1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School

Search Mises.org

XXXIX. ECONOMICS AND THE ESSENTIAL PROBLEMS OF HUMAN EXISTENCE


1. Science and Life


It is customary to find fault with modern science because it abstains from expressing judgments of value. Living and acting man, we are told, has no use for Wertfreiheit; he needs to know what he should aim at. If science does not answer this question, it is sterile. However, the objection is unfounded. 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 question, of course, has been raised too and will always be raised. What is the meaning of all these human endeavors and activities if in the end nobody can escape death and decomposition? Man lives in the shadow of death. Whatever he may have achieved in the course of his pilgrimage, he must one day pass away and abandon all that he has built. Each instant can become his last. There is only one thing that is certain about the individual's future--death. Seen from the point of view of this ultimate and inescapable outcome, all human striving appears vain and futile.

Moreover, human action must be called inane even when judged merely with regard to its immediate goals. It can never bring full satisfaction; it merely gives for an evanescent instant a partial removal of uneasiness. As soon as one want is satisfied, new wants spring up and ask for satisfaction Civilization, it is said, makes people poorer, because it multiplies their wishes and does not soothe, but kindles, desires. All the busy doings and dealings of hard-working men, their hurrying, pushing, and bustling are nonsensical, for they provide neither happiness nor quiet. Peace of mind and serenity cannot be won by action and secular ambition, but only by renunciation and resignation. The only kind of conduct proper to the sage is escape into the inactivity of a purely contemplative existence.

Yet all such qualms, doubts, and scruples are subdued by the irresistible force of man's vital energy. True, man cannot escape death. But for the present he is alive; and life, not death, takes hold [p. 882] of him. Whatever the future may have in store for him, he cannot withdraw from the necessities of the actual hour. As long as a man lives, he cannot help obeying the cardinal impulse, the elan vital. It is man's innate nature that he seeks to preserve and to strengthen his life, that he is discontented and aims at removing uneasiness, that he is in search of what may be called happiness. In every living being there works an inexplicable and nonanalyzable Id. This Id is the impulsion of all impulses, the force that drives man into life and action, the original and ineradicable craving for a fuller and happier existence. It works as long as man lives and stops only with the extinction of life.

Human reason serves this vital impulse. Reason's biological function is to preserve and to promote life and to postpone its extinction as long as possible. Thinking and acting are not contrary to nature; they are, rather, the foremost features of man's nature. The most appropriate description of man as differentiated from nonhuman beings is: a being purposively struggling against the forces adverse to his life.

Hence all talk about the primacy of irrational elements is vain. Within the universe the existence of which our reason cannot explain, analyze, or conceive, there is a narrow field left within which man is capable of removing uneasiness to some extent. This is the realm of reason and rationality, of science and purposive action. Neither its narrowness nor the scantiness of the results man can obtain within it suggest the idea of radical resignation and lethargy. No philosophical subtleties can ever restrain a healthy individual from resorting to actions which--as he thinks--can satisfy his needs. It may be true that in the deepest recesses of man's soul there is a longing for the undisturbed peace and inactivity of a merely vegetative existence. But in living man these desires, whatever they may be, are outweighed by the urge to act and to improve his own condition. Once the forces of resignation get the upper hand, man dies; he does not turn into a plant.

It is true, praxeology and economics do not tell a man whether he should preserve or abandon life. Life itself and all 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.

Previous Page * Next Page

Table of Contents