The relation between this understanding of an economic “end” and the economic aspect of activity in general is clear. We have, in the description of the economically motivated act as one directed at gaining the power to achieve ends, the view precisely opposite to the older notion of economic activity as directed to a single, sharply defined end (such as material goods and the like). The first step taken by Robbins away from the older type of definition was the recognition of an economic aspect to activity in general, regardless of the concrete nature of the particular ends involved. With the adjective “economic” freed of positive association with specific ends, Robbins is now able to press still further and identify the economic motive with activity distinguished precisely by the of any specifically selected ends.
We shall begin the more detailed dissection of the category of human action and the discussion of its suitability to serve as the focus of the economic point of view with a survey of the role of in action. It has already been noticed in this chapter that it is purpose that endows the behavior of men with the unique properties that praxeology finds in human action. The views of Croce and Weber have been cited in this connection as expressions of the discovery, in the act, of a phenomenon unlike anything coming within the range of observation of the physical sciences. Stones dislodged from a hillside by the elements and hurtling down on the unsuspecting traveller in the valley are part of a different “event” than stones hurled with intent by men waiting in ambush. The latter are hurled with purpose; they are—in this case literally— by human beings. Stone-throwing by human beings is something that the scientist can in part “explain” by reference to an element not present in natural phenomena, viz., the conscious aim of the thrower. Praxeology takes this very element as its point of departure; it finds human actions amenable to analysis in that they bear the imprint of a constraint imposed by chosen goals.
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The proposition that the notion of purpose implies a constraint that one select the most suitable means for the fulfilment of the purpose is not a proposition that purpose. The proposition as such cannot, for example, be “explained” (as Macfie does) by the postulation of a moral urge to fulfil one's purposes. Rather, the proposition, on the praxeologicalview, sets forth the nature of purpose itself. The statement that man's actions are purposeful is thus only another way of saying that man feels constrained to match means to ends.
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In this characteristic, praxeology finds a sufficient source of explanation for the specific patterns of action, among which the judicious disposal of scarce means appears as a frequent example. But a really unique criterion for the definition of economics is not to be found in the idea of allocating scarce resources, nor can this concept serve as an adequate foundation on which that science can be constructed. The point is not that acting man ponders the comparative efficacy in different uses of certain given “means,” but that he behaves under a constraint that he himself has imposed, i.e., the necessity of acting in order to achieve what he wants to achieve, so that his behavior tends to conform to the pattern implied by his scale of ends. “Means” exist as such for acting man only he has turned them to his purpose; acting is not apportioning, but —doing what seems likely to further one's purposes.
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The crucial position that purpose fills in the praxeological system is intimately connected, of course, with the conception of human action as rational. Rationality in human behavior consists, after all, in the consistent pursuit of one's own purposes; in selecting the means that appear best adapted to the achievement of one's goals; in refraining from courses of action that might frustrate their achievement or promise only the attainment of less valued, at the expense of more highly prized, objectives. The place of the rationality of action is sufficiently important for the praxeological point of view to deserve separate discussion in a subsequent section of this chapter. It is sufficient at this point, forthe appreciation of the praxeological importance of human purposefulness, to emphasize as much as possible that a concept of rationality exists for praxeology only as the expression of human purposes.