Thursday, 31 March 2011

Three Modes of Analysis: Structure, Design and Purpose

The mind has evolved to analyse objects from three distinct perspectives: 1) purpose, 2) design and 3) structure.  The perspective we take when analysing any given object is largely determined by how useful that perspective is for us to gain knowledge and understanding of the object.

1. We can analyse objects as having a purpose. This works very well for humans, and it also works for animals. When a saber tooth tiger is running towards you, a quick analysis is required. The analysis is: 'that tiger intends to eat me'. We think of the tiger as having intent. There is no time to analyse the design or structure of the tiger. In theory, there is no reason that we can't view plants or rocks as having a purpose, except that it is not useful for us to do so.

2. We can analyse objects as having a design. This can be useful, for example, when trying to understand a leaf. We analyse it as the part of a plant designed to capture light. We think of the leaf as having a function. We can understand a leaf better by taking the design perspective than any other. It is not useful to think of a leaf as "wanting" or "intending" to capture light. We also analyse human-produced objects from the design perspective, thinking of them in terms of their function.

3. We can analyse the structure, the physical properties of all objects. In some cases, where the above two perspectives are not useful at all, it is our only way of getting an understanding of the object. To understand a rock means to understand its structure; there is no additional usefulness from thinking of the rock from either the design perspective or the purpose perspective.

Praxeology is the study of what can be learned by contemplating, and drawing logical deductions from, the concept of action.  Action is purposeful behaviour.  Praxeology is therefore an example of taking the purpose perspective towards analysing objects.

Praxeological laws apply wherever there is action, that is, wherever we perceive an object as behaving with intent and purpose.  The observation that most human behaviours are actions, that is, that humans are an example of beings that are usefully considered as purposeful beings, implies that praxeology is a very useful way of thinking about human behaviour.  However, there is no particular reason why praxeology should be limited to humans.  Non-human objects can also be usefully analysed as actors, such as the example of the saber tooth tiger above.

We may ask: is a saber tooth tiger really an acting being?  That is, is the tiger really making choices about his behavior, or are its behaviors entirely instinctive?  This question is really meaningless, however, when we consider purposefulness not as an attribute inherent to objects, but rather as an attribute that minds imbue onto objects, when it is useful to do so.

A purposeful behaviour (i.e. an action) is a behaviour that has been deliberated about and chosen over other behaviours.  I have a clear conception that my own behaviours can be categorized into those undertaken with a purpose (e.g. typing on my keyboard), and those that are reflexes (e.g. sneezing).  I then extrapolate this personal insight about me onto other human beings.  I assume that the behaviours of other humans are not all reflexes. I assume that other human beings behave with a purpose, i.e. with intent, i.e. that other humans, like me, act.

I do this purely because it is more useful for me to think of other humans as acting beings, rather than purely reflexive beings.  I do not know for certain whether other human beings are really acting; it is possible that everyone else, except for me, is purely reflexive and not really making choices at all.

In short, purposefulness/consiousness is not something inherent to objects. It is a word that denotes those objects that we can usefully analyse using a certain mode of analysis: the perspective of intent, desire, action.  Praxeology is an example of this mode of analysis, and it may apply to any being that we find it useful to consider as purposeful - human or otherwise.

Note: This was originally posted as part of a conversation here at the Mises forum.

Friday, 4 March 2011

How To Rescue A Child (without the State)

How might child abuse be handled in a stateless society?

The Scenario

Single-father Bob physically abuses his 3-year old daughter, Jane. (Jane’s mother died while giving birth to her, and there is no extended family.) A nursery nurse becomes suspicious that Bob may be mistreating Jane. She informs the charity Friends-of-Babies, which investigates cases of child abuse, and re-homes abused children. Friends-of-Babies investigate the allegations made by the nurse. They make an assessment, and conclude that Bob is indeed abusing Jane, and that she would be better off if she were removed from that situation, and re-homed with loving foster parents.

A Free Market in Law

Law is the resolution of disputes. What is being disputed here is the ownership right to raise Jane. Bob currently owns this right, and the Friends-of-Babies organization is challenging him for it; they are claiming it for themselves. Assuming Bob objects to the charity’s claim, there is a dispute and the case will go to court. The court will award the right to raise Jane to one disputant or the other.

Free markets produce according to consumer demand. Free market firms strive for excellence in satisfying consumers, and firms that fail to use resources efficiently for this purpose do not survive the competition. This is as true for a free market in the law industry as it is for any other industry. The laws that are produced are those that consumers demand. If free market courts produce laws that are seen as unfair or unjust, they will lose customers. For a free market court, a reputation for honesty, fairness, wisdom and good judgment is essential for continued business.

Friends-of-Babies present their evidence to the court. The court becomes convinced that Bob is an abusive parent. Now they must make their decision. Child abuse, of the kind Bob committed, is widely considered by individuals in society as sufficient justification for intervention; this child needs rescuing. Therefore the court will likely decide in favor of Friends-of-Babies. They would not want to be known as an organization that lets child abuse continue. Following the court decision, Bob must give up Jane to the charity. If he resists, the charity can physically take Jane from him, and Bob has no grounds to complain. Thus Jane is rescued from her abusive father, and is soon found a loving new home.

Some Objections

Now a few objections to this scenario…

1. What if Friends-of-Babies doesn’t exist? 
Lots of people feel strongly about protecting children from abuse, and would be willing to donate to such an organization, so we may be confident that such charities will exist.

2. What if Bob doesn’t agree to go to court?
As with any dispute, the alternative to arbitration is a martial contest, which neither disputant wants. If Bob is innocent, he has incentive to go to court to defend himself against the spurious claim. If Bob is guilty, he still has an incentive to go to court, if only because the consequences of not going to court would be worse. With a court decision, the harm that Friends-of-Babies inflicts on Bob is strictly limited, but if Bob refuses to go to court (makes himself an outlaw), the actions taken against him could be much more severe.

3. How do you define ‘abuse’?
That is to be decided by the consumers of laws. There will always be different opinions about what actions justify intervening in the parent-child relationship. The variation will be reflected in the choice of laws offered to consumers, and could vary significantly between cultures. With no monopoly on law, there is no need to search for an ‘objective’ definition, and no need for universal agreement on the definition.

4. Isn’t this just kidnapping, and aggression against Bob?
See note…

5. Doesn’t this imply parental obligations, and “positive rights”?
See note…


I have outlined how child abuse might be handled in a stateless society, with free markets in law and child protection. For all the usual reasons that free markets are better than monopolies, we would expect the laws produced and the protection given to children to be superior with the free market system. Therefore, all other things being equal, children will be safer and child abuse will be far less common without the State.


The last two objections involve libertarian legal theory. My answer is that this court decision may well be consistent with libertarianism. To understand how this could be the case, see Walter Block’s Libertarianism, positive obligations and property abandonment: children's rights, and Stephan Kinsella’s How We Come to Own Ourselves.