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Ludwig Von MisesToday we are going to expand on the concept of Purposeful Action. In the previous lesson we said that the most fundamental Action Axiom states that all human action is purposeful.

The concept of "purposeful"

We said that when it matters, i.e. when humans are trying to achieve a goal, humans act consciously to try to achieve said goal. In other words, they act with purpose. Stated in this manner this Action Axiom seems obvious. The fact that a person is trying to achieve a goal means that a person is trying on purpose (or purposely) to achieve this goal. This person is making deliberate choices to achieve this goal. It would make no sense to state that trying to achieve a goal can be done randomly or without purpose.

Praxeology re-defines the term "purpose" for its own use. These types of re-definitions are a fairly common practice in many philosophies. There is nothing new or unusual in this practice.

The concept of purposeful action in Praxeology necessarily demands consciousness and will. In other words, for an action to have purpose it must be performed by a conscious person through the application of their will. In yet another words, "purposeful" in Praxeologic terms simply means that a person is in control of this action.

This means that when humans are not trying to achieve a goal their behaviour is not purposeful and as such Praxeology has nothing to say about this type of behaviour. In other words, it means that behaviours that are not conscious or that are conscious but are also automatic are outside the realm of Praxeology.

For example, an unconscious person continues to breathe automatically. In this case breathing is not considered "purposeful" since the person is not controlling this process. The same can be said of a conscious person reading a newspaper since this person continues to breathe. It is obvious that breathing has the biological purpose of maintaining this person alive, but from a Praxeological point of view, it is not "purposeful".

On the other hand, if a conscious person decides to stop breathing or breathe more rapidly, this is very much "purposeful" behaviour.

Anything and everything that it is outside of our control is not considered "purposeful" behaviour by Praxeology.

  • We catch a cold and a get runny nose.
  • We jump when a nearby dog barks.
  • We get hit by a car in an accident while crossing the street.
  • We are walking down the street and get wet because it rains suddenly.
  • We are hungry and our stomach aches.
  • While we sleep we have a nightmare.

These are all examples of actions which Praxeology does not consider "purposeful".

On the other hand, if there is a goal behind all these actions, they are then considered "purposeful". For example:

  • We don't want to go to work and hence we seat beside a contagious person until we catch a cold, get a runny nose and have hence an excuse not to get to work.
  • We like to be scared by barking dogs, hence we walk through a neighbourhood with plenty of guard dogs fully expecting to be barked upon. When barking happens we are ready and we voluntarily jump.
  • We are trying to defraud an insurance company and therefore we cross the street seeking to be hit by a car.
  • We like to walk under the rain hence when it rains we get wet.
  • We are too fat and on a diet, hence our stomach aches and we use this discomfort to gauge our diet.
  • We seek to have nightmares because we are experimenting with sleeping aids and hence we eat too much at dinner to trigger nightmares.

The opposite is also true.

If we use our will to prevent or change in any manner what would otherwise be involuntary events, we are then acting 'purposely". For example:

  • We don't like colds hence we disinfect our hands frequently and stay away from infected people.
  • We get scared by dogs easily hence we avoid them.
  • We don't want to be in accidents; hence we are exceedingly careful when crossing streets.
  • We like to enjoy the rain without getting wet, hence we carry an umbrella at all times.
  • When our stomach aches for lack of food, we eat.
  • We eat light dinner and go to sleep early to avoid having nightmares.

All of these actions represent "purposeful" actions.

Every time we act seeking a goal, this action is purposeful regardless of what the goal may be. For example, how we act under threat is indeed purposeful action.

Reasons versus purpose

Praxeology studies purposeful human actions but it is not interested in the reasons behind those purposes. Praxeology is interested in how humans act and what are their goals when they act but it is not interested in the reasons that compel humans to act.

The science studying the motivations of humans to act (being conscious or subconscious) is called Psychology.

Praxeology is not Psychology.

In Praxeology the term "unconscious" simply means that any action performed in such a state it's outside the Praxeological domain.

In Psychology the term "subconscious" agglomerates all the processes that impact human behaviour which are typically hidden from conscious knowledge.

Both terms are completely different belonging to two completely different sciences and as such they are not comparable.

Is Praxeology denying the link between human action and its motives?

Not at all. We know that when humans act consciously and willingly they are motivated to do so. However, Praxeology does not concern itself with the motivation, only with the action. The separation between "motivation" and "action" occurs in terms of what Praxeology studies and has no implications on the nature or relationships between them. For example, chemistry is the science that studies how atoms interact with each other. It can be divided into Inorganic Chemistry and Organic Chemistry. The second deals with molecules made primarily with Carbon, Oxygen, Nitrogen and Hydrogen while the first addresses all the other atoms. Neither is denying that the other exists nor that the same chemical principles apply to both.

The concept of "action"

Praxeology studies human action which is driven by a purpose. As the only observable expression of purpose is action, a purpose that does not expresses itself as an action is irrelevant to Praxeology.

In other words, Praxeology studies what happens in reality and for this to be possible, we must be able to observe reality. If a person has a purpose but he/she does not act on it, the purpose has no impact in the real world which means it is not "practical" hence outside the realm of Praxeology.

If a person intends to go to a movie theatre but this person does not do so while wishing to do so, this person is not "acting" on its purpose.

However, we must clarify one point. As long as a person is acting to achieve a goal, it is irrelevant if this person is doing so by actively or passively seeking the goal. A person may seek to have fun by going out with friends or by not going out with friends and staying at home. The first action is active and the second is passive yet both actions, both decisions changed this person's future and are hence within the realm of Praxeology.

Human Action is for humans

Praxeology was defined specifically to deal with humans. It was designed for humans. Trying to extend Praxeology to non-human animals is pointless because no studies have been made. It is most certainly possible that some sort of Non-Human Praxeology exists but we have no idea if exists or what its Axioms and Laws of Action may be.

The idea that the distinguishing characteristic of human beings is that human action is purposeful behaviour is indeed part of Praxeology. However, this statement was made more than 60 years ago and today we know that intelligence in animals (including the human animal) is a sliding scale, not a barrier. When Praxeology was first defined, the concept of "human action" was looked upon as human civilization which was superior to animal civilization (if we can call it as such). From this point of view, purposeful behaviour is indeed the hallmark of human beings but we suspect that eventually this concept will be deprecated.

However, it is important to point out that whether or not this idea holds, the principles of Praxeology are not affected in the least because it still deals exclusively with human actions.

Note: please see the Glossary if you are unfamiliar with certain words.

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