Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Rejecting the Means-End Dichotomy

I posted a response to this discussion on the means-end dichotomy.

What do I mean when I say "I reject the means-end dichotomy"?

I mean that assuming that "means" and "ends" exist within humans is far too arbitrary. The abstractions of "means" and "ends" does not accurately reflect the human mind.

The means-end dichotomy can have useful applications. It helped us to understand Robinson Crusoe economics of how capital goods originate. Crusoe developed capital goods as a means to further his ends. The means-end dichotomy helped us to understand how producer and consumer goods behave in accord to human desires.

Therefore, the means-end dichotomy functions as an instrumental abstraction. Despite its unsoundness, it helps us to understand economic ideas. Roderick Long has used the term "non-precisive abstraction" to denote a similar idea.

So can we derive instrumental abstractions from science. Can we derive the means-end dichotomy from human psychology? However, we cannot.

We cannot derive instrumental abstractions from science. We can only apply instrumental abstractions to help us understand more complicated ideas. Mises has made a mistake of trying to derive instrumental abstractions from science.

For example, take Mises' argument for mythological individualism. Mises performed an ontological argument for methodological individualism. He said that "collectives do not exist, only individuals exist." He actually derived this instrumental abstraction.

However, in the social sciences, methodological individualism helps us understand social behavior with more precision. Because methodological individualism focuses on the individual to observe social trends, it has more precision than, say, examining social behavior by countries. Saying that "Germany attacked France" goes against methodological individualism, because it observes social behavior as countries instead of its constituent individuals.

However, as we emphasized, we cannot derive methodological individualism by making the ontological arguments. We can only justify methodological individualism for its practical application to help us understand social behavior with more precision.

We will discuss another mistake by Mises on instrumental abstractions. Mises derived ordinal value from science. He cannot do this. He can only justify ordinal value for its practical application.

We will list some practical applications of ordinal value over cardinal value in helping to understand the free price system:

  • The simplicity of ordinal value transgressing the overcomplicated numerical calculations of cardinal value.
  • A sound understanding of the behavior of the free price system does not require cardinal value.

Mises claimed the "impossibility" of cardinal value. This seems correct to some extent, because the human brain does not store utility in cardinal numbers. However, we could still implement cardinal value in economics. We can "numericalize" cardinal values by measuring pleasure experienced by neurons in the human brain and then converting it to some unit. Just like how we measure temperature by a thermometer. But we deny this, not because of its "impossibility", but of the two advantages of ordinal value over cardinal value: its simplicity and unnecessity.

We have demonstrated that ontological arguments such as "collectives do not exist" or "cardinal value does not exist" are irrelevant in the justification of instrumental abstractions. Mises could have truncated his ontological arguments in Human Action, while still making his book through and logical, or even better, because it's shorter. He could have explained that methodological individualism offers more precision in examining human behavior, instead of the ontological argument that "collectives do not exist." He could have explained that ordinal value offers more simplicity and the unnecessity of numerical calculations of cardinal value, instead of the ontological argument that "cardinal value does not exist." The incorporation of ontological arguments and the exclusion of precision arguments are one of the major mistakes in Human Actions.

Ontological arguments, besides its unnecessity, are even flawed in justifying instrumental values. To a certain degree, "collectives do exist". To a certain degree, "cardinal value does exist" (as shown by the neuron-thermometer example). Mises falsely assumed that the "existence" of an entity requires the unanimous existence in all contexts with perfect accuracy.

What about the means-end dichotomy? As said, we can consider it as an instrumental abstraction. Therefore, we cannot just assume "means" and "ends" and then apply it into any economic or ethical system without justifying it by precision arguments to understanding it. It is far too arbitrary to incorporate that "means" and "ends" into an ethical system just because these two words exist in the English language. Roderick Long extends the precision by splitting "means" into "constitutive means" and "instrumental means."

However, we could extend the precision further by replacing the two words "means" and "ends" with another set of words related to cognitive psychology. Instead of "means" and "ends", we could use "desires", "instincts", "habits", and "reflexes". Those four terms increase the precision further, instead of two under the means-end dichotomy. If interpreted under the means-end dichotomy, "habits" can sometimes be a means and sometimes be an end, and sometimes both. "Desires" can sometimes be a means because desires can change, and sometimes be and end in itself. While the means-ends dichotomy disregards and "desires" and "reflexes", cognitive psychology increases its precision further.

The means-end dichotomy is arbitrary because it disregards the precision, and oversimplifies them into means and ends. While Roderick Long and some Aristolean liberals improves upon it by either splitting "means" into "constitutive means" and "instrumental means," or, as in Aristotelian ethics, an "ultimate end to life". However, Aristotelian liberalism still has less precision than grounding ethics with cognitive psychology.

1 comment:

nirgraham said...

>>I mean that assuming that
>>"means" and "ends" exist within
>>humans is far too arbitrary. The
>>abstractions of "means" and
>>"ends" does not accurately
>>reflect the human mind.

You start out with what seems to be a straw man.

praxeology does not ontologically assert the existance of things called 'means' and 'ends' that are actually in you. like a heart 'is in you', nor are they intended to reflect the functioning of the human mind overall.

rather they are necessary, (though not sufficient), for the possibility of economically/politically/(and some might say morally) analysable 'human action'/

in what sense might we be making ontological assertions?, well in the same way that we assert that 'people feel feelings/emotions, they have a sad feeling etc.'
in the same way we assert 'there exist causes, which cause effects'

does praxeology want to or need to 'reflect the /whole/ mind'?, no! it needs to reflect on the mind that 'acts', it is focused on actions. we talk about the memory in so far as it provides datum for deciding on means, we talk about empathy in that it might be datum for means etc.

>>Can we derive the means-end
>>dichotomy from human psychology?
>>(...), we cannot.

no, we derive it from the logical impossibilty of 'human action' occurring without means...
and the logical impossibility of 'action' occuring without any goal (without any preference demonstration). (if you like, we are discounting any observable behaviour that is not purpuseful as being beyond our interest, it is not a human action, but mere datum that any actioner would take into consideration, but that is all).

>what about the means-end
>dichotomy? As said, we can
>consider it as an instrumental
>abstraction. Therefore, we cannot

its logically necessary given our purpose, so we can...