Related Work

These three entries are not in Foster’s words. The two syllabi were written at the University of Denver for the course “Problems of Modern Society.” That general education course was developed by many professors from many disciplines shortly after the end of the World War II. The only part of that collection of syllabi known to have been exclusively written by Foster is “The Theory of Institutional Adjustment,” (1948) published in the Journal of Economic Issues of December, 1981. The two parts included here--”The Social Process” (1947) and “The Problem of Value” (1949)--were probably written by committees, but clearly reveal the influence of Foster’s pattern of analysis.

The final entry is the paper delivered by Baldwin Ranson at the 2008 meeting of the Association for Evolutionary Economics, clarifying and defending Foster’s analysis of value theory.

The Social Process



            Human knowledge and experience may be classified for convenience into four branches, each of which clusters about a great central theme.  Thus, the physical sciences cluster about the study of inorganic (nonliving) matter; the biological sciences deal with organic (living) things; the humanities find their unity in the common interest in human feelings, expression, creation and aspiration; and the social sciences compose a separately classifiable broad field because of their concern with man’s associative (group) life.

            These broad fields are not actually separate and distinct, one from another.  They are so identified and described purely for purposes of convenience, ease of study, accuracy in methodology, and also because they can be used as preparations for distinctive occupations such as physicist, journalist, physician, minister, astronomer, teacher, artist, engineer, businessman, and many others.

            The present course deals with that growing body of scientific knowledge about man’s social life in groups, usually referred to as the social sciences.  As one of the four great branches of human knowledge, the social sciences have certain distinctive characteristics which identify them as such.  It is the purpose of this essay to describe some of these characteristics, especially as they focus upon the social process which acts as a nucleus for the broad field of the social sciences.


The Object of Social Inquiry.

            In dealing with mankind’s social life, the social scientist can never get far away from the fact that he is dealing with society in transition--in process of continual change.  There is no way to escape the reality of change in social affairs.

            This is true because human society never ceases to respond to changes of all sorts; natural changes, cultural changes, technological changes.  The process of change never stops, freezes, petrifies or comes to rest.  A moment’s reflection will confirm the validity of this notion that reality is always changing.  For, as a wise Greek philosopher once said, “no man can step in the same river twice.”  In the instant between the first step and the second step, both the man and the river have changed; and neither can be “recaptured” in its identical form of the instant before.  Time and change have intervened.

            So it is with the flow of the social process. Social change is the gross continuing effect of millions of smaller and mere individual changes taking place in all things and in all people all the time.  Change is inherent even in the electromagnetic structure of atomic matter itself.  It reveals itself to the social scientist in myriad ways, making the study of the social process a complex and difficult task.  But since social change and the continuing flow of the social process is a verifiable fact, we have no alternative except to make our inquiry as accurate and as significant as possible.

            Social inquiry, then, can be significant only in so far as it deals with the social process in all its complexity or in so far as it contributes to that effect.  All social scientists share the social process with one another.  It is the object of their cooperative inquiry.  Some of these social scientists call themselves after the several aspects of the social process which evoke their special interests, such as: Anthropologist, Economist, Geographer, Journalist, Historian, Political Scientist, Sociologist, Social Psychologist or specialist in International Affairs.  Still others like Educators, Social Philosophers, Lawyers and Social Service Workers are concerned with special aspects of the social process.

            But all of these categories and many others are unified in to the same broad field by their shared interest in man’s associative life in groups as it is carried on within the stream of the social process.  The social process therefore forms the unifying nucleus of the social sciences, and it is, therefore, the proper object of social inquiry.


The Social Process and the Social Order.

            The social process, like a broad river, flows through time unceasingly.  It can never be studied comprehensively in its wholeness without reference to movement, mutation, modification and change.  But even so, it is sometimes both possible and desirable to stop this flow of change at a given instant in time, in order to study a given institution or group of institutions within the social process.  This artificial device is something like taking a flash picture of a waterfall with a very fast lens.  The effect is to “freeze” the actual action-flow.  It is sometimes desirable to do this in order to help the social scientist make sense out of an otherwise bewilderingly complex social interaction.  The picture thus produced is never “real” in the sense of complete accuracy, but it is real enough to support a useful level of generalization about specific social problems.

            In this manner we can put together a series of these flash pictures in such a way as to be able to trace through time the evolution of almost any given social institution, such as the family, the economy, the church, the nation-state or the political order.

            When these pictures of various institutions are in turn sequentially put together we can get some idea of the “social order” at any given era.  For the social order may be thought of as the totality of the interacting institutions during any given span of years or decades.  And it is within this meaning that we give such names to cultural epochs as “Victorian,” or “Periclean,” or “Elizabethan;” or more broadly yet, “Restoration,” Colonial Era,” and “Postwar.”

            These are undoubtedly high-level generalizations.  Yet at the same time they are distinctly useful to the social scientist as he attempts to study the social process in its constant evolution from one social order into the next.  If we assume, however, that we have succeeded in recreating an exact and substantial picture of a social order which is not also in a constant state of change and flux, then this device of stopping the flow of the social process can lead to inaccuracy and self-negation.


The Social Order and Social Institutions.

            The social order is comprised of social institutions.  One reason why stopping the flow of the social process by “artificial means” is especially useful is to allow the social investigator to analyze the social institutions which make up a given social order.  These is extremely important to the social scientist because it is through social institutions--and only through social institutions--that the social process impinges upon individual persons in society.

            None can escape living within social institutions and, indeed, most of us would not care to escape.  From the moment of birth into the world, human individuals are involved with other humans in institutional circumstances.  A moment’s recasting of one’s own life substantiates this statement of fact.  The individual is born into the institution of the family; plays as a child in neighborhood gangs; is educated in institutions called schools; worships in the institution of the church; joins fraternal clubs; serves, perhaps, in institutions of national defense; earns a living in economic institutions; joins a political party, a professional or trade society, and so on.  At all times he is a citizen of a locality (municipality), a state, a region, a nation, and--in our day--of the world.


            There is no escaping institutional life. It is the only means by which the social process can bestow the blessings, as well as deposit the problems and conflicts, of associative life upon the individual person.  It is through the hundreds of social institutions of the social order that the social process provides life and its qualitative promises for each individual person.

            The importance of life as it is lived within institutional patterns can hardly be overestimated.  Institutions are decisive in molding us into the persons we are.  In a sense we are the prisoners of our institutional environment, the victims of our past experiences.  For social institutions (groups) prescribe our every action.  They influence our manner of speech and prescribe the language we use in communication; they dictate our dress,mould our habits of thought, specify our habits of eating, our manners, our relations with our own and the opposite sex, oversee what we learn, what we hope for, reward us for conformity and punish us for transgression.

            In a word, institutions control, guide, educate, and influence our every interaction with the human environment of ideas, habits, and human relations both past and present.

            It is obvious that if the social process occurs through social institutions, and if the social process is the proper object of inquiry among the social sciences, then social institutions are of key importance.  Their origin, framework, operation, maintenance, growth, continuity and (sometimes) demise are the stuff and substance with which the social sciences must deal.  When all the social institutions of a given time are taken together, they may be said to comprise the social order of that particular moment in history.  It follows, therefore, that if the social sciences are to have real significance, they must focus their attention upon social institutions, and address themselves to the social problems within these institutions.

            For it is only when social institutions efficiently perform the duties for which they were created that a smooth-flowing social process is possible,.


The Purpose of the Social Process.

            Society is the great invention of men who are born into a world not made for them.  Although in legend mankind commenced life in a Garden of Eden, he has long since left that happy state.  Men have wants the world does not supply without working, and men have needs whose satisfaction comprises the terms of the life struggle.

            Social institutions are man-made devices for making life secure, easier, richer, less risky and more abundant and attractive.  Mankind found out long ago that the frictions and conflicts of group life were outweighed many times over by the dividends of working together in cooperative association.  The fact that man as a species was capable of learning this great lesson made him capable of dominating the earth despite his relative physical weakness, the burden of an enormously long period of child nurture, his lack of protective body hair, and his inferiority of scent and other requisites of survival in a hostile world.

            As a life-loving, death-fearing animal, man’s only recourse has been to seek perpetuation of life through pooled intelligence and cooperative enterprise.  He has sought--and still seeks--to make his world as secure, as full, and as satisfying as the terms of life struggle will allow.  Moreover, as man has accumulated a vast heritage of useful experience (and has become able to communicate it on a global scale), he has developed his ability to control his less-than-garden-of-Eden environment.

            By developing the resources of scientific curiosity; by improving his industrial arts; by peering into the nature of the human mind, emotions, and personality; and by creating leisure in which to speculate about human purposes, he has raised himself in a bare 100 centuries to a substantial level of material abundance and security within which to contemplate beauty, to pursue creative happiness beyond mere animal existence, and to engage in the activities and arts of the good life.

            The vehicle by which this astounding progress has been made has been society.  That is to say, men in association with one another in various social institutions have lived, worked, and achieved together that correlation of life activities we call progress.  The social process--the flow of change through the institutions of the social order--has increasingly become the only means by which men can seek to anticipate, to welcome, and to direct intelligently the changing reality which is the central fact of human existence.

            When viewed in these terms, the social process loses much of its inevitability and fearsomeness.  If society--that is, the institutions of the social order--is man-made, then it can be altered by man.  Indeed, this is precisely what Thomas Jefferson meant when he made recourse to the “right of revolution” in justifying the birth of the American nation in 1776.  For he was able to perceive that the social order is the tool, not the master, of mankind, and that it can be refashioned and redirected into new channels and newer forms more efficient and more beneficial than formerly.

            Jefferson’s implication is scientifically true.  It is that the social process should be fashioned by man to serve two great ends: 1) the protection of men from preventable death (the inalienable right to life and liberty), and 2) the provision of life’s qualitative promises (the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness).  In his memorable Declaration of Independence, Jefferson proclaimed the deathless integrity of man, and of man’s right to redirect the social process and refashion his social institutions to serve not only the few but all men.

            Now it is obvious that the social process does not provide all men today with either an assured existence or the fullest possible measure of life’s potential promises.  It is this failure--this inefficiency--of successive orders through history to arrange the flow of the social process so as to make the maximum provision of life and its promises that gives meaning and significance to the study of the social sciences.

            For when Jefferson spoke of the inalienable rights of life and liberty, his thought was that society serves men most efficiently when it protects men against the derangements of wars.  To this thought, other philosophers and statesmen have since added the concept that the social process must be arranged so as to provide other things, such as protection against accident, illness, old-age and unemployment.

            And when Jefferson spoke of the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, his thought was that no social order could long exist which did not also provide its citizen-members with a measure of human dignity, achievement, status and belonging, love and companionship--in short, with the amenities and some of the luxuries, the leisures, the relaxations and the promises of life.

            Jefferson’s notion of judging the social order by setting it up against the inalienable rights of man is a profound--indeed even today almost a revolutionary--social instrument.  For it is no less than a statement of social value.

            Using it as the criterion of value, above and beyond the social institutions which themselves are under reexamination, we have a scientific means of measuring the achievements and shortcomings of the social institutions which are the immediate focus of attention in the social sciences.  And if these social institutions occasionally fail, as they do, to provide men with life and the maximal consummatory experiences of which these institutions are capable, then we have at least a clue to the discovery of the source of this inefficiency and of eradicating the defect on a scientific (evidential) basis.



            This is the whole object of inquiring into the social process and into the institutions of the social order through which the process takes place.  This is the fundamental nature and purpose of the social sciences.  It is in the constant scientific reexamination of man-made institutions against the criterion of “instrumental efficiency” that the social scientist can make his most significant contribution to a smoothly flowing, that is to say, a peacefully changing and ever-modifying, social process.


The Social Process and the Theory of Value.

            The notion that the social order exists to provide all men with life and its consummatory promises is a fundamental concept in the study of the social sciences.  It is fundamental because from it can be derived some idea of the proper scope of the broad field of social science, as well as the practical usefulness of social inquiry.

            Consciously or subconsciously, all generations of men have at all times been compelled to fall back upon this final criterion of instrumental efficiency in order to modify outworn or inefficient social institutions.  The historical record is filled with examples.  The modification of the Divine-Right Monarchy in France and England and Russia is one case in point.  The inability of nation-states to prevent war and the growth of the United Nations is another.  The inability of unregulated capitalism to prevent the now-famous “boom and bust” cycle is still another.  There are but three examples of the types of social problems which confront social scientists in their search for a peaceful, ever-changing, and smoothly operating social order.  A longer list of real social problems plaguing various social institutions would include the disorganization of the family, inequities in the flow of income, disparities between mutually-exclusive religious beliefs, race prejudices, the control of atomic and disease-based weapons of mass destruction.

            How is he to attack these problems with any real hope of actually resolving the conflicts which create them?

            The social scientist can hardly hope to resolve all social conflicts by the application of some mystic formula.  But he does know some things in fact--that is to say, things that are subject to experiential proof in the entire historical record of human experience, He knows, for instance:


            1) That change is constantly taking place, and that no human activity can arrest its flow;

            2) That in order to survive, man-made social institutions must respond and adapt to

                        these natural changes;

            3) That failure to modify outworn structural institutions is an invitation to forceful

                        overthrow--war and revolution;

            4) That institutional modification to endure cannot be made blindly, but must be made

                        in conformity with some notion of social value;

            5) That social value, as confirmed by the entire historical record, is no less than the

                        maximum provision of life and its consummatory promises for all men;

            6) That social value can be used as the criterion of instrumental efficiency only in a

                        truly free society.


            These are the tools of the modern social scientist.  They involve some of the most profound learning and scholarship of the ages.  They represent no less than the attempt to apply the theory of value scientifically (evidentially) to social affairs.  And the object of making social inquiry with these tools is to help resolve real problems of real people in a realistic and peaceful fashion.



The Social Process and the Free Society.

            Some human societies have attained to a high degree the benefits of a smoothly flowing social process: security, abundance, liberty, and experimental development.  Others have attained only an imperfect and awkwardly organized social process: animal existence, poverty for large numbers, human exploitation, institutions wedded to traditional practices.

            It is obvious that only in the free society can the pursuit of social value best take place.  It is obvious from everything we know about past human institutions that the level of production of the necessities and abundance of life is coexistent with the degree of experimental freedom of thought.

            These two things--high-level production and freedom to change and experiment--are the signal lights of free societies.  Where they are extinguished, freedom exists usually only for the few in an economic and political as well as a social sense.  It was this thought that motivated Thomas Jefferson to lay down the five propositions by which social institutions (in this case, the state) must be modified when freedom of inquiry and experiment do not exist.  He said:


            We hold these truths to be self-evident: 1) that all men are created equal; 2) that

            they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; 3) that among

            these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; 4) that to secure these rights,

            governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent

            of the governed; 5) that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of

            these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new

            government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in

            such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.


            Explicit in the Jeffersonian doctrine is the declaration of the inalienability of right to experiment--to be wrong as well as right.  In other words, Jefferson believed that the human being is so constituted that, short of death, his curiosity can never be taken away, that experimental inquiry is a function of living itself.  Any society which believes differently, which attempts to abolish or perpetually to extinguish curiosity without extinguishing lifeitself, is merely banking the fires for its own eventual consummation by the flames of revolution.

            As Jefferson continued, “... and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed ....”  Eventually, the unquenchable and inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness will correlate into some form, expressing itself in modifying the offending institution or institutions and recreating “its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

            But Jefferson was speaking of forceful revolution as a last resort.  The modern social scientist, with the data of the historical  laboratory at his elbow, seeks to make free social inquiry into a tool of peaceful modification and adaptation.  Using it properly, he seeks to conduct his investigations into the various institutional structures of his society in such a way as to produce a “plurality of alternatives” by which to resolve the social conflicts and problems that continually arise in response to continuous social change.  His motive at all times is to propose alternative solutions to social problems which society at large can use to be tested in experience and in practical operation, and then to modify and to examine once again “in such forms as to [it] shall seem most likely to effect [its] safety and happiness.”

            The truly free society does not penalize one alternative solution in advance.  As in a fair race, the competitors do not injure one another or seek to trip an opponent while racing toward the goal.  So with alternative ideas for resolving social problems; no liability is imposed before the race of experiential testing is completed, and no recrimination or revenge is visited upon the loser.  In the free society, individuals are left free to choose between competing ideas which serve them and their purposes better than others.  And even when once accepted by the majority, a given idea or belief is always held subject to reexamination, modification, and revision--even as conditions, ideas, things and people themselves change with time.

            At the root of the free society is the realization that the social process, like a broad river flowing, is always becoming.

            The social sciences are but one of the four great branches of knowledge through which mankind can hope for a social process which makes it the beneficiary, not the victim, of change.  Through the social sciences, the modern student has access--not only to the vast body of data collected by the various fields within the social sciences, but also to a scientific method of dealing with social data which can contribute in large measure to the dissolution of the forces of hate, greed, misery and ignorance which lie like festering sores deep with the social process of modern times.

            But the free society and social order most likely to survive its capacity for its own self-destruction is the one--and only that one--which is willing to submit its basic foundations to constant and candid scientific criticism.  This necessitates the vigorously protected right by all men everywhere to apply the standards of scientific criticism even to the most sacred and obviously unquestionable justifications of a given social order.

            In our day, this privilege is the price not only of the smooth continuity of world culture, but of the survival of that culture itself.

The Problem of Value



            Wherever men have been associated in society, they have sought answers to the question of the nature and purpose of social organization.  What constitutes the “good life?”  What is the end or goal or value to which men should aspire?  It is such questions as these that constitute the problem of value.  The answers that men have given are important because our ideas about what ought to be constitute the criterion of judgment which we use when confronted with the necessity or possibility of making choices in the attempted solution of a problem.

            While we are now in a position to see that there is some scientific evidence which can aid us in solving our social problems, does this mean that it is no longer necessary to concern ourselves with the question of what is desirable?  The answer is that there does not seem to be any way of escaping the necessity for considering what ought to be.  But it is in their context as criteria of judgment that we must concern ourselves with concepts of value.  This is so because it is in this connection that they are involved in the attempted solution of social problems.  The solution of social problems involves the necessity for making choices.  Man cannot escape the necessity for social action, and such activity necessarily involves some prior choice-making wherever it is not determined by habitual behavior patterns.  To refuse to make a choice in a situation where action of some sort is inescapable is, in effect, to make one.  The decision to maintain the status quo unchanged is itself a choice.

            The making of choices involves the application of some criterion of judgment--some concept of the desirable which serves as the reference point in the selection from among available alternatives.  This is true of the choices that men make in their attempts to solve social problems.  For example, if we are considering the problem of unemployment, and it is found that full employment can be maintained only by increasing public control over some parts of the economy, on what basis do we decide that it is desirable to do so?  Are there not moral values in “free enterprise” which are more important than maintaining full employment?  If it be true that security can be achieved only at the expense of freedom (as many people contend) which of these is the more valuable goal?

            In the analysis of social problems, solutions always take the form of choices from among available alternatives  which exist as institutional structures.  When confronted with the problem of housing, do we decide to leave home-building exclusively in the hands of private enterprise, provide government subsidies to homebuilders and purchasers, have the government build housing projects, facilitate the setting up of cooperatives, set up the institutional means for killing off that part of the population which cannot find homes, or adopt some other alternative or combination of alternatives?  The character of the answer chosen--the institutional pattern selected--will be determined by the criterion of judgment employed.  It is clear that the problem of value, in the sense of criterion of judgment, cannot be escaped.

            The problem now becomes that of whether criteria of judgment are themselves subject to rational analysis or whether, after all, there is no rational way to judge between them and, therefore, no rational way to solve social problems.  In this regard, it needs to be emphasized that these criteria do not exist independently of the social interaction which is taking place in the group in which they are applied.  In each case they rest at bottom on some conception of human nature, some idea of what sort of being the human animal is.  As such, we are entitled to inquire whether their validity is subject to examination in the light of the hypotheses which emerge from the actual study of human relations.

            There is no reason to believe that any criterion of judgment is somehow mysteriously divorced from and logically independent of the “observed regularities” of human behavior discussed earlier.  Since such criteria become meaningful only as they are used as the reference point in the organization of human behavior and the attempt to solve social problems, they may be required legitimately to meet the test of such evidence as we have about the behavior of human beings.  The criterion of judgment used to solve economic problems within the framework of business enterprise, for example, is based on the concept of the “economic man.”   This is a theory which no longer can be held to be valid in the light of the mores principle.  We are now able to see that the classical economists were confusing some aspects of the human behavior which they saw around them in their society with an immutable, inherent human nature.  Yet judgments continue to be made on this basis.  Witness current discussions with regard to the problems of housing, inflation, medical care, educational facilities, etc.  Much the same difficulty is inherent in the communist criterion of judgment.  The class struggle, upon examination, is found to be the same sort of thing as the “invisible hand.”  This is not to be wondered at, since both theories are the result of the same sort of thinking about social affairs.  They both represent “absolute truths” which must be accepted through an act of faith and do not stand the test of inquiry.  All such non-scientifically based criteria of judgment--including at the present time fascism, communism, and laissez-faire--have several things in common.  A closer examination of these similarities may be of help at this point.


Characteristics of Non-scientifically-based Criteria of Judgment.

            In the first place, all such theories find validity in a certain fixed pattern of institutions.  Whether it be the noninterference by government in the economic life of the community and the determination of economic policy exclusively by the owners of property (laissez faire), the complete absence of private property and policy determination by the dictatorship of the proletariat (communism), or the superiority of some racial or cultural group and determination of policy by the “naturally superior” through the institution of the party (fascism)--no matter which of these theories is involved, its aims are to be achieved through some particular set of institutions.  But we know that institutions change, and we know that the only way to solve real social problems is by changing institutions.  We know that any theory based on values which are to be realized through some particular institutional pattern, though it may seem to present easy answers to problems, is in fact incapable of solving those problems.  The character of the social process and the dynamic nature of invention make such easy answers impossible.  If it is necessary to change institutions in order to solve social problems, then we know that, whatever criterion of judgment is to be used, it cannot be such as to require any particular pattern of institutions.

            Similarly, and for the same reasons, any valid criterion of judgment must be independent of the institutional structure in which the judgment is to be made.  Otherwise, nothing more than a justification of the very institutions which need to be modified can occur.  In other words, while cultural prescriptions dictate habitual behavior patterns, where problems arise these habitual patterns must be modified.  The prevailing dictates of the culture which regulate this particular phase of social activity must, then, be critically appraised and modified, and this requires a criterion of judgment which is exterior to the institutions being examined.

            The second characteristic of such theories results from the previously noted fact that any criterion of social judgment rests on some conception of human nature.  In this case, this theory of human nature is not based upon scientific analysis of the biological and social characteristics of men living in groups, but is based upon some preconceptions about human nature.  These preconceptions seek to establish invidious distinctions between people.  By invidious, we mean alleged distinctions of relative worth or ability which are not drawn from and cannot be verified by rational analysis of the evidence.  They represent judgments about the relative worth of individuals, and they generally come to focus in the matter of policy determination, for the power to determine social policy is the power to prescribe the conditions of social life for all of the member of a community.  Thus, it may be held that one race is inherently superior to all others, that the proletariat is somehow the highest class in society, that the owners of property are peculiarly endowed with the capacity to make decisions.  In each case, the assumed inequality between men is used as the criterion of what is desirable in social affairs.  In each case, this assumed inequality is held to be a valid reason for allowing some group of people to decide policies which affect the lives of others.  This is accomplished by identifying the interests and welfare of the “superior” group with the interests of the community at large, and it is held that the well-being of the elite is an accurate index to the well-being of the society.  In each case, this assumed inequality is invidious (unscientific) because it rests on assumptions which cannot be proved, or it is an unwarranted imputation of moral worth from real individual differences.

            It is this sort of judgment, which is at the bottom of all prejudice.  Certain common sense appreciations of surface differences between people--skin pigmentation, hair texture, facial characteristics, etc.--are held to be evidence of relative worth or instrumental capacities of the individuals concerned, and are held to be sufficient evidence for denying to this group opportunities for full participation in the social system--always, of course, in their own best interest since they are “inferior.”


Characteristics of a Scientific Criterion of Judgment.

            These characteristics of nonscientific criteria of judgment represent clues as to the way the scientific method can be applied positively to the problem of making choices.  We can distinguish at least three positive identifications of a valid criterion of judgment in social affairs.

            In the first place, the basis for judging must take account of the reality and inevitability of change.  This means that our criterion of judgment must be constructed in terms of process rather than structure.  It must be outside of and independent of any specific sorts of institutions, since we are judging from among institutional structures.  This implies a criterion which does not specify any stable, continuous pattern of institutions, but one which recognizes that a continuously expanding technology makes institutional change inevitable.  The process of change, motivated by the enlarging area of human activity in which scientific explanation occurs, must itself be the reference point for a valid criterion of judgment.

            This does not at all imply that institutions are unimportant, nor does it mean that stability and continuity in institutional life are not social imperatives. It is necessary to repeat that social activity takes place through institutions, and that social change is accomplished through the modification of institutions.  The point is that the criterion of judgment employed must be independent of the prevailing mores if real, rational choice is to be possible .  Nor does it mean that all of the mores of a community must be modified to solve its problems.  The habits of thought in a democratic society, for example, which may properly be called mores and which constitute the habit of referring to non-coercive, nonviolent solutions to problems may be validated by a scientific criterion of judgment since they constitute a basic condition for rational choice.

            In the second place, a valid criterion must provide the opportunity for real, rational choices to be made.  That is to say, it must take into account the determinants of the problems to which it is to be applied.  It must be rooted in reality--in the “observed regularities” among the items involved in the problem.  It must recognize and be based on the realities of the culture concept and the principles of social change.  It must start from where we are in the realities of the problems encountered, and at the same time, it must provide a conception of where we ought to be.  It must bridge the gap between what is and what ought to be.  This means that there must be an explicit connection between the two, and that what is viewed as desirable must not be divorced from what is possible.  This condition can only be met by a recognition of the relationship between personality and culture--an understanding of the habitual behavior of people (what is), and a recognition of the nature of social change--an understanding of the way that people can change their behavior patterns in order to solve the problems created by an expanding technology (what ought to be).

            Thirdly, judgments about social affairs which can be held to be valid must be instrumental rather than invidious in character.  When judgments are made on invidious grounds, they can only intensify the problem which exists.  The racial problem, for example, is the problem of the denial of the opportunity for effective participation to minority groups on the basis of assumptions of invidious differences between races.  Any attempt to solve it on invidious grounds cannot possibly resolve the problem.

            We are here considering the belief systems held by people in any society.  These belief systems are important data in social analysis.  But they are important in the same way that men’s ideas about disease before the discovery of bacteria were important.  They do not provide us with the basis for making judgments about current problems any more than the explanation of disease as punishment for sin provides the modern medical researcher with a tool for curing cancer.  Social science can provide people with a way of thinking about social affairs which will enable them to solve their social problems only insofar as we are able to apply to the relationships between human beings a way of thinking which meets the same logical conditions as that which has characterized advances in physical knowledge.

            The advances in the reliability of our knowledge about the physical world have been achieved through the sort of thinking that we have been calling instrumental.  We have been able to solve physical problems as our approach to them has come to be based, not on preconceptions about their nature, but on “observed regularities” in the phenomena disclosed by observation of the facts in the case.  In the case of man’s relationship to man (institutional life), man’s thinking has commonly been invidious in character.  The task now ahead for civilized man is the construction of judgment drawn from an investigation of the way that human beings do, and have, in fact behaved.



            By way of summing up, it is clear that science does not provide us with a way of escaping the necessity for making value judgments in social affairs.  But it is also clear that the method of science does provide us with a way of bringing our value judgments into closer correlation with the facts of social life.  It does provide us with a way of making such judgments as will enable us to solve problems.  In fact, the validity of the instrumental approach to social affairs, as distinguished from the invidious, is to be found in the fact that it is the method by which problems may be solved.  Moreover, this way of thinking about social affairs enables us to escape the conclusion that there is no way to decide between the relative validity of different institutions and social theories.

            The significance of what has been said for the central problem of the competing theories of government in the world today should also be considered.  For of all these theories, democracy--the determination of social policy by those who will be affected by the policy--would seem to most nearly approximate the conditions discussed above.  It is within the framework of the democratic process that a free, uncoerced choice from among alternatives can be made.  Democracy alone among the available theories of social organization does not specify any particular pattern of institutions.  Democracy alone makes no invidious distinctions between people and specifies that it is only within such a framework that the real, instrumental differences between people may be realized.  Democracy provides, in the long run, the alternative which is capable of constantly adjusting itself to changed conditions--of continuously solving the problems which it confronts.

            It may be true that such assertions are valid only on the basic assumption that it is desirable to solve problems.  If so, it does no material harm to the position here stated, since no one can deny the validity of problem-solving without denying the very nature of life.  In fact, all social theories have laid claim to potency in the matter of solving  problems.  The point we have been emphasizing is that these problems are objectively determined and that they can be viewed as cause-effect sequences.  As we approach the matter of human relations with this clearly in view, there is reason for hope that we can develop the techniques for solving those problems.


What is a Social Problem?

            We are now in a position to consider what we mean by a social problem.  It should already be clear that social problems are related somehow to the fact of continuous social change.  In fact, social conflicts or problems may be viewed as symptoms of social change.  Conflicts arise in society when two or more aspects of the social process are inefficiently correlated--more specifically, when the invidious bases of institutions interfere with their ability to maintain the social process at the level which the available tools and techniques make possible.  Social problems are not dependent, then, on the subjective awareness of their existence by members of the community.  Unemployment is a social problem when the economic institutional arrangements make it impossible to maintain a level of full employment in a technological situation which is capable of supporting full employment.  To put it another way, a social problem exists where members of a community are denied access to the full measure of participation in society which their own energies and capacities and the available technology make possible.

            Because this is the case, social problems can only be solved by the modification or replacement of the institutions which have failed to correlate human behavior efficiently.  We have, of course, been assuming that it is the behavior of individuals which is being correlated inefficiently.  It follows that, while social problems may be said to exist independently of the awareness of the individuals concerned, it is also true that the effort to solve a problem will not be made until the members of the society are conscious of the existence of the problem.  And the effort cannot be successful until they are aware of the factors which have caused the problem and are thereby equipped to deal with it.


Social Problems and the Individual.

            While any particular pattern of institutions is a cross-section of the social process, these institutions are reflected in the behavior  patterns of the individuals in that society. Institutions may also, therefore, be said to exist in the minds of individuals.  The judgments of any society as to right and wrong, permissible and forbidden sorts of human activity which are expressed in institutions, become cultured, ingrained habits of thought and action in the members of that society.  In the language of the social psychologists, people tend to “interiorize” the social norms which are current in their institutions.

            The activities which the norms of any society prescribe become habitual and their execution almost unconscious.  At the same time, the norms themselves--the values and basic assumptions on which these behavior patterns are based--are accepted, for the most part, uncritically.  Indeed, many individuals are not even aware of their existence.  The result is that they tend to become “evidence-proof formulae.”  They remain tacit assumptions that people are not prepared to question or have questioned or to refer to the test of evidence for proof.  When they are attacked, the reaction is personal and emotional.

            Some of these established ways of doing things are more commonly and deeply ingrained in the minds of individuals than others, of course.  In American society, for example, most people would consider it immoral--and suffer real discomfort--if forced to use someone else’s toothbrush, and feel it a personal affront when the sanctity of the traditional institution of the family is called into question.  These are matters about which the American community’s institutional prescriptions are widely and deeply held.  On the other hand, the appearance of women in public in the “old look” is probably not yet accounted serious enough to bring deep social disapproval.  The attempt by advertising methods to make the “new look” a serious social prescription has not come up to the hopes or expectations of the ladies’ apparel industry.  In the matter of dress, the varying degrees in which social prescriptions become involved with emotions is clearly evident.

            While much of human activity is habitual and dictated in the manner described above by the existing institutional pattern, it is also true that the pressure to solve real social problems results in a conscious decision on the part of individuals to modify these habitual behavior patterns and institute new patterns of relationships among the individuals in the community.  This decision amounts to a conscious choice from among the various alternative solutions to the problem which are available.  It is a different sort of activity than the unconscious obedience to custom which we have been considering.  And it is the only sort of activity which is capable of solving problems.  This sort of real, rational choice by the individuals concerned can only be made when they have become sufficiently aware of the restraints which established institutional behavior put on their ability to live more meaningfully and abundantly.


Personal Problems and Social Problems.

            Because all individuals live in society and, therefore, within the institutions of their society (with the rare exception of the hermit), it becomes necessary for them to adjust themselves to the requirements of their society.  But the adjustment of individuals to society--to things as they are--does not mean that people must be taught to regard the institutions in which they live as permanent or perfect arrangements.  If this could be accomplished, the result would be mass stagnation or suicide since a society composed of such individuals would not be able to modify itself as change becomes necessary.  A healthy society, then, is one composed of individuals who recognize the inevitability of change and are prepared to solve their problems by the rational modification of their institutions.

            It is not enough, therefore, to have citizens who are well-adjusted to what is.  In the long run, healthy individuals cannot exist in a sick society. Consider, for example, what the consequences of adjusting individuals to the social structure of Fascism meant to the world.  A well-adjusted little Nazi can hardly be said to be a healthier and sounder individual than a poorly adjusted one who finds it exceedingly difficult to live in the Fascist society.  In the case of the migratory workers in the United States, the social problem is obviously not one of convincing the migrant that he should be happy in spite of the fact that his family is hungry, ill-housed, diseased and deprived of any educational facilities.  Nor is it a matter of enrolling him in night school so that he can study to be a salesman or a mechanic.  If all migrants were transferred to stores and factories, the agricultural crops would lie unharvested.

            The social problem here lies in the fact that a substantial portion of the American community is denied access to the full participation in the economic process that our technology makes possible.  And the level of participation of the rest of the community is lowered to the same degree, since they are denied the socially useful results of the contribution that the migrants might make.  In short, the concern of social science is with the character of the society to which individuals are to adjust.

            Every individual in society has many personal problems which may range all the way from inferiority complexes to inability to find housing facilities.  Many of these problems are in reality the incidence of a social problem on the individual.  For example, it s not inconceivable that a veteran today might find himself in the position of not being able to find a job, having to house his family in a chicken-coop, not being able to provide an adequate diet for his family, and of having frequent and violent quarrels with his wife.  Now it is also conceivable that, by conferring with experts trained in rehabilitation work, he might be able to work out these difficulties--to solve his problems.  The individual may in effect, lift himself by his bootstraps. Certainly it is desirable that effort be exerted to this end.  But solving personal problems does not solve social problems.  The claim that it does rests on a confusion between these two sorts of problems.

            By getting a job, a house, and working out his difficulties with his wife, this veteran will not thereby have solved the social problems of unemployment, housing, inflation, and the organization of the family of which his personal problems were symptoms.  These are problems which are occasioned not by weakness or deficiencies in any particular individuals, but by the fact that the institutions of that society do not effectively correlate the activities of individuals so that all are provided with the opportunity for the fullest expression of their potentialities.  And they can be solved in only one way: by the modification of the institutions involved so that full use may be made of the available scientific knowledge of the community.  The solution by individuals of their personal problems is, of course, a desirable end.  But the conditions under which this is possible for all individuals can only be accomplished when individuals realize that many of their personal problems are only symptomatic of social maladjustment.

            This confusion of personal and social problems is also responsible for the emotional approach to the solution of problems which, however commendable in intent, serves to prolong the existence of the problem itself.  Very often, for example, a genuinely admirable concern for the poor or the “unfortunate,” when accompanied by a failure to see the reality of the social problem involved, leads to the conclusion that the answer lies in public or private charity.  But charity is not a solution to the problem of poverty.  The problem itself can only be solved by the rational attempt to get at its causes.  As a social phenomenon, the problem of poverty--like other economic problems--is located in those social arrangements which determine the rules of the game in the matter of how men “make a living” in society.

            Nor does the solution of social problems consist in the effort to assess moral praise

or blame to any individual or group or class of individuals.  Social science is not concerned with this sort of moral judgment, since it is not capable of solving problems.  The determinants of problems lie elsewhere, and it is only by the rational attempt to discover what these determinants are and what alternatives are available that problems may be solved.



Why Solve Social Problems?

            The serious attempt to solve social problems is an exciting adventure in the interplay of forces which are within human control and those which are not.  The rational decision to modify institutions is within the area of choice of man, even though its exercise requires intelligent reexamination of long-established habits.  At the same time, there are considerations in problem-solving which are outside human control.  The limitations of the physical environment are an obvious example.  Not so obvious is the proposition that any attempt to solve social problems must take as given data the level of scientific knowledge which is available, and that to effect a solution is to provide new institutional arrangements which will make fuller use of this knowledge.

            It is this latter fact which makes problem-solving necessary.  Social change is made necessary and inevitable by the fact that established institutions cannot make full use of new discoveries and inventions--of new ideas, tools, and techniques.  The social process has ceased in some way to proceed efficiently.  Since the social process affects individuals through institutions--prescribed patterns of human behavior--its efficiency depends on the efficiency of the structural institutions and arrangements which compose it in any given cultural order.   It is inevitable, therefore, that in seeking to make their lives meaningful, men will continue to modify their institutions.

            But why worry and work at the matter?  Why not let the social process run its course and let social problems take care of themselves?  Perhaps the best answer to these questions lies in the fact that the quality of the lives of every individual in a society depends in large part on the quality of the social arrangements which are in effect.  To the degree that any members of a society are precluded from effective participation, the society itself is a sick society, and every member of it is affected thereby.

            Moreover, failure to solve social problems rationally invites non-rational attempts to do the same thing.  These non-rational attempts take the form of the substitution of violence for discussion and reasoned analysis, and adopt the method of war and revolution.  Especially in an atomic age--but, of course, in any age--widespread use of force and violence may make social survival itself impossible.  Increasingly, modern man becomes aware of the truth of the charge that the alternative to the rational modification of his institutions is death or, at best, a badly crippled community.




Baldwin Ranson


            Many of John Fagg Foster’s students and colleagues considered him to have been a world-class teacher and scholar.  Those who didn’t know him can scarcely judge how accurate such praise of his teaching was.  But the current availability of some of his writings and lectures on a CD entitled “John Fagg Foster’s Contribution to Scientific Inquiry” now permits new judgments of his scholarship. 

            In order to illustrate the quality of his scholarship, I propose confronting what I believe was his wildest claim: that only the instrumental theory of value can be applied.  It appeared in his lectures on value theory, in which he defined value as the criterion of judgment.[374]   Here in Foster’s words are three variations of this assertion:


            I shall take the position that there is no escape from, there has never been

            any application of, and there cannot be any application of, anything but what

            is in fact the criterion [of judgment]. (94)

            ... there is no criterion of judgment in fact applied which is different than the

            correct theory of value ...(92)

            It is impossible to apply an erroneous criterion [of judgment].  The question

            of value is a question of fact: what is the criterion of judgment.(93)


            To assist you in evaluating this claim, I shall propose answers to four questions: 1) what does it mean?  2) on what evidence is it based? 3) how accurate is it? 4) how useful is it?


1.  What does Foster’s claim mean?

            The meaning of this assertion hinges on the nature of the criterion of judgment  and what it means to apply it.  Foster saw the criterion of judgment as a tool applied (used) constantly in every person’s life. 

            A primary characteristic of human life is the endless generation and pursuit of ends-in-view.  Whenever conventional or habitual behavior is blocked, people must make judgments and choices about what to do next.  Each decision maps one step forward in a person’s life, aimed at changing present situations into desired futures.  Bertrand de Jouvenal called decisions “conjectures” about available futures; he considered conjectures to be a “need of our species.”(chapter 2)

            Regardless of immediate intent, the generic function of a decision is to continue the process of choosing by selecting a course of behavior thought to be capable of linking a present “what is” to a future “what ought-to-be.”  Foster variously identified the instrumental criterion guiding decisions linking present and future as “efficiency” (1981:930,944) and as “developmental continuity” (1981:944,959,1010).  Its current popular expression is “sustainability.”   It is applied by asking “What will work?”  “Which next step appears most efficient for continuing my life process?”   Foster considered this pursuit of continuity “an attribute of human judgment”(93), itself not subject to choice because there is no genuine alternative between continuing and ending one’s life process.(138).         

            Almost no one denies the existence of an instrumental criterion.  And almost no one accepts Foster’s claim that it is the only applicable criterion of judgment.  Examining three objections to his claim will clarify his position.

            Some economists (e.g., Bush, 85,91), influenced by Veblen’s distinction between instrumental and ceremonial behavior, add to Foster’s instrumental criterion a ceremonial criterion.[375]  A valuation is identified as ceremonial when it claims effectiveness that is not warranted by its consequences.  But a ceremonial criterion would mean choosing a course of action BECAUSE it is expected to be ineffective.  Recognizing a ceremonial criterion as well as  an instrumental criterion would mean that sometimes one chooses what one thinks will work, and at other times what one thinks will NOT work.  We deny that anyone ever applies a ceremonial criterion of judgment.  Choices are always instrumental in intent.

            Some philosophers (e.g., Habermas, 9) add to Foster’s instrumental criterion an ethical and a moral criterion, dividing “what ought-to-be” into three distinct species: pragmatic [the instrumental], ethical [the good], and moral [the just].  But this division denies the unity and continuity of human experience.  Foster insisted that these three names all refer to a single trait of desirability: continuity.  What ought-to-be because it achieves continuity is the same as what ought-to-be morally and ethically--the position adopted by “deep ecology” (Capra, 7, 11, 297).

            Some reviewers reject Foster’s single criterion as patently absurd because it entails Jesus--the epitome of good--and Hitler--the epitome of evil--applying the same theory of value.  That objection ignores Foster’s careful distinction between value--the universal criterion of judgment not subject to human discretion--and valuation--any particular application of value which is always subject to human discretion.  Jesus judged that love was the effective means for sustaining humanity, while Hitler judged that fear of power of the master race was the effective means.  Both pursued continuity, regardless of how instrumental (i.e., successful, ethical) their means proved to be.

            Turning from the critics, here is Foster’s statement of the factual nature of both the criterion of continuity and what ought-to-be to achieve continuity:


            The relation between the run of the facts and the ought-to-be-ness involved

            is difficult but not complicated.  The criterion is a fact, and what ought to be

            is a fact.  At any instant in anyone’s experience, the present existence of the

            fact of judgment  is a present fact, even though that judgment be about a future

            attainment.  The rational faculty in human behavior connects the present and

            the future.  We know for certain that the future will become the present, and our

            judgments now are questions of fact about a particular operation of choosing

            among alternatives the functioning of which are projections in human imag-

            ination into the future.  You can’t make a judgment in the past, in that sense. 

            All judgments are connections between the present and the future; they are

            hypothetical projections of choices within one’s area of discretion into com-

            binations which are not yet.(94)[376] 


            Every human choice is an instrument of continuity in intent.  No sane human chooses a course of action she believes will fail to achieve its intended result.  The only apparent exception to the universal application of the instrumental criterion is by persons judged insane, that is, incapable of judgments linking causes with effects, means with ends, present with future.  The insane cannot make genuine choices.(205-6)


2. On what evidence is Foster’s claim based?

            Some examples will provide both clarification of and evidence for Foster’s assertion.  We examine efforts to apply the instrumental theory of value and two supposed alternatives.

            THE INSTRUMENTAL THEORY OF VALUE.  Humans walk by habit, but it is a skilled habit that must be learned.  Infants learning to walk can be observed making repeated judgments.  They may stand supported by a chair, and eye a table where they wish to be.  They recognize that walking is a more efficient form of locomotion than crawling.  They make repeated efforts and, through trial and error, learn that certain movements of legs and body maintain balance and permit movement forward, while others do not.(96 ff.)  This learning process epitomizes what Veblen called workmanship and Dewey and Ayres called instrumental judgment and behavior.  Clearly, infants apply the criterion of developmental continuity in a manner which, when perfected, becomes scientific inquiry:


            We frequently have to make judgments on very slight evidence ...  And the

            fewer the facts, the more apt we are to make the wrong judgment.  But we

            are acting, note, as a scientist.  We are adding up evidence and drawing

            conclusions, the conclusions being a generalization that we then apply to

            the immediate matter at hand. (90)


            THE UTILITY THEORY OF VALUE.  The oldest and most widely accepted explanation of human choice is the utility theory of value, which identifies want-satisfaction as the universal criterion for judging what ought-to-be.  Foster granted the existence of utility, and that people make hedonistic calculations of degrees of pleasure and pain.  But he denied that any of that

 involved the criterion linking the present to the future.[377] 

            The utility theory sets up a taxonomy asserting that some things constitute positive motivation, and other things negative motivation.  But this taxonomy fails to explain choices among alternatives leading from what is to what should be.  It permits naming a state of affairs as pleasure-full or not, but fails to guide inquiry to actions capable of achieving future satisfaction: “Whether it is pleasure and pain or otherwise, you still have the theory of value to explain.”(117-8)  As evidence, Foster challenged the orthodox argument, popularized by the Austrian economist Bohm-Bawerk, that Robinson Crusoe provides a convincing example of the universal applicability of utility value theory. 

            The recluse “thrown on a lonely shore without either tools or weapons” is faced with an immediate choice in sustaining his life: determining his time preference between consumption and saving.  Assume that his “original productive powers” are one day’s labor of nine hours.


            “Suppose there is such wealth of berries that the result of nine hours’

            gathering gives a return such as to guarantee a subsistence ... sufficient

            to maintain Crusoe in health and strength.  Obviously he has now a choice

            between two lines of conduct.  Either he may take advantage of the oppor-

            tunity thus offered to complete his provision, and consume each day the fruits

            of an entire ten hours’ day of labour--in which case ... he has now no time and

            strength left to make a bow and arrows; or, he may content himself with the

            barest living ... provided by the nine hours’ labour of gathering; then, and then

            only, has he a tenth hour free in which to make weapons for future use.(101)


            For Bohm-Bawerk, utilitarian human nature and scarcity establish both the criterion and the alternatives available to Crusoe: present versus future satisfaction.  Foster denied their reality and applicability.  The utility theory of value is false and inapplicable because satisfaction is unrelated to survival.  Nature imposes no choices between present and future income.


            Now in the classical example, it is supposed that [Crusoe] needs to save or

            accumulate fish and goat-meat in sufficient quantities to support him while

            he  constructs the new equipment.  And ... it is further supposed that ...

            Crusoe  must eat fewer fish in case he is already fully employed, or work

            longer hours in case the initial techniques have not required his full energies.

                 What activates Crusoe?  What determines his choice to build the new

            devices and use the new techniques?  Is it that he calculates the pain and

            abstention involved in making traps and nets?  Is making nets more painful

            than grabbing fish with the bare hands? 

                 The simple fact is that Crusoe envisions (invents) more efficient pro-

            cedures, and that his present rate of production permits him to adopt them. 

            In case he is presently “fully” employed in hourly surviving, Crusoe makes

            choices toward efficiency quite as well as if his present techniques provide

            surfeit.  For example, he will fish the lee side of a bar rather than the wind-

            ward side in case fish are more abundant on the protected side.  ... [H]e

            merely adopts the more efficient techniques in the technological sense.  If

            he did not act in this manner, he would be universally regarded as insane. 

            In fact, in the   traditional story, if he did not act on the basis of technological

            efficiency, he would cease to be regarded at all because he would cease

            to exist.(179)


            In short, utility is not a criterion applicable to answering the question of what to do next in order to achieve a desired future state.  Only the instrumental criterion can serve that function for Crusoe.

            THE FASCIST THEORY OF VALUE.  Almost as universal as the utility theory is the practice of identifying power as the criterion of judgment.  Its most virulent manifestation is generally considered to be Fascism, which Foster defined as “a system in which power is the theory and the criterion of value.”(210)  He defined power as “the exercise of discretion over others without responsibility to them,”(212), and granted that power-seeking is a human trait just like pleasure-seeking.  But it is not a criterion of judgment capable of linking what is to what should be to achieve continuity.

            Fascism rejects rationality, denying any need to justify power by reason.  It tries to establish truth by the exercise of power: might makes right; the leader can do no wrong.  But in pursuit of power, fascists cannot avoid explanation and reasoning.  In their efforts to apply the theory, their judgments invariably seek actions expected to establish or continue what they conceive should be.(95-6)   Efforts to apply that theory fail because power cannot serve as a criterion pointing to operational links between what is and what should be.  In Foster’s words:


            ... what we mean by applicable theory is theory which does bring into

            intellectual availability alternatives which in  fact resolve the problematic

            situation.  If they don’t,  that is what we mean by erroneous theory--theory

            which does not permit you to get at the right evidences or arrange them

            for analysis.(112)

            The continuum in social affairs at all points involves purposeful human

            behavior: choices are, in fact, made,  which is the exercise of valuation. 

            That is  to say, there is an application of the theory of value at all those

            points.  And those points are all points at which human beings engage

            in consciously purposeful behavior, at which judgments and choices

            are made.(92)


            Fascism, like utilitarianism, permits naming a state of affairs as power-full or power-less, but provides no criterion for choosing actions capable of achieving ends-in-view.


3.  How accurate is Foster’s claim?

            Let us return to Foster’s view of the nature of purposeful choice.  Every choice originates in an observation that “what is” obstructs one’s life process.  That observation motivates a search for ends and means to remove that obstruction. 

            The instrumental theory of value tells one to ask, “What ends and means must I choose next to continue my life?,” and one sets about identifying next steps.  In our example, infants behave as if asking themselves “where should I place my foot to advance toward that table?”  That is, they APPLY the instrumental theory to a developmental end.

            The utility theory tells one to ask, “Am I satisfied?”  In our example, if Crusoe asked, “Should I save or consume to increase my satisfaction?”  as Bohm- Bawerk advised, he would have to apply the instrumental criterion in considering alternative paths to satisfaction--a non-developmental end.

            Fascist theory tells one to ask, “Am I powerful?”  If Hitler asked “Would eliminating inferior races make me more powerful?” he would have to apply the instrumental criterion in considering alternative paths to power--a non-developmental end.

            Since the questions dictated by false theories of value are unrelated to the future, those theories CANNOT BE APPLIED to guide choices.  One is forced to apply the instrumental theory in pursuit of pleasure or power as of any other purpose.

            Every step in this judging process is subject to human error.  “What is” may be poorly or mis-specified; the end envisioned may not be developmental; and the means selected may not be instrumental.  But the error is never applying the wrong criterion.

            I suggest two reasons why we find Foster’s assertion contrary to logic and common sense.  One is the habit of talking as if any theory is applicable at will, e.g., Hitler was a fascist and, of course, applied fascism.  This habit fails to distinguish between genuine and imaginary choices.  And two is the habit of believing that only means are subject to instrumental validification.  Ends are treated as immaterial and unverifiable.

            I conclude that Foster’s critique of these semantic habits is valid.  The only applicable criterion of judgment is the instrumental criterion.  Hitler’s intent was continuity--a thousand year Reich--but his choices brought rapid disaster to him and millions of others, not because he applied a non-developmental theory of value but because he tried to apply a false theory.


4.  How useful is Foster’s claim?

            Recognizing the accuracy of Foster’s claim is useful, first, in eliminating the common confusion between a universal criterion and situation-specific applications, a confusion clearly stated by Anne Mayhew: “What makes institutional economics truly radical is that there is no ‘ought to be’ that both has usefully specific meaning and transcends a particular time and place.”(895)  Following Foster, what ought-to-be at each particular time and place is that action most likely to contribute transcendentally to the developmental continuity of the entire community.  Error is located not in the criterion of continuity, but in understanding its concrete conditions at each moment of choice in each human’s life process.

            Secondly, Foster’s assertion shows how to respond to sterile hermeneutic and relativistic arguments that value and valuations lack empirical warrant.  The instrumental criterion reveals the inseparability of judgments of what is from judgments of what should be.   Every choice involves both.           

            Finally, Foster’s claim confirms that applicability is the final test of the correctness of theories: “the building of a generalization and the process of verification through application [are] not separate, nor [can] either exist without the other.”(88)  

            Employing these insights of Fagg Foster’s would increase our capacity as social scientists to help society recognize and overcome the ignorance that obstructs its developmental continuity.




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