Two years ago to this date, I authored a blog about human action and personal journeys (here). Since that time, my thoughts have taken on more shape as to how I think human action, an idea from the great economist Ludwig von Mises, readily applies to the field of counseling. Although a concept used by Mises in the field of economics, it equally applies to the field of counseling because Mises saw human action as an approach not only to economics but to life as a whole. Human action is not a conceptual tool merely for economists. It’s an idea that addresses how human beings approach life. In some ways Mises’ idea is similar to some of Alfred Adler’s work, and more contemporarily, to some of the ideas found in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Likewise, although Mises spoke about the science of human action, he held strongly to the notion that economics was not and should not be conceptualized as a science in the framework of the natural or physical sciences. Both Mises and F.A. Hayek, another great Austrian economist, addressed the notion of scientism, whereby fields that deal with human action seek to emulate the natural sciences rather than carving out their own domain utilizing the proper tools for the study of that domain. As such Mises was leery of the emphasis on strict empiricism, materialism, determinism, and reductionism in conceptualizing human beings and human action. Evaluation, meaning, and purpose ensconced in time set the human being apart from other animals. I concur with Mises, and I believe just as he viewed economics, that the field of counseling is not a hard science, as designated by the fields of physics, chemistry, and biology. Although these fields make their important contributions to understanding human nature, the human being is more than the sum of his physical and biochemical parts, and his existence should not be reduced to any material part of his being. The use of his mind sets him apart from all other animals. In agreement with Adler, Mises posits the human being’s teleological actions. Why I would employ notions garnered from Mises rather than being a straightforward Adlerian is because I think Mises captured what he calls the science of human action in a way that, at least for me, is more applicable than several Adlerian concepts from which I wouldn’t draw. Likewise, I believe ACT has similar concepts that contribute to my conceptualization of human action. Unlike ACT, however, I’m not a behaviorist. This blog article builds on the earlier blog I wrote and delineates how I would use Mises’ concepts as a science of human action to guide me in my work with clients.
Mises posited a simple axiom: human act. In his approach to the science of human action, he sought to explain what human action is all about and how human beings use action to obtain what they seek and hope for in life. From an economic perspective, Mises postulated that human beings seek to exchange one set of circumstances for another set of circumstances that they view as more valuable, providing them the kind of life they desire. Hence, human beings evaluate. They exchange something for something else that they value more. Although Mises was an economist, he was also a social scientist, so he didn’t view human action in merely economic terms as we think of that field today. He sought in the science of human action how we could better come to understand the truths of human nature. The human being is an idea generator. His ideas guide him through life.
Ideas, Beliefs, Values, and Actions
Individuals act toward certain goals based on ideas and beliefs they hold and evaluations they make. Hence the goals they set are generated by beliefs and values they hold, beliefs and values that will lead them to the kind of lives they hope for themselves. In seeking to carve out their lives based on what they believe and how they evaluate things in the world, human beings act on what they hold to be true and valuable to themselves. In other words, they seek certain valued ends. Ends or goals that human beings seek require means to get to those ends. The actions that human beings take are the means to bring about the ends for which they hope, aim, and value. Beliefs and evaluations mean we use our mind to carve out our existences, setting us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.
As human beings we are ensconced in time. We possess only a limited amount of it to accomplish what we hope to achieve. In making plans or setting goals, we must take into account that to reach the ends we hope for, a certain amount of time must be expended. We cannot escape that human truth. Questions revolving around time cause other values to come into play. How much time am I willing to expend to reach a certain goal? Is the amount of time required worth the trade off for seeking that end? Are there means I can use to reduce the amount of time it takes to reach a specific goal? If not, then am I willing to embrace the value of delayed gratification. Time is an important consideration on several levels. Time is a resource with which we are limited. Time is the pressure cooker that heats up our willingness to expend energy that we put into seeking certain ends. It is human nature to want the things we desire as quickly as we can get them with the least amount of effort expended. Becoming aware of this characteristic in our nature, we can choose to do something about it. The something we can choose is delayed gratification. We exchange the discomfort of longer amounts of time and greater amounts of effort required for goals that we believe will be worthwhile in the long run. Long- run living as opposed to short-run living is an exchange we make in life based on values we’re willing to embrace. Obviously, the older we get, the more the factor time plays in our decisions. Time is always the pressure point in the decisions we make for how we want to live our lives.
One of the major characteristics that set the human being apart from other animals is the use of our mind in making choices. The choices we make are signposts regarding the beliefs we hold and the evaluations we make about things in the world. We choose our ends, and then we choose the means to accomplish those ends in the most efficient manner we can. If we come to realize that our chosen ends are not necessarily the ones we truly desire, then we change our mind, and thereby, change our course in life. These changes cost effort and time. If we come to realize that the evaluations we make are not necessarily the values we thought we held, then a change in valuation leads to life changes as well. As we navigate the sinuous path called life, we are constantly faced with choices we have to make. Do I truly value A instead of B? If I thought I valued A but came to realize I value B, then what does that mean in terms of means and ends? What if I set my mind on an end, and then realize it’s not an end that I truly desire? Such changes in beliefs, values, and goals can lead to particular tweaks applied to our navigations, or they may lead to revolutions as to how we determine to pursue life. Along the way, there are always the choices we make and the questions revolving around the payoffs and trade offs that go with those choices.
Individual Meaning and Purpose
Another major characteristic that sets human beings off from other animals is our desire to pursue a meaningful and purposeful life. We set ends for ourselves because we value those ends. Where we want to get to, what we want to achieve, and all we hope to accomplish means something to us on a deep level. A common experience we encounter is that as we set ends and accomplish them, those ends themselves can become means that keep us moving on toward what we consider greater and deeper goals. All in all, ends and the means we use to accomplish them hopefully will lead us to a place in life that is meaningful for us. Values, meaning, and purpose go hand-in-hand and drive each individual toward a set of goals. As such, they are highly individualistic as opposed to collectivistic. Each individual must decide what he or she wants from life. Although we are interconnected, no other individual can ultimately decide the course of our lives for us. If we give that decision over to someone else, then we have given over our life to someone else. In doing so, we become less than human. Mises was highly individualistic in his formulations, and so am I.
What does a science of human action mean for my work as a counselor? I too have chosen ends. I do not work in a hospital setting or in what may be considered severe mental illness settings. Although that kind of work is valuable, I leave it to those who choose to do it. I work in a private practice geared toward individuals who are experiencing certain transitions in their lives. Such transitions lead them to question what’s next in their lives. They may need to explore what means they can use to accomplish the ends they hope to achieve. Then again, they may not be that clear as to the ends they want to pursue. Or they may need to start with clarifying exactly what their values are before they begin moving forward in their lives. In their work with me they can take the time to reflect – to contemplate – how their beliefs and values interact with the goals they want to set for themselves. They may need to stare the pressure cooker of time in the face and deal with how much or how little of that resource they possess. Perhaps time is teaching them the lesson to exchange short-run living for long-run living in the form of delayed gratification. They may be faced with the struggle of radically changing what they thought they believed and valued. Perhaps it’s time for them to search for and reflect on what is ultimately meaningful and purposeful for them. This is the kind of work I do.
Science is a systematized body of knowledge. What Mises designated as a science of human action does not draw on the methods and tools utilized in the natural sciences. Counseling is its own domain and field of endeavor. It is not physics, nor is it chemistry. To seek to emulate those fields would entail scientism rather than being scientific. The field of counseling possesses its own value in what it offers individuals. The counseling setting is a space where people can reflect on what they want to do and how they can move toward what they desire for their lives. Humans act. One action is to enter therapy to reflect, clarify, contemplate, and then evaluate so as to move toward certain goals. This is all part of human action. The conclusions that people reach in counseling are not left at the door as they exit the counseling process. Like anything else that human beings engage, clients will decide what value counseling played in their lives. They will act on it accordingly as they see fit.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/July 14th 2019