Hayek v. Sullivan v. Goldberg

In a post addressing Jonah Goldberg's review of Andrew Sullivan's book "The Conservative Soul", Julian Sanchez cuts right to the heart of the matter (and the Catallarchy political philosophy in a nutshell) by invoking Hayek and provides the synthesis to Sullivan and Goldberg's thesis & antithesis, respectively:

I can be fanatical in my defense of liberal societies, not because (like Islamists) I'm sure they have discovered the One Best Way of Life, but because they embody a process that allows fallible people to seek continual improvement.


Second, Jonah takes issue with Andrew's "divinization of conscience," which he casts as an arrogant rejection of tradition. And this brings us back to what I regard as the misreading of Hayek that keeps Jonah in the conservative camp—a point that Nick Gillespie tried to make when they debated a few months back, but I don't think Jonah fully grokked. First, to say we should "rely on tradition" doesn't actually relieve us of the responsibility for making our own moral judgments, for much the same reason the argument that the argument that we need religious texts as a guide to morality doesn't go through. There are multiple traditions to choose from, and multiple strains within each tradition, so an apparent "deference to tradition" always still involves the exercise of one's own judgment. (In the same way that you may outsource your health decisions to a doctor, but you're still responsible for finding a wise doctor.) Moreover, recall that Hayek's argument is meant to show why tradition's evolved rules are likely to produce better results than a wholesale constructivist rationalism. But this argument actually depends on people making use of critical reason, which is quite different. In effect, Jonah wants to say: Look what cultural evolution has produced—great, freeze it! But evolution works because of mutation, variation, and selection, and it's still going on. A tradition that can't accommodate that kind of variation is unlikely to stay adaptive for long.

Reading both Sullivan and Goldberg, I think Goldberg's characterization and critique of Sullivan's argument is essentially correct, in that Sullivan *is* divinizing conscience to where tradition is OK unless and until it conflicts with some moral intuition or, worse, a contingent desire, in which case 'conscience' must take precedence. This is the 'progressive' mindset in a nutshell and no constraint at all to taking the next step to, as Julian says, a fully constructivist rationality[1] (if your conscience dictates that the world must be Y and it is currently X, then why not attempt to get there via applied reason, and while you're at it, why not apply reason to everything...)

Goldberg's alternative is often too much the case of "everything's great, so for goodness' sake, don't touch it! It might collapse!", and the usual misreading of Hayek as to constituting a social version of the precautionary principle. Julian is absolutely correct in that the Hayek view is more "less French Revolution, more American Revolution"; tradition, aka the evolved rules of social cooperation, is a good guide to future action and should be side constraints on proposed change but should not be a presumptive barrier to change. Piecemeal change, bottom-up change, evolved change, but change nonetheless. After all, since the 19th century we've seen yesterday's radical idea become today's mainstream practice to being tomorrow's solemn tradition, and America itself, as both a social and political experiment, represents a major break with world civilizational tradition (esp. the tradition of the previous 1700 years, which was to a lesser or greater extent centralized monarchism). The question, as always, is what to change, when, and how.

(footnote below)

fn1. Full disclosure, I'm not a philosopher nor have I taken any courses in it, so I'm presuming I'm using the phrase correctly based on context and inference.

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