Books / Digital Text

1. The Fundamentals of Human Action

1. The Concept of Action

THE DISTINCTIVE AND CRUCIAL FEATURE in the study of man is the concept of action.1 Human action is defined simply as purposeful behavior. It is therefore sharply distinguishable from those observed movements which, from the point of view of man, are not purposeful. These include all the observed movements of inorganic matter and those types of human behavior that are purely reflex, that are simply involuntary responses to certain stimuli. Human action, on the other hand, can be meaningfully interpreted by other men, for it is governed by a certain purpose that the actor has in view.2 The purpose of a man's act is his end; the desire to achieve this end is the man's motive for instituting the action.

All human beings act by virtue of their existence and their nature as human beings.3 We could not conceive of human beings who do not act purposefully, who have no ends in view that they desire and attempt to attain. Things that did not act, that did not behave purposefully, would no longer be classified as human.

It is this fundamental truth—this axiom of human action—that forms the key to our study. The entire realm of praxeology and its best developed subdivision, economics, is based on an analysis of the necessary logical implications of this concept.4 The fact that men act by virtue of their being human is indisputable and incontrovertible. To assume the contrary would be an absurdity. The contrary—the absence of motivated behavior—would apply only to plants and inorganic matter.5

  • 1. For further reading on this topic, the best source is the epochal work of Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1949), pp. 1–143, and passim.
  • 2. Cf. ibid., p. 11; F.A. Hayek, “The Facts of the Social Sciences,” in Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 57–76; Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1952), pp. 25–35; and Edith T. Penrose, “Biological Analogies in the Theory of the Firm,” American Economic Review, December, 1952, pp. 804–19, especially 818–19.
  • 3. Cf. Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea, Bk. I, especially ch. vii.
  • 4. This chapter consists solely of a development of the logical implications of the existence of human action. Future chapters—the further parts of the structure—are developed with the help of a very small number of subsidiary assumptions. Cf. Appendix below and Murray N. Rothbard, “Praxeology: Reply to Mr. Schuller,” American Economic Review, December, 1951, pp. 943–46; and “In Defense of ‘Extreme Apriorism,’” Southern Economic Journal, January, 1957, pp. 314–20.
  • 5. There is no need to enter here into the difficult problem of animal behavior, from the lower organisms to the higher primates, which might be considered as on a borderline between purely reflexive and motivated behavior. At any rate, men can understand (as distinguished from merely observe) such behavior only in so far as they can impute to the animals motives that they can understand.