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Epistemological Problems of Economics
Ludwig von Mises

The Task and Scope of
the Science of Human Action

IV. Utilitarianism and Rationalism and the Theory of Action

1. Vierkandt's Instinct Sociology

None of the objections that have been raised for thousands of years against hedonism and utilitarianism has the least bearing upon the theory of action. When the correlative concepts of pleasure and pain, or utility and disutility, are grasped in their formal sense and are deprived of all material content, all the objections that have been repeated ad nauseam for ages have the around cut from under them. It requires a considerable unfamiliarity with the present state of the argument to raise once again the old charges against "immoral" hedonism and "vulgar" utilitarianism.

Today it is customary, when one finds oneself compelled to acknowledge the logical impossibility of any other view, to say that the formal conception of pleasure and utility is devoid of all cognitive value. In grasping these ideas in their purity, the concept of action, it is said, becomes so empty that nothing more can be done with it. To answer this criticism one need only point to all that economic theory has been able to deduce from the allegedly empty concept of action.

If one attempts to engage in the scientific investigation of what, in our view, constitutes the subject matter of the science of human action without resort to the proscribed principle of hedonism, one falls unawares into empiricism, which cannot succeed in connecting into a system the multiplicity of facts it encounters or in using them for the explanation of the phenomena that are to be comprehended. An example may make this clear. in his endeavor to construct a theory of society, Vierkandt knows no other means than to ascribe to men a series of "social propensities." In this regard he follows the procedure of a great number of investigators. He understands by the social propensities of man

such innate instincts (e.g., the instinct to be of help) and other innate characteristics and modes of behavior (e.g., understanding and susceptibility to influence) as presuppose for their manifestation the presence of other men, or, more precisely, the condition of society.

In addition, there are still other propensities such as also or only "manifest themselves in relation to other entities."[1] And here Vierkandt goes on to enumerate and describe a series of instincts, propensities, and impulses.

Such an enumeration can never, of course, be complete. The distinction between one instinct and another must necessarily be arbitrary. To be quite consistent one would have to link a corresponding instinct with every goal that has ever been aimed at anywhere and at any time. If, for example, one assumes the existence of an instinct for food, from which one distinguishes the instinct for means of enjoyment, there is no reason why one should not go further and speak also of an instinct for meat or, even more specifically, of an instinct for beef or, still more specifically, of an instinct for beefsteak. What one has in view in speaking simply of the instinct for food is a summary statement in terms of the end aimed at by the actions of men directed toward the provision of different foods. If one represents, in summary form, actions directed toward the consumption of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins as the result of the instinct for food, one can, in the same way and with the same justification, also look upon actions directed toward providing food, shelter, and clothing, as well as a great many other actions, as the result of the instinct for self-preservation. How far one goes in this process of generalization is entirely a matter of arbitrary choice, unless one makes a radical change in one's whole mode of reasoning and passes to the level of broadest generality, i.e., to the formal concept of the end devoid of all material content. Because Vierkandt rejects utilitarianism and hedonism and therefore does not take this decisive step, he comes to a stop at an arbitrary division of the various human wants.

The innate social propensities appear, Vierkandt goes on to explain, "frequently in pairs of opposites." Thus, pitted against the "instinct of self-esteem" is "its opposite, the instinct of obedience"; against the "instinct to be of help," the "fighting instinct"; against the "sociable instinct," an "instinct of avoidance" ; against the "communicative instinct," an "instinct of secretiveness and concealment."[2] Since nothing can be said about the strength with which these opposed instincts make themselves felt, one cannot understand how the rise of social cooperation is to be explained on the basis of them. Even if we pass over the impermissible hypostasis involved in the statement that the "social propensities" lead to the development of social cooperation, we still lack any adequate explanation for the fact that the social instincts are victorious over the antisocial instincts. Why is it that the fighting instinct, the instinct of self-esteem, and the instinct of avoidance do not frustrate the formation of social bonds?

The "instinct of self-esteem," Vierkandt maintains, cannot manifest itself "without the instinct of subordination being active at the same time." Here, he continues, one has to deal with the "characteristic coalescence of opposed instincts; in this regard the total picture is, of course, modified by the instinct of domination."[3] Assuming an "instinct of subordination," one is forced, if one does not choose to be completely blind to reality, to assume an opposite instinct: Vierkandt calls it the instinct of self-esteem. (Wiese objected with good reason that Vierkandt, when he recognizes an instinct of subordination, would have to "allow no less for an instinct of rebellion, which is, of course, very important in history and in the life of the individual."[4] ) Yet Vierkandt is unable to produce any other proof that the instinct of subordination is victorious over the instinct of self-esteem than the fact that in his presentation he labels the former the stronger and better instinct. "Subordination," he asserts, "is a condition which is healthy, normal, and conducive to happiness; a condition in which the situation demands the replacement of self-esteem by the opposite attitude." [5] It is, after all, noteworthy that Vierkandt, the opponent of eudemonism, attributes to subordination effects conducive to happiness. Here Feuerbach's observation becomes pertinent: "Every instinct is an instinct for happiness."[6]

The self-esteem that Vierkandt has in mind is, however, of a peculiar kind. It is, as it were, a by-product of subordination. "Everywhere, acceding to the will of the superior means at the same time that one elevates oneself to his level: subordination means simultaneously an inner sharing of the greatness of the superior." He cites as an example "the relationship of the servant to his master under patriarchal conditions."[7] In another place Vierkandt again speaks of the "servant who shows off the castle of his master with enhanced self-esteem" because he feels "inwardly at one with his lord, his family, and their splendor."[8]

The self-esteem that Vierkandt has in view reveals itself, therefore, as nothing more than the pride of a flunky. Then, of course, there is no wonder that it does not stand in the way of the instinct of subordination. This subordination is tantamount to "unconditional obedience." The subordinate makes himself "blindly dependent within." He

submits completely to his superior's judgment, especially his value judgments: he receives his worth from his superior in that he regulates his conduct according to his superior's standards and by so doing satisfies his self-esteem. The subordinate is, as it were, absorbed by the superior: he loses his personality, but finds in community with the superior a new one again, which he experiences as his own personality ennobled.[9]

Vierkandt is able to point with particular satisfaction to the fact that all these instincts are to be found in animals.

In the dog the truly human inner devotion to its master shows itself in an elementary, but very powerful, form, e.g., enlivenment in the master's presence and the polarization brought about by him in general.

Vierkandt considers as very noteworthy

also the satisfaction of self-esteem shown by a dog and probably by other animals too when they succeed in the performance of a task for which they have been trained, because of the connection of this instinct with the instinct of subordination in the human being.[10]

Thus, as Vierkandt sees it, human society is, so to speak, already foreshadowed in the relationship of the master to the dog he trains. The relationship of leader and led corresponds to the relationship of master and dog: it is healthy and normal, and it is conducive to the happiness of both, the master as well as the dog.

One cannot argue this point further with Vierkandt because, in his view, the ultimate source of cognition is

phenomenological insight, i.e., what we directly experience personally in ourselves and can convey to our consciousness with apodictic evidence.[11]

Therefore, we do not doubt that he really has inwardly experienced all this. Indeed, we shall go still further and not deny his qualification to speak from direct personal experience and insight about the "truly human inner devotion of the dog to his master." But what if someone were to affirm that he had personally experienced and intuited something different? Suppose one chose to call "healthy, normal, and conducive to happiness" not the self-esteem of lackeys and dogs, but that of men? What if one chose to seek the basis of "inner communion" not in the "desire for subordination," like Vierkandt,[12] but in the desire for joint action?

Vierkandt rejects the individualist theory of action because he wants to champion a political program that appears senseless when viewed from the standpoint of scientific economics and sociology. He is unable to support his rejection of the latter except by repeatedly referring to the rationalist, individualist, and atomistic character of everything that does not meet with his approval.[13] Rationalism, individualism, and atomism are today condemned by all ruling parties for easily recognizable reasons; and so this mode of argumentation suffices for the sphere in which the official doctrine is accepted. In place of the sciences he attacks without having understood their teachings, Vierkandt provides an arbitrary enumeration and description of innate primary instincts and impulses that he alleges to have experienced and intuited just so and not otherwise, in order to found a political program on a basis that suits his purposes. Here we can disregard all this. What is noteworthy for us is that he who wants to avoid the path taken by the universally valid science of human action can explain the social cooperation of men in no other way than by reference to the working of inborn propensities that lead to association; that is, if he does not prefer to represent it still more simply as a work of God or Nature.

If anyone believes that he can explain every human want, or every class of human wants constructed by him, by correlating with it a particular impulse, instinct, propensity, or feeling, then he is certainly not to be forbidden to do so. Not only do we not deny that men desire, want, and aim at different things, but we start precisely from this fact in our reflections. When science speaks of pleasure, happiness, utility, or wants, these signify nothing but what is desired, wished for and aimed at, what men regard as ends and goals, what they lack, and what, if procured, satisfies them, These terms make no reference whatever to the concrete content of what is desired: the science is formal and neutral with regard to values. The one declaration of the science of "happiness" is that it is purely subjective. In this declaration there is, therefore, room for all conceivable desires and wants. Consequently, no statement about the quality of the ends aimed at by men can in any way affect or undermine the correctness of our theory.

The point at which the science of action begins its work is the mutual incompatibility of individual desires and the impossibility of perfect satisfaction. Since it is not granted to man to satisfy all his desires completely, inasmuch as he can attain one end only by forgoing another, he must differentiate among instincts: he must decide in favor of one thing and against something else; he must choose and value, prefer and set aside?in short, act. Even for one who calls the happiness of subordination desirable, a moment can come in which he has to choose between devotion to the leader and the satisfaction of another instinct, e.g., the instinct for food; as when a republican party at the head of the government threatens monarchist officials with dismissal. Everyone again and again finds himself confronted with a situation in which his conduct?whether it consist in an overt deed, an act of omission, or acquiescence?helps to determine whether or not his goals are attained.

However, a doctrine that rejects rationalism, individualism, and eudaemonism can say nothing about human action. It stops at the enumeration and description of a number of instincts. To be sure, it tells us that men love and hate, that they are garrulous and taciturn, that they are cruel and compassionate, that they are sociable and that they shun society. But it can say nothing about the fact that they act, work, labor, and toil to achieve goals. For one can speak of action only if one starts from the individual, if one takes rationality into consideration, and if one recognizes that the goal of action is the removal of dissatisfaction. If one wants to explain society without reference to the actions of men, the only expedient that remains is to view it as the outcome of mysteriously operating forces. Society is then the result of the instinct of association; it is "inner communion"; it is basic and intrinsic; it is not of this world.


[1] Vierkandt, Gesellschaftslehre (2nd ed.; Stuttgart, 1928), p. 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Op, cit., p. 37.

[4] K?lner Vierteljahrscheften f?r Soziologie III, (1923), 179.

[5] 5. Vierkandt, op. cit., p. 61,

[6] 6. Feuerbach, S?mtliche Werke (republished by Bolin and Jodl, Stuttgart, 1907), X, 231. "Happiness," says Feuerbach (ibid.), is "nothing but the healthy, normal condition of a being."

[7] Vierkandt, op. cit., p. 48.

[8] Vierkandt, op. cit., pp. 31 f.

[9] Vierkandt, op. cit., p. 47.

[10] Vierkandt, op. cit., p. 60.

[11] Vierkandt, op. cit., p. 41.

[12] Vierkandt, op. cit., P. 63.

[13] Cf. also Vierkandt's article "Kultur des 19. Jahrhunderts und Gegenwart," Handw?rterbuch der Soziologie, pp. 141 ff.

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