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A Short Critique of Long's Theory of Constitutive Means

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Are you familiar with introversive labour?

Where there is no property there is no justice; a proposition as certain as any demonstration in Euclid

Fools! not to see that what they madly desire would be a calamity to them as no hands but their own could bring

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Sage replied on Tue, Dec 29 2009 10:21 AM

Stating it this way, I don't think outside sources are relevant. The question is purely one of the coherency of the concept. Can an action be an end? The notion of constitutive means hinges on the answer being "Yes." I make a case for "No."

I'm just not sure how to approach the issue, so I'd like to see how philosophers think about it. In my experience, it's much easier to solve these types of puzzles by building off what the experts say, rather than starting from scratch.

The problem is that the concept of constitutive means seems to be widely used, but there are no entries for it in Wikipedia, IEP, or SEP. - The Positive Political Economy of Anarchism

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Adam Knott replied on Tue, Dec 29 2009 10:55 AM



"I'm just not sure how to approach the issue, so I'd like to see how philosophers think about it."


Here's one philosopher's thinking on the issue:

"...thought all the social phenomena with which we can possibly deal may have physical attributes, they need not be physical facts for our purpose.  That depends on how we shall find it convenient to classify them for the discussion of our problems.  Are the human actions which we observe, and the objects of these actions, things of the same or a different kind because they appear as physically the same or different to us, the observers---or for some other reason?"

"It is easily seen that all these concepts....refer not to some objective properties possessed by the things, or which the observer can find out about them, but to views which some other person holds about the thing."

"...they can be defined only be indicating relations between three terms: a purpose, somebody who holds that purpose, and an object which that person things to be a suitable means for that purpose.  If we wish, we could say that all these objects are defined not in terms of their "real" properties but in terms of opinions people hold about them."

"What I am arguing is that no physical properties can enter into the explicit definition of any of these classes, because the elements of these classes need not posses common physical attributes, and we do not even consciously or explicitly know which are the various physical properties of which an object would have to posses at least one to be member of a class.  The situation may be described schematically by saying that the objects a, b, c,..., which may be physically completely dissimilar and which we can never exhaustively enumerate, are objects of the same kind because the attitude of X toward them all is similar.  But the fact that X's attitude toward them is similar can again be defined only by saying that he will react toward them by any of of the actions x, y, z,..., which again may be physically dissimilar and which we will not be able to enumerate exhaustively, but which we just know to "mean" the same thing."

"The common attributes which the elements of any of these classes posses are not physical attributes but must be something else."

"....whenever we interpret human action as in any sense purposive or meaningful, whether we do so in ordinary life or for the purposes of the social sciences, we have to define both the objects of human activity and the different kinds of actions themselves, not in physical terms but in terms of the opinions or intentions of the acting persons,...."

(Hayek, "The Facts of the Social Sciences", from Individualism and Economic Order)

On an unrelated note, would you care to comment on the OP here:




"It would be preposterous to assert apodictically that science will never succeed in developing a praxeological aprioristic doctrine of political organization..." (Mises, UF, p.98)

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AJ replied on Tue, Dec 29 2009 7:36 PM

In my experience, it's much easier to solve these types of puzzles by building off what the experts say, rather than starting from scratch.

I think most people would say that, but much of the time I find the opposite. Sometimes smart people can end up making a simple concept complicated.

I'm just not sure how to approach the issue, so I'd like to see how philosophers think about it.

Well, I'll give it a shot. I googled "constitutive means" and the first three hits were Wombatron's blog (about this thread), Long's article (referenced in this thread), and...this thread.

The next few hits:

This book, The Ethics of Aquinas, which states on pg. 183,

[Constitutive means] are ends, bona honesta, good and desirable in themselves but subordinate to and serving a more complete and higher end. They are beginnings of the ultimate end... A "good dinner" might be make up of a salad, a slice of succulent prime right with baked potato, a tasty desser, and a glass of fine wine. As parts of the whole, these are constitutive means; knives and forks would be instrumental means. All the virtues and their activities in which Aristotle placed human happiness (beautido inperfecta) Aquinas would consider as constitutive means or beginnings of complete beatitude.

This seems essentially the same conception as Greenwood, covered earlier in the thread. Note that, as with Greenwood's example, this example is fully divorced from human action, because neither the means nor the ends are actions. Other problems with this idea (physical objects as means and physical objects as ends) are covered in my response a few posts below that.


Next up is a paper called Motivation to the Means, but USC Philosophy Professor Stephen Finlay.

Davidson states as a necessary condition for a ‘primary reason’ (both a cause and justification for action) the following principle:

C1. R is a primary reason why an agent performed the action A under the description d only if R consists of a pro attitude of the agent towards actions with a certain property, and a belief of the agent that A, under the description d, has that property. (1980: 5)

He desires to turn on the light, so performs an action he believes a means to this end, flipping the switch. Is there any need for further explanation of how this action was motivated? No, because the action, which can be given indefinitely many veridical descriptions, is performed under the description, ‘turning on the light’. The desire is for actions possessing a certain property, and the relevant belief is that the action in question possesses that property. The end and the means are in fact identical and hence the desire for the end is simply a desire to perform the means.

Here the end is claimed (by Davidson) to be the action of "turning on the light," and since the means for doing that is also the action of turning on the light, the ends and means are identical.

Now whether by common sense or by Mises's conception of human action, it seems obvious to me that if you're in a dark room you do not want to "turn on the light"; what you more precisely want is for there to be light (a state of affairs). We may speak loosely in everyday talk and say, "I want to turn on the light," but that should not be allowed to confuse the issue, for unless we gain satisfaction from the feeling of pressure on our fingers when we flip the switch*, surely that is not in any reasonable sense our "end."

*and if we did, our end would be the state of "having the pressure of the switch on our fingers"

I will appropriate two elements of this story: the focus on intensionality and the strategy of making constitutive claims about desire. But Davidson’s account...considers only desires that take actions as their ends. The means it considers are therefore all constitutive means, inseparable from the end itself. Many desires do not take actions as their ends – Davidson observes that desires ‘are often trained on physical objects’ (1980: 6). I may desire soda, a ’67 Ford Mustang, the delightful person across the room, etc. He seems to suggest that such desires can be reduced to or entail desires to act in some way towards those objects; ‘I want that watch in the window’ is not a primary reason and explains why I went into the store only because it suggests a primary reason – for example, that I wanted to buy the watch. (1980: 6)

Clearly an object itself cannot be the end or goal of desire. My desire for soda has to be distinguished from desires to hold or see soda; it is rather the desire to drink soda. But it doesn’t follow that all desires properly have actions for ends. A desire for a ’67 Mustang, or for the watch in the window, is typically a desire not to buy it, but to possess it (consider that the desire signifies unwillingness to give away the object once purchased). And despite the infinitive, this is not a desire to act, but a desire for the obtaining of a state of affairs: that I possess that object. Many if not all desires have states of affairs as their ends, which may involve no actions by the agent and sometimes in which the agent does not figure: e.g. that the Chicago Cubs win the next World Series. A distinction can therefore be drawn between desire-to and desire-that. Davidson’s strategy will not work with desire-that (or with desire-to in the case of merely instrumental means), as the actions that satisfy it are not constitutive means, identical to their end, but rather instrumental means only causally related to the end. Desiring these ends therefore doesn’t entail desiring the means, and it is possible to desire an end without desiring to perform any of the believed means.

My underlines show where I think Finlay is beginning to grasp the problem, or is tentatively hinting that "...all desires have states of affairs as their ends," which is what I am saying. He duly notes the semantic confusion when he says, "despite the infinitive."

Backtracking for a second, with regard to the "desire to drink soda," which he seems to tentatively claim is an example where an action (rather than an object) is an end, I would - as above - ask Finlay when the end has been achieved. Once the soda bottle is open, inverted and held up to the mouth for drinking? Once the first drop of soda has touched your tongue? Once your senses are bathed in the delicious soda flavor? After the first sip has been swallowed? After the soda has been fully consumed? Continually along the way? I challenge that no matter when we say the end has been achieved, it will become clear by the fact that answering will require specifying some state of affairs, that the end was really that state of affairs, not any action.

I think the progression he lays out is instructive. He starts with Greenwood's notion that ends can be physical objects, then explicitly rejects this possibility by saying, "Clearly an object itself cannot be the end or goal of desire. My desire for soda has to be distinguished from desires to hold or see soda; it is rather the desire to drink soda." (i.e., actions can be ends). But finally, he concludes, "Many if not all desires have states of affairs as their ends." Of course I am saying that in fact "Many if not all desires have states of affairs as their ends." The progression is

  1. Objects are ends
  2. No, actions are ends
  3. No, only states of affairs are ends


Next is a blog post about Danny Shahar:

...Danny is claiming that the difference between claims of prudence and claims of morality is the difference between counseling someone on means as opposed to ends. Like, Mises, he doesn’t think the latter is possible because what someone has as a particular end is subjective. As Long points out in describing Mises’ argument, “this argument presupposes the ethical subjectivism it is trying to prove” [4] by begging the question against the alternative that we all share the same ultimate end. If that alternative is true, then we are back to criticizing means, something Danny acknowledges is open to rational criticism as a matter of prudence. Rather than a prudential should or a moral should, there is just should.

The hook here is to consider the difference between instrumental and constitutive means:

So there are cases where a means can be a constitutive part of the end rather than being an external means to it. And a lot of things that Mises considers ultimate ends you might think are really means, but they’re constitutive means rather than instrumental means. So then the question is: well, can we deliberate about constitutive means? How do we determine whether something is a constitutive means to an end? It seems it’s not a matter of cause and effect any more; it’s more a matter of logical or conceptual analysis. [1]

I can't find anything here concrete enough to comment on, but it seems an interesting discussion. It makes it sounds like constitutive means is a concept used to try to get around criticisms from the ethical subjectivist camp by reference to a possible ultimate end we might all share. Interestingly, the next Google hit covers a different thinker's attempt to conceptualize something similar called a "maieutic end."


Stillborn Ends (paper critiquing David Schmidtz's theory of maieutic ends), by Diana Mertz Hsieh, an objectivist writer:

On an instrumentalist model of practical rationality, human action is understood in terms of a hierarchy of means and ends. The means to ends may be instrumental to the end (i.e. for the sake of it) or constitutive of the end (i.e. a particular aspect of it). So eating a salad would be a constitutive means to eating lunch and an instrumental means to satisfying hunger. Most ends will be relative rather than final ends, meaning that they are also means to further ends. So the relative end of satisfying hunger would be an instrumental means to the further end of a productive afternoon of work. Such chains of means and ends form a hierarchy that terminates in one or more final ends, i.e. the ultimate good(s) pursued solely for their own sake. Such final ends are not justified in instrumentalism.

To explain the origin of final ends in rational terms, Schmidtz adds the concept of a “maieutic end” to this general framework. He defines a maieutic end as “an end achieved though the process of coming to have other ends.” So in his example, a surgeon Kate does not arbitrarily choose her specialty of surgery as a final end, but rather comes to value it as such through a maieutic end. Prior to choosing surgery, Kate “wanted to settle on a career and thus on the goal or set of goals that a career represents.” That goal of choosing a career was a maieutic end: it generated the final end of an actual career in surgery for Kate. So as the term “maieutic” (for midwifery) suggests, “we give birth to our final ends in the process of achieving maieutic ends.”

Regarding the example in bold, I would again ask, if eating lunch is the end, when has that end been achieved? See soda example above.


So I think the same general problem pervades all these treatments. Particularly, we absolutely must define what means and ends are before we can talk coherently of constitutive means, or means that are also component parts of ends. I suggest that more clearly nailing down the concepts of means and ends will eliminate the possibility of any useful notion of "constitutive" means, because it seems likely that the concept only arose because of certain ambiguities inherent in language.

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AJ replied on Tue, Dec 29 2009 8:09 PM
Adam provides this quote from Mises:

"Action is the search for improvement of conditions from the point of view of the personal value judgments of the individual concerned.......Man's aim is to substitute what he considers a better state of affairs for a less satisfactory one.  He strives for the substitution of a more satisfactory state of affairs in place of a less satisfactory state of affairs.  And in the satisfaction of this desire, he becomes happier than he was before."

This also seems to imply that ends are states of affairs, but the issue is again slightly confused by the wording: Mises does not say, "He strives for a more satisfactory state of affairs in place of a less satisfactory state of affairs." He instead says, "He strives for the substitution of a more satisfactory state of affairs in place of a less satisfactory state of affairs."

He seems to go out of his way to throw in the nominalized verb substitution, to make the end appear in the grammatical form of an action, even though it seems redundant with the word strive. Or maybe he had some other reason for doing that. Could it be a clue to Mises's thinking on the matter? Or was it to cover all grammatical forms and ambiguities of the way ends are talked about in everyday English?
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Wade replied on Wed, Dec 30 2009 11:22 AM

A few things have come to mind for me after reading the last few posts.  It is possible that I will be reiterating some of what has already been said.

When Long is talking about "The Moonlight Sonata" he has a particular definition in mind: The Moonlight Sonata consists of "these notes".

 It appears that Long is trying to point out the fact there is only 1 version of The Moonlight Sonata and what makes up the Moonlight Sonata is objective.  That we can all plainly see what The Moonlight Sonata is and what The Moonlight Sonata is not via empirical evidence.

Now that this is established, how does The Moonlight Sonata in this context relate to human action?

The only way that there can be a relationship between action and The Moonlight Sonata as it is conceived above is if The Moonlight Sonata is employed as a means towards some end.  If Long considers The Moonlight Sonata as something that exists in the real world, then no action will be employed to attain The Moonlight Sonata since it already exists.  That is until The Moonlight Sonata becomes something that is no longer something that exists in the real world, but something that someone is attempting to bring to fruition via action.

Any attempt to break down The Moonlight Sonata into its component parts when The Moonlight Sonata is something that exists for Long in the real world is an investigation that is delegated to the physical sciences.  The nature of something that exists in the real world is always something that is posteriori in nature.  Ironically, the nature of the attempt by Long to break down The Moonlight Sonata into its component parts is apriori in nature.  This is a differentiation between the attempt and the thing that someone can employ in any given attempt.

So in my view, Long's example and description of what constitutive means is, is an investigation within the realm of the physical sciences.  Long is in some way studying the nature of the real world and not studying the nature of human action.

The real world is something that is employed in action.  Action is the desire for something to be real.

So when Long says "these notes" is a constitutive means to "The Moonlight Sonata" when "The Moonlight Sonata" exists in the real world, Long is making an empirical observation about the component parts of something that exists in the real world.  It is in stark contrast to what Long calls "instrumental means".

If we imagine the time before Ludwig Van Beethoven created The Moonlight Sonata we then find the praxeological relationship between "these notes" and "The Moonlight Sonata".  When Ludwig Van Beethoven created The Moonlight Sonata "these notes" were an "instrumental means" to bringing The Moonlight Sonata into existence.


Only ideas can overcome ideas...

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Wade replied on Wed, Dec 30 2009 3:02 PM

To add to the above post I would like to give some examples of how the Moonlight Sonata could be used as an instrumental means in Long's essay.  I believe that I have retained Long's context in regard to the Moonlight Sonata and the notes.


"Long employed the notes from The Moonlight Sonata in order to determine if it was being played correctly."

"Long employed a recording of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata in order to determine if it was being played correctly."

"Long employed the notes from The Moonlight Sonata in order to play the Moonlight Sonata."

Notice in the last example the same word is used to describe 2 different meanings.  The Moonlight Sonata which the notes are from is different from The Moonlight Sonata played by Long.

I am not convinced that the relationship between the notes that make up the Moonlight Sonata and the Moonlight Sonata adequately account for the complexity of the relationship between means and ends as it is typically conceived in regard to human action.


Only ideas can overcome ideas...

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