Human Action, Ethics, Praxeology, Economics, and History

I recently spent some time integrating different concepts I read about into one coherent framework.

In particular I borrowed from Stefan Molyneux’ Universally Preferable Behavior and from Mises’ Human Action. The flowchart below is the result.

It enables you to (at least that’s the idea) categorize any theory someone proposes about Human Action into a proper sub-category.

Human Action, Ethics, Praxeology, Economics, and History


Examples of Theories About Human Action

  • Aesthetics: You should prefer truth to falsehood.
  • Morality: You should not initiate violence.
  • Personal Preference: I would prefer if you wore red rather than gray.
  • Economics: When one prefers 1 gold coin over good A, then he will be willing to surrender ownership of A in exchange for the coin.
  • Other Praxeology: A human who gets attacked will avoid the attack or defend himself.
  • Economic History: The average price of houses in the US declined from 2006 through 2010.
  • Other History: On October 29th Nima wrote this blog post on his laptop.

Determining True from False Theories About Human Action

As with any other science, the criterion for determining the truth or falsehood of a theory about Human Action, is logical validation and empirical accuracy.

Gray Areas

One issue that seems to worry people is that of gray areas. Most people are worried that if we allow for gray areas in the field of Ethics, it ceases to be a science. Others say that since there are gray areas in Ethics it doesn’t qualify as a science. Such assertions make little sense.

First of all, science is a process, not an absolute immutable law. It is the ongoing process of pursuing knowledge. It is true that the objective of science is the examination of truth versus falsehood in every field of human knowledge. But that doesn’t mean that there are no gray areas. There are certainly things that can without a doubt be confirmed as true or dismissed as false. Simple mathematical theories come to mind, for example. Then there are cases where the line becomes more blurred.

For example, biology teaches us that a bird has two wings, but once every so often a bird with one wing is born. Does this mean we are absolutely incapable of classifying the creature as a bird? Furthermore, does it completely detonate the science of biology?

Of course it doesn’t. It is thus the same way with Ethics. For example, sometimes the line between Aesthetics and Morality becomes blurry. To what extent can something be considered “considerable effort”?

Is it considerable effort if I’m a 3rd grader and I have to avoid walking by the 4th graders’ lockers because sometimes there is a bully who (rather pathetically) punches my shoulder? Maybe, but probably not as much as, say, having to move to another country. Is the bully’s action immensely evil? Probably not, at least not as evil as, say, waging a genocidal war that murders and/or dislocates millions of innocents.

Thus such gray areas actually help us explain why we condemn certain acts as enormous evils, while others can be considered minor evils, or even borderline aesthetically negative, rather than plain immoral.

Lifeboat Scenarios

Then there are those who like to put us to the test by confronting us with incredibly ridiculous horror scenarios or lifeboat situations which are supposed to invalidate the concept of objective Ethics: “What if a creature from another planet were to destroy the planet unless I raped a 29 year old prostitute using a condom? Surely THEN rape is moral, huh, huh??”

Such scenarios are not even remote arguments against the conceptual validity of Universally Preferable Behavior. Whether a space alien asks me to rape another person to save the world or not, it remains a true statement that rape cannot be universally preferable because the statement creates a logical contradiction. This would be akin to saying “Would you agree with the Grand Xenu that 1+1=3 if he threatened to destroy the whole world otherwise?” Heck, sure I would … does that mean that the theory 1+1 = 3 is true ??

Conformity with theories about Universally Preferable Behavior is optional. People are free to believe in false theories and act upon them. This doesn’t make the truth or falsehood of the theories ambiguous.

That having been said, I would like to encourage people to focus on solving the obvious problems we are facing in today’s world. Human Action, and Ethics in particular, is a science that is of course ultimately supposed to help us all live better and more peaceful lives. It is a science about rationally choosing and acting humans (where rational does NOT mean flawless, but rather non-instinctive action).

It is not a science about an imaginary society where all food has run out, all water is gone, all means of production have ceased functioning, all land has disappeared, and everyone is trapped in a giant ship that is sinking with only 3 lifeboats left to occupy. In such a world, human action ceases to exist and gives way to the instinctive and immediate whims of starving brutes fighting for survival. The relevance of Human Action and Ethics shrinks into irrelevant nothingness.

A medical doctor, well versed in the sciences of medicine and human biology, would be at a loss when tasked with saving an individual who suffers from tuberculosis, cancer, broken arms, and chopped off legs while having a heart attack and a brain aneurysm after having been hit by a train. Does this detonate the science of medicine?

The conceptual existence of gray areas and the conjuring up of lifeboat scenarios don’t make a dent in the concept of objective Ethics as defined by us here.

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5 thoughts on “Human Action, Ethics, Praxeology, Economics, and History”

  1. All of existence is gray. Chaos/complexity theory has taught us that in recursive feedback systems minor changes in input or initial conditions can result in very large variations in results, and large changes can result in small variations in results. This also becomes important in errors in measurement to determine results.

    All of existence consists of recursive feedback systems. Some such systems have a granularity that is so large or so small as to appear to be regular and ordered. Quantum mechanics, for example, is of a scale that to the human experience it results in the order that is studied in the field of physics. When scales are roughly equal to the human experience, however, the gray areas become extremely visible and important.

    The social sciences are studies of systems that are characterized by such recursive feedback mechanisms that are exactly on the scale of the human experience, they are the study of the human experience. We can recognize tendencies and trends in such studies but can never see the absolute order that can develop from the apparent chaos of human action and interaction. To understand that the greatest order is spontaneous and arises from free action of individual humans almost has to be taken on “faith” and a reliance on an understanding of the mechanisms that give such. As far as I can see it can’t be “proven”.

  2. I dissagree with the way you divide praxeology with ethics into mutually exclusive categories. One can simply see that when humans act in an ethical or unethical way, it has a stark effect on the economies, even on the price level…
    Would you consider revising your framework to account for this or would you like to disagree?

  3. I agree that “when humans act in an ethical or unethical way, it has a stark effect on the economies, even on the price level” but I don’t see how that affects the above framework. Chemistry is affected by physical forces, that doesn’t mean Chemistry and Physics cannot be clearly distinguished from one another.

  4. Nima, I completely agree with your example, as it demonstrates my point quite well. In many ways, Chemistry is considered a subset of Physics, hence they are not mutually exclusive.
    In the same way, I don’t believe Praxeology and ethics can be considered mutually exclusive. I would claim a more accurate diagram would be to either one a subset of the other (such as chemistry/physics), or they should overlap in a Ven-Diagram like fashion.
    If one chooses the Ven-Diagram Approach, one has the challenge of explaining in what circumstances do human action fall in exactly one of these categories

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