Monday, August 9, 2010

4.1 Man and human action

4.1 Man and human action
Man is a living organism, a certain kind of animal. What differentiates man from other animals is possession of the faculty of reason. The biologist will refer to Homo sapiens sapiens’ precise location in the great family tree and focus on distinguishing him from both his prior ancestors and closest living Hominidae cousins[1], but our particular species is not exclusively what is covered by the concept of man[2]. What makes each of us an instance of man is the possession of the rational faculty, irrespective of how any species of creature whose members may be called men happened to obtain that faculty.[3]

The possession of the faculty of reason is so profound a difference from creatures who don’t possess it – a difference that need not even require biological kinship of any kind in order to unite instances of men together – that philosophy and all other sciences are justified in distinguishing men from all other animals and classing them under the same banner, transcending biological kinships completely. Issues such as cladistics are best left to biologists and those working from biological studies.[4] Man is the rational animal.[5] Whatever other type of creature a particular man may be is irrelevant to economic principles.

Rational Man
There are other physical characteristics that also separate man from other organisms. Other thinkers have focussed upon those characteristics and have formulated views of Man on their basis, be that implicitly or explicitly, and frequently with blatantly racist results.[6] Despite the faulty epistemological method of constructing these views, many still have currency today in both the broader culture and the narrower academic disciplines, which includes in economics. We must therefore refer to “Rational Man” to distinguish our conception of Man from those of other thinkers.[7] Rational Man is man as properly identified by the correct epistemological method: Rational Man means the conception of man as defined as the animal possessing the faculty of reason.

Care must be taken not to misunderstand the meaning of ‘rational’ in this context: man as Rational Man does not mean he will always act rationally, only that he has the ability to do so if he so chooses. The faculty of reason includes the capacity to choose one’s actions, because volition is an integral part of that faculty and necessary for its operation.[8] Having the faculty of reason thus equally necessarily includes having the choice to use, choice of how to use, and choice not to use, that faculty. Rationality is something that men must constantly reaffirm for and to themselves as a guide to their thinking. Thus the proper conception of Rational Man is man as he actually is; Rational Man is a living being capable of both using reason and also of not using it.

We know that reason is man’s only means of knowledge,[9] but this does not mean that he won’t attempt to gain knowledge by other means. The conditions are that his continued existence – if that is his goal – requires him to enact a bare minimum amount of reason to gain some knowledge and determine what to do to sustain his life, and that the rest of his behaviour not be so irrational as to compromise that minimum howsoever outrageous this irrational behaviour might otherwise be and howsoever miserable it makes him. The more he uses reason then the better his quality of life is apt to be, where if he doesn’t meet that minimum then his life won’t continue for long, but if he does meet that minimum but otherwise turns away from reason then he is able to wallow in that further irrationality and its consequent misery until the natural end of his days. Thus while all men are instances of Rational Man[10], we do have occasion to divide men into those who do affirm reason and those who don’t, as we will see.

Another mistake we must take care not to make is the belief that a man neither as an instance of Rational Man or a man actually exercising rationality in this thought processes means always being correct in his conclusions. The concept of Rational Man does not mean one who always makes the best decisions and the most accurate calculations. A man is not to be accounted irrational merely because he made a mistake. Rationality in application means only that man has made the commitment to being a man of reason if he so chooses. Rationality provides man with the only opportunity he has to gain knowledge with any dependability, but can never guarantee that he won’t make mistakes.

Man’s action
Volition and cognition are inherently individual activities. It is the individual man who must discover what reason is and how to use it. It is the individual who thinks, chooses, determines what to do and does it. Reason is an attribute of the individual, and irrespective of whether he uses his reason properly or not it is the individual who acts.[11] An outside party can assist in cognition through teaching, but only by bringing relevant facts, lines of thought and notices of error more readily to attention or hinder cognition through the reverse. Whether or not the individual chooses to learn from these presentations, good or ill, is exclusively that individual’s own choice. Similarly, an outside party can assist in determining what to do, including giving orders, but even for one man to follow another blindly is a course of action that must be chosen by that one man, and repeatedly so. It is always the individual who thinks, decides, and acts. Volition, by its fundamental nature, cannot be driven by causes outside of any particular physical being that possesses volition. The world outside man’s mind contains sources of considerations for, but not of causes of, his action. The only cause for action by men is the volitional faculty within each individual man: all action is that of individuals.

Amongst men, all group action is a derivative of individual action, not the other way around. Groups of men can only appear to act by virtue of their individual members doing so. The willpower of the individual alone is what moves that individual’s mind and body. This does not mean that others are irrelevant. Individuals can choose to take others into consideration, individuals can choose to learn from their teaching and experience, which includes learning prior received from others and which subsequently automatically comes to mind[12] each time a man has occasion to judge and act, but individuals can also choose not to take others into consideration or learn from them and choose not to follow what his subconscious automatically offers up to the forefront of his mind.[13] Wheresoever an individual acts to pursue the ends held by a group it is because either that individual somehow values what the group will accomplish by joint action, or that this individual has chosen to follow another’s lead, or that this individual has not chosen to challenge others' authority to direct him. In any event the matter is within the individual's power to control, and the consequences for good or for ill are on his own head for it. There is no merit in the notion that all individuals’ activities are determined in whole or in part by group influences that the individual physically cannot ignore. Individuals will only be group-directed to the extent they actively want to be or default into letting themselves be. A group is not a concrete thing but an abstraction, built out of concrete individual men with their own minds, their own choices, and their own ends.

The level of action we are concerned with is that pertinent to man’s conceptual consciousness. While we must pay some small attention to the non-volitional and unthinking actions, a detailed study of both these is for the medical fields to study, not economics. Economics is concerned with action that arises from the exercise of man’s mind, be that exercise done properly or not. Action by man is the deliberate initiation of action first in the mind and then subsequently in the rest of the body as directed by the mind. It is the carrying out of intentions after having purposefully deliberated beforehand what to do, whether specifically for and immediately prior to each action or by training conducted well-prior to action. The actions of the body then influence all other chains of cause-and-effect as the mind intends.

Reason as man’s means of survival
How any non-volitional organism acts is determined by its own physical nature and own means of survival accordingly, irrespective of what other organism do. Some organisms act in isolation, some act in small but coherent groups, and some act in great colonies so tightly organised as to give the effect of a single being. While examples of other organisms’ modes of life may be fascinating they do not tell us how man acts or how he should act. We are not biologists, and not here concerned with other organisms’ peculiarities. We are concerned only with man and his actions, that of what men actually do and of what they ought do, in the context of economic systems. What matters is this principle: if life is one’s goal then what one should do in pursuit of that goal is a consequence of what type of living organism one is and what one’s means of survival is. That man is differentiated from other animals by his reason suggests that man’s means of survival is his reason, but this must be actually supported. How might men survive, then?

Man is constantly in need of food to eat, water to drink, shelter from the elements, and so on, no different from many other organisms. Yet, as a physical being, man is outrun by both his predators and prey. He is outmatched in strength by organisms who are related to him but who are less than half his size. Most Homo sapiens sapiens would be troubled by just the normal temperature swings within a single day even in what would be the best physical environment in their capacity as Great Apes and deprived of the physical fruits of high intelligence. For food, without the fruits of his mind the best he can do is pick fruits and nuts, scratch the mud for edible plant matter, scavenge at the leavings of others, and in all cases hope like heck that his competitors don’t get there first because there’s a very high chance he’d lose a plain animal fight. Man’s ancestors lead an absolutely pitiful existence with extremely high mortality rates and abysmal life expectancies.

The only weapon of any note that man is born with is his reason. He can only act after thinking about and deciding what to do. He can only increase his chances of survival by using his mind to discover how to outmatch his predators and competitors with additional weapons, how to outwit them with sophisticated tactics, how to protect himself against the elements, and so on. Once he achieves that, which can only do by the first primitive use of reason, he can then go on to reason his way to greater security of life – if he so chooses to do so. Every creature has a means of survival, as determined by what type of living thing it is and from the conditions of life it faces. For man, then, it is indeed the same as that which differentiates him from all other creatures. Man’s particular means of survival is his rational faculty.[14]

1 At the time of writing, there are no less than twenty-two layers of biological classification from ‘organism’ to ‘Homo sapiens sapiens’!
2 Man is not synonymous with Homo sapiens sapiens. Biologically on Earth, ‘man’ also refers to several species and subspecies of the genus Homo, though with varying degrees of inclusivity and controversy. Moreover, we now have the technology to alter existing species or create new species with the faculty of reason were we so inclined to use it to that end. Man, for the purposes of economics, refers to any animal capable of reasoning, and so economics would be as equally applicable to say “Octopodo sapiens” as to Homo sapiens. However, at the time of writing the only species we happen to know of that is composed of men is our own. For the sake of ease of expression references to human will be treated as interchangeable with man. If that becomes inappropriate then discussion will be linguistically awkward until new words are devised.
3 As a cultural observation, note that not only is the appellation of “man” and “woman” regularly applied to the males and females respectively of non-human races in works of fantasy and science fiction, and that this is readily accepted by the audiences, but also that this is done without either the writers or the viewers seeming eve to think about the philosophical propriety of this: for instance, has this issue ever struck you before? It is a not universal rule – in Tolkien’s books there is the distinction of Men as opposed to Elves and Dwarves and other creatures, and the original Battlestar Galactica began with the biological creators of the Cylons giving orders to wipe out “the race known as man” – but the general rule seems to be in place. From a philosophical perspective I see no problem with this. The fundamental principles of epistemology, ethics, politics and art will apply equally to all species capable of conceptual thought, where the specific biological nature of given types of men would be but particular applications of fundamentals to those needs (sex and childrearing principles come to mind, for instance, and of course alien art bizarre by human standards is an occasional topic in some of the more cerebral science fiction shows).
4 Rand, A, (1990), op.cit. p44
5 Aristotle ref, the Metaphysics I think. I’ll get to it one day.
6 Racism is the claim that genetic heritage is important for anything beyond a given man’s objective medical needs. See Volume 2 some place.
7 These other thinkers often do not give names to their conceptions of man, but helpful (and tongue-in-cheek) suggestions exist for some of the most common. See Salsman, R, (recorded 1995) Economic Man: an obituary, Second Renaissance Books
8 needs ref
9 See above, section 2.5
10 We leave aside those few who are grievously mentally incapacitated. Another brief mention of these men is made later, but their existence does not affect the fundamentals of economics and so no further mention of them is made.
11 Peikoff, L, (1991) op.cit., pp198-206
12 Amongst other matters, this is an issue of social institutions, which are very important to economics. See the next chapter.
13 See below, section 4.9
14 Peikoff, L, (1992), op.cit, pp193-199

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