The notion of action, its metaphysical implications, its differences with the “social fact” and the different disciplines that have addressed the study of rational action from philosophy (including the philosophy of science, law, technology, …) theology, anthropology, medicine, economics, jurisprudence and law, mathematics, logic and game theory, psychology and psychoanalysis, sociology, political science, history, pedagogy, and even physics, biology and aesthetics (artistic creation) make the study of human action a multidisciplinary theme.
Praxeology is the study of those aspects of human action that can be grasped a priori; in other words, it refers to the logical structure of human action, to conceptual analysis and to the logical implications of preference, choice, middle-end schemes, and so on.
The first postulate of the praxeology from which it obtains its axioms or elementary principles is that the man acts of rational form. “Rational” does not imply that the scarce means are assigned with perfect efficiency regarding the priority aims, having perfect and complete information, but, means are assigned to ends, in the presence of the possible error in assignment and uncertainty with respect to the limited knowledge of one another.
The basic principles of praxeology were enunciated by the Greek philosophers, Aristotle among others, who used them as the basis for a eudemonistic ethics (= justification of all that leads to happiness). This approach was developed by the scholastics, such as Thomas Aquinas, who extended the praxeological analysis to the foundations of the economy and the social sciences.
At the end of the 19th century, the praxeological approach to economics was rediscovered by Carl Menger, founder of the Austrian School. The term praxeology was first applied to this approach by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973). Together with his students (including Friedrich Hayek – Nobel for Economics in 1974) and Murray Rothbard, Mises used praxeological principles to show that much of the existing economic and social theory was conceptually incoherent.
Mises’s argument is that the methods of the natural sciences used by neoclassical economics cannot be used successfully for economic theory. It argues for the existence of a priori knowledge, the validity of pure theory, the use of deductive logic, the relentlessness of economic law, and the view that economics is no more than a part of a broader discipline than praxeology: the science of human action.
The most widely developed and well-known neoclassical paradigm of economics (Cambridge-Lausanne tradition) emphasizes those aspects of action best suited to the choice of alternative ends for the attainment of given ends, and with its objective, efficiency. This conception has led to a development alien to that of ethics, the normative science of human action oriented towards the attainment of the ends of man … [..] reflection on the theory of action, which has highlighted the economy, should be able to illuminate the reflection of ethics on human behavior (Argandoña, 2005).
Let us see the principles of human action:
Any human act responds to a motive, an intention, a (conscious) purpose of the one who performs the action. The end may be provoked by the environment, and act as a reaction, but it always does so with a subjective end, characteristic of the subject, of the agent who performs the action.
“Human action is a conscious behavior, mobilized will transformed into action, which seeks to achieve precise goals and objectives; it is a conscious reaction of the ego to the stimuli and circumstances of the environment; is a reflexive accommodation to that disposition of the environment that is influencing the life of the subject “(Mises, 1949).
“Humans act, in general, with the aim of solving their problems, with the aim of achieving satisfactions or the disappearance of dissatisfactions” (Pérez López, 1991).
Pérez López distinguishes the elements involved in the action:
- Interaction: action – reaction between the person performing the action and the one to whom the decision affects
- The person who performs the action, in which learning occurs (+ or -) depending on the consistency of the action
- The person affected by the decision, who will also experience learning.
And the motives that move it to action:
- Extrinsic reasons: to obtain a benefit that comes from the environment
- Intrinsic reasons:
- Operational learning*: to learn or acquire knowledge, skills, techniques, … and overcome a challenge, solve a problem, …
- Evaluative learning: for the evaluation of other people, to develop evaluative capacity, the value we give to them and their actions
- Transcendent reasons: we seek the utility or benefit that will have the action for other people (material needs, knowledge and human development). Sometimes these motives respond to altruism.
* Learning = any change that occurs in the agents as a consequence of the execution of the interaction process, provided that such change is significant for the explanation of future interactions.
In addition, Pérez López deepens the analysis of action within the subject, learning and relationship with others, incorporating the concepts of trust, effectiveness, efficiency and consistency of the decision (impact of the decision on the affected persons).
Argandoña (2005) cites the steps that follow one action:
- The identification of a less satisfactory situation, a need in or out of the subject, but which affects it, which can be converted into a more satisfactory situation, thus establishing the end of the action (the desirability of such transformation).
- The deliberation of the agent in which:
- Identifies available resources or resources
- Formulate the alternatives for the attainment of the end
- Analyze the expected consequences of its implementation
- It establishes the economic, ethical, social, political, etc. criteria. with which it will evaluate the means and carry out this evaluation
- The concretion of the current motivation that drives to start the action
- The decision or choice of means to carry out the action
- The implementation of the action
- The consequences or results of the action (to what extent the intended end is achieved or other effects, whether desired or not)
- The evaluation of the results achieved, and therefore the learning of the agent
- Correction of the decision whether it will be repeated in the future or if it is part of a longer-range plan
From the theory of human action in organizations
For Pérez López (1991) it is evident that the functioning of human organizations could only be scientifically analyzed through the explanation of the actions of the people that compose these organizations. It was also evident to the author that the realization of a concrete action, instead of different ones that were also possible for a given person, had to be explained according to the decision made by that person. In short, therefore, the starting point for the development of an “Organization Theory” had to be a “Theory of Decision“. The decisions determine the concrete actions that people perform, and it is this sum of actions that constitutes the joint action of the organization formed by these people. The nature of an organization specifies the set of possible actions of that organization, the same, so that the nature of people specifies the set of possible actions for these people.
From human action to social action
Social action is any action that has a meaning for those who perform it, affecting the behavior of others, orienting the action mentioned by said affectation.
The concept of social action belongs to the universe of sociology, which is the science that is dedicated to the study of social groups. In its broadest meaning, a social action is that human action that affects the behavior of others. The sociologist Max Weber contemplated four types of social action: the traditional (linked to customs), the affective (related to emotions), rational values (guided by a moral norm) and those aimed at a rational end .
Per Max Weber, Sociology is a science that seeks the understanding and interpretation of social action to obtain a causal explanation of both the course of social action itself and its effects.
If you want to know a little bit more …
Aristotle (1984) Nicomachean Ethics.
Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae (written between 1265-1274).
Mises, L.von (1949) Human action. Yale University Press, New Haven. Trad. Esp. : La Acción humana. Tratado de Economía. Madrid. Unión Editorial, 5ª ed. 1995.
Mises, L.von (1998) Human action. A treatise on Economics. The Scholar’s edition. Ludwig Von Mises Institute. Auburn, Alabama.
Pérez López, J.A. (1991) Teoría de la acción humana en las organizaciones. La acción personal. Rialp. Madrid.
Argandoña, A. (2005) Economía, teoría de la acción y ética. Ética y Economía. Junio 2005. Nº 823. ICE.
Ravier, A. (2011) El método de la economía política. Criterio Libre, 9 (14). Bogotá (Colombia). Enero-Junio 2011. Pp. 43-64.
Weber, M. (1993) Economía y Sociedad. Madrid. Fondo de Cultura Económica. 10ª reimpresión.
Other websites of interest on the topic: