Social morality and the primacy of individual perspectives


This paper examines themes and concerns about my book, The Order of Public Reason, raised in the three essays in this symposium by Peter Boettke & Rosolino Candela, Michael Munger and Kevin Vallier. The three essays present variations on a common theme: I need to embrace deeper commitments than The Order of Public Reason acknowledges. In my estimation these proposals lead to places that I do not wish to go — nor should anyone devoted to core Hayekian insights. The goal of the book is show how a diversity of moral views can lead to a cooperative social morality while abjuring as far as possible “external” moral claims — claims that do not derive from the perspectives of cooperating individuals. The diverse individual moral perspectives, and what they understand as normative, must be the real engines of social normativity. In this essay I stress the primacy of the individual normative perspectives in generating social morality; this helps show why the urge to embrace deeper commitments should be resisted. Rather than going over the presentation in The Order of Public Reason to stress this point, I sketch a modest recasting of the analysis in terms of models of individual moral interaction.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    OPR (303 ff.) shows that such completeness is not required.

  2. 2.

    More generally, the basin of attraction of the all-R 1 equilibrium will be large, but not the entire state space.

  3. 3.

    If for each member of S the moral evaluation of all rules is closely tied to the value of other rules in S, then S becomes what we might call a justificatorily complex system (Gaus, 2016; chap. 2); rather than productive moral change we will get endless, wandering, movement in the option space. I do not believe that moral evaluation is that drastically “holistic” — for one thing, competent moral agents simply cannot keep track of such complex evaluations. We tend to partition our evaluations (Gaus 1996: 107–8; OPR: 272–5). Thus I do not think questions of overall moral equilibrium are really pressing.

  4. 4.

    “Hayek believed,” writes Vallier (2016), “that the consistent application of the test of Kantian assent will ‘amount to a test of compatibility [of a rule] with the whole system of accepted rules.’ In other words, while the Kantian contractarian test cannot assess the system of moral rules as a whole, it can bring them into alignment and organize them into a hierarchy if used iteratively by testing each rule in sequence.”

  5. 5.

    “The Best of All Games,”

  6. 6.

    Or perhaps, like Annie, she joins the Church of Baseball: “I believe in the church of baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there’s 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there’s 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. … I’ve tried them all, I really have. And, the only church that feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball.” Bull Durham, written by Ron Shelton.

  7. 7.

    Which has a plausible claim to be the American civil religion. Again, Annie in Bull Durham: “Walt Whitman once said [this turns out to be a paraphrase], ‘I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.’” Or, alternatively, in the words of a fictional J. D. Salinger, “I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time while America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers” (Kinsella 2002: 252).


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My thanks to Kelly Gaus for her comments and suggestions. My thanks also to Kevin Vallier for organizing this symposium and, of course, to the authors of the other papers in it.

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Correspondence to Gerald Gaus.

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Gaus, G. Social morality and the primacy of individual perspectives. Rev Austrian Econ 30, 377–396 (2017).

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  • Morality
  • Coordination
  • Justification
  • Rules
  • Public reason

JEL classification

  • B2
  • B53
  • P11
  • P16