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Was Mises a Cynic?

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Tags Philosophy and MethodologySubjectivismValue and Exchange

Ludwig von Mises is sometimes criticized for having a weak ethical component in his theory of praxeology. His basic idea, as he famously developed it in Human Action, is that people act. By this he means that every purposive behavior is aimed at replacing a less satisfactory state of affairs with a more satisfactory one. It is impossible to perform an action that would not be directed toward increasing the actor's satisfaction (or happiness). What we do represents our preferences. Of course, we can regret what we did, but can we regret what we are doing? I am not regretting that I am writing this article at this moment. If I were regretting it more than enjoying it, I would just stop writing. So, when we continue in our actions, it is our free choice. Hence, we cannot but want to do that which we do.

What about coercion? Obviously, we can be coerced to do something — which means that we would not do something voluntarily. For example, when somebody threatens us with a knife. But however brutal this might sound, it is still we who decide what to do — either we do what the aggressor wants us to do or we risk being killed. Insofar as we act, we prefer the action that is being performed to another that is not. What we do at a given moment, we choose to do in order to replace a less satisfactory state of affairs with a more satisfactory one. Or, as in the case of coercion, we chose not to worsen our situation — in other words, to stay alive.

This theory is valid regardless of the character and motives of our acts. Our values are subjective. They are ours. Even if objective ethics exist — as natural law libertarians, among others, believe — the values of a particular person are his subjective values. Everybody is free to have the values he wishes to have. Whatever we do, it is because we decide to do it. And we decide to do something because we prefer to do it, rather than not to do it. It is always in our interest to act in the way we do. Even when we are moral heroes, such as when we sacrifice ourselves for others, it would be false to say that we do not value or prefer the activities we perform. In other words, we can act altruistically, but even then we have to act to some extent in a self-oriented way.

This thesis has given rise to numerous protests from philosophers, theologians, and other representatives of the social sciences and humanities. One example is the following:

For instance, Mises is hard-pressed to explain a person's charitable action without expectation of payment or reward. According to Misesean praxeology, such an action must be motivated by the desire of the person to ameliorate an uneasiness. The person thus gives charitably to soothe a guilty conscience, or to ease the pain of viewing a person in need, or simply to feel the satisfaction of having helped someone.1

Such protests are motivated by two notions. The first is that Mises was an ethical relativist. To some extent he was, but at the same time he was a utilitarian and a devoted supporter of classical liberalism. He believed that laissez-faire policy was the best way to promote the welfare and well-being of people. He preferred peace to war, wealth to misery, and truth to falsehood. But it is the second of the two notions — that Mises advocated the radical leveling of all values as such — that seems to underlie the whole critique of Misesean human action.

Almost everybody values charitable activity more than radical selfishness. We admire moral heroes and try to follow them. We would like to be as virtuous as they. But Mises argued that our actions are oriented toward alleviating uneasiness or satisfying desires, that when people do something for others, in fact they do it for themselves. It is easy, then, to conclude that the Misesean idea of human action is cynical, and even derogative.

But we do not need to interpret human action in this way. What Mises taught is only that every human action is directed toward satisfying the desire of the actor. Nevertheless, by accepting Mises's standpoint, we are not required to perceive people's activity exclusively in terms of the satisfaction of their desires. That our actions make us better off does not imply that they cannot be assessed as valuable by others, too (here I refer to strictly ethical valuation, different than that in catallactics). Helping others can be very satisfying and make us happier, but we should remember that we are not the only ones who can evaluate our actions and benefit from them. Other people also observe our actions and judge us according to what we do. There are no obstacles to our believing that people who help others do better than those who do not. The fact that they make others happier as well as themselves does not make it impossible to regard their actions as much better than, for instance, laughing at the poor.

More importantly, we can say that people who enjoy helping others are on a high moral level, because, for example, they have spent their time on self-development, have flourished more and better, or have gained ethical knowledge. Thanks to this, they now have a better developed system of values and can be seen as doing better than others. So, we can accept both Mises's conception of human action and a sound ethics/morality, so that there is still a place for right and wrong. And we can still promote some values while condemning others.

Praxeology is not ethics. If we believe that there is an objective moral code to which we should adhere, we can still judge one human action as being better than another, even though we know that we cannot but prefer what we do. All in all, is it not good that we feel good when we do good?

  • 1. G. R. Beabout, R. F. Crespo, S. J. Grabill, K. Paffenroth, K. Swan, Beyond Self-Interest: A Personalist Approach to Human Action (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 2002), p. 100.

Paweł Nowakowski is a 2016 Mises Institute Fellow

Research areas: Austro-libertarianism.

Current affiliation: Independent researcher.

Future plans: To teach political science at the university level.

Previous Mises Institute events:

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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