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.

Is Life Worth Living?

You may think I must be severely depressed to even ask such a question, but I am not; it was prompted by an excerpt from Human Action (the very last chapter of the book) which was recently posted at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. I quote:

Science does not value, but it provides acting man with all the information he may need with regard to his valuations. It keeps silence only when the question is raised whether life itself is worth living.

This is eminently true. If you were to ask this question of yourself, no science could tell you the answer; the only one who can answer it is you. – But if you even read this, this is proof enough that you do find life worth living; if not, you would already be dead: you would have committed suicide in any manner available, including stopping eating.[1]

Not even the science of ethics could tell you the answer. This science (and I refer here, of course, to the Objectivist ethics) can tell you that there is an inextricable link between “life” and “value” – that it is only to living beings that values are possible and necessary – and it can tell you that life is the ultimate standard of value. And then it can offer you advice about how to go about living successfully to make it even more worth living: use your reason, use your own mind, be productive, honest, just – all the things enumerated in the catalog of virtues in Galt’s speech. And you have to apply this as best you can to all the concrete situations in your life (which is not always easy). But if you really think that “life is not worth living”, all this is of no avail. If life itself loses its value, what else could be of value?

Mises repeats his point a little later in the text:

It is true, praxeology and economics do not tell a man whether he should preserve or abandon life. Life itself and the unknown forces that originate it and keep it burning are an ultimate given, and as such beyond the pale of human science. The subject matter of praxeology is merely the essential manifestation of human life, viz., action.

Praxeology and economics can tell you many things – for example, it can tell you why capitalism is the proper social system and why socialism is doomed to fail. But this, too, is based on the idea that life is worth living: if it were not, what would it matter if you live in a free society or under tyranny and slavery? If your life were truly not worth living, neither would it matter whether you are free or a slave.[2]

This far, I agree with Mises. (The point is virtually self-evident, so I have merely elaborated on a self-evidence above.) Now to a “bone of contention”: Mises’ insistence that science is – and should be – wertfrei or value-free. In other words, science does not, and should not, pass judgments of value. Such judgments are outside the scope of science. Wherever they belong, they do not belong in science; neither in the natural sciences, nor in the humanities.

Well, the natural sciences do not make value judgments – for example, physics does not tell us whether gravity is good or bad; it just tells us that there is such a phenomenon as gravity. But even so, it tells us that it is a bad thing to jump from an airplane without the aid of a parachute. But this concerns the implications of scientific knowledge, not the content of the science. – And the very pursuit of science is based on the idea that knowledge is a value. But that concerns the scientist’s motivation in pursuing science, not the content of the science.

But is this true about economics as well? (Or about the humanities in general, but I want to focus on economics.) Well, the economist as well as the natural scientist must be motivated by the idea that knowledge is a value; and the knowledge, once acquired, implies “oughts” and value judgments. For example, once an economist has arrived at the insight that capitalism leads to prosperity and socialism to misery, it would be ludicrous to abstain from saying that we ought to have capitalism, and that socialism is bad.

But what about the content of economics, apart from the motivation to study it and the implications of it? This is what Mises has to say:

While many people blame economics for its neutrality with regard to value judgments, other people blame it for its alleged indulgence in them. Some contend that economics must necessarily express judgments of value and is therefore not really scientific, as the criterion of science is its valuational indifference. Others maintain that good economics should be and could be impartial, and that only bad economists sin against this postulate.

The semantic confusion in the discussion of the problems concerned is due to an inaccurate use of terms on the part of many economists. An economist investigates whether a measure a can bring about the result p for the attainment of which it is recommended, and finds that a does not result in p but in g, an effect which even the supporters of the measure a consider undesirable. If this economist states the outcome of his investigation by saying that a is a bad measure, he does not pronounce a judgment of value. He merely says that from the point of view of those aiming at the goal p, the measure a is inappropriate.

Observe that the word “bad” here expresses a value judgment. But the economist should not have used this word? He should have used words like “undesirable” or “inappropriate” instead? This may be semantic hair-splitting, but certainly those words, too, express value judgments.

There is no escape from value judgments. As Ayn Rand explains:

In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought”. (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 17.)

And later in the same book:

Moral evaluations are implicit in most intellectual issues; it is not merely permissible, but mandatory to pass moral judgments when and where appropriate; to suppress such judgment is an act of moral cowardice. But a moral judgment must always follow, not precede (or supersede), the reasons on which it is based. (P. 143.)

In my own words: Value judgments, or moral judgments, must never be divorced from the facts of reality.

But saying this in a modern philosophy class is like swearing in church. Modern philosophy takes it for granted, even axiomatic, that values are divorced from reality. No “ought”, it teaches to young, defenseless minds, can ever be derived from an “is”; no value can ever be derived from facts.[3]

I think this idea is the most stupid idea ever uttered in the whole history of philosophy. Anyone who has not yet passed through a modern philosophy class (and punished with a lower grade for disagreeing with this idea) knows that an “ought” is derived from an “is”. To take an example I have used before: what clothes you should wear is determined by the weather; when it is 30o cold outside, you don’t go out in shorts; when it is 30o warm, you don’t put on your fur coat. But modern philosophy teaches you this does not matter; not even the fact that you might freeze to death matters.

Every time anyone makes an analysis of the facts and then makes a recommendation based on this analysis, he is deriving an “ought” from an “is”. He may study gravity and then recommend a parachute, to repeat the example above. Or he may be an economist and be asked to analyze the pros and cons of taxation; if he is a good, “Austrian”, economist, he will find that taxes are harmful and that taxes on “the rich” will eventually harm “the poor” as well. So he will recommend lower taxes, or even the abolishment of taxes.[4] But on the premise that an “ought” must not be derived from an “is”, he cannot allow himself to make that recommendation!

I will not insult Mises by calling him a “modern philosopher”; but in this case I believe he has bought the Humean idea of the is/ought or fact/value dichotomy.

In case someone should think I am unfair to Mises, that I have refrained from quoting some good stuff, and that my criticisms are mere nit-picking, I would like to end by quoting George Reisman:

Even on the occasions when I found it necessary to disagree with him […] I always found what he had to say to be extremely valuable and a powerful stimulus to my own thinking. I do not believe that anyone can claim to be really educated who has not absorbed a substantial measure of the immense wisdom present in his works. (Ludwig von Mises: Defender of Capitalism.)

He is a powerful stimulus to my thinking, too. And you are not educated until you have read him.

This blog post is getting long; an “is” that implies an “ought”: that I should stop here.


[1]) Old people often lose their appetite when death is approaching. Unlike suicide, this is not a choice; it is nature’s way of telling that life is about to end.

[2]) One famous philosopher has claimed that it is one’s duty to preserve one’s life only when life has become unbearable – before that, preserving life is just an “inclination”. But this amounts to saying that life is worth living only when it is not worth living any longer. I could hardly agree less.

[3]) The origin of this idea is David Hume; but you already know this.

[4]) For the question how the legitimate functions of government should be financed, I refer you to Ayn Rand’s essay “Government Financing in a Free Society” in The Virtue of Selfishness.