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Epistemological Problems of Economics
Ludwig von Mises

The Task and Scope of
the Science of Human Action

II. The Scope and Meaning of the System of A Priori Theorems

4. The Distinction Between Means and Ends: The "Irrational"

Most of the objections raised against the science of action stem from a misconception of the distinction between means and ends. In the strict sense, the end is always the removal of a dissatisfaction. However, we can doubtless also designate as an end the attainment of that condition of the external world which brings about our state of satisfaction either directly or indirectly, or which enables us to perform, without further difficulties, the act through which satisfaction is to be obtained. If the removal of the feeling of hunger is the end sought, the procuring of food and its preparation for eating can also be considered as ends; if one seeks the removal of the feeling of cold as an end, the heating of one's quarters can just as well be called an end. If additional measures are needed for the removal of dissatisfaction, then the attainment of any particular step along the way toward the desired final condition is also designated as an end. In this sense the acquisition of money in the market economy and, proximately, the division of labor are designated as ends of action; in this sense too the attainment of all things that indirectly promote the end of want-satisfaction appear as proximate or intermediate ends.

In the course of attaining the primary end, secondary ends are attained. A man walks from A to B. He would choose the shortest route if other, secondary ends did not demand satisfaction. He makes a detour if he can walk in the shade a little longer; if he can include in his walk another place, C, which he wants to look for; if, by doing so, he can avoid dangers that may be lying in wait for him on the shortest route; or if he just happens to like the longer route. If he decides on a detour, we must infer that at the moment of decision the attainment of such secondary ends was of greater importance in his judgment than the saving of distance. Consequently, for him the "detour" was no detour at all, since his walk brought him greater satisfaction or?at least from the point of view that he took of his situation at the moment of decision?was expected to bring greater satisfaction than the attainment of his destination by the shorter route. Only one who does not have these secondary ends in mind can call the longer way a detour. As far as our stroller was concerned, it was the correct route, that is, the route that promised the greatest satisfactions.[7]

Since satisfaction and dissatisfaction depend only on the subjective view of the individual, there is no room for argument on this question in a science that does not presume to establish a scale of values or to make judgments of value. Its conception of an end, in the strict sense, is more deductive than empirical: ends are determined by the wishes and the desires of the individual. Whenever reference is made to the greater or lesser appropriateness of means, this can only be from the point of view of the acting individual.

We must next deal with the objection of those who never weary of asserting that man does not act rationally at all. It has never been disputed that man does not always act correctly from the objective point of view; that is, that either from ignorance of causal relations or because of an erroneous judgment of the given situation, in order to realize his ends he acts differently from the way in which he would act if he had correct information. In 1833 the method of healing wounds was different from that used in 1933, and in 2033 still another way will presumably be thought suitable. Statesmen, field marshals, and stock-market speculators act differently at present from the way in which they would act if they knew exactly all the data needed for an accurate judgment of conditions. Only a perfect being, whose omniscience and omnipresence would enable him to survey all the data and every causal relationship, could know how each erring human being would have to act at every moment if he wanted to possess the divine attribute of omniscience. If we were to attempt to distinguish rational action from irrational action, we should not only be setting ourselves up as a judge over the scales of value of our fellow men, but we should also be declaring our own knowledge to be the only correct, objective standard of knowledge. We should be arrogating to ourselves the position that only an all-knowing being has the power to occupy.

The assertion that there is irrational action is always rooted in an evaluation of a scale of values different from our own. Whoever says that irrationality plays a role in human action is merely saying, that his fellow men behave in a way that he does not consider correct. If we do not wish to pass judgment on the ends and the scales of value of other people and to claim omniscience for ourselves, the statement, "He acts irrationally," is meaningless, because it is not compatible with the concept of action. The "seeking to attain an end" and the "striving after a goal" cannot be eliminated from the concept of action. Whatever does not strive after goals or seek the attainment of ends reacts with absolute passivity to an external stimulus and is without a will of its own, like an automaton or a stone. To be sure, man too is as far outside the effective range of his action as a reed in the wind. But in so far as he is able to do anything, he always acts: even negligence and passivity are action if another course of conduct could have been chosen. And the conduct that is determined by the unconscious, in the Freudian sense, or by the subconscious, is also action in so far as conscious behavior could prevent it but neglects to do so. Even in the unconscious and apparently senseless behavior of the neurotic and the psychopath there is meaning, i.e., there is striving after ends and goals."[8]

Everything that we say about action is independent of the motives that cause it and of the goals toward which it strives in the individual case. It makes no difference whether action springs from altruistic or from egoistic motives, from a noble or from a base disposition; whether it is directed toward the attainment of materialistic or idealistic ends; whether it arises from exhaustive and painstaking deliberation or follows fleeting impulses and passions. The laws of catallactics that economics expounds are valid for every exchange regardless of whether those involved in it have acted wisely or unwisely or whether they were actuated by economic or noneconomic motives.[9] The causes of action and the goals toward which it strives are data for the theory of action: upon their concrete configuration depends the course of action taken in the individual case, but the nature of action as such is not thereby affected.

These considerations have an evident bearing on the widespread tendency of the present age to appeal to the irrational. The concepts rational and irrational are not applicable to ends at all. Whoever wishes to pass judgment on ends may praise or condemn them as good or evil, fine or vulgar, etc. When the expressions "rational" and "irrational" are applied to the means employed for the attainment of an end, such a usage has significance only from the standpoint of a definite technology. However, the use of means other than those prescribed as "rational" by this technology can be accounted for in only two possible ways: either the "rational" means were not known to the actor, or he did not employ them because he wished to attain still other ends?perhaps very foolish ones from the point of view of the observer. In neither of these two cases is one justified in speaking of "irrational" action.

Action is, by definition, always rational. One is unwarranted in calling goals of action irrational simply because they are not worth striving for from the point of view of one's own valuations. Such a mode of expressions leads to gross misunderstandings. Instead of saying that irrationality plays a role in action, one should accustom oneself to saying merely: There are people who aim at different ends from those that I aim at, and people who employ different means from those I would employ in their situation.


[7] Cf. Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (London, 1932), p. 23.

[8] Cf. Freud, Lectures on the Introduction to Pvychoanalysis, 17th lecture.

[9] Cf. Wicksteed, The Common Sense of Political Economy, ed. by Robbins (London, 1933), 1, 28.

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