Thursday, July 19, 2012

Purposeful Action versus Mindless Behavior - Robert P. Murphy

When we look at the world and try to make some sense of it, one of the most basic and crucial distinctions we all make—usually without even realizing it—is the difference between purposeful action versus mindless behavior. When describing the trajectory of a baseball, we might mention things like mass, velocity, and air friction. We don’t say that the baseball “wants to move in a parabola,” or that the ball “gets bored with flying and eventually decides to land.” This would be nonsense talk to modern ears, and would strike us as very unscientific. But suppose that instead of a baseball, we are describing the motions of a jet aircraft. In that case, we would have no problem saying that the pilot “wants to avoid the turbulence” or that he “is running low on fuel and decides to land.”
This difference in how we describe the two events reflects a fundamental decision we make when interpreting the world around us. When we observe events, we can either attribute them to natural laws, or we can explain them (at least in part) by reference to the intentions of a conscious being. In short, we can choose whether to believe that another mind is at work.
We are here touching on some very deep philosophical questions, and obviously we are not going to give you “the final word” in this short lesson. But in order to make sense of economic theory, to give it a solid foundation, we need to be aware of the distinction between purposeful action versus mindless behavior. The laws of economics apply to the former, not to the latter. As we will see in Lesson 3, economics always involves the operation of at least one mind, meaning an intelligence that has conscious goals and will take steps to influence the material world in order to achieve those goals.
The difference between purposeful action versus mindless behavior is not simply the difference between human beings and “inanimate” matter. Various movements of a human being’s physical body can be examples of mindless behavior, too. For example, if I tell you, “I’ll give you $20 if you raise your right leg,” then we would interpret your subsequent behavior as an intentional response, where you purposely moved your leg because you wanted the money. But if your doctor whacks your right knee with a hammer to test your reflexes, the resulting movement in your leg would not be an example of purposeful action. Although your nervous system and brain were involved, we wouldn’t really say that your mind was involved. (Note that brain and mind are very different things, and that difference is crucial to this lesson.)
The lessons in this book apply to purposeful actions performed by conscious people who have goals in mind. Sometimes the boundary line between what is “conscious action” and “reflexive behavior” can be blurry, but that won’t really detract from the principles in this book. It’s true, a baseball outfielder might not be fully aware of the mental operations he performs when throwing the ball to second base. But he is very definitely trying to throw out the runner, because he wants his team to win the game. Even if he “miscalculates” and overthrows the base, all the lessons in this book apply to his intentional action, because he is a conscious being trying to exchange one situation for a different one that he thinks will be more desirable.
The economic principles in this book are not confined to “perfectly rational people.” The lessons in these pages apply to real people who use their minds to make exchanges in the real world every day.

Lessons for the Young Economist

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