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The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

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Epistemological Problems of Economics
Ludwig von Mises

1
The Task and Scope of
the Science of Human Action

IV. Utilitarianism and Rationalism and the Theory of Action

4. Instinct Sociology and Behaviorism

If one rejects the method of modern economics and renounces the formal comprehension of action under the eudaemonistic principle that action aims without exception at the enhancement of well-being as judged by the individual according to his subjective standard of values, then the only choice that remains is between the procedure of instinct sociology and that of behaviorism. Instinct sociology seeks to evade the crux of the problem by correlating with every desire an instinct that is supposed to "explain" action. This is the method that explains the effect of opium on the basis of the virtus dormitiva cuius est nature sensus assupire. Behaviorism, on the other hand, avoids explanation entirely and is satisfied with the mere recording of individual acts. Neither "coarsely materialistic" behaviorism nor "idealistic" instinct sociology would be at all able, if they were consistent, to refer under one head to two actions that were not perfectly alike. For the principle that leads them to treat both the instinct for bread and the instinct for potatoes as the instinct for food, or to consider the consumption of bread and the consumption of potatoes as eating, would also have to lead them to broader generalizations until they arrived at the most comprehensive category, "want-satisfaction" or "enhancement of well-being." Both are helpless when confronted with the problem of the conflict of different wishes, aims, and desires in the face of limited means for their satisfaction.

What a contrast between the wealth of knowledge that we already owe to economic and sociological theory today, and the poverty and inadequacy of what these two doctrines have to offer!

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