Constitutive Means

This post is a reply to a long conversation with Adam Knott and J. Grayson Lilburne on the existence of constitutive/component means on the Mises Forums. I unfortunately can’t find a link to the original conversation (the search function on the Mises Community fails), so this will probably go over old ground. Anyway, my argument:

There are 2 different ways that an activity can be subordinated to an goal (the end). In the first case, the activity is purely an instrument or means to the end. In the second, the activity is a component or constitutive part of the end. For example, buying a tobacco pipe is just instrumental to the end of smoking a pipe; it is not itself the activity of pipe smoking. On the other hand, lighting the pipe is an integral part of smoking (although that isn’t all that smoking is, of course); one can’t pipe smoke without lighting it. Thus, buying a pipe is just a means to the end, while lighting it is part of the end.

Now, constitutive means are a combination of the two above distinctions; they are both a means to an end, and a component to that end. This is possible, in the case of Aristotelian natural-end ethics, because of the inclusive nature of eudaimonia; it isn’t a dominant end that everything else is a mere means to, nor is it a simple and monistic goal. Rather, eudaimonia is inclusive and pluralistic; it is composed of the various goods (health, wealth, friendship, pleasure, etc.) and virtues (rationality, productivity, pride, justice, benevolence, etc.). Thus, being just, for example, is both a means to the ultimate end of eudaimonia, and an end in and of itself (because part of one’s eudaimonia is being just).

The above is based heavily on the defense of constitutive means presented in Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl’s Norms of Liberty. Roderick Long further argues that seeing virtue (he uses justice as an example) as being a mere external (instrumental) end is praxeologically unstable in “Why Does Justice Have Good Consequences?”.

~ by wombatron on 12/22/2009.

11 Responses to “Constitutive Means”

  1. “I unfortunately can’t find a link to the original conversation”

    The thread is here.

  2. I skimmed over the Mises Community debate. A couple of observations. Leonidas is right to distinguish between “Long’s theory” and “Long’s example.” Knott doesn’t seem to be very charitable in his interpretation of Long. I don’t know why Knott assumes the distinction between instrumental means and constitutive means is Long’s theory, meaning Long’s own discovery. The critics of the distinction have some studying up to do in ethical theory.

  3. Looks like Knott figured out that Long didn’t originate the distinction later on in the thread. Still, it’s indicative of a need to study more.

  4. I left a comment in response to Knott’s reply to this blogpost. I’m not planning to get actively involved in the debate though. I don’t have the time to wade into the trenches.

  5. Hi Wombatron,

    I don’t understand your (or Long’s or Rasmussen/Den Uyl’s) conception of “ends.” In particular, if “smoking a pipe” is an end, at what point in time has that end been achieved?

    When the pipe is burning and is placed in the mouth? Once the first puff has been taken? Once all the tobacco has been smoked?

    I think clarifying the underlying ambiguity in everyday language will lead to problems in the conception of action as ends. I suggest that only states of affairs can be ends, not actions. See the new bout of discussion on the thread for details.

    I hope Plauche will continue to participate as well, as the discussion goes far deeper than his comments so far.

  6. AJ,

    I don’t see the problem. The end is whatever it happens to be for the agent. It’s agent-relative and contextual. It could be a state of affairs, an action or series of actions. When has the end of smoking a pipe been achieved? Well, that depends on the agent. Seems to me you guys are engaging in too much (for lack of a better word) “paternalistic” armchair theorizing.

  7. Geoffrey,

    Yes it “depends on the agent,” but the point is that the notion of constitutive means breaks down as soon as we examine any *specific* instance of a definite end aimed at by a particular agent. It is only when we are speaking in vague generalities that the concept can masquerade as a coherent one.

  8. AJ,

    I don’t see that at all. In fact, you guys have been given specific example after specific example and yet were unable to prove your point. The idea of constitutive means held up in each case, be it playing a sonata or playing golf. It holds up in the pipe smoking example too. So no, it’s not true at all that “it is only when we are speaking in vague generalities that the concept can masquerade as a coherent one.”

  9. Geoffrey,
    Assertions are cheap. If you have a case against the points made, by all means make it.

  10. AJ,

    I already made a clear case for constitutive means and against the elementary errors that were being made. This business about ends and states of affairs is more of the same. There’s no reason whatsoever a brief action, an extended action, or a series of actions cannot be an end. A flourishing life is the ultimate end, but you can’t pass “final” judgment on whether someone lived a flourishing life until it is complete. There is no difficulty in this, aside from an epistemic one in knowing enough about person’s life to make such a judgment about it (but that’s not a theoretical problem that needs solving). As I said, the matter of means and ends, constitutive vs. instrumental means, intermediate vs. final ends vs. the ultimate end (which is inclusive, not dominant and exclusive), is agent-relative and contextual. I’m coming to suspect that one of the main sources of error in understanding Aristotelian philosophy is a failure of context-keeping. You see this in misguided attempts by (post-)modern, academic philosophers to disprove the Law of Non-Contradiction, for example. Read up on Aristotle, Veatch, Long, Rasmussen and Den Uyl, Sciabarra, and related sources on virtue ethics and dialectics. I’d be happy to recommend particular books and articles.

  11. Geoffrey,
    I agree that attempts to disprove the law of non-contradiction are misguided, and that a lack of context-keeping is often a problem in philosophical investigation. And maybe the case you would like to make is in those works you cite. However, you yourself haven’t shown why the examples I raised do not disqualify actions as ends. Perhaps these examples fail to keep context somehow, but can you show how?

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