.

This last point is interesting for its realism and because it is opposed to the anarchistic theories of Rothbard/Rockwell libertarianism.

While the analysis of “cultural evolution,” and parallels to biological evolution, is apt to spark debate, it is important to note that Feser’s view rests on the idea of “internal coherence.” Development becomes a conservative rather than a revolutionary process whereby inconsistencies are slowly eliminated over time. It is the “working out of implications of a tradition’s basic internal elements.” An example of this is the progress in property rights theory, with its tentative roots in Aristotle, its expansion in Christian Medieval culture and the final elimination of slavery in the nineteenth century. Servitude was seen as logically incompatible with a “fundamental rule” of individual liberty.

Radical ideology, however, implies something artificial imposed from outside this organic system. For example, “the sexual revolution is… seeking to overthrow traditional rules wholesale, [and is] not a natural evolution that merely draws out their implications.” I think that Feser argues intelligently and calmly in a way that should convince the morally agnostic of the necessary role of traditional ethics.

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