The Presumption of Reason

In this address, perhaps the last paper he wrote, Professor Hayek elaborates on the relationship between the evolution of the moral order and evolution of reason, arguing that the latter is dependent on the former, and that rationalists, like Marx and others, who try to construct a social order based on reason (just a small portion of the spontaneous social order) are doomed from the start. Hayek could be considered a pioneer in the field of Integral Political Economy, although he didn’t use that term. His approach is interdisciplinary and integrates scientific and historical approaches to knowledge.

The Presumption of Reason1

F.A. Hayek on receiving the ICUS Founder’s Award

Prepared for the Plenary Address, 14th International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences, Houston, Texas, 1985.  © 1986, International Cultural Foundation, Reprinted with permission.

The relationship between the theory of evolution and the development of culture raises a number of highly interesting questions, to many of which economics as a science provides philosophical access that few other disciplines offer.

There has however been great confusion about the matter. So-called social Darwinism, in particular, proceeded from the assumption that any investigator into the evolution of human culture has to go to school with Darwin. This is however quite mistaken. The idea of evolution stems from the theory of lan­guage and from the theory of law, not to mention economics, and long antedated Darwinism. Indeed, not only is the idea of evolution much older in the social sciences than in the natural sciences, but I would even be prepared to argue that Darwin got the basic ideas of evolution from the social sciences. As we learn from his notebooks, Darwin was reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations at just that time, in 1838, when he was formulating his own theory. In any case, Darwin’s work was preceded by decades, indeed by a century of research concern­ing the rise of highly complex spontaneous orders (such as the market order, and other institutions and traditions) through a process of evolution. Even words like “genetic” and “genetics,” which have today, long after Darwin, become technical expres­sions of biology, were by no means invented by biologists. The first person I know to have spoken of genetic development was the German philosopher and cultural historian Herder. We find the idea again in Wieland, and again in Humboldt. Thus modern biology has borrowed the concept of evolution from studies of culture of older lineage. If this is in a sense well known, it is also almost always forgotten.

Of course the theory of cultural evolution and the theory of biological evolution are hardly identical. Indeed, they make some very different assumptions. Just to mention one of great importance: although biological theory now excludes the inher­itance of acquired characteristics, all cultural development of course rests on the inheritance of acquired characteristics. And there are of course many other differences which I cannot pur­sue here.

Now although I wish the theory of evolution to be seen in its broad historical setting, and the contribution of the social sci­ences to it to be recognized, I do not at all wish to dispute that the working out of a theory of evolution, in all of its ramifica­tions, is one of the great intellectual achievements of modern times, one which gives us a completely new view of the highly complex world in which we have to live, or that, thanks to it, we now understand many new things. Its universality as a means of explanation is also expressed in the new books that are always appearing, written by very distinguished natural scien­tists, which show that the idea of evolution is in no way limited to organisms, but rather that it begins in a sense already with atoms, which have developed out of more elementary particles through a process of evolution, and that we can thus explain molecules, the most primitive complex organisms, and even the complex modern world through various processes of evolution. But I have to confess that I always have to smile when these books by great scientists end, as they so often do, with such exhortations as these: “Hitherto everything has developed by a process of spontaneous order; but now we have reached a point where things have become so complex that human reason must seize the reins and control all future development.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is wishful thinking, and it is here that I must begin to turn from these general reflections on cul­tural and biological evolution to the main theme of my lecture. For the fact that culture is not genetically transmitted does not mean that it must, or can, be deliberately designed.

The idea that reason, itself created in the course of evolution, should now be in a position to determine its own future evolu­tion (not to mention any number of other things which it is also incapable of doing), is inherently contradictory, and can readily be refuted. It is less accurate to suppose that thinking man cre­ates and controls his cultural evolution than it is to say that cul­ture, and evolution, created his reason. All evolution is an adap­tation to unforeseeable future events, to circumstances which we do not and cannot know. Evolutionary theory can never put us in the position of rationally predicting and controlling future evolution. All it can do is to show how highly complex struc­tures carry within themselves a means of correction which leads to further developments, developments which are, how­ever, in accordance with their very nature, completely and unavoidably unpredictable. Having already mentioned some dif­ferences between cultural and biological evolution, I should stress that in this respect they are at one: neither biological nor cultural evolution knows anything like “laws of evolution” in the sense of laws governing and enabling the prediction of future developments. And all those famous philosophers from Hegel to Marx and Auguste Comte who have contended that our studies can lead to laws of evolution enabling the prediction of inevitable future developments are talking outright nonsense, and their views are of no use whatever.

A better understanding of these matters has led, in recent years, to the development of an evolutionary epistemology, one in terms of which reason and its products can themselves be understood as products of evolution. I cannot explore this fas­cinating and important area today, but wish rather to turn to a related problem that is all too often neglected.

I should like to suggest that we not only need an evolutionary epistemology, but also an evolutionary theory of morals. Such an evolutionary theory of morals is now already beginning to come into existence, and its essential insight is that “our” morals are not a creation of our reason, but rather constitute a second tradition independent of the tradition of reason, one which indeed enables us to adapt to problems and circum­stances far exceeding our rational capacities. Our morals, like many other aspects of our culture, developed concurrently with our reason, not as its product.

To understand this, both economics and religion come into play, the first helping to explain how moral orders evolve and how they can assist us where reason falters; the second, as an aid in upholding some systems of morality against the prema­ture assaults of reason.

Economics has from its very origins been concerned with the problem of how a social order comes into existence—through evolution, through a process of variation, winnowing and sift­ing—which far surpasses our vision or our capacity to design. Adam Smith was the first to perceive that we have found—or stumbled on—methods of ordering human economic coopera­tion that exceed the limits of our knowledge. We are led—for example by the pricing system in market exchange—to do things by circumstances of which we are largely unaware and which produce results that we do not intend. In our economic acitivity, we do not know the needs which we satisfy nor the sources of the things which we get. Almost all of us serve people whom we do not know, and even of whose existence we are ignorant; and we in turn constantly live on the services of other people of whom we know nothing. All this is possible because we stand in an enormous framework of institutions and tradi­tions—economic, legal, and moral—into which we fit ourselves by obeying certain rules of conduct that we have never made, have never understood, and never will understand. The contri­bution of modern economics consists essentially in explaining how such an order—what I call an “extended order”—can come into being, and how it constitutes an information gather­ing process, able to call up, and to utilize, widely dispersed information that no central planning agency could possess let alone control.

There is unfortunately no ready English or even German word to describe such an extended order. The only appropriate word, “transcendent,” has been so misused that I no longer like to use it. In its literal meaning, however, it does concern an order that far surpasses the reach of our sense perceptions, and which incorporates and generates knowledge which no individ­ual brain, or any single organization, could possess.

The order provided by our traditional moral institutions and practices also exemplifies such an extended or transcendent order, one that has evolved concurrently with reason but not as its product.

Before discussing morals, I should first note that what I have been saying about economics and the market—and what havethus far only indirectly implied about morality—is quite at odds with the dominant viewpoint of our time—a view that I call “rationalism,” or, more precisely, “constructivist rationalism”; and I should also record my belief that many of the great polit­ical and economic problems of our time are rooted in the ratio­nalist opposition to traditional wisdom, in the failure to recog­nize the limitations of human reason and the indispensability of separately evolved traditional rules.

The influence of rationalism is of course hardly surprising. It is the tradition which dominates a large part of our natural sci­ences; and many of its members are reluctant to believe that there can exist any useful knowledge which cannot be scientif­ically verified, or in the validity of any tradition apart from their own tradition of reason. The sweeping and pretentious claims of the rationalist tradition have of course not gone unchal­lenged. It was David Hume, as I remarked in my address at this conference two years ago, who, some 250 years ago, stated plainly: “The rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason.” Yet Hume’s claim, which is I believe beyond dispute, has not sufficed to deter most modern rationalists, including the majority of modern scientists, from continuing to believe that something that is not derived from reason must be nonsense. For their ideas are deeply rooted in an opposing theory of knowl­edge that has attempted to develop a science of behavior, or an ethics—whether called eudaimonism, utilitarianism, social­ism, or whatever—on the grounds that certain sorts of behavior satisfy wishes better. All these “scientific” ethics assume that ethics is a branch of our scientific knowledge, and advise us to behave in such a way as will permit given situations to satisfy our desires, and make us happier, and such like; in other words, they aim to construct an ethics that men can deliberately follow to reach known and pre-selected aims.

That this is so is readily confirmed in a ready “source of knowledge,” the dictionary. I have here a few short definitions, from the very useful Fontana/Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought,2 of three basic concepts which generally guide the contemporary scientific thinker: rationalism, empiricism and positivism. According to these definitions, rationalism denies the acceptability of beliefs founded on anything but experience and reasoning, deductive or inductive. Empiricism maintains that all statements claiming to express knowledge are limited to those that depend for their justification on experience. Whereas positivism is defined as the view that all true knowledge is sci­entific, in the sense of describing the coexistence and succes­sion of observable phenomena.

The prevalence of such views among persons of very high intelligence has created a grave situation, not only within the individual sciences, but one of social, political and economic dimensions as well. This situation is really the point of depar­ture of many of the investigations that I myself have conducted over the past sixty years. The political tendency that I have been fighting systematically for so long—namely, socialism—is, historically, closely associated with this sort of rationalism, and it is, I am sorry to say, all the more frequently represented by people the more intelligent they are. The higher we climb up the ladder of intelligence, the more we talk with intellectuals, the more likely we are to encounter socialists and socialist con­victions. And the explanation for that, as one might surmise from our dictionary quotations, is that modern science and phi­losophy of science have created the conviction that only what is rationally justifiable, only what is provable by observational experiment, is worthy of belief, and that everything else must be repudiated. That in turn leads directly to the idea that tra­ditional morality—which certainly cannot be justified in such a way—is unworthy of belief, and that our task must be to con­struct a new morality on the basis of scientific knowledge—usually the new morality of socialism.

Such views occur even within the very highest ranks of nat­ural scientists, and are by no means limited to the writers of common dictionaries. To show that I am not exaggerating, let me present just one illustration. The scientist whom I have selected, Jacques Monod, was a great figure whose scientific work I much admire. He is, essentially, the creator of modern molecular biology. In 1970, in a Nobel Foundation symposium concerning “The Place of Values in a World of Facts,” he stated; “Scientific development has finally destroyed, reduced to absurdity, related to the state of non-sensical wishful think­ing, the idea that ethics and values are not a matter of our free choice but are rather a matter of obligation for us.” In that same year, to re-emphasize his views, he argued the same case in a book that has become famous, Chance and Necessity.Therehe enjoins us, renouncing all other spiritual nourishment, to acknowledge science as the virtually exclusive source of truth, so that ethics may undergo a complete revision. And the book ends of course like so many similar pronouncements with the idea that “ethics, in essencenonobjective, is for ever barred from the sphere of knowledge.”3 Whereas the new “ethic of knowledge does not impose itself on man; on the contrary, it is he who imposes it onhimself.”4 This new “ethic of knowl­edge” that Monod advocates is, he says, “the only attitude which is both rational and resolutely idealistic, and on which a real socialism might be built.”5One could cite hundreds of sim­ilar statements by scientists and philosophers of comparable renown, including Einstein and Bertrand Russell.

Such views, however widespread, however prevalent among intellectuals, are nonetheless contrary to, indeed inimical to, some of the leading moral traditions that have created and are preserving our culture.

With the rise of the great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam–two moral traditions became domi­nant; the tradition of private property and the tradition of the family. There have, however, always been heresies, so to speak, that have challenged them, and rationalistic socialism and com­munism are only the most recent of these. If you consider the great heretical movements of the last 2000 years, whether the Gnostics, the Manichaens, the Bogomils, the Cathars, two fea­tures of the western tradition against which they all contend are private property and the family.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, we need to face this conflict between traditional rationalism and traditional morality, and to ask a very basic question: are we indeed obliged to recognize only empirically establishable facts as binding, or can it be that certain traditions which doubtless have helped to produce human culture are truer in some sense than the conclusions of the latest empirical knowledge?

I believe the latter to be the case. Man never deliberately cre­ated the institutions of private property or the family, or under­stood why he accepted the moral practices that they entail. The morals of property and the family were spread, and came to dominate a large part of the world, not because those who accepted them were able rationally to convince others that they were correct, and certainly not because they themselves liked them, but because those groups who by accident did accept them prospered and multplied more than others.

Thus we owe our morals not to our intelligence but to the fact that some groups uncomprehendingly, and indeed unwillingly (for mankind has been civilized against its wishes), accepted certain rules of conduct—the rules of private property, of hon­esty, of the family—and thus enabled the groups practising them to prosper, multiply, and gradually to displace other groups. Man has never been, and never will be, intelligent enough rationally to design his own society, but the practices that help him to multiply his numbers spread for just that rea­son. It was a process of cultural selection, and not one of invention or design, a process analogous to the process of biological group selection, which made those groups and their practices prevail.

The extended economic order, the extended order of human cooperation which we enjoy today, depends on the continuation of such institutions and practices. To abandon this economic order—no matter at whose behest, even at the call of an alleg­edly benevolent and rationalistic socialism—would be to sacri­fice the lives of millions of persons.

The connection between the ability to sustain an increased population and the institution of private property and the fam­ily is not a new discovery. Already two hundred years ago criti­cal observers understood that the increase of mankind was made possible by the development of a high culture, in that eco­nomically more highly developed groups displace the less devel­oped. The American historian James Sullivan already in 1795 remarked how the displacement of the native Indians had been carried through by the European colonists, and that now five hundred thinking beings could prosper in the same area where previously only a single savage could nourish himself as a hunter. The Indian tribes that continued to engage primarily in hunting were displaced also from another direction: by other tribes that had learned to practise agriculture. Nor has this sort of thing ceased: approximately ninety-nine and a half percent of the people now alive are enabled to live by the development of forms of human interaction which men in the small tribal groups did not know, whose functions are not fully understood to the present day, and which they only very reluctantly obeyand follow. Communist societies such as Russia would be starv­ing today if their populations were not kept alive by the western world. And we can support the current population of the world only if we maintain successfully and improve the basis of pri­vate property which makes such an extended order possible.

If this be so, then those moral traditions and institutions such as private property and the family—whether or not they be sci­entifically justifiable in the way that the rationalist, the empi­ricist, the socialist, demands—are certainly as valuable as intellectual insight.

A deep-seated reluctance to face these matters remains very much alive today. For private property stands in contradiction to our primitive instincts. Private property arose along with that general restraint of instincts through which men arose from their primitive condition to a high state of civilization. A large part of our traditional ethics does indeed consist in restraints, restraints on what we intuitively want to do, wants which we often justify” by appealing to “reason.” As already many thinkers in the 18th century recognized, and our freedom requires that the freedom of the individual be limited in certain respects. And we hate these restrictions, despite the fact that they alone make a free order possible.

One example of this rebellion against such restraints is the allegedly new but in fact archaic notion of liberation which would willingly destroy the basis of freedom, that would permit men to do once again all those things that would irreparably break down those conditions that make an extended order, and thus civilization, possible. For example, there is today within the Catholic church in South America a so-called “liberation theology” which makes propaganda for communism within the church. But this movement is not only in South America; it moves everywhere. Everywhere people are reluctant to recog­nize the moral traditions that have made it possible for man­kind to reach its present size, because they cannot rationally see how limitations on the freedom of the individual through legal and moral rules make possible a greater order than can be realized through centralized leadership and control.

We are then torn between two attitudes. On one hand are the kinds of attitudes and emotions appropriate to behaviour in the small groups where mankind lived together for over a hundred thousand years, where we learned to serve our known fellows, and where the whole group pursued the same aims. Curiously, it is these archaic, more primitive attitudes and emotions which are supported by rationalism, empiricism, hedonism, socialism. On the other is the more recent development in cultural evolu­tion wherein we no longer chiefly serve known fellows, where we no longer pursue common ends, but where institutions, moral system, and traditions, have evolved—such as private property and the family—that keep alive many hundred times more people than existed before civilization began, and where these people are engaged in the pursuit of thousands of differ­ent ends of their own choosing in collaboration with thousands of persons whom they will never know.

Now how can this happen? How can a tradition which people do not like or understand, and whose effects they usually do not appreciate and cannot see, be passed on from generation to generation?

Part of the answer is of course the one with which we began:, group selection: groups that behave in these ways simply sur­vive and increase. But this is not the whole story. To preserve such rules of conduct people have drawn upon the aid of super­natural sanctions. And here we come to religion. We must acknowledge that we owe it partly to mystical and religous beliefs that beneficial traditions have been preserved—and have thus preserved us. Thus we owe our civilization to behav­iour in accordance with beliefs which are not true in the same sense in which scientific facts are true, and which are certainly not the result of rational argumentation, but which are just as essential. Perhaps we might agree to call them “symbolic truths.” Culture has then extended itself not only and not even principally because it rests on scientific insight. Its spread was also possible because it rests on a second tradition which prob­ably only thanks to religious belief could be held for so long a time, a tradition that upheld certain moral rules which, without men understanding them, came to dominance because the groups which took them up were able to increase faster. These ethics of private property and the family, upheld by religion, have enabled us to form an order of human cooperation which far exceeds the possibilities of any rational control.

Thus our morality, whose explanation and justification has seemed so unsatisfactory, is as much the result of an evolution­ary selection process as is our reason, which however stems from a separate development, so that one should never suppose that our reason is in the highest critical position and that only those moral rules are valid which our reason endorses. Certain moral rules which are not obvious to our reason nonetheless are the conditions for mankind being able to reach its current numbers.

It is interesting that, among the founders of religions over the last two thousand years, many have opposed property and the family. But the only religions that have survived are thosewhich support property and the family. Communism is both anti-property and anti-family—and also anti-religion. Yet it is, I believe, itself a religion which had its time, and which is now declining rapidly. We are watching in it how the natural selec­tion of religious beliefs disposes of the maladapted.


  1. This talk has been translated from the German original that Professor von Hayek drafted several weeks before becoming ill. The translation is by W. W. Bartley, III, Senior Research Fellow of the Hoover Institu­tion on War, Revolution and Peace. Stanford University, who is his biographer and Editor of his Collected Works. Professor Bartley notes: Professor von Hayek would want me to say that this is a draft only of the talk that he intended to deliver, one that he had intended extensively to revise. I take full responsibility for any errors in translation.
  2. Alan Bullock and Oliver Stallybrass. eds.: The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought (New York: Harper & Row. 1977). Published in Brit­ain as The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought.
  3. Jacques Monod. Chance and Necessity (Glasgow: Collins/Fount paperback, 1977), p.162.
  4. Ibid., p. 164.
  5. Ibid., p. 165-66.

Leave a Reply