An action is an embarkation of a behavior for the achievement of a goal1 which executes a deliberate choice2 among potential behaviors. A goal is a possible future situation that is perceived as better than what is anticipated to occur absent said behavior.3 An action always has an ultimate goal. Its direct goal may also be its ultimate goal. However, its direct goal may instead be a mediate goal which itself is aimed at only for the sake of the its ultimate goal.
An agent, according to my definition of the word, can only choose one behavior at a time (if a being could choose multiple behaviors simultaneously, it would be a being comprised of multiple agents). Potential behaviors are chosen according to their value in the achievement of those ultimate goals. This value is determined by a subjective judgment of the balance among:
I. the relative urgency of the behaviors' respective ultimate goals and
II.A. the behavior's perceived benefits (with regard to goals) of various anticipated (1) magnitudes and (2) likelihoods and its
II.B. perceived detriments, or costs, (with regard to goals) of various anticipated (1) magnitudes and (2) likelihoods.
All five variable categories above influence an agent's ascertainment of a behavior's value.4
Some mediate goals are situations in which certain resources are under one's control. Such resources are goods. Thus, some actions are endeavors to gain control over goods. When the control of a good is desired for the sake of directly achieving an ultimate goal, it is a consumption good. When the control of a good is desired for the sake of directly achieving a mediate goal, it is a production good. The use of production goods achieve mediate goals which are situations which include the production of other production goods or of consumption goods. Control over any good is desired solely for the sake of the ultimate goal it will hopefully lead to.
An act can also be considered an exchange, because it is a renunciation of the second-best situation that would have been the anticipated result of the second-best action deliberated over in exchange for the best situation that is the anticipated result of the action chosen. Some situations exchanged in this manner involve the control of goods. An agent may give up an anticipated situation in which he has control over one good in exchange for an anticipated situation in which he has control over another. When such an exchange is made, it is a demonstration that the chosen behavior's value in achieving the agent's ultimate goals is considered better than the renounced behavior's value in the achievement of ultimate goals.5
1Here I differ from the Mengerian/Misesian approach. Menger characterized goods as means to the satisfaction of needs. Mises modified this to characterize all action as an attempt to "remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness". I choose to simply refer to goals in order to include action in which no impact upon the feelings is intended. For example, a soldier who throws himself upon a grenade does not expect to alleviate felt uneasiness. The goal of his action (saving his comrades) will occur after his own demise, when he will be unable to feel any satisfaction or alleviation.
2This behavior can either be "doing something" or "intentionally not doing something". When you first consider taking a walk, then choose to, and then actually begin to, that beginning, impelled by the choosing, is the action. Continuing to walk is only an action if at any point it even crosses your mind whether to stop or continue. If your phone rings, and the choice of stopping or continuing your walk doesn't even cross your mind, and only whether or not to answer the call crosses your mind, then answering the phone is the only action at hand
3In Man, Economy, and State, Murray N. Rothbard wrote:
All action is an attempt to exchange a less satisfactory state of affairs for a more satisfactory one. The actor finds himself (or expects to find himself) in a nonperfect state, and, by attempting to attain his most urgently desired ends, expects to be in a better state.This is, strictly speaking, incorrect. A man never holds onto any state of affairs. Time is always passing, and conditions are ever changing. If nothing else, the man ages in time, and therefore is always moving from one state of affairs to another. A man, when he acts, therefore does not attempt to exchange a present state for a future one. Rather, he attempts to exchange a less satisfactory future state for a more satisfactory future state. The more satisfactory future state might very well be less satsifactory than his present state. For example he may be unavoidably poorer or sicker than before; he will, if nothing else, be older. But that is of no importance to his choice of action. What matters if will be better off than he otherwise would be.
4In Man, Economy, and State, Murray Rothbard wrote:
In order to institute action, it is not sufficient that the individual man have unachieved ends that he would like to fulfill. He must also expect that certain modes of behavior will enable him to attain his ends.However, what about the man at the roullette table who puts all his chips on one number? Does he really expect to achieve his end of becoming dramatically more wealthy from the next spin? Not necessarily; at least not according to the common definition of "expect", which is to regard something as likely to happen. Gamblers who make such bets often know very well that it is not likely that they will win. They do it anyway, because to them, the size of the pot makes it "worth a go". Is placing such a bet not an "action" since they can't be said to regard themselves as likely to win? No. It is still purposeful behavior: it is still an action. The purpose is still to win the pot, even if the likelihood is poor.
A man who acts does not necessarily expect his behavior to enable him to attain his ends. But he does necessarily deem it a worthy venture. The worthiness of the venture (or the value of the behavior) is determined by the five criteria I outline above.
5Again, I differ here with classic Austrianism, because I believe agents, strictly speaking, always choose among behaviors and not goods.