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The Implications of Human Action

Mises Daily: Thursday, June 12, 2003 by

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The starting point of praxeology is not a choice of axioms and a decision about methods of procedure, but reflection about the essence of action.

— Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, II.3

Several times recently, I have found myself engaged, directly or indirectly, in discussions about exactly what implications follow from the fact that humans act. I'd like to address these issues, because, after all, determining what is implied by the existence of human action is at the core of economics. The effort to draw out those implications is called praxeology.

Does Action Require Uneasiness?

Ludwig von Mises, the preeminent praxeological theorist of the twentieth century, noted that all action springs from a feeling of uneasiness:

We call contentment or satisfaction that state of a human being which does not and cannot result in any action. Acting man is eager to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory. His mind imagines conditions which suit him better, and his action aims at bringing about this desired state. The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness. A man perfectly content with the state of his affairs would have no incentive to change things. He would have neither wishes nor desires; he would be perfectly happy. He would not act; he would simply live free from care. (Human Action, I.2)

The British philosopher and historian Michael Oakeshott arrived at remarkably similar praxeological formulations to Mises, apparently independently. Oakeshott echoes Mises when he says, "An agent's understanding of his situation is a diagnosis: that is, a verdict in which [his situation] is recognized to be in some respect unsatisfactory, wanting, amiss, or objectionable and therefore to suggest alteration" (On Human Conduct, p. 38).

But a correspondent of mine wondered whether action truly required uneasiness. Is it not the true, he asked, that people must act, whether they feel uneasy or not? After all, one cannot choose not to act: Choosing to remain in bed for the day is an action. And it is every bit as much an action as the most vigorous of activities: As Mises says, "There is no action in which the praxeological categories do not appear fully and perfectly" (Human Action, II.3).

But it is a mistake to think that because we can't choose to not act, that therefore we are always engaged in action. There are times when we are not choosing! An obvious instance is when we are unconscious. "Of course," my correspondent might say, "only conscious humans act." However, there are times when we are conscious and we still are not engaged in action.

Have you ever sat down at your desk, intending to work, then found yourself in the midst of a daydream? Was there a moment at which you chose to begin daydreaming? In my experience, daydreaming is a state in which you simply find yourself. True, once you realize that you are daydreaming, you can choose to continue doing so, or decide to get back to business. But the initiation of daydreaming happens without conscious choice, or at least it does in my experience.

One characteristic of daydreams, which is a large part of their pleasant nature, is the absence of unease. One's thoughts are drifting along without care, without goal, without attempting to improve an unsatisfactory situation.

Oakeshott, in his essay "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind," suggests that such undirected thought is the wellspring of art. In such moments we are engaged in "contemplating" or "delighting." The images in the mind are not evaluated as to whether they are "fact" or "not-fact," there is no inquiry as to how or why they arose, "nor are they means to an end; they are neither 'useful' nor 'useless.'"

We find a similar (but not identical) idea in Mises when he talks about the creative genius:

[W]e are not dealing with the creative performances of the genius; the work of the genius is outside the orbit of ordinary human action and is like a free gift of destiny which comes to mankind overnight. . . .

The activities of these prodigious men cannot be fully subsumed under the praxeological concept of labor. They are not labor because they are for the genius not means, but ends in themselves. He lives in creating and inventing…. His incentive is not the desire to bring about a result, but the act of producing it. (Human Action, VII.3)

Of course, any concrete, real-life artist is also a human actor. As soon as he stops "daydreaming" and decides to take pen to paper, or paint to canvas, he is acting. He chooses whether to execute his vision as a novel or a short story, in oil or acrylic, as a symphony or a chamber piece. He chooses how much time he will spend developing his vision, exactly when he will spend that time, to whom he will try to sell his work, and what price he should ask for it.

Nevertheless, the initial conception of the artist is outside the scope of praxeology. In fact, as pointed out by St. Thomas Aquinas, "proper art" is characterized by the absence of a practical goal on the part of the creator. "Improper art," in Aquinas's formulation, is didactic or pornographic. It attempts to push or pull its audience toward some goal of the creator's: giving more dollars for poor relief, agitating for democracy, or avoiding a life of drug abuse.

Present and Future Dissatisfaction

A closely related topic was brought up by Dr. David Gordon, in a very kind review of my book Economics for Real People. He voices a complaint about the relationship I posit between dissatisfaction and action:

It seems to me not quite correct to say, "If we are completely satisfied with the way things are at this moment, we have no motivation to act—any action could only make matters worse!" (p. 22). Not dissatisfaction with the present, but discontent with what would be the case if one did not act, is necessary for action. (His uncharacteristic failure to make this distinction lands Mises into theological difficulties at one place in Human Action.) 

I disagree with Gordon on this point—although I do wish I had phrased my idea better—and I will defend Mises's theological point as well.

As I conceive it, the premonition of future dissatisfaction is itself a source of present unease. For instance, the notion that I might find myself starving next week is disturbing to me right now. I might choose to address that unease by, for example, stockpiling food.

No action is ever aimed at altering a present situation. It's too late for that, as the present already has arrived, and any action undertaken now can only bear fruit in the future. It may be the very near future, as when I scratch my nose to relieve an itch. Or it may be the very remote future, as when I take heed of the seventh generation. But the target of action is always the future.

If some possible future state of affairs did not cause me present unease, I would not be moved to act by the possibility of its arising. After all, if at present I am completely comfortable in contemplating that future state of affairs, why would I do something to alter it? Or, to put it another way, what would it mean to say that I was completely at ease with some possible, future situation, yet I was moved to act so as to prevent its occurrence? To me, that seems like an abuse of the language.

Praxeology and the Supreme Being

Mises's insight into the relationship of praxeology to any possible supreme being is quite original, at least as far as I know:

Scholastic philosophers and theologians and likewise Theists and Deists of the Age of Reason conceived an absolute and perfect being, unchangeable, omnipotent, and omniscient, and yet planning and acting, aiming at ends and employing means for the attainment of these ends. But action can only be imputed to a discontented being, and repeated action only to a being who lacks the power to remove his uneasiness once and for all at one stroke. An acting being is discontented and therefore not almighty. If he were contented, he would not act, and if he were almighty, he would have long since radically removed his discontent. For an all-powerful being there is no pressure to choose between various states of uneasiness; he is not under the necessity of acquiescing in the lesser evil. Omnipotence would mean the power to achieve everything and to enjoy full satisfaction without being restrained by any limitations. But this is incompatible with the very concept of action. For an almighty being the categories of ends and means do not exist. He is above all human comprehension, concepts, and understanding. For the almighty being every "means" renders unlimited services, he can apply every "means" for the attainment of any ends, he can achieve every end without the employment of any means. (Human Action, II.11)

Gordon rejects this position, as he noted in the quote above. The crux of his objection, as far as I understand it, is that the supreme being may not be unhappy now, but might perceive that he would be unhappy later, should he fail to act now. But, as I noted above, such a perception is itself a source of present discontent, or it would not be a spur to action. As Mises says, "An acting being is discontented. . . . " Furthermore, an omnipotent being could remove all future sources of discontent in one fell swoop. There would be no need for him to continually intervene in history to achieve his ends.

Mises's position is not an argument against the existence of a supreme being; rather it indicates that a supreme being, should he exist, cannot be comprehended by praxeological reasoning. What he "does" within the scope of world history, if he does anything at all, cannot be contemplated within the framework of praxeology. He may do things simply because he wants to do them, he may be engaged in some sort of play (as in the Hindu idea of lila), or he may be up to something else we cannot even imagine. Perhaps he did remove all of his uneasiness in one action, but we can perceive that action only as repeated interventions. What an omnipotent being is not doing is employing scarce means to achieve desired ends repeatedly over the course of world history.

Time Preference and Action

The fact that all action is oriented to the future, but must be evaluated in the present, answers a complaint sometimes made about time preference: "When Austrians say that there is a universal preference for satisfactions nearer in time over those more remote," this line of reasoning goes, "aren't they implying that the actor can perform an interpersonal utility comparison? Isn't the actor who is going to experience the nearer satisfaction a different actor than the one who will experience the more remote one?"

Fair enough. But such a choice does not involve comparing the actual satisfactions at all. The actor making it compares the nearer satisfaction, as he perceives it right now, with the more remote one, as he perceives it right now. We can restate the universality of time preference as follows: any actor who compares two satisfactions that are, to him, equal in all ways except that one is nearer in time than the other, always will prefer the nearer one.

Uncertainty and Action

Gordon also differs with my evaluation of the relationship of uncertainty and action:

I shall close with a more controversial issue, one where to my regret I find myself at odds with most of my fellow Austrians. Callahan adopts the standard Austrian view of this issue: "The uncertainty of the future is implied by the very existence of action. In a world where the future is known with exacting certainty, action is not possible. If I know what is coming and there is no possibility of altering it, there is no point in attempting to do so. If I can act to alter the future, then the future was not certain after all!" (p. 45)

But what if just what I know is coming is that I will act in a certain way? Why cannot I be sure that I will do something, and then do it? Callahan's analysis does not distinguish the case where I know something is coming, regardless of what I do, from a situation in which I know what my own action will be. The fact that I am sure I shall have toast tomorrow for breakfast does not stop me from eating it tomorrow.

I believe this misses the point. As Mises states the relationship between action and uncertainty:

The uncertainty of the future is already implied in the very notion of action. That man acts and that the future is uncertain are by no means two independent matters. They are only two different modes of establishing one thing….

If man knew the future, he would not have to choose and would not act. He would be like an automaton, reacting to stimuli without any will of his own. (Human Action, VI.1) [Emphasis added.]

If Dr. Gordon knows with certainty that he will have toast tomorrow morning, come what may, there is no choice for him to make. Whatever he does, the toast will somehow find its way into his mouth. On the other hand, if he were certain that, no matter what he did, he would not be able to have toast, there would be no point in making any attempt to have it. The only reason he acts so as to have toast is that he believes he might have toast tomorrow, or he might not. Furthermore, he believes that he will be able to intervene in the course of events so as to make it more likely that he will have toast.

In a sense, he may be "certain" that he will attempt to have toast, in that he always does so on Tuesday morning, for example. Even that intention is subject to change, however: If tonight he reads in the paper a convincing study that demonstrates that toast for breakfast is a deadly poison, wouldn't he be willing to reconsider? Or if he wakes to find that a million dollars is waiting for him at a lawyer's office, if only he gets there immediately, wouldn't he contemplate skipping breakfast?

Furthermore, any of a variety of events completely beyond his control might intervene and thwart his yeasty plans. An antipraxeological terrorist might blow up his kitchen, his bread might be infected by some strange mold during the wee hours, or his toaster might break down. As Mises puts it, "The most that can be attained with regard to reality is probability" (Human Action, VI.1).

What Gordon seems to me to mean when he says he is certain that he will have toast tomorrow is that he has a very high degree of confidence that he will do so. But, as Sheldon Richman pointed out to me, that is a different sense of "certainty" than is meant by Mises (and me). As Mises and I are using the word, we mean "inevitability with no possibility of alteration." If Gordon was certain he would have toast in that sense, there would be no need for him to act to bring about the result.

We act, intervening in the flow of events, precisely because we do not know with certainty what will occur. We hope that our action might substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory one that would arise in the absence of our efforts:

Future needs and valuations, the reaction of men to changes in conditions, future scientific and technological knowledge, future ideologies and policies can never be foretold with more than a greater or smaller degree of probability. Every action refers to an unknown future. It is in this sense always a risky speculation. (Human Action, VI.1)

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Callahan is author of Economics for Real People. Send him MAIL, and see his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive. He delivered the Henry Hazlitt Memorial Lecture at the Austrian Scholars Conference 9, March 13, 2003. Click HERE to view the online video version of his lecture.

References

Mises, Ludwig von. 1998. Human Action, Scholar's Ed. Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Oakeshott, Michael. 1975. On Human Conduct, Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Oakeshott, Michael. 1991. "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind," in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund.