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Economics is the science of means. It describes the strategies people adopt to attain their goals at minimum cost and the obstacles that sometimes prevent these strategies from succeeding. It tells us how to achieve our ends in the least wasteful—the most economic—fashion, with the limited resources at our command. And sometimes it surprises us by showing that a person's actions, which appear at first to be wasteful or counterproductive, actually make good economic sense once we understand the person's true aims. Economics belongs to the domain of what Jürgen Habermas, following Max Weber, calls "instrumental rationality," and there it reigns supreme.
But economics cannot tell us what our purposes or goals should be. It cannot tell us how to spend our time and talents and money. It cannot tell us whether we should learn to play the piano or to snowboard, to build a fortune or give our wealth away, to develop a taste for burgundy or Proust, to blaspheme or pray. Beyond the simple injunction not to be wasteful, economics has no advice to give me regarding my own personal choice of ends, and no instruction to offer regarding the ends of human living generally. The exploration of these questions belongs to the province of philosophy, and of moral philosophy in particular, which claims for itself a higher prestige than economics, on the ground that ends are prior to means and intrinsically, not just instrumentally, important.
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