Reprise: The Fatal Deceit ... or, Hume's Homecoming

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Tue, 2008-01-22 22:48

"The rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason." – David Hume, quoted approvingly by F.A. Hayek in The Fatal Conceit.

"One should never suppose ... that only those moral rules are valid that reason endorses." – F.A. Hayek.

"The idea that reason, itself created in the course of evolution, should now be in a position to determine its own future evolution, is inherently contradictory." – F.A. Hayek.

"The idea that human nature is reasonable is a disastrous mistake." – John Maynard Keynes.

"We are now at the end of the Age of Reason. The intellect has grown autocratic, and has become a disease of life." – Adolf Hitler.

In a sense, these quotations say it all. Hayek, a leading contemporary advocate of capitalism, turns out on closer inspection to endorse the fundamental premises of capitalism's enemies. He is an apostle of unreason, of tradition-worship for its own sake, of a mechanistic evolution which man's mind is powerless to grasp or control; and of the deadly ethical poison that continues to infect the bloodstream of freedom and civilisation: altruism, the belief that one's life belongs to others, that the good of others should be the primary purpose of one's life and actions. Thus, while conceding that in a free market, individuals act for their own good, Hayek argues that they are exempt from moral blame for this, and remain morally virtuous, because they unintentionally benefit others in the process! He is an eloquent example of why capitalism has been languishing for want of a viable, i.e. rationally justifiable, moral defence — by his own admission, he doesn't believe such a defence is possible.

It is tempting to ask, before moving further: in that case, why does Hayek bother making any sort of case at all? If reason is irrelevant to the existence and validation of the "extended order" (the outcome of his inexorable evolutionary process), why bother proffering any reasons whatsoever — even flawed ones — for the desirability of this order? To argue a case for anything is to invoke the faculty of reason ... but if this faculty is irrelevant, or indeed inimical, tto that which one is arguing for, one is subverting one's own position. Better, surely, that Hayek simply leave us to immerse ourselves in the ineffable tradition that he says has spontaneously and inexplicably become the repository of all wisdom, and passively await enlightenment?!

Hayek's problem in my view is that he has failed to observe the crucial role of ideas in human history. He assumes that when cultural evolution took over from biological evolution, it was equally blind, spontaneous, unaware of itself; it occurred independently of any ideas held by the entities whose culture was evolving. He accepts Marx's view that ideas do not shape man's "social being," but rather, the other way round. What then does determine man's social being? According to Marx, inexorable laws that are independent of man's will; according to Hayek, "moral traditions" that are "spontaneously generated" and are also independent of man's will. Where's the real difference? Both are positing forms of historical determinism.

But it is not just any old life form we are talking about here. What distinguishes man from all other conscious organisms is his conceptual faculty, the ability to form concepts from the percepts that his sensory apparatus automatically absorbs, to integrate concretes into abstractions, to reach conclusions about the world, man's place in it, and what he should do if he wants to remain in it and flourish. This faculty is what we refer to as reason; the conclusions it draws, the ideas it forms, however primitive, are its currency. They determine not merely whether, but how, men will live. In short, they determine culture, and they move history.

Hayek unintentionally concedes this from time to time — for example, in linking the advance of civilisation to the development of private property and the concept of liberty. He notes that in ancient Crete, private property was prevalent and makes a connection between this fact and the enshrining of personal liberty as the state's highest good in that state's constitution. Well, where does he think that notion came from? That it was emblazoned in the sky? That the constitution spontaneously wrote itself? That men woke up one morning and found themselves suddenly occupying private property, free from the shackles of other men? For liberty and private property to be prevalent, they must be institutionalised; to be institutionalised they must first be grasped as concepts. Someone has to think of them.

This is not to suggest that such ideas could be conceived in a vacuum. Men would have to make significant advances from the stage of cave and club and hunting tribe before advanced abstractions such as individual liberty became conceivable or applicable; but these advances too are dependent upon the application of man's reasoning mind to his external circumstances. He has no innate knowledge of how to make a fire. Someone has to think of it — or, if he discovers it by accident, to think of uses for it. Reason, even at that primitive level, is man's distinctive mode of functioning and means of survival. How it became so is for science to discover; that it is so is the only appropriate starting point for a tenable ethics.

To put this point another way: in upholding the primacy of tradition, Hayek is side-stepping the question of how that tradition developed. His own answer would be that the question is unanswerable, the process unknowable. The true answer, empirically derived, is that tradition — any tradition — is the upshot of whichever antecedent ideas have achieved dominance in human affairs. The issue then becomes one of evaluating those ideas — and this is where Hayek disassembles.

For him, there can be no such thing as an objective ethics, no code of morality that can hold its own against all comers, no standard of evaluation, no possibility of objectivity in forming conclusions as to how human beings ought to behave. Observe his equivocation here, for he obviously understands full well that on this basis he has no business dispensing moral prescriptions of his own — yet he does precisely this; and in the process, of course cannot avoid assuming a standard of morality even though he would dismiss it as subjective. Thus: "although this morality [i.e. his, the one derived from tradition] is not ' justified' by the fact that it enables us to survive, it does enable us to survive, and there is something perhaps to be said for that."

Perhaps??!! Is there or isn't there?! Is there "perhaps" something to be said equally for a morality that doesn't enable us to survive, or one that explicitly encourages self-destruction?! To be consistent, of course, Hayek would have to answer in the affirmative, since if no objective ethics is possible, any ethics is as "good" as any other.

Hayek's error lies in a mistaken view of objectivity, in his unstated assumption that objectivity must consist in floating abstractions, divorced from man and this earth; that the instant a man makes a value judgement it becomes subjective because it is a man who makes it; that any value judgement whatsoever is thereby subjective; that there is no objective means of evaluating the respective merits, for example, of Thomas Jefferson's view of the status of the individual in society — and Adolf Hitler's. In holding this view he is simply a child of his times, a footnote to Immanuel Kant, the father of our times, who taught us, with far more sophistication than David Hume or Plato, that we can't know anything. [How does he know that we can't know anything if we can't know anything? Blank-out!]

"Objectivity" is conformity to reality; to be "objective" is to identify reality; one's tool of objectivity is one's reason. To assert that there is no such thing as reality and that objectivity is impossible is to commit the fallacy of the stolen concept, since one is purporting to make an objectively true statement while denying the possibility of objectivity. One does not negate a concept by invoking it!

It is interesting to note, in passing, Hayek's disdain for, and misrepresentation of, Aristotle, the father of biology and of logic, of observation and reasoning, of induction and deduction, the arch-purveyor of the efficacy of the human mind, of a reality-based ethics, of the virtues of self-fulfilment, personal happiness and pride. Aristotle most assuredly made errors and did not proceed consistently in all matters, but this is said with some arrogance with the benefit of hindsight. To attribute to him the stagnation and rigidity of the mediaeval period [while ignoring Plato, Plotinus, Augustine and other altruism-mongering mystics] as Hayek appears to do, is absurd. Moreover, observe the gaping contradiction here: he who downplays the potence of ideas attributes to one man's ideas the stagnation of a millennium!

Contradictions, alas, seem to abound in The Fatal Conceit. Observe that Hayek regards altruism as a genetically transmitted instinct that developed during the biological evolution leading to homo sapiens, but that became inconsistent with the requirements of the "extended order" as it came into being. Since he approves of the extended order, one would expect him to argue in favour of an alternative to altruism as the moral base of that order; but lo, what do we find? First, an acceptance of altruism as being axiomatic; second, the most tortuous verbal gymnastics being practised in an effort to prove that the free market is altruistic and immune from the charge of selfishness. Thus:

"All systems of morality of course commend altruistic action."

"The morals of the market do lead us to benefit others not by our intending to do so, but by making us act in a manner which nonetheless will have just that effect."

"...the institution of private property is not selfish, since it serves the needs of distant, unknown individuals."

"We can still call his [the entrepreneur's] motives altruistic in that they eventually redound to the benefit of others."

Observe the confusion here: to act for the sake of others, Hayek accepts, is noble. In the free market, one acts for oneself...this, by implication, must be ignoble. But wait ... it just so happens, by a fortunate coincidence, that self-interested actions benefit others also. Phew!! That's all right then! Even though a man intends that he himself should be the beneficiary of his own actions, we can pretend his motives don't exist and exempt him from the severe moral censure that he would otherwise deserve for his despicable selfishness, because he unintentionally benefits others. What a relief! For a moment it looked as though we might have to contemplate finding a justification for self-interest!

This ethical ambiguity, incidentally, is paralleled by the epistemological ambiguity Hayek displays in asserting that belief in a personal god, though false, has been efficacious. Aside from the treason of applauding anything that is false, the countless millions who were tortured, murdered, or had their lives made unendurable in the name of a personal god, might take a different view.

Let us now extricate ourselves from this Hayekian mess and see if we can't posit something better.

Let's say we were observing from afar the actions of one man stranded alone on an island, and saw that he opted not to lie down and die, but to take actions conducive to his survival. Suppose we said, "Well good for him. He is doing consciously what all other forms of life do naturally — he is acting to live. He is applying his mind to the material around him so as to adapt it to the needs of his survival." As time went by, and we found him surviving on an increasingly sophisticated level — not merely in the manner of the plants and animals around him, but savouring his existence, the fruits of his actions — we would, consistent with our initial approval, applaud him even more loudly. Without stating the issue in philosophical terms, we would have accepted life as the standard of evaluation appropriate for the living organism capable of the act of evaluating, and it would strike us as very eccentric to posit any other standard (and to try to act on it!).

Now suppose several other people were subsequently stranded on the same island. What, ethically, would alter? Nothing — except that our solitary individual now would have the opportunity to further enhance his existence considerably. The self-interest of all parties would consist in their collaborating on terms mutually agreed to, effecting a division of labour, and attaining an ever-improving quality of life. In pursuit of that self-interest, they would also have to agree not to kill or otherwise visit physical harm upon each other. Observing this, consistent with our standard of evaluation being life, we would have to conclude that all of these people, acting in their own self-interest, were acting morally. To pretend that they were not acting in their self-interest, or to acknowledge that they were and then allege that this was immoral, would be an inversion of morality, a slap in the face of life itself. Why then, do we feel obliged to practise this inversion or maintain this pretence when dealing with modern market economies? Why do we not shout it from the rooftops that self-interest, and the individual freedom its exercise presupposes, are good, and capitalism is good because it is based thereon? And so what if tradition has it that self-interest is evil; more fool tradition! Look at the devastation, the destruction of life, that traditional altruism has wrought!

The peddlers of self-sacrifice know that it cannot be justified by reason, and so they must resort to a tradition steeped in the suspension or outright defiance of reason: faith. To claim that this tradition is not only compatible with a system dependent on reason (capitalism), but also caused that system to come into being, as Hayek does, is dishonest. To credit that system's enemies with seeking rationality in man's social existence is gullibly to swallow the rhetoric of some of its enemies while ignoring the accurate rhetoric of most. Rationality is an attribute of the individual, exercised volitionally; capitalism's enemies, be they Keynesian, communist or fascist, deny volition and claim that true individuality lies in surrender to the common good, i.e. the suspension of one's own rational judgement. The enemies of capitalism are the enemies of reason ... and many are honest enough to say so. Conversely, the enemies of reason are the enemies of capitalism ... and it ill-behoves capitalism's friends to attack reason.

Observe that every time Hayek, in spite of himself, posits something as being good, it is something collectivist in character: custom, tradition, survival of the largest number, the greatest good of the greatest number, etc. Individual sovereignty in his view does not exist by right, i.e. by dint of each individual possessing the capacity to think and choose for himself, but as a means to "maximum economy in the use of resources" and the unintended welfare of unseen others. Of course, capitalism does achieve these results, but these are secondary consequences, not its primary justification. After all, these are precisely the objectives Keynes, Marx et al purport to be striving after! One cannot defend individualism, the prerequisite of capitalism, on collectivist premises. Individualism rests on reason, both for its practice and its defence; to abandon reason is to embrace collectivism.

By paraphrasing the David Hume quotation of which Hayek is so fond, one can make it fruitful:

"The rules of morality hitherto have not been the conclusions of our reason."

All the more reason to make them so now!

Lindsay Perigo, 1993

( categories: )

Bumping this header post,

Mark Hubbard's picture

Bumping this header post, because it's one of the best posts on SOLO.

My break with Hayek is now complete.

But wait, there's more!

Chris Cathcart's picture

I knew my blog entries from a while back might come in handy someday. I've treated of Hayek already with all the acumen that can be brought to the subject. I hadn't remembered that I had already figured out Hayek's response to Rawls, for one thing. But for anyone who wants to look at Hayek with an open and clear mind, here you go:


I don't know what more can even be said at this point. It's case-closed. Hayek is great.

Michael Moeller

Chris Cathcart's picture

As my time is valuable, I'll be perfectly content to let readers compare your presentation about Hayek with the one at the link I gave earlier, and to make up their own minds.


Robert's picture

Sounds more like the bastard is paving the way to the Gas chambers. Eugenics the irrational convention of the 1930s.

And the lethal irrational 'convention' that Cathcart would have us obey in this decade? Well if you're unlucky enough to live in Indonesia or the Middle East - that would be Islam!

A title for Carthcart's 'Project'? "Dr. Strangecart or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the 13th Imam."

Surely someone can do better! Jameson! Let those moths out of your bloody wallet and fire up another caption competition.


Lindsay Perigo's picture

My review was of The Fatal Conceit only. As you can see, it's foul enough (the book, not the review). But Individualism and Economic Order sounds even more hideous.

Great post!

Hayek The Automaton

Michael Moeller's picture

Cathcart should not waste his time writing a book expounding on his communitarian-individualist guff, Hayek already wrote the book, literally. The book is entitled Individualism and Economic Order. Although this book contains Hayek's customary circumlocutions, rampant contradictions, complete failure to define anything, and rambling unjustifiable assertions, it is more explicit than The Road to Serfdom.

Cathcart has misstated Hayek's views reason and rationalism, so let's explore that a bit because it is fascinating. All these quotes are from Individualism and Economic Order. Here he sets up his false dichotomy (pg Cool:

But it is merely one aspect of an even wider difference between a view [Hayek's view of rationality] which in general rates rather low the place which reason plays in human affairs, which contends man has achieved what he has in spite of the fact that he is only partly guided by reason, and that his individual reason is very limited and imperfect, and a view which assumes that Reason, with a capital R, is always fully and equally available to all humans and that everything which man achieves is the direct result of, and therefore subject to, the control of individual reason. One might even say that the former is a product of an acute consciousness of the limitations of the individual human mind which induces an attitude of humility toward impersonal and anonymous social processes by which individuals help to create things greater than they know, while the latter is the product of an exaggerated belief in the powers of individual reason and of a consequent contempt for anything which has not be consciously designed by it or is not fully intelligble to it.

What are these "social processes" that help individuals "create greater things than they know"? What are they driven by, exactly, if not by individual reason? No answer is given, as usual from Hayek, but it's clear this neo-mystic is setting up for collective consciousness, which I will get to in a second.

But look at what he offers for an alternative. He sets up the strawman alternative of "contempt" for things not yet rendered intelligible by reason. Ergo, the false alternative of omniscience vs. "imperfect and limited" reason (read: ignorance). And when I get to The Payoff, it is clear what side of the equation Hayek choses.

But let's first look at his conception of man (pg Cool:

The antirationalistic approach [Hayek's approach], which regards man not as a highly rational and intelligent but as a very irrational and fallible being, whose individuals errors are corrected only in the course of a social process, and which aims at making the best of a very imperfect material...

And what a view this is. He defends individualism by first declaring that men are dolts and need to have their "errors" corrected by an undefined "social process". What again is this "social process" if not the reason and persuasion of the individual minds of others? Others who are equally condemned to the realm of "very irrational and fallible" beings?

Just a setup to cash-in on collective consciousness (pg 15):

Or, to put this fundamental contention differently, human Reason, with a capital R, does not exist in the singular, as given to any particular person, as the rationalist approach seems to assume, but must be conceived as an interpersonal process in which anyone's contribution is tested and corrected by others

Here, Hayek is giving his view of "rationalism". Contrary to what Cathcart has asserted, he does not identify "rationalism" as being wedded to ideas apart from empirical evidence, but rather as the view that reason is in possession by "singular", individual humans. Oh no, Hayek's conception of rationality is replacing reality with an "interpersonal process" subject to the opinions of others--i.e. groupthink. Hayek is invoking the concept of collective consciousness that magically corrects "human errors"--apart from the rational faculty possessed by singular individuals, which Hayek regards as a false view of reason.

Socrates' ideas where "tested" by others, they did not like them very much, and he was "corrected" by the "interpersonal process" of having him drink hemlock. Anybody up for a conception of reason that in not liked to an individual's grasp of reality as it is, but rather subject to undefined "interpersonal" and "social processes"?

But here comes The Real Payoff (pg 22):

This entails certain corollaries on which true individualism once more stands in sharp opposition to the false individualism of the rationalistic type....The second is that the individual, in participating in social processes, must be ready and willing to adjust himself to changes and submit to conventions which are not the result of intelligent design, whose justification in particular instance may not be recognizable, and which to him will often appear unintelligible and irrational.

Get that? "True individualism" consists of submitting to undefined social processes, even if they have no justification and appear unintelligible and irrational. Any individual, who respects reason to any degree, should take up open revolt against this nonsense, but apparently not the Pointy-Heads in academia. They love it, which tells you everything you need to know.

It all comes together here. Hayek sets up ominiscience vs. ignorance, then with "humility" choses ignorance. But alas, we have "social processes" (i.e. collective consciousness) outside of individual human reason that will "correct" our innate irrationality and fallibility for us. By what means if not individual human reason?

Even a half-wit will run screaming to the nearest collectivist-mystic willing to provide any reason whatsoever as to why they should submit to "social processes" that appear irrational and untelligible, and Hayek has paved the way on this road to serfdom.


How come

Chris Cathcart's picture

sloppy hack jobs on Ayn Rand are unacceptable - and they are unacceptable - while sloppy hack jobs on other thinkers (like Linz's above) are all so awesome?

So, I take it, then

Chris Cathcart's picture

that it doesn't really matter how Hayek actually used the terms "reason" and "rationalism." He's an anti-reason bastard regardless.

Damn those pointy-headed academics, actually trying to understand the views they criticize!

I add my thumbs up. Very well

John Donohue's picture

I add my thumbs up. Very well thought out and a precision-pointed critique.

What is the opposite of system-building? The thinker who is constantly making up schisms where they don't exist. The result of floating "cultural evolution" as somthing outside reason and human choice is to create social mysticism. What "we have" in a given culture is the sum of all the choices made by all the humans who were involved. If they came to simply default their choices from instinct or whim, that is still a choice, a choice to abnegate will; everyone is responsible for their actions.

By the way, I swear this is true. As I was reading the quotes at the top, just as I got done with Hitler I said to myself, 'he doesn't need to say anything more!" Then I read your first line!

Agreement with Sechrest

Michael Moeller's picture

This is an excellent piece. The only "knock-down" here is of Hayek, and Cathcart by extension.

A brief survey of Hayek

Chris Cathcart's picture

from someone with more than a clue about his ideas:

Notice how much less ridiculous his ideas sound when it's not a polemic?

I can only guess as to how comically bad you'd be when it comes to anti-Kant polemics.

"Larry Sechrest died 15

Chris Cathcart's picture

"Larry Sechrest died 15 months ago. Without changing his mind about Hayek (he wrote an article for the FreeRad called Why Hayek Sucks), much less about what I'd said about Hayek."

So, because he didn't change his mind about Hayek, you actually have a clue how Hayek uses the terms "reason" and "rationalism"? I don't follow. Sounds like a non-sequitur. Now you wouldn't do something like that, would you?

Well, I'm just really

Chris Cathcart's picture

Well, I'm just really disappointed to hear about both of those things. Sad

Larry Sechrest ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

... died 15 months ago. Without changing his mind about Hayek (he wrote an article for the FreeRad called Why Hayek Sucks), much less about what I'd said about Hayek.

If you'd like a clue as to

Chris Cathcart's picture

If you'd like a clue as to how clueless you are, just look up how Hayek used the term "rationalism" or "constructivist rationalism," then compare it to Rand's use of the term "rationalism" for a sort of faulty psycho-epistemological method. Then pull your head out of your ass and realize that this is what he's talking about when he talks about the abuse of reason, such as in believing that social institutions were rationalistically constructed rather than evolved according to practical necessity.

There. Knock-down. 10-count. Ding ding ding. You suck.


Chris Cathcart's picture

I'm sad to hear that about Larry Sechrest. But then again, perhaps he's progressed over the past 17 years so that he isn't an intellectual neanderthal, like you.

No dear!

Lindsay Perigo's picture

*You* suck at understanding Hayek because you genuflect to "Hayek scholars" who suck at understanding Hayek.

The man is condemned by his own words, as I show. That's from an Objectivist point of view, of course, which I now fully understand you don't share. Just don't pretend that you do.

And I'm in good company. Years after I wrote this, Rand's Marginalia came out. Even harsher on him than I was.

Oh, and Larry Sechrest, no sludge on Hayek, told me he wished he'd written it.

If I got 10 Hayek scholars to read this . . .

Chris Cathcart's picture

. . . they'd all give it a failing grade, it's so hilariously incompetent. Utterly dreadful and pitiful.

Linz, you fucking suck at understanding Hayek. This is as bad as a standard hack-work on Rand by some trendy cultural critic.

Anyone can go to the wikipedia page on Hayek and compare it to this fucking mess above and see the vast gulf between the two.


Lindsay Perigo's picture

The importance of paying attention! Eye

Still catching up This was a

Mark Hubbard's picture

Still catching up Smiling

This was a really interesting article. I hope some like this make it into your book Linz (due out when again?)

I 'want' to say Hayek still has his 'uses' vis a vis his championing of laissez faire (even if from a morally bankrupt viewpoint, and I agree with your reasoning), for example here:

(Perhaps his Road to Serfdom was his most valuable contribution.)

Yet, it is inconsistent of me to say this given I've just written something in which I try to make the point that philosophy and economics cannot be separated.

I thought such a contradiction could possibly be excused by what is encapsulated in this quote by argive99 on the old solo forum:

Isn't it easier to view the Austrians as excellent economists who were flawed philosophically. After all, they were not philosophers. Rand was. It was her job to correct (or rather complete) Aristotle. It was Menger's and Von Mises' job to describe the rules of a market economy. Leave it at that.

Objectivism will grow, it will expand, and eventually it will have a group of its own economists that will take the accomplishments of the Austrians and build upon them.

( )

However that is a cop out, as Linz rightfully makes the point here:

The good "economists" like Ropke and von Mises who influenced politicians like Adanauer and Erhard in West Germany were not, strictly speaking, mere economists—they were broadbased thinkers who focused on the production of wealth, the workings of supply and demand and so on while understanding (however imperfectly) the crucialness of freedom as the underpinning of human interaction. Most economists, alas, spout their witch-doctory with a view to destroying freedom.

I've not read Ropke, though am gladdened to see one of my heros, von Mises, may still come out unscathed. Regarding economists destroying freedom, you only need tune into the articles on Hickey's to know the truth of this. It's shameless and shameful.

Just as well for the 'Search' function on SOLO, as there is so much archival depth between this and the old site. Otherwise if would behoove someone to make an index.

Other items dug up that I'm looking are are the below articles:

Another of my heros, Mr Reisman on von Mises (what a coupling):

A Reisman I had not seen on his blog which will probably be a gem: The Nature of Environmentalism

On the old SOLO site there was a member called Edward W. Younkins writing quite a lot of economic material. I've not read these yet, but will do so over the weekend (what happened to Younkins, he seems to have no posts in SOLOpassion?)

Can the Ideas of Mises and Rand Be Reconciled?

Murray Rothbard's Randian Austrianism

With friends like that...

Leonid's picture

""All pro-capitalist go to the front and all anti-capitalists go to the back--I guess you and I and Hayek would move to the front. "

With friends like Hayek and Hume pro-capitalists don't need enemies.


James S. Valliant's picture

Thanks for the reminder of that. I do recall this now. It's such a shame that he's known so much more for things other than his actual contributions to human knowledge.


seddon's picture

"But I do agree that Hume is worthwhile qua economist and historian, Fred."

But how about Hume's contribution to logic, specifically induction. H.W.B. Joesph considers him the father induction, not Mill.

Consult most logic texts and in the chapter devoted to Induction you will usually find a section dealing with Mill's methods. But J. S. Mill did not discover these methods. H. W. B. Joseph lists three men prior to Mill who did spade work on induction, and Mill credited two of these as his predecessors, viz., Herschell and Whewell. But who was the first? Mill doesn't mention him, but Joseph does. He is none other than David Hume. (Joseph 395)
Book I, Part III, Section XV of Hume's Treatise is entitled "Rules by which to judge of causes and effects." (Surely a strange section for a man who supposedly rejected causality.) The first sentence reads "According to the precedent [i.e., Hume's] doctrine, there are no objects, which by the mere survey, without consulting experience, we can determine to be the cause of any other; and no objects, which we can certainly determine in the same manner not to be the causes." (Emphasis mine.) By "mere survey" we cannot say anything about cause and effect. From a "mere survey" and restricted to a "mere survey" we are stuck with the not very helpful doctrine that "Any thing may produce any thing." (173) Hume, as do we, found this situation intolerable. We need to know what objects cause what effects if we are going to re-make the world in our own image and likeness. Had Hume been the kind of skeptic some think him, he may have said "Tough luck" at this point in the argument. But he does not. He writes, "Since therefore 'tis possible for all objects to become causes or effects to each other, it may be proper to fix some general rules, by which we may know when they really are so." [This reading assume that the first clause refers to the "mere survey" mode and the second to be the results of the "consulting experience" mode.] Hume then proceeds to give eight rules for inductive generalizations.
To see how congenial Hume, in his logic, is to Objectivism, let's do a side-by-side comparison of him and an Objectivist logician. For this purpose, let us examine a logic text written by an Objectivist scholar, David Kelley. Kelley's treatment of the methods of induction is fairly standard and any other could have been chosen.


AGREEMENT: a method of identifying a cause of an effect by isolating a factor common to a variety of cases in which the effect occurs. (517)

DIFFERENCE: a method of identifying a cause of an effect by isolating a factor in whose presence the effect occurs and in whose absence the effect does not occur, all other factors remaining constant. (517)

CONCOMITANT VARIATIONS: a method of identifying a cause of an effect by isolating a factor whose variations are correlated with variations in the effect, all other factors remaining constant. (517)


AGREEMENT: where several objects produce the same effect, it must be by means of some quality, which we discover to be common amongst them. (174)

DIFFERENCE: The difference in effects of two resembling objects must proceed from that particular, in which they differ. (174)

When any object encreases or diminishes with the encrease or diminution of its cause, 'tis to be regarded as a compounded effect, driv'd from the union of several different effects, which arise from the several different parts of the cause. (174)

If Hume is an Attila, then perhaps we should rename him, Attila the logician.



seddon's picture

"Some "defences" are so bad they constitute an attack."

Well, then, in that case I'm "agin" it.



James S. Valliant's picture

Absolutely. If someone "defended" the free market by somehow arguing that it would result in "the extermination of undesirable races," or some such nonsense, for example, it would do far more harm than any possible good. That is the fellow who should be fought EVEN HARDER than we fight the "pure" socialist.

But I do agree that Hume is worthwhile qua economist and historian, Fred.


Lindsay Perigo's picture

Some "defences" are so bad they constitute an attack. Hayek's moral "defence" in "Fatal Conceit" is certainly in that category, as I discuss. Interestingly, when I wrote that review I did not know Rand's view of Hayek, though I figured I knew what it might have been. It came as no surprise subsequently to find her reference to him in Letters as "poison" to be avoided like the plague, or to read her notes about him in Marginalia.

If you and I and Hayek all went to the front, I'd say to him: "Shouldn't you be at the back?" I might have to wonder about you too. Tee-hee.



seddon's picture

I think that any defence is capitalism is better than any attack. Imagine we're in a large stadium and someone says, "All pro-capitalist go to the front and all anti-capitalists go to the back--I guess you and I and Hayek would move to the front. Now all of this is against the background that Rand has provided the best defence yet of the free market. BTW, Hume's defence of capitalism in Book III of the TREATISE is much better than Hayek's. See the Hume chapter in my book on Objectivism.



Lindsay Perigo's picture

I think it begs the following question: What is better? To have a collectivist/altruist defence of capitalism or a bashing of capitalism as evil.

And what is *your* answer to the question thus raised, but not begged? Inquiring minds would like to know!



James S. Valliant's picture

Still more empty bluster, Richard?

The example we've just gone through shows how this guy hasn't a clue what Rand actually said -- and indeed it exemplifies his simple-minded, out-of-context approach throughout. If you had actually followed the argument on the Hume thread, you would have known precisely what Rand meant from the start, and would have seen the deep and fatal flaws in this fellow's warped take on what Rand said yourself.

The metaphor was mine, not Rand's, btw, and giving page numbers for quotations doesn't come close to ensuring an accurate reprise of an argument.

A demand from you to look reality in the face -- after what is now months of solid evasion on your part -- even the evasion of discussing this very critic you cite with such grandiose pretension -- only gives the final demonstration of what I have seen from the start of your presence here: chosen authorities seem to do most your thinking for you.

Among fatal flaws, this is one of the worst.

If this is really the very best you can muster, expect no more replies from me.

Live and dead

Leonid's picture

"It is true that the matter of which non-living things are composed can't be destroyed; but this is equally true of living things."

That is true.Dead animal or man is composed from exactly the same matter as the living one,however it is one, but significant difference between them: living entity able to produce self-initiated goal orientated response to its environment in order to live-that is to preserve its internal structure and to prevent destruction when the dead one can be only acted upon it.

"A cabbage is no more capable of "acting" or of having "goals" than a house."

That simply not true. A cabbage, in order to remain cabbage has to perform very complicated actions like photosyntesis, growth,it has to obtain water and minerals from the ground using its root system,and so on.Its goal is to live,to maintain its structure.House doesn't do anything like that.If you damage house,it cannot repair itself,if fingi attack it,house will not employ its immune system to protect itself,if arsonist threaten to burn it,house will not run away. Living entities do all these things, they able to initiate goal orientated actions and this is the fact of reality.

The facts of reality

Richard Goode's picture

I've never seen anything so silly as this:

Houses face the alternative of existing or not existing

Of course, the use of the term 'face' here is metaphorical. But there is something to be gained from such metaphors as they highlight certain features of non-living things in ways that bear fruit. Besides, to say that living things face the alternative of existing or not existing is also to speak metaphorically. You cannot literally face this alternative. If you could, in which direction would you turn? Towards Mecca?

A house can face a street. A house can face north. Why can't a house also face the alternative of existing or not existing?

Can house die? You can do better then that!You know well that unanimate matter can only change form but matter cannot cease to exist.I'm sure that you know difference between living and dead dog.

Of course, a house cannot die. I never suggested that it could. It is true that the matter of which non-living things are composed can't be destroyed; but this is equally true of living things.

James implies that the argument in which Huemer contends he finds 8 fatal flaws is a "straw man". But Huemer says,

Rand's argument seems to be as follows. I enclose in parentheses required implicit premises that I have introduced. The right-most column gives page and paragraph citations for where Rand says these things

The argument is Rand's! (Albeit lovingly reconstructed by Huemer.)

When Rand speaks of "an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative," she means to include the lowly cabbage. And, if cabbages, why not houses? A cabbage is no more capable of "acting" or of having "goals" than a house. And, after all, a bird's nest (a bird's "house") is, just as much as a bird, a gene's way of making new genes.

It occurs to me that you haven't actually taken the time to read Michael Huemer's Critique of "The Objectivist Ethics". If you were to do so, you would quickly come to appreciate that Objectivist ethics is fatally flawed. Even one fatal flaw is fatal.

Why don't you take the bull by the tail and look the facts of reality in the face?

In All Seriousness

James S. Valliant's picture

Confronted by a simple fact -- that only a living being can act in the face of an alternative, and that the alternative faced is its existence or non-existence -- Richard will not look at reality, but to arbitrary form. He simply must find "bullshit" and ambiguity in order to "catch" Rand in error. This will justify his previous assertions about Rand and her ideas, although it is now quite clear that he knows precious little about either.

It is an unfortunate fact of human nature that after one has announced a strong position he will often tend to dig in, even after his position is shown to be wrong. (This has even been codified in a standard American Jury Instruction which must be given in most cases.) It's false pride. It takes a big man -- at least, one with self-esteem -- to admit error.

This is not meant as an ad hominem (what you've said has been rebutted already), Richard, but as a simple inductive inference at this point, given your consistent refusal to engage the substance of what's being said.

Come on Richard

Leonid's picture


"Houses face the alternative of existing or not existing. When a house is destroyed by flames, it ceases to exist."

Come on,Richard.Can house die? You can do better then that!You know well that unanimate matter can only change form but matter cannot cease to exist.I'm sure that you know difference between living and dead dog.

Hayek's (limited) value

Chris Cathcart's picture

I think I’ve read and remembered enough Hayek in my day to see exactly where his valuable insights are, and where he’s definitely limited. (Maybe the best short distillation of his whole system of ideas is an essay, “Socialism and Science,” reprinted in one of his Essays on… collections.) His greatest value is as an institutional and economic theorist, from which arise his very important criticisms of scientism, the idea that the methods of the hard sciences can be applied to human societies, which informs his critique of the notions of centralized planning. His main criticism of socialists is, his view the adoption of “constructivist rationalism,” this notion that some new kind of order based in the dictates of rationalistic “reason” can be revolutionarily imposed upon a society that had evolved to the way it is because the institutions of civilization – crucially, private property – generated order via the dispersed actions of individuals. The socialists’ rationalism is akin to rationalism in Rand’s sense: they have these ideas deduced in a nice theoretical world of “reason” that they think can be imposed onto the actual real-world workings of society – with disastrous results.

Where Hayek is not so valuable is as a moral theorist, particularly his non-answer to an “is-ought” problem. In fact, Hayek defines “morals” more along the lines of “accepted rules and customs of conduct.” His ideas do not actually amount to a defense of laissez-faire capitalism as a matter of principle as with Rand, but to a defense of what I can only call a conservatism, despite Hayek’s protestations not to be a conservative. If societal evolution over time leads to a mixed economy, that could be prima facie evidence of their usefulness and not readily subject to critique “from the outside” according to ideals. That would amount to a “meta-critique” of Hayek if what Hayek wants is laissez-faire. But that’s actually not what Hayek wants; he’s much too, well, conservative for that. So, yes, I think he’d consider Rand’s ideas open to criticism on the grounds that she aims to radically remake society from the way it is presently. Of course, I think such criticism would be short-sighted because Rand recognized that a change would necessarily take time as new ideas become spread throughout the intellectual culture.

Not Paying Attention?

James S. Valliant's picture

Rand said exactly what she meant. You quoted her out of context, Richard. The lack of clarity was all yours. If you had just kept reading the very source you quoted, all would have been made perfectly clear. (But, houses "face" alternatives!?)

I would stack Rand's clarity up against any other philosopher's, my friend.

And, no, Richard, I shouldn't hijack this thread with those links. I quoted you verbatim the third time and on the appropriate thread.

Well, okay, then, for those who weren't following:

Way back on 11-21-07, in one of our very first exchanges, in a post titled "Facts, Facts, Facts," I said: "It is by induction that we first gleaned life itself to be the objective standard of value."

I was then posting in direct response to -- and explicit agreement with -- Mr. Cresswell pointing out to you that deduction won't get us there. He wrote: "You're looking for a deduction, Richard. What James was offering was an induction. It's by induction that we derive knowledge from concrete facts -- and it's also how we identify which facts do have value, and which facts don't."

His post was even titled, "Induction, Not Deduction."

And although you falsely accused me of various other things, you did seem to understand what I was saying at that point, as you replied: "Ah, so it's induction, not deduction! ... Unfortunately, induction is altogether irrational." You even implied that I had then "given up" trying to "deduce" this -- as if I had ever tried (!) (And, of course, this would make human knowledge "altogether irrational," and render your own assertions meaningless. But we'll ignore this for now.)

On January 16, and repeated on January 19 (just scroll up), I wrote: "I have said explicitly that deduction alone will never get us to the facts we need here. For that, we must look."

From now on, however, you do your own homework.

Larry Sechrest...

Robert's picture

Now there's a blast from the past. Haven't heard from of of him in a while? Anyone know how he's doing?


seddon's picture

Did you enjoy the parts about Hayek, Fred?"

I think it begs the following question: What is better? To have a collectivist/altruist defence of capitalism or a bashing of capitalism as evil.


It's not about choices

Casey's picture

Plants don't make choices and neither do most animals, which generally rely on instincts. The issue is actions, right actions (that lead to survival) and wrong actions (which lead to death and nonexistence). Matter is just rearranged -- when we die the atoms that make up our bodies are not destroyed, but life is destroyed. An abstract shape might be changed, but that is not the same thing as the very real loss of consciousness or biological functioning that results from the death of a living organism. Humans have choices, and they need to be correct as much as an animal's instincts have to be correct or a plant's characteristics have to be properly based on its objective requirements in order to survive.

The whole reason human choice evolved, or an animal's instincts, or a plant's characteristics, in the first place is to connect ought to is -- i.e. to correlate actions and biological characteristics to reality. Those creatures that did not and do not base their choices, instincts or characteristics on reality, die and do not pass down their choices, instincts or characteristics to the next generation.

All of evolution is about connecting ought to is to avoid death. Solving this problem is the primary qualification for the survival of all living organisms. It's the very mechanism that guides all of biological development. It's why life, unlike all inanimate existents, changes over time, always specializing. Indeed, specialization itself in biological evolution is the same process writ across thousands of generations as plants and animals adapt to their enviornment -- as the "ought" of their identity is based more and more on the "is" of their surroundings.

Can't derive an ought from an is? Hume didn't know that Darwin was right around the corner. The ought itself IS. That which life requires is an objective fact of reality, "the facts of life." They are a given and must be adapted to in order for life to exist whether at the individual level, the species level, or the whole sweep of an organism's evolutionary history. Rand points out that life is an end in itself, unlike all inanimate entities. It has its own end that is subject to life or death, existence or non-existence, based on its success adapting to reality.

To really wrap your head around Rand you have to realize exactly what she meant by A is A. Identity is not separate from reality. The ought is not separate from the is. Existence IS identity. The OUGHT of what a living organism must be to survive IS. Just because we unpack the concept of ought from the living entity that is, does not make them separable IN REALITY. Just because we identify existence does not mean identity is separate from existence. This rejection of both rationalism and empiricism (as she defines them) is the key to really understanding Rand and why what she is proposing is utterly new and revolutionary. It should not be whisked aside as shallow mumbo-jumbo simply because one did not take it seriously enough to get right what she is saying.


Richard Goode's picture

As she explains, "to face an alternative" implies the ability to take action in the face of an alternative. The living act in order to survive — the house cannot.

Then Rand should say what she means. She should say, instead, that no non-living things face any choices.

Clarity, and the avoidance of ambiguity, are philosophical virtues. Speaking of which, James, please would you provide a link to your original comment in which you clearly and unambiguously declare that one cannot deduce an "ought" from an "is" (thereby avoiding having to repeat yourself a FIFTH time).

I've never seen anything so

Richard Wiig's picture

I've never seen anything so silly as this:

Houses face the alternative of existing or not existing


James S. Valliant's picture

No, the only bullshit here is reading Rand out of context. As she explains, "to face an alternative" implies the ability to take action in the face of an alternative. The living act in order to survive -- the house cannot.

I certainly believe that an ought can be derived from an is, and have shown how.

Not willing to take the offer, then?

No surprise there, at any rate.

Terrific Article, Linz

James Heaps-Nelson's picture


That was a terrific skewering of Hayek and the collectivist premises in his Fatal Conceit. Larry Sechrest did a similarly thorough demolition job on Hayek at the 1994 Summer Seminar.

One thing I would recommend from Hayek is his brilliant 1945 American Economic Review article: The Use of Knowledge in Society. It can be found here:

The Use of Knowledge in Society



Richard Goode's picture

Great essay! Have a gold star. Gold star


Richard Goode's picture

Hume has been blasted to bits down on the Hume thread

You agree, though, don't you, that you cannot deduce an "ought" from an "is"?

No Mr Davis

Richard Goode's picture

Rand (quoting from Galt's speech) says,

"There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms."

In other words, Rand says that non-living things do not face the "one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence."

Now, to show that Rand's generalisation - that no non-living things face any alternatives - is false, one has only to provide a single counter-example. And that is what Huemer does.

Houses face the alternative of existing or not existing. When a house is destroyed by flames, it ceases to exist.

So the only bullshit here is Rand's. (No, you ought not be surprised!)

Mr No Goode

gregster's picture

I looked at that page of rebuttals and gave up because of the weaknesses in the first three! For example, "Premise 3 (No non-living things face any alternatives.) seems to be false. Rand claimed that living things face an alternative of existing or not existing but that non-living things do not. I can think of five interpretations of this, but all of them make it false:

First, it is not true that non-living things can't be destroyed. I once saw a house destroyed by flames, for example.

Bullshit that I'm surprised you brought up! Oh, no, I ought not be surprised.


Fatal, Indeed

James S. Valliant's picture

If you believe that any of these "rebuttals" is an adequate response to Objectivism, rather than his own "straw man," then you have as little idea of what Rand actually said as that fellow does, Richard.

Why don't you take each of these, one at a time, and post them here separately, for discussions?

But -- and I want to stress this one -- only if you promise to actually engage the case.

Hume has been blasted to bits down on the Hume thread -- and you have had no rebuttal (even less than that chap you recommended) to Rand's positive case. While his stuff had long been anticipated by Rand to his seeming ignorance, yours is nonexistent.

As a species?

Casey's picture

That statement reveals that you have already accepted a whole (collectivist) philosophy, without even being aware of it. Philosophy is inescapable.

The fatal deceit

Richard Goode's picture

Objectivism has yet to encounter a real rebuttal of any kind

The fatal self-deceit.

In his Critique of "The Objectivist Ethics", Michael Huemer identifies 8 fatal flaws in Rand's case for Reason.

So, there you go. Eight real rebuttals in one handy location.


James S. Valliant's picture

Wait as long as you like, a "species" will never "decide" anything.

Only individuals can do that.

And, despite "our strong feelings about issues," humans can and often do reach "that level of sophistication." In addition, the Average Joe absorbs the philosophical ideas developed by others, just as he uses other discoveries which he may never have been able to come up with himself and soon begins to take for granted. Finally, philosophical beliefs, in some form, exist in, and profoundly influence, each and every one of us, and the very course of history -- whether we know this to be the case or not.

Even the consciousness of the personally disinterested is shaped by such ideas -- it's just that for him these ideas will remain forces outside of his knowledge and control, that is, until and unless he becomes interested enough to understand them.

While I agree that Objectivism has yet to encounter a real rebuttal of any kind, we have hardly "won" the philosophical argument. The world is still in the clutches of various forms of mysticism, altruism and collectivism (like the idea that government needs to do a bunch of stuff.)

You know, the title of one of Rand's books is Philosophy: Who Needs It.

It's worth checking out.

Who needs philosophy?

personallydisinterested's picture

As a species we have still not decided that we need philosophy.  Our strong feelings about issues never reach that level of sophistication.  The fundamental idea that is supported not by philosophy but by common sense is that important things must be done by the government.  We have won the philosophical arguement but that hasn't translated into a reasonable society.  How do we create a need for philosophy?

Philosophy is Fundamental

James S. Valliant's picture

And Hume was a pioneering historian and economist, too.

What a fellow says about the fundamental issues in philosophy can be far more important than any of his assertions on other topics. The more fundamental the man's ideas, the more of an impact they can have for good or ill.

Fred ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

... but such "knowledge" is not the real thing, and you ... er ... know it.

Did you enjoy the parts about Hayek, Fred? Smiling


seddon's picture

"Immanuel Kant, the father of our times, who taught us, with far more sophistication than David Hume or Plato, that we can't know anything. [How does he know that we can't know anything if we can't know anything? Blank-out!]"

This is intellectual malpractice, and you know better.

This is said of Kant, who in the 2nd preface to the CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, cites three different disciplines that have achieve the status of a science, to wit: Aristotle's Logic, Euclid's Geometry and Newton Physics.

This is said of Kant, the last great Enlightment thinker who challenges us, in "What is Enlightment" to Dare to Know.

This is said of Kant who with his nebular hypothesis and theory of tides made actual contributions to science.

When we bash the great thinkers of the past, we do our enemies work for them.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.