Human Action versus Behaviourialism: Can Praxeology and Experimental Economics be Reconciled?

Here is my presentation on Human Action and Behaviouralism that I delivered at the Toronto Austrian Scholars Conference on November 2, 2013 at the University of Toronto.

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“The Anonymous Passive”

This evening I attended the first annual Frank Eyck Memorial Lecture in German History at the University of Calgary. Guest lecturer Dr. Christopher Browning from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill spoke on the topic: “Why Did They Kill? Revisiting the Holocaust Perpetrators.” From the lecture, there is one concept that stands out specifically in my mind. According to this site: “When the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, [the north-western German city] Bremen’s police force did not hesitate to side with them. Their decision to collaborate turned civil servants into mass murderers.” Browning told us that a reserve policeman from Bremen who served as the company photographer wrote letters to his wife that have survived and are being studied. For accuracy, I will quote from Browning’s paper on which he based his presentation:

One month later, after reporting on latest packages sent home, he [the Bremen reservist] noted explicitly: “Here all Jews are being shot. Everywhere such actions are underway. Yesterday night 150 Jews from this place were shot, men, women, children, all killed. The Jews are being totally exterminated.” He advised his wife not to think about it—”it must be”—and for the moment to “say nothing about it” to their eldest daughter. Significantly, he wrote in the “anonymous passive” voice—omitting any identification of the actors–so pervasive in postwar accounts but here employed even during the war.

The phrase “the anonymous passive” and Browning’s explanation of it using this example struck me as quite relevant to my recent reflection on the tendency of international relations theorists and international political economists especially to personify non-persons and to dehumanize actual persons so that action is carelessly assigned to non-actors and moral responsibility cannot be properly designated.  “Theorists’ use of abstractions, often involving calling non-persons ‘actors’, leads to a deflection of responsibility. The problem is that you and I are not sure where to direct our moral judgment… either praise or blame.”

Browning’s student Patrick Tobin elaborates on this point in his Master’s Thesis on the second largest Nazi crimes trials after the Nuremberg Trials. He says:

Those interviewed by and large played a difficult balancing game, trying to come across as helpful and open, while reluctant to provide any self-incriminating statements. When confronted with the information about the massacre in Garsden, most acknowledged that this occurred, but made self-exculpatory statements along the lines of “I did not see these things with my own eyes.” Similarly, they tended to speak of the shooting in what Christopher Browning has termed the “anonymous passive,” noting the crimes but omitting the criminals: “After the first group had been shot, the next ten people were led to the grave… In the end, they themselves were shot just as their predecessors.”

Dehumanization is often cited as one of the key tactics of genocidaires. (By the way, this French word for ‘those who commit genocide’ was coined after the genocide in Rwanda and I think we ought to have an English equivalent that is more precise than ‘perpetrator.’) Dehumanization is defined by Browning as the “ability to construct a world in which those whom the perpetrators had killed were not within community of human obligation, but rather totally devalued.”

Using theories, models, paradigms, abstractions, and other “constructs” distract from “the community of human obligation.” Valuing human persons requires a personalist and human action approach to politics. Also, international politics is about more than necessity. Constructing a system of the world according to what is possible rather than according to what is responsible leads to immoral consequences.

What are the Foundations of International Political Economy?

Here are some initial thoughts I have for a paper I am writing in a class called Politics of the International and Economic Order.

I would like to argue that among political scientists, there is a tendency to personify non-persons, while, at the same time, dehumanizing actual persons. This is an especially common temptation for international relations theorists. Though they are often called “actors”, states, governments, international organizations, agencies, departments, programs, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, non-governmental organizations, corporations, etc. do not act. Only human persons act. Action is important because it denotes intellect and will. Only upon recognizing that actions are what human persons (and only human persons) do, can we assign moral responsibility to the persons acting within these larger organizations. Otherwise, individual persons are shielded from responsibility within a bureaucracy and among the masses within a system.

Possible titles include:
Toward a Praxeological Approach to International Political Economy OR,
A Return to International Relations Rooted in Natural Law OR,
A Deconstruction of International Relations

My professor warned me to make sure that it is an International Political Economy paper. The below post is an attempt to understand a bit about the nature and foundations of the sub-discipline.

Dr. James Keeley also advises his students to remember the adage: before you study something, understand it thoroughly. This reminds me of a quotation attributed to Francis Bacon: “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” Sir James Steuart references this quotation in his 1767 work An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy in which he says:

I have read many authors on the subject of political oeconomy; and I have endeavoured to draw from them all the instruction I could. I have travelled, for many years, through different countries, and have examined them, constantly, with an eye to my own subject. I have attempted to draw information from every one with whom I have been acquainted: this, however, I found to be very difficult until I had attained to some previous knowledge of my subject. Such difficulties confirmed to me the justness of Lord Bacon’s remark, that he who can draw information by forming proper questions, must be already possessed of half the science.

In his preface to the Inquiry, Steuart discusses the “complicated interests of society”, the habit of running into “systems [that] are mere conceits”, and the imperfection of language insofar as “the signs of our ideas take the place of the images which they were intended to represent.” It is with these prefatory comments that Steuart anticipates, at the outset, the underlying problems that continue to exist for any person endeavoring to give an account of political economy, whether of the domestic or international variety.

Before analyzing the meaning of “international”, it is worthwhile to first consider the meanings of the terms “politics” and “economics.” The etymologies of these words reveal the oxymoronic quality of such phrases as “International Political Economy” and “International Relations”. Politics is derived from the Greek word politika which Aristotle used to denote “the affairs of the polis[1]“. Economics is derived from the Greek word oikonomia which refers to that which is “practised in the management of a household or family.”[2] Xenophon wrote a treatise titled “Oeconomicus”, or “The Economistin which Socrates and Critobulus dialogue on the science of the household. And so, the origins of the terms politics and economics seem to involve accounts from the perspective of the soul [or the individual] as the city writ small rather than from the perspective of the city as the soul [or individual] writ large.[3]

The preposition ‘inter’ meaning ‘between’ or ‘among’, is derived from Latin and appears in such Latin phrases as: “inter alios, amongst others, other persons”; “inter nos, between ourselves”; “inter partes (Law), of an action: relevant only to the two parties in a particular case”; inter se, between or among themselves”; and “inter vivos, between living persons”.[4] The noun ‘nation’ shares a root with nāscī, meaning to be born and “nation” came into origin in order to describe ‘a people united by common language and culture’, and ‘family, lineage’.[5] Both ‘inter’ and ‘nation’ are etymologically rooted in defining the nature of local phenomena, that is, persons, families, and communities.

From appeals to justice in Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War, to arguments for legitimacy in Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth, to the rules outlined in the Geneva Conventions, international relations in its current expression should be understood within the order of history. Providing context serves elucidate that, though a relatively new sub-discipline within political science, international relations is not actually new. Persons perpetually debate about power, authority, legitimacy, duty, stewardship, human dignity, law, nature, and morality.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Iberian scholastics now referred to as ‘the School of Salamanca’ were foundational in laying the intellectual groundwork for contemporary international law and international relations. According to Alves and Moreira:

The origins of (what we now call) international law go back to the Roman law concept of ius gentium [law of nations], a set of principles and rules that are derived from natural reason (and not from national legislators), and are common to all peoples, and apply equally to all mankind. […] Vitoria, Soto, Molina, and Suarez all agreed that the ius gentium was common to all mankind and that it could be recognized by reason even though it was not created through the will of an assembly or human legislator.[6]

In order to rescue international relations from its capture by Machiavellians[7] and men of system[8], political scientists should rekindle the relationship of international relations to international law and the relationship of international law to natural law. A return to understanding international relations as one aspect that is but an extension of natural law would lead to a restoration of moral judgment in this domain of politics. Where moral judgment is the primary aim, individual persons, their acts, and their motives will be returned to the centre of the study of politics. A personalist approach is preferable to a systematic, institutional, statist, or any other approach based upon abstractions. Theorists’ use of abstractions, often involving calling non-persons “actors”, leads to a deflection of responsibility. The problem is that you and I are not sure where to direct our moral judgment… either praise or blame.

As Steuart says: “Man we find acting uniformly in all age, in all countries, and in all climates, from the principles of self-interest, expediency, duty, or passion. In this he is alike, in nothing else.”[9] It is through studying the human person and by offering a humble effort at striking at some truth of human nature and the human condition that international political economy can be helpful to understanding what is local. Claiming to account for the mystery of what is macro is most often a conceit of knowledge and the impetuous for planners to lead communities into “the highest degree of disorder.”[10]

Please leave comments and recommended reading for me in the comments section below.


[1] Polis. Greek “city state” with a certain population and connected to the concept of citizenship based on birthplace.

[2] Oxford English Dictionary.

[3] With reference to Plato’s discussion in The Republic.

[4] Inter, preposition, OED. “inter, prep.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press.

[5] “nation, n.1”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press.

[6] Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers. The Salamanca School. Andre Alves and Jose Moreira, 59.

[7] Steuart discusses the Machiavellian tendency to “approv[e] the sacrifice of private concerns in favour of a general plan”.

[8] Smith discusses ‘men of system’ who are “so enamoured with the supposed beauty of their own ideal plan of government that they cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”

[9] An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy by Steuart.

[10] Smith’s warning about the ‘men of system’.