History, Reason and Hope: A Comparative Study of Kant, Hayek and Habermas: Dialogue on Personal and Political Ethics

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In the Critique of Practical Reason, Immanuel Kant expressed awe and admiration for "the starred heaven above me and the moral law within me". With reference to the heavens, Kant was struck by human insignificance in "the incalculable vastness of worlds upon worlds, of systems within systems, over endless ages". Within this sensible order of cosmic proportions, man appeared to be but an "animal-like being", condemned to return to the dust of a planet which itself is "a mere speck in the universe". At the same time, however, Kant believed that every human consciousness contains within itself the universality of the moral law. As intelligible beings, we live "a life independent of animality and even of the entire world of sense". The moral law elevates human existence into "a world ... which can be sensed only by the intellect". Moral self-determination, said Kant, "radiates into the infinite". (1)

Lucien Goldmann's interpretation of Kant emphasizes the need to overcome this division between the sensible and intelligible domains. Kant conceived moral autonomy as an attribute of rational individuals, but he also contemplated a universal community, integrated through the practical Idea of human freedom--an "ethical commonwealth" and a "kingdom of ends". Goldmann argues that the absolute necessity of realizing this totality is "the centre of Kant's thought". (2) For a solution, he looks to Kant's philosophy of history. In The Contest of the Faculties, Kant claimed that it is possible to have "history a priori" if "the prophet himself occasions and produces the events he predicts'. (3) In the French Revolution, Kant saw evidence that "man has the quality or power of being the cause and.., author of his own improvement'. (4) Goldmann interprets Kant's view of history as opening the way to subsequent philosophies of totality in the work of Hegel, Marx and Lukacs. (5)

Jurgen Habermas claims, however, that the dialectical concept of totality has today collapsed into its "disjecta membra". (6) Instrumental and strategic reason have suppressed practical discourse, and economic and social "systems" objectify human subjects in accordance with systemic functional imperatives. Nevertheless, Habermas remains committed to Kant's faith in human reason. He argues that the personal and social pathologies resulting from systemic integration inevitably reproduce the human need for shared meaning and purpose. In the imperatives of language and everyday speech, he finds implicit an "ideal speech situation" which sustains the hope for human behaviour guided (in part at least) by "good reasons". (7)

Today the concept of totality has reappeared in an unexpected quarter. Friedrich Hayek, often regarded as the spiritual father of modern conservatism, draws upon Kantian influences in accounting for the "Great Society" and "extended order" of the market economy. In the liberal ideal of voluntary market exchanges, coordinated through universal laws, Hayek thinks Kant's aspirations have been fulfilled by modern capitalism. Hayek's pursuit of totality, however, takes a new twist. Whereas Hegel, Marx and Lukacs saw social reason as the ultimate determinant of human interaction, Hayek's evolutionary epistemology suggests the opposite: social evolution, both cultural and economic, turns out to be the author of human consciousness. By comparing Hayek's work with that of Kant and Habermas, I shall argue that Hayek collapses Kant's project rather than continuing it.

1. Immanuel Kant: Reason as the Philosophical Explanation of History

Kant considered the distinction between the inner compulsion of the moral law and the external causality of nature to be fundamental. The moral law transcends all particulars of time and space and is "distinct from all the principles that determine events in nature". (8) Facts, conventions and experience are absolutely inconsequential in moral judgements: "anyone so misled as to make into a basic moral principle something derived from this source would be in danger of the grossest and most pernicious errors. …