Collingwood Was Right, and Mises Wrong

Mises famously treated moral choices as just another species of economic choice:

"All human values are offered for option. All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another. Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference." -- Human Action

Collingwood saw the important difference between merely economic action and moral action that Mises missed:

"It is thus possible to distinguish three types or forms of action. First, the doing something because it is what we want to do; secondly, the doing it because it is expedient; thirdly, the doing it because it is right. The first is the sphere of impulsive action; the second, of economic; the third, of moral. These three are not mutually exclusive species of a genus. There is no action in which impulse or desire does not play a part, and there is, therefore, a sense in which all action is impulsive. So far, the hedonist, who argues that everybody does precisely what he wants to do, is in the right. But though impulse is, as it were, the foundation of all action, the hedonist is wrong in arguing-- as in effect he must argue--that economic and moral acts differ in nothing essential from acts of pure impulse. The mere fact that he has to twist these types of action into conformity with his standard shows that hedonism is a dialectical tour de force rather than an unbiased statement of the facts. We applaud his ingenuity in showing that the sweated labourer and the religious martyr are simply enjoying themselves, but even he is not really convinced by it. In economic action impulse is, though present, subordinated to utility, much as in moral action utility is subordinated to duty. Hence the hedonist's effort to drag economic action into line with impulsive action is parallel to, and cannot succeed better than, the utilitarian's effort to drag moral action into line with economic..."

"In moral action; on the other hand, the distinction is present, but it is merged in a fresh unity; thus it is actually a definition of moral action to say that a moral act is an end in itself, that the good will is the will which wills itself, and the like. The end which the moral man sets before himself is to be good; and the only means to being good is--being good." -- "Economics as a Philosophical Science," (emphasis mine)

This is a very important distinction. What it means, among other things, is that when making a genuinely moral choice, one should not be engaged in utility calculations as to the likely outcomes: you should be trying to do the right thing. So, when faced with the question of whether to have a market in human babies, you don't weigh up the hypothetical benefits available from committing the evil act of buying and selling human beings. When asked to mass murder a hundred thousand people, you do not start wondering whether "under the circumstances" it might be OK: you say 'no.'


  1. I think libertarianism would have been much better off if it had not been influenced by Mises.

  2. It's rare, but some libertarians do seem to criticize this kind of thinking. There was one really good debate between David Friedman and George H. Smith and video of it was posted here. The topic of discussion was peculiar, but probably relevant. I think Smith won hands down since Friedman was kind of left floundering.

  3. Gene I agree with you that in practice many Austro-libertarians make the mistake you are describing here, but I don't think you are accurately describing Mises' position.

    Mises is talking about human action. He explicitly rejects the homo economicus model. Do you think it's a mistake to distinguish between purposeful behavior per se?

    1. Perhaps Weber's distinction between instrumental rationality and value rationality might help here.

    2. Bob, I let Mises describe his position!!! (How's that for exclamation marks?)

      "Do you think it's a mistake to distinguish between purposeful behavior per se?"

      Colllingwood IS distinguishing purposeful behavior also. New post to come.

  4. I think you're making a mistake here. Though utilitarianism and economism feel like they might be tied, one can be conceived of without the other. Economism isn't about weighing benefits to me. Instead, it's more akin to economic reductionism and value judgments that pretend to be positive analysis.

    1. Yes, that is basically the same distinction Collingwood is making.


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