Subjective Intentions and Objective Consequences

Most of Pareto's concrete analysis in the bulk of the Treatise is concernedwith the springs of action of individual actors. Coming from economics, adiscipline that had paid almost exclusive attention to rational action, he wasmoved to supplement the economists' system of abstraction with a sociologicalsystem emphasizing the nonlogical drives to action. Yet, while focusing mostof the time on the actor's motivations, Pareto was also sensitive to the need foranalyzing the objective consequences of conduct. Subjective intentions and ob-jective consequences, he stressed, do not always coincide.

Pareto was especially attentive to those instances in which men engage inwhat they conceive to be logical actions but which the outside observer seesas having no logical end, or, perhaps more importantly, which he finds culmi-nating in consequences other than those that were pursued by the actors. Peoplebelieve that by means of certain rites and practices they may quell a storm orbring rain. Objectively we know that natural phenomena cannot be producedin this way; yet it may well be that by engaging in such practices the believersexperience a euphoric sense of power that makes them better able to withstandthe existential trials and tribulations in which they are involved and strengthensthe bonds of the social system in which they participate. In this case, a beliefsystem that is patently false still has a high degree of personal or social utility.More generally, "The experimental truth of a theory and its social utility aredifferent things. A theory that is experimentally true may now be advantageous,now detrimental to society; and the same applies to a theory that is experi-mentally false." "A theory may be in accord with experience and yet be harm-ful to society, or in disaccord with experience and yet beneficial to society."The assessment of social utility must proceed apart from the investigation ofthe logical status of theories and of the subjective intentions of individualactors.

From Coser, 1977:395.

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