Published Humanitas, Volume XV, No. 2, 2002

In “History, Reason and Hope: A Comparative Study of Kant, Hayek and Habermas,” Professor Richard B. Day endorses the theory of communicative action put forth by Jürgen Habermas as further contributing to Immanuel Kant’s ideal of an “ethical commonwealth” in which every individual is treated “always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means.” Conversely, Day holds that Friedrich Hayek’s vision of a spontaneous order of free markets facilitated by limited, constitutional government “collapses Kant’s project rather than continuing it” and is therefore inimical to the Kantian ideal.

I shall argue, on the other hand, that Kant is not the final word on personal or political ethics. Indeed, his thought suffers from a fundamental weakness that is retained by both Habermas and Professor Day and, to a lesser degree, by Hayek. The latter theorists have failed to incorporate into their thinking several advances over Kant’s ethics and epistemology that profoundly affect how we ought to think about universals, including most especially that of the ethical. The result of this failure is a highly abstract view of ethics, both personal and political, that does not take into account the concrete circumstances of morality and also does not consider that rigid adherence to abstract principle may have adverse, even disastrous, consequences.There is an alternative to this flawed view which holds that moral universality and practical action can be synthesized. Contributors to the latter approach include Irving Babbitt, Benedetto Croce, and the contemporary theorist Claes Ryn, among others. In what follows, I shall demonstrate the deficiency, first of all, of Kant’s ethical philosophy and, secondarily, of the positions espoused by Habermas and Day. I shall also present reasons why the alternative theory, sometimes called value-centered historicism, is superior when judged by its experiential results and why Hayek’s social and economic prescriptions are largely compatible with this alternative theory.

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