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Ludwig Von MisesIn the last lesson we talked about the meaning of purposeful action; this is, how people act when they are trying to achieve a goal and how this is different from unconscious, subconscious, automated or random actions and their motivations. Purposeful action (as defined by Praxeology) is the expression of our goals in practical, real terms.

The possibilities of purposeful action

When we are seeking a specific goal we make conscious choices and we act according to these choices. But the fact that we select certain choices over others means that there is a large number of available choices, possibly infinite. This means that when we act we select something we are doing and ignore the rest which is what we could have done. We do this for every single choice we make no matter how trivial. This is important because each choice has a different economic outlook. What we do means that we are not doing something else. That something else is lost forever. This is a concept called the "Opportunity Cost" and it is something that we will study in other lessons, but it is important to understand where it originates.

The conditions for human purposeful action

In the previous lessons we have talked about the meaning of "purposeful" in Praxeological terms and we have used many concept such as will, conscious, choice and so forth to explain what that word means. However, Praxeology is a science based on logic and as such it demands precisely defined conditions. We will now develop the arguments that give origin to those conditions.

We have previously stated that motivations are outside the realm of Praxeology and in the domain of Psychology. However, Praxeology needs motivations and this seems to be a contradiction, alas it is not. Praxeology does not need to specify a given motivation, only to acknowledge that it exists. In other words, Praxeology does not care about the specific motivation that may encourage a person to act; it only recognizes that such motivation exists.

Praxeology works on the assumption that when people are trying to achieve a goal they are acting on purpose to achieve such goal. In other words, people want to achieve said goal. Which means that the current status in which these people find themselves is not satisfactory in some measure, otherwise, if it would be satisfactory there would be no necessity to change it. In other words, people are uncomfortable with their current status and wish to change it to a more comfortable one. In Praxeological terms this would be defined as a state of "uneasiness".

Can uneasiness be defined as the discovery of choices? Yes. Can uneasiness be defined as the awareness of other possible conditions? Yes. Can uneasiness be stipulated as a belief of hell? Yes. What or how uneasiness is defined for each person is irrelevant. What is relevant is that it must exist.

OK. So now we have a person in a state of uneasiness. Is this sufficient to make a person act purposefully? No. If a person is not happy with their current state of affairs but see no other option, this person would clearly not do anything because it has no options to choose from. In order for a person to be compelled to act, this person must see other options, other states of affairs that would be less uneasy than the current one. In other words, a person must be able to imagine a better state of affairs in order to be able to make decisions and select choices.

But is this sufficient to compel a person to act? No. What is the point of imagining a better state of affairs if a person is convinced that nothing that this person may do will change their situation? For a person to act, this person must be sure (or at least reasonably sure) that by acting their state of affairs will change for the better.

And so, the precise conditions that must be fulfilled in order to consider a human action "purposeful" according to Praxeology are three:

  1. A person must be in a state of uneasiness
  2. A person must be able to imagine a state with less uneasiness
  3. A person must be convinced that by acting he/she may achieve such better state

These are the minimum conditions that must be fulfilled in order to define a human action as "purposeful" according to Praxeology. However, even if these three conditions are fulfilled, people may still not act. The fulfilment of these three conditions does not guarantee that purposeful action will take place. It only guarantees its reverse: if purposeful action has taken place, then all three conditions have been fulfilled.

The necessity of these conditions

Why are these conditions necessary?

If we remove the uneasiness, we remove the motivation to act. When a person is in a state of "easiness" or "happiness" this person has no reason to change this state. We know of no person that would purposefully wish to be miserable unless such misery would bring this person some sort of happiness (for example a masochist). There is no person on earth that would wish to be miserable in the absolute.

If we remove the second condition, we remove the idea that it is possible to be in a different (better) state. In other words, this removal would define a person that is absolutely convinced that the future is absolutely pre-determined. This would mean that there is no reason to act because the only possible future is the current future and there is no chance of improving the level of happiness. Such a person would always yield to the inevitable. For this person there is one and only one possible future. Again, we know of no such person.

If we remove the third condition, we are also left with a person with the absolute belief that the future is pre-determined. In such conditions, even if this person is capable of imagining a better future, this person is also convinced that no matter what action may be taken it will not alter the future. Hence, there is no reason to act.

It is for these reasons that all three conditions must be fulfilled in every purposeful action.

There are beliefs and then there are beliefs

One of the criticisms to the last condition is that sometimes people seem to act even under the belief that action will not improve their level of happiness. For example, let's imagine people protesting against G8 policies opposing debt forgiveness for very poor countries. These people know that they will not change G8's policies yet they still demonstrate against them. Are they acting purposely? Yes. The reason is that they fully understand that they won't change G8's point of view, but demonstrating will make them feel better and they fully understand this. Granted, should the G8 change their point of view, they will be very happy but through the act of demonstrating they feel happier than before. They do believe that their action will change their state of happiness for the better, which is their goal.

The search for happiness

Happiness is simply a convenient word to define a state of less "uneasiness" than the current state. The exact meaning of "happiness" for each human is irrelevant for Praxeology. In addition, the idea that the default state of a person is absolute "uneasiness" is incorrect. Praxeology does not say that a person needs to be miserable in order to be motivated to act. Praxeology only states that whatever the current state of happiness a person may be in, if this person can envision a more satisfactory state of happiness this satisfies the first of the three conditions.

Also, Praxeology does not concern itself with what would make a person more or less happy. These are all personal and subjective choices and as such they are unique and not applicable to all humans. As such, they are useless for Praxeology which seeks universal Action Laws that can be applied to all humans.

Praxeology is only interested in knowing how did humans act and the logic that govern such actions. As such Praxeology is not concerned with the ultimate outcome of such actions, since they are subjective and unique. Since Praxeology is not concerned with personal outcomes, its conclusions are valid for all purposeful behaviour.

Perfect choices and guaranteed outcomes

The three conditions for purposeful action do not imply perfect choices nor assured outcomes. Let's be clear.

A person must be in a state of uneasiness. But this uneasiness is by definition subjective. A psychologist may explain the situation to an uneasy patient in such a manner that this patient may fell at ease. The uneasiness in the patient was an error.

A person must be able to imagine a state with less uneasiness. But there is no guarantee that this better state of affairs is achievable or even possible. All that is required is for this person is to be capable of imagining it.

A person must be convinced that by acting he/she may achieve such better state. But there is no guarantee that the final outcome of this action will be the imagined state of affairs.

Yet, from a Praxeological point of view the lack of perfection in choices or assured outcomes are irrelevant. Praxeology concerns itself with the logic that determines how humans act purposely. Whether they act out of error or they achieve their goals is irrelevant to the logic which still holds.

Extreme motivations and emotions

As long as a person fulfills the three conditions for purposeful action, their motivations are irrelevant for Praxeology. This leads to the conclusion that motivations can be extreme and highly affected by emotions. Praxeology does not deny human emotions, it only points out that when humans act purposely there is always an element of conscious choice. In these conditions there is no pure instinct or automated response. How much of a conscious choice may there be is a matter of each situation and outside the realm of Praxeology. However, how does this conscious choice operate is a Praxeological matter. For Praxeology the conscious choice is biased toward one outcome or another by many motivations, including strong emotions. In other words, given different inputs we will get different outputs, but they will still be conscious choices.

For example let's take Mark. Mark likes to bet on horses, he is a compulsive gambler. When he is at home with his family his impulse to go out to a horse race track and bet is low because he has other motivations such as causing grief to his loved ones. The price of his gambling is very high. His conscious decision is not to bet. However, if he is alone at home, his impulses are stronger because the absence of his family makes the potential grief seem less probable and therefore the price to be paid not so high. His conscious decision is to go out and bet. Yet, when Mark is with his gambling friends, the price to be paid (this is the grief caused to his family) seems to be zero and therefore Mark gambles without hesitation, which is his conscious decision. In all three cases Mark is heavily influenced by emotions yet the decisions he makes can be different. He is still making conscious decisions.

This is so because in each case Mark is comparing the price to be paid (grief to his family) with the satisfaction (or happiness) he would obtain by gambling and then making a conscious decision. To achieve this conscious comparison Mark had to go through the three conditions of purposeful action. If he would not, he would have not acted.

What about criminals? Or even worse, clinically pathological sociopaths. These people have no remorse whatsoever. Couldn't we say that they are slaves to their impulses and therefore they are incapable of acting purposely when executing their pathology? No. Because they are never acting instinctively. What their pathology allows them to do is to make the price of their acts seem very low (i.e. lack of remorse). However, they still choose to act purposely. How do we know this? Because they act in such a manner to attempt being caught. If they would act purely on instinct they would disregard this potential "price" to be paid if caught.

Impulsive action

This would then mean that no human action is impulsive, right? Of course not! Somebody is about to hit you in the face. You raise your arm instinctively to protect yourself. You did so based on impulse and impulse alone. Your instinct kicked-in. This is not purposeful action as defined by Praxeology although it is purposeful as defined by genetics and instinct. The question is always the same: was the action taken consciously or unconsciously. If it was conscious and the three conditions are fulfilled, then it is purposeful action. If it was unconscious or automatic then it is not.

However, if you are a black belt in Karate and have trained your mind and body to fight effectively, chances are very good that you raised your arm in a specific manner, at a specific speed and in a specific place to achieve a certain goal. You did so consciously albeit in a split second. You acted purposely.

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

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