Augustine contra Mises on “(dis)ordered loves”

Mises observes that “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” (Human Action 94). And as a general principle of human behavior, I think the statement accurate enough. But Mises actually thinks the statement isn’t rigid enough, writing that

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. (95)

For Mises, in other words, it is no mere general principle, but an inexorable law admitting of no exceptions, that human action is arranged in a hierarchical scale in which the higher wants are satisfied in advance of lower ones.

A couple of responses, the first of which is that this conflation of human wants or values to actual human action (which Mises defines as “purposeful human behavior”) seems to be guilty of the very kind of reductionism that Mises faults the behaviorists (Skinner, et al.) for when they reduce human action to mere behavior, apart from the subjective, purposive, teleological, or goal-oriented aspect that Mises makes central to his analysis.

My second response is related to the first but is inspired by Augustine, which is that this seems like an awfully naive and overly optimistic understanding of man, in that it assumes an unrealistic degree of self-transparency involved in human wants or desires (or what Augustine would call “loves”). Is it really the case, after all, that what we really want or love is always so obvious or clear to us, such that there is, in Mises’s words, a “perfect agreement” between our scale of values on the one hand and our actions on the other? This seems highly unlikely, if not manifestly false. For Augustine, who was deeply impressed by the effects of sin, both original and otherwise, on human reasoning, believed that the human soul was a virtual rats’ nest of affections, proclivities, aversions, motives, prejudices, biases, and so forth, a web of lusts, in short, so complicated that only God had the wisdom to possibly sort it all out. What is more, Augustine believed that, for all his fallenness, man’s deepest desire remains the desire for communion with the God in whose image he has been made: “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.” This is all to say that, in an important sense, apart from the redemption had in Christ, in and through whom alone our disordered  loves may become rightly ordered ones, man never acts so as to satisfy what is of “highest value” first.


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