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July 15, 2013 / Adam Knott

The Categories of Action – Binary Nature

Categories of Action – Binary Nature

The categories of social science in their most universal aspect exhibit a binary form: supply/demand, means/ends, pleasure/pain (satisfaction/dissatisfaction, happiness/unhappiness, etc.).  The law of marginal utility, the central law of Austrian economics, is also binary in nature, and expresses a relationship between supply and value.  This binary structure seems to be a feature of consciousness not limited to our apprehension of social phenomena.  Our description of the world around us is often expressed in binary concept pairs such as here/there, higher/lower, internal/external, more/less, larger/smaller, sooner/later, closer/farther, dark/light, etc.

We thus postulate two fundamental categories of apprehension.  Whether we refer to the two categories as categories of consciousness, or of action, or of intentionality, etc., makes no difference.  Our intention is to consider these categories as the most fundamental categories of our conscious awareness.  We will assume that the particular or specific binary concept pairs such as supply/demand, supply/value, means/ends, satisfaction/dissatisfaction, etc., “derive” from a fundamental binary structure of consciousness. The various differentiated binary concept pairs are merely concrete instantiations or concrete manifestations of a more general binary consciousness structure.

Categories of Action – Relationship

Regarding these two categories, we will assume that they differ from one another in a fundamental way.  As an example, let us consider the categories means and ends.  As we would typically conceive things, an object such as a hammer can be a means or an end.  I can use the hammer as a means to drive nails into wood.  The hammer is then considered a means of my action of driving nails.  I can also seek to locate or purchase a hammer.  The hammer is then considered an end of my action of locating or purchasing. In this conception, we conceive that a concrete object such as a hammer may have different “meanings” to the actor concerned.  In one instance, the actor considers the hammer a means, and utilizes the hammer toward some end.  In another instance, the actor considers the hammer and end, and utilizes means in order to achieve his end, a hammer.

In this conception, the category means and the category ends may both have concrete or perceptual content.  The actor may view or consider a given concrete object in various ways.  When the actor views the hammer in a defined way (X), we call the hammer a means.  When the actor views the hammer in a differently defined way (Y), we call the hammer an end.  For our current purpose, the pertinent aspect of this conception is that a given concrete object of action, such as a hammer, can occupy either the ends category or the means category.  In this conception, both the means category and the ends category can have concrete or perceptual content.

In sharp distinction to the above conception, we will employ a conception in which only one of the two fundamental categories can have concrete or perceptual content.  In this conception, when a concrete object appears or is present for an actor, by virtue of its appearance or presence to the actor, it is assigned to a singular “category of appearance” or “category of presence.”  In other words, we propose that one of the two primary categories of consciousness is a category of concrete or perceptual content. In our theory, any supposed concrete object or content of action (or of consciousness), as such, will be assigned to a category of concrete content (the category of concrete or perceptual “presence”).  The objects or content of action are not and cannot be assigned to the second fundamental category, as the second category cannot, by definition, have concrete or perceptual content.

For example, with respect to the categories means and ends, we are saying that an object such as a hammer, as a concrete content of action, can only be assigned to one of the categories, namely, the one which we have designated as our category of concrete or perceptual content.  In the present theory we designate the category of means as the category of concrete content, and thus, if we suppose that a hammer is a content of an actor’s action (or of his consciousness), the hammer can only be a means for the actor.  In our theory, a hammer, as a concrete content of action or consciousness, cannot be an end but can only be a means.

In the typical conception of means and ends, an actor views the same concrete object or situation in different ways, and depending on how the actor views this object or situation, we classify the object a means or an end.  In our proposed conception of means and ends, any concrete object or situation present for an actor can only be a means.  Our definition of a means does not depend on how the actor views the content of his action.  Rather, our definition of means is identical to the content of the actor’s action.  In our theory, a “means” is an object or situation that is perceptually, sensually, or differentiably “present” to the actor in any way.  The distinction is not between different ways a supposed object may appear to an actor; the distinction is whether a supposed object appears to an actor.

Categories of Action – The Category of Nonperceptible Presence

In opposition to the contentual category of action stands a noncontentual category of action.  To this category of “nonperceptible presence” we assign those “things” which, from the point of view of the actor are “present,” but not perceptually or sensually present.  For example, when we see an object in front of us, we typically believe that the back of that object is “present.”  We believe that the back of the object is “there now,” but just not visible from our current location.  However, the back of the object which we consider now present (which we believe to “be there now”), is not now present in a perceptual or sensual sense, as is the front of the object (that part of the object which constitutes our current visual perception or sensation).  And thus, we categorize those things present to the actor, but not present in a contentual sense (those things present, but not presently manifesting in a perceptual or sensual content) as belonging to a category of nonperceptible presence.  This second category is a category of “things” which are currently present to the actor, but not present as a current perception or sensation.

Objects of action which we would assign to this category are such things as:

  • The inside of a billiard ball
  • The other side of things
  • Another person’s mind or consciousness
  • The formal mathematical concept “line” (as distinct from a drawn or visually imagined line)
  • Things which we believe are located behind us though we have no current perception or sensation of them
  • Universals, generalities, and concepts (i.e., “classes,” as distinct from concrete members which we may sense, perceive, or observe)
  • London (the city, to the extent an actor may consider London to “exist” presently while not presently observing London)

Here, we will not attempt to provide an exhaustive list of things an actor may consider to exist cotemporaneously with those things he perceives, senses, or observes.  The main purpose here is to indicate the nature of this category of action and the nature of the entities that comprise it.  This second category of consciousness is comprised of those entities which, from the point of view of the actor, are “attached” to the things he presently observes, but which themselves are not presently observed.

Categories of Action – Some Implications

Given our original assumption—that all of the specific or concrete binary concept pairs derive from this more fundamental binary concept pair—this suggests a reconception of the various concrete binary concept pairs in terms of a structure analogous to the structure of the fundamental binary concept pair.  Recall some of the important concept pairs of social science: supply/demand, supply/value, means/ends, satisfaction/dissatisfaction (happiness/unhappiness, pleasure/pain, etc.).  If we were to reconceive each of these concept pairs so that their structure was the same as the fundamental concept pair, this means that we would designate one of the categories (for example: supply, means, and satisfaction) as a category of perceptual or sensual or observable content, and we would designate the other category (for example: demand, value, ends, and dissatisfaction) as a category of nonperceptible presence.  Given the fundamental concept pair which we defined in terms of (1) perceptual presence and (2) presence that is nonperceptual, and assuming that the important concept pairs of science and philosophy derive from the fundamental pair, this suggests a fundamental reconception of the derivative concept pairs of social science.

With respect to means and ends, as indicated, “means” would refer to that aspect of conscious awareness that is presently perceived, sensed, or observed, while “ends” would refer to that aspect of conscious awareness that is “present” but not presently perceived, sensed, or observed.  For example, a seen wall (a perception, sensation, or observation of an actor) we would classify as a means of the actor’s action, while the back of the wall (the assumption the actor “attaches” to his perception, sensation, or observation, but which is not itself perceived, sensed, or observed) we would classify as an end of the actor’s action.  In this construct, the actor’s apprehension of any given object or phenomenon is comprised of two categories of consciousness: (1) the category of that which is perceptually present, and (2) the category of that which is present not perceptually.

This conceptual structure in which means are perceptible or observable while ends are not perceptible or observable is consistent with the Misesian means/ends conception in which only means (not ends) are open to rational examination.

The ultimate judgments of value and the ultimate ends of human action are given for any kind of scientific inquiry; they are not open to any further analysis.  Praxeology deals with the ways and means chosen for the attainment of such ultimate ends.  Its object is means, not ends. (HA, p. 21)

As soon as people venture to question and to examine an end, they no longer look upon it as an end but deal with it as a means to attain a still higher end.  The ultimate end is beyond any rational examination.  All other ends are but provisional.  They turn into means as soon as they are weighed against other ends or means. (TH, p. 14)

As soon as we start to refute by arguments an ultimate judgment of value, we look upon it as a means to attain definite ends.  But then we merely shift the discussion to another plane.  We no longer view the principle concerned as an ultimate value but as a means to attain an ultimate value, and we are again faced with the same problem. (TH, p. 23)

Strictly speaking, only the increase of satisfaction (decrease of uneasiness) should be called the end, and accordingly all states which bring about such an increase means.  In daily speech people use a loose terminology.  They call ends things which should be rather called means.  (MM, p. 22)

In fact, he who passes judgment of an alleged end, reduces it from the rank of an end to that of a means.  He values it from the viewpoint of an (higher) end and asks whether it is a suitable means to attain this (higher) end. (MM, p. 22-23)

In the Misesian means/ends conception, only means can be examined.  There is no way to appraise the suitability of ends.  We cannot evaluate an end (X) other than by showing how it will benefit or harm one who aims for it or attains it.  In doing that, we show how attaining or aiming for X will result in Y, the benefit or harm.  What we have evaluated then is a means of bringing about Y.

Our proposed conception of the means/ends relationship, in which means can be perceived and observed (and thus appraised) while ends cannot be perceived or observed (and thus cannot be appraised), is consistent with the Misesian means/ends conception.  Our proposed conception provides an underlying epistemological explanation of Mises’s insight that “As soon as people venture to question and to examine an end, they no longer look upon it as an end but deal with it as a means to attain a still higher end.  The ultimate end is beyond any rational examination.  All other ends are but provisional.  They turn into means as soon as they are weighed against other ends or means.”

(It is worth noting in passing that imagined or envisioned objects (mental apparitions) are here considered perceptual content to the extent they are objects of consciousness with differentiable attributes.  A mental picture or apparition is thus considered a means.  We do not interpret such objects to be mental representations of ends.)

Regarding the concept pairs supply/demand, supply/value, satisfaction/dissatisfaction, etc., our intention would be to reconceive them in terms of the same essential structure (i.e., in terms of a category of perceptual presence, and a category of presence not perceptual).  Thus, for example, we would conceive the category “supply” as the category of that which is perceptual, sensual, and observable in action, and we would conceive the category “value” as the category of the nonperceptible or unobservable aspect of action.  This is consistent with conceptions of value such as that provided by Hulsmann:

In particular, nobody has solved the problem of comparing non-extended entities like value, utility, preference ranks, etc. (HUL)

Here, value is described as a “non-extended” entity.  This description is consistent with a category of “entities” which have no perceptible or observable attributes; entities that are considered “present” (the actor considers such entities to be “here now”) but not in a perceptual or observational sense, and which therefore cannot be measured or compared to one another.

Categories of Action – Some Implications

In our proposed conception of the categories of action, we will not conceive that the categories are instruments through which our mind apprehends a world external to itself.  In the Misesian conception, one imagines an objectively existing world or universe, and a human mind positioned in some region of this universe.  The structure of this external world is then revealed to the human mind to the extent that the mental categories—combined with human reasoning—allow.  Those aspects of the external world which the human mental categories have not evolved to apprehend, and those aspects of the external world which human reason cannot grasp, remain hidden to the human mind.  The image we form is that of an object possessing various attributes (the mind and its categories) positioned within a surrounding environment.  The mental categories are analogous to probing instruments.  They probe the surrounding environment (perhaps like the antennae of an insect, or the sonar of a bat) and thus reveal to the human mind, at least partially, the structure of this surrounding environment.  The probing instruments can only reveal the structure of that portion of the surrounding environment they are suited to interact with.  The antennae can reveal some tactile aspects of the surrounding environment; the sonar can reveal some other aspects of the surrounding environment.  Those aspects of the surrounding environment for which the mind has no probing instruments remain hidden to the human mind.

Our proposed interpretation of the mental categories differs markedly from the one just described in that the categories are conceived only in relation to one another, not in relation to any assumed external world or universe.  In our conception, the two categories of action constitute the entirety of conscious experience, and no additional assumption is made about a world or environment that may exist independent of these two categories.  The unitary consciousness is comprised on the one hand of tangible and physical content (sensations, perceptions, observations, etc.), and on the other hand of entities present not perceptually (the inside of things, the back side of things, etc.)  No other entities enter the narrative or analysis.  In this conception, my perception of another person, or of a distant mountain, is not interpreted as indicating an “external” world.  Rather, we conceive that the object in question (the other person or the mountain) exists as two categories of my consciousness.  For example, the part of the person I can see or hear or touch is the contentual aspect of my consciousness.  The part of the person that is present not perceptually (e.g., the person’s mind, the inside of his body, the back side of his body, etc.) is the nonperceptual or nonobservable category of my consciousness.  In other words, all things present to me (anything I may perceive or conceive) are interpreted as aspects of me; none are interpreted as aspects of an assumed external world. The analysis is completely solipsistic, which is simply analysis by consistent methodological individualism.  An external, real, or objective world existing independent of the categories of consciousness is neither affirmed nor denied.  The theory is entirely neutral with respect to an assumed objective world.  Though my life experiences may lead me to the strong conviction that an external world independent of my consciousness exists, and though I may perform my daily activities as though an objective world exists, the most fruitful theoretical method for understanding my experiences and activities is not thereby revealed.

Key

EP = Epistemological Problems of Economics, Mises, 1976
EPV = The Economic Point of View, Kirzner, 1976
ESA = Economic Science and the Austrian Method, Hoppe, 1995
FM = The Free Market and its Enemies, Mises, 2004
HA = Human Action, Mises, 1966
HUL = “Economic Science and Neoclassicism,” Hulsmann, The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Winter 1999.
I = Investigations Into the Method of the Social Sciences, Menger, 1985
IEO = Individualism and Economic Order, Hayek, 1948
LR = An Essay on the Nature & Significance of Economic Science, Robbins, 1945
MBS = Minds, Brains and Science, Searle, 2003
MES = Man, Economy, and State, Rothbard, 1993
MM = Money, Method, and the Market Process, Mises, 1990
MOP = A Man of Principle, Essays in Honor of Hans F. Sennholz, 1992
POAE = “The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics,” Gordon, 1996
PP = Physics and Philosophy, Heisenberg, 1958
PSW = The Phenomenology of the Social World, Schutz, 1967
TH = Theory and History, Mises, 1985
UF = The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, 2002

July 9, 2013 / Adam Knott

A Preliminary Critique of Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics

A Preliminary Critique of Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics, PDF

This is my 2007 book newly revised as of June, 2013, and with a newly written introduction.

Table of Contents

Key

Introduction to the Revised Edition

Introduction

Part 1

Praxeology: The Science of Means

Professor Rothbard’s Disavowal of Praxeology

The Predicament of the Rothbardian Scholar

The Positive Ethicist’s Blind Spot

Part 2

A Premise of Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics

The Structure of Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics: Initial Survey

The Structure of Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics: Human Well-Being

The Concept of Scarcity in Social Science

Necessity in Social Science and in Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics

The Concept of Argumentation in Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics

Mises’s Formal Concepts: No Concept of Action as Movement of Bodies

The Argumentation Ethics and Human Well-Being

The Objectification of Praxeology and Its Concepts

Key

EE       The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Hoppe, 1993

EL       The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard, 1998

EP       Epistemological Problems of Economics, Mises, 1976

ER       An Introduction to Economic Reasoning, Gordon, 2000

ES       Economic Science and the Austrian Method, Hoppe, 1995

FM      The Free Market and its Enemies, Mises, 2004

HA      Human Action, Mises, 1966

IE        Individualism and Economic Order, Hayek, 1980

IK        “Human Action, Freedom, and Economic Science,” Kirzner, 1991

IV        Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences, Menger, 1985

LR       An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, Robbins, 1945

MB      Minds, Brains and Science, Searle, 1984

MM     Money, Method, and the Market Process, Mises, 1990

MS      Man, Economy and State, Rothbard, 1993

PC2     A Praxeology of Coercion, Second Edition, Knott, 2006

PE       Praxeology and Economic Science, Hoppe, 1988

PO       “The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics,” Gordon, 1996

PS        The Phenomenology of the Social World, Schutz, 1972

TH       Theory and History, Mises, 1985

TP        The Structure of Social Action, Volume I, Parsons, 1968

TS        A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, Hoppe, 1989

UF       The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, 2002

Introduction to the Revised Edition

This book is a compilation of essays written in the spring of 2007. My intention in revising the original is to improve its punctuation and formatting and to clarify the ideas I had intended to express when the essays were first written. I have chosen to revise the original book rather than write it anew, and so the revised edition is substantially the same in length and form as the original. Words, sentences, and paragraphs have been revised; only a few paragraphs have been removed.

Praxeology as a General Science of Human Action

The notion that praxeology is a general science of human action and that economics (catallactics) is merely one branch of this general science seems to confuse many. When Kirzner and Rothbard studied under Mises in the 1950s and 1960s, they wrote that praxeology is the study of human action in all its forms and that economics is but one branch of this general science. By the 1990s, however, both thinkers had reverted to a conception wherein economics—the study of market phenomena—is largely identical to praxeology (IK, EL, p. 12).

Mises’s insight was that the regularities we intuit or experience in social phenomena are experienced as regularities due to the logical structure of the human mind by which we apprehend them. The regularities that we intuit in social phenomena, which praxeology attempts to formulate in terms of exact laws, are experienced as regularities because our mind organizes experience in terms of mental “categories,” foremost among them the categories of ends (purposes) and means (things utilized toward purposes). The means/ends aspect of consciousness is what Mises calls “action.”

Action is the singular term designating a group of categories of intentionality. The most important categories in the Misesian system are means and ends. Anything apprehended by a human mind in terms of means and ends is an action. Any instance of an attempt to utilize some aspect of the present situation in order achieve a future state of affairs is an action. If one person tries to convince another person of something, this is an action. If a person tries to solve a riddle, this is an action. If a person tries to lift a heavy object, this is an action. All these are actions just as much as the attempt to lower the rate of interest below the market rate. Thus, economics, which studies things such as the attempt to lower interest rates, is but one branch of a more general science of human action. Other branches of praxeology study man’s utilization of means toward ends in areas of purposive conduct besides the market.

Man’s actions on the market, in the government, at work, at leisure, in buying and selling, are all guided by … choice between what a person prefers as against what he does not prefer. … Every action can be called an exchange insofar as it means substituting one state of affairs for another. (FM, p. 16)

The general concept of action is not specifically tied to the market or to market phenomena.

Action is the search for improvement of conditions from the point of view of the personal value judgments of the individual concerned.… Man’s aim is to substitute what he considers a better state of affairs for a less satisfactory one. He strives for the substitution of a more satisfactory state of affairs in place of a less satisfactory state of affairs. And in the satisfaction of this desire, he becomes happier than he was before. This implies nothing with reference to the content of the action … (FM, p. 14; emphasis added)

In an aprioristic science, we start with a general supposition—action is taken to substitute one state of affairs for another. (FM, p. 16)

Action is the general phenomenon of the attempt to replace one situation with another, and acting man “acts” in all of the various realms in which he is consciously engaged. This includes not only the realm of market activity but also the realms of interpersonal activity, political activity, mental activity, physical activity, etc. This is what Mises meant in repeating that praxeology is the general science of human action of which economics is merely a branch.

Given Mises’s conception of action, it is easy to see that “action” is something man does in the interpersonal realm of activity, the same realm that has traditionally been the province of normative ethics. Traditional normative ethics studies human acts with regard to their justness or goodness or morality. A praxeological treatment of the same human acts would seek to discover their formal implications or invariant relations or exact laws. This is what Mises meant when he wrote the following:

Bewildered, people had to face a new view of society. They learned with stupefaction that there is another aspect from which human action might be viewed than that of good and bad, of fair and unfair, of just and unjust. In the course of social events there prevails a regularity of phenomena to which man must adjust his actions if he wishes to succeed.… Human action and social cooperation seen as the object of a science of given relations, no longer as a normative discipline of things that ought to be—this was a revolution of tremendous consequences for knowledge and philosophy as well as for social action. (HA, p. 2)

With respect to the interpersonal realm of human action, this means the phenomena of ethics (interpersonal conduct) studied as “the object of a science of given relations, no longer as a normative discipline of things that ought to be.” In short, praxeological study of interpersonal conduct. Praxeological study of interpersonal conduct is thus one of the “other” branches of praxeology in the Misesian conception, where praxeology is the general science and where economics is its most mature branch.

That Rothbard neglected to consider the praxeological study of interpersonal conduct has to be considered an error of significant proportions. Though Rothbard studied under Mises and though he dedicated his treatise Man, Economy, and State to Mises, Rothbard had little to say about the relationship between praxeology and human action in the ethical, interpersonal realm of conduct. This suggests that Rothbard didn’t understand praxeology with any depth. Unfortunately, Rothbard was influential in promoting a scholarly paradigm in which praxeology applies only to market phenomena, while other disciplines such as natural law, objective ethics, and argumentation ethics apply to interpersonal conduct. Rothbard conceived that praxeology is “the methodology of Austrian economics,” and he asserted that the concept of subjective value is “perfectly proper for the formal science of praxeology, or economic theory, but not necessarily elsewhere” (EL, p. 12). As Mises conceived things, the Rothbardian paradigm (praxeology in economics—natural law and objective ethics in interpersonal action) was an outdated paradigm based on a failure to realize the implications of the economic point of view for the study of other forms of human action.

For more than a hundred years, however, the effects of this radical change in the methods of reasoning were greatly restricted because people believed that they referred only to a narrow segment of the total field of human action, namely, to market phenomena.… Until the late nineteenth century political economy remained a science of the “economic” aspects of human action, a theory of wealth and selfishness. It dealt with human action only to the extent that it was actuated by what was—very unsatisfactorily—described as the profit motive, and it asserted that there is in addition other human action whose treatment is the task of other disciplines. (HA, pp. 2–3; emphasis added)

Tragically, Rothbard succeeded in convincing a generation of Austrian scholars that the scientific vision glimpsed by Mises was limited in its applicability to the study of market phenomena and that the study of interpersonal conduct required recourse to the older normative approaches.

Highlights

The most important and fundamental proposition contained in this book is the proposition that praxeology is the general science of means and that there are other classes of means besides “economic” (i.e., market-related) means. For example, the acting individual not only lowers the market rate of interest as a means to spur economic growth, but he also coerces other people as a means to obtain goods or services or suppresses his hopes as a means to avoid future disappointment. In other words, activities such as coercion or the suppression of one’s hopes are types of “means.” These are things that people “do” in order to achieve specific results (ends). In 2007, I referred to the former class of means as “ethical means” and to the latter class of means as “psychological means.”

In retrospect, my choice of the terms ethical and psychological to name two important classes of means was apt to confuse and mislead. What I refer to in this book as “ethical means,” I would today call “interpersonal means,” and what I refer to in this book as “psychological means,” I would call today “mental means.” As I understand and explain things today, we may conceive at least four broad classes of actions:

1. Market-related actions: What Mises referred to as “catallactic” actions, those actions based on monetary calculation (actions that are the primary subject matter of economics)

2. Interpersonal actions: Those actions directed toward another actor (specifically, those actions directed toward another mind)

3. Mental actions: Goal-directed activities such as thinking, deliberating, evaluating, imagining, envisioning, contemplating, etc.

4. Physical actions: Those actions in which an actor interacts with the objects of a physical nature, including his own body

In this book, where the term “ethical action” or “ethical means” is encountered, one may simply substitute “interpersonal action” or “interpersonal means.” Where the term “psychological action” or “psychological means” is encountered, one may simply substitute “mental action” or “mental means.”

As a point of clarification, I would like to emphasize that in my system, the notion of “a praxeological ethics” is a perversion of terms. The expression “a praxeological ethics” implies that praxeology can somehow be used to prove, validate, or justify concrete norms of conduct. This has never been my position. A more correct expression in the context of ethical thought would be “a praxeology of ethical phenomena” or a “praxeological study of the phenomena of ethics.” This means conduct which has historically been the province of normative ethics (e.g., coercion, deceit, violence, cooperation, etc.) now studied by praxeology, the value-free science of human action. In short, a praxeological study of interpersonal conduct.

The second theme of this book is the proposition that the focus of praxeology is exact laws of human action. Praxeology is not simply discursive reasoning of a logical nature concerning social phenomena, nor is it merely supposition/countersupposition reasoning about assumed social situations. The goal of praxeology is the ascertainment of exact laws of social phenomena—the demonstration of a relationship between two nonidentical phenomena, A and B, that is guaranteed to be certain to the extent certainty is theoretically demonstrable.

The aim of this orientation, which in the future we will call the exact one, an aim which research pursues in the same way in all realms of the world of phenomena, is the determination of strict laws of phenomena, of regularities in the succession of phenomena which do not present themselves to us as absolute, but which in respect to the approaches to cognition by which we attain to them simply bear within themselves the guarantee of absoluteness. It is the determination of laws of phenomena which commonly are called “laws of nature,” but more correctly should be designated by the expression “exact laws.” (IV, p. 59)

Economic laws describe inevitable implications. If the data they postulate (A) are given, then the consequences they predict (B) necessarily follow. “The analytic method is simply a way of discovering the necessary consequences (B) of complex collocations of facts (A)—consequences whose counterpart in reality is not so immediately discernible as the counterpart of the original postulates.” (LR, pp. 121, 122; As and Bs added for clarity)

The purpose of the theoretical sciences is understanding of the real world, knowledge of it extending beyond immediate experience, and control of it. We understand phenomena by means of theories as we become aware of them in each concrete case merely as exemplifications of a general regularity. We attain a knowledge of phenomena extending beyond immediate experience by drawing conclusions, in the concrete case, from certain observed facts (A) about other facts (B) not immediately perceived. We do this on the basis of the laws of coexistence and of the succession of phenomena. We control the real world in that, on the basis of our theoretical knowledge, we set the conditions of a phenomenon (A) which are within our control, and are able in such a way to produce the phenomenon (B) itself. (IV, pp. 55–56; As and Bs added for clarification)

The starting point of experimental knowledge is the cognition that an A is uniformly followed by a B. The utilization of this knowledge either for the production of B or for the avoidance of the emergence of B is called action. The primary objective of action is either to bring about B or to prevent its emergence. (UF, p. 20)

The example I have used to illustrate an exact law is the proposition that in walking toward one location (phenomenon A), the actor necessarily walks away from a different location (phenomenon B). This could be considered an exact law of “physical action.” Mathematics can be conceived as an exact science of physical action in the sense that if I “hold four” and if I “take away two,” I will then “have two.” In this example, three separate actions are referred to: holding, taking, and having. The law of marginal utility is considered an exact law of economic or “catallactic” action:

Whenever the supply of a good increases by one additional unit, provided each unit is regarded as of equal serviceability by a person, the value attached to this unit must decrease. (ES, p. 14)

Here, the exact law states a necessary relationship between an increase in supply (phenomenon A) and a decrease in value (phenomenon B). The law may be considered a law of economics or of catallactics because it applies to the special case in action when an actor possesses a supply of identical units and increases or decreases his supply of these units.

Above are examples of what may be referred to as exact laws of physical and of economic action. In my work, I have focused on exact laws in the realm of interpersonal action, the case where one actor acts toward another actor (specifically, the case where one actor addresses the mind of another actor).

There are a number of subsidiary insights about human action in this book, and I would like to call attention to some of the more important ones. First, I proposed an explicitly subjective conception of scarcity:

The scarcity of any good (whether or not individual A strives to attain a good or more of a good) is subjectively determined within the reality of his action. Or scarcity is “revealed” to the individual within the reality of his action in his attempting to attain a thing or more of a thing. By striving to attain something, actor A reveals that, for himself, he does not have enough of it (i.e., that it is “scarce” for him).

The attempt to attain something or some state is the not having of a wanted thing or state. And this not having of a wanted thing is a short supply or scarcity. The actor universally encounters scarcity because the actor is at all times “striving to attain” and thus at all times revealing an insufficient supply (scarcity) of something. Stated simply, scarcity is already accounted for in human action when we conceive that action is aiming at ends or striving to attain.

Next, there is the insight that when we conceive the relationship between supply and value in the law of marginal utility, we should realize that not only value is subjectively determined but also supply.

Whether or not the firewood next to A’s house constitutes his supply or whether A has a sufficient supply of firewood is not an objective quality of the firewood but rather determined by A’s view of things …

From the point of view of praxeology, the individual actor values only in action and through action. What the individual actor values is revealed by that which he now seeks to attain, by that which he now “does.”

To this insight, we will add one simple insight: as the individual subject values things through action, so too does he determine what constitutes a sufficient or insufficient “supply” of something through action. (“Here again, it is very important to recognize that what is significant for human action is not the physical property of a good, but the evaluation of the good by the actor” [MS, p. 19].) For example, whether or not an actor has a sufficient supply of firewood is not a physical characteristic of the firewood. What is significant is whether or not the actor believes his supply of firewood is sufficient. And this is revealed by whether or not he attempts to attain or obtain more firewood.

The individual actor reveals whether or not his “supply” of any good or thing or state is sufficient in his acting or not acting to attain that good, thing, or state. In attempting to attain or obtain any state or thing, the actor thus reveals that he is in “short supply” of that state or thing. The attempt to attain or obtain something is the not having of a wanted thing, which is the same thing as a deficient or short supply.

These insights then lead to a simplified reconception of the law of marginal utility:

From the insight that the individual values through action and from the insight that he determines the state of his supply through action, we conceive that the act which is striving to attain or aiming at an end is the same act that reveals both what the actor values and the state of his supply. In attempting to attain something, the actor values that thing and seeks for a supply of it. Thus, value and supply are necessarily related.

I showed here how value and supply are necessarily related in action. This demonstration does not rely on the comparison of two actions as does the traditional formulation of the law of marginal utility. The traditional formulation of the law of marginal utility requires reference (either implicitly or explicitly) to the action in which the actor has n units of a good, and the action in which the actor has n − 1 units of a good. I showed how the act which establishes what the actor values is the same act which establishes the state of his supply (of course, from the actor’s point of view). This is a demonstration of a necessary relation entailed in action (in a unitary act), and it overcomes the theoretical flaw of the older formulation which requires an intertemporal comparison of the content of two separate actions. (If we suppose that something has changed from one action to the next—as we do in saying that value has “increased” or “decreased”—we must be referring to the content of action and not the universal form of action. The older formulation of the law of marginal utility thus relied on a comparison of the contents of two actions: the action in which something was valued and the action in which valuation increased or decreased.)

Finally, in the book’s concluding essay, I showed how praxeology and the concepts surrounding human action have been misinterpreted by Rothbardians, Hoppe in particular, and recast in objectivist terms.

Confusion is created in the distinction between objective and subjective when the meaning that an actor attaches to his own activity is not clearly distinguished from the meaning that an observer attaches to that actor’s activity. In praxeology, these two points of view must be kept clearly and explicitly separate.

It is common in social thought to conceive that there are two ways to consider an actor’s action: from the “subjective” point of view of the actor himself or from the “objective” point of view (i.e., the situation “as it really is” or “as it is in reality”). Generally, the so-called objective description of the actor’s action is considered more significant in an ontological sense than the “subjective” description the actor gives to his own action. What the actor believes is merely his own “subjective” opinion as contrasted to the objective situation (i.e., what is “really” happening). However, when we search for the meaning of objective in the history of economic thought, we find the following revealing account:

As a preliminary it is important to note that Pareto immediately lays down the possibility of studying social phenomena from two different points of view which he calls the objective and the subjective, respectively. The objective is first characterized as what the phenomenon “is in reality” and opposed to the way it appears “in the mind of certain persons.” The further development of the distinction, however, especially linking the objective aspect with the way in which action appears “for those who have more extended knowledge” makes it legitimate to infer that the objective point of view is that of the scientific observer, while the subjective is that of the actor.

Indeed this is explicitly included in his definition of logical action: “We designate as ‘logical actions’ those operations which are logically united to their end, not only from the point of view of the subject who performs the operations, but also for those who have a more extended knowledge.” (TP, p. 187)

The means-end relationship just be seen first as it is to the actor—what he thinks the efficacy of his means will be—and then “as it is in reality”—as the observer’s more extended knowledge leads him to believe it will, or would be. (TP, p. 190)

Thus, in the theory of action, the objective aspect of an actor’s action is simply that actor’s action as seen from the point of view of an observer, together with the assumption that the observer’s knowledge is superior to the actor’s knowledge. And thus, in social science, the concept “objective” entails a value judgment about the relative superiority of the knowledge of one person versus another’s when both people refer to the same situation. When two people describe the same event, the event is considered objective, or the account of it is considered objective when described by the person deemed to have superior knowledge. By contrast, the person deemed to have inferior knowledge merely provides his “subjective” account of the situation.

This raises an important issue in the social-scientific distinction between subjective and objective. Let’s say we want to describe an event from two points of view, where one of the points of view is assumed to be more valid in some sense. Instead of writing “objective,” we can refer to the point of view deemed more valid as “the point of view of the person with greater knowledge.” There are at least two reasons why describing the situation in this way may be deemed advantageous by some and disadvantageous by others. First, if a theoretical procedure is adopted in which every point of view is explicitly assigned to a viewer (every description of an event assigned to a particular describer), this implies the elimination of the objective as a theoretical concept. Second, this alternate mode of expression makes the assumption of superior knowledge explicit, whereas the expressions “objective account” or “objective situation” allow the assumption of greater knowledge to remain somewhat implicit.

These are some important general aspects of the social-scientific distinction between objective and subjective. But I would like to conclude this introduction with some proposed insights about the objective/subjective distinction and those who are sympathetic to the Austrian school of social thought. Specifically, why haven’t modern-day Austrians made any progress in extending or elaborating the theoretical subjectivism that was the cornerstone of Austrian economics? I believe the reasons are generally as follows.

There exists a theoretical tendency to consider “action” as an observable physical manifestation of an actor’s intention. For some, the term action means “physical activity in pursuit of a purpose.” Hoppe exemplifies this way of thinking in his definition of action: “Acting is a cognitively guided adjustment of a physical body in physical reality” (ES, p. 70). This conception implies that action is something that is publicly observable. He who moves his body in pursuit of some end “acts,” and this “act” may be seen or observed.

A natural correlate to the notion of “action as body movement” is the (implicit and unstated) notion that activities such as “seeing” or “observing” or “thinking” are not actions. These are considered activities of an altogether different nature based on the principle that action refers only to that subset of conscious activity consisting of observable bodily movement directed toward a given end. Given this taxonomy (consciously directed bodily movement is “action”—seeing, observing, and thinking are activities of a different nature), then, one is led to the (implicit and unstated) conclusion that the observer of another person’s physical movement (i.e., action) does not himself act in making his observation. In this conception, there are two people, but only one of them is “acting”—the one who is visibly moving his body toward some end. The other person is doing something—he is seeing or observing the one who acts—however, this something he does is not “action,” but a conscious activity of a different sort.

When the seeing or observing done by the observer is not considered an action and when what is seen or observed is depicted in a theoretical description, this leaves the impression that the situation depicted is some kind of “objective” situation. The “objective” is constructed by taking the results of a conscious activity (seeing, observing, thinking, etc.) and depicting these results independent of the conscious activity that gave rise to them. It is constructed by depicting that which is seen, observed, or thought without explicit reference to the actions of seeing, observing, or thinking. The “objective” results from theoretically severing an action from its contents, creating the image of a situation existing independent of any consciousness.

Thus, the persistence of objectivism in Austrian social thought has its roots in a theoretical approach that views “action” as merely a subset of conscious activity—generally, that subset of conscious activity manifesting in bodily movement toward some end. This conception of action differs from the Misesian conception in that it specifies a content that must be present for action to be present, namely, observable bodily movement directed toward some end. By contrast, the Misesian definition of action is the utilization of means toward an end with no reference to any particular means or ends. From the point of view of Misesian praxeology, “seeing” and “observing” are definitely actions.

The fact that an action is in the regular course of affairs performed spontaneously, as it were, does not mean that it is not due to a conscious volition and to a deliberate choice. Indulgence in a routine which possibly could be changed is action. (HA, p. 47)

As Mises conceives things, seeing and observing are actions because they are activities an actor may choose to do or not do. These activities are due to a conscious volition or deliberate choice and are thus to be considered actions. Whether conscious bodily movement is undertaken or observed is immaterial. As one historian of social thought eloquently observed, “Any conscious behavior counts as action—an action is anything that you do on purpose” (ER, p. 18). Consider the following:

Thinking [is] itself an action, proceeding step by step from the less satisfactory state of insufficient cognition to the more satisfactory state of better insight. (HA, p. 99)

Thinking is an action, a mental “doing” as it were. (PO, p. 5)

Therefore, conscious activities such as seeing, thinking, deliberating, and observing are considered actions in general theory of action. Alfred Schutz makes the insight that observation is an action in this important and relevant passage:

For it is obvious that an action has only one subjective meaning: that of the actor himself. It is X who gives subjective meaning to his action, and the only subjective meanings being given by F and S in this situation are the subjective meanings they are giving to their own actions, namely, their actions of observing X. (PS, p. 32; emphasis added)

Why haven’t contemporary Austrian thinkers been able to revise and extend theoretical subjectivism? I believe it is because they have conceived “action” and associated terms (subjective value, means/ends, etc.) as terms that refer to only a limited portion of human conscious activity. For many, “subjectivism” is tied to economics, which in turn is tied to the concept of human action, which in turn is defined in terms of physical movement. By implication, then, conscious activity that is not defined in terms of physical movement is not action, which in turn is not the subject matter of economics and which therefore is not tied to subjectivism. Other forms of conscious activity such as thinking or coercion are dealt with by disciplines besides subjective economics. And these other disciplines, since they are not tied to subjectivism through economics, naturally deal with the objective side of human affairs. I believe this general outlook or something like it is what inhibits a deeper understanding of theoretical subjectivism. Further progress in praxeology will require a readoption of the earlier concept of action as it was understood by Mises, Schutz, and others in the first half of the twentieth century.

Introduction

The essays in this book revolve around the subject of ethics and whether or not the ethical acts of individuals can be conceived as “means” toward some end.  Praxeology, the science of means, was conceived and championed primarily by the economist Ludwig von Mises in the twentieth century.  The question has arisen whether this science—sometimes referred to as “the logic of action”—is a science that treats the logic of all acts of the individual or whether it is a science that treats primarily or exclusively the economic acts of the individual.  If praxeology does not comprehend the phenomena of ethics such as force and dishonesty, then another approach will be required.

The two thinkers whose social theories are criticized in the following essays are united in their belief that the phenomena of ethics cannot be meaningfully treated by a value-free, means-based analysis.  Professor Rothbard believed that libertarian laws ultimately derive from the natural laws of the human organism (EL, p. 32) conceived in its objective, commonsensical, or contentual sense. (EL, p. 12)  Professor Hoppe holds that the focus of ethics is the ownership and control of physical objects, especially one’s body, and that the movement of objects is a fundamental concept of social science and ethics. (ES, p. 70)

Neither thinker believes that the phenomena of ethics can be treated by the science of human action as that science was conceived by Mises.  Neither thinker believes that, starting from the primary concept of action (“aiming at ends”), the phenomena of ethics can be addressed.  Thus, Professor Rothbard finds it necessary to abandon the concept of human action and praxeology altogether in his search for libertarian laws, and Professor Hoppe finds it necessary to conceive an entirely new side of human nature—argumentation—that takes its place alongside action, and that, in a sense, is even more fundamental to human nature than action.

In the small world that is Austrian School social science, there is a growing awareness that the exclusive focus on objective ethical values and Lockean social theory may be overlooking something.  Is it possible that an ethics science may be constructed largely along the lines of Misesian praxeology?  Is it possible that by proceeding from the concept of action by methodological individualism, laws of man’s ethical nature might be discovered?  The affirmation of these possibilities is the theme of this critique.

 

 PART 1

 Praxeology: The Science of Means

Out of the political economy of the classical school emerges the general theory of human action, praxeology.  The economic or catallactic problems are embedded in a more general science, and can no longer be severed from this connection… economics becomes a part, although the hitherto best elaborated part, of a more universal science, praxeology. (Human Action, p. 3)

With these words, Ludwig von Mises introduced his conception of a general science of human conduct, the science of human action as he termed it.  Clear in this Misesian conception of praxeology is the idea that the economic realm of human behavior—the realm associated with exchange ratios and prices, and which Mises referred to as the catallactic realm—is but one area subsumed by praxeology.  Clear in this Misesian conception of praxeology is the idea that there are other realms of human activity aside from the catallactic realm.  But what realms might those be?

Before answering this question, it may be instructive to form an idea of why this question has never really been addressed by Misesian scholars, and why the term “praxeology” came to be virtually synonymous with the science of economics for them and ceased to denote an entire science of human action.

For American followers of Mises, it is due to the interpretation of American Austrian scholars themselves that praxeology has come to mean what it does and no longer signifies the general science of human action.  For example, one of the most widely circulated essays on Austrian economics is entitled “Praxeology: The Methodology of Austrian Economics.”  The first sentence of this essay begins: “Praxeology is the distinctive methodology of the Austrian school.”[1]  Thus continues the subtle but effective reconception of Mises’s original vision of praxeology as a general science of human action.

From the point of view of praxeology, the claim that praxeology is the method of Austrian economics has some truth to it.  And it is also partially true that mathematics is the method of astronomy.  But according to Mises, praxeology is more than just a “method” of understanding the catallactic phenomena of human action.  Praxeology is the science of all human action in the same sense that mathematics is the science of all extended bodies.  Thus, conceiving praxeology as only a methodological tool for comprehending exchange ratios in human life would be like conceiving mathematics as only a tool for explaining the movements of planets.  Praxeology is more than method. It is the general deductive social science of human goal-directed action.

Science of Means

Austrian scholars are familiar with Mises’s insistence that praxeology is a science of means and not a science of ends.  Praxeology is primarily concerned with the appropriateness of the various means acting man utilizes in attempting to attain his various ends.  But more important than the idea of the “appropriateness” of acting man’s means is the more scientifically circumscribed notion of what a particular means necessarily entails—what must be copresent to a particular means chosen.  That is, praxeology may proceed without passing judgment about whether any particular means are “appropriate” by limiting its inquiry to what a particular means must bring about (such bringing about more consistently conceived as a copresent phenomenon to a means rather than a following from it).

The acting individual, once instructed by praxeology as to what particular means must necessarily entail, is then in a position to decide whether such means are appropriate to his purpose.  A person not in possession of the knowledge praxeology provides is not in possession of knowledge which would help him decide if the means are or are not appropriate to his purpose.

When a person knows that an increase in the abundance of the goods he sells to make a living will decrease their value, he is in possession of praxeological knowledge.  With this knowledge in hand, he may decide to carefully guard his trade secrets, thus limiting the abundance of these goods; or he may tell his trade secrets to others, thus enabling others to bring about an increase in the quantity of these goods.  But owing to the praxeological knowledge, he knows what to expect from the guarding or sharing of the trade secret.

Historically, the economic means which constitute the focus of praxeology as catallactics are those means associated with the political philosophy of interventionism.  The economic means praxeology addresses in this case are generally those means chosen in a society in which government intervention in economic affairs is, or is proposed to be, the norm.  And thus catallactics, the economic branch of praxeology, deals with means such as minimum wage laws, tariffs, government intervention into the money supply, and other economic means associated with interventionism.

The question that seems to have eluded Austrian scholars is whether noneconomic means of the acting individual might also be treated by praxeology with the aim of arriving at apodictically certain laws with regard to them.  With regard to human ethics, the recurring phenomena of force and dishonesty (coercion and deceit) are definitely means employed by acting individuals toward their ends.  These means are not “economic” in that they do not refer to exchange ratios or prices.  Certainly, it would strain the bounds of reasonable discussion to claim that the social phenomena of force and dishonesty are market phenomena to be studied and explained by the science of economics.  Rather, these specific means are to be considered largely as ethical phenomena.  Economics deals with them only to the extent it has to take account of them.  Obviously, economics does not provide a comprehensive treatment or theory of the phenomena of ethics.

So there are what we may refer to as “ethical means,” and these means are not treated by economics proper.  Ethics deals primarily with the means chosen for interacting with one’s fellows.  But are there other means besides the economic and the ethical which praxeology might also conceivably treat?

Consider the following example: Person A has made a bid on a house.  But A’s budget is limited, and so A is forced to make an offer substantially below the asking price.  A knows that although he really likes the house and hopes his offer will be accepted, there is a good chance his offer will not be accepted.  Knowing this, A reasons with himself in the following way: I do not want to hope too strongly for this house because I do not want to be too disappointed should my offer not be accepted.  I will suppress my hopes and try not to get too hopeful or too emotionally “invested” so that should my bid not be accepted, I will not experience too much of a “letdown.”

This is an example of a common and recurring phenomenon of action familiar to everyone.  Here, person A does something (suppresses his hopes) in order not to experience too much of a letdown.  Person A aims for the end of diminishing a possible experience of disappointment.

This adopting of a technique “in order to” bring about some consequence is the familiar phenomenon of adopting a means.  Person A adopts the means of suppressing his hope in order to reach or attain the goal of avoiding a letdown.

However, (1) these means are not economic, and (2) these means are not ethical.  The means employed by A here do not involve exchange ratios nor do they involve a method of interacting with A’s fellows.  Rather, this is an example of something roughly equivalent to “psychological means.”  The example above describes something like a psychological thought process on the part of AA is attempting to (and thus acting) arrange his hopes in order to (thus utilizing means) achieve a specific result.

Thus, there are means that are not “economic” or “ethical.”  We may reasonably conceive three broad classes of means (or of actions) according to this view of things: economic, ethical, and psychological.

And thus, if praxeology is to be conceived as the science of means, then it will follow that praxeology is the general science treating all means of the acting individual, not merely the “economic” class of means.

The Misesian Conception of Praxeology

When we read the numerous passages from Mises conceiving that economics is but the hitherto best-developed branch of praxeology, we may reasonably believe this is what he had in mind.

Strictly speaking, praxeology is not the method of Austrian economics; rather, it is the general deductive science of human action.

Professor Rothbard’s Disavowal of Praxeology

Praxeology, the social science envisioned by Ludwig von Mises, is the science of means.  Fundamental to praxeology is the theory of subjective value; the idea that in order for praxeology to formulate social laws of apodictic certainty, values and the ends of human action must be conceived as subjective and not objective.  Praxeology then becomes the science of means and not one of ends.  It attempts to formulate social laws, laws admitting of no exception, as they apply to the means chosen by the acting individual in an attempt to attain his ends.

Although praxeology has been successful in formulating necessary laws in the economic social realm of “catallactics,” it has not been successful in arriving at scientific laws in the noneconomic realms of human action.  Specifically, praxeology has not succeeded to date in arriving at cause-and-effect laws in the social-ethical realm.  In the strictly scientific sense, there are no known laws of ethical behavior akin to the various economic laws established since the beginning of economic science several centuries ago.

Perhaps cognizant of the absence of such social-ethical laws, and what this portends for the future of civilization, influential libertarian social thinkers such as Murray Rothbard and his followers have taken up the subject of ethics in an attempt to provide a rational foundation for the libertarian private-property ethic.  What follows here and in the next two chapters is an outline of some important aspects of Professor Rothbard’s ethics theory from the point of view of current praxeological efforts in ethics social science.

Rothbardian versus Austrian School Social Theory

As Professor Rothbard was a student of Mises and a free-market advocate, and as he incorporated some aspects of Austrian School economic theory in his economic theory, it is assumed by many that Professor Rothbard’s social thought falls squarely within the Austrian School tradition.  However, if what binds Austrians is the law of marginal utility, the concept of subjective value, and associated theoretical insights into the nature of human action, then an assessment of Professor Rothbard’s work in light of this standard would show that while his social thought falls within the broader libertarian tradition, much of his work, including almost all his ethical thought, falls outside the boundary of Austrian School social science.

The science inaugurated by Menger’s insights is a science that Menger describes as follows:

The aim of this orientation, which in the future we will call the exact one, an aim which research pursues in the same way in all realms of the world of phenomena, is the determination of strict laws of phenomena, of regularities in the succession of phenomena which do not present themselves to us as absolute, but which in respect to the approaches to cognition by which we attain them simply bear within themselves the guarantee of absoluteness.  It is the determination of laws of phenomena which commonly are called ‘laws of nature,’ but which more correctly should be designated by the expression ‘exact laws.[2]

By this standard alone, Professor Rothbard’s ethics theories cannot be considered Austrian School social science since Austrian School social science aims to discover such exact laws of phenomena, be they economic, ethical, or psychological in nature.

The centerpiece of Professor Rothbard’s contribution to libertarian social theory is his positive theory of ethics as outlined in The Ethics of Liberty.  Writing in the introduction to The Ethics of Liberty, Hans-Hermann Hoppe provides a succinct statement of Rothbard’s fundamental ethical proposition:

[I]n The Ethics of Liberty Rothbard gives the following answer to the question of what I am justified in doing here and now: every person owns his physical body as well as all nature-given goods which he puts to use with the help of his body before anyone else does; this ownership implies his right to employ these resources as one sees fit so long as one does not thereby uninvitedly change the physical integrity of another’s property or delimit another’s control over it without his consent.  In particular, once a good has been first appropriated or homesteaded by “mixing one’s labor” with it (Locke’s phrase)… (xvi)

This is an accurate description of Professor Rothbard’s theory, and one recognizes that there is no attempt made in this type of positive theory to discover or establish exact laws of ethical phenomena.  In Rothbard’s ethics theory, no attempt is made to arrive at the strict laws of the regularities or recurring phenomena of ethics.  Professor Rothbard believed it was the task of other disciplines and other social thinkers to arrive at the laws of man’s nature.  He saw his calling as expounding the positive law he believed would be required by the laws of man’s nature…were the laws of man’s nature to be discovered.  His concern was a detailed description and catalog of the written laws of a libertarian society as indicated by the natural laws of man’s ethical nature before such laws had been established.

The result, as indicated by Professor Hoppe, is an ethics theory attempting to provide a justification for what a person may do (what it is his right to do) but not a science of ethics or of ethical phenomena per se.  What Rothbard provides is to be seen as a rational-theoretical justification for particular social actions we may choose to take, i.e., Rothbard’s theory of how we may justify to ourselves and to others the actions we take.  But he does not provide any scientific insight into the ramifications of those acts.  No science describing the necessary consequences of “ethical acts” is provided or even begun by Rothbard.

Rothbard’s Theoretical Bequeathal

Thus, the core of Rothbard’s ethics theory is the idea that one owns one’s body and what one has mixed the labor of one’s body with—the ideas of self-ownership and original appropriation.  Self-ownership, mixing one’s labor with nature, and homesteading constitute the essence of Rothbardian ethics theory.

It bears repeating that while Professor Rothbard indicates that natural law ultimately provides the laws of man’s nature which form the basis of his libertarian positive law, natural law is not yet a science in that there are no known laws of man’s nature of the type Rothbard discusses in pages 3–26 of The Ethics of Liberty.  Natural law is a proposed science of man’s nature but so far not a science having arrived at any actual laws of man’s ethical nature.  At least Professor Rothbard does not list any in pages 3-26 of The Ethics of Liberty, the section of his book dedicated to natural law. (By contrast, Professor Hoppe writing as praxeologist and economist lists at least three laws of human economic nature on pages 14–15 of his Economic Science and the Austrian Method.)

In The Ethics of Liberty, Professor Rothbard expressly disavowed praxeology as being able to provide the scientific basis for the libertarian’s intuitive notions that something is wrong with the ethical means of force and dishonesty (coercion and deceit), the means by which the monopolistic state prevents libertarian society from emerging.  He “at no time believed that value-free analysis or economics or utilitarianism…can ever suffice to establish the case for liberty” (xlvii).  And he thought “[Mises’s] theories fail at the task of establishing an ideology of liberty” (xlix).  Finally, Rothbard urged his followers to “cast out the hobgoblins of Wertfreiheit.” (p. 26)

In so doing, Professor Rothbard severed his connection with the only nonphysical science of man’s nature (praxeology) that has succeeded in formulating laws of man’s acting nature.  Instead, Rothbard placed all his social-scientific eggs in the basket of natural-law theory, the theory that has not (and for epistemological reasons likely cannot) arrived at such laws.

Professor Rothbard puts forth the concepts of self-ownership and original appropriation as the cornerstones of libertarian ethics theory.  Since the primary concept of praxeology is the concept of human action and not self-ownership, this momentous shift in theoretical direction has had momentous consequences.  Almost all libertarian ethics theory today is done within the confines of philosophical objective-realism and almost no libertarian ethics theory utilizes the Austrian School social-scientific concepts of human action, value subjectivism, means/ends analysis, and so forth.  This is primarily due to the influence of Professor Rothbard.

A positive program of laws has now been put forth in The Ethics of Liberty.  However, as regards science, natural law—the ethics science of Locke’s time—has not succeeded in discovering the laws of man’s nature as promised.  Contemporary libertarian philosophers plan to find the ultimate ends and objective values of man’s activity in the objectivism of Ayn Rand and in the texts of Aristotle.  But their theories exist mainly as proposals for possible approaches and seem unable to progress further.  The logical inconsistencies inherent in such proposals prevent them from applying their concepts beyond the stage of theoretical suggestions.

And so the question remains: Where is the science?  Where is that body of knowledge providing “man with a ‘science of happiness,’ with the paths which will lead to his real happiness”? (p. 12)  Where is that body of knowledge describing how “when these various things meet and interact, a specifically delimitable and definable result will occur.  In short, specific, delimitable causes will have specific, delimitable effects” (p. 9) and describing how “[t]he observable behavior of each of these entities is the law of their natures, and this law includes what happens as the result of the interactions”? (p. 10)  In short, where is the ethics theory describing the effects, results, or consequences of ethical acts?  Where is the theory describing what will or will not happen should one choose to implement the private-property ethic as opposed to some other ethical system?

This is a question Professor Rothbard did not answer but rather bequeathed to his followers.

 

The Predicament of the Rothbardian Scholar

All libertarian social thinkers ultimately have to treat the question of involuntary servitude which constitutes the premise of the monopolistic state.  And it has to be considered fundamental to the libertarian creed that one believes one should be free from such involuntary servitude.  The question is, with respect to science and scholarship, what are the means to achieving the ultimate libertarian goal of human liberty?

What characterizes a Rothbardian position is the belief that the means to achieving liberty is by propounding a positive ethics and not by pursuing a science of ethics.  The Rothbardian scholar believes that normative commands and political action are more efficacious means for bringing about liberty than the scientific demonstration of the necessary effects of particular ethical acts of the individual.  He fails to realize that his ethical commands and political acts are “actions,” themselves the subject matter of science.  He thus embarks on a definite program of conduct without scientific knowledge of the necessary effects of the various types or modes of conduct.  He has no scientific basis for knowing in what sense his political program and proposed code of ethics are the same as, or different from, those of the other ethical schools.

Closely related to this position is his belief that praxeology is not a social science but rather a kind of dialectic.  The Rothbardian believes praxeology is the dialectical method of economics, an introductory preamble after which the Austrian economist presents his positive conclusions.  For the Rothbardian, praxeology is a peculiar kind of reasoning process that “justifies” Austrian economics.

That the Rothbardian scholar believes praxeology is a reasoning process associated with economics and not a general science of human action is fairly obvious.  Because the ethical acts of the individual are “acts.”  Ethical conduct is conduct aiming at ends.  The ends that people aim at, and the means utilized, are not exhausted by catallactics, the science of market phenomena.  Mises’s Human Action treats only the catallactic means of human action (those means having to do with market phenomena such as prices).  He leaves untreated all other possible means of human action, primary among them “ethical” and “psychological” means.  That the Rothbardian scholar doesn’t understand praxeology as a science of human action is revealed by the fact that his ethics theory doesn’t incorporate the praxeological concepts of human action, means/ends, formal relations, etc.  He fails to conceive ethical behavior in terms of action and in effect believes that action is a phenomenon somewhat synonymous with economics.  He somehow comes to understand ethical conduct as existing outside the province of the science of human action.  This is something quite amazing in the context of Austrian School social thought.

This view of things is nowhere near Mises’s view.  For Mises, praxeology is the general deductive science of human action and exceeds economics in its scope.  Where there are means, in principle there should be a science of those means possible.  Where in human behavior there is an “attempt to” or a “trying to,” there is an aiming at ends.  Where in human behavior there is an “in order to” or a “so that,” there are means.  Praxeology is the deductive science of action (the trying to) and of means (the in order to).

Broadly, praxeology, as such a deductive science, will be comprised of at least four elements:
1. It is formal and deductive in nature as opposed to empirical and inductive.
2. It proceeds by methodological individualism and not by considering two people spatiotemporally.
3. It aims to discover or conceive strict or exact social laws, what Menger referred to as laws of the coexistence and succession of phenomena.
4. It accounts for the human phenomenon of “wanting” (action, striving, etc.) in its formal scheme.

Praxeology is the formal social science conceiving the phenomena of action from the point of view of the individual actor and attempting to arrive at exact laws of those phenomena.

Strictly speaking, praxeology is not a method or rationale but a science.

The Rothbardian Predicament

The Rothbardian social theorist conceives praxeology largely as a reasoning process associated with Austrian economics.  The flip side of this is that he does not see praxeology as a general science of means.  This then results in his not seeing or not considering the fact that there may be other means of the acting individual besides economic means.  Specifically, he does not consider that there may be ethical or psychological means and that therefore a science of those means might be possible.  Although Professor Rothbard levels several criticisms against Mises and praxeology in The Ethics of Liberty, nowhere in his book does he consider the idea of ethical means and the possibility of a science of those means.

The ultimate result of this view of things is the belief that the realms of human activity aside from market transactions must be treated by an approach other than praxeology.

However, Rothbard and his followers recognize something intuitively, even if that something is not explicitly stated in their theories.  An ethics theory ultimately must address the question of what positive thing is to be gained from adhering to the teachings of the theory and what negative things are to befall one not adhering to the teachings of the theory.  Because if there is nothing beneficial to be gained from adhering to a specific code of ethics, and nothing to be suffered from not adhering to it, then there is no reason other than arbitrary preference for one to consider adhering to it.

Thus, a universal element of ethics theory is that it contains some implicit or explicit theory of causality.  It must provide some explanation of how adhering to the code of ethics or not adhering to it results in some effect on human well-being.  Rothbard recognizes this implicitly, and that is why the first twenty-six pages of The Ethics of Liberty are devoted to natural law as the science that is to discover the cause-and-effect-type laws of man’s nature.  But as must be repeated, no such laws are actually put forth by Rothbard.  Instead, he outlines the proposed science of natural law as that science has been envisioned by various natural-law social thinkers.

It does not escape our notice that the transition from Rothbard’s discussion of natural law, to his proposed positive libertarian law, is effected by the following passage:

It is not the intention of this book to expound or defend at length the philosophy of natural law, or to elaborate a natural-law ethic for the personal morality of man. (p. 25)

From our point of view, this is the passage in which Rothbard signals his intention to leave the scientific problems unsolved, while he goes on to provide an entire body of man-made libertarian laws based on a science (natural law) that has still not solved the problem of causality.

This is not an oversight or simple slip of some sort, but rather a structural problem inherent to the natural-law approach.  For example, writing in support of Rothbard’s approach in The Ethics of Liberty, we find the following passage by Rasmussen: “We will not get into the sticky process of arguing for a certain conception of natural rights from this position, for we have already indicated what we believe this to look like elsewhere.”[3]

One can’t help notice that regardless of which sticky process Rasmussen is referring to, the laws of man’s nature that natural-law and natural-law-related social theorists keep promising are  absent from his essay.  From the point of view of praxeology, the sticky process Rasmussen is referring to, and which Professor Rothbard states is not the intention of his book, is the demonstration of scientific laws of ethical phenomena; the demonstration of how adhering or not adhering to a particular code of ethics or rule of conduct results in some specific effect on human well-being in a way that is “absolute, immutable, and of universal validity for all times and places” (p. 17).

That ethics theory must ultimately address the problem of causality is shown by Rothbard’s mention of David Hume, “the philosopher supposed by modern philosophers to have effectively demolished the theory of natural law.” (p. 14)  Rothbard writes that Hume’s “demolition was two-pronged: the raising of the alleged ‘fact-value’ dichotomy, thus debarring the inference of value from fact, and his view that reason is and can only be a slave to the passions.” (pp. 14–15)

This description of Hume’s important insights is apt to misdirect the libertarian social thinker.  Rothbard agrees that natural-law theory seeks to determine the cause-and-effect laws of man’s nature, and Hume had something to say about cause-and-effect.  One gets a clear explanation of Hume’s important insight in reading W. T. Jones’s A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 3.  On page 315, in the section entitled “Causality and Inductive Inference,” subsection “No Necessary Connection,” one reads that before Hume:

[E]veryone agreed that every event that occurs has some cause that necessarily produces it. The new scientific method rested on this belief, and the success of the method seemed to substantiate the belief. Accordingly, Hume set himself to examine the notion that a necessary connection can exist between two events, a connection such that if one of the events occurs, the other must inevitably also occur.

Thus, regardless of what one may believe about the fact-value dichotomy or the notion that reason is a slave to the passions, Hume’s most important insight is a more clear and focused one having to do with necessity in nature. This is the necessity—the causal connection between events—that is missing in Rothbard’s theory and which he was looking to natural law to provide.  The theory of causality is what links some act or conduct of person A to some positive or negative consequence to person A.  It is incumbent on the natural-law theorist to provide this, and Hume’s argument is pertinent to the fact that natural law still has not provided such a demonstration.

The predicament of the Rothbardian scholar is not that his intuitive notion of freedom and honest dealings has no basis in the nature of man, or that human liberty and private property are defective as organizational principles of society.  The predicament of the Rothbardian scholar is the inability to provide a logically consistent, scientific demonstration of the harm or gain resulting from the adoption of the various codes of ethics.  It is the inability to satisfactorily demonstrate the necessary effects consequent to the adoption of specific ethical means.

The Positive Ethicist’s Blind Spot

Almost all ethics theories of the twentieth century were attempted under an incorrect understanding of praxeology and under the false assumption that praxeology would be unable to provide a meaningful scientific case for human liberty.  Specifically, Professor Murray Rothbard mistook the meaning of praxeology in important ways and thus drew the conclusion that praxeology could not advance human liberty further, while an objective or positive theory of ethics could.

The Essence of Praxeology

As has been recognized, praxeology seeks to discover the necessary copresent accompaniments to originally given phenomena of human action.  Writing specifically in regard to economics after having expressed especial indebtedness to the works of Mises, Lionel Robbins writes:

If the ‘given situation’ conforms to a certain pattern, certain other features must also be present, for their presence is ‘deducible’ from the pattern originally postulated.  The analytic method is simply a way of discovering the necessary consequences of complex collocations of facts—consequences whose counterpart in reality is not so immediately discernible as the counterpart of the original postulates.  It is an instrument for ‘shaking out’ all the implications of given suppositions.  Granted the correspondence of its original assumptions and the facts, its conclusions are inevitable and inescapable.[4]

We notice how for Robbins, as for Mises and Menger, the idea of copresence plays an important role (“also present” in the above quote).  Praxeology seeks to discover the necessary copresent accompaniments to the means chosen by the acting individual.  These necessary copresences are often hidden or unrecognized accompaniments to means the individual actor intends to utilize.  The knowledge that certain accompaniments are necessary to specific means, and not contingent on the presence of other influences, imparts new knowledge to the acting individual.

Before praxeology establishes a necessary relation, one may not know the consequences of the means one intends to adopt, or may know of possible consequences, but believe that such consequences are dependent on (contingent on) the presence of other contributing factors.  But once praxeology discovers and establishes a necessary relation, the individual actor in possession of this knowledge knows that the consequence must arrive if the means sought are successfully attained.  This puts the individual in a position to avoid the consequences intentionally, by abstaining from the means in question, when and if he deems the consequences as more than he wants to suffer.  Before the attainment of praxeological knowledge, the individual could not intentionally avoid the consequences because he either did not know the cause or knew the cause but believed that other contributing factors had to be present for the consequence to occur.

Finally, the consequences that praxeology establishes as copresent to specific means, take the form of a social law generally for the following reason.  Although the copresent accompaniment is to be conceived as a-temporally related to the original means, the acting individual experiences the phenomenon which is the means and the phenomenon which is the consequence in the temporal order.  The individual experiences “events” or “situations” as temporally distinct ones happening in sequential or temporal order.  The acting individual does not apprehend several events at once; rather, he experiences those that he does apprehend as separate differentiable events in the temporal order.  It is the formal science that demonstrates the necessary relations entailed in singular events; events that can only appear to the acting individual as separate, sequentially related events.

Rothbard’s Misinterpretation

It is in the context of a relatively high level of understanding about the nature of praxeology that Professor Rothbard demonstrated what can fairly be termed significant misunderstandings about the nature of this science.

For example, Professor Rothbard, writing in The Ethics of Liberty (p. 208), offers the following general criticism of Misesian praxeology which we paraphrase here:

Praxeology may demonstrate the necessary consequences to specific economic means such as price controls.  However, some people may be socialists, egalitarians, or nihilists, and actually desire the negative consequences that price controls bring about.  Mises shows people that if they do X then Y will be the result.  But if people want Y, there is nothing Mises as value-free praxeologist can say.  Mises is therefore helpless to prevent the advance of statism since he refuses to grant legitimacy to any kind of positive ethics which would tell people whether or not they should want Y.

Let us examine this idea in a little more detail.  Socialists, egalitarians, and nihilists may very well want to prevent the functioning of the free market and establish institutions abrogating individual liberty.  But how will they do so?  From the point of view of praxeology there is ultimately only one way: they must choose means they deem appropriate for preventing the free market and individual liberty.  The means chosen will likely be ethical means because human liberty likely cannot be prevented or suppressed without the ethical means of force and dishonesty (coercion and deceit).

The ethical means chosen will be means whose hidden copresent necessary accompaniments will likely be unknown to those adopting them.  This is almost certain since there exists currently no known praxeological laws in the ethical or psychological realms of human action.  Economics (catallactics) is the only elaborated branch of praxeology, and the realms of ethical and psychological acts of the individual are virtually unexplored territory.

As praxeologists, we must assume that with respect to the ethical and psychological means any person may adopt, necessary copresent consequences must correspond.  This is nothing revolutionary.  This is just the primary insight of praxeology applied to human means other than economic means.

Thus, if there are indeed copresent consequences to ethical and psychological means, and if in order to practice socialism, egalitarianism, and nihilism, one must adopt specific processes of thought (adopt specific psychological means) and practice specific methods of social interaction (adopt specific ethical means), then it follows that there are necessary copresent consequences attendant to the adoption of socialism, egalitarianism, and nihilism.

In order to “do” socialism, egalitarianism, and nihilism, one must act to attain that which is those things.  One must aim for that which brings about socialism if socialism is to be brought about.  Thus, means come into play as the inescapable prerequisite for those wanting to establish or maintain (for example) socialism.  The means utilized for the establishment of socialism cannot be considered only economic means.  Ethical means must be utilized since the coercion and deceit necessary to perpetuate socialism are ethical means.  These are means of social interaction that are essentially noneconomic (noncatallactic in Mises’s terms).  And thus, the utilization of the means “coercion,” for example, must bring about those necessary accompaniments specifically attendant to it, to the extent that any means, in principle, must entail necessary accompaniments.

If there are hidden negative consequences that accompany the means coercion, or that accompany the means dishonesty, then if the individual actor is provided with praxeological knowledge of these necessary consequences, he may abstain from these means if he decides that the consequences are more than he wants to suffer.  This is a possibility of immense importance to liberty and libertarianism.  Because, were the pervasive and recurring ethical phenomena of force and dishonesty in human social interaction to significantly decrease, this would likely represent the emergence of libertarian society.  For how can libertarian society be prevented other than by the ethical means of coercion and deceit?  How can the freedom-seeking individual be prevented from attaining freedom if coercion or dishonesty is not used?

Why do people continue to practice destructive methods of thinking and acting?  To this praxeology answers: because they do not know the consequences, or they know the consequences but believe them to be only contingent and not necessary.  They continue to behave in ways they may not were they to know of the apodictically certain consequences of their actions.

However, economics (catallactics) is the only elaborated branch of praxeology; thus, no necessary copresent consequences to human acts are known to exist outside of the sphere of human economic activity.

In offering his criticism of Mises, Professor Rothbard did not even consider the question of means, or whether praxeology may contribute to the lessening of harmful social behavior by demonstrating the necessary consequences to the individual who undertakes specific ethical actions.  Rather, by omitting any mention of means and ends or of acts and their consequences, Rothbard only implied that praxeology would be useless in the struggle for human liberty.  He gave no consideration to the idea of praxeology as the general science of human action, treating all means from the point of view of their necessary consequences.  No argument exists, as far as is known, that rules out this possibility, or that attempts to demonstrate why in principle praxeology cannot treat ethical and psychological means, and arrive at exact laws in regard to them.

That this possibility was not realized, considered, or ruled out, constitutes the blind spot of the positive and objective ethicist, of Professor Rothbard, and of his followers.


[1] Murray N. Rothbard, “Praxeology: The Methodology of Austrian Economics.”

[2] Carl Menger, Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences, p. 59.

[3] Douglas B. Rasmussen, “A Groundwork for Rights: Man’s Natural End,” The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. IV, No. 1 (Winter 1980).

[4] Lionel Robbins, “An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science,” second edition, (pp. 121–122).

PART 2

A Premise of Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics

Writing in his book The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Hans-Hermann Hoppe sets out to provide a rational foundation of ethics that incorporates both praxeology and the Lockean ideas of self-ownership and first appropriation.

The original premise, as laid forth in the first three paragraphs of Chapter ten, is that, “According to Mises there exists no ultimate justification for ethical propositions in the same sense as there exists one for economic propositions.” (p. 203; italics added)

In so stating, Professor Hoppe accepts, as we do, a distinction between the economic realm of human action and the ethical realm of human action.  Traditionally, economics (catallactics) is that realm of human action manifesting in exchange ratios and prices.  By contrast, ethical phenomena are typically not conceived in terms of exchange ratios.  Force and dishonesty, two of the most important ethical phenomena, are typically not conceived in terms of exchange ratios or prices.

One point we wish to raise is that the concept of justification is problematic in the context of praxeological social science.  When we use the term “justification,” we imply that we will be called upon to rationalize some act taken or planned, which act was or will be disliked by another.  We typically do not envision “justifying” to another some act he thoroughly enjoyed.

The praxeologist obviously has no reason to justify doing social science.  And when someone takes specific actions in a realm of action where praxeology has succeeded in arriving at exact social laws, then the praxeologist does not call for that person to “justify” his action.  Rather, the praxeologist simply insists on what the necessary consequences of those actions must be.

Praxeology is concerned with the necessary laws of action, and not with the justification of particular acts of the individual.
In using the term justification in the context of assessing Mises’s views about a possible praxeological science of ethical phenomena, Professor Hoppe introduces terms of discussion currently in use in objective ethics theories, the kind of social theories we believe Professor Mises was steadfastly opposed to.  A rephrasing of the same question, but in terms more in line with Mises’s conception of praxeology as the general science of human action, might be: whether or not Professor Mises believed there were laws of man’s acting nature to be discovered in the ethical realm of action as there are in the economic realm of action?  This question would be more difficult to answer in the negative than the question about “justifying” the propositions of praxeology.

It would be preposterous to assert apodictically that science will never succeed in developing a praxeological aprioristic doctrine of political organization that would place a theoretical science by the side of the purely historical discipline of political science. (UF p. 98)

It appears to have been Mises’s belief that no living person knew how to construct a praxeological science treating noncatallactic phenomena, not that no such science could be constructed.  The difficulty in the passage above is that since Mises did not know how to conceive ethical phenomena within the framework of praxeological concepts, he phrased his statement in terms of the collective concept “political organization,” implying that the praxeological doctrine in question (the science or body of laws pertaining to noneconomic phenomena of action) would apply to a system of “political organization” and not to the actions of the acting individuals.

From our point of view, the mistake in this view of things is in looking for social laws in collective organization rather than in individual action.  One can easily understand how this mistake could be made.  The question most libertarians want answered is what shape “society” should take.  They want to know which political institutions should be established and which laws enacted as consistent with the ideals of human liberty.  It is only natural that Mises, as a libertarian and as a citizen, also feels the need to answer such questions, but as an economist cannot provide a scientific answer.  So his answer is that while we do not know today how to construct a praxeological science of political organization (what today we might call a praxeological science of ethical phenomena), we cannot rule out that such a science will one day be constructed.

Professor Mises phrased the possibility of a praxeological treatment of noneconomic phenomena in terms of “political organization,” whereas we would phrase the same general idea in terms of the ethical acts of the individual.  But regardless, it is clear that Mises leaves open the possibility of a praxeological treatment of social, noncatallactic phenomena.

And thus, when Hoppe writes, “Like Mises, they have given up the idea of a rational foundation of ethics,” (p. 204) this is to be interpreted as Mises being an “opponent of any sort of objective ethics” as Professor Rothbard correctly notes. (EL p. 206; emphasis added)  This is not identical to a belief that no rational science of ethical phenomena can be constructed.

Professor Mises was an opponent of objective ethics of the type Professor Rothbard and Ayn Rand propose.  Rothbard’s and Rand’s ethical systems are proposed theories of the objective ends or values that man should pursue but does not necessarily always pursue.

[Such] ethical doctrines are intent upon establishing scales of value according to which man should act but does not necessarily always act.  They claim for themselves the vocation of telling right from wrong and of advising man concerning what he should aim at as the supreme good.  They are normative disciplines aiming at the cognition of what ought to be.  They are not neutral with regard to facts; they judge them from the point of view of freely adopted standards….This is not the attitude of praxeology and economics. (HA, p. 95)(bracketed added)

Thus, Mises draws a clear line of distinction between the positive-objective theories of ethics attempting to arrive at the ends that man should pursue, and the value-free science of praxeology concerned with the laws of choice.  Mises does not rule out a science of noncatallactic means.  He rules out the possibility of a universally valid science of ends.

Mises may have given up the idea of an objective ethics, or a science of ends, but he did not give up the idea of a deductive science of ethical phenomena.  He refused to accept objective, non-value-free theories of ethics which ultimately merely assert the value judgments of a particular person or group.  Our contention is that aside from the merits of Professor Hoppe’s argumentation ethics, one of the premises on which his theory rests is faulty.  Professor Hoppe fails to consider the possibility of treating ethical phenomena from the point of view of praxeology; from the point of view of the means/ends relationship.

According to Mises, economics is the most fully elaborated part of praxeology, and this implies that there are other parts not yet fully elaborated.  People adopt ethical means to their ends, and so it is reasonable to assume that praxeology is to treat these ethical means with respect to their necessary copresent attributes.  That Professor Mises didn’t know how to conceive ethical phenomena within the framework of praxeology is partly due to the fact that his training was in economics.  Contemporary Austrian scholars have the advantage of not having to reconstruct economics as a praxeological science.  Due to Mises’s work, we are to a large extent freed from the responsibility of constructing an economic science, and are able to focus our energy on the next frontier of deductive social science, the recurring phenomena of ethics.

The Structure of Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics: Initial Survey

This essay begins my substantive critique of Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s argumentation ethics from the point of view of both Misesian praxeology and my own work in praxeology over the last years.  This critique is “preliminary” in that it is a critique of Professor Hoppe’s ethics theory as I now understand it.  I envision a revised or follow-up critique in the event that aspects of Professor Hoppe’s theory may not be covered or adequately addressed in the present work.

In these essays, I make liberal use of the term “we” to avoid overuse of the term “I.”  But also, I hope I speak for a small number of supporters in the libertarian world, who believe as I do, that Mises intended praxeology as a science of all human action and not simply as the foundational reasoning of Austrian economics.

Introduction

Writing in his books A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, Economic Science and the Austrian Method, and The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe lays out the primary elements and reasoning constituting his ethics of argumentation.  In the course of his theory as outlined in these writings, Professor Hoppe elevates the concept or phenomenon of argumentation to one that “must be considered more fundamental than action” in some sense. (ES p. 66)  From this original axiom of argumentation, Professor Hoppe then attempts to derive other important concepts by a priori reasoning.

This essay is primarily concerned with examining the structure of Hoppe’s argumentation ethics and comparing it to the structure of traditional praxeology, the science arriving at social laws of man’s acting nature.

In the context of Austrian School social thought, Professor Hoppe may fairly be recognized as a neo-Rothbardian in his approach to social science.  Like Professor Rothbard, Professor Hoppe is concerned with constructing a theory of man’s ethical ends. (TS p. 131)  This approach differs from the Misesian conception of praxeology as a general science that establishes the laws of recurring social phenomena in the same way praxeology does for specifically economic or catallactic phenomena.  Like Professor Rothbard, Professor Hoppe does not attempt to arrive at the foundations of a science of ethical phenomena; rather, he attempts to erect a dialectical-theoretical “justification” for those libertarians wanting to make normative statements about what other people should or ought do (generally, to adhere to the libertarian private-property ethic).

When Professor Hoppe attempts to integrate the insights of praxeology into a theory of ends, thus departing from praxeology as the science of means, we claim that his argument begins to lack clarity and firm grounding in the categories of action to which everyone can refer with modest effort.  Rather than providing a demonstration of how laws are operant in the ethical realm of human action, with reference to some of the easily recognizable recurring phenomena of ethics, his argument is a complex dialectic that can be taken as true only on faith in his reasoning skills.  Professor Hoppe’s theory does not explain the ethical phenomena we encounter in our acting lives, but instead only provides a dialectical-theoretical rationale for the positive actions some libertarians want to take.

Modern praxeology as conceived by its foremost practitioner Ludwig von Mises is a science of means, aiming to arrive at social laws of apodictic certainty.  Typically, such laws are arrived at by a process of logical reasoning, but that reasoning is ultimately guided by the recurring phenomena of human social life.  In economics, such recurring phenomena include the trade cycle, shortages of goods, unemployment, depreciating value of the monetary unit, etc.  Praxeology as social science then attempts to arrive at laws of such phenomena, conceiving these phenomena as the necessary result of various actions.

The attempt to arrive at a consistent theory of ends seems to preclude the conceiving of social laws in the ordinary sense of the term—cause-and-effect-type laws that accurately describe and account for recurring social phenomena.  Take for example the recurring social phenomenon of guilt.  Guilt is a form of unhappiness or dissatisfaction in that it is typically considered an unpleasant experience.  So guilt impacts human well-being.  Guilt generally has to do with how a person feels due to some social interaction.  But guilt is not an “economic” phenomenon.  Guilt is not the object of catallactic study.  We could reasonably consider guilt an ethical phenomenon.  Therefore, a legitimate scientific question would be: what are the invariant “causes” of guilt?  How might the individual change his conduct if he wants to avoid experiencing guilt?

Praxeology as social science tries to answer questions such as these, with an eye toward explaining these recurring phenomena in terms of scientific laws.  In the ordinary sense of the term as this would apply to praxeology, a “law” is a type of causal connection between phenomena A and B that enables the individual actor to prevent B from occurring by abstaining from aiming at A, whose necessary consequence B he views as harmful to himself.

But all the positive, objective, and normative theories of ethics seem unable to produce such simple laws, even though their advocates express that moral or ethical “laws” are the aim of their theoretical efforts.  We claim this is the ultimate fate of all attempts to arrive at a consistent theory of ethical ends.  And we claim this is why Mises steadfastly refused to accept objective theories of ethics as universally valid.

Thus, the first question we would pose to Professor Hoppe is, why is the argumentation ethics not structured or presented as having as its clear goal the conception of the laws of ethical phenomena?  And if the position taken is that such laws cannot in principle be formulated, where is the argument or demonstration of this?  Where is the discussion ruling out the possibility of social laws of ethical phenomena or, if those are possible, why is this subject not prominently treated in his theory?

Austrian School social science is founded on the idea of establishing exact laws of social phenomena.  The intent of these laws is to conceive formally that which we experience in our acting lives as regularities in the copresence or succession of phenomena.  But the central concepts of Professor Hoppe’s theory seem to be those of “argumentation,” “justification,” “ownership of one’s body,” and other concepts that are not related to an effort to establish such exact laws.  So the question is, if there is a reason the argumentation ethics is not conceived as a theory eventually arriving at exact laws, where is the discussion outlining the reasons?

Our claim will be that the theory which Professor Hoppe proposes is partially based on an inherited and mistaken appraisal of the theoretical situation in praxeology as it relates to ethics.  Professor Rothbard believed, but did not demonstrate, that praxeology as the science of means would not be able to contribute to the furtherance of individual liberty aside from its market analysis.  He confused praxeology (the science of human action) with its best elaborated branch (economics), and it appears he conceived the axiom of action more as a tool of intersubjective proving and less as an axiom grounding an entire science of human conduct.  All three of these notions represent misunderstandings of the true nature of praxeology.

Praxeology, as the science of means, contributes to individual liberty by providing a logical demonstration of how some acts an individual may take are harmful to himself.  When an individual abstains from an act as a means to prevent harm to himself, this may also constitute the absence of an act that person B would view as harmful to himself.  And thus, praxeology may be understood to contribute to the furtherance of human well-being, by providing individuals with a hitherto unknown reason why they might, for selfish reasons, want to abstain from acts also deemed harmful by others.  This principle applies to “economic” acts as it does to “ethical” acts.
Praxeology is not simply a discursive method of Austrian economic theory.  Praxeology is the science of human action.  Action is human “aiming at ends,” “striving to attain,” “trying to,” “attempting to,” etc.  Praxeology is the general science of an individual actor’s attempt to attain a state of affairs.

The conception of the axiom of action as a method of intersubjective proof may well lead to a misinterpretation of the nature and goal of praxeology.  The action axiom is the grounding axiom from which arises the logical edifice of the formal praxeological system, in much the same way that the grounding axioms of mathematics or geometry form the basis of further reasoning in those sciences.  In conceiving or using the axiom of a formal science as a political tool (as a way to “force” one’s opponent into accepting one’s social philosophy) purposely or inadvertently, we may be led to introduce political concepts also into our science—concepts that are not consistent with the formal concepts and that may destroy the logical rigor of the science.  The danger exists that in using the axiom of action politically, its formal meaning in the scientific system is relinquished.

Mises on Reason and Action

On the nature of the relationship between reason and action, Mises is fairly clear about his position, although he didn’t expound on it at length.

How can the human mind, by aprioristic thinking, deal with the reality of the external world?  As far as praxeology is concerned, the answer is obvious.  Both, a priori thinking and reasoning on the one hand and human action on the other, are manifestations of the human mind.  The logical structure of the human mind creates the reality of action.  Reason and action are congeneric and homogeneous, two aspects of the same phenomenon. (UF p. 43)

For, as must be emphasized again, the reality the elucidation and interpretation of which is the task of praxeology is congeneric with the logical structure of the human mind.  The human mind generates both human thinking and human action.  Human action and human thinking stem from the same source and are in this sense homogeneous. (UF p. 65)

[H]uman action stems from the same source as human reasoning.  Action and reason are congeneric and homogeneous; they may even be called two different aspects of the same thing. (HA p. 39)

In relation to Professor Hoppe’s concepts of action and argumentation, and at this early stage in our analysis, two points will be made.  First, it is important to realize that Mises conceives “mind” as “an invisible and intangible factor” that is to be contrasted with “matter.” (UF p. 11)  Mind for Mises is not “brain,” a gray object inside one’s head; rather, it is something that is “congeneric” with the structure of action.  Second, if action is aiming at ends, we view it as perfectly consistent with Mises’s conception of things that reason is aiming at ends also.  In fact, we will be conceiving reason as a form of action insofar as reason is an individual’s “attempt to reach a conclusion,” “attempt to understand,” etc.

It will follow that if reason is a form of action, then argumentation, a concept typically conceived as less universal than reason, will also be conceived as a form of action.  We contend that from the point of view of praxeology, reason and argumentation are forms of action and nothing more.  Here is how we will be conceiving their relationships during the course of our analysis of the argumentation ethics:

We conceive the fundamental fact of human experience to be human action, what Mises calls purposeful behavior and aiming at ends.  Action is the “trying to” or “attempting to” as such.  When we contemplate the nature of our action, we recognize the recurring phenomenon of trying to as this trying to manifests in concrete situations.  For example, we conceive reasoning as a form of action to the extent that reasoning entails trying to reach a conclusion, trying to solve a problem, etc.

All action is “trying to,” Mises’s “aiming at ends.”  This is to be understood as any human activity that is a trying to or an aiming at ends (for example, trying to get from here to there).  Reason we conceive as a form of action, specifically, the trying to which is trying to reach some conclusion, trying to understand something, etc.  And finally, we would conceive argumentation as a form of action, specifically a trying to with regard to another person (trying to convince someone of something).

Thus, the relationship between action, reason, and argumentation becomes very simple.  All action is aiming at ends, and acts such as “reasoning,” “arguing,” “walking,” etc., are particular forms of action.  This concept of action retains action as the primary phenomenon and concept of praxeology.

In the science of praxeology, action (trying to) is conceived as the fundamental phenomenon, and all types or forms of trying to are conceived as particular instances of it.

The Working Assumption of the Argumentation Ethics

In his attempt to elevate the axiom of argumentation to equal status with the axiom of action, Professor Hoppe writes, “The second axiom is the so-called ‘a priori of argumentation’ which states that humans are capable of argumentation and hence know the meaning of truth and validity.” (ES p. 65)  Thus, in Hoppe’s conception, there will now be two fundamental axioms: the axiom of action and the axiom of argumentation.  But we have to remember that the proposal for two fundamental axioms is based on the assumption that praxeology, as a science of means, cannot be reconstructed to conceive laws in the social-ethical realm of human action.  This is only an operating assumption of the argumentation ethics, an assumption that has not been theoretically demonstrated.  The possibility of a science of ethical means has scarcely been considered.

If praxeology can demonstrate the existence of social-ethical laws, similar in nature to social-economic laws, then this would be a demonstration of the “moral laws” of man’s nature which Hoppe mentions on page 131 of A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, and which Rothbard refers to in the first twenty-six pages of The Ethics of Liberty.  If such laws are capable of being formulated within the framework of praxeology, then there is no reason to seek for such laws in natural-law philosophy or in a theory of argumentation.

So we return to the idea of scientific laws, which natural law and natural-law-related philosophers seem to want to establish but haven’t.  As regards Professor Hoppe’s argumentation ethics, we would seek to clarify the status of his theory as he understands it.  If ethical laws are not established by the argumentation ethics, but are establishable by praxeology, does the need for an argumentation ethics still exist?

The Structure of Action

In praxeology we conceive action as aiming at ends, and we refer to the reality of our action in arriving at such a conception.  If we accept for ourselves that action is aiming at ends, then this entails certain other phenomena of action which themselves should also be found in referring to the reality of our action.  If there is aiming at ends, then it seems there must be a “leaving of something behind,” so to speak.  This is what Mises refers to as the less satisfactory state that the individual actor seeks to replace with a more satisfactory state.  Thus, we have two formal concepts.  In trying to arrive at some state, in some way the acting individual tries to leave some state.  In short, when there is a “trying to arrive at,” there must, it seems, be a “trying to arrive from.”  And this kind of reasoning process is what is meant when we say that praxeology deduces from the axiom of action the other concepts of action.

Continuing, once the two concepts of arriving at and arriving from are conceived, and confirmed by reference to our action, a formal structure begins to take shape for arriving at social laws.  A law, properly understood, is a statement linking two phenomena which are different in some respect.  The regularity in the copresence or succession of events which social science attempts to conceive is a regularity we experience wherein event B seems to regularly follow event A.  The science attempts to conceive this situation in a way that is accurate and noncontradictory.  The concepts of arriving at and arriving from—as examples of conceiving the structure of action—begin to provide the relational structure for conceiving the two nonidentical phenomena we are trying to link by means of a social law.

A social law benefits the individual actor by providing him with a causal law linking two phenomena, one of which may be harmful to him.  If he is successful in avoiding one of them, he should also be successful in avoiding the other, since the two are necessarily connected or related.  Regarding the quantity theory of money, Mises writes, “However, nobody would deny the cognitive value of the quantity theory.  To a mind not enlightened by economic reasoning it remains unknown.” (HA, p. 38)  A mind not knowing the praxeological law linking the quantity of money to its purchasing power is a mind not knowing how to prevent the occurrence of inflation by abstaining from printing additional money.

The logical unfolding of all these concepts and categories in systematic derivation from the fundamental category of action and the demonstration of the necessary relations among them constitutes the first task of our science. (EP, p. 24) The most general prerequisite of action is a state of dissatisfaction, on the one hand, and, on the other, the possibility of removing or alleviating it by taking action. (EP, p. 24)

Praxeology provides a means for the acting individual to avoid harm when it establishes a previously unknown necessary connection between something the individual was intending to aim for and something harmful to himself.

The Structure of the Argumentation Ethics

Writing in Economic Science and the Austrian Method, Professor Hoppe writes, “The second axiom is the so-called ‘a priori of argumentation’ which states that humans are capable of argumentation and hence know the meaning of truth and validity.” (p. 65)

We understand this to mean that if there is “argumentation” for the individual, then there is “the meaning of truth and validity” also for him.  That which is “the meaning of truth and validity” is implied in argumentation but perhaps remains implicit until made explicit by theoretical reasoning.

The reason for making what is only implicit, explicit, is ultimately to provide the individual actor with new information about the ramifications of his intended act.  We typically conceive that whatever is logically entailed in the act he is contemplating must accompany that act regardless of whether he knows about it or not.  In making “explicit” that which was previously only “implicit” in his intended act, theory brings to full view aspects of his act that he may not have known about.  This puts the individual in a position to prevent these previously unknown accompaniments from occurring if/when he considers them harmful or more harmful than he wants to experience.

With regard to the argumentation ethics, and specifically with regard to the “a priori of argumentation,” the question is, are we to understand something similar with regard to them?

Are we to understand that, once the argumentation ethics makes explicit what was only implicit in arguing, the individual will be in a position to increase his well-being, by abstaining from an attempt to bring one of two related phenomena into existence, as a means for preventing its necessary accompaniment from occurring?

The argumentation ethics puts forth a vision of linked phenomena such as [the norm implied in argumentation] is that [everybody has the right of exclusive control over his own body as his instrument of action and cognition] (TS p. 132) or [to justify any norm] would already have to presuppose [the property right in his body as a valid norm]. (TS p. 133)

So the argumentation ethics proposes linked phenomena.  But their relation to action and to one another is unclear.  Missing is a clear demonstration of how an individual, knowing a relationship between entities he previously did not know, is now in a position to prevent one entity from appearing, by attempting to avoid or prevent the other one from appearing.

This is what the aprioristic reasoning in praxeology attempts to do; to arrive at such causal laws to guide the individual’s actions toward his well-being.  Praxeological economic laws essentially demonstrate how one can avoid things one may believe are harmful: inflation, unemployment, high prices, shortages, etc.

Hoppe writes in A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, “In contrast to the role of reason in establishing empirical laws of nature, reason can claim to yield results in determining moral laws which can be shown to be valid a priori.  It only makes explicit what is already implied in the concept of argumentation itself.” (p. 131; emphasis added)

(Here, one wonders why Professor Hoppe chooses to say that moral laws can be determined just as empirical laws of nature.  Why not say that moral-social laws can be determined just as economic-social laws are?  We already know that social laws can be determined in the catallactic realm of human conduct, so wouldn’t it seem natural that we would point to those laws and to the science that established them when we want to demonstrate that moral laws are also possible?)

We interpret Hoppe as saying something like: if argumentation is present for the acting individual, then too must the meaning of truth and validity or the private-property ethic be present for him, at least as implicit necessities (as necessarily entailed in the fact of arguing, but perhaps not fully recognized by the one who is arguing).  This meant in the same sense as in praxeological economics, where the presence of something (increase in quantity of money) brings with it another phenomenon (decrease in purchasing power).  The things that are only implicit in action (or, for Hoppe, in argumentation) are made explicit.  Then there are two things: the originally given, posited or supposed thing, and that which it necessarily entails.

The necessary connection or relation of these two separate phenomena of [argumentation] and [the meaning of truth and validity] or of [argumentation] and [private-property ethic] will eventually constitute the moral law.  And then social actor A will in principle be able to avoid harm from one of the two things that are necessarily connected to one another, by abstaining from bringing its necessarily connected counterpart into existence.

Or at least this is how a standard praxeological approach would seek to conceive things.

Writing on page 207 of The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Hoppe writes, “By being alive and formulating any proposition, then, one demonstrates that any ethic except the libertarian private property ethic is invalid.”

The structure of this argument as plainly stated in this passage is that some posited phenomenon [formulating a proposition] brings with it as a copresent necessity [validity of private-property ethic].  That is the structure of what Hoppe claims a priori reasoning brings from implicit status to fully explicit knowledge for the benefit of the acting individual.

But on page 208, Professor Hoppe provides what he considers the structure of his argument as: (a) justification is propositional justification—a priori true is-statement; (b) argumentation presupposes property in one’s body and the homesteading principle—a priori true is-statement; and (c) then no deviation from this ethic can be argumentatively justified—a priori true is-statement.

In the passage on page 207, it is difficult to see exactly what social law is intended as operant regarding these two linked phenomena.  If a praxeological law is intended, it would seem to need clarification since a plain reading does not convey information that a praxeological law contains, i.e., causal instruction on how an individual can avoid harm through abstaining from specific means.

On the other hand, the passage on page 208 is not presented in the form of a social law but rather in the form of a syllogism.

In the first passage, which Hoppe does not describe as the structure of his argument, his argument is presented in the standard “two-phenomena” social-law structure, but no law is claimed or clearly ascertainable.

In the second passage which Hoppe indicates is to be considered the structure of his argument, no law form is attempted, only the syllogistic form.

Social Law

From the point of view of praxeology, as the social science conceiving and establishing such social laws, this absence constitutes a deficiency in the theory.

Social law provides an objective demonstration of the necessary effects of specific types of social action or social behavior.  When we say “objective demonstration“ we mean in this context that since the social law eventually can be reduced to an equivalency statement, that once and to the extent the law is grasped as such, then to this extent the subjective interpretation of the law’s meaning is diminished.  Once one grasps the meaning of an objectively presented statement of equivalence, then one does not have to refer to any text or philosophy in order to prove, understand, or “back-up” this statement.  The equivalency statement, once correctly arrived at and objectively presented, can stand on its own, since it is a statement about how two entities which can appear differently, or appear in different form, are actually the same in some sense.

The reason that the social laws stating the necessary effects of increasing the supply of money or of increasing the minimum wage above the market rate can stand on their own as objective social laws is that, in some sense, an increase in the supply of money is the same thing as a decrease in its value.  Likewise, a legal minimum wage that rises above the market wage rate is, in some sense, the same thing as unemployment.

How this is so is perhaps a contentious and controversial issue that academicians will argue about.  Nevertheless, what gives these types of social laws their “stand-alone” capability is that they are efficient statements of equivalence between entities, of the same essential type as the equivalency statements of mathematics or formal logic.  Once these laws are grasped, then they serve as a type of “efficient” knowledge, whereby those acknowledging them can conceive a relationship between two entities, a relationship not known previous to the discovery and conceptual formulation of the laws.

It is for this reason that the ethical assertions of socialism, of the world religions, and of the private property ethic do not appear to be scientific laws.  The assertions made by these ethical systems do not reduce to statements of equivalence, and therefore cannot stand on their own.  The link asserted to exist between the two entities which are (the particular unethical act) and (the particular negative consequence) exists only as an argument in the texts of the ethical system in question.  The link is not objectively demonstrable or presentable as an efficient equivalency statement.  Rather, to believe in the link, one has to believe in the text.  The cause-and-effect link exists only as part of the overall belief system of the philosophy itself, but cannot exist as a stand-alone law, expressing an aspect of equivalence between two entities. (PC2 pp. 31–32)

Conclusion

Professor Hoppe’s argumentation ethics, as a form of objective ethics, is unable to produce an actual scientific law, that is, an objectively presented law-type statement which can exist outside the context of the overall argument.  In our view, this is not something that can be fixed by further refinements of the theory, but is something that is an inherent structural feature of the theory, to the extent the theory attempts to assess the ends of human action.  The attempt to establish a consistent theory of ends is fundamentally incompatible with the establishment of pure theoretical social laws.

The Structure of Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics: Human Well-Being

Happiness

As economics is the most mature praxeological science, it naturally follows that the specifically economic concepts are well developed compared to the concepts that lay outside the realm of economics proper.  Thus, concepts such as capital, economic good, money, exchange, price, etc., receive extensive treatment, while concepts such as coercion, honesty, happiness, and even property, receive much less treatment.  This is for the simple reason that these concepts fall outside the scope of traditionally conceived economic science.  Economics (or catallactics) typically revolves around the phenomena of human action for which exchange ratios are possible.

One task of a praxeological treatment of ethical phenomena is the constructing of a formal model or scheme for conceiving the dual phenomena of human action: happiness and unhappiness.  Should this be successfully accomplished, the result will be a purely formal conception of happiness that is more precise than the conceptions economists were able to develop.  A more precise formal definition of happiness and unhappiness facilitates an understanding of how other important concepts of praxeology, such as means and ends, or the law of marginal utility, may relate to individual happiness.

If happiness and unhappiness are conceived in their material, commonsensical, or contentual sense, then there is no way to demonstrate a necessary relationship between the various aspects of human action as we experience them on the one hand, and human happiness on the other.  The problem involved is similar to that of trying to demonstrate a necessary relationship between a carved wooden X and some other physical object such as a tree, versus conceiving the necessary relations between the mathematical concept “X” and other elements of a mathematical equation.  The relations of formal concepts are fundamentally different from the relations of material objects.  To demonstrate the necessary relationship between some aspect of human action and human happiness, both phenomena must be conceived as elements of the same formal scheme or system.  Thus, the need exists for a purely formal concept of happiness as a prerequisite for a praxeological theory of ethical phenomena.

A Universal Aspect of Ethics Theory

As written elsewhere, a universal element of ethics theory is some conception or demonstration of how acting or not acting in a certain way leads to some positive or negative consequence to the individual actor.  Ethics deals with possible methods of conduct.  Ethics theory ultimately deals with the relationship between an individual’s conduct and his well-being.

There is no reason besides arbitrary preference for a person to change his conduct and conform to a particular code of ethics if not doing so will cause him no harm.  If an individual can act contrary to the teachings of a given ethical system and yet avoid the negative consequences described by that system, to this extent he may continue to act in the manner to which he is accustomed, safe in the knowledge that the specified negative consequences will not befall him.  Thus, the question eventually arises whether the consequences claimed by a given ethical system must absolutely result from the specified conduct, or whether those consequences may only possibly result from it.  There is a fundamental difference between “If you do X, Y might happen” and “If you do X, Y must necessarily happen.”  This is why Menger and Mises focus their attention on exact laws or apodictically certain laws.  Generally, ethics theories try to demonstrate that the consequence resulting from the conduct is a certainty, not merely a possibility.

Human WellBeing and the Argumentation Ethics

One way of appraising Professor Hoppe’s argumentation ethics is with respect to the negative consequences held to result from acting contrary to its ethical teachings.  Writing in The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, pages 204–206, Professor Hoppe lists those negative effects variously as:

in violation of demonstrated preference…
would contradict the ethic…
would contradict…
nonlibertarian ethical proposals [are] falsified…
the ultimate defeat for an ethical proposal…
the most deadly smash…
a practical contradiction…

and

then we would all cease to exist…
no one would be allowed to do anything with anything…
Neither we, our forefathers, nor our progeny could, do or will survive…
it would be impossible for anyone to first say anything at a definite point in time and for someone else to be able to reply…
acting and proposition making would also be impossible…
One would have to interrogate and come to an agreement with the entire population…

These are the negative effects that Professor Hoppe provides as associated with not adhering to the teachings of the argumentation ethics.  In Professor Hoppe’s argumentation ethics, the two fundamental types of negative consequences are: (1) those having to do with the consistency of one’s ideas or theory, and the possible defeat of one’s ideas in the intellectual forum, and (2) negative consequences of a more drastic nature.

Our claim with respect to Professor Hoppe’s theory is the following:

With respect to the first group of negative consequences and the claim that nonlibertarian theories or ethical proposals are contradictory, this claim does not demonstrate a necessary relationship to the happiness or well-being of the person proposing it.  With respect to the second group of negative consequences, whose effect on a person’s happiness may be granted for the sake of argument, those consequences cannot be shown to occur to the person making the ethical proposal.

By Professor Hoppe’s theory, a person tries to show how the nonlibertarian has done something “faulty” or in some way “negative.”  He will try to demonstrate a contradiction in the argument of the nonlibertarian.  But this demonstration in itself, even if successful, is not a demonstration of an effect on the happiness or well-being of the person contradicting himself.  Consider, for example, a comedian who tries to amuse his audience by loudly proclaiming “I am not alive.”  In doing so, the comedian contradicts himself in the manner indicated by the argumentation ethics.  But it is difficult to see how contradicting himself in this manner is in any way harmful to him.

On the other hand, if we consider the negative effects whose effect on human well-being is beyond practical dispute (we would all cease to exist, we could not survive, etc.), these effects do not necessarily happen to the person who advances a nonlibertarian ethical proposal.  People frequently propose nonlibertarian codes of conduct without these drastic consequences happening to them.

Thus, Professor Hoppe’s theory does not demonstrate a connection between advancing a nonlibertarian ethic in argumentation, and some necessary impact on the happiness or well-being of the person who advances that ethic.  Of course the supporters of the argumentation ethics will likely argue that self-contradiction is obviously bad for the individual, and they may insist that nonlibertarian ethics will lead to the extinction of the human race or to other drastic consequences.  However, our strong convictions and intuitions that something is wrong with statism is not a substitute for a rigorous demonstration that specific modes of conduct are harmful to those who practice them.  The argumentation ethics does not demonstrate a connection between self-contradiction and personal happiness.  And it does not demonstrate that drastic consequences will befall the person proposing a nonlibertarian ethic.  In the realm of intellectual inquiry, this theoretical deficiency may constitute a “deadly smash.”

Conclusion

Regarding the causal connection between the ethical act and its impact on the happiness of the actor, we had previously written:

Private-property ethicists say that if man does not respect human liberty and property, then society will disintegrate and man will eventually become extinct.  [Their adherents] are certain that their philosophers have sufficiently demonstrated what man’s true nature is, and what the effect of not adhering to their ethical systems will be.  They are certain that their philosophers have demonstrated within their texts, social-ethical cause and effect, and have thus arrived at something like the laws of man’s nature.

But in the age of modern science, the learned scholars of each particular ethical school are not easily swayed.  They have seen what “laws” look like, and they don’t look like long, voluminous texts.  When modern science arrives at laws, both physical and social (as in economics), the actual laws themselves—the objectively presented statements of cause and effect—are generally very short.

When the learned scholars of each of the three major ethical schools compare this general form of a law to the ethical assertions of cause-and-effect being proposed by the other two schools, they suspect that these proposed cause and effect connections may not be real scientific laws, but rather a kind of substitute for scientific law.  It doesn’t take long before each school is able to locate in the theories of the others the points at which what is claimed to be cause and effect is actually something like intuition or strong conviction. (PC2, pp. 28–29)

It is not a coincidence that positive ethicists tend to put forth terms such as “man will become extinct” or his life will “go out of existence,”[1] but with no clear connection to any particular individual ethical act.  And it is not a coincidence that they put forth their version of social law in the form of complicated syllogisms.[2]  These “recurring patterns” result from the fact that the positive ethicist is unable to arrive at exact social laws that can be expressed in the standard cause-and-effect form in which the laws of praxeology are expressed.

Surprisingly, as far as we can tell, there exists no demonstration or even argument that the phenomena of ethics cannot be the subject matter of praxeology.  The quest for objective values and for the ultimate ends of man’s striving continues unabated, a praxeological science of ethical phenomena apparently not having been considered.  This may be unremarkable in the context of mainstream ethics theory.  However, in the context of Austrian School social thought, it is alarming.

The Concept of Scarcity in Social Science

Austrian School social scientists, beginning with Carl Menger and continuing through Mises, strive for a logically consistent social theory accounting for a wide range of social phenomena.  What characterizes praxeology as it expands to account for an ever wider range of phenomena, is its ability to conceive things less in “objective” terms and more in terms of how they appear from the point of view of the individual actor.

In this essay we propose a subjectivist concept of scarcity consistent with the methodological individualism that is the hallmark of praxeology.

Methodological Individualism

“Here again, it is very important to recognize that what is significant for human action is not the physical property of a good, but the evaluation of the good by the actor.” (MS p. 19)  With these words, Professor Rothbard (at a stage of his intellectual career when he was a student of Mises) put forth the key to the true method of praxeology.  This is the method that led Menger to his original insight, thus founding the Austrian School of economics and social thought.

Methodological individualism is more than just the idea that only individuals act and that collectives do not act.  Methodological individualism is the specific method for discovering and unfolding the logic of human action.  The logic of human action is discovered by contemplating the relationships inherent in our individual acting reality.  Those relationships are the necessary relations that inhere in the recurring experiences of individual action.  Methodological individualism is the procedure of conceiving those relationships as they exist in individual action.  Whereas Rothbard held that praxeology was the “method” of Austrian economics, it is more accurate to conceive that methodological individualism is the method of praxeology and thus of Austrian economics.

Properly understood, methodological individualism is a procedure for conceptualizing that guides the praxeologist in making his account of social phenomena more consistent.  In short, methodological individualism is the method for advancing praxeology from a less consistent state to a more consistent state.

Air and Scarcity

In Austrian School literature, it is common to see reference made to the concept of scarcity and to the example of air as something that is not scarce.  Usually, such references to air as a nonscarce resource are preceded or followed by a qualifier such as “in most cases” or “under normal circumstances,” etc.

In considering air with respect to its physical extension and physical volume in comparison to that of the human body, it is undeniable that air is abundant in this sense.  But considered from the point of view of individual action, there are many cases in which air is scarce.  So many, in fact, that one may be compelled to rethink the idea that air is not a scarce good, a good that an individual does not have to strive to attain as he does all others.

Is air not scarce for the person swimming under water or for the person climbing a tall mountain?  Is air not scarce for all those flying at high altitude in commercial jetliners?  Is air not scarce for all those people with oxygen tanks, for the small child under the covers of a bed, or for the sweaty person trapped for a short time with his shirt over his head as he tries to take it off?  Is air not scarce for those working underground, or those travelling through long tunnels?  Is air not scarce for those living in areas highly polluted with smog?  Is air not scarce for someone with a serious coughing spell, or for someone laughing so hard he is having a “no-breather?”  Is air not scarce when someone takes a deep breath because he feels he does not have enough air?

In short, is air not scarce for all those who find themselves in circumstances where the supply of air is not guaranteed, and where therefore they must “strive to attain” it in some way?  This is obviously an important question Austrian scholars need to ask themselves, especially if they are intending to make the concept of scarcity central to their theory or argument.

Scarcity as a Category of Action

In a formal conception of human striving (human action) we can conceive that not only “value” is subjectively determined in individual action, but also that “supply” is subjectively determined in individual action.

Whether or not the firewood next to A’s house constitutes his supply, or whether A has a sufficient supply of firewood, is not an objective quality of the firewood, but rather determined by A’s view of things.

The scarcity of any good (whether or not individual A strives to attain a good, or more of a good) is subjectively determined within the reality of his action.  Or, scarcity is “revealed” to the individual within the reality of his action in his attempting to attain a thing or more of a thing.  By striving to attain something, actor A reveals that, for himself, he does not have enough of it, i.e., that it is “scarce” for him.

Scarcity is a universal aspect of human action and properly understood as a formal concept of praxeology.  It is not a condition of “external reality,” sometimes present and other times not.  Rather, scarcity is a necessary feature of action.  In conceiving action formally in terms of striving and attainment, we realize that the concept of scarcity is already implied in the actor’s striving to attain something.

The attempt to attain something, or some state, is the not having of a wanted thing or state.  And this not having of a wanted thing is a short supply or scarcity.  The actor universally encounters scarcity because the actor is at all times “striving to attain,” and thus at all times revealing an insufficient supply (scarcity) of something.  Stated simply, scarcity is already accounted for in human action when we conceive that action is aiming at ends or striving to attain.

What likely prevents one from seeing this more clearly is the historical fact that the concept of scarcity originated with economic science and thus became associated with ordinary objects of exchange.  The majority of such objects are conceived as physical/tangible goods flowing across borders or being physically exchanged between owners.  Scarcity came to be associated with the objective state of things rather than with the subjective view of the individual.  The Austrian School social thinker came to classify scarcity as a physical phenomenon rather than as an action-category phenomenon.

A Microcosm of Hoppe’s Social Theory: Scarcity, Knowledge, and Physical Conception of Action

Professor Hoppe’s conception of scarcity, in both its subjective and objective aspects, is evident in the following passage:

Knowledge is a category quite distinct from those that I have explained earlier—from ends and means.  The ends which we strive to attain through our actions, and the means which we employ in order to do so, are both scarce values.  The values attached to our goals are subject to consumption and are exterminated and destroyed in consumption and thus must forever be produced anew.  And the means employed must be economized, too.  Not so, however with respect to knowledge—regardless of whether one considers it a means or an end in itself.  Of course, the acquisition of knowledge requires scarce means—at least one’s body and time.  Yet once knowledge is acquired, it is no longer scarce.  It can neither be consumed, nor are the services that it can render as a means subject to depletion.  Once there, it is an inexhaustible resource and incorporates an everlasting value provided that it is not simply forgotten.  Yet knowledge is not a free good in the same sense that air, under normal circumstances, is a free good.  Instead, it is a category of action.  It is not only a mental ingredient of each and every action, quite unlike air, but more importantly, knowledge, and not air, is subject to validation. (ES, pp. 67–68)

This passage represents in some respects a microcosm of Professor Hoppe’s larger social theory.  In it, Professor Hoppe argues for a specific conception of knowledge which, once established, will become a central concept of his social theory.  This particular passage makes relatively heavy use of three important concepts: scarcity, knowledge, and Professor Hoppe’s physical concept of action.  The relationships among the various concepts as written above provide a glimpse into Professor Hoppe’s conceptual vision.

Scarcity

Professor Hoppe’s conception of scarcity as conceived in this passage partially conforms to a subjectivist and formal conception.  Hoppe writes, “The ends which we strive to attain through our actions, and the means which we employ in order to do so, are both scarce values.”

Here, no content is referred to.  Hoppe writes that ends and means are both scarce values.  And as no content is referred to, this would mean that if something is an end of human action, or a means of human action, then it is a scarce value.  In other words, something is scarce by virtue of its being an end or a means of action.  As mentioned above, we can conceive scarcity as already entailed in striving or acting to attain something.  When the acting subject acts to attain a thing or a situation, this implies that the thing or situation is “scarce” for him.  At any rate, Professor Hoppe at least indicates a categorical-formal conception of scarcity when he writes that means and ends are scarce values, irrespective of content.

Hoppe also writes that “once knowledge is acquired, it is no longer scarce.”  And here again this shows how we conceive scarcity not as a feature of physical reality, but rather as a feature of acting man’s experience of reality.  For acting man, there is “the acquiring of knowledge” or the “attempt to acquire knowledge,” and then there is when “knowledge is acquired.”  There is striving to attain, and there is attainment.  There is aiming at an end and there is reaching an end.  So Hoppe’s written statement conforms to the fundamental categories of action: the two categories of “striving” and “attainment.” (We note that Professor Hoppe’s passage also contains an explicit mention of these categories when he writes “strive to attain.”)

In writing that once knowledge is acquired it is no longer scarce, Professor Hoppe implies that before it was acquired it was scarce.  It is in the reality of action—in the reality of striving and attainment—that scarcity is revealed.  A consistent conception of scarcity from the point of view of praxeology cannot conceive scarcity as a feature of objective reality.

How this is meant can be shown by considering how Professor Hoppe misconstrues the idea of scarcity in providing his account of air as a free good (a free good conceived as the opposite of a scarce good).  He writes, “air, under normal circumstances, is a free good.”  And thus, Hoppe conceives something along the lines that air is objectively nonscarce (free) independent of how the individual views things.  But there is a problem because Professor Hoppe has to qualify his statement with “under normal circumstances.”  The theoretical danger of introducing this undefined qualifier is that the notion of “normal circumstances” is arbitrary.

For example, we could claim that “under normal circumstances” groceries are “free goods” because only for one hour each week does a person have to “pay” for groceries, whereas all other times during the week they are “free” in his refrigerator.  If we define “normal circumstances” in terms of the time period used in paying for some good as compared to the time period when a person can draw from a supply without payment, then we could make a case that almost all goods are free “under normal circumstances.”  Most of the week groceries are free in my refrigerator (that is the normal circumstance).  But once a week groceries are scarce (that is the abnormal circumstance when shopping must be done).

Let us assume a person is convinced that air is going to become scarce and that therefore he should stockpile supplies of it.  Perhaps the person believes that the air in his town will become contaminated.  He therefore purchases supplies of air.  That he pays for air is a simple economic exchange based on subjective valuation.  It is firmly established Austrian economics doctrine that praxeology and economics describe man as he actually is and not as he should or would be if his valuations were other than what they are.  By Hoppe’s objective account of scarcity, this transaction would have to be considered “abnormal” since air is supposed to be free “under normal circumstances.”  However, there is no universally valid way to distinguish “normal” scarcity from “abnormal” scarcity.  Groceries are scarce for the individual when the individual actor acts to attain them, whether they are in the refrigerator or in a store.  And the same holds true for air.  Air is scarce any time an actor strives to attain it.  Both things—air and groceries—are, as Hoppe wrote previously, “scarce values” when they are the ends of action.

Knowledge as a Category of Action

Professor Hoppe seeks to establish that knowledge is a category of action. (ES, p. 67)  This seems to be in clear conflict with aspects of knowledge that he acknowledges during the course of his argument.  He writes, “once knowledge is acquired, it is no longer scarce,” thus acknowledging that knowledge is something that is sought for and attained.  Something sought for and attained is an “end” or “object” of action, not a category.  If knowledge is something we may attain, and if knowledge is a category of action, then do we attain a category of action in attaining knowledge?  Do people pay for knowledge?  If so, are they paying for a category of action?

Referring to knowledge, Professor Hoppe also writes, “Once there, it is an inexhaustible resource and incorporates an everlasting value provided that it is not simply forgotten.”  If knowledge is an inexhaustible resource, and if knowledge is a category of action, does this mean that one of our categories of action is an inexhaustible resource?

Thus, our claim is that knowledge can be conceived as an object of action, and need not be conceived as a category of action.  Perhaps it would help in clarifying things if we distinguish between specific knowledge and the notion of mental content.  When we conceive that an individual strives for specific knowledge, then this seems to be a fairly straightforward case of an actor’s striving to attain a thing.

However when we conceive knowledge very broadly and generally as indicated in a statement such as “it is…a mental ingredient of each and every action,” then we no longer speak about specific knowledge.  Now we refer to the more general notion that all action entails mental content, or the notion that all conscious action entails content of consciousness.  There is always a content of intentional action.  Such content is “a mental ingredient of each and every action.”  But such content is not necessarily the same thing as specific knowledge that may be sought and attained.  In other words, it would be helpful to distinguish in action between a category of content on the one hand, and the various material or perceptual forms in which particular content may manifest on the other.

Action Conceived as Primarily Physical

Professor Hoppe argues that knowledge is a category “quite distinct from those that I have explained earlier—from ends and means.”  Hoppe may be led to consider knowledge as a category of action and not an object of action because he employs a physical conception of action.  For example, he writes, “The values attached to our goals are subject to consumption and are exterminated and destroyed in consumption and thus must forever be produced anew.”

When Professor Hoppe speaks of value being “destroyed,” “consumed,” or “exterminated,” he is giving a description of a physical or biological process.  A tangible-physical object is transformed from one form of matter to another form of matter during the act of physical consumption.  But this is physics and biology, and not social science.  Professor Hoppe is giving an account in material terms of the underlying essence of action.  All action is aiming at ends.  All action is “striving to attain.”  But Hoppe conceives action in material terms: “forever produced anew.”

Action is striving and attainment.  The logic of action is that if something is attained, this thing is no longer striven for.  When something new is striven for, then the “attained” thing is no longer the focus of the actor’s striving because the striven for thing is now the focus of the actor’s striving.  In the subjective sense then, the attained value “does not exist” for the actor—is not the focus of his conscious action—since his focus is now on a different object or value.  This is a formal description of action that does not refer to the nature of the contents or objects of action.

We can apply this idea to a physical object such as food eaten by person A.  At some point, A is “striving to attain” food, whether in growing it, buying it, or eating it.  All these are actions of actor A.  At some point A “attains” food, having grown it, bought it, or eaten it.  Those things formerly striven for become attained.  Now A is occupied with or focused on other values, and food is not the focus of his striving.  Food has now “gone away,” subjectively, for actor A.  He no longer consciously considers it because he is busy or occupied striving to attain something else.

This same principle applies to knowledge.  Knowledge can be sought for and attained by an actor.  Once this knowledge is attained, then something else is striven for (and here we mean specific knowledge).  This specific knowledge then “goes out of existence,” subjectively, for actor A, in the sense that this specific piece of knowledge is no longer the focus of his action.  He now strives for other things which constitute the objects or focus of his action.  But we would not conceive that knowledge in this instance is “consumed,” “exterminated,” or “destroyed” in terms of physical processes.

What Professor Hoppe has done is to conceive the formal notion of “attainment” in physical terms.  He has given a material interpretation to that aspect of action in which specific values are no longer consciously present for the actor, because the actor is now focused on other values.  Instead of conceiving that object X is no longer the focus of the actor’s conscious action, Hoppe conceives that X has been “consumed.”

From his physical conception of action, it then becomes problematic for Hoppe to conceive knowledge as an object of action, since we do not typically conceive knowledge as something that can be physically consumed or physically depleted.  Owing to his physical concept of action in which the objects of action are “produced” or “consumed” in the material sense, Hoppe may be forced to conceive knowledge as a category of action, because if he were to conceive knowledge as an object of action, he would then, by his own conceptions, have to depict knowledge as something that is “produced” and “consumed” in the physical sense.

From our point of view, if we consider the logic of action in a purely formal way, it is not important why something is not present for the acting individual.  Whether something isn’t present for him because he ate it, or because he forgot it, or because he changed his plans or focus, is of no consequence or importance for the logic of action.  What is important for action is that if something is the object of action, then other things are not the object of action.  These other things are essentially “not present” for the acting individual.  This does not necessarily imply a material process in which these things are transformed from one form of matter to another.

The Simplicity of Action

In the writings of Mises, one sees him refer time and again to the simple idea that action is the individual’s attempt to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory state of affairs.  The precise form in which this essential insight is conceived may ultimately have significance for the logical consistency of a social science based on its original axioms.  However, the didactic effect of repeating this same notion by different expressions reinforces that our ultimate aim is to understand the underlying phenomenon of action.  Human action is aiming at ends, is trying to arrive at, is striving to attain.  It is simply trying to change the present situation into a different one.

Physicists sometimes remark on the beautiful symmetry that mathematics reveals in the laws of nature.  Perhaps the future of praxeology holds forth the promise of such beauty and symmetry as well, revealed in the formal laws of man’s nature.

Necessity in Social Science and in Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics

Especially since Hume, social philosophers and social scientists have had to pay careful attention to the epistemological problem of necessity.  To the extent that social science treats conscious conduct and its consequences, the question of the relationship between two events arises.  The manner in which a theory conceives necessity or causality greatly impacts the consistency and success of the theory.

Professor Hoppe realizes that what elevates Mises above others is his contribution to social science “in its search for certain foundations.” (EE, p. 203)  Realizing the significance of praxeology in this regard, Professor Hoppe seeks to apply his own understanding of praxeology to the important unsolved question of the rational foundation of ethics.

Old Philosophical Problems

Professor Hoppe, writing in A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, considers and rejects the analytical, empirical, and emotivist doctrines. (pp. 128–129)  In social science, when we formulate a social law in the form of a written proposition, we claim that this proposition says something important about the reality confronting the individual actor.  What we are trying to capture is something more than a simple analytical statement (all unmarried men are bachelors), something more than an empirical statement (B followed A before, so B will probably follow A again), and something more than a statement about how we are feeling (I am upset about your ethical behavior).

Hoppe thus concludes that we are “forced, then, to accept a rationalist approach towards ethics.” (p. 129)  The question then becomes, what exactly will this rationalist approach be?  For Hoppe, this rationalist approach will be reasoning from a priori true propositions.

Hoppe believes that this is Mises’s method also, and writes in this regard: “Thus having reconstructed economics as, in the last resort, derived from an a priori true proposition, Mises, then…” (EE, p. 203)  Continuing with his conception of things, Hoppe, following Rothbard, implies that Mises viewed praxeology as his “method of economics,” and writes of Mises: “He terms a so founded economics ‘praxeology,’ the logic of action.”

Here we would dispute Hoppe on both points.  Mises himself writes: “All that is needed for the deduction of all praxeological theorems is knowledge of the essence of action.” (HA, p. 64; emphasis added)  “The only way to a cognition of these theorems is a logical analysis of our inherent knowledge of the category of action.  We must bethink ourselves and reflect upon the structure of human action.” (HA, p. 64; emphasis added)  There is more to praxeology and economics than “a priori true propositions.”  Mises never loses sight of the underlying phenomenon—our experience of conscious action—that we try to conceive in terms of exact laws.  The a priori propositions and the logical reasoning are all propositions about, and reasoning about, our inherent knowledge of and repetitive experience of consciously aiming at ends.  That we “experience” aiming at ends is our “reference phenomenon.”  This reference phenomenon is, as it were, a realm of mental doings and experiences in which we intuit various regularities.  We “extract” or “abstract” from this realm, and from these regularities, an aspect such as “aiming at ends,” and, according to Mises, we try to deduce from this conception all that it implies.  Praxeology, strictly speaking, does not start from a proposition.  It starts from the experience of aiming at ends.

Regarding the relationship between praxeology and economics, the conception of this relationship attributed to Mises by Hoppe is the Hoppean/Rothbardian interpretation.  Mises himself writes, “…the theoretical science of human action, praxeology, and especially its hitherto best-developed part, economics or catallactics.” (MM, p. 16)

It is clear that Mises did not term his “economics” “praxeology.”  Rather, he termed economics “catallactics,” the theory of market phenomena. (HA, pp. 232–234)  Praxeology, as Mises wrote time and again, is the general theoretical science of human action of which economics is but a part.  Praxeology is the general science of human choosing and of human aiming at ends.  Mises saw this science as extending beyond economics.  He did not call his special kind of economics “praxeology,” nor did he view praxeology as the “method” of economics, but saw economics as a branch or part of praxeology.  He saw economics and praxeology as scientific disciplines, with praxeology being the more general of the two.  The “logic of action” is not identified with “economics” in Misesian thought, as Hoppe implies.  The logic of action is identified with praxeology, and economics is a subdivision.

To conceive that Mises was concerned with the logic of propositions, and to conceive that he was concerned with the application of the logic of propositions to economics, and that he called the joining of these two “praxeology,” is a misconception of what Mises was doing.

The “propositional” approach Professor Hoppe has in mind as an approach to ethics is his unique approach.  His idea is that logical reasoning alone, from a priori true propositions, may be applicable to ethics as it is to economics.  Professor Hoppe conceives praxeology as a discipline that begins with a proposition concerning action, and proceeds to arrive at conclusions by further discursive reasoning.  Generally absent from Hoppe’s account is meaningful reference to the recurring phenomena that individuals experience, as the basis for forming the original concepts of action or argumentation, and as the basis for correlating the concepts of the theory to their counterparts in experience.  An example of the kind of a priori reasoning Professor Hoppe has in mind is the following:

Yet what is implied in the very fact of arguing?  It is to this question that our insight into the inextricable interconnection between the a priori of argumentation and that of action provides an answer: On a very general level, it cannot be denied argumentatively that argumentation presupposes action and that arguments, and the knowledge embodied in them, are those of actors.  And more specifically, it cannot then be denied that knowledge itself is a category of action; that the structure of knowledge must be constrained by the peculiar function which knowledge fulfills within the framework of action categories; and that the existence of such structural constraints can never be disproved by any knowledge whatsoever. (ES, p. 67)

Here we encounter a problem that is the direct result of conceiving praxeology as a “method” virtually synonymous with the discursive reasoning process.  When praxeology is conceived as mainly logical reasoning, then the reasoning employed ceases to be constrained by reference to an underlying phenomenon or principle other than the end goal of the individual reasoner.

Thus, Professor Hoppe writes, “it cannot then be denied that knowledge itself is a category of action.”  And this is held by him to be implied in the very fact of arguing and revealed by a priori reasoning.  However, not only can it be denied that knowledge is a category of action, but Hoppe himself implies that knowledge is not a category of action when he writes “once knowledge is acquired, it is no longer scarce.” (ES, p. 68)  Something that can be acquired and that is no longer scarce once acquired is not a “category” of action; it is an object of action.

What is happening is that Professor Hoppe is reasoning.   He is reasoning about action and about argumentation and about knowledge, but he has not put forth a reference phenomenon which his readers could refer to independent of his discursive argument.  He is involved in a complex argument, but the argument is not referring to, and is therefore not formed or shaped by, a previously delineated realm of experience and the regularities which occur in that realm of experience.  Hoppe’s reasoning is free of any experiential constraints.  What he is doing is not praxeology, but more like “freestyle” reasoning.  And that is why the passage is contradictory and difficult to understand.  The reasoning employed is not constrained by reference to the experienced regularities of action or argumentation.

Reason and Necessity

Let us provide a few examples of what we are referring to.  And we will try to keep them brief.

When we provided the example of the aerodynamic car as showing something important about necessity (PC2, pp. 46–47), this was meant to establish a perceptual referent, as it were, for a general theory of necessity.  When a car is made more fuel efficient by means of making it more aerodynamic, what is “implied” or “entailed” in this very same act or event is that the car is also made harder to bring to a stop.  We conceive that the “means,” making the car more aerodynamic, entails more than just increasing the fuel efficiency of the car.  It now takes the car longer to come to a stop.  The car maker may not realize that in making the car more aerodynamic, he is also making the car harder to bring to a stop.  There are consequences to making the car more aerodynamic that the car maker may not have thought about.

The usefulness of this example is to be found in the way it gives a pictorial and tangible form to a case of necessary entailment.  We can refer to this example, and the pictures we may form of it in our minds, as a basis of reference.  The example serves as a “reference phenomenon,” something we can refer to in our reasoning.

In this example we can see the sense in which two phenomena are related as two aspects of a single and unitary “fact” or “presentment.”  The “increase in fuel efficiency” and the “harder to bring to a stop” are “a-temporally” related and necessarily entailed.  They are both “implied” in the concept, or means, of making the car more aerodynamic.  If an actor makes a car more fuel efficient by means X (making the car more aerodynamic), then the inescapable consequence will be Y (the car will take longer to come to a stop).

This is what we mean by a reference phenomenon.  It is a way of demonstrating a concept by referring to perceptual referents.  Regardless whether one agrees or disagrees with our account of necessity as described in the car example, we have provided a clear reference phenomenon to which one may refer in either upholding or disputing this account of necessary entailment.  In addition to claiming that Y is necessarily entailed in X, we provided a perceptual reference phenomenon.  This is not discursive reasoning alone.  It is reasoning guided and aided by reference to the regular occurrences of action and consciousness.

Necessity and Action

The most fundamental law of Austrian School social theory is the law of a necessary relation between supply and value (“the law of marginal utility: Whenever the supply of a good increases by one additional unit…the value attached to this unit must decrease.” [ES, p. 14; emphasis added])  What follows is a proposed simplification and reconception of the law of marginal utility expressed in terms of a-temporal, necessary entailment.

From the point of view of praxeology, the individual actor values only in action and through action.  What the individual actor values is revealed by that which he now seeks to attain, by that which he now “does.”

To this insight, we will add one simple insight: as the individual subject values things through action, so too does he determine what constitutes a sufficient or insufficient “supply” of something through action.  (“Here again, it is very important to recognize that what is significant for human action is not the physical property of a good, but the evaluation of the good by the actor.” [MS, p. 19])  For example, whether or not an actor has a sufficient supply of firewood is not a physical characteristic of the firewood.  What is significant is whether or not the actor believes his supply of firewood is sufficient.  And this is revealed by whether or not he attempts to attain or obtain more firewood.

The individual actor reveals whether or not his “supply” of any good, or thing, or state, is sufficient, in his acting or not acting to attain that good, thing, or state.  In attempting to attain or obtain any state or thing, the actor thus reveals that he is in “short supply” of that state or thing.  The attempt to attain or obtain something is the not having of a wanted thing, which is the same thing as a deficient or short supply.

From the insight that the individual values through action, and from the insight that he determines the state of his supply through action, we conceive that the act which is striving to attain or aiming at an end is the same act that reveals both what the actor values and the state of his supply.  In attempting to attain something, the actor values that thing, and seeks for a supply of it.  Thus, value and supply are necessarily related.

We can conceive that value and supply are necessarily related in human action in the manner indicated.  This leaves a question about the notion of a “decrease” in value, which is part of the standard formulation of the law of marginal utility.  The problem in conceiving that value “decreases” is that this implies two acts of valuation: the original valuation of some state or object (V-1), and the “decreased” valuation of some state or object (V-2).  This takes us away from the formal analysis of action as such, and toward an analysis of the relationship between several actions.  To the extent we consider two separate actions, we will find no necessary relationship such that an actor who values an object in one action (V-1), must have an increased or decreased valuation of that object in a second action (V-2).  In other words, the notion of “decreasing value” implies a series of valuations and thus a series of actions.  This is not the formal analysis of action as such, but instead an attempt to say something about the intertemporal relation of a number of actions.

One way to approach the notion of a decrease in value would be to conceive that the underlying logic of action manifests as a “decrease in value” in the fullness of complex action and in the fullness of empirical reality.  If to strive for something is to value it, and if to attain something is to no longer strive for it, then to attain something is to no longer value it, meant in a purely formal sense.  When we “attain” something (in the fullness of complex experience, the “new supply”), by formal logic, we no longer “value” that thing (in the fullness of complex experience, the “decrease in value”).  The decrease in value which we experience upon attaining a supply or a unit of supply must occur, because to attain something is to not strive for that thing, which is identical to not valuing that thing.  Thus, in empirically full or in complex action, value has “decreased.”

This conception of the necessity in human action is similar to that provided in the car example.  Here we would view the two phenomena which are “supply” and “value” as a-temporally related, and as necessarily implied or entailed in the act of “striving to attain.”  Praxeology, as the logic of action, seeks to demonstrate those things necessarily related or entailed in some singular or unitary “means” which the actor intends to utilize for some purpose.

One purpose in outlining this conception of things is to demonstrate that praxeology is not discursive reasoning alone.  We do reason.  But the reasoning process we employ seeks to conceptualize a phenomenon that we continually refer to as we seek to consistently conceptualize it.  Our concern is not the reasoning process alone, but the reasoning process directed toward the comprehension of a specific phenomenon: the regularities occurring in goal-directed action.

Historically, the pioneers of political economy (their version of praxeology) conceived their science as being grounded in the phenomena of individual experience, such that once an individual is told or reminded of them, he recognizes them immediately or upon modest reflection as being familiar to his experience.

It would seem that, if at all possible, a method of reasoning about and explaining human action for the benefit of acting individuals should aim to have its form and presentation made as near to the experience of the acting individual as possible.  Ultimately, it is the acting individual who must make the information praxeology provides “his own” and come to understand that certain means he is contemplating have necessary accompaniments that must occur if the means are successfully attained.

For Professor Hoppe’s correlates of argumentation to become scientifically meaningful, they eventually will have to become more than dialectically asserted.  The link asserted to exist between argumentation and that which argumentation implies should in principle be discoverable outside the context of Professor Hoppe’s discursive account of it.  We should be able to find these relationships in the reality of our own action and consciousness, not merely in Professor Hoppe’s essays.

Professor Hoppe has not considered and ruled out the possibility of treating the ethical means of individual actors in the same way praxeology treats the economic means of interventionism.  The implicit assumption that such an approach is not feasible results in a departure from praxeology as the study of human action, and the adoption of a new enterprise: praxeology as simply reasoning from various assumed premises.  Professor Hoppe’s argumentation ethics takes the form of such aprioristic reasoning at the price of severing the relationship between the concepts of his argument and the recurring experiences of the individual actor as he lives them in the reality of his action.

We claim that this cannot be fixed by further reasoning and counter reasoning along the same lines.  The problems stem from the abandonment of means-based praxeology and the adoption of an ends-seeking social theory.  The ingenuity and complexity of this kind of theory cannot overcome its fundamental structural flaws.

The Concept of Argumentation in Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics

A libertarian intellectual will recognize that by means of his argumentation ethic, Professor Hoppe seeks what we all seek regarding nonlibertarian ethical systems and proposals.  Libertarian ethics theory aims to provide those who currently desire a nonlibertarian society selfish reasons for wanting a libertarian society.  Stated another way, the theoretical goal is to show nonlibertarians why it is in their self-interest to become libertarians.

We do this when we show the nonlibertarian a previously unknown harm that necessarily attaches to his nonlibertarianism.  This theoretical demonstration then provides the nonlibertarian (and all of us for that matter) new information about how we can improve our well-being—our “happiness”—by abstaining from what is causing us harm or may cause us harm.  This procedure appears to be common to every ethics theory either implicitly or explicitly.  Ethics theories try to demonstrate a connection between various kinds of interpersonal acts as they define them, and some harm or benefit to the actor.  Libertarian ethics theories are no different from the ethics theories of the world religions or of socialism in this respect.

Professor Hoppe is a libertarian ethicist and so he attempts to demonstrate a necessary connection between nonlibertarian conduct and harm to the one so conducting oneself.  He does this by trying to establish that, in arguing, a person implicitly acts consistent with libertarian ethics and, therefore, should a person be arguing against libertarian ethics, this person will be contradicting himself.  This contradiction is the penalty or harm suffered by the one making nonlibertarian ethical proposals.  In this essay, we address Professor Hoppe’s attempt to define the concept of argumentation so that it is fitted to his purpose.

The Context of the Argumentation Ethics

The argumentation ethics arises in a neo-Rothbardian context.  Professor Rothbard believed that praxeology would be unable to make a compelling case for human liberty aside from market theory. (EL, pp. xlvii, 12, 206–214)  He believed that praxeology was an economic methodology—an approach to market phenomena—and not a science that could be extended to treat ethical phenomena as means.  From this he concluded that an objective theory of ethics—one that treats human bodies and human property in their objective sense—would be needed to make the case for liberty.  Professor Hoppe accepts much of what Professor Rothbard concludes and thus sets out to “justify” the libertarian private-property ethic in terms of objectively conceived bodies and property.

It is primarily because of the mistaken assumption that praxeology cannot treat ethical means within its traditional conceptual framework (methodological individualism, value subjectivism, formal relations, social laws of necessity) that an objective theory of ethics is turned to.

Professor Hoppe realizes that praxeology is a powerful theoretical tool, and he identifies the source of its power in the action axiom and in a priori reasoning.  But having substantially accepted Professor Rothbard’s conclusion that praxeology is not suited for studying the phenomena of ethics, Professor Hoppe asks whether it might be possible to “justify” (a political term foreign to praxeology) the libertarian private-property ethic by the “axiomatic method.”

In the context of Professor Hoppe’s argumentation ethics, justifying the private-property ethic means attempting to reconceive praxeology to support an objective theory of things.  Hoppe attempts to “fuse” Misesian praxeology with Rothbardian objective ethics.  Toward the end of such a fusion, Professor Hoppe begins to develop the argumentation ethics by revealing some previously unknown aspects of the concept of argumentation.  What follows is a discussion of Professor Hoppe’s conception of argumentation as he conceives it on pages 65 and 66 of Economic Science and the Austrian Method.

A New Definition of Argumentation

According to Professor Hoppe, the validity of the argumentation axiom is indisputable because “It is impossible to deny that one can argue, as the very denial would itself be an argument.  In fact, one could not even silently say to oneself ‘I cannot argue’ without thereby contradicting oneself.”

Hoppe thus introduces a new definition of argumentation. Typically we would conceive argumentation as an act of social interaction, an act requiring the presence of another “acting being” as understood by the one doing the arguing. The standard conception of argumentation is one wherein person A, the “arguer,” believes he is addressing person B, a person who is an acting being and who experiences action in the same way A does.  Typically argumentation is conceived as consisting of an arguer and an arguee where the arguee is another acting being.
Of course we can say that one argues with oneself, but as this is not the usual meaning of the term, it would be reasonable to ask for some explanation of why the concept needs to be changed.

Usually, we say we think to ourselves, reason with ourselves, and even talk to ourselves.  One typically reports that one has had an argument with someone else and rarely reports having had an argument with oneself.  Arguing in its plain sense implies trying to prove another wrong.  It is somewhat foreign to use the concept of arguing as applying to oneself since proving wrong is usually something we attempt to do to another and not to ourselves.  Arguing is an act of social interaction, not one of isolation.

This is important because normally one would indeed be able to say silently to oneself that one cannot argue without contradiction.  For example, a person who has lost muscle control of the means of speech might silently say to himself “I cannot argue.”  Or, someone who is concerned that if he argues he may be shot, may say silently to himself “I cannot argue.”  There is no contradiction in saying silently to oneself “I cannot argue” in these cases, unless the concept of argumentation is changed from its normal meaning.

Reason Recast as Argumentation

Professor Hoppe continues with a reconception of argumentation, but with no explicit reason for doing so.  For example, he writes, “to recognize what has just been recognized regarding action and argumentation and their relation to each other requires argumentation” and, “without argumentation nothing could be said to be known about action.” (ES, p. 66)

These statements are in obvious need of theoretical “justification” since they apparently use the term argumentation synonymously with reason.  We could easily rewrite these passages as: to recognize what has just been recognized regarding action and argumentation and their relation to each other requires reason. And: without reason nothing could be said to be known about action.

The point is there are already concepts such as reason that, by and large, accurately describe the phenomena Hoppe is referring to.  But without explanation, he seems to want to use only the concept of argumentation to denote them.

Plainly stated, one does not argue with oneself, and one does not necessarily discover important things about the relations of human action by argumentation.  One thinks to oneself, and one can reason about action absent “argumentation.”

From the point of view of person A, argumentation refers to the presence of another acting being B, who receives the argument of person A.  That is simply the standard concept of argumentation.

Hoppe’s Bifurcation of Action

From the point of view of Misesian praxeology, what is important about Hoppe’s concept of argumentation is that “argumentation must be considered more fundamental than action” in some sense (ES, p. 66), and that argumentation—as fundamental to human nature as action—has an axiom all its own.  Action and argumentation are to be considered now as the twin fundamental phenomena of recurring human experience.  When we reflect on the recurring phenomena of our experience, and what is essential about it, we realize that not only do we “act,” but we “argue.”

This conception of things constitutes what can only be called a radical departure from the concept of human action as conceived by Mises, the person singularly identified with conceptualizing the phenomenon of action in the twentieth century.  For Mises, action is aiming at ends.  It is purposive, goal-directed conduct, irrespective of the particular ends pursued and irrespective of the particular means utilized.  Mises doesn’t conceive two sciences or two axioms, one for the physical side of man and one for the mental side of man.  For Mises, action is the singular phenomenon of aiming at ends, whether those ends are moving one’s body from here to there, convincing someone of something, or trying to think through a problem.  For Mises, thinking is an action: “this makes thinking itself an action, proceeding step by step from the less satisfactory state of insufficient cognition to the more satisfactory state of better insight.” (HA, p. 99)

Hoppe simply fails to realize that the most basic definition of argumentation is that of “trying to” convince someone.  This “trying to” is an aiming at an end or a striving to attain.  It is action plain and simple.  The science that deals with action deals with argumentation.  The axiom that conceptualizes “aiming at ends” already conceptualizes argumentation.  Everything contained in the concept of action applies to argumentation insofar as argumentation is aiming at an end, as Hoppe agrees that argumentation does.

To the extent that arguing is aiming at an end, then it is acting, and the act which is arguing is not categorically different from any other form of acting.

A Conjecture on the Possible Reason for a New Concept of Argumentation

What may have led Professor Hoppe to conceive that “in this sense, argumentation must be considered more fundamental than action” is that he conceives action as “a cognitively guided adjustment of a physical body in physical reality.” (ES, p. 70)  Because Hoppe views action as movement (views “movement of a body” as implied in the very category of action), then it is possible he reasons that thinking is not an action to the extent that thinking isn’t conceived as entailing physical movement.  Then thinking or reason, to the extent they do not entail physical movement, are removed from the concept of action (because action for Hoppe is no longer aiming at ends generally, but is conceived as only those goal-directed activities that entail moving a body through space).  Then one can see the need to account for the phenomena of reason and thinking, since something like those things undoubtedly exists.

If those things formerly called reason and thinking are to be conceived as somehow coming into contact with “external reality,” then reason and thinking may have to be reconceived in terms that include “movement” as an essential part of their definitions.

The concept “argument” may be intended as one which “combines” thinking and reasoning with the physical, “movemental” means of arguing (bodily gestures, mouth and tongue movements, hand gestures, facial-muscle movements, etc.).   By the term “argument,” Hoppe may mean thinking and reasoning combined with the bodily movements that express what is being thought or reasoned; or, thinking and reasoning, to the extent bodily movement is conceived as entailed in doing them.

Reasoning in this way, Professor Hoppe may be led to conceive the need for a new concept, argumentation, that treats thinking and reasoning as entailing physical movement in the same way he conceives action as entailing movement.

A Fundamental Break

Regardless of Professor Hoppe’s actual reasoning on the matter, his concept of argumentation and all that it implies represents a fundamental break with the Misesian concept of action.  Mises’s concept of action comprehends argumentation as a form of action.  Argumentation is not something essentially different from any other kind of action.  Mises’s concept of action conceives thinking and reason as “congeneric” with action to the extent that they are aiming at ends (trying to figure something out, trying to solve a problem, trying to reach a conclusion, etc.).  Mises’s concept of action is not limited to those activities in which a body is moved from one position to another.

Professor Hoppe appears to believe that Mises’s concept of action is deficient in important respects and in need of radical alteration.  If this is the case, where is Hoppe’s explanation of the deficiencies in Mises’s concept of action?

Mises’s Formal Concepts: No Concept of Action as Movement of Bodies

Acting is a cognitively guided adjustment of a physical body in physical reality. (Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Economic Science and the Austrian Method, p. 70)

                                                             ***

It is of primary importance to realize that parts of the external world become means only through the operation of the human mind and its offshoot, human action.  External objects are as such only phenomena of the physical universe and the subject matter of the natural sciences.  It is human meaning and action which transforms them into means.  Praxeology does not deal with the external world, but with man’s conduct with regard to it.  Praxeological reality is not the physical universe, but man’s conscious reaction to the given state of this universe.  Economics is not about things and tangible material objects; it is about men, their meanings and actions.  Goods, commodities, and wealth and all the other notions of conduct are not elements of nature; they are elements of human meaning and conduct.  He who wants to deal with them must not look at the external world; he must search for them in the meaning of acting men.” (Mises, Human Action, p. 92)

In the realm of libertarian ethics theory, Professor Hoppe has made the idea of a physical body the primary focus of his theoretical efforts.  The apparent reason for his doing so is to arrive at a theoretical justification for the concept of “self-ownership” central to the libertarian private-property ethic.  Professor Hoppe conceives that ownership of a physical thing—one’s own body—is the central concept of libertarian ethics and attempts to provide a theoretical construct or rationalization for the correctness of this conception.

The purpose of a theoretical focus on physical bodies is to provide a rational foundation for libertarian ethics.  The focus on the bodies of actors, as opposed to the values or intentions or purposes of actors, results from a belief that the standard Misesian praxeological framework—treating ethical phenomena as means—is not an appropriate theoretical framework for studying the phenomena of ethics (phenomena such as lying, coercing, cooperating, commanding, punishing, imprisoning, etc.).

Regarding this original starting assumption, we can only repeat that there exists no demonstration that praxeology, as the science of means, cannot treat the ethical means of human conduct.  That praxeology cannot do so successfully is indeed the implicit meaning of the attempts at an objective theory of ethics.  But though Professor Rothbard believed praxeology could not successfully treat ethical phenomena, and though his students and successors follow him in this regard, they do so not having considered the idea of ethical means.

Coercion and dishonesty, two of the most important ethical means, require social interaction.  Social interaction from the point of view of person A requires the presence of another “acting being,” person B.  Thus, the means of coercion and dishonesty necessitate the presence of another acting being for the one utilizing those means.

All human action is not social interaction.  Therefore, utilizing “ethical” means is a differentiable aspect of human action.  For an acting being, we assume that the necessary entailments involved in social interaction are different from those entailed in other kinds of action.  The theoretical demonstration of what these necessary entailments are provides new information to the actor about the consequences of utilizing ethical (interpersonal) means; consequences that, were he to know about, might cause him to abstain from utilizing those means.  Thus, praxeology, as the science of means, furthers human liberty by showing the actor a previously unknown necessary consequence to the means he was considering.  He may possibly abstain from coercion, and abstain from dishonesty, if he were to learn that there are negative consequences that attach to these means.

But none of this is considered, and none of this has been explicitly ruled out as a possibility, by the objective ethicists and related social theorists.  The fact that praxeology as it was conceived by Mises is unable to treat ethical phenomena is only an implicit working hypothesis of theirs.  It is just a mistaken belief inherited from past thinkers.  Professor Hoppe, departing from praxeology as the science of means, tries to integrate the objective notion movement of bodies into his social theory.  In so doing, Professor Hoppe arrives at a “contentual” or physical conception of action that is essentially different from Mises’s purely formal conception of human action.  The following essay examines the differences between Professor Hoppe’s and Professor Mises’s conceptions of human action.

Mises’s Concept of Action

As one who conceived praxeology as a formal-deductive system similar to those of mathematics and formal logic, Mises conceived of action as a formal “category” without material content.

When on page three of Human Action he first begins to touch on the concept of action, Mises has in mind a concept of action that does not attempt to specify any particular content, but rather is purely formal and categorial in nature:

Choosing determines all human decisions.  In making his choice man chooses not only between various material things and services.  All human values are offered for option.  All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues,….Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference. (HA, p. 3; emphasis added)

The scope of praxeology is “human action as such….Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case.” (HA, p. 32)

Thus, from the very beginning, Mises proposes a formal concept of action that conceives acting man as aiming at ends, irrespective of the nature of those ends.  Knowledge is an end (something aimed at); so is a physical location.  Thinking is a means (a way to reach an end) and so is walking.  It is this formal understanding of the categories of ends and means that Mises has in mind.

Action is not aiming at a physical end, or aiming at an ideal end; it is simply aiming at ends.  The cognition of action is “the cognition of the fact that there is such a thing as consciously aiming at ends.” (UF, p. 5)

According to Mises, “thinking [is] itself an action.” (HA, p. 99)  But one may ask, how can thinking be conceived as an action?  Is not thinking aiming at an end, such as knowledge, or the solution to a problem?  In thinking, isn’t success or failure possible?  Are there not “costs” associated with thinking—things we forego in thinking about something?

Mises writes: “[H]uman action stems from the same source as human reasoning.  Action and reason are congeneric and homogeneous; they may even be called two different aspects of the same thing.” (HA, p.39)  Thus, to the extent reason and thinking are aiming at ends, they too are to be considered action in Mises’s formal definition of the term.

Mises’s Concept of Action as Nonspecific

When Mises refers to action, he almost always does so by means of a formal, contentless expression.  He says something like “preferring and setting aside” but not “preferring one idea to another idea.”  He says “substitute a more satisfactory state for a less satisfactory state” but not “substitute greater physical comfort for less physical comfort.”  He says “remove uneasiness as much as possible” but not “remove stressful thoughts as much as possible.”  He says “substitute a state that suits the actor better” but not “substitute the physical surroundings that suit him better.”  Time after time, Mises refers to a concept of action that is free of content and conceived formally.

The most common misunderstanding consists in seeing in the economic principle a statement about the material and the content of action.  One…constructs the concept of want, and then searches for the bridge between want, the presentation of a feeling of uneasiness, and the concrete decision in action. (EP, p. 80; emphasis added)

Mises continues:

Thus the want becomes a judge over action: it is thought that the correct action, the one corresponding to the want, can be contrasted to the incorrect action.  However, we can never identify the want otherwise than in the action.  The action is always in accord with the want because we can infer the want only from the action. (EP, p. 80)

Here, we will provide one way to interpret Mises in these passages.

Let’s say we agree that in human action there are “ends” and there are “means.”  Then in a social-scientific context, someone writes, “The actor decided that today he would strive after seven ends and twenty-two means.”

Now we have to decide whether or not this is a correct conception of the concepts of ends and means.  If this is a proper use of the terms, then an actor should, in principle, be able to strive after maybe only one or two ends a day, and spend the rest of his time striving after only means, or vice versa.  However, in formal social science as Mises conceives it, this is not at all the meaning of the concepts of means and ends.  Rather, in the formal conception of those terms, every means implies an end. In the formal system, an end is logically or formally implied in every means.

So when Mises says that we can identify the want only in the action, or infer the want only from the action, we interpret this as meaning essentially the same thing as “we can infer the end only from the means,” or “we can identify the end only in the means.”  This is an important insight about formal social science and the logic of formal social science.

The point is that it is a common error to “hypostatize” the formal categories, imparting to them existence as material things.  Mises is making a point along these lines.

The worst enemy of clear thinking is the propensity to hypostatize, i.e., to ascribe substance or real existence to mental constructs or concepts. (UF, p. 80)

Moving on to the primary categories of human action:

The most general prerequisite of action is a state of dissatisfaction on the one hand, and on the other, the possibility of removing or alleviating it by taking action. (EP, p. 24)

Regarding the concepts satisfaction/dissatisfaction (happiness/unhappiness, etc.) Mises writes, “That the concepts of pleasure and pain contain no reference to the content of what is aimed at, ought, indeed, scarcely to be still open to misunderstanding.” (EP, p. 152)

Mises’s conception of the action categories—pleasure/pain, happiness/unhappiness, satisfaction/dissatisfaction—is to be understood as a formal concept, not referring to the content of what is aimed at, or the content that is successfully attained as satisfaction for the acting individual.

While praxeology, and therefore economics too, uses the terms happiness and removal of uneasiness in a purely formal sense… (HA, p. 154)

Praxeology…applies the term happiness in a purely formal sense. In the praxeological terminology the proposition: man’s unique aim is to attain happiness, is tautological.  It does not imply any statement about the state of affairs from which man expects happiness. (HA, p. 15)

[M]any…failed to recognize the purely formal character of the notions pain and pleasure… (HA, p. 15)

In a section entitled “The Individual and Changing Features of Human Action,” Mises writes,

The content of human action, i.e., the ends aimed at and the means chosen and applied for the attainment of these ends, is determined by the personal qualities of every acting man. (HA, p. 46)

In other words, the specific content of action (as opposed to the universal categories of action) varies from individual to individual.  Praxeology is the science concerned only with the conceptualization of the universal categories of human action and their necessary relations.

For Mises, “[t]o act means: to strive after ends.” (UF, p. 4)  This is a formal concept, and no material content is implied or intended.

Mises’s Concept of Action as Nonphysical

In Misesian praxeology, reason and action are considered as two aspects of the same phenomenon (UF, p. 43; HA, p. 39), or both stemming from the same source.  This source, when given a name by Mises, is the human mind.  In Mises’s conception, mind, reason, and action are not to be understood in a physical sense; rather, “[a]ction is a category that the natural sciences do not take into account.” (UF, p. 6)

For an understanding of Mises’s concept of mind, and for an understanding of his concept of the category of action, it is important to realize that Mises conceives mind not in its material aspect, but only in its categorial aspect.  Mises is not concerned with an object that exists within the head of an individual, but rather with the recurring phenomena of experience of the individual.  That an individual experiences aiming at ends, and experiences the utilization of means toward those ends, and experiences satisfaction when ends are attained, is what Mises is getting at.  He is not concerned with brains or physical processes.

Take for example Mises’s description of the subject matter of praxeology:

The real thing which is the subject matter of praxeology, human action, stems from the same source as human reasoning.  Action and reason are congeneric and homogeneous; they may even be called two aspects of the same thing.  That reason has the power to make clear through pure ratiocination the essential features of action is a consequence of the fact that action is an offshoot of reason.  The theorems attained by correct praxeological reasoning are not only perfectly certain and incontestable, like the correct mathematical theorems.  They refer, moreover, with the full rigidity of their apodictic certainty and incontestability to the reality of action as it appears in life and history.  Praxeology conveys exact and precise knowledge of real things. (HA, p. 39)

Notice here that Mises says reason and action stem from the same source, but he is not concerned with naming or defining that source in physical terms.  And notice how he conceives that the theorems of praxeology refer to “the reality of action…”  This passage is largely self-referential.

Mises is saying something like “reason and action are two aspects of the same thing.  Through reason, praxeology attempts to arrive at the laws or relations of action.  Those laws or theorems, when correctly arrived at, apply to the reality of action.”

He is not concerned with the biological or physical aspect of human existence, but only with the acting or reasoning aspect of it.  He is not concerned with the physical location of any particular object, but rather with the categories of meaning in which objects appear for the individual actor.  Mises does not attempt to describe how a physical brain produces thoughts and action; rather, he takes action and thinking as his starting point.

For Mises, an object or content of action will present to the individual actor with some meaning attached to it.  Mises is interested in the object of a man’s action only insofar as it has meaning to the individual in terms of cost, value, success, failure, etc.

Mises’s concept of mind is essentially not tied to a physical body.  This is not to say that Mises would deny that mind is related to body.  But it is to say that his concept of mind, within the theoretical-praxeological framework, is severed from body as far as theory goes.

Consider the following passages:

[T]he natural sciences do not know what the mind is and how it works and that their methods of research are not fit to deal with the problems dealt with by the sciences of human action. (UF, p. 56)

The gulf that in epistemology separates the events in the field investigated by the natural sciences from those in the field of thinking and acting has not been made narrower by any of the findings and achievements of the natural sciences. (UF, p. 55)

The natural sciences are unable to employ their methods for the analysis of the meaning a man attaches to any event… (UF, p. 116)

[M]an imputes his ability to think, to will and to act to an invisible and intangible factor he calls his mind. (UF, p. 11)

Mind or reason is contrasted with matter… (UF, p. 11)

Thus, Mises’s concept of mind and action is clearly circumscribed.  On the one hand, it is something that the natural sciences know nothing about (mind or reason is contrasted with matter) and something that is outside the bounds of their methods.  On the other hand, this thing called mind is the thing that is “congeneric” and “homogeneous” with reason and with aiming at ends.  The subject matter of praxeology is the logical relations of human meaning—ends, means, success, failure, costs, etc.—the nonphysical, nontangible meaning that the individual “attaches” to the reality that confronts him.

Mises’s Praxeology as the Logical Implications of Action

Mises’s conception of the science of human action is succinctly outlined in his Epistemological Problems of Economics:

The starting point of our reasoning is not behavior, but action… (EP, p. 23)

The logical unfolding of all these concepts and categories in systematic derivation from the fundamental category of action and the demonstration of the necessary relations among them constitutes the first task of our science. (EP, p. 24)

The most general prerequisite of action is a state of dissatisfaction, on the one hand, and, on the other, the possibility of removing or alleviating it by taking action. (EP, p. 24)

Stated in its most simple form, Mises’s concept of the science of human action is that, starting from the original phenomenon and concept of action (removing uneasiness), we attempt to deduce from this all that is implied by or contained in this concept.

The category of action, as something unknown to the physical sciences, is purely a category of human meaning, and the concepts of praxeology are human-meaning concepts such as happiness and unhappiness, means and ends.

[T]he reality the elucidation and interpretation of which is the task of praxeology is congeneric with the logical structure of the human mind. (UF, p. 65)

Remember that “human mind” does not mean “gray object inside a head,” but rather that thing which “the natural sciences do not know what [it]is and how it works.” (UF, p. 56)  The task of praxeology is the elucidation and interpretation of a logical structure that is entailed in conscious, goal-directed activity.  This realm is not open to study by means of physical experiments.

The content of action, the actual objects and events that appear to the individual, are important for praxeology, but “only in order to separate those problems that are of interest for the study of man as he really is and acts from other problems that offer only a merely academic interest.” (UF, p. 42)

For Mises, praxeology is concerned only with those things (those aspects) that all instances of aiming at an end have in common.  Each of these aspects of action may be called a “category.”  The experiences of the acting individual manifest as, or manifest in terms of, these categories.   A given object is either a means or an end for the individual.  A given object gives the individual satisfaction or dissatisfaction, etc.

The theory of action constructed of such categories may then be applied to various concrete realms of human action.  Thus, praxeology as catallactics (the study of market phenomena and exchange ratios) treats the business cycle, tariffs, wage laws, monopoly, etc.  Praxeology as a theory of ethical phenomena would treat the means of interpersonal action such as coercion, dishonesty, discussion, cooperation, etc.

[T]his reference to experience does not impair the aprioristic character of praxeology and economics. Experience merely directs our curiosity toward certain problems and diverts it away from other problems. (HA, p. 65)

For example, in large urban areas we may notice a relatively high concentration of poor street vendors.  Whether this concrete issue is deemed an important subject for scientific treatment compared to other aspects of urban life is a matter of individual experience.  But regardless of the specific content of action—regardless of the specific areas of life toward which we direct our study—according to Mises:

The scope of praxeology is the explication of the category of human action. All that is needed for the deduction of all praxeological theorems is knowledge of the essence of action. (HA, p. 64)

The only way to a cognition of these theorems is logical analysis of our inherent knowledge of the category of action.  We must bethink ourselves and reflect upon the structure of human action. (HA, p. 64)

All the concepts and theorems of praxeology are implied in the category of human action.  The first task is to extract and to deduce them, to expound their implications and to define the universal conditions of acting as such. (HA, p. 64)

Hoppe’s Concept of Action

According to Professor Hoppe, “Acting is a cognitively guided adjustment of a physical body in physical reality.” (ES, p. 70)

For Hoppe then, action is not simply “cognitive guidance” or “cognitively guided adjustment.”  For Professor Hoppe, the primary phenomenon of action is not a purely formal category as it is for Mises.  In Hoppe’s conception, there is no action if a body is not guided in physical reality.  Hoppean action entails a specific content, and when that content is absent, then too must action be absent.

The specification of a particular content of action diverges from Mises’s formal concept which is devoid of content.  In the Misesian conception, thinking and reasoning are forms of action to the extent they are activities aiming at an end, and ideal values are objects of action as much as material values.  When someone thinks or reasons he acts, and when he pursues an ideal value such as honor, he acts just as much as when he guides his body to a different location.  So when Hoppe specifies the guiding of a body as essential to his conception of action, he conceives action in a way at fundamental variance with the concept proposed by Mises.  For Hoppe, human activities such as thinking or reasoning are not actions; or, they are actions only to the extent that cognitive guidance of a physical body is involved.

Someone who is thinking, wishing, hoping, praying, etc., is not acting, or he is acting only insofar as he chooses to move or not move his body in a certain way.  But, as action for Hoppe is an adjustment of a physical body, then thinking, wishing, hoping, or praying are not actions in themselves.  We need to refer to the physical body of the person doing the thinking or wishing to see where his body is being guided.

For Mises, action, reason, and thinking are congeneric and homogeneous and may be considered two aspects of the same thing.  For Mises, reasoning and thinking are forms of action, though Mises is unclear as regards hoping, praying, wishing, etc.

(However, as the individual hoping, praying, and wishing is utilizing a means [hoping, praying, and wishing] toward an end [whatever it is he is hoping, praying, or wishing for], our position will be that those too are to be considered as actions.  To classify them other than as actions leads to an arbitrary definition of action whereby some means utilized toward ends are to be considered action, while other means utilized toward ends are not to be considered actions.  This means that whether a given activity is an action depends on the particular means chosen or the particular ends striven for.  We have then constructed a nonformal, nonuniversal concept of action which no longer refers to the general phenomenon of aiming at ends.)

Hoppe’s Action as Partly Physical Universe

For Professor Hoppe, action is the guidance of a physical body in physical reality.  On its face, this idea can only be interpreted as meaning that the spatiotemporal location of physical bodies in extended space is the primary concern of praxeology.  A body that is guided in physical reality is simply a body that relates spatiotemporally to other bodies, just as the planets do, just as atomic particles do, and just as all other physical objects do.  This is the common understanding of a body in physical reality.

In Misesian praxeology, by contrast, the various parts of the physical universe enter into praxeology as content, generally in the following way:

Let’s say that we take as the content of action a physical body.  The formal praxeological scheme of concepts consists of “human-meaning” concepts such as means, ends, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, etc.  Then, if the objects of the physical universe are treated by praxeology, they are treated as contents within the system of human meaning concepts.  The entity which is “a body” is considered from the point of view of human-meaning and not from the point of view of its “objective” or “physical” existence.  It is considered from the point of view of its “subjective meaning” to the individual concerned.

In praxeology, “a body,” as an object of human action, must be constituted in some manner by the categories of action, since praxeological theory contains only categories deduced from the category of action.  “A body” must then be a means of the actor, or an end of the actor, or constitute satisfaction for the actor, or constitute dissatisfaction for the actor, etc.

In this way, the objects of the “physical universe” enter into the praxeological conceptual scheme as having a certain meaning to individual action.

This is how we may understand Mises when he writes:

It is of primary importance to realize that parts of the external world become means only through the operation of the human mind and its offshoot, human action.  External objects are as such only phenomena of the physical universe and the subject matter of the natural sciences.  It is human meaning and action which transform them into means.  Praxeology does not deal with the external world, but with man’s conduct with regard to it.  Praxeological reality is not the physical universe, but man’s conscious reaction to the given state of this universe.  Economics is not about things and tangible material objects; it is about men, their meanings and actions.  Goods, commodities, and wealth and all the other notions of conduct are not elements of nature; they are elements of human meaning and conduct.  He who wants to deal with them must not look at the external world; he must search for them in the meaning of acting men. (HA, p. 92)

Praxeology constructs a system of such meaning concepts absent their content.  Content that is interpreted in terms of this formal scheme is interpreted in terms of these concepts and no others.

It’s not that physical things do not exist, or that physical descriptions of things are not important.  It is rather that praxeology, beginning from the category of action, and deducing only from the category of action, only describes and conceives things in terms of action.  Praxeology is not physics or biology.

External objects are as such only phenomena of the physical universe and the subject matter of the natural sciences.  It is human meaning and action which transforms them into means….Economics is not about things and tangible material objects; it is about men, their meanings and actions….Goods, commodities, and wealth and all the other notions of conduct are not elements of nature; they are elements of human meaning and conduct.  He who wants to deal with them must not look at the external world; he must search for them in the meaning of acting men. (HA, p. 92; emphasis added)

To make our meaning more clear, let us take Hoppe’s notion of action as a cognitively guided adjustment of a physical body in physical reality.  In Mises’s conception of praxeology, all of the concepts of Hoppe’s definition of action would, in principle, have to be deducible from the category of action.  The category of action does not contain reference to any physical theory or hypothesis about the nature of objective or physical reality.  In other words, whether or not there are such things as “physical bodies” or “physical reality” is not something that is necessarily deducible from the category of action.  In fact, the notion that there exist physical bodies and physical reality in the objective sense, as objects that exist independent of any consciousness, is the underlying assumption of physical science (at least classical physics).  This assumption essentially differentiates physical science from praxeology—praxeology deducing from the category of action, and disregarding any particular hypothesis about the ultimate nature of objective or physical reality.

To introduce a particular physical interpretation of objective nature into the chain of praxeological reasoning is to introduce the notion of a physical reality different from the reality confronting the individual subject.  This subtly changes the goal of the theoretical endeavor, from the study of the logical relations entailed in the individual’s attempt to improve his condition, to the study of whether the individual’s conduct is “rational” or “correct” from an observational point of view (from the point of view of an observer who claims greater knowledge of the physical world).  These are two fundamentally different theoretical endeavors.

Hence, the idea of an action not in conformity with needs is absurd.  As soon as one attempts to distinguish between the need and the action and makes the need the criterion for judging the action, one leaves the domain of theoretical science, with its neutrality in regard to value judgments.  It is necessary to recall here that we are dealing with the theory of action, not with psychology, and certainly not with a system of norms…Our data are actions and conduct…For there can be no doubt that its subject matter is given action and only given action.  Action that ought to be, but is not, does not come within its purview. (EP, p. 149)

It is not a coincidence that Hoppe introduces physical conceptions into his theory of action and that in the same theory he seeks to validate or justify particular norms.

The First Task of the Science of Human Action

According to Mises, the first task of praxeology is “[t]he logical unfolding of all these concepts and categories in systematic derivation from the fundamental category of action and the demonstration of the necessary relations among them…” (EP, p. 24)  Mises’s conception is that, starting from the fundamental category of action, we begin to deduce what the category of action necessarily entails.

An example of this is when we conceived that if there is aiming at ends, then there must also be aiming “away” from something.  If there is a “trying to” arrive at a more satisfactory state, then there is a “trying to” leave a less satisfactory state.  If there is a more satisfactory state and a less satisfactory state, then there are two possible states.  If an acting being can change from a less satisfactory state to a more satisfactory state, then this suggests the possibility that he may also change from a more satisfactory state to a less satisfactory state, etc.

Given this procedure and given action as a category, we try to construct a logical system that is “consistent and free of contradictions because it implies the coexistence of all its parts and theorems.” (HA, p. 103)

Notice how the reasoning process beginning from the category of action is made more simple and clear the more simple and clear our original conception of action is.  And notice how the possibility exists for a formal reasoning process that proceeds without content when the original axiom is simple and relatively clear.

For example, continuing with the above reasoning process in regard to the original axiom, we can conceive that if the satisfactory state has been “attained,” then the less satisfactory state has been “vacated,” so to speak.  Thus, in principle, it is possible to continue on like this in a “formal” manner, without specifying any content.  If we conceive that action is “striving to attain,” the concrete thing striven for is not referred to in the formal system (e.g., striving to cross the street, striving to overcome a cold, striving to solve a problem, etc.).

This kind of process is what Mises has in mind, regardless whether his concept of action is exactly the same as ours, regardless of his unique conception of the various categories of action, and regardless of the other incidental or accidental features of his conception of human action and praxeology.

Mises’s conception of praxeology is one of constructing a logical system consistent with the original premise or axiom of action (aiming at ends).

In an a prioristic science, we start with a general supposition—action is taken to substitute one state of affairs for another.  This theory—meaningless to many—leads to other ideas that become more and more understandable and less abstract. (FM, p. 16)

If the system is logically consistent, and if an individual aims at ends, then praxeological theory provides information on what such aiming at ends must entail.

The theorems attained by correct praxeological reasoning are not only perfectly certain and incontestable, like correct mathematical theorems.  They refer, moreover, with the full rigidity of their apodictic certainty and incontestability to the reality of action as it appears in life and history.” (HA, p. 39)

If the “given situation” conforms to a certain pattern, certain other features must also be present, for their presence is “deducible” from the pattern originally postulated. (LR, p. 122)

A Question of Starting Axioms

As we have written elsewhere, there is a fundamental difference between a “formal” and “material” entity.  If we consider the mathematical conception of “line,” this is different from a line drawn on paper.  One entity is conceived as an “idea” or “ideal entity” having no material existence; the other is conceived as a “real” or physical entity having a material existence.  This same idea is evident in Mises’s reasoning when he remarks on a distinction between mental constructs and physical entities:

The worst enemy of clear thinking is the propensity to hypostatize, i.e., to ascribe substance or real existence to mental constructs or concepts. (UF, p. 80)

The primary concepts of action—aiming at ends, satisfaction/dissatisfaction, etc.—are formal concepts intended to be devoid of material content.  The purely formal nature of these concepts is what allows a deductive-logical system to be constructed that, when free of contradictions, can impart knowledge to the individual actor in much the same way as the logical sciences of mathematics or formal logic can impart knowledge.

To insert a material object as a part of the formal scheme is to make a fundamental mistake in reasoning and to misunderstand what is being undertaken by the construction of such a deductive system.

We can easily understand that [body] + [body] = 2[body].

But we change our method of thinking about things radically and essentially, if we try to replace the bracket symbol or the plus symbol or the equal symbol with the word “body.”

In so doing, we try to use a material object as a formal concept.  Perhaps doing something like this cannot be ruled out entirely or perhaps it can.  But at the very least, the attempt to do so as a means of arriving at consistent and meaningful knowledge requires some explanation, since it involves the “mixture” of formal and material elements in a way that seems to lack clear meaning.  In the formal sciences, there is a clear distinction between the formal system of concepts and the content or material to which they apply.

Professor Hoppe is apparently proposing to undertake a deductive reasoning process beginning from concepts that are material in nature.  Whether this is possible is one question.  But it is beyond doubt that his original concept of action, and the method of procedure it implies, parts ways with Misesian praxeology and becomes an enterprise of an entirely different nature.


[1] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 15.

[2] D. Rasmussen, “A Groundwork for Rights: Man’s Natural End,” The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. IV, No.1 (Winter 1980), p. 74.

The Argumentation Ethics and Human Well-Being

Introduction

Whether implicitly or explicitly, a theory of ethics puts forth some conception of a relationship between human conduct and human well-being.  Writing about the relationship between economics and human well-being, Mises writes:

The great problem with which economics has been incessantly occupied since its founding in the eighteenth century is the establishment of a relationship between human well-being and the valuing of the objects of economic action by economizing individuals. (EP, p. 169)

And in regard to ethics, Professor Hoppe’s mentor, Murray Rothbard, writes:

In a significant sense, then, natural law provides man with a “science of happiness,” with the paths which will lead to his real happiness. (EL, p. 12)

Both thinkers view their respective disciplines as ultimately addressing the relationship between human conduct and human well-being.  In this essay we examine the extent to which a theory of well-being underlies the argumentation ethics of Professor Hoppe.

The Libertarian Private-Property Ethic

The focus of almost all contemporary libertarian ethical theorizing is the libertarian private-property ethic, and Professor Hoppe views his argumentation ethics as a justification for the libertarian private-property ethic.

As it is typically conceived, the libertarian private-property ethic is not a science of ethical phenomena, but rather an argument for a specific social arrangement.  It is an argument for specific social institutions and for specific conduct.  The private-property ethic is not intended as a scientific framework for conceiving regularity in the copresence and succession of the myriad types of ethical conduct and ethical phenomena.  Rather it is a proposal for a specific type of such conduct.  When ethics science is properly understood, then the specific modes of conduct proposed by any particular ethic are the subject matter of the general science of ethical phenomena.  Ethics science treats the various methods or types of social interaction, and the private-property ethic is a proposal for a particular type of social interaction.

However, to the extent that the libertarian private-property ethic is based on an underlying or implicit social theory—a theory of social cause and effect—then it is based on some notion about the relationship between human conduct and human well-being.  Libertarian ethicists believe that the establishment of libertarian society and the establishment of libertarian ethics will lead to something good, positive, or beneficial to human well-being.  Though the libertarian private-property ethic itself does not constitute a science of ethical phenomena, those who support this ethic subscribe to some implicit or explicit theory of social cause and effect.  They believe that conduct in accord with the private-property ethic results in things beneficial to human well-being.  Effectively, they believe that their particular chosen social arrangement and proposed social conduct (the private-property ethic) is supported by an underlying theory of social cause and effect (is supported by an underlying science of ethical phenomena).

The problem, of course, is in demonstrating that underlying scientific cause and effect.

Ethical Cause and Effect

The context in which Professor Hoppe’s argumentation ethics is presented is one in which no demonstration has yet been given regarding necessity in ethical acts.  To date, there are no known laws of man’s ethical nature, and thus no necessary connection between the various types of ethical behavior and human well-being.  Professor Hoppe’s argumentation ethics is an attempt to demonstrate some kind of incontestable result as accompanying specific ethical acts.  The argumentation ethics is an attempt to provide that underlying cause-and-effect necessity upon which libertarians may base their already-existing belief that the private property ethic is the correct social arrangement as against other proposed social arrangements.

Of course there are other ethics theories and other proposed ethics systems.  The religious and the socialist ethics systems are two important examples.  Each of these social theories proposes its own version of social cause and effect.  The adherents of each of these social theories believe they know what will happen to society and to individuals who do not adhere to or conform to their ethics system.  Each of these social systems is advocated by learned scholars whose job it is to find the weaknesses in the social theories of the other schools.

Ultimately, finding the weakness in the social theory of an opposed ethical school entails locating that part of the theory where necessary cause and effect is asserted or implied.  If it can be shown that a particular ethics theory has failed to demonstrate necessary cause and effect, then one must admit that the actor may take actions at odds with the theory, and results different from that taught by the theory may result.  If the negative consequences accompanying unethical acts are not necessary, then one may behave in ways deemed unethical by the theory in question, and yet good things—things deemed positive or beneficial—may befall one.  This follows when necessity cannot be established with respect to ethical acts.

That is why Mises spends so much time on epistemological issues and on establishing his conception of human action and praxeology.  He seeks to ground his social theory in a general theory of necessity.  And he does this by conceiving social science as closely mirroring the logical structure of the human mind (mind not as physical object, but rather mind considered as congeneric and homogeneous with reason and thinking).  Murray Rothbard too seeks to ground his libertarian ethics in a general theory of social necessity.  He seeks to do so by conceiving the positive body of libertarian laws as flowing from the underlying natural laws of man’s nature.  Unfortunately, he failed to establish those natural laws of man’s ethical nature before going on to elaborate an entire body of libertarian positive laws.

Professor Rothbard begins his book The Ethics of Liberty, conceiving that “the natural law is discovered by reason from ‘the basic inclinations of human nature…absolute, immutable, and of universal validity for all times and places’” (EL, p. 17) and that “natural-law theorists derive from the very nature of man a fixed structure of law independent of time and place, or of habit or authority or group norms.” (EL, p. 20)

But though these are the general aims and general goals of a science that Professor Rothbard indicates his positive laws are to be based on, The Ethics of Liberty does not contain a theory of natural law, but rather a theory of “libertarian law.” (EL, p. xlviii)  The Ethics of Liberty is not a book about the universal and immutable laws of man’s nature; it is a book about a desire for a particular social arrangement.  It is a book seeking to establish an “authority or group norm[s].”  It is a book that seeks to arrive at a specific “regime and institutions” and seeks to establish its own unique “status quo” and “traditional custom.”

In arguing for a particular type of social arrangement—arguing for specific norms and institutions—Professor Rothbard thus argues for precisely the same thing he claims that natural law is supposed to be used to invalidate and harshly criticize.

[N]atural law to be used as a guidepost for shaping and reshaping whatever positive law may be in existence. (EL, p. 17)

[T]he individual, armed with natural law moral principles, is then in a firm position from which to criticize existing regimes and institutions, to hold them up to the strong and harsh light of reason. (EL, p. 19)

[N]atural law discoverable by reason is a potentially powerful threat to the status quo and a standing reproach to the reign of blindly traditional custom… (EL, p. 17)

[I]t holds the existing status quo, which might grossly violate natural law, up to the unsparing and unyielding light of reason. (EL, p. 17)

Obviously Professor Rothbard does not mean that natural law should be used to invalidate his proposed libertarian laws.  If Professor Rothbard’s libertarian laws grossly violate natural law, then he probably should not be proposing them, and no one should be trying to implement them.  It is obvious Professor Rothbard believes that what he proposes in The Ethics of Liberty is something largely in line with the natural laws of man’s nature.  He believes that natural law will confirm the correctness of his vision of libertarian law and invalidate other proposed systems of law.  When Rothbard writes, “Let us hammer out…a…natural-law and natural-rights standard to which the wise and honest may repair,” (EL, p. 26) he means that his proposed laws are those that natural law requires, while the laws proposed by others are to be considered unwise or dishonest.

The Problem with Natural Law

Thus, what natural law is and what it says are of crucial importance for the validity and legitimacy of Professor Rothbard’s positive libertarian laws, because his own theory states that natural law is “to be used as a guidepost for shaping and reshaping whatever positive law may be in existence.” (EL, p. 17)  Since Professor Rothbard is proposing a body of positive law, it could be that natural law would require an essential reshaping of what Rothbard himself proposes.  It is even possible that Professor Rothbard’s positive law “grossly violates” natural law.  Until natural law is established, this has to be considered a real possibility.

Regarding The Ethics of Liberty and the discovery of natural law itself, Professor Rothbard writes, “Hence, it does not try to prove or establish the ethics or ontology of natural law, which provide the groundwork for the political theory set forth in this book.  Natural law has been ably expounded and defended elsewhere by ethical philosophers.” (EL, p. xlviii)

Thus, Professor Rothbard did not believe it was his task as a social scientist to establish the ethical laws of man’s nature.  Instead he saw his as the derivative task of interpreting and advocating what the laws of man’s nature indicate about positive law.

However, there is a problem in that the actual laws of man’s ethical nature have not been established.  The obvious question is, what is the status of a body of positive laws based on the natural laws of man’s nature, when the natural laws of man’s nature have not yet been established?  One wonders how Professor Rothbard would have answered this simple question.

Regarding the natural laws of man’s nature that Professor Rothbard indicates have been ably expounded elsewhere, it certainly would be fair and reasonable to expect an enumeration of them in the opening pages of The Ethics of Liberty.  All Professor Rothbard would have to do is indicate the existence of some of the specific natural laws of man’s nature and perhaps point us to the appropriate source material.  This would only take a page or two and would perhaps look something like the short list of economic propositions and laws that Professor Hoppe lists on pages 14 and 15 of Economic Science and the Austrian Method.

That Professor Rothbard says natural law has been ably expounded but yet cannot produce even one law of man’s ethical nature gives us strong reason for believing that no such laws of man’s ethical nature are known to exist.  There are economic laws of man’s social nature, but there are no known established ethical laws of man’s nature.

To understand the reasons why this is so, let’s consider a typical idea about natural law according to a passage provided by Professor Rothbard.  He provides the following quotes from John Wild:

In answer we may point out that their [natural law] view identifies value not with existence but rather with the fulfillment of tendencies determined by the structure of the existent entity.  Furthermore, it identifies evil not with non-existence but rather with a mode of existence in which natural tendencies are thwarted and deprived of realization….The young plant whose leaves are withering for lack of light is not nonexistent.  It exists, but in an unhealthy or privative mode.  The lame man is not nonexistent.  He exists, but with a natural power partially unrealized…. This metaphysical objection is based upon the common assumption that existence is fully finished or complete….[But] what is good is the fulfillment of being. (EL, p. 13)

[T]he factual needs which underlie the whole procedure are common to man. The values founded on them are universal.  Hence, if I made no mistake in my tendential analysis of human nature, and if I understand myself, I must exemplify the tendency and must feel it subjectively as an imperative urge to action. (EL, p. 14)

There is nothing wrong with this passage from Wild when we consider it for what it is.  Essentially this is a vision or idea of the proposed aim or goal of natural law.  Natural law, according to this idea, investigates and tries to discover the “fulfillment tendencies” of an entity based on the entity’s structure.  For example, what we call our moral sense can fairly be described as a feeling we have about our own moral “fulfillment tendencies.”  When we lie to a loved one and feel guilty about it, this is an example of a fulfillment tendency.  The “guilt” is a kind of “pain” or “unhappiness” and alerts us that in order to (let’s say) fulfill our tendency to happiness, we should not lie to a loved one.  So there is nothing wrong with Wild’s passage—as a vision of an overall program for natural law.

The problem, of course, is to establish just exactly what man’s fulfillment tendencies are and just exactly what the structure of the entity man is.  This is the problem.  Agreement that this is the problem does not itself constitute a science or establish the laws of man’s nature.  Agreement that this is the problem constitutes the very starting point of ethics science.  What constitutes the beginning of the science is the intuitive feeling that there are certain moral tendencies and that man is an entity of a specific structure.  But the science itself is the accurate and logically consistent theory of exactly what those tendencies and structures are.  And the science is the ascertaining of the “laws” resulting from man’s nature as thusly defined.  The laws of man’s nature then become the accurate and logically consistent demonstration of what must necessarily result when conduct is not in accord with the structure or fulfillment tendencies of man’s nature.  That would be natural law as a science, compared to natural law as a vision.

Writing in Theory and History, Mises says about natural law:

Long before the Classical economists discovered that a regularity in the sequence of phenomena prevails in the field of human action, the champions of natural law were dimly aware of this inescapable fact…the idea that a nature-given order of things exists to which man must adjust his actions if he wants to succeed [and] the only means available to man for the cognizance of this order is thinking and reasoning, and no existing social institution is exempt from being examined and appraised by discursive reasoning. (TH, p. 45)

But neither utilitarianism nor any of the varieties of the doctrine of natural law could or did find a way to eliminate the conflict of antagonistic judgments of value.  It is useless to emphasize that nature is the ultimate arbiter of what is right and what is wrong.  Nature does not clearly reveal its plans and intentions to man.  Thus the appeal to natural law does not settle the dispute.  It merely substitutes dissent concerning the interpretation of natural law for dissenting judgments of value. (TH, p. 49)

This passage from Mises speaks directly to Rothbard’s attempt to claim natural law as the basis of his libertarian positive laws.  Natural law does not support Rothbard nor does it contradict him.  Natural law, as a body of science, does not exist.  It is only a program or suggestion for eventually establishing laws of man’s nature based on the particular type of entity man is.  But natural-law philosophy has not discovered any laws, as their absence from Rothbard’s book attests.

When Professor Rothbard appeals to natural law, as Mises correctly states, he simply substitutes dissent concerning the interpretation of natural law for dissent concerning the laws various groups and individuals want to implement.

The Problem of “Justifying” Rothbard’s Private-Property Ethic

It is against this backdrop of an insufficient scientific basis for Rothbard’s private-property ethic that Professor Hoppe conceives his argumentation ethics as a way to extend a praxeological bridge across the intellectual divide, from Mises as deductive social scientist, to Rothbard as objective ethicist.

I want to outline an argument that demonstrates…how…the—essentially Lockean—private property ethic of libertarianism can ultimately be justified… this argument then supports the natural rights position of libertarianism as espoused by…Murray N. Rothbard—foremost in his Ethics of Liberty…it is Mises, and his idea of praxeology and praxeological proofs, who provides the model. (EE, p. 204)

Thus, Professor Hoppe seeks to provide a rational foundation (a “justification”) for Professor Rothbard’s positive ethics, utilizing ideas from Mises’s praxeology.  Professor Hoppe seeks the support of Misesian praxeology, the Wertfrei formal science of human conduct, to uphold the personal value judgments of Murray Rothbard, who for his part urges his followers to “cast out the hobgoblins of Wertfreiheit.” (EL, p.26)

The Problem

The problem that Professor Rothbard left behind for his followers is not to be found in the insufficiency of positive prescriptions and proposals for definite social arrangements.  The problem that he bequeathed his followers is the absence of a scientific basis for those prescriptions.  Professor Rothbard himself believed that such a rational basis was necessary, and that is why he indicated natural law was to fulfill this purpose.  But as his students and followers must know, to this day there is still no natural-law science of man’s nature, though proposals are made for how this might one day be accomplished. (see Rasmussen, “A Groundwork for Rights: Man’s Natural End,” The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Winter, 1980)

Professor Rothbard indicated that natural law, and the positive laws arrived at in consideration of natural law, “provides man with…the paths which will lead to his real happiness.” (EL, p. 12)  In this we see the universally recurring feature of all ethics theories—the assertion that a specific mode of conduct (in this case libertarian ethical conduct) will result in a specific impact on well-being (in this case the real happiness of those adhering to the libertarian ethic).  This proposed connection is the essential problem of ethics that Professor Rothbard did not demonstrate but said “has been ably expounded and defended elsewhere by ethical philosophers.” (EL, p. xlviii)

One can gauge how powerful an effect the universal elements of social theory exert.  Because even though Professor Rothbard specifically states that the natural laws of man’s nature are to be established by other natural-law philosophers separate from his presentation of libertarian positive laws, he still finds it necessary to revisit the essential problem of natural law and try to indicate a solution.  So important is the idea of trying to establish a scientific connection between human conduct and human well-being that Professor Rothbard feels compelled to try to do so, even though he has already indicated that this is not the purpose of his book.

He first says, regarding his book:

[I]t does not try to prove or establish the ethics or ontology of natural law, which provide the groundwork for the political theory set forth in this book. (EL, p. xlviii)

and

It is not the intention of this book to expound or defend at length the philosophy of natural law, or to elaborate a natural-law ethic for the personal morality of man. (EL, p. 25)

But then on page 32, Professor Rothbard introduces his concept of Crusoe to indicate the ultimate foundation for libertarian ethics.  With his Crusoe example, Professor Rothbard tries to establish the natural-law basis for ethics but ends up only restating the essential problem that natural law has not been able to solve:

Suppose now that Crusoe is confronted with a choice of either picking berries or picking some mushrooms for food…when suddenly a previously shipwrecked inhabitant, coming upon Crusoe, shouts: “Don’t do that!  Those mushrooms are poisonous.”….Both men have operated on an assumption so strong that it remained tacit, an assumption that poison is bad, bad for the health and even for the survival of the human organism—in short, bad for the continuation and the quality of a man’s life.  In this implicit agreement on the value of life and health for the person, and on the evils of pain and death, the two men have clearly arrived at the basis of an ethic, grounded on reality and on the natural laws of the human organism.

If Crusoe had eaten the mushrooms without learning of their poisonous effects, then his decision would have been incorrect….If Crusoe, on the other hand, had known of the poison and eaten the mushrooms anyway…then his decision would have been objectively immoral…. (EL, p. 32; emphasis added)

In these passages, Professor Rothbard indicates how one might attempt to arrive at objective values.  These passages constitute a microcosm, so to speak, of a proposed method for arriving at an objective theory of values and an objective theory of ethical conduct.

Professor Rothbard seems to be saying that poison is to be considered objectively bad.  And by this we would understand that poison is to be considered an immutable and universal bad, to be avoided at all times and at all places.  But what if the poison can be used in combination with other substances for human medicinal purposes?  Or what if, when mixed with sugar, it can be used to poison rats, bugs, snakes, or other animals which threaten Crusoe?

Professor Rothbard seems to be saying that knowingly eating poison is objectively immoral.  And by this we would understand that knowingly eating poison is to be considered an immutable and universal immoral act, to be avoided at all times and at all places.  But what if Crusoe’s family is hiding on the other side of the island and Crusoe sees a tribe approaching him, which tribe is known for brutality and torture.  What if he takes the poison to avoid being tortured into divulging the location of his family?

Professor Rothbard is trying to construct a theory of objective values.  These are values that are to be universally sought or universally avoided at all times and all places.

Here is what Mises says about this general idea:

Since nobody is in a position to substitute his own value judgments for those of the acting individual, it is vain to pass judgment on other people’s aims and volitions.  No man is qualified to declare what would make another man happier or less discontented.  The critic either tells us what he believes he would aim at if he were in the place of his fellow; or, in dictatorial arrogance blithely disposing of his fellow’s will and aspirations, declares what condition of this other man would better suit himself, the critic. (HA, p. 19)

Insights such as these led Professor Rothbard to complain that Mises was an “opponent of any sort of objective ethics.” (EL, p. 206)

Regarding Crusoe on his desert island, who is to decide whether he should use poison and for what purposes?  Who is to decide whether using it will further his life and aims?  Professor Rothbard seems to be saying that the objective ethicist is to decide.  Using poison is bad, and taking poison is immoral, and these objectively so.

Here we have to keep in mind that Professor Rothbard explicitly puts forth a nonsubjectivist theory of ethical norms and disavows Wertfreiheit.  He is not interested in looking at values according to their “subjective use” for the individual concerned; rather, he is interested in establishing an “objective scale” of values.  So we cannot interpret his theory as saying that poison is good when its subjective use to the individual concerned increases his well-being.  And we cannot interpret his theory as saying that knowingly taking poison is a moral act, when the subjectively valued end (the well-being of one’s family, for example) is viewed as more important than one’s own life.  No, Professor Rothbard is proposing a rigid scale of objective values, not a theory of subjective values.

Writing about the same notion, but in a slightly different context, Mises continues,

It is usual to call an action irrational if it aims, at the expense of “material” and tangible advantages, at the attainment of “ideal” or “higher” satisfactions.  In this sense people say, for instance—sometimes with approval, sometimes with disapproval—that a man who sacrifices life, health, or wealth to the attainment of “higher” goods—like fidelity to his religious, philosophical, and political convictions or the freedom and flowering of his nation—is motivated by irrational considerations.  However, the striving after these higher ends is neither more nor less rational or irrational than that after other human ends.  It is a mistake to assume that the desire to procure the bare necessities of life and health is more rational, natural, or justified than the striving after other goods or amenities. (HA, p. 19)

If we substitute the term immoral for the term irrational above, then what Mises writes is applicable to Rothbard’s Crusoe example.  Here we can see a mistake that Professor Rothbard makes, and which natural law and natural law–related theories seem unable to satisfactorily explain.  In attempting to base their theory of objective values on “the natural laws of the human organism,” (EL, p. 32) they tend to treat only the physical side of human nature, neglecting the “mental” side. (“Mind” in the sense of ideas, thinking, and reason, not in the physical sense of “brain.”)  In Professor Rothbard’s Crusoe example, one sees that he is trying to construct an ethics theory based on the biological aspects of human existence.  And this leaves the theory unable to account for ideal aspects of human existence.  This is a theory that does not take things such as honor, integrity, and the other ideal ends of man’s activity into account.  The objective theory seems to treat these things as unreal or merely derivative in some sense.  And so the theory is unable to provide a satisfactory explanation of why it could be moral for one to harm oneself physically.

Mises writes:

The impulse to live, to preserve one’s own life, and to take advantage of every opportunity to strengthen one’s vital forces is a primal feature of life, present in every living being.  However, to yield to this impulse is not—for man—an inevitable necessity…Man is capable of dying for a cause or of committing suicide.  To live is for man the outcome of a choice, of a judgment of value. (HA, p. 19–20)

Thus, when Professor Hoppe seeks to justify Professor Rothbard’s positive ethics theory, this is the primary theoretical shortcoming in need of repair.

As indicated in the first twenty pages of The Ethics of Liberty, the problem that natural law or any ethics theory must solve involves arriving at an accurate and consistent conception of man’s nature and of the laws of man’s nature and of what is beneficial or detrimental to man (what makes him happy or unhappy).  Then one can, by means of this conceptual structure, just as in praxeological economics, demonstrate the necessary relations inherent in various modes of conduct.  In Professor Rothbard’s words:

The complex that we may build up of these laws may be termed the structure of natural law. (EL, p. 10)

This structure of natural law then demonstrates how:

…when these various things meet and interact, a specifically delimitable and definable result will occur.  In short, specific, delimitable causes will have specific, delimitable effects.  The observable behavior of each of these entities is the law of their natures, and this law includes what happens as a result of the interactions. (EL, p. 9–10)

Natural-law ethics establishes cause and effect regarding the ethical acts of man.

Thus, what is missing from Professor Rothbard’s ethics is not a dialectical rationalization or proof per se.  Rather, what is missing is an accurate and noncontradictory demonstration of how adhering to the libertarian private-property ethic necessarily leads to man’s happiness and how not adhering to it necessarily leads to his unhappiness.  What’s missing from Professor Rothbard’s ethics is an accurate and consistent theory of the nature of man and a theory of the relationship between various types of conduct and man’s well-being.

Hoppe’s Conception of Human Nature

Ultimately, all ethics theories are based on some conception of man’s nature and assert some relationship between ethical conduct and human well-being.  When Professor Hoppe sets out to justify the libertarian private-property ethic, eventually, whether implicitly or explicitly, he must address these universal elements of ethics theory.

Professor Rothbard indicated that natural law would be his source for providing the precise nature of man.  He provided his example of Crusoe to demonstrate his understanding of how natural law would try to arrive at objective values and eventually establish the objective value which is the libertarian private-property ethic.  But Professor Rothbard’s followers possibly sense that his Crusoe example is deficient as a scientific concept, since it cannot explain the actual choices that real people might and do make.  In addition, natural-law philosophy has not established exactly what man’s nature is and has not established any laws of man’s ethical nature.

Professor Hoppe’s solution is to conceive of man’s nature in terms of “argumentation.”  But Professor Hoppe does not conceive of argumentation in the normal sense.  By argumentation he means virtually any internal thought and virtually any external utterance: “In fact, in producing any proposition, overtly or as an internal thought, one demonstrates one’s preference for the willingness to rely on argumentative means in convincing oneself or others of something.” (EE, p. 205)

Thus, according to Professor Hoppe, in producing any proposition, even a thought proposition, one is “arguing.”

As we have noted before, this is a radically new conception of argumentation that seeks to conceive argumentation as virtually identical to reasoning or thinking. Hoppe is suggesting that man is an “arguing being,” and he is suggesting that arguing characterizes man as fundamentally as action characterizes man.  He is proposing a general theory of the nature of man in which argumentation is not conceived as a particular form of action, but instead as something perhaps even more fundamental than action.

What Professor Hoppe seems to be doing is moving the thinking and reasoning part of action over to a new concept called argumentation and then leaving action to mean something like physical movement.  He is removing action as the primary concept of social theory and putting in its place two concepts, with action designating primarily physical movement and “argumentation” designating the important phenomena of thinking and reasoning.

[A]nd so, in this sense, argumentation must be considered more fundamental than action. (ES, p. 66)

The question is, why conceive that man is an arguing being, when it is easier, more well established, and more accurate on the face of it, to conceive that man is a thinking being or a reasoning being?  Why not conceive that in producing any proposition, man is thinking or reasoning or even acting?  Wouldn’t this require less reconceiving of things, and wouldn’t this square better with established usage?  Is argumentation really a universal aspect of human nature?  Or is argumentation simply one particular form of action?

Professor Hoppe writes, “It is impossible to deny that one can argue, as the very denial would itself be an argument. In fact, one could not even silently say to oneself ‘I cannot argue’ without thereby contradicting oneself.” (ES, p. 65–66)

As has been mentioned before, to conceive things in this way entails a fundamental change in the concept of argumentation.  For example, if one fears being physically harmed if one were to argue, then it is not contradictory at all to say silently to oneself, “I cannot argue.”  It is only contradictory if we change the concept of argumentation and conceive argumentation as equivalent to proposition making or to thinking.  For instance, saying silently to oneself “I cannot think” may be contradictory in the sense intended by Hoppe.  But typically we would not believe it is contradictory to say to oneself, “I cannot argue.”  Thinking and arguing are not identical.  But in Hoppe’s new proposed conception of argumentation, it seems they are.

Our typical way of conceiving things is that all human action entails thinking and that therefore a particular form of action such as arguing (trying to convince someone of something) will involve thinking.  However, the reverse is not true.  We do not typically conceive that all thinking entails arguing.  But that is what Hoppe seems to be proposing.

Thinking is more general than arguing.  Thinking can be done in isolation and can stand alone without social interaction.  Arguing, as we would typically conceive it, requires social interaction.  We typically conceive that we argue with another, not with ourselves.  The vision of a person arguing with himself is a vision of a person with a personality disorder, when arguing is conceived normally.

Thus, our first claim regarding Professor Hoppe’s conception of human nature is that it is not accurate.  That man is an arguing being in the sense of argumentation being something he does at all times and all places is not accurate.  Arguing is a type of social interaction.  As such, it is something an acting being does sometimes and does not do at other times.  The idea that all thoughts and propositions are arguments is simply not an accurate description of man’s nature.

Hoppe’s Connection between Ethical Action and Human Well-Being

Professor Hoppe’s approach to ethics theory is to first conceive that proposing a nonlibertarian ethic in thought or in word is an argument.  Then ethics theory, as epistemology, deduces what is necessarily entailed in argumentation and whether this is consistent with nonlibertarian ethical proposals advanced during argumentation.

Recognizing, as we have just done, that knowledge claims are raised and decided upon in the course of argumentation and that this is undeniably so, one can now reconstruct the task of epistemology more precisely as that of formulating those propositions which are argumentatively indisputable in that their truth is already implied in the very fact of making one’s argument… (ES, p. 66–67)

The notion that considering a nonlibertarian ethic in one’s thoughts or proposing a nonlibertarian ethic to another are both arguments is highly debatable.  But it may be granted that these are forms of conduct.  Ethics deals with the connection between conduct and well-being.  In the argumentation ethics, the connection under discussion is what necessary effects, if any, are entailed in proposing a nonlibertarian ethic.

Hoppe asks, “Yet what is implied in the very fact of arguing?” (ES, p. 67)  And Hoppe’s point is that if arguing presupposes the libertarian private-property ethic, then arguing against that ethic is self-contradictory.  For Austrian social theorists, this would be like someone saying “I refuse to act,” perhaps not realizing that in saying so, or in choosing to sit still, he was acting.

Hoppe’s argument is that in arguing against the libertarian property ethic, a person must necessarily argue against the ethic he is demonstrating by arguing.  Anyone arguing against the libertarian private-property ethic must necessarily contradict himself.

This is the specific connection that Professor Hoppe seeks to establish between the ethical act or specific conduct (proposing the nonlibertarian ethic) and the necessary consequence (self-contradiction).

Hoppe presents the general form of his argument as follows:

Syllogism #1:

a) justification is propositional justification
b) argumentation presupposes property in one’s body and the homesteading principle
c) then, no deviation from this ethic can be argumentatively justified

(bold and italics added)

A question that arises immediately is, if producing any proposition—overtly or as an internal thought—is an argument, then why not simply use the term “argument” in part A of the syllogism?

If producing a proposition internally or overtly is an argument, then why can’t we write part A of the syllogism as “justification is argument justification”?

Then part B, “argumentation presupposes property in one’s body…” would follow more rigorously.

If we write this down, it would look like the following:

Syllogism #2

a) justification is argument justification
b) argumentation presupposes property in one’s body and the homesteading principle
c) then, no deviation from this ethic can be argumentatively justified

If any proposition is an argument, we should be able to use “argument” equivalently with “proposition” in part A of the syllogism.

But then, why didn’t Professor Hoppe think of that himself?

Perhaps Professor Hoppe didn’t write the syllogism that way because the initial premise that all justification is argument justification is not accurate by the terms of Professor Hoppe’s own conceptions?

Thus, Professor Hoppe writes “justification is propositional justification” instead?

What if we write the syllogism using the term “proposition,” as follows:

Syllogism #3

a) justification is propositional justification
b) propositioning presupposes property in one’s body and the homesteading principle
c) then, no deviation from this ethic can be propositionally justified

Now the problem becomes that the assertion “propositioning presupposes property in one’s body…” seems to be problematic.  The apparent reason is that a thought proposition isn’t conceived by Hoppe to involve cognitive guidance of a physical body and thus does not presuppose ownership in a body(?)

Or if syllogism #3 is accurate and nonproblematic, then why doesn’t Professor Hoppe simply write the syllogism this way?

The problem seems to be the following:

If we accept a conception of action and of ethics in which movement of one’s body is an essential component, we may conceive “ownership” as one’s ability to move (control) objects, and we may conceive that in arguing, one moves one’s body, and thus demonstrates ownership of it.  By contrast, we may conceive plain thinking as something of a categorically different nature.  We may conceive that thinking is “internal” and does not entail movement, whereas “argumentation” is overt and entails movements and gestures.

In accepting a fundamental distinction between “action” and “argumentation” on the one hand (both conceived in terms of movement) and “thinking” on the other hand (conceived as entailing no movement), then we may have accepted a distinction implying that thinking does not presuppose ownership of anything, since it is not conceived in terms of movement of a body.

In trying to prove that justifying a nonlibertarian ethic presupposes ownership of one’s body, we realize that one may justify a nonlibertarian ethic in a way that does not presuppose ownership of one’s body: in thought.  We must grant that this is possible if we have conceived “thinking” as fundamentally different from “acting” and “arguing,” where the latter concepts entail movement and the former concept does not.

If we have conceived argumentation as entailing movement of the means of arguing (gestures, mouth movements, etc.), then at least a plausible case can be made that arguing presupposes ownership of these means.  But it will be less plausible to make this same case with regard to thinking.  To the extent that “thinking” is not conceived as movement of something physical, then thinking does not presuppose the ownership (control) of something, and thus, by the previously established definition, thinking does not presuppose ownership.

Hoppe’s syllogism, in which he uses the term proposition in the first part and argument in the second part, may be his attempt to “join” the two concepts; an attempt to construct a bridge from “nonmovemental” thought to “movemental” argumentation.  Hoppe may want to show that thinking itself presupposes the libertarian private-property ethic, a notion that is actually inconsistent with his belief that ownership entails the movement of physical objects.

Here we have to mention that this is to some degree conjectural.  Professor Hoppe’s concept of action is vastly different from the standard Misesian conception.  In our view, Professor Hoppe is trying to solve some structural problems that result from his peculiar conception of action and argumentation in terms of bodily movement.  These are not problems that arise in formal praxeology since the primary concept of praxeology is the purely formal notion of the attempt to replace a dissatisfactory state with a satisfactory state (action).  The structural problems in Hoppe’s theory are partially due to his attempt to intermix normative theorizing and formal social science, and partially due to the fact that the concepts of self-ownership and homesteading are not scientifically precise concepts.  It is difficult to follow Hoppe’s attempt to make this project and these concepts logically consistent.

The central question with regard to Professor Hoppe’s syllogism is: why can’t the syllogism be written as syllogism #2 or syllogism #3 where the connection between A and B would be a rigorous one?

Professor Hoppe lists two types of propositions: “in producing any proposition, overtly or as an internal thought…” (EE, p. 205; emphasis added)

Overt propositions seem to be those involving movement in the means of making them (mouth movements, hand gestures, etc.).  Internal thought propositions, by contrast, are apparently not easily conceivable in terms of the physical movement in the means of making them.  As mentioned, this may be problematic in that, if no movement is entailed, then no ownership is implied or presupposed.

If we take Professor Hoppe’s definition of a proposition as either the overt variety or the internal-thought variety, then we can write his original syllogism as:

Syllogism #4:

a) justification is either internal thought propositional or overt propositional
b) argumentation presupposes property in one’s body and the homesteading principle
c) then, no deviation from this ethic can be argumentatively justified

If propositions are either of the internal-thought variety or the overt-external variety, then we can choose from those two types in part A of syllogism #4.

And thus, if we choose the internal-thought variety of propositions, we can write the following:

Syllogism #5:

a) justification is internal-thought proposition (no movement entailed)
b) argumentation presupposes property in one’s body and the homesteading principle (because arguing entails movement of the means of arguing)
c) then, no deviation from this ethic can be argumentatively justified

In the case where a person would justify a nonlibertarian ethic by internal-thought proposition, no movement is entailed if our definition of thought does not entail movement.  And now part B of the syllogism is not connected to part A.

Justifying something to oneself in thought does not presuppose ownership in one’s body in the same way “argumentation” does as conceived by Hoppe.  Because in Hoppe’s conceptions, thinking is differentiated from action and argumentation by the concept of movement.  If someone justifies a nonlibertarian ethic internally in thought, this does not entail “movement of a body,” and thus does not presuppose ownership of a body.

A way around this would be to conceive “internal-thought propositions” as arguments.  But if Hoppe has already differentiated thought from action and argumentation based on the notion of movement of a body (action/argumentation is movement of a body, thought is not), then he is prevented from doing this by his own conception of things.  If thought entails no movement and argument entails movement, then argumentation is not thought.

Hoppe declines to use the terms “proposition” and “argument” synonymously in his own syllogism when doing so would make his syllogism more rigorous.  This seems to indicate that Hoppe himself believes that internal-thought propositions are not identical to argumentation.  Thus, Hoppe has provided a way for the nonlibertarian to justify a nonlibertarian ethic without moving his body, and thus without presupposing ownership of his own body.

A person may justify a nonlibertarian ethic internally by thought proposition.  In doing so he moves no bodies and implies no self-ownership and thus does not contradict himself by the terms of Hoppe’s argumentation ethics.

The Intuitive Logical Force of Hoppe’s Syllogism

And yet there is some persuasive force to Professor Hoppe’s syllogism as he presents it.  And the reason is as follows:

Part B of Hoppe’s syllogism #1 seems to follow part A intuitively and at first glance because the term “propositional justification” can easily be conceived to mean justification aimed toward another person, especially when part B of the syllogism begins with the word “argumentation.”  One is “contextually inclined” to conceive the preceding “propositional justification” as meaning something like “argumentation” since we understand the syllogistic form as a form where part A and part B are related.

For example, if the word “pewter” follows the words “the color of my house is,” then we are “contextually inclined” to interpret “pewter” as a color and not as a metal.

Hoppe’s syllogism has the same effect when the term “propositional justification” in part A is followed immediately by the term “argumentation” in part B.  Thus, we contextually interpret the preceding “propositional justification” as something like “argumentation.”

But actually, the precise meaning of “proposition” in Hoppe’s own theory is internal-thought proposition or overt proposition.

When the syllogism is written with Hoppe’s more precise “either/or” definition, we might not be contextually inclined to interpret “internal-thought proposition” as synonymous with “argumentation.”

If Professor Hoppe’s argument is written as syllogism #5, part B is not connected to part A.  To fix this problem, a way must be found to make “internal-thought proposition” and “argumentation” synonyms or equivalents.  But in this case, we could simply write syllogism #2, something Hoppe declines to do:

 a) justification is argument justification

b) argumentation presupposes property in one’s body and the homesteading principle

c) then, no deviation from this ethic can be argumentatively justified

Thus, apparently one can justify a nonlibertarian ethic by internal-thought proposition, and this is not a contradiction since it doesn’t presuppose ownership in one’s body.

If this reasoning should hold, a person may behave in a way at odds with the teachings of Professor Hoppe’s theory (he may justify a nonlibertarian ethic), and the negative consequence of self-contradiction will not necessarily befall him.

If this is the case, Professor Hoppe has failed to establish a necessary connection between the specific ethical act (justifying a nonlibertarian ethic) and a specific impact on the individual’s well-being.

Summary of Hoppe’s Primary Concepts

Two of the fundamental concepts of Professor Hoppe’s argumentation ethics are that man is an arguing being (i.e., that arguing characterizes man as universally as action does) and that man, in making a thought proposition (in thinking), demonstrates his preference for the libertarian private-property ethic.

Our position is that argumentation is a social act that is less universal than action and is to be conceived as a particular form of action.  Argumentation is the “trying to” convince someone of something and is thus an act of social interaction.  As such, it is a subset of human action, which is the “trying to” in general.

Second, we hold that it is difficult to see how in thinking and in making a thought proposition, one upholds, practices, or demonstrates one’s preference for Lockean property theory.

What lends this idea the kernel of truth it has is that any ethics theory ultimately revolves around human action.  Thinking and reasoning are forms of action to the extent they are activities aiming at an end.  Both the case for human liberty and the theory of what goes wrong when liberty is absent have something to do with human thinking.  There is truth to the idea that human liberty and human thinking are related.  When Professor Hoppe indicates that in making a thought proposition one touches on that which is fundamental to human liberty, there has to be some truth to this.  Because it is in thinking and acting, and in their invariant relations, that we will find the laws of man’s ethical nature.

Hoppe’s Impact to Human Well-Being from Unethical Action

Professor Hoppe conceives man as an arguing being who, in arguing, upholds Lockean private-property theory and Rothbardian natural rights.  As all ethics theory asserts some negative or detrimental result from action not in accord with the theory, we now turn to the specific negative consequences that Professor Hoppe asserts result from proposing nonlibertarian ethical norms in argumentation.

Writing in The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Professor Hoppe lists two primary groups of negative results or penalties that those proposing a nonlibertarian ethic can expect.  As we have previously indicated, these penalties or necessary negative consequences are the detrimental things that those proposing a nonlibertarian ethic may prevent from happening to themselves, by abstaining from proposing a nonlibertarian ethic.  Ethics theory demonstrates how one may prevent negative impacts to one’s well-being by abstaining from specific social-ethical acts.

Professor Hoppe proposes two general groups of detrimental effects. One group of detrimental effects we might refer to as “drastic consequences.”  These are consequences to specific actions that, could an ethicist convince a person they would happen to him personally, we would concede that the prospect of these consequences happening would largely prevent the occurrence of the original action.  That is, such “drastic consequences” are of such a serious nature that if any particular individual believed they would happen to himself, then the individual would probably, but not necessarily, abstain from the act that would bring these consequences onto himself.

Professor Hoppe lists these drastic consequences as follows:

“Then we would all cease to exist.”
“No one would be allowed to do anything with anything.”
“Neither we, our forefathers, nor our progeny could, do or will survive.”
“It would be impossible for anyone to first say anything at a definite point in time and for someone else to be able to reply.”
“Acting and proposition making would also be impossible.”
“One would have to interrogate and come to an agreement with the entire world population.”

(EE, p. 206)

These are the general kinds of drastic consequences Professor Hoppe lists as conceivable consequences to specific ethical acts.  Here we need only point out that a considerable amount of time has to elapse between the time one proposes a nonlibertarian ethic and the time any one of these drastic consequences occurs.  If this is the case, then those proposing the nonlibertarian ethic can be expected to attempt to maneuver, during this lengthy time period, into a position so that the drastic consequences of proposing a nonlibertarian ethic fall on someone else.

Perhaps there are some good people who, if they realized that these drastic consequences will befall their fellow men, might be convinced to abstain from a given action.  But there could just as well be those who, if they know the consequences of their acts will not necessarily accrue to them personally, will continue with their activities, and try to arrange for the negative consequences to fall upon others.  This would be like calling for universal public education, believing one’s own children will be out of school by the time universal public school is mandatory.

Professor Hoppe’s list of drastic consequences has meaning primarily as a rhetorical or argumentative device but not as a valid theoretical explanation of social-ethical cause and effect.  Not only do people, including libertarians, not believe any of these consequences will ever come to pass, but even supposing that these consequences were possible, this would still leave open the possibility of nonlibertarians continuing to propose nonlibertarian ethical norms and trying to arrange for all of Professor Hoppe’s drastic consequences to happen only to libertarians.  Even granting the possibility of Professor Hoppe’s drastic negative consequences, in the intervening time period between the act (proposing the nonlibertarian ethic) and the drastic consequence, people will try to avoid the consequence happening to them personally and try to arrange it so the consequence happens to others.

This is a fundamental problem of material cause-and-effect consequences when such consequences are conceived as temporally removed from the original action.

The Idea of Violating Demonstrated Preference

Before continuing with Professor Hoppe’s second list of consequences, there is one particular consequence Professor Hoppe lists that should be addressed.  And that is the idea that in proposing a nonlibertarian ethic, one is “in violation of demonstrated preference.” (EE, p. 204)

Violation of demonstrated preference is a serious-sounding charge.  Of course Professor Hoppe can’t be suggesting that in performing some action another person violates my demonstrated preference.  It’s already understood that when person B acts “unethically” from my (A’s) point of view, that B is doing something I prefer he not do.  What Professor Hoppe is suggesting with these words is that the actor is violating his own demonstrated preference.  What can this possibly mean?

Could Professor Hoppe possibly be “intent upon establishing scales of value according to which man should act but does not necessarily always act.”? (HA, p. 95)

Is it possible that Professor Hoppe here has:

“failed to recognize the meaning of the term ‘scale of value’ and have disregarded the obstacles preventing the assumption of synchronism in the various actions of the individual.  They have interpreted man’s various acts as the outcome of a scale of value, independent of these acts and preceding them, and of a previously devised plan whose realization they aim at.  The scale of value and the plan to which duration and immutability for a certain period of time were attributed, were hypostatized into the cause and motive of the various individual actions.  Synchronism which could not be asserted with regard to the various acts was then easily discovered in the scale of value and in the plan.  But this overlooks the fact that the scale of value is nothing but a constructed tool of thought.  The scale of value manifests itself only in real acting; it can be discerned only from the observation of real acting.  It is therefore impermissible to contrast it with real acting and to use it as a yardstick for the appraisal of real actions.”? (HA, p. 102)

The devising of some ethical code, ethical plan, or ethical scale of values is not synchronous with any other act of the acting individual.  When person A devises some ethical plan, code, or value scale, this is something that A “does.”  It is an action.  Thus, when A “does” this, he reveals to himself that this is what he considers important to be doing (devising a plan, ethical code, or scale of value).  This “doing” is an action, now the most important activity for A.

As Mises writes, “Two actions of an individual are never synchronous….They can never be effected at the same instant.” (HA, p. 102)

So when A performs another, different action, this is a separate action from the action which was devising a plan, code, or value scale.  Now A reveals to himself that he views this current action as the most important thing to do.

One action is the devising of an ethical code; the other action is a separate one such as proposing a nonlibertarian ethic.  Both are actions.

Perhaps A’s current action is not in accord with the scale of value he devised in a previous action.  For example, in one action a person may say “I’ll never speak to Bob.”  Tomorrow, that same person may speak to Bob.  Then there are two issues:

First, the first action is a separate action from the second action.  In this sense, there is no contradiction or “violation.”  In doing either one of these things, the actor “demonstrates” his preference for doing them.

Second, if one’s current action is in conflict with a previously devised value scale, then it is quite possible that one’s valuations have changed.  “If one’s valuations have changed, unremitting faithfulness to the once espoused principles of action merely for the sake of constancy would not be rational but simply stubborn.” (HA, p. 103)

Thus, as regards these two possibilities, there is no “violation” of demonstrated preference.  In the first case, the actor demonstrates what is valuable to him by doing what he now does: either devising a plan, code, or scale or performing some other act.  In the second case, his valuations change.

In neither case does he “violate” anything in the sense Hoppe is indicating.

The most common misunderstanding consists in seeing…a statement about the material and the content of action…Thus the want becomes a judge over action: it is thought that the correct action, the one corresponding to the want, can be contrasted to the incorrect action.  However, we can never identify the want otherwise than in the action.  The action is always in accord with the want because we can infer the want only from the action. (EP, p. 80)

A person can never be in violation of demonstrated preference, because a person is always demonstrating that which he prefers to do.

As Mises writes, “Every action is always in perfect agreement with the scale of values or wants because these scales are nothing but an instrument for the interpretation of a man’s acting.” (HA, p. 95)

Hoppe’s Necessary Consequences to Proposing a Nonlibertarian Ethic

Professor Hoppe argues that there are potentially drastic consequences to proposing a nonlibertarian ethic, and he also argues that such proposals violate demonstrated preference.  We claim that the drastic consequences, conceived as temporally remote from the act of proposing a nonlibertarian ethic, do not necessarily happen to the person proposing the nonlibertarian ethic.  And we claim that the notion “violation of demonstrated preference” is based on a misunderstanding of the theory of action.

Professor Hoppe’s second list of consequences that result from proposing a nonlibertarian ethic amount to the more modest claim that those doing so contradict themselves and thereby suffer defeat in the intellectual realm of inquiry.  Hoppe lists these consequences as follows:

“contradict”
“contradict”
“nonlibertarian ethical proposals falsified”
“the ultimate defeat for an ethical proposal”
“the most deadly smash”
“practical contradiction”

(EE, p. 204–205)

For our present purpose, we will grant that those proposing a nonlibertarian ethic contradict themselves.

Even if we grant that those who propose a nonlibertarian ethic contradict themselves, this in itself does not demonstrate any impact to the well-being of those proposing such ethics.  Rather, it only assumes such.  If we agree that some statement is self-contradictory, or if we agree that one’s acts are not in accord with one’s words, this does not constitute a demonstration of a negative impact on that person’s well-being.  For example, consider the person who exclaims “I am not talking.”  How exactly will doing so impact this person’s well-being negatively and necessarily?  It is the task of an ethics theory that claims people will suffer contradiction to demonstrate how contradicting oneself constitutes suffering.  Professor Hoppe’s theory doesn’t do this.  Hoppe only implies that contradiction is bad for people.

Of course we all understand that consistency is to be preferred over self-contradiction.  But why is this so?  And what happens to the one who contradicts oneself or acts at variance with one’s stated values?  Professor Hoppe is unable to say exactly.  Rather, he simply appeals to the common sentiment that contradictions are things people want to avoid.  But if contradictions are not harmful to the person who performs them, why shouldn’t a person employ them in an attempt to achieve a nonlibertarian society?

Professor Hoppe’s theory, even when we grant that proposing a nonlibertarian ethic is self-contradictory, is unable to establish a link between self-contradiction and harm to the one contradicting oneself.  And thus, Professor Hoppe has failed to provide a compelling reason why the nonlibertarian should abstain from making nonlibertarian ethical proposals.

The Objectification of Praxeology and Its Concepts

Our sustained argument has been that within the Austrian School of social thought in the United States, Misesian praxeology has been disavowed as a method for treating social-ethical phenomena, and an approach largely along the lines of objective realism has been taken up.

The work generally recognized as providing both the explicit point of departure as well as the general path to be taken is Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty.  In his book, Professor Rothbard expressly disavows value-free analysis as being able to contribute further to the advancement of human liberty (xlvii, 26).  He then sets forth on a quest to establish objective values (p.12), a theoretical quest at fundamental odds with praxeology and value-free science.

As has been argued, Professor Rothbard’s abandonment of praxeology was based on a serious misunderstanding of praxeology and the way it improves individual well-being.  As the science of means, praxeology improves individual well-being by demonstrating previously unknown necessary consequences to the utilization of specific means.  When these previously unknown consequences are made explicit and demonstrated to be necessary by praxeological social science, the individual in possession of this new knowledge is now in a position to prevent those necessary consequences by abstaining from the acts (means) that must necessarily bring them about.  Thus, his well-being is improved since he is now in a position to prevent what he believes are harmful consequences to himself by abstaining from the utilization of means that praxeology demonstrates entail specific necessary consequences.  Before praxeology establishes this necessary connection, the actor has no means to prevent the harmful consequences to himself, since he does not know which acts to abstain from to prevent them.

A subsidiary effect of this praxeological knowledge is that when person A abstains from acts as a means to prevent harm to himself, this may constitute to other people—B, C, and D—an absence of acts they believe would have been harmful to them.  When person A abstains from some act out of self-interest, this may indirectly benefit those who may have been harmed by the act in question.

Since Professor Rothbard essentially misunderstood praxeology, he never considered the question of “ethical means” (coercion, dishonesty, etc.) and whether such means may entail necessary consequences that praxeology could conceive and demonstrate.  There is no consideration of this question in Rothbard’s stated reasons for turning away from praxeology as a scientific approach to ethical phenomena.  Rather, the notion that the phenomena of ethics could not be approached by the established means/ends analytical method is simply taken for granted in his writings.

Consider the following passage from Lionel Robbins:

There is an important sense in which the subject-matter of political science can be conceived to come within the scope of our definition of the economic.  Systems of government, property relationships, and the like, can be conceived as the result of choice.  It is desirable that this conception should be further explored on lines analogous to better known analysis. (LR, p. 134)

In other words, we can easily conceive that politics (and ethics) ultimately involves choosing and setting aside.  Why not consider using “better known analysis” (the developed concepts of “wants,” “choice,” “costs,” etc.) toward conceiving ethical-political human action?

A Short Summary of Rothbard’s Two Main Reasons

Rothbard’s criticisms of Mises’s value-free analytical approach show that he did not have a solid understanding of praxeology as the science of means or how praxeology contributes to individual well-being.  His first charge is that the praxeologist as social scientist cannot know the values or motives or desires of social actors and thus cannot know whether they may actually desire the consequences which others view as harmful.  His second charge, closely related to the first, is that people may know of all the consequences that praxeology as economics teaches, but still desire a high level of political control.

The first charge makes the mistaken assumption that the praxeologist has to know what particular individuals are striving for in order for praxeology to have an effect on individual conduct.  This is simply wrong.  When praxeology demonstrates a previously unknown consequence to the utilization of a specific means, then anyone who comes into possession of this new knowledge may now utilize this knowledge for his own self-benefit, regardless whether the praxeologist knows or does not know what any particular individual is aiming for.

For example, from a libertarian point of view, it is hard to see how socialism or statism can be perpetuated without the “ethical means” of coercion and dishonesty.  If/when the praxeologist demonstrates a hitherto unknown consequence to the utilization of these means, the praxeologist has demonstrated to the actor considering these means that there are consequences to his proposed actions he did not know about.  Regardless whether the praxeologist knows what this actor is actually considering, and regardless of the hidden motives, values, or desires of this actor, the praxeologist has shown the actor that conduct he may have considered “consequence free” or conduct whose negative consequence he may have considered nonecessary, is actually conduct that entails a necessary consequence.  And thus, no matter what the praxeologist knows about this person’s true motives, he has provided this person with a previously unknown reason to consider abstaining from the act in question.  Ethical means (coercion, dishonestly, etc.) just as economic means (granting credit, erecting tariffs, etc.) have necessary consequences.  Praxeology seeks to ascertain what those consequences are.

The analytic method is simply a way of discovering the necessary consequences of complex collocations of facts—consequences whose counterpart in reality is not so immediately discernible as the counterpart of the original postulates. It is an instrument for “shaking out” all the implications of given suppositions. Granted the correspondence of its original assumptions and the facts, its conclusions are inevitable and inescapable. (LR, p. 122)

Rothbard’s second charge is that a person may consider all the economic consequences of his actions but still desire more statism and political control.  Here it is easy to see that this claim is based on an implicit assumption that no necessary consequences can be established as attaching to noneconomic acts (i.e., actions in the political or interpersonal realm).  Rothbard simply doesn’t see that bringing about statism and political control will entail the means of doing so.  The utilization of specific means, as praxeology instructs, has necessary consequences.  Rothbard, in making his charge, is not seeing or is refusing to acknowledge the possibility that the means utilized to establish or increase statism will have necessary consequences.  The person who considers the economic consequences of statism may not have considered the ethical consequences of statism, i.e., the consequences to his individual well-being from the utilization of specific ethical means.

Professor Rothbard, in conceiving praxeology as a “method” for economics and not as a general science of means, was thus prevented from understanding how praxeology could be extended to social, noneconomic phenomena.

The Present Situation

This misunderstanding is the single most important fact that has led to the present situation in Austrian School social thought.  Almost all Austrian School ethical thought is focused on objective or “material” concepts such as “ownership of one’s body” and “mixing one’s labor with nature.”  As these are concepts of an objective-realist type, the near-exclusive focus on them has led to a gradual but persistent shift away from all the concepts of Misesian praxeology.

The formal nature of the concepts of Misesian praxeology is what imparts consistency and necessity to its statements and propositions.  The change to objective concepts and concepts that contain empirical or material content render the resultant theorizing inconsistent and unable to make necessarily “true” propositions.

Consider the following concepts of Misesian praxeology:

 “deduction,” “deductive analysis” (MM, p. 9), “deductive reasoning” (UF, p. 65), “logical analysis” (HA, p. 64), “pure elements of setting aims and applying means” (MM, p. 21), “choose between different states of affairs” (MM, p. 20), “apodictic certainty” (MM, p. 11), “aprioristic reasoning” (MM, p. 11), “human action” (HA, p. 11), “methodological individualism” (MM, p. xvi), “categories of action” (MM, p. xiv), “category of action” (HA, p. 68), “aiming at ends” (MM, p. 20), “strive after ends” (UF, p. 4), “subjective value theory” (MM, p. 23), “subjective interpretation of valuation” (MM, p. 42), “means/ends” (MM, p. 23), “science of means” (MM, p. 24), “necessary relations” (EP, p. 24), “logical relations” (HA, p. 86), “purely formal” (HA, p. 32), “formalism” (HA, p. 21), “subjectivism.” (HA, p. 22)

These are some of the fundamental concepts of Misesian praxeology, the science Mises conceives as a purely formal science of human action, of purposeful behavior, and of aiming at ends.

The sum total of these concepts establishes a formal conceptual scheme, not of physical reality and objective meaning (these are things other sciences may treat), but rather of acting reality and human meaning.  This conceptual structure is similar to a series of mathematical equations in the sense that it is used to “transform” the originally stipulated or postulated “data” into their necessary implications.  But whereas mathematics may do this in regard to spatiotemporal nature, praxeology does this in regard to purposive conduct.

It’s not that a physical or objective side to human experience cannot be conceived; rather, it’s that praxeology only conceives the physical aspect of experience in relation to purposive conduct.

Here are some of Hayek’s insights to the same effect:

[T]hough all the social phenomena with which we can possibly deal may have physical attributes, they need not be physical facts for our purpose. (IE, p. 59)

If we wish, we could say that all these objects are defined not in terms of their “real” properties but in terms of opinions people hold about them. (IE, p. 60)

[I]n studying family life, what is relevant is not that X is the natural offspring of Y but that either or both believe this to be the case.  The relevant character is not different from the case where X and Y believe some spiritual tie to exist between them in the existence of which we do not believe. (IE, p. 60)

[N]o superior knowledge the observer may possess about the object, but which is not possessed by the acting person, can help us in understanding the motives of their actions. (IE, p. 60)

Please note that neither with respect to the objects of human activity nor with respect to the different kinds of human activity themselves do I argue that their physical properties to not come into the process of classification.  What I am arguing is that no physical properties can enter into the explicit definition of any of these classes, because the elements of these classes need not possess common physical attributes… (IE, p. 61)

[W]e know that the objects a, b, c…which may be physically completely dissimilar and which we can never exhaustively enumerate, are objects of the same kind because the attitude of X toward them all is similar.  But the fact that X’s attitude toward them is similar can again be defined only by saying that he will react toward them by any one of the actions [x, y, z]…which again may be physically dissimilar and which we will not be able to enumerate exhaustively, but which we just know to “mean” the same thing. (IE, p. 62)

The common attributes which the elements of any of these classes possess are not physical attributes but must be something else. (IE, p. 62)

[W]hether we do so in ordinary life or for the purposes of the social sciences, we have to define both the objects of human activity and the different kinds of actions themselves, not in physical terms but in terms of the opinions or intentions of the acting persons… (IE, p. 62)

The concepts of praxeology (praxeology as social science, not praxeology as “method” or dialectical proof) are formal concepts of human meaning and are absent material content.  In an important sense, when material concepts are present, then praxeological concepts are absent.  And thus, when it is conceived that action is a cognitive guidance of “a physical body in physical reality” and when the subject matter of social science is conceived to be “ownership of a physical body,” we are alerted that we have changed our method of approach from praxeology to something different.

The Subtlety of the Shift to Objective Concepts

The shift from the subjectivist and value-free concepts of praxeology to objectivist concepts and definite judgments of value is subtle.  In the context of contemporary Austrian social thought, our claim is that the subtlety results from the fact that no one wants to openly contradict the works and fundamental theses of Mises.  Thus, theories that amount to a complete rejection of his fundamental ideas are phrased in terms that deemphasize this fact.

For example, it is a well-known tenet of Misesian praxeology that praxeology is the science of means and not of ends.  And it is well known by all Austrians that in his writings, Mises again and again states that passing judgment on the ends and values of the acting individual is futile:

The ultimate end of action is always the satisfaction of some desires of the acting man.  Since nobody is in a position to substitute his own value judgments for those of the acting individual, it is vain to pass judgment on other people’s aims and volitions.  No man is qualified to declare what would make another man happier or less discontented.  The critic either tells us what he believes he would aim at if he were in the place of his fellow; or, in dictatorial arrogance blithely disposing of his fellow’s will and aspirations, declares what condition of this other man would better suit himself, the critic.” (HA, p. 19)

This is not an isolated passage or fleeting thought of Mises.  Rather we recognize in this one of his central tenets—that the ultimate end of action is irrational or nonrational.  In Misesian praxeology, it is clear that all ends are to be treated as means to something else.  The scientific treatment becomes the scientific demonstration of the necessary consequences of the means adopted by the acting individual.  If an actor considers all the consequences of his intended act and decides the price he has to pay is worth what he hopes to gain, there is nothing that science can say.  The individual has made a judgment of value.  Any criticism of another individual’s judgment of value reduces to a judgment of value on the part of the critic.  Such a value judgment has no greater scientific weight than the original value judgment of the criticized.  These are all well-known fundamentals of Misesian praxeology.

Therefore, the shift to an attempt to arrive at man’s proper ends is a momentous change for anyone agreeing with Misesian praxeology.  An attempt to establish man’s proper ends is a simultaneous disagreement with Mises on the fundamental nature of social science.  Mises was an “opponent of any sort of objective ethics.” (EL, p. 206)

From a Misesian and Austrian School point of view, a departure from the method of treating social phenomena as means, and an attempt to establish the objective ends of man’s actions, would seem to require an open declaration explaining why this central tenet of Mises’s thought is wrong.

If pursuing a science of man’s proper ends is the right way, where was Mises wrong in claiming that trying to establish the ends of action is futile?  Any serious Austrian scholar should be expected to address this fundamental question head-on and not merely rely on Professor Rothbard’s stated reasons for abandoning praxeology in his quest for objective values.

Everyone understands that Austrians need to address ethics and not only economics and that some method must be chosen.  The attempt to establish man’s objective ends is one possible approach.

But there is a serious theoretical question that goes to the very root of the legitimacy of Austrian School social science: if trying to establish the objective ends of man’s conduct is an appropriate project from an Austrian theoretical point of view, what does this imply about Misesian praxeology, founded on the principle that the ultimate ends or values an individual chooses are beyond scientific treatment?

Misesian praxeology is based on the idea that a “science” of ends is a fundamentally flawed concept.  The contrary proposition that a consistent science of ends is possible implies that Mises’s thinking on the matter is fundamentally flawed.

If Mises’s thinking on the issue of ends is wrong, and if it is actually possible in principle to arrive at a list of ends, scientifically demonstrated to be universally good for man at all times and all places (i.e., not only “subjectively useful” to specific individuals at different times and places), this would render superfluous praxeology and economics.  If the ends of man’s “ethical” and “political” activity are scientifically ascertainable, then there is no reason why, in principle, the ends of man’s “economic” and “physical” activity cannot also be scientifically established.  Then, not only would it be possible to scientifically establish which “ethical” ends and which “political” ends are “objectively good” for man, but also which “economic” ends and which “physical” ends are “objectively good” for man.  Science would provide a list covering every realm in which man seeks provision, and tell him which ends are the objectively and scientifically correct ones (this book, but not that book, this fruit, but not that fruit, this television show but not that television show, etc.).  For every possible end open to man’s choice, science would tell him: “good” or “bad,” “just” or “unjust,” “moral” or “immoral.”  All this is implied in the effort to establish objective values or to “justify” ends.

The question is, given the seriousness and implications of this change in direction, where is the scholarly treatment of these fundamental questions?  Where are the essays explicitly acknowledging the momentous shift in directions and showing how Mises was mistaken and that objective values and ends are actually scientifically provable?

Private-property ethicists put forth the private-property ethic as the proper end of man’s political striving.  In this regard, Professor Hoppe writes, “The answer then, to the question of which ends can or cannot be justified is to be derived from the concept of argumentation.” (TS, p. 131; emphasis added)

So we are definitely talking about the ends of man’s action here, and we are not talking about praxeology, the science of means.  The particular social arrangement Professor Hoppe argues for is the natural-rights position of Professor Rothbard (EE, p. 204), who, in turn, conceives the private-property ethic as one of the ends that “are demonstrated to be good or bad for man in varying degrees; value here is objective.” (EL, p. 12)

Professor Hoppe is therefore arguing for a theory of ends, for a way to choose various ends of man’s action and then “justify” them theoretically.

But though Professor Hoppe is engaged in constructing a theory of ends, he often declines to say so explicitly.  For example, rather than simply writing “I want to demonstrate that the libertarian private-property ethic should be the only end of man’s political striving” or rather than writing “I want to establish the objective value of the private-property ethic,” he instead writes “I want to demonstrate that only the libertarian private-property ethic can be argumentatively justified.” (EE, p. 204)

It is clear from Professor Hoppe’s theoretical writing that he believes people should choose the private-property ethic.  Then the question becomes, should they choose it as a means toward something else?  Or should they choose it as an end and objectively provable value?

If they should choose it as a means, this leads us back to the fundamental concepts of praxeology.  Then praxeology will attempt to conceive these means in such a way that their logical implications can be demonstrated.  It will be incumbent on the praxeologist to demonstrate what is implied in the “means,” which is the “private-property ethic,” when the acting individual chooses those means toward some end.

On the other hand, if people should choose the private-property ethic as an end or objective value, then regardless of the success or failure of Professor Hoppe and others in their attempt to arrive at such proper ends, the question becomes one of the legitimacy of Professor Mises’s social science.  Mises’s social science is based on the idea that a consistent science of ends is not a valid concept.  Professor Hoppe is strenuously pursuing a consistent theory of ends, something akin to a “science” of ends, but without addressing the implications of his pursuit for the legitimacy of praxeology.

This is difficult to pick up on because Professor Hoppe doesn’t use the term “ends” or “objective values” when discussing the private-property ethic, but instead uses the term “justification.”  This term apparently means that the “end” or “value” which is the private-property ethic has already been chosen, and now this end must be “justified” as to why it was chosen.

Thus, we continually read about “justifying” the private-property ethic.  When the term “justification” is used, this apparently means that a judgment of value has been made, and now an attempt is being made to arrive at a rational “justification” for this ultimate judgment of value.  The use of the term “justification” signifies an attempt to scientifically “prove” the correctness of an ultimate judgment of value, something Mises says can’t be done.

What is confusing is that the entire discussion is conducted using only the term “justification,” when what is really meant is something like “attempting to scientifically prove that my judgment of value is correct, and your judgment of value is incorrect.”

Of course, there is no legal requirement that Professor Hoppe or any other objective ethicist phrase things more explicitly as they attempt to establish the ends of other men.  And the fact that Hoppe and others are trying to construct a science of ends is not important in the larger context of world social thought.  It is only important in the context of the methodological foundations of Austrian School social thought.  This is a school of thought with a rich and proud history of sophisticated formal analysis, founded on the insights of the likes of Menger and Mises.  It is not the school of Randian and Rothbardian objective ethics and their failed theories of objective value.

There is a consequence to keeping the meaning of objective ethics implicit.  There are some, especially those who are just beginning or who have not yet fully formed their own theoretical ideas, who may not know or realize that every conceptual step in the direction of objective ethics is a step away from formal-deductive social science.  There may be some who believe that the attempt to establish objective values and ultimate ends is compatible with praxeology, the science of means.  They may not realize that in pursuing objective ethics they diminish their own capacity to understand formal social science.

In attempting to construct a theory of ends, they must spend their time learning and forming concepts suitable for this purpose.  The concepts of objective-realism are fundamentally incompatible with the concepts of formal-deductive praxeology.  In the context of social science, arguing for objective values is arguing against formal social science and praxeology.

The Subtlety of the Shift to Objective Concepts—Continued

Professor Hoppe sits in a difficult theoretical position.  On the one hand he realizes the enormous importance of the intellectual edifice constructed by Mises; on the other hand, he has largely accepted Professor Rothbard’s conclusions about the applicability of Mises’s concepts to social, noneconomic phenomena.  The proposition that a means-based analysis (praxeology) cannot apply to the phenomena of ethics as it does to the phenomena of the market is the primary conclusion that binds Austro-Rothbardians and impels them to seek for the source of liberty in objective ethics and theories about ends.

Professor Hoppe apparently believes that the natural-law approach suggested by Professor Rothbard is incapable of arriving at what Professor Rothbard believed it could—actual laws of man’s ethical nature understood in the typical cause-and-effect sense.  And we agree with Professor Hoppe if this is his conclusion.  Natural-law philosophy has not been able to discover any scientific laws.

On the one hand, Rothbard’s natural law has failed to discover any laws of man’s nature, or to even provide meaningful insight into man’s nature.  But on the other hand, Rothbard disavowed praxeology as a means for studying ethical or political phenomena.  This prevents Rothbardians, as Rothbardians, from conceiving man’s nature in terms of action, and from studying the “ethical acts” of the individual with regard to their formal implications.  The approach Rothbard suggested doesn’t work, and the approach that works Rothbard rejected.  The question still remains then, about the ultimate basis for the libertarian’s intuitions and convictions about ethical and political relations as distinct from market phenomena.

This is the theoretical context in which Professor Hoppe proposes his argumentation ethics as a way of connecting praxeology (of course, a Rothbardian, non-Misesian conception of it) to Rothbardian positive and objective ethics conceived in terms of physical bodies in physical reality.

The situation is the following:

Mises’s entire body of social science is undeniably subjectivist, deductivist, and formal in nature.  But owing to a misinterpretation of many aspects of Mises’s praxeology, the conclusion has been drawn by almost all Austrians that “[t]his procedure is perfectly proper for the formal science of…economic theory, but not necessarily elsewhere.” (EL, p. 12)  Thus, a positive and objective theory of ethics has been embarked upon.  However, the concepts of objective-realism are fundamentally different from those of deductive formalism, in the same way and for the same reason that carved wooden X’s that can be carried from place to place are fundamentally different from the concept of “X” in mathematics.  A wooden X and the mathematical concept “X” are not theoretically interchangeable.  To the extent material concepts are utilized in theorizing, they supplant formal concepts.  When formal concepts aren’t used, then consistency cannot be achieved and necessity cannot be demonstrated.

And thus, the contemporary theoretical atmosphere that has largely accepted objective ethics, of necessity, is a theoretical atmosphere that has relinquished its formal concepts.  When the positive ethicist looks upon the writings of the formal-deductivists, it is with a mind that doesn’t comprehend most of what is essential and important about subjective economics and praxeology.  Praxeology is for such a mind mainly a rationale for a foregone conclusion and not a scientific discipline seeking to uncover new knowledge.

For the objective-realist, “praxeology” means a “justification” for one’s assertions about social matters.  For him, the formal-logical concepts no longer serve their social-scientific purpose of transforming originally given or postulated data into their necessary and logical implications.  For the objective-realist, the words and concepts of praxeology are just so many words arguing for this or that prescriptive conclusion.

The objective ethicist looking upon the writings of Mises bypasses Mises’s own meaning and searches for those passages supporting an “objective” view of things.  He builds upon those passages where Mises is mistaken or uncertain, or where Mises was unable to advance and make more consistent his subjectivist-deductivist vision.  The objective ethicist knows what objective concepts look and feel like, and he is able to find enough of them in the early writings of Mises to satisfy himself that “Mises wasn’t a radical subjectivist” and to argue that a more “realist” interpretation of Mises is warranted.  For the Rothbardian, this generally means a reliance on scattered passages in Mises’s The Theory of Money and Credit (1912), a book written while Mises was young and still developing his system.

As Hayek wrote about Mises: “[I]n the consistent development of the subjectivist approach he has for a long time moved ahead of his contemporaries.” (MM, p. xvi)  Mises, as a social scientist applying the subjectivist-deductivist approach ahead of anyone else, applied those concepts with less than one hundred-percent consistency.  This is true of his first major work The Theory of Money and Credit more than it is of his later, more mature works.  Some “objective” concepts inconsistent with his subjectivist approach are present in his books.  As Mises wrote regarding Menger and Bohm-Bawerk, “It should not be forgotten that the two masters, like all pioneers and trail blazers, had first assimilated the old concepts and ideas that had come down from earlier days and only later substituted more satisfactory concepts and ideas for them.” (EP, p. 171)  Mises writes that “Menger and Boehm-Bawerk made statements in various passages of their writings that are utterly incompatible with the basic principles they advanced.”  (EP, p. 171)  And the same is true of Mises.

Yes, Mises’s writings contain some concepts and passages inconsistent with his basic subjectivist principles.  However, the attempt to use Mises’s mistakes as a foundation for an objectivist interpretation of his system is bound to fail.

Hoppe and the Objectification of Praxeology

In order to show how praxeology is interpreted in objectivist terms, we will examine a short passage of Professor Hoppe’s.  In this passage, Professor Hoppe is debating with Professor Walter Block about the best way to answer another social theoretician on the concept of indifference. (Walter Block, Working Paper, Mises Institute Working Papers, 8-8-06.)  During the course of the debate, Professor Hoppe puts forth what he believes are some elementary insights regarding the nature of action. He writes,

In order to explain this, it is useful to recall some elementary insights regarding the nature of action—insights that “Austrians” in particular should be familiar with.  Actions, qua intentional behavior, have an external-behaviorist and an internal-mentalist aspect.  To give a full and adequate description, both aspects must be taken into account.  A quote from John Searle (1984, pp. 57–58) should make this clear:

“If we think about human action,…it is tempting to think that types of action or behavior can be identified with types of bodily movements.  But this is obviously wrong.  For example, one and the same set of human bodily movements might constitute a dance, or signaling, or exercising, or testing one’s muscles, or none of the above.  Furthermore, just as one and the same set of types of physical movements can constitute completely different kinds of actions, so one type of action can be performed by a vastly different number of types of physical movements…Furthermore, another odd feature about actions which makes them different from events generally is that actions seem to have a preferred description.  If I am going for a walk to Hyde Park, there are any number of other things that are happening in the course of my walk, but their descriptions do not describe my intentional actions, because in acting, what I am doing depends in large part on what I think I am doing.  So for example, I am also moving in the general direction of Patagonia, shaking the hair on my head up and down, wearing out my shoes, and moving a lot of air molecules.  However, none of these other descriptions seem to get at what is essential about this action, as the action it is.” (MB, p. 57-58)(emphasis added-AK)

[We note how Searle begins this passage with “If we think about action…”  Here, Searle is thinking about action, contemplating (as Mises might have said) the nature of action.  He is doing something besides reasoning from a priori true propositions.  He is “bethinking himself” on the nature of action and trying to understand its structure or patterns.]

The Nature of Action

In his example, Searle indicates that his intentional action is walking to the park and that the other possible happenings during the course of his walk “do not describe my intentional actions.”

To make this idea more clear, we can imagine that an observer observing Searle’s walk might not know whether Searle’s intention is to walk to a spot ten feet ahead or eleven feet ahead or twelve feet ahead or in the general direction of Patagonia or Buenos Aires or Chile.  In fact it is impossible, in principle, to exhaustively enumerate the potential intentions of Searle based on observations of his physical movement.  When we consider the physical movement of Searle, it’s not that this will be compatible with a large number of possible actions, but rather that it will be compatible with an infinite number of possible actions.  It will be, in principle, impossible to arrive at a finite number of possible actions (intentions) corresponding to any one physical movement or series of movements we observe him making.  The possible points of final destination around the globe, which might constitute the intention of Searle, are not exhaustively enumerable.  And this is only one class of possible intentions, as Searle indicates.  The same physical movement which is consistent with an intention to arrive at a limitless number of destinations around the globe is also consistent with a limitless number of intentions to “get away” from something (getting out of this neighborhood, getting out of this park, getting out of this block, getting out of this town, etc.).

Further, the same physical movements are also consistent with actions (intentions) of the actor that, from the point of view of an observer, have no chance at success.  We have to remember that action is the attempt to replace one situation with another regardless whether this attempt is ultimately successful.  Thus, the very same set of physical movements could also be consistent with the action which is trying to walk on air, trying to walk for twenty-one days without water, trying to walk to the end of the earth, trying to walk to the Unicorn Forest, etc.  These are all possible actions of the individual.

This is how Hayek describes the same situation:

The situation may be described schematically by saying that we know that the objects a, b, c…which may be physically completely dissimilar and which we can never exhaustively enumerate, are objects of the same kind because the attitude of X toward all of them is similar.  But the fact that X’s attitude toward them is similar can again be defined only by saying that he will react toward them by any one of the actions x, y, z…which again may be physically dissimilar and which we will not be able to enumerate exhaustively, but which we just know “mean” the same thing. (IE, p. 62)

This is the same principle as Searle’s “one type of action can be performed by a vastly different number of types of physical movements.”

When we think this through to its logical conclusion, it becomes clear that it isn’t as Searle says, that in acting “what I am doing depends in large part on what I think I am doing,” but rather that, in acting, it depends entirely on what the actor thinks he is doing. (“A definite mode of behavior is an action only if these distinctions are present in the mind of the man concerned.”[UF, p.8])

Because the physical movement or location of the actor is consistent with an infinite number of possible intentions of the actor, it is only in referring to what the actor thinks he is doing that action can be found.  Observed physical movement plays no part in the concept of action.

The common attributes which the elements of any of these classes possess are not physical attributes but must be something else. (IE, p. 62)

Physical movement plays no part in the pure concept of action.  As we have indicated earlier, to the extent the physical enters action, it does so as the content of action, not as the concept of action.

[T]hough all the social phenomena with which we can possibly deal may have physical attributes, they need not be physical facts for our purpose. (IE, p. 59)

For example, a physical movement observed by an actor (even his own body’s movement) will be observed in an act of observation.  And thus the physical movement becomes the content of the actor’s act of observation.

Furthermore, this observation, as an act, is fully consistent with any number of physical movements this person may be performing.  His act of observation is consistent with any number of physical movements he may be making.

For it is obvious that an action has only one subjective meaning: that of the actor himself.  It is X who gives subjective meaning to his action, and the only subjective meanings being given by F and S in this situation are the subjective meanings they are giving to their own actions, namely, their actions of observing X. (PS, p. 32)

The individual A gives meaning to his act, because whatever he believes he is doing is his act.  We cannot identify a man’s actions other than in that man’s opinion about what he is doing.

[N]o superior knowledge the observer may possess about the object, but which is not possessed by the acting person, can help us in understanding the motives of their actions. (IE, p. 60)

[W]henever we interpret human action as in any sense purposive or meaningful, whether we do so in ordinary life or for the purposes of the social sciences, we have to define both the objects of human activity and the different kinds of actions themselves, not in physical terms but in terms of the opinions or intentions of the acting persons… (IE, p. 62)

Hoppe’s Concept of Action Revisited

Searle’s example, when followed to its logical conclusion, is a demonstration of how the actor’s action cannot be identified other than in his intention.  This “intention,” in Misesian terms, is the “meaning” the actor gives to his action. (“A definite mode of behavior is an action only if these distinctions are present in the mind of the man concerned.” [UF, p. 8])

Searle’s “preferred description” clearly refers to the actor’s “intentional actions.”  Searle then reiterates this same notion in writing “what I am doing depends in large part on what I think I am doing.”  The implied meaning of all the examples Searle provides is that it is only in the actor’s intentions (in what he thinks he is doing) that his action is to be found, and not in his physical movements or the physical effects of those movements.

In short, Searle demonstrates that what Hoppe refers to as an actor’s “external-behaviorist” movement does not describe his actions.  But what Hoppe takes from Searle’s example is that “both aspects must be taken into account.”

This is for the simple reason that Professor Hoppe’s preexisting concept of action entails physical movement.  And he is simply pointing to the physical movement apparent in Searle’s example as proof that physical movement must be taken into account in conceiving action.

But this is clearly not the logical implication of Searle’s example, regardless what Searle may or may not have written elsewhere.  The example as provided clearly identifies Searle’s action with his intention and shows how his action cannot be identified with his movement, since any number of movements is consistent with his action.

Searle has provided an implicit logical “proof” concerning the nature and concept of action.  But Professor Hoppe has missed it, because his preexisting conception of action leads him to describe action in physical terms.  For example, Hoppe uses the terms “internal” and “external” in describing the meaning of Searle’s passage.  These are concepts indicating spatial relation.  They are pure physics concepts, apparently referring to the difference between the area inside and outside of one’s skull.  However, the concepts “internal” and “external” are not used by Searle in his example—they are introduced by Hoppe.

Hoppe is giving a meaning to Searle’s example that is different from the meaning the example itself indicates.  He is superimposing a physical interpretation on a passage that is highlighting the intentional nature of action.  This physical interpretation goes hand in hand with an “objective” interpretation.  Both physics (classical Newtonian physics) and objectivism (as social thought) attempt to portray a reality separate from human consciousness.  Searle’s example is highlighting the centrality of human consciousness to the concept of action and simultaneously discounting an account of action in physical terms.  He is not providing an example of how “both aspects must be taken into account,” but rather demonstrating how only the actor’s intention can be taken into account.  Professor Hoppe, in conceiving Searle’s example in physical terms, is “objectifying” the meaning conveyed in Searle’s example.

Conclusion

When we claim that the concepts of praxeology are being subtly changed to have objective meaning, the above process is what we have in mind.  Owing to a misunderstanding of the nature of human action and of Misesian praxeology, the concepts of praxeology are being reinterpreted in terms of objective-realism, value-objectivism, and the concepts of physics and biology.

This process has its origin in the Rothbardian association of “praxeology” with “economics.”  According to this view, the procedure of methodological individualism and the concept of subjective value only applies to the analysis of market phenomena.  When we theorize about interpersonal and political relations, we should change to an objective approach.

This was not at all Mises’s view.  He conceived praxeology as the general science of means, whether those means are used to bring about change in the market, in another person, or in the government.  Mises conceived praxeology as a science that deals with action in all its forms, not just the acts of buying and selling.

We bring our argument to a close with a passage from the last page of Human Action.

There is finally the regularity of phenomena with regard to the interconnectedness of means and ends, viz., the praxeological law as distinct from the physical and from the physiological law.

The elucidation and the categorial and formal examination of this third class of the laws of the universe is the subject matter of praxeology and its hitherto best-developed branch, economics. (HA, p. 885)

July 3, 2013 / Adam Knott

Categories of Action – Initial Sketch

Categories of Action – Initial Sketch

We will take the first path described by Mises.  We will not attempt to attain praxeological knowledge by examining the propositions of economic science.  Instead, we will attempt to attain praxeological knowledge by a direct examination of the categories of action.

The categories of action are simply the various classifications of phenomena that are contained in the original supposition of action.  For example, consider the bolded portion of the following passage from Mises:

In an a prioristic science, we start with a general supposition—action is taken to substitute one state of affairs for another. (FM, p. 16)

This proposition, as written, refers to various entities and activities.  We can begin by calling each different entity or activity referred to a “category.”  The proposition refers to things such as action, taking, substitution, one state of affairs, and another state of affairs.  Thus, initially, we have at least five categories.  There is a category of action; there is a category of taking; there is a category of substitution; there is a category of one state of affairs; there is a category of another state of affairs, etc.  By “the categories of action” we mean the various classes of entities that constitute action.

Let’s say we define action as the attempt to alleviate dissatisfaction.  Then, at least three categories are referred to: the category of attempting, the category of alleviation, and the category of dissatisfaction.

It is important to note that in praxeological thought, the categories are not derived exclusively from an examination of the written proposition.  The original written proposition “action is XYZ” is a symbolic expression of a recognizable aspect of consciousness.  It is an approximate, unrefined, and nonsystematized starting point.  The categories and their relations, which eventually form the completed formal system, are a refinement and systematization of the original proposition.  They result from our adjusting the original symbolic approximation to express the universal form of intentionality with systematic consistency.  This entails repeated reflection on the nature or form of the intentional aspect of consciousness.[i]  Our procedure is not merely discursive reasoning applied to various premises.  Our reasoning is guided by a “reference phenomenon”: the intentional aspect of consciousness.

Let’s say we define action as the attempt to change a state of affairs not yet attained into a state of affairs attained.  At least four categories are referred to: the notion of the attempt, the notion of change, the notion of a state of affairs not yet attained, and the notion of a state of affairs attained.  As mentioned, this conception of action is an initial starting point that will be refined in the course of the theoretical investigation.  It is “pre-scientific” in the sense that it has not yet been subjected to rigorous systematization.  This original proposition is pre-scientific in another sense also.  It does not require and does not account for the ontological assumptions or conclusions drawn by other branches of knowledge such as physics, mathematics, biology, astronomy, evolution theory, etc.  The reasoning that we employ proceeds from a “direct” examination of our conscious experience of wanting something (attempting something, trying something, etc.).[ii]  Our reasoning neither requires nor conforms to hypotheses taken from the developed sciences about the nature or structure or genesis of our conscious experience of wanting something.  We are not concerned with the biological genesis of action or the physical constitution of action or the location in extended space where action takes place.  The phenomenon of action or intentionality is the starting point of our reasoning; we do not fashion our conception of action from the conclusions or assumptions of the physical sciences.  We approach the conscious experience of the attempt to reach an end “directly” and our reasoning proceeds step by step from this point.  The theory is in this sense not based on “science.”  It is based on an analysis of an aspect of consciousness.

Phenomena as described by our construct of action then have “ontological priority” over phenomena as described by other branches of knowledge.  The praxeological theory will interpret all phenomena, including physical and natural process and events, as phenomena of intentionality.  As explained previously, the preexisting formal sciences (e.g., arithmetic, geometry, propositional logic) we will consider formal sciences of various kinds of action:

1. If I have two and I add two I will have four.

2. If I travel north by X distance and then travel east by X distance this is the same as travelling northeast by Z distance.

3. If I assert X and if I assert Y then I must assert Z.

And we will consider physical or natural phenomena to be phenomena of action.  For example, a lightning strike is seen, or observed, or heard.  A chemical reaction is seen, or observed, or initiated, or described.  And thus, our praxeological theory will be comprehensive in two important senses.  First, it will comprehend all forms of action including mental actions, physical actions, interpersonal actions, and catallactic (economic) actions.  Second, it will comprehend all phenomena of conscious awareness by interpreting them as various aspects of intentionality.

Let’s assume that consciousness is intentional in nature such that the “structure” of consciousness is a means/ends structure.  Then any aspect of consciousness we isolate or differentiate we will classify as some aspect of this means/ends structure.[iii]  Instead of a conception wherein praxeology only treats a differentiable subset of phenomena of which we are consciously aware (e.g., humans, human tools, human constructions, etc.) we will employ a conception wherein praxeology treats all phenomena of which we are consciously aware as aspects of intentional consciousness.

Key

EP = Epistemological Problems of Economics, Mises, 1976
EPV = The Economic Point of View, Kirzner, 1976
ESA = Economic Science and the Austrian Method, Hoppe, 1995
FM = The Free Market and its Enemies, Mises, 2004
HA = Human Action, Mises, 1966
I = Investigations Into the Method of the Social Sciences, Menger, 1985
IEO = Individualism and Economic Order, Hayek, 1948
LR = An Essay on the Nature & Significance of Economic Science, Robbins, 1945
MBS = Minds, Brains and Science, Searle, 2003
MES = Man, Economy, and State, Rothbard, 1993
MM = Money, Method, and the Market Process, Mises, 1990
MOP = A Man of Principle, Essays in Honor of Hans F. Sennholz, 1992
POAE = “The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics,” Gordon, 1996
PP = Physics and Philosophy, Heisenberg, 1958
PSW = The Phenomenology of the Social World, Schutz, 1967
UF = The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, 2002

 


[i] HA-64: “The only way to a cognition of these theorems is logical analysis of our inherent knowledge of the category of action.  We must bethink ourselves and reflect upon the structure of human action.  Like logic and mathematics, praxeological knowledge is in us; it does not come from without.”

[ii] UF-5: “The starting point of praxeology is a self-evident truth, the cognition of action, that is, the cognition of the fact that there is such a thing as consciously aiming at ends.”

[iii] IEO-59: “though all the social phenomena with which we can possibly deal may have physical attributes, they need not be physical facts for our purpose.  That depends on how we shall find it convenient to classify them for the discussion of our problems.  Are the human actions which we observe, and the objects of these actions, things of the same or a different kind because they appear as physically the same or different to us, the observers—or for some other reason?”

July 1, 2013 / Adam Knott

Analysis of the Categories of Action versus Analysis of the Propositions of Economics

It is also important to note that Mises describes two possible approaches to praxeological study.  In one approach we attempt to deal directly with the categories of action at their primary or fundamental level.  In the other approach, we examine the extant propositions or laws of social science and attempt to verify their validity.  This latter approach is tantamount to examining the laws or propositions of economics since economics, in Mises’s conception, is the only mature branch of praxeology that has articulated a number of a priori or praxeological laws.  We either start with the simplest elements of action and attempt to construct from them the foundation of praxeology, or we take the historically-developed propositions and concepts of economics and attempt to validate their praxeological character.  These are our choices according to Mises.

There are two different ways of setting methodological and epistemological investigations upon a secure foundation. One can attempt to reach solid ground by undertaking to deal directly with the ultimate problems of epistemology. This procedure would no doubt be the best if it offered any promise of success, so that one could hope to find truly firm ground at that deep level. However, one can also take another path, by starting from the definite concepts and propositions of science and verifying their logical character. It is evident that cognition of the ultimate foundations of our knowledge can never be attained in this manner. But neither does the first way offer such a possibility. On the other hand, the second way protects us from the fate that has befallen most investigations that have been concerned with the methodological and epistemological questions of economics in recent years. These investigations became so badly bogged down in the difficulty of the ultimate problems of epistemology that they never reached the point where they could deal with the logical problems of sociology, which are comparatively easier to solve. (EP, p. 70)

As we can see, Mises considered the direct study of epistemological or praxeological categories (Menger’s “simplest elements”) the ideal approach, but he believed this approach held out little hope of success.  Menger held that exact science[i] examines the way in which complex phenomena are comprised of simple or elemental phenomena:

Exact science, accordingly, does not examine the regularities in the succession, etc., of real phenomena either.  It examines, rather, how more complicated phenomena develop from the simplest, in part even unempirical elements of the real world in their (likewise unempirical) isolation from all other influences…It does this without taking into account whether those simplest elements, or complications thereof, are actually to be observed in reality uninfluenced by human art; indeed, without considering whether these elements could be found at all in their complete purity. (I, p. 61)

The risk is that a direct study of these “simplest elements” gets bogged down in a morass of complex distinctions and classifications and in the end is not able to shed any light on the important problems of social science.  The likelihood of this happening is high, and thus Mises judges that the most prudent way to proceed is to arrive at praxeological laws by verifying the validity of economic laws.  His examination of the law of marginal utility (HA, pp. 119-127) and his defense of it as a praxeological law is an example of this procedure.

However, there are also important risks associated with this second procedure which Mises describes.  First, the realm of economics (catallactics) can only be distinguished from other realms of human action by the assumption or introduction of specific “economic” content.  What distinguishes market phenomena from the other phenomena of intentional consciousness is a specific or concrete set of contents.  The risk in considering an economic law a praxeological law is that the economic law may depend on the assumption of specific economic content and thus may not be clearly or plausibly applicable to forms of human action in which this economic content is absent.

Second, the fact that a given proposition seems logically valid does not necessarily mean the proposition is a valid praxeological proposition.  This depends on how we define praxeology.  A logical proposition that refers to a social situation (two people plus two people equals four people) is not necessarily a praxeological proposition.  Thus, if the propositions of praxeology are not built up step by step from the foundational elements of praxeology, but are instead taken from economic science as they lay, the risk is that the resulting logical arguments and propositions may be plausibly valid and yet not praxeological arguments and propositions.  In order to clearly distinguish a praxeological proposition from a logical proposition of another kind, we must first clearly distinguish praxeology from the other disciplines that advance logical propositions.  If we take economic propositions as they lay and validate their logic, we do not thereby learn whether the propositions in question are praxeological propositions.  Verifying the validity of an extant economic proposition does not necessarily render that proposition a praxeological one.  It is a mistake to simply assume that the valid propositions of economics are praxeological propositions.  Thus, this second path to praxeological knowledge has significant risks perhaps not specifically foreseen by Mises.

 

Key

EP = Epistemological Problems of Economics, Mises, 1976
EPV = The Economic Point of View, Kirzner, 1976
ESA = Economic Science and the Austrian Method, Hoppe, 1995
FM = The Free Market and its Enemies, Mises, 2004
HA = Human Action, Mises, 1966
I = Investigations Into the Method of the Social Sciences, Menger, 1985
IEO = Individualism and Economic Order, Hayek, 1948
LR = An Essay on the Nature & Significance of Economic Science, Robbins, 1945
MBS = Minds, Brains and Science, Searle, 2003
MES = Man, Economy, and State, Rothbard, 1993
MM = Money, Method, and the Market Process, Mises, 1990
MOP = A Man of Principle, Essays in Honor of Hans F. Sennholz, 1992
POAE = “The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics,” Gordon, 1996
PP = Physics and Philosophy, Heisenberg, 1958
PSW = The Phenomenology of the Social World, Schutz, 1967
UF = The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, 2002


[i] Exact social science is identical to praxeology.

June 30, 2013 / Adam Knott

Praxeology and the Rothbardians (2012)

Praxeology and the Rothbardians PDF

Praxeology and the Rothbardians (2012)

 

Introduction

The normative property theories of Rothbard and Hoppe are part of the foundation of praxeology.  This is the amazing thesis put forth by writer Konrad Graf in his article “Action-Based Jurisprudence: Praxeological Legal Theory in Relation to Economic Theory, Ethics, and Legal Practice.”  In this paper, I will highlight important problems with the attempt to fuse the normative theorizing of Rothbard and Hoppe together with the value-free science of praxeology as conceived by its foremost practitioner, Ludwig von Mises.

I will divide this essay into two sections.  The first section will treat the praxeological issues raised in Mr. Graf’s article; and the second section will treat the normative theories of Rothbard and Hoppe, the problems with these theories, and their relationship to formal praxeology.  My primary goal will be to address Mr. Graf’s foundational ideas, not his application of these ideas to libertarian legal concepts.  Therefore, I will only address Part I of Mr. Graf’s paper, which is entitled “Foundations: An Extended Model of Praxeology.”

Part I

Praxeology

What is praxeology?  Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian School of economics, provides the following definition:

The aim of this orientation, which in the future we will call the exact one, an aim which research pursues in the same way in all realms of the world of phenomena, is the determination of strict laws of phenomena, of regularities in the succession of phenomena which do not present themselves to us as absolute, but which in respect to the approaches to cognition by which we attain to them simply bear within themselves the guarantee of absoluteness.  It is the determination of laws of phenomena which commonly are called “laws of nature,” but more correctly should be designated by the expression “exact laws.” (I-59)

The exact laws, economic laws, or praxeological laws, of which Menger speaks, are of such a nature that the contrary of what they assert seems unthinkable:

With the assumption of strictly typical elements, of their exact measure, and of their complete isolation from all other causative factors, [science] does to be sure, and indeed on the basis of the rules of cognition characterized by us above, arrive at laws of phenomena which are not only absolute, but according to our laws of thinking simply cannot be thought of in any other way but as absolute.  That is, it arrives at exact laws, the so-called “laws of nature” of phenomena. (I-61)

In conceiving a science he named praxeology, Mises provided the same account of the nature and source of praxeological or exact laws:

But the characteristic feature of a priori knowledge is that we cannot think of the truth of its negation or of something that would be at variance with it.  What the a priori expresses is necessarily implied in every proposition concerning the issue in question.  It is implied in all our thinking and acting.

If we qualify a concept or proposition as a priori, we want to say: first, that the negation of what it asserts is unthinkable for the human mind and appears to it as nonsense; secondly, that this a priori concept or proposition is necessarily implied in our mental approach to all the problems concerned, i.e., in our thinking and acting concerning these problems. (U-18)

Both Menger and Mises conceive exact laws as applying to the “real world” (Menger) or to the “reality of action” (Mises).  We can understand their meaning by considering the following two propositions:

1.  “I intend to walk toward a location while being careful not to walk away from any.”

2.  “Using my hands, I intend to strongly pull upward  on the bottoms of my feet while being careful not to push down with my feet and, in this way, lift myself up off the ground.”

The above propositions both refer to intended actions.  These intended actions entail means (walking, lifting, etc.), and they entail ends (avoiding walking away from any locations, lifting oneself up off the ground, etc.).  The praxeological question at hand is whether the specified means in each case can possibly result in the end sought.

In their insistence that praxeological laws provide meaningful information about the “real world,” Menger and Mises mean that praxeological laws make explicit how the application of specific means cannot possibly result in the intended end, or, what is the same thing, how specific means must necessarily result in a given end.  In other words, walking toward a location cannot possibly result in walking away from none, or walking toward a location must necessarily result in walking away from one.  Praxeology provides exact or certain knowledge demonstrating the necessary consequences of our intended actions.

It is important to realize that when Mises speaks of a priori propositions or a priori knowledge, he is speaking about economic or praxeological laws.  The economic or praxeological laws Mises has in mind consist in a constant relationship (a regularity) between an intended action (creating more currency, lowering the legal interest rate, etc.) and the necessary consequence of that action (currency devaluation, the business cycle, etc.).  Praxeological knowledge provides us with utilizable information about how to bring about or avoid phenomenon B, by either utilizing or abstaining from means A.

The purpose of the theoretical sciences is understanding of the real world, knowledge of it extending beyond immediate experience, and control of it…We control the real world in that, on the basis of our theoretical knowledge, we set the conditions of a phenomenon which are within our control, and are able in such a way to produce the phenomenon itself. (I-55/56)

The starting point of experimental knowledge is the cognition that an A is uniformly followed by a B.  The utilization of this knowledge either for the production of B or for the avoidance of the emergence of B is called action.  The primary objective of action is either to bring about B or to prevent its happening. (U-20)

The central concern of both Mengerian and Misesian praxeology is to explain the regularities that we experience in our action (in our conscious, purposive activity) in terms of exact or praxeological laws.  Thus, praxeological analysis is not strictly identical to conceptual analysis alone.  In praxeological analysis, a select experience of our conscious action (E-1) is rendered in conceptual terms so that implications may be drawn as to a second experience (E-2) that must “also be present” because the presence of E-2 is “deducible” from the presence of E-1. (See: ROB-121/122, IEO-62/63)  Generally, E-1 will be a means we intend to employ for some purpose.  The central focus of both Mengerian and Misesian praxeology is to express regularities that we experience in action in terms of exact or praxeological laws.

The above notions constitute the most essential and fundamental characteristics of praxeology as this science has been conceived by both Menger and Mises.  It is instructive that in section I of his paper, where Mr. Graf discusses his conception of praxeology, no reference is made to the concept of exact laws, economic laws, or praxeological laws.  Meanwhile, in the same section, the term norm or normative is mentioned fifty times.  In his article dealing with the foundations of praxeology, Graf has apparently omitted an essential characteristic of praxeology without any reason or explanation.

 

Actions Without a Science?

As those familiar with the writings of Mises know, Mises repeatedly asserted that praxeology is a general science of human action and that economics is but one branch of this general science.  This implies that there are other branches of praxeology.  But what might these other branches be?  It is to Graf’s credit that he realizes the importance of this question and seeks to provide an answer.  It is also to Graf’s credit that he realizes part of the answer has to do with the concept of interaction “in the sense of social action” (G-14).  However, Graf’s treatment suffers from several important defects.  Graf’s primary aim is to establish that the property theories of Rothbard and Hoppe are an essential part of praxeology.  Guided by this narrow focus, Graf neglects to consider classes of action that are not relevant to his goal.  Thus, the idea never occurs to him that the various branches of praxeology may correspond to the various classes of action.

The central concept of praxeology is the concept of action.  A succinct definition of action is “anything that you do on purpose” (GOR-18).  In contemplating the nature of action, we realize that there are different kinds or classes of actions:

The activities of every individual—all actions—stem from reason, the same source from which come our theories.  Man’s actions on the market, in the government, at work, at leisure, in buying and selling, are all guided by reason, guided by choice between what a person prefers as against what he does not prefer. (FM-16)

There are different kinds or classes of actions; and economics, as the study of market phenomena (what Mises refers to as catallactics, or economics in the narrow sense), is primarily concerned with the study of man’s actions on the market.  In Mises’s conception:

Economics is mainly concerned with the analysis of the determination of money prices of goods and services exchanged on the market. (HA-234)

The scope of praxeology, the general theory of human action, can be precisely defined and circumscribed.  The specifically economic problems, the problems of economic action in the narrower sense, can only by and large be disengaged from the comprehensive body of praxeological theory. (HA-234)

Considerations of expediency and traditional convention make us declare that the field of catallactics or of economics in the narrower sense is the analysis of the market phenomena.  This is tantamount to the statement: Catallactics is the analysis of those actions which are conducted on the basis of monetary calculation. (HA-234)

It is clear in Mises’s conception that the various realms of praxeological study will correspond to the various classes or kinds of action.  Mises conceived that economics is the branch of praxeology that studies primarily actions conducted on the basis of monetary calculation.  He termed this branch “economics in the narrow sense” or “catallactics.”   In Mises’s conception, economics in the wider sense is identical to praxeology.  The formal analysis of actions generally is economics “in the wider sense” or “praxeology.”  The formal analysis of specifically market phenomena is economics “in the narrow sense” or “catallactics.”  Inexplicably, Graf fails to even consider Mises’s own definition of economics as the analysis of those actions conducted on the basis of monetary calculation and instead discusses definitions proposed by Reisman and Rothbard.(G-10)

If we follow the spirit and intent of Mises’s conceptual vision, there are at least four broad classes of actions to which four sciences may correspond.  There are economic or catallactic actions—those actions conducted based on monetary calculation.  Next, as indicated by Graf, there is a class of actions that can be designated broadly as the class of social actions.  This class of actions is comprised of all actions in which an individual acts toward another actor.  This class of actions includes actions we may term “ethical” or “moral” actions (lying, cheating, coercing, etc.), and it includes actions we may term “political” actions (acts of government).  We may also designate this class of actions “interpersonal actions.”  The name we give to these actions is not important.  What is important is that in an interpersonal action, one actor acts toward another actor.

A third and important class of actions is the class of mental actions—actions such as thinking, deliberating, reasoning, hoping, wishing, etc.

Man’s inability to accomplish this makes thinking itself an action, proceeding step by step from the less satisfactory state of insufficient cognition to the more satisfactory state of better insight. (HA-99)

If, for example, I think of a chair, my mental action is not a picture of the chair….Thinking is an action, a mental “doing,” as it were. (GOR96-5)

Some “actions” don’t seem to involve physical movement, e.g., thinking. (GOR-19)

Thus, it is generally recognized in Austrian School literature that thinking is a form of action.  Included in the class of mental actions are actions such as envisioning, daydreaming, contemplating, “trying to control one’s emotions,” etc.  These are examples of mental activities that we can do on purpose.

Lastly, we may conceive a class of physical actions.  Physical actions are those actions in which an actor interacts with physical nature, including his own body.  Lifting one’s arm is an action, running is an action, making a cup of coffee is an action, building a house is an action, etc.

From these simple considerations, it becomes clear that the branches of praxeology correspond to the classes of actions.  If economics, as a branch of praxeology, attempts to arrive at economic laws—laws instructing on the consequences of “economic” acts such as increasing the money supply, erecting tariffs, lowering the legal interest rate, etc.—then the other branches of praxeology attempt to arrive at exact laws or praxeological laws in their respective fields.  The goal will be to discover or reveal the formal relations or formal implications (praxeological laws) entailed in interpersonal actions, mental actions, and physical actions in the same way that economics attempts to reveal the formal relations of economic actions.  Just as economic science instructs on the necessary consequences of “economic” acts, a praxeological science of interpersonal actions or a praxeological science of mental actions will instruct on the necessary consequences of interpersonal acts or mental acts.  This is what Mises means in writing “Praxeological knowledge makes it possible to predict with apodictic certainty the outcome of various modes of action” (HA-117).

The classification of various types of actions, and the corresponding notion that the branches of praxeology correspond to the various classes of action, is a relatively simple extension of Mises’s conception of praxeology.  In this conception, praxeology is the general science of action, and there are numerous classes or categories of action which the praxeologist may approach with an eye toward understanding or conceiving the regular patterns or regularities (invariant relations) that seem to inhere in the class of actions in question.  Arguing and discussing are forms of action and forms of interpersonal action.  But so are coercing, dancing, lovemaking, insulting, commanding, and threatening forms of action and forms of interpersonal action.

While interpersonal action (Graf’s interaction) is a kind of action, and is therefore the subject of praxeological study, there are other forms of action that Graf has failed to consider.  Thus, Graf’s conception of praxeology as comprised mainly of economic theory and legal theory must be considered defective as it fails to account for (or even mention) important forms of action.  This serious mistake could possibly have been avoided if Graf had been cognizant of current attempts to extend Mises’s conception of praxeology to other realms of human action, or if he had seriously studied praxeology as it was being developed by Mises, Hayek, Schutz, and others in the early twentieth century.

Rothbard’s Misconception of Praxeology

Graf correctly identifies Rothbard as chiefly responsible for the poor state of knowledge concerning the nature of praxeology.  Rothbard generally equated praxeology with economics (in the narrow sense) and thus wrongly concluded that noncatallactic forms of action (moral actions, ethical actions, political actions, etc.) could only be studied by objective ethics and not praxeology:

Value in the sense of valuation or utility is purely subjective, and decided by each individual.  This procedure is perfectly proper for the formal science of praxeology, or economic theory, but not necessarily elsewhere.  For in natural-law ethics, ends are demonstrated to be good or bad for man in varying degrees; value here is objective—determined by the natural law of man’s being, and here “happiness” for man is considered in the commonsensical, contentual sense. (EOL-12)

In other words, in the political, moral, and ethical spheres of man’s activity, praxeology is not “proper.”  In these spheres of action, only objective ethics can guide us and provide meaningful knowledge.  Thus, we must “cast out the hobgoblins of Wertfreiheit” (EOL-26).  This was Rothbard’s view.

Referring to Rothbard’s conception that praxeology and economics in the narrow sense were identical, Graf writes:

However, such accounts of “praxeology and economics” leave little space for a sphere of content for praxeology to call its own, independent of economics.  Rothbard writes that, “With praxeology as the general, formal theory of human action, economics includes the analysis of the action of an isolated individual (Crusoe economics)…”  While the proposed distinction appears to be between “general and formal” and greater specificity, this sentence could generate confusion because “Crusoe economics” is a fictional device to explain the most fundamental concepts of praxeology itself—from ends and means to production to time-preference.  Rothbard’s comment comes at the end of the chapter called “Fundamentals of Human Action,” which uses Crusoe to explain the most fundamental praxeological concepts.  This could leave the impression that “economics,” as represented by “Crusoe economics,” has on day one moved in to occupy all of the identifiable territory in this new land of praxeology, taking as its own any and all content that might otherwise be assigned to a core of praxeology itself—an independent core that could be shared with other possible “branches” or “sub-divisions” besides economics.

Unsurprisingly, economics has remained the dominant branch of praxeology decades later, and only a few writers have speculated on what other branches might be. (G-4)

Thus, owing largely to Rothbard’s misconception of the nature and scope of praxeology and owing to his advocacy of a theoretical paradigm wherein market activity is studied by praxeology and political activity is studied by objective ethics, many were persuaded to ignore Mises’s  insight that praxeology could be extended to other realms of human action.  Graf has done Austrian School scholarship a service by bringing this point further into the foreground.  Graf refers to some important remarks by Larry Sechrest that are worth printing here:

Thus praxeology is the broader category.  Economics is one of the subsets of praxeological inquiry.  “[T]he praxeological view sees the economic affairs as distinguished solely by the fact that they belong to the larger body of phenomena that have their source in human actions”  (Kirzner 1976, p. 148).  Yet many Austrians slip into the habit of equating praxeology with economic theory alone.  This is understandable as long as Austrians think of economics as the science of human action.  However, to do so is an error, since it is praxeology which is the science of human action, not economics.  In other words, it would be preferable to define economics in a narrower fashion, one that does not merely equate it with praxeology. (SEE-24)

Thus, the Rothbardian conception equating economics with praxeology is an error.  However, we have already seen that this error didn’t originate with Mises, who clearly conceived that there were different kinds of actions, and that economics (catallactics) was the branch of praxeology that studies those actions conducted on the basis of monetary calculation.  That Rothbard was making a significant error with important implications was realized decades ago by Peter Boettke, who wrote:

Rothbard has intensely defended what he considers the basic tenets of Misesian economics: apriorism, deductivism, and individualism.  These tenets represent to Rothbard “the method of economics”: praxeology.  There is no doubt that Mises advocated a transcendental apriorism to ground the action axiom, just as there is no doubt that Mises thought deductive logic was indispensible for clear thought, and that economic explanations must be traceable back to the meaningful acts of individuals.  But, upon deeper examination, Rothbard’s apparent authority is highly questionable.

Mises’s thought is much more subtle than is typical of Rothbard.  First of all, praxeology is a discipline, not a method.  Rothbard totally obscures this point throughout his methodological writings.  To Mises, praxeology is the broader discipline of the human sciences, of which economics represents a mere subset,… (PB-30)

Boettke wrote these words in 1988.  It is no exaggeration to assert that Rothbard, through the advocacy of his own personal theoretical paradigm (praxeology in market exchanges and objective and normative theorizing in ethics, morals, law, and politics), inhibited the study of praxeology for decades.

Praxeological Insights/Praxeological Mistakes

Graf lists and understands some of the most general features of praxeology.  Praxeology, he writes, “addresses the formal concept of action and its deducible implications” (G-1).  The “core concepts of praxeology can be explained with reference to the actions of an isolated individual” (G-11), and “praxeological concepts are universal; they apply to all cases of action and interaction by definition” (G-14).

Graf’s paper does put forth the idea that there are different kinds of actions, though these insights are presented mainly as the thoughts of other thinkers.  In a passage from Kinsella and Tinsley, it is suggested that “aggression is a particular kind of human action” (5), and Graf also writes that “Hoppe notes the tight interconnections between the axiom of action…and the A Priori of Argumentation—a set of statements about one type of interaction…” (14). Thus, aggression is a particular kind of action.  Argumentation is a particular kind of action and a particular kind of social interaction.  Arguing is a different kind of social interaction from, for example, coercing, cooperating, dancing, fighting, etc.

Graf also notes that whether praxeology treats economic actions, interpersonal actions, mental actions, or physical actions, it is not the content of the action that is the concern of praxeology.  As Mises instructs us, “Praxeology is not concerned with the changing content of acting, but with its pure form and its categorial structure” (HA-47).  Graf follows Mises in writing:

For both action and interaction—and this is the genius of Mises’s method—we are not speaking in praxeology about the content of any given action or interaction, but rather the universal features that must be shared in all instances of action or interaction. (G15)

The structure of praxeology proposed by Graf entails a distinction between the general concept of action and the more narrow concept of interaction in the sense of social action—what  we refer to as interpersonal action.

Just as the root level of praxeology comprises those aspects of action that must be present in all forms of action, the trunk level comprises those aspects of interaction (in the sense of social action as opposed to mere interactive behavior) that are necessarily present in all forms of interaction. (G-14)

Thus, we are led to a vision wherein we may conceive action generally (anything you do on purpose), or we may conceive action more narrowly (anything you do on purpose to another actor).  This latter conception we may designate as interaction, social interaction, interpersonal action, etc.

Graf then continues:

Since only an individual can perform actions, it is natural to consider an isolated individual to find the universal and general features that all action must include.  Similarly, since interaction must involve two or more actors, it is natural to look to an action-based consideration of two people to locate the most fundamental, universal, and general features that all interaction must include. (G14)

Here, Graf makes a serious conceptual error.  He implies that the praxeological conception of social action requires two people in the objective sense.  However, this notion constitutes a misunderstanding of the nature of praxeological reasoning.  How this is so can be understood if we consider the following praxeological insights made by Hayek, Kirzner, and even Rothbard:

Here again, it is very important to recognize that what is significant for human action is not the physical property of a good, but the evaluation of the good by the actor. (MES-19)

This [praxeological] point of view makes possible the construction of chains of reasoning that are purely formal, in the sense that they refer to goods, services or factors of production only abstractly; they depend for their validity not on the specific objects with which human action may be concretely concerned, but only on postulated attitudes of men towards them. (KIR-179)

It is important to remember that the so-called “data,” from which we set out in this sort of analysis, are…all facts given to the person in question, the things as they are known to (or believed by) him to exist, and not, strictly speaking, objective facts.  It is only because of this that the propositions we deduce are necessarily a priori valid and that we preserve the consistency of the argument. (IEO-36)

In other words, praxeology arrives at a priori valid propositions only because it deduces the necessary implications of the subjective fact—the situation as understood or evaluated by the individual actor.  For praxeology, it is not the objective, physical, or “real” qualities of the object or situation that are important.  For praxeology, what counts is the actor’s attitude, opinion, or intention regarding the object of his action.  That is the meaning of the above passages from Rothbard, Kirzner, and Hayek.  In his essay “The Facts of the Social Sciences,” Hayek described the praxeological or analytical method in this way:

From the fact that whenever we interpret human action as in any sense purposive or meaningful, whether we do so in ordinary life or for the purposes of the social sciences, we have to define both the objects of human activity and the different kinds of actions themselves, not in physical terms but in terms of the opinions or intentions of the acting persons, there follow some very important consequences; namely, nothing less than that we can, from the concepts of the objects, analytically conclude something about what the actions will be.  If we define an object in terms of a person’s attitude toward it, it follows, of course, that the definition of the object implies a statement about the attitude of the person toward the thing.  When we say that a person possesses food or money, or that he utters a word, we imply that he knows that the first can be eaten, that the second can be used to buy something with, and that the third can be understood—and perhaps many other things. (IEO-62/63)

Above, Hayek describes a method whereby the theorist begins with a subjective fact (the opinion or intention or purpose of the acting person) and attempts to draw an analytical conclusion or analytical implication from this subjective fact.  The data of praxeological analysis are not objective data, but subjective data.  And this insight is not an isolated insight of Hayek’s, but rather a core concept of praxeological reasoning that Hayek likely came to—as did Kirzner and Rothbard—via his association with Mises.

It is illusory to believe that it is possible to visualize collective wholes.  They are never visible; their cognition is always the outcome of the understanding of the meaning which acting men attribute to their acts.  We can see a crowd, i.e., a multitude of people.  Whether this crowd is a mere gathering or a mass…or an organized body or any other kind of social entity is a question that can only be answered by understanding the meaning which they themselves attach to their presence.  And this meaning is always the meaning of individuals.  Not our senses, but understanding, a mental process, makes us recognize social entities. (HA-43)

In praxeological analysis, social phenomena are not a function of the physical, objective, or “real” situation.  Rather, in praxeological analysis, social phenomena are a function of the intention or purpose of the actor concerned.  It follows that in praxeological analysis, social interaction need not involve two or more actors in the objective sense which Graf intends.  In praxeological analysis, for social interaction to occur for a given actor, it is only necessary that the actor concerned believes the object of his action is another purposive being.  Thus, contrary to Graf’s assertion, not only may we consider the actions of an isolated individual to find the universal and general features of all action, but we may also consider the actions of an isolated individual to find the universal and general features of interpersonal action.  This is so because social interaction in the praxeological sense is a subjective fact and exists for the individual concerned when he believes he is interacting with another actor.  To understand this concept, we need only realize that what Rothbard wrote:

Here again, it is very important to recognize that what is significant for human action is not the physical property of a good, but the evaluation of the good by the actor. (MES-19)

…applies in praxeology generally to any object of an actor’s action, not merely to “economic” objects exchanged on markets, as was Rothbard’s deficient understanding.  Here is where Rothbard’s faulty conception led Graf to make the corresponding mistake.  As we’ve seen, Rothbard equated praxeology with economics, and this led him to treat actions that people direct toward the market by a social-theoretical method different from the one he used to treat actions that people direct toward one another.  Employing this bifurcated conception, Rothbard conceived that market theory begins with the individual’s “subjective” valuation of objects of exchange, yet social theory, in the sense of interpersonal action, does not begin with the individual’s subjective evaluation of the objects in this realm of his purposive action.  Rothbard never explained why theoretical subjectivism and praxeology cannot treat social objects aside from the objects of market exchange.  He merely conceived and asserted that “this procedure is perfectly proper for the formal science of praxeology, or economic theory, but not necessarily elsewhere” (EOL-12).

Once Rothbard’s mistake is realized and once we make the corresponding adjustments in our theoretical assumptions, the praxeological conceptions which Mises, Hayek, and others were developing in the early twentieth century can be understood as applying to social objects and social phenomena generally, not just to the objects of market exchange.

As an example, we may consider a person who walks into a park and sees a bronze-painted human figure.  In praxeological reasoning, whether this figure is a statue or a person posing as a statue in the real or objective sense is not important.  What is important, as Rothbard wrote, is the evaluation of the “good” (the object) by the actor.  This evaluation of the object by the actor—the data of praxeological analysis—is a subjective and not an objective fact.

When Graf writes “interaction must involve two or more people,” it is clear that he intends an objective account of social interaction and not a subjective account of social interaction deriving from the intention of the actor concerned.  An objective conception of social interaction will generally entail an account of social interaction as it might appear to an observer of social interaction, whether that observer is explicitly referred to or is only implicit in the analysis.  From the observer’s point of view, one forms a visualization of two people, conceiving that social interaction is an observable event that takes place between two physical bodies in extended space.  This way of thinking leads to Graf’s assertion that “interaction must involve two or more actors.”  However, praxeology deals with subjective meaning and not objective meaning.  It deals with the meaning which the individual subject gives to his own action.

The objective conception of social phenomena is obtained by providing a description of an observer’s observation while omitting explicit reference to the observer, thus giving the impression that an “objective” event is taking place.  When explicit reference to the observer is omitted from the description of his observation, this conceals that we are describing a situation as it appears to observer O in his act of observation.  We don’t make explicit that we are discussing O’s act of observation, and we are thus led to believe that we are discussing an “objective event.”  However, in praxeological reasoning, the meaning of a given action is the subjective meaning given to this action by the actor concerned.

For it is obvious that an action has only one subjective meaning: that of the actor himself.  It is X who gives subjective meaning to his action, and the only subjective meaning being given by O and P in this situation are the subjective meanings they are giving to their own actions, namely, their actions of observing X. (SCH-32)

Here, Schutz provides the theoretical path toward conceiving things from the point of view of the individual actor (subjective meaning) as opposed to conceiving things “objectively.”  In the objective account, explicit reference to the observer is omitted; in the subjective account, the observer’s observations are explicitly conceived as acts of the observer.  In the praxeological account of social interaction, the “objective” situation (i.e., the situation as it may be understood by an observing subject not explicitly referred to) is not the data of analysis.  Instead, it is the meaning of the actor himself that is the data of praxeological analysis.  In other words, in praxeology, social interaction happens for actor A when A thinks he is interacting socially, not when observer O thinks A is interacting socially.

If I am going for a walk to Hyde Park, there are any number of things that are happening in the course of my walk, but their descriptions do not describe my intentional actions, because in acting, what I am doing depends in large part on what I think I am doing. (SEA-58)

Now we can see that the preferred description of an action is determined by the intention in action.  What the person is really doing, or at least what he is trying to do, is entirely a matter of what the intention is that he is acting with. (SEA-66)

The explanation of an action must have the same content as was in the person’s head when he performed the action or when he reasoned toward his intention to perform his action. (SEA-67)

For a large number of social and psychological phenomena the concept that names the phenomenon is itself a constituent of the phenomenon.  In order for something to count as a marriage ceremony or a trade union, or property or money or even a war or revolution people involved in these activities have to have certain appropriate thoughts.  In general they have to think that’s what it is.  So, for example, in order to get married or buy property you and other people have to think that that is what you are doing. (SEA-78)

“Money” refers to whatever people use and think of as money.  “Promise” refers to whatever people intend as and regard as promises.  I am not saying that in order to have the institution of money people have to have that very word or some exact synonym in their vocabulary.  Rather, they must have certain thoughts and attitudes about something in order that it counts as money and these thoughts and attitudes are part of the very definition of money. (SEA-78)

It is easily seen that all these [social] concepts…refer not to some objective properties possessed by the things, or which the observer can find out about them, but to views which some other person holds about the things…If we wish, we could say that all these objects are defined not in terms of their “real” properties but in terms of opinions people hold about them.  In short, in the social sciences the things are what people think they are.  Money is money, a word is a word, a cosmetic is a cosmetic, if and because somebody thinks they are. (IEO-59/60)

We have to define both the objects of human activity and the different kinds of actions themselves, not in physical terms but in terms of the opinions or intentions of the acting persons,.. (IEO-62)

As these important insights of Searle and Hayek indicate, the data of praxeology are the valuations, evaluations, intentions, and attitudes of the actor concerned.  Social interaction happens for actor A if and when social interaction is the intention actor A is acting with, regardless whether or not there is social interaction from an observer’s point of view.  If, for example, actor A believes the bronze-colored figure before him is another actor who has painted himself as a statue and if actor A asks this figure “Is it difficult to stand still like that?” then A interacts socially in the subjective sense regardless of the observations of observing scientist O.  All that matters is whether or not A intends to perform an interpersonal action.  This is the subjective datum which forms the basis of praxeological analysis.

Because the data of praxeology are not objective facts, it follows that in praxeological analysis, social interaction does not require two people in the objective sense.  Graf’s assertion that interaction must involve two or more actors may be a reasonable, commonsense proposition, and it may be a reasonable statement from the point of view of philosophical objective realism; but it is not an accurate statement in the context of praxeological analysis.

The Hoppean Concept of Action

It is important to realize that the Misesian conception of action differs essentially from the concept of action that Hoppe employs.  In the Misesian conception, an actor is conceived to strive for satisfaction or, equivalently, to strive for the absence of dissatisfaction.  The precise language in which this notion is expressed is less important than the essential idea intended.

Action is the search for improvement of conditions from the point of view of the personal value judgments of the individual concerned. (FM-14)

One may say that an actor attempts to remove uneasiness, or one may say that an actor attempts to improve his conditions.  In the Misesian conception, these are merely different ways of saying the same thing: the actor is dissatisfied with the current situation and attempts to replace it with a different situation.  This conception of action makes no reference whatsoever to a means or method by which an actor may attempt to bring about a more satisfactory situation.

The Hoppean concept of action differs from the Misesian concept in specifying that action must entail the guiding or positioning of a physical body or object in space:

Acting is a cognitively guided adjustment of a physical body in physical reality. (ESA-70)

The essence of action for Hoppe is the positioning of an object in space.  Hoppe introduces a contentual aspect to the concept of action that is absent from the Misesian concept.  As Rothbard conceives that praxeology is the study of only those conscious actions surrounding the market, Hoppe conceives that actions are only those activities in which a body or object is consciously positioned or guided in space.  Rothbard equates praxeology with market study.  Hoppe equates action with physical action.  However, as Gordon has correctly recognized, thinking is an action and a form of action that is not accurately defined in terms of physical movement:

Some “actions” don’t seem to involve physical movement, e.g., thinking. (GOR)

We can easily conceive of thinking as a particular instance of action.  In thinking, I try to arrive at a conclusion or answer, and my attempt to reach this end implies that I am dissatisfied with my current state of knowledge and consider the attainment of this conclusion or answer an improvement in my conditions.  In the Misesian conception of action, the two primary categories are the state or situation that confronts the actor and his attempt to replace this state or situation with a different one.  Thus, in Mises’s conception, it is natural to consider thinking as a specific or particular form of action.

This makes thinking itself an action, proceeding step by step from the less satisfactory state of insufficient cognition to the more satisfactory state of better insight. (HA-99)

By contrast, if we apply Hoppe’s definition of action to the purposive mental activity of thinking, we are led to a notion such as:

Thinking is a cognitively guided adjustment of a physical body in physical reality.

Hoppe seems to miss what is essential about thinking and about acting.  The reason can be seen if we consider the following insight by Searle:

If I am going for a walk to Hyde Park, there are any number of things that are happening in the course of my walk, but their descriptions do not describe my intentional actions, because in acting, what I am doing depends in large part on what I think I am doing.  So for example, I am also moving in the general directly of Patagonia, shaking the hair on my head up and down, wearing out my shoes, and moving a lot of air molecules.  However, none of these other descriptions seems to get at what is essential about this action, as the action it is. (SEA-58)

If we contemplate Searle’s insight, we eventually come to realize that because the physical movements of the actor are consistent with an unlimited number of actions, the physical movements of the actor are not essential to the definition of his action.  The action which the actor is engaged in is entirely a matter of the intention he is working with:

What the person is really doing, or at least what he is trying to do, is entirely a matter of what the intention is that he is acting with. (SEA-66)

Searle’s insight is of the same nature as the insights Hayek described in “The Facts of the Social Sciences”:

What I am arguing is that no physical properties can enter into the explicit definition of any of these classes, because the elements of these classes need not possess common physical attributes. (IEO-61)

The common attributes which the elements of any of these classes possess are not physical attributes but must be something else. (IEO-62)

Whenever we interpret human action as in any sense purposive or meaningful…we have to define both the objects of human activity and the different kinds of actions themselves, not in physical terms but in terms of the opinions or intentions of the acting persons… (IEO-62)

As these passages from Hayek and Searle indicate, the action which the actor performs is entirely a matter of the intention of the actor.  The essence of the action is the intention.  We may say that the particular observable movements of an actor are the historical content of his action.  However, praxeology is not concerned with the historical content of a particular action, but only with the categorical form of acting.

Praxeology is not concerned with the changing content of acting, but with its pure form and its categorial structure.  The study of the accidental and environmental features of human action is the task of history. (HA-47)

Of course, Graf derives his concept of action from Hoppe, and he seems unaware of any differences between Hoppe’s contentual conception of action and Mises’s formal conception of action:

All action involves some form of movement, if only at a subtle level, and it is matter that moves when we act. (G-11)  Any action must occur at specific sets of spatial coordinates… (G-12)

Part II

Rothbardian Social Theory

According to Hoppe, The Ethics of Liberty is to be considered the pillar of the Rothbardian system (INT).  The Ethics of Liberty, as Rothbard writes, deals with a subset of human acts—violence and nonviolence—employed as modes of interpersonal relations.

The intention is to set forth a social ethic of liberty, i.e., to elaborate that subset of natural law that develops the concept of natural rights, and that deals with the proper sphere of “politics,” i.e., with violence and non-violence as modes of interpersonal relations. (EOL-25)

It was Rothbard’s contention that to deal with violence employed as a means of social interaction, it was necessary to abandon the theoretical tools of Austrian analysis as those had been developed from Menger through Mises.  Regarding the theoretical approach he had in mind, Rothbard wrote, “I at no time believed that value-free analysis or economics…can ever suffice to establish the case for liberty” (EOL-xlvii).  He stated that the concept of subjective value “is perfectly proper for the formal science of praxeology, or economic theory, but not necessarily elsewhere” (EOL-12), and he urged his followers to “cast out the hobgoblins of Wertfreiheit” (EOL-26).  Rothbardian social theory is founded on a rejection of Austrian analysis and on an attempt to establish a theoretical justification for a set of norms favored by Rothbard and his followers—norms that cannot be validated or justified within the framework of value-free praxeological analysis.  The norms Rothbardians have in mind and which they want to validate or justify through social theory are generally political actions or policies such as: banning fractional reserve banking, banning intellectual property, mandating that all government functions be performed by businesses and insurance agencies, and other political reforms advocated by Rothbard and his supporters.

Peter Klein lists the core concepts of Austrian analysis as human action, means and ends, subjective value, marginal analysis, methodological individualism, the time structure of production, and the Austrian theory of value and price (KLI).  It was Rothbard’s contention that these concepts were not appropriate analytical tools for understanding the realm of purposive human activity that includes “moral” and “ethical” actions such as lying, being truthful, coercion, cooperation, etc.

As has been established, Rothbard understood the study of market phenomena to be largely identical with praxeology.  Economics, or praxeological analysis applied to the study of market phenomena, seeks to demonstrate the necessary consequences of a specific class of actions—actions such as increasing the money supply, lowering the legal rate of interest, erecting tariffs, establishing minimum wage laws, etc.  As Rothbard understood it, this type of “cause-and-effect” analysis made no sense in the context of interpersonal relations.  When it comes to the acts which we intend to initiate toward other people, Rothbard reasoned, we have to change our social-theoretical approach to one where actions are described as good or bad, moral or immoral (EOL-12, 32).

By contrast, the Misesian conception of praxeology is based on the central conception of action, and as there are other kinds of actions besides market-related actions (e.g., physical actions, interpersonal actions, mental actions), praxeology becomes the general science of human action.  As Kirzner writes:

The subject matter of economics came to be connected with the material things that are the objects of traffic in the market; it came to be linked peculiarly with the use of money in market transactions or with the specific social relationships that characterize the market system. (KIR-183)

In finding the economic aspect of activities in general to consist in concern with the ends-means relationship, [the praxeological conception] includes within its scope kinds of actions with which economics has had traditionally little to do. (KIR-183)

Here Kirzner reinforces the conception that praxeology studies action—the employment of means toward ends—and there are kinds or types of actions which economics has not traditionally dealt with.  Praxeology is not exclusively concerned with market exchanges, nor is it exclusively concerned with exchanges (of whatever type) between several people.  The object of praxeological study is the attempt of the individual to improve his situation by employing means toward the attainment of ends.

The primary failing of Rothbard’s theory in The Ethics of Liberty is its failure to overcome Hume’s is-ought gap.  Rothbard’s theory is a form of objective ethics, and Patrick M. O’Neil’s article “Ayn Rand and the Is-Ought Problem”—the authoritative article on objective ethics in the libertarian literature—explains the problems that any objective ethics system will face vis-à-vis Hume’s is-ought gap.  Rothbard wanted to prove, for example, that it is immoral to eat poisonous mushrooms (EOL-32).  But if a person values the lives of his family or his army unit and during a war eats poisonous mushrooms as a means to commit suicide and avoid being tortured into divulging their location, then is eating poisonous mushrooms an immoral act to be avoided at all times and places?  Thus, the objective rule of conduct, “Do not eat poisonous mushrooms”—which Rothbard wanted to prove “absolute, immutable, and of universal validity for all times and places”—inevitably reverts to a “utilitarian” rule dependent on the “subjective” ends of the person concerned: “In order to stay alive (end), do not eat poisonous mushrooms (means)”; “In order to commit suicide (end), eat poisonous mushrooms (means).”

In the context of libertarian social theory, Rothbard’s theory fails because it can’t overcome Hume’s is-ought gap.  Within the Rothbardian school of libertarianism, Rothbard’s theory is mainly rejected due to the following sentence written by Hoppe in the endnotes to A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism:

It has been a common quarrel with this [natural rights] position, even on the part of sympathetic readers, that the concept of human nature is far “too diffuse and varied to provide a determinate set of contents of natural law.” (ATS-235)

Graf provides the same sentence in altered form and from a different source:

It has been a common quarrel with the natural rights position, even on the part of otherwise sympathetic observers, that the concept of human nature is far too diffuse to allow the derivation of a determinate set of rules of conduct. (G22)

This means that Rothbard’s attempt to arrive at objective and universally valid rules of conduct such as “Do not eat poisonous mushrooms” has failed.  Hoppe acknowledges that O’Neil was right and the objective and natural rights ethicists (Rothbard, Rand, Den Uyl, Rasmussen, etc.) were wrong.  Since it is generally acknowledged that Rothbard’s theory as expressed in The Ethics of Liberty is untenable, the attempt to validate or justify Rothbardian norms has shifted to Hoppe’s theory of argumentation.  As Hoppe explains the intent of his theory:

I was attempting to make the first two chapters of Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty stronger than they were.  That in turn would provide more weight to everything that followed. (INT)

Thus, the intention of Hoppe’s theory of argumentation was not to extend praxeology into other realms of human action.  The intention was to justify a specific set of preexisting political norms given that Rothbard’s attempt to do so had failed.  As Hoppe wrote:

It follows that intersubjectively meaningful norms must exist…

Norms must indeed be assumed to be justified as valid…

The answer, then, to the question of which ends can or cannot be justified is to be derived from the concept of argumentation. (ATS-130/131)

Hoppe’s theory was originally intended as a moral theory:

In contrast to the role of reason in establishing empirical laws of nature, reason can claim to yield results in determining moral laws which can be shown to be valid a priori. (ATS-131)

It is noteworthy that Hoppe argued that reason can discover moral laws just as reason discovers physical laws.  One wonders why Hoppe chose not to argue that reason can discover moral laws just as reason discovers economic laws.  The apparent reason is that the “laws” Hoppe has in mind are not of the same nature as the praxeological laws of economics.  Physical laws and praxeological laws are laws that can be denied but not defied.  Moral laws, as Hoppe conceives them, are laws that can both be denied and defied.  One can act contrary to Hoppe’s moral laws, and there are no demonstrable consequences or effects that must result.  This defect in the notion of moral “laws” was noted by O’Neil in his article and was more recently noted again by Butler Shaffer:

The “natural law” theory also suffers from a failure to identify causal relationships associated with their violation.  If someone speaks to me of Newton’s “second law of motion,” I can set up an experiment to test its validity.  While one may justifiably quarrel over the propriety of speaking of regularities in nature as “laws,” one can at least identify a relatively clear cause-and-effect connection.  But if I argue that I have a “natural law” right to my property, and my neighbors proceed to violate my interests, what will occur?  Will the forces of nature suddenly turn upon them—perhaps by suspending the principle of gravitation—causing them to no longer be able to function in the world?  And if the inviolability of my property is mandated by the laws of nature, how could my neighbors succeed in despoiling me in the first place?  If their actions violated “natural law” they could not, by definition, carry out their acts…How, after all, can anything that happens within nature be considered to be in violation of nature’s laws? (SHA-142)

Though Hoppe doesn’t consider his theory a natural law theory, Shaffer’s criticism applies to the extent Hoppe claims to have discovered moral laws.  It seems the moral laws of which Hoppe writes are not—as he intends them—the kind of laws by which an individual actor can bring about or avoid experience B by utilizing means A.  Empirical laws and economic laws demonstrate to an actor how to produce end B by utilizing means A.  We recall once again Menger’s original vision:

We control the real world in that, on the basis of our theoretical knowledge, we set the conditions of a phenomenon which are within our control, and are able in such a way to produce the phenomenon itself. (I-56)

The aim of the theories of Menger and Mises is to conceive the regularities that seem to inhere in our conscious actions in terms of exact laws.  By contrast, in his theory of argumentation, Hoppe was trying to do the same thing as Rothbard.  The goal of Rothbardian and Hoppean moral theorizing is to prove the objective goodness, rightness, morality, and justness of my conduct and to prove the objective badness, wrongness, immorality, and unjustness of your conduct.  The attempt to prove that my values are objectively superior to your values requires some form of objective value theory, and this explains why theoretical subjectivism is ignored in the theories of Rothbard and Hoppe, and why Rothbard and Hoppe redefine the concept of praxeology, changing it from its Mengerian and Misesian meaning.

Regarding the difference between the scientific search for constant relations and the search for moral justification, Mises wrote:

The discovery of the inescapable interdependence of market phenomena overthrew this opinion.  Bewildered, people had to face a new view of society.  They learned with stupefaction that there is another aspect from which human action might be viewed than that of good and bad, of fair and unfair, of just and unjust.  In the course of social events there prevails a regularity of phenomena to which man must adjust his actions if he wishes to succeed.  It is futile to approach social facts with the attitude of a censor who approves or disapproves from the point of view of quite arbitrary standards and subjective judgments of value.  One must study the laws of human action and social cooperation as the physicist studies the laws of nature.  Human action and social cooperation seen as the object of a science of given relations, no longer as a normative discipline of things that ought to be—this was a revolution of tremendous consequences for knowledge and philosophy as well as for social action. (HA-2)

In speaking of theories that conceive human acts in terms of good and bad, just and unjust, Mises has in mind precisely the kind of ethics theories that Rothbard and Hoppe propose.  Praxeology is concerned with expressing the regularities we experience or intuit in our conscious actions in terms of exact laws.

Hoppe’s Theory of Argumentation

Two Kinds of Apriorism

Part of the misunderstanding surrounding the status of Hoppe’s theory of argumentation stems from the various interpretations of the term “a priori” or “apriorism.”  Hoppe claims that he has given an “a priori justification of the private property ethic” (H-207).  Similarly, Mises claimed that praxeology is based on a priori knowledge and that it arrives at a priori propositions (U-18).  Hoppe also claims that his theory constitutes a “praxeological proof” (H-204, 207).  Since outwardly both Hoppe and Mises present aprioristic theories having some relationship to praxeology, it appears to those with little knowledge of praxeology that Hoppe and Mises are involved in the same discipline.  But this is not the case.

Praxeology, as Mises conceived it, does not consist of discursive reasoning alone.  An essential component of Misesian praxeology is a regularity which we experience in action, and which our reason attempts to conceive in terms of an exact law.  The regularities occurring in human action have up until now been most successfully conceived in terms of scientific laws in economic science.  These laws have been developed as a means to explain the causes of regular occurrences that we experience in our lives: recessions, price fluctuations, shortages, currency devaluations, etc.  The starting point of our experience is, as Mises writes, “the cognition that an A is uniformly followed by a B” (U-20).  Experiencing that A is uniformly followed by B, the praxeologist sets out to find or reveal the exact sense in which A follows B or is copresent with B.  The praxeologist is only concerned with exact laws (every time I walk toward a location, I walk away from one) and not with empirical laws (when I walk toward a location, I usually arrive there).  The conception of praxeology as concerned with the production or avoidance of phenomenon B through the utilization of means A is Menger’s conception as well, and we will quote again:

The purpose of the theoretical sciences is understanding of the real world, knowledge of it extending beyond immediate experience, and control of it…We control the real world in that, on the basis of our theoretical knowledge, we set the conditions of a phenomenon A which are within our control, and are able in such a way to produce B, the phenomenon itself. (I-55/56)(note: “A” and “B” added for purposes of illustration)

Thus, the foundation of the science Mises and Menger practiced includes, as an integral part, the cognition of a regular relationship in the occurrence of two phenomena, A and B, and an attempt to demonstrate an exact or invariant relationship between them, such that the production of phenomenon A must necessarily produce or bring about phenomenon B.

Apriorism in the Misesian/Mengerian sense means that the ultimate source of our certain knowledge of the relationship between phenomenon A and phenomenon B is that our mind can’t comprehend the contrary of this relationship.  That A and B are related in the way expressed is implied in all of our thinking and acting concerning A and B.  Regarding the idea that in walking toward a location I would not also walk away from a location, “such a thing simply seems inconceivable to the critical mind” (I-60).

The kind of apriorism that Hoppe refers to is not of this type.  In this alternate kind of apriorism, there are generally no “reference phenomena” available by which an actor could experience the theory’s validity as a regularity in his own action.  In physical law, the scientist can conduct an experiment.  In praxeological, economic law, for example, various economic policies can be enacted to which praxeological laws apply.  An actor can conceivably create more currency, can lower the legal interest rate, can establish wage and price controls, and can erect tariffs.  In each of these cases, praxeological law conceives of the inevitable consequences of these acts in terms of an experience that may be had in our goal-directed consciousness.  Rising commodity prices, boom/bust cycles, and shortages are things that may “happen” to us as an inescapable consequence of the acts we initiate.

By contrast, the apriorism that Hoppe employs means something like “the conclusion I have reached is correct because I have correctly reasoned.”   “A priori” means, essentially, correctly reasoned.  Here there is no intention to provide the actor with the kind of information that physical law and praxeological law provides.  A theory based on this type of apriorism does not say to an actor, “Try action A.  You will experience phenomenon B.”

As a preliminary attempt to understand the difference in the two types of apriorism, we may refer to Misesian apriorism as experiential apriorism and to the kind of apriorism employed by Hoppe as nonexperiential apriorism.  In experiential apriorism, experiential means the actor can, at least conceivably, experience the specified invariant relationship in the reality of his conscious activity.  Aprioristic means that the experienced invariant relationship derives from the categorial nature or form of action or consciousness.

If we were to apply Mises’s experiential apriorism to Hoppe’s theory of argumentation, this would mean that if a person engaged in a performative contradiction, he would invariably experience some other phenomenon (for example, unjustness) analogous to the way he invariably experiences walking away from a location as necessarily related to walking toward a location.  It would be impossible to do A (performatively contradict oneself) without B (unjustness) happening to him.  No matter how hard a person tried, he would find that every time he performed a contradiction, unjustness would “appear.”

This is obviously not the kind of apriorism that Hoppe and his supporters have in mind.  In Hoppe’s theory, apriorism refers exclusively to the cogency of the argument.  The notions of argumentation, performative contradiction, and justification are not meant as precise scientific conceptions designating these phenomena whenever and wherever they appear in action.  These conceptions are only meant to be interlocking components in a sequential argument designed to reach a specific political conclusion.  For example, I may shout aloud “I am not alive!” to a crowd, perhaps as a form of protest or entertainment.  The phenomena that Hoppe’s theory describes now appear in my action: I argue while employing a performative contradiction.  If the theory were designed to explain experiences that occur in action, then the theory would apply to this case.  And thus, my act of protest or my act of entertainment will be “unjustified”; and the crowd I address, assuming they perform no contradiction, will be “justified.”  The same should apply, one assumes, if I say aloud “I am not talking” in order to make someone laugh or in order to prove a point.  In saying “I am not talking” to make someone laugh, I will render my actions unjustified or render unjustified that which I’m attempting to do.

It seems obvious that Hoppe’s theory isn’t intended to treat situations such as these, even though they are arguments involving performative contradictions.  The concepts of Hoppe’s theory are meant to connect only to one another in a chain leading to the argument’s predetermined conclusion.  The concepts are not intended to correlate to the phenomena as they are experienced in action.  The term nonexperiential apriorism means an apriorism that is concerned primarily with the cogency of the argument and not concerned with the correlation between the concepts of the argument and the phenomena as experienced in action.  Thus, Hoppe’s apriorism is essentially different from that of Mises.

A Theory of Justice

As previously mentioned, Graf implicitly acknowledges the nature of Hoppe’s theory in referring to norms or normative fifty times while not referring to the concept of exact or praxeological laws a single time.  Hülsmann, whom Graf quotes throughout his treatment, characterizes Hoppe’s theory as a theory about justice (not about laws of action) and as one that abandons any attempt to build upon the value-theoretic approach (i.e., praxeology):

Thus one is led to the second type of solution, which consists in abandoning all attempts at building welfare economics on the theory of value and to look for other foundations.  This is where Hoppe’s theory of justice comes into play.  Presently, that is, as long as nobody solves the problems of the value-theoretic approach, this seems to be the most promising route for welfare economics. (ESN-16)

The original intent of the argumentation ethics was to do what Rothbard had failed to do and what Mises argued could not be done: arrive at a way to rationally asses or evaluate ends.

The answer, then, to the question of which ends can or cannot be justified is to be derived from the concept of argumentation. (ATS131)

Hoppe was trying to prove that some ends are just, while other ends are unjust.

To reach this conclusion and to properly understand its importance and logical force, two insights are essential.  First, it must be noted that the question of what is just or unjust—or, for that matter, the even more general one of what is a valid proposition and what is not—only arises insofar as I am, and others are, capable of propositional exchanges, i.e., of argumentation. (H-204/205)

Hoppe’s theory as he originally intended it is a theory about ends and not about means.  This is why Hoppe sees his own theory as an attempt to strengthen Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty and not as an attempt to extend Misesian praxeology.  Mises had written:

The ultimate judgments of value and the ultimate ends of human action are given for any kind of scientific inquiry; they are not open to any further analysis.  Praxeology deals with the ways and means chosen for the attainment of such ultimate ends.  Its object is means, not ends. (HA-21)

Rothbard took exception to this pronouncement of Mises and held:

Not only can we say with absolute assurance that certain methods and means are irrational, but can also go on to say that certain ends are irrational. (ROTH-1)

Thus, the original intent of Hoppe’s theory was to succeed where Rothbard had failed and to provide a way to evaluate ends.  The original intent was to provide a type of moral argument conceived in terms of just and unjust, not an economic or utilitarian argument in terms of “if X, then Y.”

Hoppe’s Theory as a Theory of Means

Hoppe’s theory of argumentation asserts that if you argue against ethic X (generally Lockean and Rothbardian property norms), you will commit a performative or practical contradiction; and therefore, your argument against ethic X is unjustified and/or ethic Y which you propose is unjustified.

Graf examines Hoppe’s theory of property norms in some detail and arrives at an interesting conclusion:

A property norm and supportive legal norms can operate to prevent conflict and promote peace and prosperity in society.  Nevertheless, while property norms can be viewed as means, they are not, in the view advanced here, the type of testable or empirical means addressed in the natural-science causality realm. (G-25)

Here, Graf acknowledges that Hoppean private-property norms can be seen as means in the limited sense that if they are adopted, they will—in the estimation of Hoppe’s supporters—operate to promote peace and prosperity and to prevent conflict.  Hoppean property norms can thus be considered means to ends.

What Graf and most Hoppeans apparently fail to realize is that by their own account, Hoppean property norms can be considered means in another important sense.  For if Hoppe’s theory is valid, it provides us with a means for avoiding or engaging in performative contradictions and with a means for avoiding or attaining injustice.  According to Hoppe’s theory, if we adopt and argue for Hoppean property norms, we may avoid a performative contradiction, and our acts will be just.  If instead we reject and argue against Hoppean property norms, we will be ensnared in a performative contradiction and our acts will be unjust.  Thus, not only may Hoppean property norms be seen as means to the ends of peace and prosperity in society, but on a personal level, one may adopt and argue for Hoppean property norms as means to free oneself from performative contradiction and as means to attain justifiability for one’s actions.  Conversely, one who wants to performatively contradict oneself is instructed by Hoppe’s theory that arguing against Hoppean property norms is one means of doing so.  Similarly, one who wants one’s own acts to be unjustified is instructed that arguing against Hoppean property norms is one means by which one can render one’s actions unjust.  Further, if Hoppe’s theory is valid, it seems to provide means/ends information concerning the general relationship between performative contradictions and personal justification.  If engaging in a performative contradiction, in general, renders my actions unjustified, then I may choose to render my actions unjustified by engaging in a performative contradiction, or I may choose to render my actions justified by abstaining from performatively contradicting myself.

It seems incontestable that if Hoppe’s theory is valid, the information it provides can be “utilized” as means by actors to bring about the ends they desire (social peace, freedom from personal contradiction, personal justification) or to avoid ends they consider harmful or displeasing (social conflict, personal performative contradiction, personal injustice).  It is curious that Hoppeans seem not to have fully realized this beneficial utilitarian aspect of Hoppe’s theory of argumentation.

When Hoppe originally proposed his theory of argumentation, he was trying to avoid a means/ends or utilitarian-type analysis.  Following Rothbard, Hoppe was trying to construct a theory of ends.  Mises held that a theory of ends must ultimately fail for the following reason:

As soon as people venture to question and to examine an end, they no longer look upon it as an end but deal with it as a means to attain a still higher end.  The ultimate end is beyond any rational examination.  All other ends are but provisional.  They turn into means as soon as they are weighed against other ends or means. (TH-14)

Graf acknowledges that Hoppean property norms can serve as means to promote peace and prosperity.  But if we grant the validity of Hoppe’s theory, there should be no reason people cannot utilize the knowledge it conveys in order to avoid performative contradictions or attain personal justification.  This theoretical situation is what Mises was trying to explain to all those who were arguing that ends can be rationally evaluated.  His point was that we cannot evaluate an end (X) other than by showing how it will benefit or harm one who adopts it or aims for it.  As soon as we do that, we show how adopting or aiming for X will result in Y, the benefit or harm; and thus, X has “turned into a means” to attain or avoid Y.


Performative Contradictions

In saying aloud “I am not alive,” I engage in a performative contradiction.  There are an unlimited number of purposes for which I might possibly say aloud “I am not alive.”  For example, these words may be words in a play I am acting in, or I may say these words hoping to make my classmates laugh or my teacher angry.  Saying aloud “I am not alive” may be passwords for entering a club, or in saying “I am not alive,” I may have in mind the name of a musical band.  The number of purposes for which I might engage in the performative contradiction “I am not alive” is practically (and possibly theoretically) unlimited.

In each of the cases listed here, we can see or think of no reason engaging in the performative contradiction “I am not alive” is not an appropriate means to the specified end from a praxeological/economic point of view.  From the praxeological/economic point of view, the means seem fitted to attain the ends specified.  From a commonsense, moral point of view, the activity engaged in would seem to be largely harmless to the person engaged in it and to those who observe it.  As these examples illustrate, there seems to be no reason a person should abstain from engaging in a performative contradiction just because it is a performative contradiction.  Borrowing a term from Graf, we may ask, what exactly is wrong with being “ensnared” in a performative contradiction?

The question whether performative contradictions as such are defective from an economic or praxeological point of view (they are not fitted to attain the ends aimed at) or from a commonsense, moral point of view (they are offensive or harmful in some way) is an important question in relation to Hoppe’s theory of argumentation.  Hoppe argues that non-Hoppean ethics are unjust.  The simple structure of his argument is:

Argument for non-Hoppean ethic  =  Performative contradiction   =  Unjustified

Hoppe implies that performative contradictions are by nature unjust or that the use of them is unjust or that the use of them conveys injustice.  But as the examples above illustrate, there seems to be nothing objectionable in the nature of performative contradictions per se.  If Hoppe wants to argue that all performative contradictions are unjust in some sense, regardless of a person’s intent in their usage, he will have to demonstrate how this is so, given that this seems contrary to the plain evidence.

If Hoppe wants to argue that only a definable subset of performative contradictions are unjust in some sense, this would entail categorizing the different types of performative contradictions and showing the sense in which class X of performative contradictions is unjust or conveys injustice, while class Y of performative contradictions is just or does not convey injustice.

What if Hoppe does neither?  What if Hoppe neither expands nor revises his theory to show how all performative contradictions are unjust or how a specific class of performative contradictions is unjust?  The problem is that there seem to be uses of performative contradictions that are clearly neutral or benign.  If all uses of performative contradictions such as “I am not alive” are neutral or benign and if the use of any and all performative contradictions conveys no injustice, then we should be able to render Hoppe’s theory simply as follows:

Argument for non-Hoppean ethic  =  Unjustified

If a performative contradiction as such conveys no injustice, then the injustice in Hoppe’s argument derives not from the performative contradiction, but exclusively from the argument against the Hoppean ethic.  What Hoppe intends is that arguments against his ethic are unjustified owing to the employment of a performative contradiction.  Thus, Hoppe must demonstrate the sense in which all performative contradictions are unjust or convey injustice, or he must demonstrate that a definable class of performative contradictions are unjust or convey injustice.  If Hoppe cannot do this, then we lack evidence that performative contradictions per se are unjust or convey injustice.  Because of this, we would have to conclude that it is not performative contradictions that are unjust, but simply the act of arguing against the Hoppean ethic.  Hoppe’s theory then reduces to the simple assertion that arguing against his property ethic is unjustified.

As Hoppe was a Heisenberg scholar when he presented his theory in A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, this passage from Heisenberg seems particularly appropriate:

Why was this attempt of Voigt’s so successful on the one hand, and so futile on the other?  Because he was only concerned to examine the D-line, without taking the whole line-spectrum into account.  Voigt had made phenomenological use of a certain aspect of the oscillator hypothesis, and had either ignored all the other discrepancies of this model, or deliberately left them in obscurity.  Thus he had simply not taken his hypothesis in real earnest.  In the same way, I fear that the quark hypothesis is just not taken seriously by its exponents.  The questions about the statistics of quarks, about the forces that hold them together, about the particles corresponding to these forces, about the reasons why quarks never appear as free particles, about the pair-creation of quarks in the interior of the elementary particle—all these questions are more or less left in obscurity.  If there was a desire to take the quark hypothesis in real earnest, it would be necessary to make a precise mathematical approach to the dynamics of quarks, and the forces that hold them together, and to show that, qualitatively at least, this approach can reproduce correctly the many different features of particle physics that are known today.  There should be no question in particle physics to which this approach could not be applied.  Such attempts are not known to me, and I am afraid, also, that every such attempt which is presented in precise mathematical language would be very quickly refutable. (HEI-85/86)

Hoppe and his supporters want to characterize the conduct of their adversaries as unjust based on the notion of performative contradiction.  However, to our knowledge, neither Hoppe nor his supporters have undertaken a serious study of performative contradictions in order to demonstrate exactly how or why they are unjust or convey injustice.   Because the thesis of performative contradictions hasn’t been taken in real earnest by its supporters, one is left with the impression that the notion of performative contradiction plays only a rhetorical role in the theory of argumentation.

Conclusion

Rothbard and Objectivist Social Theory

The common thread running through the work of all Rothbardian social theorists is the abandonment of methodological individualism and subjectivism in social analysis and the return to the philosophy of objective or ontological realism.  The object of Rothbardian social analysis is the “objective” or “real” or “physical” world, as opposed to the world as it appears to an individual actor in action.  One who understands the significance of the insight which gave birth to the Austrian School of economics will understand the significance of the proposal—implicit in Rothbardian-derived theorizing—to abandon theoretical subjectivism and return to philosophical objective realism.

The problem of the apparent paradox of value was solved by employing methodological individualism.  In social science, we can ask questions such as “What is really more valuable, bread or diamonds?” or “What is objectively more valuable, bread or diamonds?”  When we frame the problem in this way, we omit explicit reference to a valuing subject and create the impression that value “exists” independent of a valuing subject.  This is the approach of philosophical objectivism.  The theoretical advance of Menger and others consisted in explicitly framing the problem in terms of a valuing subject as the valuing subject makes a choice in action.  In the new approach or method, the question then became “What is more valuable to me right now, X quantity of diamonds or Y amount of bread?”  The Austrian School is founded on the revolutionary method of individual subject analysis (analysis from the point of view of the individual subject) which is commonly referred to as methodological individualism or theoretical subjectivism.  The essence of this approach is that we ask not how things “are,” but instead, how things are for subject or actor A.

Subjectivism in this sense has nothing to do with the concept of randomness.  The critique of theoretical subjectivism is often based on a disapproval of the notion of random choice or choice by whim.  However, theoretical subjectivism as employed in praxeology does not deal with the history of a particular choice.  Whether a given choice comes about by mere whim or as a result of the best Aristotelian theorizing available does not matter.  Praxeological reasoning addresses the logic of choice, not the historical genesis of a choice.

When theoretical subjectivism is eschewed in favor of philosophical objectivism, important theoretical insights do not get developed or remain entirely unknown.  An example is the notion of subjective value.  When economic market analysis widens to become praxeological analysis of the universal aspects of action, the notion of subjective value evolves into the wider and more general notion of “subjective evaluation.”   In this newer conception, both the object of the actor’s action and the actor’s attitude toward the object are conceived exclusively in terms of the actor’s point of view or intention.  In this conception, the actor doesn’t “subjectively value” objective things.  Instead, what the object in question “is” is a function of the actor’s intention in regard to it.

It is easily seen that these concepts…refer not to some objective properties possessed by the things, or which the observer can find out about them, but to views which some other person holds about the things. (IEO-59)

If we wish, we could say that all these objects are defined not in terms of their “real” properties but in terms of the opinions people hold about them.  In short, in the social sciences the things are what people think they are.  Money is money, a word is a word, a cosmetic is a cosmetic, if and because somebody thinks they are. (IEO-60)

In this conception, there is no longer any room or need for an objective realm, existing independently of anyone’s conscious actions and which serves as a standard for judging whether the actor has “correctly” appraised the object of his action.  Any separate appraisal (action 2) of a given action (action 1) is considered an act of appraisal, whether it is an act of an observer or of the actor himself.  Any assertion (action 3) that an actor doesn’t know or didn’t know the “real situation” is an act of assertion.

The object or situation which the actor values or is satisfied with or is dissatisfied with is the object or situation as he understands it.  It is a “subjective” object or situation, not an objective one.  In praxeology, both the attitude of the actor and the object of his attitude are considered subjective phenomena.

As we quoted earlier from Schutz, it is only actor A himself who gives subjective meaning to his action, and the only subjective meaning being given by observer O who observes A is the subjective meaning O gives to his own act—his act of observing A.  This same principle also holds in the case where A judges or appraises a previous act of his own.  This judgment or appraisal is an act of A, and so it is clear that what we have in this case is simply a new or separate action.  In praxeology and theoretical subjectivism, this new action of A—his judgment or appraisal of a situation—is not interpreted as saying something about an “objective reality” that was hidden from A in a previous action.  This new action is simply considered another instance of action.  Praxeology is only concerned with the universal features of all of these assumed or postulated instances of action: A’s action, O’s action (of observing), A’s action (of appraising a previous action), etc.  As praxeology is only concerned with the formal analysis of action, then, with regard to any assertion that “such and such is the case,” praxeology will only be concerned with the assertion as an action.  With regard to a situation that is expressed, asserted, rendered, depicted, described, advocated, argued for, observed, etc., praxeology is concerned with the universal and categorical form of such expressing, asserting, rendering, depicting, describing, advocating, arguing, or observing.  We never “transcend” action or study the content of action as an independent entity or realm.  To do so is to practice natural science.

External objects are as such only phenomena of the physical universe and the subject matter of the natural sciences…Praxeology does not deal with the external world, but with man’s conduct with regard to it.  Praxeological reality is not the physical universe, but man’s conscious reaction to the given state of this universe. (HA-92)

In this type of analysis, there can never be an “objectively wrong” or “objectively incorrect” action.  There can only be given or supposed actions.  This is the meaning of the following passages from Mises:

The most common misunderstanding consists in seeing in the economic principle a statement about the material and the content of action.  One reaches into psychology, constructs the concept of want, and then searches for the bridge between want, the presentation of a feeling of uneasiness, and the concrete decision in action.  Thus the want becomes a judge over action: it is thought that the correct action, the one corresponding to the want, can be contrasted to the incorrect action.  However, we can never identify the want otherwise than in the action.  The action is always in accord with the want because we can infer the want only from the action. (EPIST-80)

It was forgotten that we are able to infer the need only from the action.  Hence, the idea of an action not in conformity with needs is absurd.  As soon as one attempts to distinguish between the need and the action and makes the need the criterion for judging the action, one leaves the domain of theoretical science, with its neutrality in regard to value judgments. (EPIST-149)

For there can be no doubt that [our science’s] subject matter is given action and only given action.  Action that ought to be, but is not, does not come within its purview. (EPIST-149)

In praxeological analysis, both the object of A’s action and the attitude of A toward the object of his action are defined in terms of A’s understanding of the situation, not in terms of how observer O understands A’s situation and not in terms of a separate act of appraisal or judgment of A.  This principle can be illustrated by means of a simple example.  In typical Austrian analysis we might conceive that actor A values his supply of firewood.  In a conception such as this, the tendency may be to conceive that actor A subjectively values something that is objectively real (i.e., the firewood).  However, this is not the approach of theoretical subjectivism.  In theoretical subjectivism, the information or data that the object of A’s action is firewood, and not wood for building a playhouse or doghouse, is subjective data postulated to be A’s understanding of the situation in the action in question.  That the object of A’s action is firewood and not something else is a function of A’s intention in relation to the object or content of his action.  This datum is not obtained by consulting observers or by examining a separate act of appraisal that A performs.

It is important to remember that the so-called “data,” from which we set out in this sort of analysis, are…all facts given to the person in question, the things as they are known to (or believed by) him to exist, and not, strictly speaking, objective facts.  It is only because of this that the propositions we deduce are necessarily a priori valid and that we preserve the consistency of the argument. (IEO-36)

The same applies with regard to A’s “supply.”   A’s supply of firewood is A’s supply as he himself understands it in the context of the action concerned.  Whether a given piece of wood does or does not belong to his supply is “subjectively” determined by A himself as revealed by his intention in action.  Let us refer to this action as action 1. The opinion of actor B that a particular piece of wood is not part of A’s supply, we conceive to be an act of observation or appraisal on the part of B, action 2.  The opinion of A that a particular piece of wood was not part of his own supply, we conceive as an act of appraisal or judgment on the part of A, action 3.  What we have are three postulated actions, and praxeology is concerned only with those aspects of action that are common to all three instances.  Thus, there are never “wrong” actions or “mistaken” actions—there are only “given” actions.  The actions which form the subject matter of praxeology are defined exclusively in terms of the intention the acting person is acting with.

The explanation of an action must have the same content as was in the person’s head when he performed the action or when he reasoned toward his intention to perform his action. (SEA-67)

We have to define both the objects of human activity and the different kinds of actions themselves, not in physical terms but in terms of the opinions or intentions of the acting persons,.. (IEO-62)

The insight that in praxeological analysis both the attitude of the actor toward an object and the object itself are defined subjectively constitutes one of the most advanced insights that praxeological reasoning has attained.  These important insights are discussed in detail by Hayek (“The Facts of the Social Sciences”) and Searle (SEA-58, 59, 66, 67, 78).  As we’ve already seen, this is the conception at the heart of Mises’s praxeological reasoning:

Whether [a] crowd is a mere gathering or a mass…or an organized body or any other kind of social entity is a question which can only be answered by understanding the meaning which they themselves attach to their presence.  And this meaning is always the meaning of individuals.  Not our senses, but understanding, a mental process, makes us recognize social entities. (HA-43)

[The praxeological] point of view makes possible the construction of chains of reasoning that are purely formal, in the sense that they refer to goods, services or factors of production only abstractly; they depend for their validity not on the specific objects with which human action may be concretely concerned, but only on postulated attitudes of men towards them. (KIR-179)

Thus, as praxeology widens its scope and becomes more than just the analysis of market phenomena, the concept of the actor as “subjectively valuing” the objects of market exchange evolves.  In this evolved and more general conception, the object itself—the thing the actor values or is satisfied with or is dissatisfied with—is a subjective thing or object.  This object is the object as the actor himself understands or intends it.

For a large number of social and psychological phenomena the concept that names the phenomenon is itself a constituent of the phenomenon.  In order for something to count as a marriage ceremony or a trade union, or property or money or even a war or revolution people involved in these activities have to have certain appropriate thoughts.  In general they have to think that’s what it is.  So, for example, in order to get married or buy property you and other people have to think that that is what you are doing.  Now this feature is crucial to social phenomena.  But there is nothing like it in the biological and physical sciences.  Something can be a tree or a plant, or some person can have tuberculosis even if no one thinks: “Here’s a tree, or a plant, or a case of tuberculosis,” and even if no one thinks about it at all.  But many of the terms that describe social phenomena have to enter into their constitution.  And this has the further result that such terms have a peculiar kind of self-referentiality.  “Money” refers to whatever people use and think of as money.  “Promise” refers to whatever people intend as and regard as promises.  I am not saying that in order to have the institution of money people have to have that very word or some exact synonym in their vocabulary.  Rather, they must have certain thoughts and attitudes about something in order that it counts as money and these thoughts and attitudes are part of the very definition of money. (SEA-78)

The goal of Rothbard and his followers  is to re-cast Austrian School social thought in terms of objectivist conceptions—conceptions which Rothbardians believe to be compatible with the objective ethics and ethical norms they advocate.  This program necessarily entails a corresponding diminishment in the study and in the comprehension of the subjectivist theories that were developed in the early twentieth century.  Rothbardian social theory is based on ontological realism (objective realism, ontological materialism, etc.) and on the corresponding concept of an “objective real world.” Generally, the subjective element in this theoretical worldview is severely circumscribed, limited to analysis of the economic or market sphere of human activity in which actors are conceived to “subjectively value” marketable objects belonging to the “real world.”  Outside of market analysis, and especially in the realm of political interpersonal action, theoretical subjectivism and methodological individualism are abandoned.

In Graf’s conception, praxeology will be converted to objective conceptions via the assertion that social interaction requires two people in the objective sense.  This will entail a materialist or objective conception of two or more bodies, at which point Rothbardian and Hoppean property theory can be “attached” to praxeology.  Praxeology in the Mengerian and Misesian meaning is then essentially altered and transformed into a normative discipline.

The objectivist worldview persists because important social questions are framed in such a way as to presuppose or imply objectivist conceptions.  We ask, for example, “How do our minds give us meaningful information about the external, real world?”  This question already implies a duality of realms—a “subjective” realm of thoughts, feelings, and valuations and an “objective” realm of physical processes and events.  It implies a conception of multiple minds, each positioned in extended space and each trying to comprehend a common “objective reality.”  Theoretical subjectivism is ultimately incompatible with the positing of such an objective real world in which minds are conceived as “located” in various positions.  Theoretical subjectivism is neutral with regard to an assumed objective reality; it neither denies nor affirms the existence of a real world independent of any consciousness.

Graf is correct to note that decades have passed during which Rothbard’s conception of “praxeology and economics” served to confuse and misinform people about the nature and scope of praxeology.  Unfortunately, Graf’s proposed reconception—to install the property theories of Rothbard and Hoppe as part of praxeology—does little to clarify the issues concerned, and does much to confuse and misinform.

 Key

ATS—Hoppe, A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, Mises Institute/Kluwer: 1990.

EOL—Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press: 1998.

EPIST—Mises, Epistemological Problems of Economics, New York University Press: 1976.

ESA—Hoppe, Economic Science and the Austrian Method, Mises Institute: 1995.

ESN—Hülsmann, “Economic Science and Neoclassicism,” Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 2, no. 4 (1999).

FM—Mises, The Free Market and Its Enemies, Foundation for Economic Education: 2004.

G—Graf, “Action-Based Jurisprudence: Praxeological Legal Theory in Relation to Economic Theory, Ethics, and Legal Practice,” Libertarian Papers 3, no. 19 (2011).

GOR—Gordon, An Introduction to Economic Reasoning, Mises Institute: 2000.

GOR96—Gordon, “The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics,” Mises Institute: 1996.

H—Hoppe, The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Kluwer: 1993.

HA—Mises, Human Action, 3rd. rev. ed., Contemporary: 1966.

HEI—Heisenberg, Encounters with Einstein, Princeton University Press: 1983.

I—Menger, Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences, New York University Press: 1985.

IEO—Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order, University of Chicago Press: 1980.

INT—Hoppe, “An Interview with Hans-Hermann Hoppe,” Austrian Economics Newsletter 18, no. 1.

KIR—Kirzner, The Economic Point of View, Mises Institute/Institute for Humane Studies: 2007.

KLI—Klein, “Menger the Revolutionary,” Free Market 25, no. 2 (2007).

MES—Rothbard, Man Economy and State, Mises Institute: 1993.

PB—Boettke, “Economists and Liberty: Murray N. Rothbard,” Nomos: 1988.

ROB—Robbins, An Essay on the Nature & Significance of Economic Science, MacMillan & Co.: 1945.

ROTH—Rotbhard, “On Mises’s Ethical Relativism,” 1960.

SCH—Schutz, The Phenomenology of the Social World, Northwestern University Press: 1967.

SEA—Searle, Minds, Brains and Science, Harvard University Press: 2003.

SEE—Sechrest, “Praxeology, Economics, and Law: Issues and Implications,” Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 7, no. 4 (2004).

SHA—Shaffer, Boundaries of Order, Mises Institute: 2009.

TH—Mises, Theory and History, Mises Institute: 1985.

U—Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Foundation for Economic Education: 2002.

June 30, 2013 / Adam Knott

Praxeology as a General Science of Human Action

This essay is the introduction to the revised edition of my 2007 book A Preliminary Critique of Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics (revised June, 2013)

 

Praxeology as a General Science of Human Action

The notion that praxeology is a general science of human action and that economics (catallactics) is merely one branch of this general science seems to confuse many. When Kirzner and Rothbard studied under Mises in the 1950s and 1960s, they wrote that praxeology is the study of human action in all its forms and that economics is but one branch of this general science. By the 1990s, however, both thinkers had reverted to a conception wherein economics—the study of market phenomena—is largely identical to praxeology (IK, EL, p. 12).

Mises’s insight was that the regularities we intuit or experience in social phenomena are experienced as regularities due to the logical structure of the human mind by which we apprehend them. The regularities that we intuit in social phenomena, which praxeology attempts to formulate in terms of exact laws, are experienced as regularities because our mind organizes experience in terms of mental “categories,” foremost among them the categories of ends (purposes) and means (things utilized toward purposes). The means/ends aspect of consciousness is what Mises calls “action.”

Action is the singular term designating a group of categories of intentionality. The most important categories in the Misesian system are means and ends. Anything apprehended by a human mind in terms of means and ends is an action. Any instance of an attempt to utilize some aspect of the present situation in order achieve a future state of affairs is an action. If one person tries to convince another person of something, this is an action. If a person tries to solve a riddle, this is an action. If a person tries to lift a heavy object, this is an action. All these are actions just as much as the attempt to lower the rate of interest below the market rate. Thus, economics, which studies things such as the attempt to lower interest rates, is but one branch of a more general science of human action. Other branches of praxeology study man’s utilization of means toward ends in areas of purposive conduct besides the market.

Man’s actions on the market, in the government, at work, at leisure, in buying and selling, are all guided by … choice between what a person prefers as against what he does not prefer. … Every action can be called an exchange insofar as it means substituting one state of affairs for another. (FM, p. 16)

The general concept of action is not specifically tied to the market or to market phenomena.

Action is the search for improvement of conditions from the point of view of the personal value judgments of the individual concerned.… Man’s aim is to substitute what he considers a better state of affairs for a less satisfactory one. He strives for the substitution of a more satisfactory state of affairs in place of a less satisfactory state of affairs. And in the satisfaction of this desire, he becomes happier than he was before. This implies nothing with reference to the content of the action … (FM, p. 14; emphasis added)

In an aprioristic science, we start with a general supposition—action is taken to substitute one state of affairs for another. (FM, p. 16)

Action is the general phenomenon of the attempt to replace one situation with another, and acting man “acts” in all of the various realms in which he is consciously engaged. This includes not only the realm of market activity but also the realms of interpersonal activity, political activity, mental activity, physical activity, etc. This is what Mises meant in repeating that praxeology is the general science of human action of which economics is merely a branch.

Given Mises’s conception of action, it is easy to see that “action” is something man does in the interpersonal realm of activity, the same realm that has traditionally been the province of normative ethics. Traditional normative ethics studies human acts with regard to their justness or goodness or morality. A praxeological treatment of the same human acts would seek to discover their formal implications or invariant relations or exact laws. This is what Mises meant when he wrote the following:

Bewildered, people had to face a new view of society. They learned with stupefaction that there is another aspect from which human action might be viewed than that of good and bad, of fair and unfair, of just and unjust. In the course of social events there prevails a regularity of phenomena to which man must adjust his actions if he wishes to succeed.… Human action and social cooperation seen as the object of a science of given relations, no longer as a normative discipline of things that ought to be—this was a revolution of tremendous consequences for knowledge and philosophy as well as for social action. (HA, p. 2)

With respect to the interpersonal realm of human action, this means the phenomena of ethics (interpersonal conduct) studied as “the object of a science of given relations, no longer as a normative discipline of things that ought to be.” In short, praxeological study of interpersonal conduct. Praxeological study of interpersonal conduct is thus one of the “other” branches of praxeology in the Misesian conception, where praxeology is the general science and where economics is its most mature branch.

That Rothbard neglected to consider the praxeological study of interpersonal conduct has to be considered an error of significant proportions. Though Rothbard studied under Mises and though he dedicated his treatise Man, Economy, and State to Mises, Rothbard had little to say about the relationship between praxeology and human action in the ethical, interpersonal realm of conduct. This suggests that Rothbard didn’t understand praxeology with any depth. Unfortunately, Rothbard was influential in promoting a scholarly paradigm in which praxeology applies only to market phenomena, while other disciplines such as natural law, objective ethics, and argumentation ethics apply to interpersonal conduct. Rothbard conceived that praxeology is “the methodology of Austrian economics,” and he asserted that the concept of subjective value is “perfectly proper for the formal science of praxeology, or economic theory, but not necessarily elsewhere” (EL, p. 12). As Mises conceived things, the Rothbardian paradigm (praxeology in economics—natural law and objective ethics in interpersonal action) was an outdated paradigm based on a failure to realize the implications of the economic point of view for the study of other forms of human action.

For more than a hundred years, however, the effects of this radical change in the methods of reasoning were greatly restricted because people believed that they referred only to a narrow segment of the total field of human action, namely, to market phenomena.… Until the late nineteenth century political economy remained a science of the “economic” aspects of human action, a theory of wealth and selfishness. It dealt with human action only to the extent that it was actuated by what was—very unsatisfactorily—described as the profit motive, and it asserted that there is in addition other human action whose treatment is the task of other disciplines. (HA, pp. 2–3; emphasis added)

Tragically, Rothbard succeeded in convincing a generation of Austrian scholars that the scientific vision glimpsed by Mises was limited in its applicability to the study of market phenomena and that the study of interpersonal conduct required recourse to the older normative approaches.

Highlights

The most important and fundamental proposition contained in this book is the proposition that praxeology is the general science of means and that there are other classes of means besides “economic” (i.e., market-related) means. For example, the acting individual not only lowers the market rate of interest as a means to spur economic growth, but he also coerces other people as a means to obtain goods or services or suppresses his hopes as a means to avoid future disappointment. In other words, activities such as coercion or the suppression of one’s hopes are types of “means.” These are things that people “do” in order to achieve specific results (ends). In 2007, I referred to the former class of means as “ethical means” and to the latter class of means as “psychological means.”

In retrospect, my choice of the terms ethical and psychological to name two important classes of means was apt to confuse and mislead. What I refer to in this book as “ethical means,” I would today call “interpersonal means,” and what I refer to in this book as “psychological means,” I would call today “mental means.” As I understand and explain things today, we may conceive at least four broad classes of actions:

1. Market-related actions: What Mises referred to as “catallactic” actions, those actions based on monetary calculation (actions that are the primary subject matter of economics)

2. Interpersonal actions: Those actions directed toward another actor (specifically, those actions directed toward another mind)

3. Mental actions: Goal-directed activities such as thinking, deliberating, evaluating, imagining, envisioning, contemplating, etc.

4. Physical actions: Those actions in which an actor interacts with the objects of a physical nature, including his own body

In this book, where the term “ethical action” or “ethical means” is encountered, one may simply substitute “interpersonal action” or “interpersonal means.” Where the term “psychological action” or “psychological means” is encountered, one may simply substitute “mental action” or “mental means.”

As a point of clarification, I would like to emphasize that in my system, the notion of “a praxeological ethics” is a perversion of terms. The expression “a praxeological ethics” implies that praxeology can somehow be used to prove, validate, or justify concrete norms of conduct. This has never been my position. A more correct expression in the context of ethical thought would be “a praxeology of ethical phenomena” or a “praxeological study of the phenomena of ethics.” This means conduct which has historically been the province of normative ethics (e.g., coercion, deceit, violence, cooperation, etc.) now studied by praxeology, the value-free science of human action. In short, a praxeological study of interpersonal conduct.

The second theme of this book is the proposition that the focus of praxeology is exact laws of human action. Praxeology is not simply discursive reasoning of a logical nature concerning social phenomena, nor is it merely supposition/countersupposition reasoning about assumed social situations. The goal of praxeology is the ascertainment of exact laws of social phenomena—the demonstration of a relationship between two nonidentical phenomena, A and B, that is guaranteed to be certain to the extent certainty is theoretically demonstrable.

The aim of this orientation, which in the future we will call the exact one, an aim which research pursues in the same way in all realms of the world of phenomena, is the determination of strict laws of phenomena, of regularities in the succession of phenomena which do not present themselves to us as absolute, but which in respect to the approaches to cognition by which we attain to them simply bear within themselves the guarantee of absoluteness. It is the determination of laws of phenomena which commonly are called “laws of nature,” but more correctly should be designated by the expression “exact laws.” (IV, p. 59)

Economic laws describe inevitable implications. If the data they postulate (A) are given, then the consequences they predict (B) necessarily follow. “The analytic method is simply a way of discovering the necessary consequences (B) of complex collocations of facts (A)—consequences whose counterpart in reality is not so immediately discernible as the counterpart of the original postulates.” (LR, pp. 121, 122; As and Bs added for clarity)

The purpose of the theoretical sciences is understanding of the real world, knowledge of it extending beyond immediate experience, and control of it. We understand phenomena by means of theories as we become aware of them in each concrete case merely as exemplifications of a general regularity. We attain a knowledge of phenomena extending beyond immediate experience by drawing conclusions, in the concrete case, from certain observed facts (A) about other facts (B) not immediately perceived. We do this on the basis of the laws of coexistence and of the succession of phenomena. We control the real world in that, on the basis of our theoretical knowledge, we set the conditions of a phenomenon (A) which are within our control, and are able in such a way to produce the phenomenon (B) itself. (IV, pp. 55–56; As and Bs added for clarification)

The starting point of experimental knowledge is the cognition that an A is uniformly followed by a B. The utilization of this knowledge either for the production of B or for the avoidance of the emergence of B is called action. The primary objective of action is either to bring about B or to prevent its emergence. (UF, p. 20)

The example I have used to illustrate an exact law is the proposition that in walking toward one location (phenomenon A), the actor necessarily walks away from a different location (phenomenon B). This could be considered an exact law of “physical action.” Mathematics can be conceived as an exact science of physical action in the sense that if I “hold four” and if I “take away two,” I will then “have two.” In this example, three separate actions are referred to: holding, taking, and having. The law of marginal utility is considered an exact law of economic or “catallactic” action:

Whenever the supply of a good increases by one additional unit, provided each unit is regarded as of equal serviceability by a person, the value attached to this unit must decrease. (ES, p. 14)

Here, the exact law states a necessary relationship between an increase in supply (phenomenon A) and a decrease in value (phenomenon B). The law may be considered a law of economics or of catallactics because it applies to the special case in action when an actor possesses a supply of identical units and increases or decreases his supply of these units.

Above are examples of what may be referred to as exact laws of physical and of economic action. In my work, I have focused on exact laws in the realm of interpersonal action, the case where one actor acts toward another actor (specifically, the case where one actor addresses the mind of another actor).

There are a number of subsidiary insights about human action in this book, and I would like to call attention to some of the more important ones. First, I proposed an explicitly subjective conception of scarcity:

The scarcity of any good (whether or not individual A strives to attain a good or more of a good) is subjectively determined within the reality of his action. Or scarcity is “revealed” to the individual within the reality of his action in his attempting to attain a thing or more of a thing. By striving to attain something, actor A reveals that, for himself, he does not have enough of it (i.e., that it is “scarce” for him).

The attempt to attain something or some state is the not having of a wanted thing or state. And this not having of a wanted thing is a short supply or scarcity. The actor universally encounters scarcity because the actor is at all times “striving to attain” and thus at all times revealing an insufficient supply (scarcity) of something. Stated simply, scarcity is already accounted for in human action when we conceive that action is aiming at ends or striving to attain.

Next, there is the insight that when we conceive the relationship between supply and value in the law of marginal utility, we should realize that not only value is subjectively determined but also supply.

Whether or not the firewood next to A’s house constitutes his supply or whether A has a sufficient supply of firewood is not an objective quality of the firewood but rather determined by A’s view of things …

From the point of view of praxeology, the individual actor values only in action and through action. What the individual actor values is revealed by that which he now seeks to attain, by that which he now “does.”

To this insight, we will add one simple insight: as the individual subject values things through action, so too does he determine what constitutes a sufficient or insufficient “supply” of something through action. (“Here again, it is very important to recognize that what is significant for human action is not the physical property of a good, but the evaluation of the good by the actor” [MS, p. 19].) For example, whether or not an actor has a sufficient supply of firewood is not a physical characteristic of the firewood. What is significant is whether or not the actor believes his supply of firewood is sufficient. And this is revealed by whether or not he attempts to attain or obtain more firewood.

The individual actor reveals whether or not his “supply” of any good or thing or state is sufficient in his acting or not acting to attain that good, thing, or state. In attempting to attain or obtain any state or thing, the actor thus reveals that he is in “short supply” of that state or thing. The attempt to attain or obtain something is the not having of a wanted thing, which is the same thing as a deficient or short supply.

These insights then lead to a simplified reconception of the law of marginal utility:

From the insight that the individual values through action and from the insight that he determines the state of his supply through action, we conceive that the act which is striving to attain or aiming at an end is the same act that reveals both what the actor values and the state of his supply. In attempting to attain something, the actor values that thing and seeks for a supply of it. Thus, value and supply are necessarily related.

I showed here how value and supply are necessarily related in action. This demonstration does not rely on the comparison of two actions as does the traditional formulation of the law of marginal utility. The traditional formulation of the law of marginal utility requires reference (either implicitly or explicitly) to the action in which the actor has n units of a good, and the action in which the actor has n − 1 units of a good. I showed how the act which establishes what the actor values is the same act which establishes the state of his supply (of course, from the actor’s point of view). This is a demonstration of a necessary relation entailed in action (in a unitary act), and it overcomes the theoretical flaw of the older formulation which requires an intertemporal comparison of the content of two separate actions. (If we suppose that something has changed from one action to the next—as we do in saying that value has “increased” or “decreased”—we must be referring to the content of action and not the universal form of action. The older formulation of the law of marginal utility thus relied on a comparison of the contents of two actions: the action in which something was valued and the action in which valuation increased or decreased.)

Finally, in the book’s concluding essay, I showed how praxeology and the concepts surrounding human action have been misinterpreted by Rothbardians, Hoppe in particular, and recast in objectivist terms.

Confusion is created in the distinction between objective and subjective when the meaning that an actor attaches to his own activity is not clearly distinguished from the meaning that an observer attaches to that actor’s activity. In praxeology, these two points of view must be kept clearly and explicitly separate.

It is common in social thought to conceive that there are two ways to consider an actor’s action: from the “subjective” point of view of the actor himself or from the “objective” point of view (i.e., the situation “as it really is” or “as it is in reality”). Generally, the so-called objective description of the actor’s action is considered more significant in an ontological sense than the “subjective” description the actor gives to his own action. What the actor believes is merely his own “subjective” opinion as contrasted to the objective situation (i.e., what is “really” happening). However, when we search for the meaning of objective in the history of economic thought, we find the following revealing account:

As a preliminary it is important to note that Pareto immediately lays down the possibility of studying social phenomena from two different points of view which he calls the objective and the subjective, respectively. The objective is first characterized as what the phenomenon “is in reality” and opposed to the way it appears “in the mind of certain persons.” The further development of the distinction, however, especially linking the objective aspect with the way in which action appears “for those who have more extended knowledge” makes it legitimate to infer that the objective point of view is that of the scientific observer, while the subjective is that of the actor.

Indeed this is explicitly included in his definition of logical action: “We designate as ‘logical actions’ those operations which are logically united to their end, not only from the point of view of the subject who performs the operations, but also for those who have a more extended knowledge.” (TP, p. 187)

The means-end relationship just be seen first as it is to the actor—what he thinks the efficacy of his means will be—and then “as it is in reality”—as the observer’s more extended knowledge leads him to believe it will, or would be. (TP, p. 190)

Thus, in the theory of action, the objective aspect of an actor’s action is simply that actor’s action as seen from the point of view of an observer, together with the assumption that the observer’s knowledge is superior to the actor’s knowledge. And thus, in social science, the concept “objective” entails a value judgment about the relative superiority of the knowledge of one person versus another’s when both people refer to the same situation. When two people describe the same event, the event is considered objective, or the account of it is considered objective when described by the person deemed to have superior knowledge. By contrast, the person deemed to have inferior knowledge merely provides his “subjective” account of the situation.

This raises an important issue in the social-scientific distinction between subjective and objective. Let’s say we want to describe an event from two points of view, where one of the points of view is assumed to be more valid in some sense. Instead of writing “objective,” we can refer to the point of view deemed more valid as “the point of view of the person with greater knowledge.” There are at least two reasons why describing the situation in this way may be deemed advantageous by some and disadvantageous by others. First, if a theoretical procedure is adopted in which every point of view is explicitly assigned to a viewer (every description of an event assigned to a particular describer), this implies the elimination of the objective as a theoretical concept. Second, this alternate mode of expression makes the assumption of superior knowledge explicit, whereas the expressions “objective account” or “objective situation” allow the assumption of greater knowledge to remain somewhat implicit.

These are some important general aspects of the social-scientific distinction between objective and subjective. But I would like to conclude this introduction with some proposed insights about the objective/subjective distinction and those who are sympathetic to the Austrian school of social thought. Specifically, why haven’t modern-day Austrians made any progress in extending or elaborating the theoretical subjectivism that was the cornerstone of Austrian economics? I believe the reasons are generally as follows.

There exists a theoretical tendency to consider “action” as an observable physical manifestation of an actor’s intention. For some, the term action means “physical activity in pursuit of a purpose.” Hoppe exemplifies this way of thinking in his definition of action: “Acting is a cognitively guided adjustment of a physical body in physical reality” (ES, p. 70). This conception implies that action is something that is publicly observable. He who moves his body in pursuit of some end “acts,” and this “act” may be seen or observed.

A natural correlate to the notion of “action as body movement” is the (implicit and unstated) notion that activities such as “seeing” or “observing” or “thinking” are not actions. These are considered activities of an altogether different nature based on the principle that action refers only to that subset of conscious activity consisting of observable bodily movement directed toward a given end. Given this taxonomy (consciously directed bodily movement is “action”—seeing, observing, and thinking are activities of a different nature), then, one is led to the (implicit and unstated) conclusion that the observer of another person’s physical movement (i.e., action) does not himself act in making his observation. In this conception, there are two people, but only one of them is “acting”—the one who is visibly moving his body toward some end. The other person is doing something—he is seeing or observing the one who acts—however, this something he does is not “action,” but a conscious activity of a different sort.

When the seeing or observing done by the observer is not considered an action and when what is seen or observed is depicted in a theoretical description, this leaves the impression that the situation depicted is some kind of “objective” situation. The “objective” is constructed by taking the results of a conscious activity (seeing, observing, thinking, etc.) and depicting these results independent of the conscious activity that gave rise to them. It is constructed by depicting that which is seen, observed, or thought without explicit reference to the actions of seeing, observing, or thinking. The “objective” results from theoretically severing an action from its contents, creating the image of a situation existing independent of any consciousness.

Thus, the persistence of objectivism in Austrian social thought has its roots in a theoretical approach that views “action” as merely a subset of conscious activity—generally, that subset of conscious activity manifesting in bodily movement toward some end. This conception of action differs from the Misesian conception in that it specifies a content that must be present for action to be present, namely, observable bodily movement directed toward some end. By contrast, the Misesian definition of action is the utilization of means toward an end with no reference to any particular means or ends. From the point of view of Misesian praxeology, “seeing” and “observing” are definitely actions.

The fact that an action is in the regular course of affairs performed spontaneously, as it were, does not mean that it is not due to a conscious volition and to a deliberate choice. Indulgence in a routine which possibly could be changed is action. (HA, p. 47)

As Mises conceives things, seeing and observing are actions because they are activities an actor may choose to do or not do. These activities are due to a conscious volition or deliberate choice and are thus to be considered actions. Whether conscious bodily movement is undertaken or observed is immaterial. As one historian of social thought eloquently observed, “Any conscious behavior counts as action—an action is anything that you do on purpose” (ER, p. 18). Consider the following:

Thinking [is] itself an action, proceeding step by step from the less satisfactory state of insufficient cognition to the more satisfactory state of better insight. (HA, p. 99)

Thinking is an action, a mental “doing” as it were. (PO, p. 5)

Therefore, conscious activities such as seeing, thinking, deliberating, and observing are considered actions in the general theory of action. Alfred Schutz makes the insight that observation is an action in this important and relevant passage:

For it is obvious that an action has only one subjective meaning: that of the actor himself. It is X who gives subjective meaning to his action, and the only subjective meanings being given by F and S in this situation are the subjective meanings they are giving to their own actions, namely, their actions of observing X. (PS, p. 32; emphasis added)

 

Why haven’t contemporary Austrian thinkers been able to revise and extend theoretical subjectivism? I believe it is because they have conceived “action” and associated terms (subjective value, means/ends, etc.) as terms that refer to only a limited portion of human conscious activity. For many, “subjectivism” is tied to economics, which in turn is tied to the concept of human action, which in turn is defined in terms of physical movement. By implication, then, conscious activity that is not defined in terms of physical movement is not action, which in turn is not the subject matter of economics and which therefore is not tied to subjectivism. Other forms of conscious activity such as thinking or coercion are dealt with by disciplines besides subjective economics. And these other disciplines, since they are not tied to subjectivism through economics, naturally deal with the objective side of human affairs. I believe this general outlook or something like it is what inhibits a deeper understanding of theoretical subjectivism. Further progress in praxeology will require a readoption of the earlier concept of action as it was understood by Mises, Schutz, and others in the first half of the twentieth century.

 

Key

EE       The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Hoppe, 1993

EL       The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard, 1998

EP       Epistemological Problems of Economics, Mises, 1976

ER       An Introduction to Economic Reasoning, Gordon, 2000

ES       Economic Science and the Austrian Method, Hoppe, 1995

FM      The Free Market and its Enemies, Mises, 2004

HA      Human Action, Mises, 1966

IE        Individualism and Economic Order, Hayek, 1980

IK        “Human Action, Freedom, and Economic Science,” Kirzner, 1991

IV        Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences, Menger, 1985

LR       An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, Robbins, 1945

MB      Minds, Brains and Science, Searle, 1984

MM     Money, Method, and the Market Process, Mises, 1990

MS      Man, Economy and State, Rothbard, 1993

PC2     A Praxeology of Coercion, Second Edition, Knott, 2006

PE       Praxeology and Economic Science, Hoppe, 1988

PO       “The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics,” Gordon, 1996

PS        The Phenomenology of the Social World, Schutz, 1972

TH       Theory and History, Mises, 1985

TS        A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, Hoppe, 1989

UF       The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, 2002

 

June 22, 2013 / Adam Knott

Deduction from the Category of Action versus Deduction from the Content of Action

Deduction from the Category of Action versus Deduction from the Content of Action

Action is the attempt to replace the present situation with a different one.[i] Action thus consists of at least two fundamental categories or classifications: 1) The situation presently confronting the actor (the present situation), and 2) The actor’s attempt to replace the present situation.  Objects or attributes that may be present in one action but not in another action may be referred to as concrete contents of action or simply as the content of action (also referred to as empirical content).  Generally, we conceive that praxeology is only concerned with the universal form of action and is not concerned with the concrete or empirical content of action.[ii] It is important to note that in Misesian praxeology, a distinction is made between those deductions or analytical implications that derive exclusively from the category of action (the actor’s attempt to replace the present situation) and those deductions or analytical implications that derive from the concrete or empirical content of action.

The logical unfolding of all these concepts and categories in systematic derivation from the fundamental category of action and the demonstration of the necessary relations among them constitutes the first task of our science…

The most general prerequisite of action is a state of dissatisfaction, on the one hand, and, on the other, the possibility of removing or alleviating it by taking action…Only this most general condition is necessarily implied in the concept of action.  The other categorial conditions of action are independent of the basic concept; they are not necessary prerequisites of concrete action.  Whether or not they are present in a particular case can be shown by experience only.  But where they are present, the action necessarily falls under definite laws that flow from the categorial determinacy of these further conditions…

The fact that the passage of time is one of the conditions under which action takes place is established empirically and not a priori…we must [therefore] attribute to [men’s] action everything that necessarily follows from the categorial nature of time.  The empirical character of our knowledge that the passage of time is a condition of any given action in no way affects the aprioristic character of the conclusions that necessarily follow from the introduction of the category of time.  Whatever follows necessarily from empirical knowledge—e.g., the propositions of the agio theory of interest—lies outside the scope of empiricism. (EP-24/25)

Thus, Mises conceives that the body of economic theory contains knowledge that is not deduced from the category of action, but is deduced instead from assumed or postulated contents of action.  As a noneconomic example, if we assume that a triangular figure is a concrete content of an action, then whatever is necessary with respect to triangles is also a part of that action.  If we assume that twenty four of something are present for an actor in a given action, then two twelves of the same thing are also present for that actor.  Triangular figures and twenty four of something are not necessary parts of every action and are in this sense empirical contents of action.  Mises conceives that once these objects or phenomena are assumed as contents of action, then “the action necessarily falls under definite laws that flow from the categorial determinacy of these further conditions.”  In this way, the body of economic theory—as distinct from praxeology proper—is comprised largely of deductions from assumed contents of action; not deductions that flow directly or exclusively from the category of action.[iii]

One could reasonably maintain that the assumed contents of action and the necessary relations entailed in them are not part of praxeology for at least two reasons.  First, one could simply argue that praxeology does not treat or address the concrete contents of action and that praxeology only treats the universal form of action.  Second, one could argue that the necessary relations entailed in (for example) triangles were not deduced from the category of action but were deduced from assumptions and axioms different from the category of action.  Though the necessary relations entailed in specific contentual aspects of action (such as triangles) may be valid in their context, the axioms or assumptions on which those necessities are based exclude or omit (at least explicitly) the essential axioms/assumptions of praxeology (means/ends, satisfaction/dissatisfaction, value, utility, etc.).  Thus, one could argue that the specific groups of necessary relationships constituting, for example arithmetic, geometry, and propositional logic, are not praxeology because they explicitly exclude the axioms or assumptions from which praxeology proceeds.  On the basis of these arguments one could maintain that  the empirical or concrete contents of action and the necessary implications of those contents are not the subject matter of praxeology.[iv]

There would seem to be two possibilities: 1. We can consider praxeology to be the body of only those analytical implications that flow directly from the category of action. Then, the body of those analytical implications that follow from various assumed contents of action would belong to a separate branch of knowledge. 2. We can consider praxeology to be comprised of the formal implications of both the category of action and various assumed contents of action.

If we choose the second route, we must clarify whether praxeology treats the formal implications of all contents of action or the formal implications of only a specific segment of contents of action.  Given this choice, we must select the former for the following reason.  We have already established that the content in question is the content of an actor’s action.  If we seek to discover the formal implications C-1 of a given specific content of action C, we do this because we believe the actor will benefit from knowing that C-1 must accompany C if he is successful in attaining C.  We seek to know C-1 because C-1 is or may be relevant to the goals or well-being or satisfaction of the actor.  If we were to claim that praxeology is limited to the study of only a limited subset of contents of the actor’s action, we would be claiming that there exists a second subset of contents of action for which the actor will not benefit from the knowledge of its formal implications. And we would be claiming that the general science that studies the relationship between the actor’s goals and the means he uses to attain those goals, is only concerned to study this relationship under a limited number of concrete conditions. It seems unlikely that a subset of contents of action can be defined such that knowledge of the formal implications of that content would provide no possible benefit to the actor.  And it would seem arbitrary to claim that praxeology studies the relationship between means and ends only with respect to concrete situation C and not with respect to concrete situation D.  Thus, we will assert that if praxeology is the formal study of not only the category of action but also of the contents of action, then praxeology must be the formal study of all conceivable contents of action.

If we accept this line of reasoning, then the following theoretical question arises:  What is the status of the preexisting formal sciences (e.g., arithmetic, geometry, propositional logic, etc.) that treat various assumed contents of action—contents that are present in some actions but not present in others (e.g., numbers, extended figures, propositions, etc.).  The answer is that we may consider such preexisting sciences formal sciences of various types or classes of actions.  Consider the following:

1. If I have two and I add two I will have four.

2. If I travel north by X distance and then travel east by X distance this is the same as travelling northeast by Z distance.

3. If I assert X and if I assert Y then I must assert Z.

Above, by emphasizing the actions “having,” “adding,” “travelling,” and “asserting,” we have simply made explicit the intentional or purposive aspect of the knowledge conveyed by these formal sciences.  We can thus conceive the preexisting formal sciences as formal sciences of various kinds or types of actions (e.g., the actions adding, travelling, asserting, etc.).  If we assume that praxeology is the formal study of the category of action and the formal study of the empirical contents of action, then we will hold that praxeology includes the formal study of all empirical contents of action, and we will consider the existing formal sciences to be formal sciences of various kinds or types of action.  On the other hand, if we assume that praxeology is limited exclusively to the formal study of the category of action, then we will place the other formal disciplines in a different branch of knowledge.  The general structure indicated by these two assumptions would be:

1. Praxeology = Formal study of the category of action exclusively.

Then:

Thymology = Formal study of contents of action + empirical study.

2. Praxeology = Formal study of the category of action + formal study of the contents of action.

Then:

Thymology = empirical study.

Key

EP = Epistemological Problems of Economics, Mises, 1976
EPV = The Economic Point of View, Kirzner, 1976
ESA = Economic Science and the Austrian Method, Hoppe, 1995
FM = The Free Market and its Enemies, Mises, 2004
HA = Human Action, Mises, 1966
I = Investigations Into the Method of the Social Sciences, Menger, 1985
IEO = Individualism and Economic Order, Hayek, 1948
LR = An Essay on the Nature & Significance of Economic Science, Robbins, 1945
MBS = Minds, Brains and Science, Searle, 2003
MES = Man, Economy, and State, Rothbard, 1993
MM = Money, Method, and the Market Process, Mises, 1990
MOP = A Man of Principle, Essays in Honor of Hans F. Sennholz, 1992
POAE = “The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics,” Gordon, 1996
PP = Physics and Philosophy, Heisenberg, 1958
PSW = The Phenomenology of the Social World, Schutz, 1967
UF = The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, 2002


[i] HA-97 “Action is an attempt to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory one.” FM-16 “In an a prioristic science, we start with a general supposition—action is taken to substitute one state of affairs for another.”

[ii] HA-32 “Praxeology is a theoretical and systematic, not a historical, science.  Its scope is human action as such, irrespective of all environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of the concrete acts.  Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case.” HA-51 “The cognition of praxeology is conceptual cognition.  It refers to what is necessary in human action.  It is cognition of universals and categories.” HA-47 “Praxeology is not concerned with the changing content of acting, but with its pure form and its categorical structure.” HA-44 “[praxeology] does not concern itself with the accidental and environmental features of this action and with what distinguishes it from all other actions, but only with what is necessary and universal in its performance.”

[iii] HA-234 “…the field of catallactics or of economics in the narrower sense is the analysis of the market phenomena.  This is tantamount to the statement: Catallactics is the analysis of those actions which are conducted on the basis of monetary calculation.”  Thus, economics for Mises is the deductive or analytical study of action that has a specific kind of content.  The specific content of the actions studied by economics is money prices (or equivalently, exchange ratios).  On a more general level, the specific content of action that is the focus of economics is those valued or demanded goods (economic goods) which may form a homogeneous supply.  Monetary units may form a homogeneous supply and are thus subsumed under this definition.  A plurality of homogeneous units may be subjected to mathematical operations (to the a priori science of mathematics).  Thus, when Mises discusses the law of marginal utility or the law of returns—two examples of a priori economic laws—we see the introduction of simple mathematical symbols, n-1, p/c, p>c, etc.  His discussion of these two economic laws is a demonstration of Mises’s statement that “The other categorial conditions of action are independent of the basic concept; they are not necessary prerequisites of concrete action.  Whether or not they are present in a particular case can be shown by experience only.  But where they are present, the action necessarily falls under definite laws that flow from the categorial determinacy of these further conditions…” EP, p.24  Whether the conditions assumed by the law of marginal utility or the law of returns are present in a given situation is an empirical question.  But when those conditions are present, then the a priori operations or deductions that may be applied to those conditions provide a priori knowledge that is valid for the action in question.

[iv] Consider the following important passage wherein Hayek puts forth a conception of analytical social science:  IEO-62/63 “From the fact that whenever we interpret human action as in any sense purposive or meaningful, whether we do so in ordinary life or for the purposes of the social sciences, we have to define both the objects of human activity and the different kinds of actions themselves, not in physical terms but in terms of the acting persons, there follow some very important consequences; namely, nothing less than that we can, from the concepts of the objects, analytically conclude something about what the actions will be.  If we define an object in terms of a person’s attitude toward it, it follows, of course, that the definition of the object implies a statement about the attitude of the person toward the thing.  When we say that a person possesses food or money, or that he utters a word, we imply that he knows that the first can be eaten, that the second can be used to buy something with, and that the third can be understood—and perhaps many other things.”  Here, Hayek envisions a procedure in which analysis proceeds from the assumed content of action, not strictly from the category of action (the actor’s attempt to replace the current situation with a different one).

June 21, 2013 / Adam Knott

Best Source Material for the Study of Praxeology

1. Human Action, 3rd revised edition, Mises.  Pages 1-250.  This is the most full and comprehensive presentation of Mises’s conception of praxeology.

2. Epistemological Problems of Economics, Mises.  Contains indispensable insights about the formal approach to social phenomena.

3. The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises.  Mises’s final statement about the nature of praxeology and economics.

4. Money, Method, and the Market Process, Mises.  (Introduction and section on Method)

5. The Free Market and its Enemies, Mises. (Chapter: Acting Man and Economics)  A succinct summary of Mises’s theoretical vision.

6. Theory and History, Mises.  (Important insights concerning means and ends.  Other important insights interspersed throughout)

7. Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences, Menger. (Especially Book 1, chapters 1-5)  Menger presents his vision of exact science.

8. Individualism and Economic Order, Hayek. (Two essays: “Economics and Knowledge” and “The Facts of the Social Sciences”)  Indispensable insights into the nature of analytical social science.

9. The Economic Point of View, Kirzner. (Chapter: Economics as a Science of Human Action)  Indispensable insights into the nature of praxeology.

10. Minds, Brains and Science, Searle. A short classic on the nature of human action.  A must read.

11. The Philosophy of Physical Science, Eddington.  An important book on subjectivism.

12. An Essay on the Nature & Significance of Economic Science, Robbins.  Important insights about formal social science.

13. Introduction to the Theory of Interpersonal Action, Knott. A theoretical proposal for expanding praxeology into the interpersonal realm of human action. See also: Hayek and Praxeology (2013), Some Thoughts on Praxeology, Thymology, and the A Priori (2014), Why Are We Libertarians? (2014).

June 21, 2013 / Adam Knott

Action: Some Fundamentals

Action: Some Fundamentals

 

Action

Classes of Action

According to Ludwig von Mises, human action is conscious behavior on the part of a human being.[1] We can divide the general phenomenon of action into three broad and recognizable classes: physical actions, mental actions, and interpersonal actions.  Physical actions are those actions in which an actor interacts with physical nature, including his own body.  When I lift an object or lift my arm, these are examples of physical actions.  Mental actions are mental activities such as thinking, contemplating, imagining, deliberating, reasoning, hoping, and wishing.[2] Finally, interpersonal actions are those actions in which I address the mind of another person or actor.  Having a conversation with someone is an interpersonal action.  Trying to figure out what someone else is thinking is also an interpersonal action.  The essential characteristic of an interpersonal action is that another person’s mind is the object of my conscious activity.

Routine or Spontaneous Action

An action need not entail a process of conscious deliberation.  We do many things without deliberately weighing the doing of them against other possible courses of action.[3] I may gaze out the window.  Deliberation about the relative merits of doing so need not be a part of my action.  In fact, we may conceive both conscious deliberation and the weighing of possible courses of action as examples of mental actions.  In previous theories, action has been conceived as bodily movement resulting from previous or cotemporaneous deliberation.[4] By contrast, we will conceive deliberation as a mental action and bodily movement as a physical action.  Here, the action is conceived according to the intention or purpose the actor is acting with, not necessarily according to the actor’s observed physical movement.[5]

When action is associated with physical or bodily exertion, this results in a normative instead of a formal conception of action.

He who only wishes and hopes does not interfere actively with the course of events and with the shaping of his own destiny.  But acting man chooses, determines, and tries to reach an end.[6]

Here it is implied that one who only wishes or hopes does not act because he does not “actively interfere” with the course of events.  A normative standard for action has been introduced.  The actor did something—he performed a conscious activity—but the activity does not meet the normative standard of “active interference” and thus is not an action.  In this approach one makes an implicit judgment about the efficacy of the means employed (physical agitation toward X is more likely to bring about X than merely wishing for X) and classifies those activities employing means deemed efficacious actions, and those activities employing means deemed nonefficacious nonactions.  This way of looking at things results in a conception of “intermittent action” or “sporadic action” in which the total duration of the actor’s conscious awareness alternates between periods of action and periods of nonaction.  That time during which an actor merely wishes for something or merely contemplates doing something is a temporal duration of conscious awareness during which he does not act.  That time during which an actor performs physical movement according to a predetermined goal is a temporal duration of conscious awareness during which he acts.

In contrast, we will conceive those periods of conscious awareness during which an actor is not engaged in physical action as periods of conscious awareness during which an actor is engaged in other types of action, primarily mental actions or interpersonal actions.  One who wishes, or hopes, or contemplates a future action acts; he performs the action of wishing, of hoping, and of contemplating.[7]  One who wishes for rain acts just as much as one who performs a rain dance or one who climbs in a plane and seeds the clouds with silver iodide.  In analyzing action formally, it is not important what means an actor employs, only that he employs them.[8]

Our conception then is not one of intermittent or sporadic action, but one of continuous action.  Action in this conception becomes identical to conscious awareness.  Here we conceive that consciousness is intentional in nature.  The goals or ends of action result from the intentional structure of consciousness and are inseparable from conscious awareness.  We do not conceive that ends are produced by a process of deliberation and absent when deliberation is absent.  We conceive instead that ends, goals, intentions, and purposes, indicate of a category of consciousness—a permanent structural feature of conscious awareness.

Observation as an Action

The recognition that observation is an action has far-reaching consequences for the theory of action.[9]  If we conceive observation as an action, then we may interpret those things deemed objective by natural science and objective social science as parts of actions.  Rather than conceiving the observed thing as having an objective existence, we may conceive the observed thing as the content of an action.  Instead of the conception “X exists,” we conceive “I observe X” or “I imagine X” or “I assert X.”  The object or situation, formerly considered an objective one, is now seen as the content of an action.  Instead of the conception “London exists,” we conceive “I see London” or “I visit London” or “I think of London.”[10]

Acts of Judgment and Appraisal

In a formal analysis of action, actions cannot be judged as right or wrong, correct or incorrect.[11] The reason is simple once we replace the concept of physical and intermittent action with the concept of continuous action comprised of several classes including mental actions.  In the former conception, in the period between actions, actions may be appraised or judged by an independent mental activity which itself is not considered an action.  However, once a category of mental actions is acknowledged, we then conceive the activities of judging or appraising as actions.  These actions, as actions, are no different from all other actions in their essential means/ends structure.  In the formal analysis of action, our task is not to judge concrete actions by an adopted standard of efficacy or by an adopted standard of ethical goodness.  Our task is to discover the universal attributes of all forms of action.[12]

Theoretical Implications of Mental and Interpersonal Actions

Those activities we conceive as mental actions—reasoning, deliberating, thinking, etc.—correspond roughly to what has hitherto been the domain of descriptive psychology (in contrast to psychology as a branch of natural science).[13] The “inner mental events” or “inner mental states” which were the subject matter of psychology, we now treat as mental actions and as the subject matter of praxeology.  Similarly, those activities we conceive as interpersonal actions—for example, lying to someone, commanding someone, coercing someone, helping someone, etc.—correspond roughly to what has hitherto been the domain of ethics and politics.  The conduct which the individual aims at other people, and which was the subject matter of ethics and politics, we now treat as interpersonal actions and also as the subject matter of praxeology.

Thus, as the theory of action expands to include forms of action which have not been the subject matter of traditional economics,[14] it provides an analytical framework for understanding phenomena that were previously the exclusive domain of other disciplines.  As opposed to a conception wherein the theory of action treats market phenomena; the discipline of ethics treats interpersonal conduct; and descriptive psychology treats mental activities, we conceive instead that the theory of action treats mental actions, interpersonal actions, as well as those actions conducted on the basis of monetary calculation.[15] In this sense the distinction between psychology and praxeology noted by Mises becomes unnecessary.

The theme of psychology is the internal events that result or can result in a definite action.  The theme of praxeology is action as such…Whether an action stems from clear deliberation, or from forgotten memories and suppressed desires which from submerged regions, as it were, direct the will, does not influence the nature of the action.[16]

However, if the internal events referred to are conscious activities executed with a goal in mind—deliberating about alternatives, reasoning toward an answer, weighing pros and cons, considering or studying a situation, reflecting on possible consequences, speculating about possibilities, etc.—then we may conceive these events as actions, and the theme of praxeology includes these internal events.

Theory of Action: General Characteristics

The theory of action is a logical or conceptual construct that is derived from the assumption of the phenomenon of action.[17] The theory is independent of assertions implying the existence of action in a given location in nature, and independent of assertions claiming that action is a biological fact.  The Proposition “man acts” expresses that action is a characteristic of certain animals and may therefore be located in nature where those animals are located.  The proposition “he acts” expresses that I have located action at a specific place in extended nature.  My assertion that action somehow exists as part of the animals I observe in nature is independent of my attempt to build a formal or conceptual construct of the essence of my actions, one of which is observing objects in nature.  If I undertake to study the objects of my action, this is a different undertaking than one in which I study only the categories of my action where a category of objects is one of the categories.  I need not study the objects of my action guided by the assumption that action exists in or among these observed or perceived objects.  I may instead study the perception or observation of objects as a category of my own consciousness.[18]

The theory of action is a theory of the essential structure of action—those aspects or attributes common to all actions—and not an analysis of social events in terms of a sequence of several actions.[19] The goal of the theory is to express the experienced or intuited regularities of action (of consciousness) in terms of exact laws.[20] An exact law is a statement of a relationship between two nonidentical phenomena, A and B, such that when A happens or occurs, B must also happen or occur, either simultaneously with A or following A.[21] The goal is not to demonstrate that A is identical to A, but rather to demonstrate the sense in which A is identical to B.[22] As an illustrative example we may consider the action of walking toward a location.  In walking toward a location (phenomenon A), I necessarily walk away from a different location (phenomenon B).  Walking away from a different location (B) is “implied” or “entailed” in the action (A) of walking toward a location.  Whenever I walk toward a location (action A), walking away from a different location (B) “happens” or “occurs.”  This illustrative example will serve as our initial conception of the nature of exact laws.

Categories of Action

Deduction from the Categories of Action versus Deduction from the Content of Action

Action is the attempt to replace the present situation with a different one.[23] Action thus consists of at least two fundamental categories or classifications: 1) The situation presently confronting the actor (the present situation), and 2) The actor’s attempt to replace the present situation.  Objects or attributes that may be present in one action but not in another action may be referred to as concrete contents of action or simply as the content of action (also referred to as empirical content).  Praxeology is only concerned with the universal form of action and is not concerned with the concrete or empirical content of action.[24] It is important to note that in Misesian praxeology, a distinction is made between those deductions or analytical implications that derive exclusively from the category of action (the actor’s attempt to replace the present situation) and those deductions or analytical implications that derive from the concrete or empirical content of action.

The logical unfolding of all these concepts and categories in systematic derivation from the fundamental category of action and the demonstration of the necessary relations among them constitutes the first task of our science…

The most general prerequisite of action is a state of dissatisfaction, on the one hand, and, on the other, the possibility of removing or alleviating it by taking action…Only this most general condition is necessarily implied in the concept of action.  The other categorial conditions of action are independent of the basic concept; they are not necessary prerequisites of concrete action.  Whether or not they are present in a particular case can be shown by experience only.  But where they are present, the action necessarily falls under definite laws that flow from the categorial determinacy of these further conditions…

The fact that the passage of time is one of the conditions under which action takes place is established empirically and not a priori…we must [therefore] attribute to [men’s] action everything that necessarily follows from the categorial nature of time.  The empirical character of our knowledge that the passage of time is a condition of any given action in no way affects the aprioristic character of the conclusions that necessarily follow from the introduction of the category of time.  Whatever follows necessarily from empirical knowledge—e.g., the propositions of the agio theory of interest—lies outside the scope of empiricism. (EP-24/25)

Thus, Mises conceives that the body of economic theory contains knowledge that is not deduced from the category of action, but is deduced instead from assumed or postulated contents of action.  As a noneconomic example, if we assume that a triangular figure is a concrete content of an action, then whatever is necessary with respect to triangles is also a part of that action.  If we assume that twenty four of something are present for an actor in a given action, then two twelves of the same thing are also present for that actor.  Triangular figures and twenty four of something are not necessary parts of every action and are in this sense empirical contents of action.  Mises conceives that once these objects or phenomena are assumed as contents of action, then “the action necessarily falls under definite laws that flow from the categorial determinacy of these further conditions.”  In this way, the body of economic theory is comprised largely of deductions from assumed contents of action; not deductions that flow directly or exclusively from the category of action.[25]

One could reasonably maintain that the assumed contents of action and the necessary relations entailed in them are not part of praxeology for at least two reasons.  First, one could argue that praxeology does not treat or address the concrete contents of action and that praxeology only treats the universal form of action.  Second, one could argue that the necessary relations entailed in (for example) triangles and numbers were not deduced from the category of action but were deduced from assumptions and axioms different from the category of action.  Thus, one could argue that the empirical or concrete contents of action and the necessary implications of those contents are not the subject matter of praxeology.[26]

Key

EP = Epistemological Problems of Economics, Mises, 1976
EPV = The Economic Point of View, Kirzner, 1976
ESA = Economic Science and the Austrian Method, Hoppe, 1995
FM = The Free Market and its Enemies, Mises, 2004
HA = Human Action, Mises, 1966
I = Investigations Into the Method of the Social Sciences, Menger, 1985
IEO = Individualism and Economic Order, Hayek, 1948
LR = An Essay on the Nature & Significance of Economic Science, Robbins, 1945
MBS = Minds, Brains and Science, Searle, 2003
MES = Man, Economy, and State, Rothbard, 1993
MM = Money, Method, and the Market Process, Mises, 1990
MOP = A Man of Principle, Essays in Honor of Hans F. Sennholz, 1992
POAE = “The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics,” Gordon, 1996
PP = Physics and Philosophy, Heisenberg, 1958
PSW = The Phenomenology of the Social World, Schutz, 1967
UF = The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, 2002


[1] EP-23 “Human action is conscious behavior on the part of a human being.”

[2] HA-99 “Thinking itself [is] an action, proceeding step by step from the less satisfactory state of insufficient cognition to the more satisfactory state of better insight.” POAE-5 “Thinking is an action, a mental “doing,” as it were.

[3] HA-46, 47 “Most of man’s daily behavior is simple routine.  He performs certain acts without paying special attention to them.” “The fact that an action is in the regular course of affairs performed spontaneously, as it were, does not mean that it is not due to a conscious volition and to deliberate choice.  Indulgence in a routine which possibly could be changed is action.”

[4] ESA-70 “Acting is a cognitively guided adjustment of a physical body in physical reality.”

[5] MBS-59, 66, 67 “There is more to types of action than types of physical movements, actions have preferred descriptions, people know what they are doing without observation,…” “What the person is really doing, or at least what he is trying to do, is entirely a matter of what the intention is that he is acting with.  For example, I know that I am trying to get to Hyde Park and not trying to get closer to Patagonia, because that’s the intention with which I am going for a walk.  And I know this without observation because the knowledge in question is not knowledge of my external behavior, but of my inner mental states.” “The explanation of an action must have the same content as was in the person’s head when he performed the action or when he reasoned toward his intention to perform the action.”

[6] HA-12

[7] HA-12 “To express wishes and hopes and to announce planned action may be forms of action in so far as they aim in themselves at the realization of a certain purpose.  But they must not be confused with the actions to which they refer.”

[8] MM-21 “Not what a man chooses, but that he chooses counts for praxeology.”

[9] PSW-32 “For it is obvious that an action has only one subjective meaning: that of the actor himself.  It is X who gives subjective meaning to his action, and the only subjective meaning begin given by F and S in this situation are the subjective meanings they are giving to their own actions, namely, their actions of observing X.”  And thus, what for natural science and objective social science is an objective situation, i.e., the notion “that person exists,” is for praxeology the subjective situation “I observe that person.”  And thus the objective situation can always be translated to the subjective situation, and vice versa, by substituting “I observe X” for “X exists.”

[10] This answers Heisenberg’s assertion. PP-55 “We know that the city of London exists whether we see it or not.”

[11] EP-80 “The most common misunderstanding consists in seeing in the economic principle a statement about the material and the content of action.  One reaches into psychology, constructs the concept of want, and then searches for the bridge between the want, the presentation of a feeling of uneasiness, and the concrete decision in action.  Thus the want becomes a judge over action: it is thought that the correct action, the one corresponding to the want, can be contrasted to the incorrect action.  However , we can never identify the want otherwise than in the action.  The action is always in accord with the want because we can infer the want only from the action.  Whatever anyone says about his own wants is always only discussion and criticism of past and future behavior; the want first becomes manifest in action and only in action. EP-149 “It was forgotten that we are able to infer the need only from the action.  Hence, the idea of an action not in conformity with needs is absurd.  As soon as one attempts to distinguish between the need and the action and makes the need the criterion for judging the action, one leaves the domain of theoretical science, with its neutrality in regard to value judgments.  It is necessary to recall here that we are dealing with the theory of action, not with psychology, and certainly not with a system of norms, which has the task of differentiating between good and evil or between value and worthlessness.  Our data are actions and conduct.  It may be left undecided how far and in what way our science needs to concern itself with what lies behind them, that is, with actual valuations and volitions.  For there can be no doubt that its subject matter is given action and only given action.  Action that ought to be, but is not, does not come within its purview. HA-102 “People have often failed to recognize the meaning of the term “scale of value” and have disregarded the obstacles preventing the assumption of synchronism in the various actions of an individual.  They have interpreted man’s various acts as the outcome of a scale of value, independent of these acts and preceding them, and of a previously devised plan whose realization they aim at.  The scale of value and the plan to which duration and immutability for a certain period of time were attributed, were hypostatized into the cause and motive of the various individual actions.  Synchronism which could not be asserted with regard to the various acts was then easily discovered in the scale of value and in the plan.  But this overlooks the fact that the scale of value is nothing but a constructed tool of thought.  The scale of value manifests itself only in real acting.  It is therefore impermissible to contrast it with real acting and to use it as a yardstick for the appraisal of real actions.  It is no less impermissible to differentiate between rational and allegedly irrational acting on the basis of a comparison of real acting with earlier drafts and plans for future actions.  It may be very interesting that yesterday goals were set for today’s acting other than those really aimed at today.  But yesterday’s plans do not provide us with any more objective and nonarbitrary standard for the appraisal of today’s real acting than any other ideas and norms. TG-315 “But both the moral and the immoral are economic actions; which means that the economic action, taken by itself, is neither moral nor immoral.” “The economic fact is the practical activity of man, in so far as it is considered as such, independent of any moral or immoral determination…”

[12] HA-44 “[praxeology] does not concern itself with the accidental and environmental features of this action and with what distinguishes it from all other actions, but only with what is necessary and universal in its performance.” MES-258 “praxeology proper [is] the complete formal analysis of human action in all its aspects.”

[13] HA-v “…in the last decades  the meaning of the term “psychology” has been more and more restricted to the field of experimental psychology, a discipline that resorts to the research methods of the natural sciences.  On the other hand, it has become usual to dismiss those studies that previously had been called psychological as “literary psychology” and as an unscientific way of reasoning.  Whenever reference is made to “psychology” in economic studies, one has in mind precisely this literary psychology…”

[14] EPV-181-183 “To be sure, the praxeological perspective embraces a range of human action far wider than that usually treated in economic theory.  All human actions, motivated though they may be by the entire range of the purposes that have inspired and fired men to act, come within the sway of the ideal praxeological discipline.” “Economic theory has traditionally dealt with the phenomena of the market, prices, production, and monetary calculation.  In these spheres of human activity, theorists have developed constructions that help to explain the regularities these phenomena evince and to bring into clear focus the tendencies for change in these phenomena consequent upon given autonomous changes in the data.”  “The subject matter of economics came to be connected with the material things that are the objects of traffic in the market; it came to be linked peculiarly with the use of money in market transactions or with the specific social relationships that characterize the market system.  Where writers came closest to the recognition that these criteria were only accidental characteristics of the affairs upon which economic analysis could be brought to bear, where they were able to glimpse the congenerousness of the specifically economic type of analysis with the underlying actions of men, they were unable to follow this clue to the conclusion to which it pointed.  Precisely because those features in action that made it susceptible of economic analysis seemed common to all human activities, these writers were driven back to look for some other defining characteristic.  And this meant again the search for some arbitrary quality to justify selecting the particular slice of pie that made up economic theory; but it meant in addition the relegation yet further into the background of the true recipe of that larger pie from which their conception of economics was being arbitrarily hacked.”

[15] HA-234 “Economics is mainly concerned with the analysis of the determination of money prices of goods and services exchanged on the market.” “…the field of catallactics or of economics in the narrower sense is the analysis of the market phenomena.  This is tantamount to the statement: Catallactics is the analysis of those actions which are conducted on the basis of monetary calculation.”

[16] HA-12

[17] FM-16 “In an a prioristic science, we start with a general supposition—action is taken to substitute one state of affairs for another.”

[18] HA-64 “The scope of praxeology is the explication of the category of human action.  All that is needed for the deduction of all praxeological theorems is knowledge of the essence of human action.” “The only way to a cognition of these theorems is logical analysis of our inherent knowledge of the category of action.  We must bethink ourselves and reflect upon the structure of human action.  Like logic and mathematics, praxeological knowledge is in us; it does not come from without.”  HA-67 “…the starting point of all praxeological reasoning [is] the category of human action…From the unshakable foundation of the category of human action praxeology and economics proceed step by step by means of discursive reasoning.”  HA-68 “Praxeology—and consequently economics too—is a deductive system.  It draws its strength from the starting point of its deductions, from the category of action.”

[19] HA-47 “Praxeology is not concerned with the changing content of acting, but with its pure form and its categorical structure.”

[20] I-59 “The aim of this orientation, which in the future we will call the exact one, an aim which research pursues in the same way in all realms of the world of phenomena, is the determination of strict laws of phenomena, of regularities in the succession of phenomena which do not present themselves to us as absolute, but which in respect to the approaches to cognition by which we attain to them simply bear within themselves the guarantee of absoluteness.  It is the determination of laws of phenomena which commonly are called “laws of nature,” but more correctly should be designated by the expression “exact laws.” MOP-241 “Mises suggested that I explore the changing views about individual behavior which economists had, since the time of Adam Smith, adopted in order for them to grasp the possibility of a science of economics.  Given the apparent unpredictability of individual behavior it is intuitively difficult to account for the economic regularities which seem to occur.  It was necessary to somehow “understand” individual behavior in a way consistent with the possibility of “scientific laws.” EP-68 “…a theoretical science of human action, i.e., a science that aims at the ascertainment of universally valid laws of human action.”

[21] Regarding exact laws and their utility, Menger writes: I-55/56 “The purpose of the theoretical sciences is understanding of the real world, knowledge of it extending beyond immediate experience, and control of it.  We understand phenomena by means of theories as we become aware of them in each concrete case merely as exemplifications of a general regularity.  We attain a knowledge of phenomena extending beyond immediate experience by drawing conclusions, in the concrete case, from certain observed facts (A) about other facts (B) not immediately perceived.  We do this on the basis of the laws of coexistence and of the succession of phenomena.  We control the real world in that, on the basis of our theoretical knowledge, we set the conditions of a phenomenon (A) which are within our control, and are able in such a way to produce the phenomenon (B) itself.” (A’s and B’s added for clarification) Following Menger, Mises writes: UF-20 “The starting point of experimental knowledge is the cognition that an A is uniformly followed by a B.  The utilization of this knowledge either for the production of B or for the avoidance of the emergence of B is called action.  The primary objective of action is either to bring about B or to prevent its emergence.”

[22] LR-122 “Economic laws describe inevitable implications.  If they data they postulate (A) are given, then the consequences they predict (B) necessarily follow.”  “The analytic method is simply a way of discovering the necessary consequences (B) of complex collocations of facts (A)—consequences whose counterpart in reality is not so immediately discernible as the counterpart of the original postulates.” (A’s and B’s added for clarity)  IEO-34/35 Hayek conceives exact laws as tautological transformations and refers to praxeology (or the Pure Logic of Choice) as “…the system of tautologies—those series of propositions which are necessarily true because they are merely transformations of the assumptions from which we start…”  For example, if we consider the mathematical proposition 24 = 12 x 2, we may consider this a tautological transformation (an exact law), where the assumption from which we start is A (i.e., 24), and by tautological transformation (by analysis) we demonstrate the sense in which B (i.e., 12 x 2) is entailed or implied in our original assumption A.

[23] HA-97 “Action is an attempt to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory one.” FM-16 “In an a prioristic science, we start with a general supposition—action is taken to substitute one state of affairs for another.”

[24] HA-32 “Praxeology is a theoretical and systematic, not a historical, science.  Its scope is human action as such, irrespective of all environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of the concrete acts.  Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case.” HA-51 “The cognition of praxeology is conceptual cognition.  It refers to what is necessary in human action.  It is cognition of universals and categories.” HA-47 “Praxeology is not concerned with the changing content of acting, but with its pure form and its categorical structure.” HA-44 “[praxeology] does not concern itself with the accidental and environmental features of this action and with what distinguishes it from all other actions, but only with what is necessary and universal in its performance.”

[25] HA-234 “…the field of catallactics or of economics in the narrower sense is the analysis of the market phenomena.  This is tantamount to the statement: Catallactics is the analysis of those actions which are conducted on the basis of monetary calculation.”  Thus, economics for Mises is the deductive or analytical study of action that has a specific kind of content.  The specific content of the actions studied by economics is money prices (or equivalently, exchange ratios).  On a more general level, the specific content of action that is the focus of economics is those valued or demanded goods (economic goods) which may form a homogeneous supply.  Monetary units may form a homogeneous supply and are thus subsumed under this definition.  A plurality of homogeneous units may be subjected to mathematical operations (to the a priori science of mathematics).  Thus, when Mises discusses the law of marginal utility or the law of returns—two examples of a priori economic laws—we see the introduction of simple mathematical symbols, n-1, p/c, p>c, etc.  His discussion of these two economic laws is a demonstration of Mises’s statement that “The other categorial conditions of action are independent of the basic concept; they are not necessary prerequisites of concrete action.  Whether or not they are present in a particular case can be shown by experience only.  But where they are present, the action necessarily falls under definite laws that flow from the categorial determinacy of these further conditions…” EP, p.24  Whether the conditions assumed by the law of marginal utility or the law of returns are present in a given situation is an empirical question.  But when those conditions are present, then the a priori operations or deductions that may be applied to those conditions provide a priori knowledge relevant to the action concerned.

[26] Consider the following important passage wherein Hayek puts forth a conception of analytical social science:  IEO-62/63 “From the fact that whenever we interpret human action as in any sense purposive or meaningful, whether we do so in ordinary life or for the purposes of the social sciences, we have to define both the objects of human activity and the different kinds of actions themselves, not in physical terms but in terms of the acting persons, there follow some very important consequences; namely, nothing less than that we can, from the concepts of the objects, analytically conclude something about what the actions will be.  If we define an object in terms of a person’s attitude toward it, it follows, of course, that the definition of the object implies a statement about the attitude of the person toward the thing.  When we say that a person possesses food or money, or that he utters a word, we imply that he knows that the first can be eaten, that the second can be used to buy something with, and that the third can be understood—and perhaps many other things.”  Here, Hayek puts forth a procedure in which analysis proceeds from the assumed content of action, not strictly or exclusively from the category of action (the actor’s attempt to replace the current situation with a different one without regard to specific or concrete content).

June 20, 2013 / Adam Knott

Sanchez on Praxeology

Sanchez on Praxeology, Word Doc.

Daniel Sanchez has posted his views on praxeology on his website DJSF.org.  I read through the first two parts of the series and here are my comments and insights.

Praxeology and Economics

For what follows, it will be useful to distinguish between economics (what Mises called catallactics) and praxeology.  The focus of economics is market phenomena.  As Mises writes:

“There have never been any doubts and uncertainties about the scope of economic science. Ever since people have been eager for a systematic study of economics or political economy, all have agreed that it is the task of this branch of knowledge to investigate the market phenomena, that is, the determination of the mutual exchange ratios of the goods and services negotiated on markets, their origin in human action and their effects upon later action. The intricacy of a precise definition of the scope of economics does not stem from uncertainty with regard to the orbit of the phenomena to be investigated. It is due to the fact that the attempts to elucidate the phenomena concerned must go beyond the range of the market and of market transactions.” (Human Action, 3rd rev. p. 232)

As is well established, the central concept in the Misesian system is the concept of action.  What is action?  “Any conscious behavior counts as action–an action is anything that you do on purpose.” (An Introduction to Economic Reasoning, David Gordon)  An action is a means and an end taken as a unified or singular entity.  In other words, when the end at which I aim is taken together with the means I utilize toward reaching that end, and considered as a single entity, this entity is an action.  This action and its formal structure (its structure without regard to specific content) is the focus of praxeology.

HA-32 “Praxeology is a theoretical and systematic, not a historical, science.  Its scope is human action as such, irrespective of all environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of the concrete acts.  Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case.”

HA-51 “The cognition of praxeology is conceptual cognition.  It refers to what is necessary in human action.  It is cognition of universals and categories.”

HA-47 “Praxeology is not concerned with the changing content of acting, but with its pure form and its categorical structure.”

HA-44 “[praxeology] does not concern itself with the accidental and environmental features of this action and with what distinguishes it from all other actions, but only with what is necessary and universal in its performance.”

We may define those features of action that may be present in some actions but not in other actions the concrete or empirical content of action.  It follows immediately that when we study the content of action as distinct from the universal features of action, we are in this respect not involved in praxeological study, but rather in thymological study (Mises’s general term for distinguishing two fundamental approaches to social phenomena).  In the sciences of human action, when we study a related group of phenomena that are present in some actions but not in others, we study the “contentual” aspect of action thus initiating a thymological investigation.  By definition, the results of a thymological analysis of action do not apply to all conceivable actions because a thymological investigation draws conclusions from facts that are not present in all actions.

The focus of economics is that subset of human activity surrounding market exchange, money prices, and monetary calculation:

“Not logical or epistemological rigor, but considerations of expediency and traditional convention make us declare that the field of catallactics or of economics in the narrower sense is the analysis of the market phenomena. This is tantamount to the statement: Catallactics is the analysis of those actions which are conducted on the basis of monetary calculation. Market exchange and monetary calculation are inseparably linked together.” (HA, p. 234)

Obviously, the realm of market exchange is not identical to the realm of “direct” interpersonal human action.  We need only consider these two groups of social phenomena:

1. Production, consumption, goods, services, products, prices, interest, capital, savings, selling, buying.  2. Love, hate, respect, betrayal, jealousy, trust, affection, dishonesty, coercion.

Nor are these two realms identical to the realm of isolated actions or mental actions (actions done in isolation, without regard to market exchange or direct interpersonal exchange).  Consider the following group of phenomena: 3. Contemplating, thinking, observing, looking, whistling, sneezing, resting, walking.

When we study the realm of market exchange, we have isolated a related group of content from other possible groups of content.  In so doing, we study a particular and contentual aspect of human action, not human action in general (not those aspects that all actions have in common).

In Sanchez’s conception, the line between praxeology (the general science of human action) and economics (the study of market phenomena) is not clearly drawn or explained.  His analysis entitled “Praxeology Restated” is written using terms such as production, production good, products, stock, capital, capital good, labor, consumption, etc.  These are clearly “economic” terms which have been constructed by economists for the specific purpose of analyzing market phenomena.  Are we to consider these terms now to be pure praxeological action categories, free of any reference to market-related content, and just as easily applied to the actions of loving or thinking as to the actions of buying and selling?  Is the goal to reinterpret economic concepts as praxeological concepts?   This is not clear in Sanchez’s treatment.

Scarcity

In the last decade, much has been made about the notion of scarcity.  Rothbardians such as Stephan Kinsella have tried to use the notion of scarcity as the centerpiece of their normative argument against intellectual property laws.  However, with few exceptions, all the works that attempt to make scarcity central to their argument overlook a very simple question.  Should we consider scarcity to be an objective feature of nature in the same way we consider stones to be an objective feature of nature?  Or should we consider scarcity to be a subjective phenomenon in the same way Austrian theory considers value to be subjective?  One rarely sees this issue explicitly raised.  In 2009, Bob Schaefer called our attention to the distinction between an objective versus a subjective conception of scarcity:

Kinsella, on the other hand, is intent on objectifying scarcity, i.e., linking the concept (and its supposed omnipotent qualities) to the objective and given qualities of nature. He writes:

“Nature, then, contains things that are economically scarce.”  He adds: “Ideas are not naturally scarce.”

http://praxeology.net/schaefer-molinarisoc09.htm

But no one paid attention, and the idea of a subjective conception of scarcity fell back into obscurity.  Sanchez appears to be utilizing an objective conception of scarcity since he provides a relatively extensive classification of the different kinds of scarcity we may encounter (e.g. subractable, rivalrous, depletable, degradable, super-abundant, etc.).  There is no mention of or reference to the idea that scarcity may depend on how the individual actor regards the object in question.  As opposed to the objective conception of scarcity that Austrian writers continue to utilize, there is a much more simple theoretical account of scarcity, an account consistent with the Austrian concept of subjective value.

If actor A attempts to attain some thing or situation (X), this is identical to his not having a wanted X.  The not having of a wanted X is identical to an “insufficient supply” or “short supply” (i.e., scarcity) of X from the point of view of actor A.  In other words, scarcity is a subjective phenomenon that is already implied in the actor’s attempt to attain an object or situation.  All action entails scarcity to the extent that action is aiming at an end–trying to attain something not presently had.  The trying to attain something not had is scarcity for the individual concerned.

Thus, as far as praxeology is concerned, the concept of scarcity is redundant in the sense that it is simply another way of considering (of conceiving) the actor’s attempt to reach an end.

Economization and Allocation

Sanchez’s considers the notions economization and allocation to be important praxeological concepts.

“Scarce means must be allocated to competing ends, leaving some ends unpursued. The ends pursued are chosen as recipients of some of the means. Each of those ends will be apportioned a certain quantity of the means. The ends left unpursued are renounced as recipients of any of the means. Such allocation is called economization. Scarce means are thus also called economic goods.

A definite way of using a means to pursue an end is a use. Thus, economization may also be said to be the allocation of scarce means to competing uses.”

However, there is an important distinction to be made between Robbinsonian economizing and Misesian praxeology.  In Robbins’s conception, economizing, in the sense of comparing different ways of utilizing and allocating resources, is the distinguishing and essential characteristic of action.  In Mises’s view, economizing is not an essential characteristic of action but rather only one possible mode of action.  Kirzner explains:

 “Economizing consists in the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends. Acting, in the praxeological sense, consists in selecting a pattern of behavior designed to further the actor’s purposes. Of course, the particular allocation that, in any given situation, will be made of scarce means in respect of different ends will constitute a course of action, a pattern of conduct designed to further the achievement of as many of those goals (in their preferred order) as possible. But the concept of action is wider and at the same time more fundamental than that of economizing.  Although action may be described in terms of ends and means, such a description is quite different from that of an operation of economizing. In the concept of economy, ends and means constitute a scheme more or less artificially imposed on action so that the relative valuations of ends can be reflected in the specific pattern in which resources are allocated. The essential idea becomes, not the intent pursuit of a set purpose, but the almost mechanical translation of the scale of “ultimate” ends into appropriately apportioned shares at the level of means. “Means” are required for the notion of economy because they are the entities that must be “allocated”; it is in the comparison of different ways of utilizing resources that economizing finds its place.  With the broader notion of action, on the other hand, we are not primarily interested in the particular pattern in which resources will be apportioned among ends. Such an allocation, if carried out, will be of interest as one of the possible implications of action and will, of course, as such, find a place somewhere in the science of human action. But on the basis of Robbins’ conception of the nature of economic science, economics can achieve homogeneity and individuality only by virtue of its concern with the existence of such operations of comparison and allocation of means. The praxeological approach, on the other hand, finds a basis for the homogeneity and individuality of economics at a deeper level, which does not necessarily require a clearly recognizable pattern of allocation. This basis is found in the fundamental characteristic of action, viz., that it is conduct directed at the achievement of a purpose.” (The Economic Point of View, pp. 161-2)

In other words, the Robbinsonian notion of economizing (comparison and allocation) is distinct from Mises’s conception of praxeology.  In praxeology, allocation is one possible mode of action, present in some actions but not present in others.  Whether economizing is present is an empirical question.  Economizing is thus not a universal feature of action and is not part of praxeology.

The Scale of Values

As is often the case, it is important to distinguish between the notion of value as Mises conceived it, and the quasi-objective notion of “scale of values” as Rothbard and others conceive it.  Sanchez proposes the objective version rejected by Mises. He writes:

This hierarchy of ends is called a value scale.  The further up the scale an end is, the higher it is said to be valued.

By contrast, here is Mises’s conception:

“People have often failed to recognize the meaning of the term “scale of value” and have disregarded the obstacles preventing the assumption of synchronism in the various actions of an individual.  They have interpreted man’s various acts as the outcome of a scale of value, independent of these acts and preceding them, and of a previously devised plan whose realization they aim at.  The scale of value and the plan to which duration and immutability for a certain period of time were attributed, were hypostatized into the cause and motive of the various individual actions.  Synchronism which could not be asserted with regard to the various acts was then easily discovered in the scale of value and in the plan.  But this overlooks the fact that the scale of value is nothing but a constructed tool of thought.  The scale of value manifests itself only in real acting.  It is therefore impermissible to contrast it with real acting and to use it as a yardstick for the appraisal of real actions.” (Human Action, 3rd rev. p. 102)

In Mises’s conception, a thing X can be said to be “valued” only by being sought by an actor.  When an actor attempts to attain X we may define this attempt to attain X as “valuing X.”  This is what Mises means in writing “The scale of value manifests itself only in real acting.”  By contrast, in the conception proposed by Sanchez, a thing X can be said to be “valued” merely by appearing on an imagined or written “value scale” of the actor.  In this latter conception, an actor may claim that the highest thing on his “scale of values” is to buy a clock, and yet in the next instant buy some socks.  In Mises’s conception this would be considered nonsensical.  To Mises, things are valued only in being sought in action:

“Neither is value in words and doctrines.  It is reflected in human conduct.  It is not what a man or groups of men say about value that counts, but how they act.” (HA, 96)

“But this overlooks the fact that the scale of value is nothing but a constructed tool of thought.  The scale of value manifests itself only in real acting…” (HA, 102)

“The assignment of orders of rank through valuation is done only in acting and through acting.” (HA, 120)

Thus, in each action, that thing, X, is “valued” which is sought or done in action.  E.g.:

Action 1:  Actor asserts “The most important thing for me is to buy a clock.”  (the action was making this assertion)

Action 2:  Actor buys some socks.  (the action was buying socks)

Strictly speaking, there is no “scale of values” but rather a sequence of actions and thus a sequence of values (a sequence of things sought or done in action).  In Mises’s conception there cannot be several things (X, Y, and Z) all of which are “valued” to different degrees.  There can only be thing X valued in action 1, thing Y valued in action 2, thing Z valued in action 3, etc.    X, Y, and Z cannot be “valued” (regardless of relative degrees such as “higher” or “lower”) simultaneously by being symbolically represented by the actor in an imagined or written scale or plan.  This is why Mises writes:

[People]… have disregarded the obstacles preventing the assumption of synchronism in the various actions of an individual…Synchronism which could not be asserted with regard to the various acts was then easily discovered in the scale of value and in the plan.

In other words, the conception “scale of values” allows the theoretician to claim synchronism (or simultaneity) in the actor’s “valuing” of multiple objects in action.  Mises argues that this is wrong, and we can only designate as “valued” those things actually pursued or actualized in action.  If an actor imagines or sketches a scale of his values, or draws up plans for a future action, these are all actions.  Given that the actor is doing them or has done them, we may say the actor “values” or “valued” doing them.  The concrete plan or scale that was written or imagined during these actions has no necessary bearing on a separate action of the actor.  As Mises explains in a slightly different context:

It may be very interesting that yesterday goals were set for today’s acting other than whose really aimed at today.  But yesterday’s plans do not provide us with any more objective and nonarbitrary standard for the appraisal of today’s real acting than any other ideas or norms. (Human Action, 3rd rev. p.102-3)

In the Misesian conception the term value is reserved for things sought or done in action.  In this conception, when X is sought or done this constitutes an action.  If something else Y is sought or done this defines or is identical with a new action.  With regard to the valuing of X and Y, there are then two separate instances of valuing (two separate instances of doing or of seeking).  In the alternate conception which Mises describes, the theoretician tries to overcome the obstacles preventing the assumption of simultaneity in valuing several objects in action, by implying that the actor may simultaneously value multiple objects simply by including them in the scale or plan.  This theoretical mistake has serious further consequences as we will soon see.

The Law of Marginal Utility

Sanchez conceives the law of marginal utility to be a praxeological law (as does Mises) that applies to all means utilized in action.

The Law of Marginal Utility applies to all means, whether they are used to directly pursue ultimate ends (as consumption goods) or are used to indirectly pursue ultimate ends (as production goods), or both.  The less of a means in a person’s stock, the more valuable is the ultimate end, whether pursued directly or indirectly, that depends on any given amount of it: that is, the higher is its marginal utility. The more of a means in a person’s stock, the less valuable is the end, whether pursued directly or indirectly, that depends on any given amount of it: that is, the lower is its marginal utility.

However, this is a mistake for several reasons, if we are speaking about the law of marginal utility in its traditional or standard interpretation.  The law of marginal utility in its traditional or standard formulation applies only to a special circumstance in human action: the case in which an actor possesses a homogeneous supply or supply of identical units, and either increases or decreases his supply of these units.  See Mises’s explanation of the law of marginal utility:

“The judgment of value refers only to the supply with which the concrete act of choice is concerned.  A supply is ex definitione always composed of homogeneous parts each of which is capable of rendering the same services as, and being substituted for, any other part….All parts—units—of the available stock are considered as equally useful and valuable if the problem of giving up one of them is raised.”

Or, see Hoppe’s definition of the law of marginal utility in Economic Science and the Austrian Method:

“Whenever the supply of a good increases by one additional unit, provided each unit is regarded as of equal serviceability by a person, the value attached to this unit must decrease.”

The law of marginal utility (in its traditional or standard formulation) only applies to the special case in human action where the actor possesses a homogeneous stock or supply and either increases or decreases his stock.   If all actions entail means, and if the law of marginal utility does not apply to all actions, then it would seem that there are means to which the law of marginal utility does not apply, namely, those means of which the actor does not possess a homogeneous stock.

There are at least two important problems in the relationship between the law of marginal utility (in its standard formulation) and praxeology.

Problem  #1:

Here is how Mises describes the focus of praxeology:

HA-32 “Praxeology is a theoretical and systematic, not a historical, science.  Its scope is human action as such, irrespective of all environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of the concrete acts.  Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case.”

HA-51 “The cognition of praxeology is conceptual cognition.  It refers to what is necessary in human action.  It is cognition of universals and categories.”

HA-47 “Praxeology is not concerned with the changing content of acting, but with its pure form and its categorical structure.”

HA-44 “[praxeology] does not concern itself with the accidental and environmental features of this action and with what distinguishes it from all other actions, but only with what is necessary and universal in its performance.”

(all passages from Human Action, 3rd rev. ed.)

It seems clear that Mises considers praxeology to be the study of only those aspects of action that all actions have in common—those aspects of action that are necessary and universal in the performance of an action.  If action does not necessarily and universally require the relinquishing or obtaining of a unit(s) of a homogeneous supply, then the law of marginal utility (standard formulation) only applies to a specific, concrete situation in action—a situation that is present in some actions, but not present in other actions.  The fact that a particular action involves a homogeneous stock would seem to be an “environmental, accidental, and individual circumstance of the concrete act” and a “particular feature of the actual case.”  In other words, the fact that action A involves a homogeneous stock whereas action B does not, implies we are dealing with concrete or empirical content—with a feature that differentiates act A from act B.  This is in conflict with Mises’s explicit conception of praxeology as concerned with only the universal aspects of action.

Problem  #2:

The so-called “scale of values” (a written or imagined entity) does not determine what the actor “values” at a later time or in a different act.   If I draw up a supposed scale of my own values, or concentrate on imagining one, then I have chosen to perform these actions (drawing or imagining a value scale) over all other possible actions.  I have chosen to write or imagine a value scale, and thereby demonstrated that I valued doing so.  The fact that the drawn or imagined scale lists a number of things in order (car, bike, shirt, gum, etc.) says nothing necessary about what my next action will be.  My next action may be combing my hair.  This is what Mises means in writing:

 “Neither is value in words and doctrines.  It is reflected in human conduct.  It is not what a man or groups of men say about value that counts, but how they act.” (HA, 96)

“But this overlooks the fact that the scale of value is nothing but a constructed tool of thought.  The scale of value manifests itself only in real acting…” (HA, 102)

“The assignment of orders of rank through valuation is done only in acting and through acting.” (HA, 120)

Thus, we designate as “valuable” or “valued” those things that we conceive have undergone the valuational process of having been sought or attained in action.  X is considered “valuable” because actor A seeks to attain X, or has attained X, or because X occupies some specific action-categorical position in the action theory in question.  If X is considered valuable because it is sought or attained in an action, and if Y has neither been sought nor attained in an action, then Y is not “less” valuable than X (valuable, but “less so” than X), but instead simply “non valued.”  (Y was not sought or attained in an action as was X)  For X to be considered “more” or “less” valuable than Y, both X and Y must be “valued” (i.e., subjected to the same valuation process or procedure) and the resulting relative magnitudes compared.   It is a theoretical error to refer to a secondary valuation, Y, as having “increased” or “decreased” if Y’s value has not been actualized in an action.

In short, the terms “increase in value” and “decrease in value” imply two acts of valuation, and this is the shortcoming in the traditional or standard formulation of the law of marginal utility.  If two acts of valuation are required, this poses likely insurmountable theoretical problems.  It means the possibility of a time increment between the two acts (during which circumstances can change), and it means the necessity of an intertemporal comparison of two valuations.  Consider a case in which actor A uses 1 unit of C to purchase R today, and then uses 1 unit of C to purchase S tomorrow.  Assuming A received no new units of C, does this mean that actor A necessarily values R more or less than S?  I don’t think it does.  As Hulsmann has written:

 “…nobody has solved the problem of comparing non-extended entities like value, utility, preference ranks, etc.” (The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Winter, 1999)

Consider the fact that the law of marginal utility is an attempt to express a relatively simple idea, and yet Mises spends eight and one half pages of Human Action trying to clarify and defend it.  (3rd rev. ed. pp. 119-127)  The problem is that binary terms such as: least urgent/most urgent, smallest satisfaction/largest satisfaction, least important/most important, less valuable/more valuable, etc., imply two acts.  If two acts are explicitly described in the formulation of the law, this creates insurmountable theoretical problems.  The reason Mises must expend so much effort defending the law of marginal utility in its traditional formulation, is because the law as formulated implies two acts of valuation, and Mises is trying to defend the law while at the same time trying to avoid referring to two separate actions.

The problem can be further elucidated if we put forth a simplified version of the law of marginal utility.  The law of marginal utility expresses a necessary relationship between supply and value (between an actor’s supply and his valuing of that supply).  We can easily conceive that when an actor attempts to attain X (an object or situation) this constitutes his valuing of X.  Similarly, when an actor attempts to attain X, this constitutes his seeking a “supply” of X (he seeks for a “supply” of X that he currently lacks).  And thus, supply and value are necessarily related in action because the act through which an actor values X is the same act through which he seeks a supply of X.

This explanation requires reference to only one action, and so it overcomes the shortcoming of the traditional formulation of the law of marginal utility.  However, it is achieved by abandoning the attempt to utilize physical conceptual pairs such as “increase/decrease,” “more/less,” “higher/lower,” “internal/external,” etc.  The simplified expression of the law of marginal utility above is confined to saying something about the logic of action (it expresses an identity relationship) and does not try to say anything about the physical aspects of action (aspects that may be measured or compared in terms of their size, position, magnitude, intensity, etc.)

On Classifying the Phenomena of Nature or of the External World

It is common in an introduction to praxeology to find what amounts to a proposed classification of objects of the “external” world (a proposed classification of the objects of nature).  Sanchez writes:

Action does not include non-purposeful change.  For example, let us say a piece of wood from Crusoe’s ship also rises to the surface. This is not an action. The wood was not pursuing an end. It naturally floats in water due to its physical properties.

Non-purposeful changes are called natural phenomena.

Other natural phenomena include: lightning strikes, plan growth, chemical reactions, heartbeats, erosion

It is worthwhile to note that this type of classification exercise is pleonastic since all phenomena of the natural world may be treated by praxeology simply by considering them objects of action.  For example, a lightning strike is seen, or observed, or heard.  These are all actions.  A chemical reaction is seen, or observed, or initiated, or described.  These are all actions.  Thus, there is no reason to embark on a taxonomy of the objects of nature.  All such objects, processes, or events, are comprehended by praxeology in the sense that they are objects of action (objects of conscious conduct).  We may translate any physical or “objective” phenomenon into a social or subjective phenomenon simply by conceiving the object in question as an object of action.

Conclusion

It is a positive development to see young writers such as Daniel Sanchez, Konrad Graf, and Daniel Hieber, take an interest in praxeology.  It is also promising to see the growing realization of the breadth and comprehensiveness of Mises’s praxeological vision.  One hopes that writers and scholars will begin to reexamine the social thought of Mises with more care and insight, and perhaps start to repair some of the damage done by the “praxeology as economics” misinterpretation that has been prevalent for so long.

“To be sure, the praxeological perspective embraces a range of human action far wider than that usually treated in economic theory.  All human actions, motivated though they may be by the entire range of the purposes that have inspired and fired men to act, come within the sway of the ideal praxeological discipline.”

“Economic theory has traditionally dealt with the phenomena of the market, prices, production, and monetary calculation.  In these spheres of human activity, theorists have developed constructions that help to explain the regularities these phenomena evince and to bring into clear focus the tendencies for change in these phenomena consequent upon given autonomous changes in the data.”

“The subject matter of economics came to be connected with the material things that are the objects of traffic in the market; it came to be linked peculiarly with the use of money in market transactions or with the specific social relationships that characterize the market system.  Where writers came closest to the recognition that these criteria were only accidental characteristics of the affairs upon which economic analysis could be brought to bear, where they were able to glimpse the congenerousness of the specifically economic type of analysis with the underlying actions of men, they were unable to follow this clue to the conclusion to which it pointed.  Precisely because those features in action that made it susceptible of economic analysis seemed common to all human activities, these writers were driven back to look for some other defining characteristic.  And this meant again the search for some arbitrary quality to justify selecting the particular slice of pie that made up economic theory; but it meant in addition the relegation yet further into the background of the true recipe of that larger pie from which their conception of economics was being arbitrarily hacked.” (The Economic Point of View, Kirzner, pp. 181-3)