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Chapter 2 Action and Value

Human Action1

1. Ends and Means

The result sought by an action is called its end, goal, or aim. One uses these terms in ordinary speech also to signify intermediate ends, goals, or aims; these are points which acting man wants to attain only because he believes that he will reach his ultimate end, goal, or aim in passing beyond them. Strictly speaking the end, goal, or aim of any action is always the relief from a felt uneasiness.

A means is what serves to the attainment of any end, goal, or aim. Means are not in the given universe; in this universe there exist only things. A thing becomes a means when human reason plans to employ it for the attainment of some end and human action really employs it for this purpose. Thinking man sees the serviceableness of things, i.e., their ability to minister to his ends, and acting man makes them means. It is of primary importance to realize that parts of the external world become means only through the operation of the human mind and its offshoot, human action. External objects are as such only phenomena of the physical universe and the subject matter of the natural sciences. It is human meaning and action which transform them into means. Praxeology does not deal with the external world, but with man’s conduct with regard to it. Praxeological reality is not the physical universe, but man’s conscious reaction to the given state of this universe. Economics is not about things and tangible material objects; it is about men, their meanings and actions. Goods, commodities, and wealth and all the other notions of conduct are not elements of nature; they are elements of human meaning and conduct. He who wants to deal with them must not look at the external world; he must search for them in the meaning of acting men.

Praxeology and economics do not deal with human meaning and action as they should be or would be if all men were inspired by an absolutely valid philosophy and equipped with a perfect knowledge of technology. For such notions as absolute validity and omniscience there is no room in the frame of a science whose subject matter is erring man. An end is everything which men aim at. A means is everything which acting men consider as such.

It is the task of scientific technology and therapeutics to explode errors in their respective fields. It is the task of economics to expose erroneous doctrines in the field of social action. But if men do not follow the advice of science, but cling to their fallacious prejudices, these errors are reality and must be dealt with as such. Economists consider foreign exchange control as inappropriate to attain the ends aimed at by those who take recourse to it. However, if public opinion does not abandon its delusions and governments consequently resort to foreign exchange control, the course of events is determined by this attitude. Present-day medicine considers the doctrine of the therapeutic effects of mandrake as a fable. But as long as people took this fable as truth, mandrake was an economic good and prices were paid for its acquisition. In dealing with prices economics does not ask what things are in the eyes of other people, but only what they are in the meaning of those intent upon getting them. For it deals with real prices, paid and received in real transactions, not with prices as they would be if men were different from what they really are.

Means are necessarily always limited, i.e., scarce with regard to the services for which man wants to use them. If this were not the case, there would not be any action with regard to them. Where man is not restrained by the insufficient quantity of things available, there is no need for any action.

It is customary to call the end the ultimate good and the means goods. In applying this terminology economists mainly used to think as technologists and not as praxeologists. They differentiated between free goods and economic goods. They called free goods things available in superfluous abundance which man does not need to be economize. Such goods are, however, not the object of any action. They are general conditions of human welfare; they are parts of the natural environment in which man lives and acts. Only the economic goods are the substratum of action. They alone are dealt with in economics.

Economic goods which in themselves are fitted to satisfy human wants directly and whose serviceableness does not depend on the cooperation of other economic goods, are called consumers’ goods or goods of the first order. Means which can satisfy wants only indirectly when complemented by cooperation of other goods are called producers’ goods or factors of production or goods of a remoter or higher order. The services rendered by a producers’ good consist in bringing about, by the cooperation of complementary producers’ goods, a product. This product may be a consumers’ good; it may be a producers’ good which when combined with other producers’ goods will finally bring about a consumers’ good. It is possible to think of the producers’ goods as arranged in orders according to their proximity to the consumers’ good for whose production they can be used. Those producers’ goods which are nearest to the production of a consumers’ good are ranged in the second order, and accordingly those which are used for the production of goods of the second order in the third order and so on.

The purpose of such an arrangement of goods in orders is to provide a basis for the theory of value and prices of the factors of production. It will be shown later how the valuation and the prices of the goods of higher orders are dependent on the valuation and the prices of the goods of lower orders produced by their expenditure. The first and ultimate valuation of external things refers only to consumers’ goods. All other things are valued according to the part they play in the production of consumers’ goods.

It is therefore not necessary actually to arrange producers’ goods in various orders from the second to the nth. It is no less superfluous to enter into pedantic discussions of whether a concrete good has to be called a good of the lowest order or should rather be attributed to one of the higher orders. Whether raw coffee beans or roast coffee beans or ground coffee or coffee prepared for drinking or only coffee prepared and mixed with cream and sugar are to be called a consumers’ good ready for consumption is of no importance. It is immaterial which manner of speech we adopt. For with regard to the problem of valuation, all that we say about a consumers’ good can be applied to any good of a higher order (except those of the highest order) if we consider it as a product.

An economic good does not necessarily have to be embodied in a tangible thing. Nonmaterial economic goods are called services.

2. The Scale of Value

Acting man chooses between various opportunities offered for choice. He prefers one alternative to others.

It is customary to say that acting man has a scale of wants or values in his mind when he arranges his actions. On the basis of such a scale he satisfies what is of higher value, i.e., his more urgent wants, and leaves unsatisfied what is of lower value, i.e., what is a less urgent want. There is no objection to such a presentation of the state of affairs. However, one must not forget that the scale of values or wants manifests itself only in the reality of action. These scales have no independent existence apart from the actual behavior of individuals. The only source from which our knowledge concerning these scales is derived is the observation of a man’s actions. Every action is always in perfect agreement with the scale of values or wants because these scales are nothing but an instrument for the interpretation of a man’s acting.

Ethical doctrines are intent upon establishing scales of value according to which man should act but does not necessarily always act. They claim for themselves the vocation of telling right from wrong and of advising man concerning what he should aim at as the supreme good. They are normative disciplines aiming at the cognition of what ought to be. They are not neutral with regard to facts; they judge them from the point of view of freely adopted standards.

This is not the attitude of praxeology and economics. They are fully aware of the fact that the ultimate ends of human action are not open to examination from any absolute standard. Ultimate ends are ultimately given, they are purely subjective, they differ with various people and with the same people at various moments in their lives. Praxeology and economics deal with the means for the attainment of ends chosen by the acting individuals. They do not express any opinion with regard to such problems as whether or not sybaritism is better than asceticism. They apply to the means only one yardstick, viz., whether or not they are suitable to attain the ends at which the acting individuals aim.

The notions of abnormality and perversity therefore have no place in economics. It does not say that a man is perverse because he prefers the disagreeable, the detrimental, and the painful to the agreeable, the beneficial, and the pleasant. It says only that he is different from other people; that he likes what others detest; that he considers useful what others want to avoid; that he takes pleasure in enduring pain which others avoid because it hurts them. The polar notions normal and perverse can be used anthropologically for the distinction between those who behave as most people do and outsiders and atypical exceptions; they can be applied biologically for the distinction between those whose behavior preserves the vital forces and those whose behavior is self-destructive; they can be applied in an ethical sense for the distinction between those who behave correctly and those who act otherwise than they should. However, in the frame of a theoretical science of human action, there is no room for such a distinction. Any examination of ultimate ends turns out to be purely subjective and therefore arbitrary.

Value is the importance that acting man attaches to ultimate ends. Only to ultimate ends is primary and original value assigned. Means are valued derivatively according to their serviceableness in contributing to the attainment of ultimate ends. Their valuation is derived from the valuation of the respective ends. They are important for man only as far as they make it possible for him to attain some ends.

Value is not intrinsic, it is not in things. It is within us; it is the way in which man reacts to the conditions of his environment.

Neither is value in words and in doctrines. It is reflected in human conduct. It is not what a man or groups of men say about value that counts, but how they act. The bombastic oratory of moralists and the inflated pompousness of party programs are significant as such. But they influence the course of human events only as far as they really determine the actions of men.

3. The Scale of Needs

Notwithstanding all declarations to the contrary, the immense majority of men aim first of all at an improvement of the material conditions of well-being. They want more and better food, better homes and clothes, and a thousand other amenities. They strive after abundance and health. Taking these goals as given, applied physiology tries to determine what means are best suited to provide as much satisfaction as possible. It distinguishes, from this point of view, between man’s “real” needs and imaginary and spurious appetites. It teaches people how they should act and what they should aim at as a means.

The importance of such doctrines is obvious. From his point of view the physiologist is right in distinguishing between sensible action and action contrary to purpose. He is right in contrasting judicious methods of nourishment from unwise methods. He may condemn certain modes of behavior as absurd and opposed to “real” needs. However, such judgments are beside the point for a science dealing with the reality of human action. Not what a man should do, but what he does, counts for praxeology and economics. Hygiene may be right or wrong in calling alcohol and nicotine poisons. But economics must explain the prices of tobacco and liquor as they are, not as they would be under different conditions.

There is no room left in the field of economics for a scale of needs different from the scale of values as reflected in man’s actual behavior. Economics deals with real man, weak and subject to error as he is, not with ideal beings, omniscient and perfect as only gods could be.


Theory and History2

1. Judgments of Value and Propositions of Existence

Propositions asserting existence (affirmative existential propositions) or nonexistence (negative existential propositions) are descriptive. They assert something about the state of the whole universe or of parts of the universe. With regard to them questions of truth and falsity are significant. They must not be confounded with judgments of value.

Judgments of value are voluntaristic. They express feelings, tastes, or preferences of the individual who utters them. With regard to them there cannot be any question of truth and falsity. They are ultimate and not subject to any proof or evidence.

Judgments of value are mental acts of the individual concerned. As such they must be sharply distinguished from the sentences by means of which an individual tries to inform other people about the content of his judgments of value. A man may have some reason to lie about his valuations. We may describe this state of affairs in the following way: Every judgment of value is in itself also a fact of the actual state of the universe and as such may be the topic of existential propositions. The sentence “I prefer Beethoven to Lehar” refers to a judgment of value. If looked upon as an existential proposition, it is true if I really prefer Beethoven and act accordingly and false if I in fact prefer Lehar and for some reasons lie about my real feelings, taste, or preferences. In an analogous way the existential proposition “Paul prefers Beethoven to Lehar” may be true or false. In declaring that with regard to a judgment of value there cannot be any question of truth or falsity, we refer to the judgment as such and not to the sentences communicating the content of such a judgment of value to other people.

2. Valuation and Action

A judgment of value is purely academic if it does not impel the man who utters it to any action. There are judgments which must remain academic because it is beyond the power of the individual to embark upon any action directed by them. A man may prefer a starry sky to the starless sky, but he cannot attempt to substitute the former state which he likes better for the latter he likes less.

The significance of value judgments consists precisely in the fact that they are the springs of human action. Guided by his valuations, man is intent upon substituting conditions that please him better for conditions which he deems less satisfactory. He employs means in order to attain ends sought.

Hence the history of human affairs has to deal with the judgments of value that impelled men to act and directed their conduct. What happened in history cannot be discovered and narrated without referring to the various valuations of the acting individuals. It is not the task of the historian qua historian to pass judgments of value on the individuals whose conduct is the theme of his inquiries. As a branch of knowledge history utters existential propositions only. But these existential propositions often refer to the presence or absence of definite judgments of value in the minds of the acting individuals. It is one of the tasks of the specific understanding of the historical sciences to establish what content the value judgments of the acting individuals had.

It is a task of history, for example, to trace back the origin of India’s caste system to the values which prompted the conduct of the generations who developed, perfected, and preserved it. It is its further task to discover what the consequences of this system were and how these effects influenced the value judgments of later generations. But it is not the business of the historian to pass judgments of value on the system as such, to praise or to condemn it. He has to deal with its relevance for the course of affairs, he has to compare it with the designs and intentions of its authors and supporters and to depict its effects and consequences. He has to ask whether or not the means employed were fit to attain the ends the acting individuals sought.

It is a fact that hardly any historian has fully avoided passing judgments of value. But such judgments are always merely incidental to the genuine tasks of history. In uttering them the author speaks as an individual judging from the point of view of his personal valuations, not as a historian.

3. The Subjectivity of Valuation

All judgments of value are personal and subjective. There are no judgments of value other than those asserting I prefer, I like better, I wish.

It cannot be denied by anybody that various individuals disagree widely with regard to their feelings, tastes, and preferences and that even the same individuals at various instants of their lives value the same things in a different way. In view of this fact it is useless to talk about absolute and eternal values.

This does not mean that every individual draws his valuations from his own mind. The immense majority of people take their valuations from the social environment into which they were born, in which they grew up, that moulded their personality and educated them. Few men have the power to deviate from the traditional set of values and to establish their own scale of what appears to be better and what appears to be worse.

What the theorem of the subjectivity of valuation means is that there is no standard available which would enable us to reject any ultimate judgment of value as wrong, false, or erroneous in the way we can reject an existential proposition as manifestly false. It is vain to argue about ultimate judgments of value as we argue about the truth or falsity of an existential proposition. As soon as we start to refute by arguments an ultimate judgment of value, we look upon it as a means to attain definite ends. But then we merely shift the discussion to another plane. We no longer view the principle concerned as an ultimate value but as a means to attain an ultimate value, and we are again faced with the same problem. We may, for instance, try to show a Buddhist that to act in conformity with the teachings of his creed results in effects which we consider disastrous. But we are silenced if he replies that these effects are in his opinion lesser evils or no evils at all compared to what would result from nonobservance of his rules of conduct. His ideas about the supreme good, happiness, and eternal bliss are different from ours. He does not care for those values his critics are concerned with, and seeks for satisfaction in other things than they do.

4. The Logical and Syntactical Structure of Judgments of Value

A judgment of value looks upon things from the point of view of the man who utters it. It does not assert anything about things as they are. It manifests a man’s affective response to definite conditions of the universe as compared with other definite conditions.

Value is not intrinsic. It is not in things and conditions but in the valuing subject. It is impossible to ascribe value to one thing or state of affairs only. Valuation invariably compares one thing or condition with another thing or condition. It grades various states of the external world. It contrasts one thing or state, whether real or imagined, with another thing or state, whether real or imagined, and arranges both in a scale of what the author of the judgment likes better and what less.

It may happen that the judging individual considers both things or conditions envisaged as equal. He is not concerned whether there is A or B. Then his judgment of value expresses indifference. No action can result from such a neutral disposition.

Sometimes the utterance of a judgment of value is elliptical and makes sense only if appropriately completed by the hearer. “I don’t like measles” means “I prefer the absence of measles to its presence.” Such incompleteness is the mark of all references to freedom. Freedom invariably means freedom from (absence of) something referred to expressly or implicitly. The grammatical form of such judgments may be qualified as negative. But it is vain to deduce from this idiomatic attire of a class of judgments of value any statements about their content and to blame them for an alleged negativism. Every judgment of value allows of a formulation in which the more highly valued thing or state is logically expressed in both a positive and a negative way, although sometimes a language may not have developed the appropriate term. Freedom of the press implies the rejection or negation of censorship. But, stated explicitly, it means a state of affairs in which the author alone determines the content of his publication as distinct from a state in which the police has a right to interfere in the matter.

Action necessarily involves the renunciation of something to which a lower value is assigned in order to attain or to preserve something to which a higher value is assigned. Thus, for instance, a definite amount of leisure is renounced in order to reap the product of a definite amount of labor. The renunciation of leisure is the means to attain a more highly valued thing or state.

There are men whose nerves are so sensitive that they cannot endure an unvarnished account of many facts about the physiological nature of the human body and the praxeological character of human action. Such people take offense at the statement that man must choose between the most sublime things, the loftiest human ideals, on the one hand, and the wants of his body on the other. They feel that such statements detract from the nobility of the higher things. They refuse to notice the fact that there arise in the life of man situations in which he is forced to choose between fidelity to lofty ideals and such animal urges as feeding.

Whenever man is faced with the necessity of choosing between two things or states, his decision is a judgment of value no matter whether or not it is uttered in the grammatical form commonly employed in expressing such judgments.

  • 1. [Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (1949; Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 1998), chap. 4: “A First Analysis of the Category of Analysis,” pp. 92–98.]
  • 2. [Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History (1957; Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 1985), chap. 1: “Judgments of Value,” pp. 19–25.]
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