Sunday, June 9, 2024

How different were the views of Hayek and Rand on the role of reason?

 


I think many people who have some knowledge of the views of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek have the impression that they had vastly different opinions on the role of reason. I certainly had that impression until recently.


I have changed my mind since reading Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, by Chris Sciabarra.

In what follows, I begin by explaining why I had the impression that Rand and Hayek had vastly different views about reason, then outline why Sciabarra considers their views are similar in some respects, and follow that by attempting to identify the most important area of difference between them.



Opposing views?

The best way to explain why I thought Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek had vastly different views about reason is via some quotes.

Rand wrote:

“Rationality is man’s basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues.”

“The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action.” (Quotes from The Virtue of Selfishness, 1961, 31)

Hayek wrote:

“Like all other values, our morals are not a product but a presupposition of reason, part of the ends which our intellect has been developed to serve. At any one stage of our evolution, the system of values into which we are born supplies the ends which our reason must serve.” (The Constitution of Liberty, 1960, 63)

Chris Sciabarra notes that Rand recognized that individuals tacitly absorb the dominant values and ideas of the culture in which they live. (193) They develop the essentials of a “subconscious philosophy” from the earliest impressions of their childhood. (298) However, she saw each individual’s articulation of values and attitudes as a means towards rational integration or alteration, and analysis of values and attitudes at a social level as a means toward their explicit articulation or transcendence. (299)

While Hayek argued that reason helps us to observe social rules that enable us to get along with one another, he also argued that coercion to ensure compliance with those rules should be minimal. That was not only because coercion as such is bad, but because it is often desirable that social rules “should be observed only in most instances and that the individual should be able to transgress them when it seems to him worthwhile to incur the odium which this will cause”. He saw the system of values into which we are born as having emerged via social evolution. (COL, 58-9) He noted that “the existence of individuals and groups simultaneously observing partially different rules provides the opportunity for the selection of the more effective ones”. (COL, 63)

Hayek also recognized that “we must always strive to improve our institutions”, thus allowing for the possibility that conscious efforts in that direction could be successful. However, he suggested that we “can never synthetically construct a new body of moral rules” and “must take for granted much that we do not understand”. (COL, 63)

It seems to me that although Rand was more optimistic than was Hayek about the role of reason in enabling improvements in cultural values, their views about the role of reason were not diametrically opposed. Both recognized that individuals may have good reasons to question the dominant values of the culture in which they live.

Similar views about rationalism

Chris Sciabarra notes that Ayn Rand saw knowledge as the product of a conceptual integration of the facts of reality. She agreed with rationalists that human awareness is distinctly conceptual but departed from their view because they based their analyses on “floating abstractions” – dogmatic acontextual premises - rather than on concepts with perceptual roots. Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s close associate, has argued that rationalists pretend to have omniscience.

 Sciabarra suggests that Rand and her intellectual allies would have agreed with Hayek’s assessment that constructivist rationalism – the belief that deliberately planned social constructions produce outcomes that are superior to those of the spontaneous order of a free society - is an inappropriate extension of the Enlightenment faith in reason. He suggests that the crux of both Rand’s and Hayek’s critique of rationalism is as follows:

“The failure of rationalism was not a failure of reason. By ascribing to human beings the attributes of an omniscient deity, and then condemning human reason for not fulfilling this ideal, rationalists attack the genuine legitimacy of human cognition. Rand argued that this destructive pattern is reproduced by the advocates of altruism, who erect an impossible, self-abnegating standard of morality and then indict humanity for not being able to live up to it.” (212)

Hayek observed that constructivist rationalists tend to base their case on the synoptic delusion, “the fiction that all the relevant facts are known to some one mind, and that it is possible to construct from this knowledge of the particulars a desirable social order”. There is additional discussion of Hayek’s view of constructivist rationalism my recent essay: Did Hayek acknowledge the importance of individual self-direction in his vision of spontaneous order?

The most important difference?

I think the most important difference between Hayek and Rand about the role of reason concerns their differing views about the desirability of articulation of the rules underlying skills and customs of thought. As Sciabarra explains, Hayek acknowledged that the articulation of principles can be useful in transmitting know-how but noted that people often pass on know-how from generation to generation without being able to articulate the underlying principles involved. He quotes Hayek:

“Man has more often learnt to do the right thing without comprehending why it was the right thing, and he is still more often served by custom than by understanding.” (197-8)

Sciabarra points out that Rand believed that the articulation process was essential in the realm of morality because it enabled individuals not only to do the right thing but to know why it was the right thing to do. Rand held that an articulated philosophy is necessary for efficacious living: to live efficaciously it is necessary to choose, to choose it is necessary to define values, to define values it is necessary to know one’s own nature and the nature of the world. (200)

Rand proclaimed that the standard of value of the Objectivist ethics is “man’s life, or that which is required for man’s survival qua man”:

“Man has to be man—by choice; he has to hold his life as a value—by choice; he has to learn to sustain it—by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues—by choice.” (The Virtue of Selfishness, 28)

Personal perspective

I think Ayn Rand went too far in her assertions about choice and Friedrich Hayek went to too far in his assertions about the limits of human understanding.

I find it difficult to comprehend Rand’s assertion that humans have to choose to live. Does a new-born baby choose whether to accept the nourishment being offered by his or her mother? 

Some of Rand’s followers have attempted to explain that the choice to live is a fact inherent in the conditional nature of human life itself, but that seems to me to cloud the meaning of choice, and make it difficult to distinguish a choice from a survival instinct.

As I see it, rather than choosing whether to live or not live, it is more in accord with human nature for individuals to seek to discover or recognize what it means to be a human. As Henry Veatch wrote:

“We could say that this natural end or natural disposition of a human being is something pre-rational or pre-intelligent: it is just a fact that reason can do no more than recognize. And yet – and here is the decisive point – having come to recognize this pre-rational and pre-intelligent end, our human intelligence then sees that it is man’s natural end and hence the proper end for a human being to seek. It thus becomes an end which we do not seek merely in fact and automatically, toward which we are impelled uncritically and unreflectingly, but rather an end that we see that we have reason to seek and which we recognize as being the right and proper end for us as human beings.” (Rational Man, 79)

It is necessary to be aware of your natural end as a human being before making choices about what that potential means for the way you live your life.

In my recent post about Friedrich Hayek, referred to earlier, I suggested that he sometimes went too far in downplaying the ability of humans to understand the significance of abstract rules. I argued that most people are capable of understanding the purposes served by rules of just conduct and that it makes more sense to explain those purposes than to suggest that reverence for the traditional should be sufficient reason for compliance.

Conclusions

The views that Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek held about the role of reason are not as far apart as I had thought them to be prior to reading Chris Sciabarra’s book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.

Rand was more optimistic than Hayek about the role of reason in enabling improvements in cultural values but they both recognized that individuals may have good reasons to question the dominant culture in which they live.

Sciabarra argues that Rand’s intellectual allies would agree with Hayek’s denunciation of the constructivist rationalism of those who believe they knew enough about human nature to plan a perfect society. Rand’s allies also condemn rationalists for ascribing to humans the attributes of an omniscient deity.

In my view, the most significant difference between the views of Rand and Hayek concerns the desirability of articulation of reasons for adherence to moral rules. I agree with Rand on that point.

Despite my disagreements with some of the views of both Rand and Hayek on the role of reason, I agree with what I see as the central elements of their views on this topic. I strongly support Rand’s view that it is necessary for individuals to have an articulated philosophy if they are to live efficaciously, and I strongly support Hayek’s denunciation of constructivist rationalism.


Sunday, June 2, 2024

Do people obtain more benefit from a walk in the park than from a walk in the suburbs?

 


I have previously written on this blog about the relationship between nature connectedness and happiness. In one essay, written in 2015, I referred to a meta-study (by  Diana Bowler et al) which suggested that exercise in natural environments promotes greater emotional health benefits – in terms of feelings of energy, and less anxiety, anger, fatigue and sadness - than exercise in an artificial environment. 

Since that study was undertaken there has been further research on the benefits people obtain from exercise in the natural environment.  I focus here on the conclusions of a review of experimental studies on psychological benefits of outdoor physical activity in natural versus urban environments. The review was authored by Claire Wicks , Jo Barton , Sheina Orbell , and Leanne Andrews, and published in Appl Psychol Health Well Being, 2022 Aug;14(3):1037-1061.

Natural versus Urban Environments

The authors identified 24 experimental studies which met their eligibility criteria, including a focus on psychological outcomes, broadly defined to include well-being, self-esteem, depression, anxiety, mood, and stress.

In the included studies, the natural environment includes forest, grasslands, nature reserves and urban parks. The urban environment includes commercial districts, city areas and residential streets.

The most common physical activity in the studies was walking.

The authors hypothesized that physical activity in nature would provide more favourable results for all psychological outcomes.

I focus here on the narrative synthesis of findings which was conducted across all studies. The authors conclude:

“Although there are some inconsistencies across outcomes, this analysis revealed results generally supporting our hypothesis. The majority of tests showed greater benefits following green exercise for anxiety, anger/hostility, energy, general affect and engagement, whereas four out of 10 tests found in favour of the natural environment for depression and one in four for tranquillity. Where studies did not find in favour of the natural environment, the results often indicated either favourable changes in both conditions or no changes in either condition.”

A personal view

I believe that most humans have deep-seated intuitions about their kinship (relatedness) to other living things. That led me, in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, to agree with the view that living in harmony with nature is intrinsic to individual flourishing and should be acknowledged as one of the basic goods of a flourishing human.  If living in harmony with nature is intrinsic to individual flourishing, I think it is reasonable to expect that exercising in the natural environment would provide greater psychological benefits than exercising in urban environments.

I walk regularly in a park close to where I live and obtain psychological benefits from doing so. I try to persuade others to do likewise.

However, I think my testimony about the benefits I obtain from walking in natural environments might be treated with some skepticism because of my belief that living in harmony with nature is intrinsic to individual flourishing. It is possible to argue that the psychological benefits that I obtain can be attributed to acting in accordance with my beliefs rather than to the impact of nature.

I am drawing attention to the findings of survey discussed above in the hope that it will receive serious consideration. Hopefully, it will induce more people to obtain the benefits of a walk in the park, and some of them will be led to view living in harmony with nature as intrinsic to their personal flourishing.