January 26, 2015

Ends and Means in Human Action: Ludwig von Mises and Jonathan Edwards

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

Economics is most importantly a subject that concerns the nature of human action.  This is why Mises chose the word “praxeology” to describe the proper methodology of economics as a science.  The study of economics must be grounded in the logic of action.  All action begins in the mind.  It is sourced in man as a thinker, as a reasonable creature.  Man is not driven by chemicals and hormones (we are not Behaviorists), but by the decisions that are made by the thinking ego, the will itself.  Human action is a result of the choices that man constantly makes in his mind.  And choices are made on the basis of preferred ends and means. What does the man desire (ends)? What must man do in order to attain those desires (means)?

Mises explains (Theory and History, page 12):

Whenever a human being is in a situation in which various modes of behavior, precluding one another, are open to him, he chooses. Thus life implies an endless sequence of acts of choosing. Action is conduct directed by choices.

Ludwig von Mises

The mental acts that determine the content of a choice refer either to ultimate ends or to the means to attain ultimate ends. The former are called judgments of value. The latter are technical decisions derived from factual propositions.

In other words, we act based on what we find value in; our ends, those things which we are aiming toward, are valuable to us.  And we act in pursuit of these things which are valuable to us, by way of a variety of means.  Here is Mises again (Human Action, page 92):

A means is what serves to the attainment of any end, goal, or aim. […] 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.

One thinker who preceded Mises by almost 200 years and who also commented on the nature of ends and means was Puritan Jonathan Edwards.  Edwards is a bit more detailed in his explanations and definitions than was Mises.  Edwards, in his dissertation on “The End for Which God Created the World,” divided up the ends and means by first distinguishing between what he called ultimate ends and chief ends.  The definition of an ultimate end is something that is sought after for its own sake.  That is, it is not only sought after as a means to accomplish some other end.  It may also have a role as a means, but the essence of an ultimate end is that there exists within it, something that is valuable in and of itself, to the acting agent.  The chief end, on the other hand, is strictly an end that is sought after for its own sake. It cannot also have a role as a means to something higher.  It is the most valuable end for the acting man and nothing stands above it as the object of man’s desire.  Edwards states:

though the chief end be always an ultimate end, yet every ultimate end is not always a chief end.

It is important to note that the ends are always dependent on the individual himself. What is valuable in this world depends on the one doing the valuing.  That is, in economic speak, value is subjective.  This doesn’t mean that the goodness or morality of the thing is subjective, it means that whether or not this thing is valuable depends on the individual (we ought to pray for a mind that puts value on the same things that God does!)

Jonathan Edwards

Now, the individual also needs a means by which to pursue these ends.  These means are called, by Edwards, subordinate ends.  They are inferior ends that only exist because they are useful in the attaining of a given ultimate end.  Say, for instance, that a man craves a bowl of ice cream. Satisfying that craving is the end or goal and now the man has to figure out how to accomplish this.  One subordinate end that exists in man’s pursuit of his goal is to open the freezer door.  The freezer door would not need to be opened if it wasn’t for the desire of the man to eat a bowl of ice cream.  Thus, a subordinate end is categorically not an end that has value in and of itself. It’s value depends on the given ultimate end.  If the man had a sudden change of mind regarding the ultimate end (say for instance that staying fit was more valuable to him than his desire for a bowl of ice cream), the freezer door need not be opened.  The value of opening the freezer only existed because of the desire of the man to eat ice cream.

It is interesting to find these great parallels between Christian theologians and secular economists!  In context, Edwards is explaining the logic of ends and means, setting up the definitional boundaries before he goes on to demonstrate that God’s chief end in his providence and creation of the world is united, it is one; namely it is to bring glory to Himself.  Being that humans are created in the image of God, that is, we are rational creatures, economics as a praxeological science works quite well within a Christian worldview.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • Brian K. Jacobson

    I had to write an essay on Edwards Treatise on the Freedom of the Will in college, I need to dig it up. Its slightly different from what he wrote in “The End for Which God Created the World.” He is arguing with an Arminian version of free-will (which oddly enough was called libertarian free will back then). He essentially comes up with a theory of all actions as maximum calculated utility ex ante. it’s incredible, you seriously could just use it as the introduction for a praxeological economics textbook.