Is All Action Rational?

ludwig-von-misesWell, Ludwig von Mises thought so. I quote from Human Action:

Human action is necessarily always rational. The term “rational action” is pleonastic and must be rejected as such (P. 21.).

In view of all the irrationality we observe around us, this statement sounds … well, not exactly rational. “Weird” or even “insane” would be good descriptive terms.

So what is so immensely rational about all human action that all human action is to be labeled rational? Well, all human action is about relating means to ends. Mises has some examples:

The very existence of ascetics and of men who renounce material gains for the sake of clinging to their convictions and of preserving their dignity and self-respect is evidence that the striving after more tangible amenities is not inevitable but rather the result of a choice. Of course, the immense majority prefer life to death and wealth to poverty. (P. 20.)

But nothing could be said against those who make the opposite choice and prefer death to life and poverty to wealth. They have a different end from the immense majority and choose means accordingly.

The doctors who a hundred years ago employed certain methods for the treatment of cancer whish our contemporary doctors reject were – from the point of view of present-day pathology – badly instructed and therefore inefficient. But they did not act irrationally; they did their best. (P. 20.)

In other words: people may be wrong in their choice of means; but being wrong is not the same as being irrational.

The opposite of action is not irrational behavior, but a reactive response to stimuli on the part of the bodily organs and instincts which cannot be controlled by the volition of the person concerned. (P. 20.)

So when a man acts “irrationally”, he actually does not act at all; he merely reacts, just the way animals do.

Conspicuously absent here is any attempt to analyze criminal behavior. But a criminal also relates means to ends. A bank robber has to use reason to plan and carry out his robbery – it is certainly not just a bodily reaction. Someone who wants to get rid of his rich grand-uncle in order to inherit his money has to carefully plan and perform the murder, and in a way that minimizes the risk of discovery. (He should, for example, abstain from the attempt if there is an Hercule Poirot or a Jane Marple in the vicinity.) According to Mises, he is as rational as anyone else. Only murders committed at the spur of the moment in a drunken brawl would classify as irrational, since the murderer then does not have time to consider his means or his ends.

So what makes Mises make such a statement and seriously mean it? It should come as no surprise that it is because of his idea that ultimate ends fall outside the realm of reason. Continuing the first quote above:

When applied to the ultimate ends of action, the terms rational and irrational are inappropriate and meaningless. 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. (P. 20.)

So we should not pass judgment on the bank robber or grand-uncle murderer mentioned above. Who are we to substitute our own value judgments for theirs? But it is even worse::

The critic either tells us what 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. (P. 20; italics mine.)

Passing judgment on the bank robber or the murderer would be dictatorial arrogance!

Of course, Mises did not mean this – he forgot to think about criminal action – but this is still what he says!

What, then, is the ultimate end of the bank robber/murderer? Is it – like for any honest worker or millionaire – to make money or to earn his living? Is it just the means that are somehow inappropriate? But the bank robber did not make the money – it was made by the persons who had deposited their money in the bank. The murdered grand-uncle, not his dishonest heir, made his money (provided he earned it honestly).[1] And, as for “earning a living”, this shows some confusion about the meaning of “earn”.

Or is it, more broadly, the pursuit of happiness? Well, most bank robbers (and murderers) get caught, and those who don’t have to live in constant fear of getting caught. It could only be called “pursuit of happiness”, if someone preferred living in jail than outside – or living in fear rather than in safety.

And what about suicide bombers? Those, too, are conspicuously absent in Mises’ reasoning – probably because he had no experience of them and could not even imagine this kind of evil. Otherwise, the existence of suicide bombers is as much proof as the existence of ascetics that some people do no not prefer life to death. And the suicide bomber can hardly be said to pursue happiness, at least not here, on earth. He would have to take the promise of paradise in the hereafter quite seriously. – But given this end – life and well-being when you are already dead – they, too, relate means to ends. But they are badly mistaken, both about the end and the means![2]

Ayn Rand made some harsh remarks in the margin of Human Action, of which I will quote just one:

Nobody can get anywhere with such a terminology! (Ayn Rand’s Merginalia, ed. by Robert Mayhew, p. 110.)

Objectivism, as you all know, holds the preservation and enhancement of life as the ultimate end and claims that this can be objectively proven. (I will not attempt to present the proof, since both “Galt’s speech” and “The Objectivist Ethics” are available for anyone to read.) This does not mean that everyone automatically agrees about this end, merely that everyone should agree. Mises claims that the majority does agree, but that is not the same thing – it leaves the possibility open that the majority is wrong.

Saying that the ultimate end is “beyond reason” and can neither be proved or disproved makes it impossible to go anywhere!

Much as I admire Ludwig von Mises, on this issue he was dead wrong.

Earlier blog posts on Mises.


[1] Off topic, but worth mentioning: If you want to equivocate, you might claim that a counterfeiter “makes money”, but that money is just that: counterfeit. The same goes for the inflation money that governments and central banks pour on us and only makes us poorer. The only ones that could be said to “make money” in this sense are those who mine and mint the precious metals.

[2] I refer you to this article in The Onion.

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