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Brand Blanshard Takes a Swipe at Mises

October 20, 2007

Tags Calculation and Knowledge


An eminent economist writes: 'The spheres of rational action and economic action are... coincident. All rational action is economic. All economic activity is rational action.' And what is the end of economic activity? One's own pleasure. 'Action based on reason,' goes on Professor von Mises, 'action therefore which is only to be understood by reason, knows only one end, the greatest pleasure of the acting individual.'

Blanshard adds in a footnote:

Von Mises adds, to be sure, that 'pleasure' covers all human ends, 'noble and ignoble, altruistic and egotistical'. But he presumably means that it is the pleasure involved in beauty, knowledge, and the rest, that is actually sought; to identify pleasure with knowledge, e.g., would hardly be possible. And how the end of 'the greatest pleasure of the acting individual' could be described as 'altruistic' I do not understand. (Reason and Analysis, 53)

1. I've tried to get our resident pragmatist in the philosophy department to admit that there is speculative knowledge in addition to practical knowledge, and consequently the intellectual virtues (knowledge, understanding, wisdom) in addition to the moral virtues (prudence, etc.). But I think to no avail. So, Blanshard scores a point here. Where he is wrong is in holding that prudence is identical with foxlike craftiness, selfish cunning, and "scheming sagacity." Prudence is a great virtue, but it has vices opposed to it, like guile, fraud, "prudence of the flesh," and so on.

2. There is no need to identify pleasure with beauty and knowledge. Aquinas distinguishes between 3 goods not merely 2 (means and ends): the useful good (means), the virtuous good desired for its own sake (the end), and the pleasant good (the will's rest or repose in the end attained). Neither Mises nor Blanshard recognize this distinction.

3. How can one's pleasure be described as altruistic? When the good sought for another person is also your own good; when the beloved whose happiness you seek is another self or half of your soul, as Augustine put it. On the other hand, self-interest is not to be identified with charity (as in, the primal force and the theological virtue of). So, Mises got it half right.

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