Instrumental and value-rational action

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Instrumental action and value-rational action are two kinds of behavior philosophers and social scientists call rational. They call an action instrumentally-rational when the actor chooses it as the right means—an instrument for coping with temporary conditions to achieve a desired end. They call an action value-rational when the actor chooses it as a permanent right end, a value in itself regardless of consequences actually achieved in existing conditions.

The distinction is clearest when action involves moral choices, such as between killing and being killed. No matter how the actor chooses, a life will be lost. What action is rational?

If one reasons that one should never break the Christian commandment, "Thou shalt not kill!," it is value-rational to refuse to kill. Accepting the moral end of not killing dictates the consequence of dying as moral means. But if one reasons that conditions make living preferable to dying, it is instrumentally rational to kill, seeking efficient means for taking one life to save another. Treating as equally rational actions based on both temporary instrumental means and permanent value-rational ends often results in incompatible judgments.[1][2]

These modern names for rational action were adopted from the work of the German sociologist Max Weber. But his belief that two different kinds of rational action exist was not original. Immanuel Kant had earlier expressed a similar distinction between actions motivated by situational perceptions of means-end relations and by transcendental conceptions of universal ends.;[3]:518[4] And Amartya Sen found in classical Indian philosophy of justice a similar distinction between reasoning about just consequences of action (Sanskrit nyaya) and transcendentally prescribed just action (Sanskrit niti).[5] Belief in these distinct rational capacities is still widely endorsed, as this article demonstrates.

This article reports how four scholars—Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, Jurgen Habermas, and John Dewey—explained what is rational about these two kinds of action. It minimizes reference to the two kinds of rationality presumed to motivate these actions, and the variety of criteria presumed to activate these kinds of rationality. These related topics are treated under the titles Instrumental and value rationality and Instrumental value. The titles Instrumentalism and Consequentialism treat schools of thought that deny the legitimacy of value-rational action.

Max Weber (1864-1920)[edit]

Max Weber is considered one of the founders of the discipline of sociology. He spent years studying human behavior and came to believe that unobservable motives can explain observable actions. In Economy and Society (1922), he developed categories he called ideal types to help him understand observed behavior. Individually-motivated but socially-correlated behavior he called "social action".[6]:xxxiii

Sociology ... is a science concerning itself with the interpretive understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences. We shall speak of "social action" insofar as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to his behavior...[6]:4

Weber identified four ideal types of social action, two involving reasoned choices and two involving reactions. Instrumentally-rational action requires choosing means to accomplish personal ends, and value-rational action requires choosing a socially-prescribed end. He excluded emotional and traditional actions from rational behavior because they are simple reactions, neither requiring nor explained by individual reasoning.[6]:5–6

Social action, like all action, may be ...:

  1. instrumentally rational (zweckrational), that is, determined by expectations as to the behavior of objects in the environment of other human beings; these expectations are used as "conditions" or "means" for the attainment of the actor's own rationally pursued and calculated ends;
  2. value-rational (wertrational), that is, determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some ethical, aesthetic, religious, or other form of behavior, independently of its prospects of success;
  3. affectual (especially emotional), that is, determined by the actor's specific affects and feeling states;
  4. traditional, that is, determined by ingrained habituation.[6]:24–5

Weber did not insist on these precise names when explaining social actions. He (and untold followers) assigned multiple captions to his two forms of rational behavior, assuring ambiguity in subsequent analyses. Instrumental action has been characterized as personally "practical," "purposeful," and "technical." Value-rational action has been characterized as impersonally "theoretical," "spiritual," and "ethical."[6]:85 note 3 Basit Koshul called Weber's instrumental action scientific, and his value-rational action religious.[7]:78, 151 George McCarthy and Larry Hickman called Weber's instrumental action technological.[1]:141[8]:8 But despite multiple captions, his original definitions retain their core meanings: action is instrumentally efficient when actors judge that "what works" is right, and action is value-rational when actors judge that their action is intrinsically "right" in itself.[9]:II:301

As Weber studied historical patterns of correlated action in religious, governmental, and economic settings, he found peoples' reasoning evolving and often contaminating itself. Ways of acting once considered efficient or legitimate became the opposite when means or ends either became isolated from or dominant over the other.

Pre-modern peoples saw their worlds as full of magical spirits, and treated objects in the environment as actors similar to themselves—a belief called animism. Imputing free will and values to inanimate and animate objects alike, they sought instrumentally-efficient means to control non-human wills. But mistakenly applying means-end reasoning to control spirits and inanimate objects contaminated instrumental reasoning. A rain-dance once thought to work instrumentally became a prescribed ritual action thought to be permanently effective. Instrumentally-ineffective patterns of action often became prescribed and unchangeable value-rational ends-in-themselves.;[6]:25, 33, 401–2, 422–4, 576–7[9]:48

Weber recognized that similar contamination occurs in modern societies when instrumental actions that actually "work" in temporary contexts become accepted as intrinsically right, converting context-dependent actions into permanently appropriate means and ends.

... the more the value to which action is oriented is elevated to the status of an absolute value, the more "irrational" in this sense the corresponding action is. For the more unconditionally the actor devotes himself to this value for its own sake, ... the less he is influenced by considerations of the consequences of his action.[6]:26, 399–400

Weber accepted the efficiency of instrumental reasoning and the moral necessity of value-rational reasoning. Bue he questioned the common belief that replacing value-rational action by instrumental action constituted social progress. And he disapproved of instrumental actions being treated as value-rational actions simply because they "worked."[9]:I:144; II:307, 324 He thought that placing faith in practical ends destroys human freedom to believe in ultimate moral values.;;[6]:65[7]:11–17[9]:I:159, 195,244 He called this contamination "disenchantment." Jurgen Habermas quoted his dismay at these amoral trends of reasoning:

Wherever rational, empirical knowledge has consistently brought about the disenchantment of the world and its transformation into a causal mechanism, a definitive pressure arises against the claims of the ethical postulate that the world is a divinely ordered, ... somehow ethically meaningful cosmos.[9]:I:160

As a scientist, Weber did not judge such contamination. But he concluded that instrumental means always require social justification through value-rational ends. Even apparently impersonal scientific inquiry depends on universal value-rational beliefs as much as does religion.[7]:43–6 A recent study argues that his analysis provides legitimate means for restoring value-rational action as a legitimate constraint on instrumental action.

Weber's analysis shows scientific rationality to have much more in common with religious rationality than was previously believed. Not only does Weber's work lay bare this commonality, it also open up the possibility of a mutually enriching conversation between the two.;[7]:148–51 see also[10]

Talcott Parsons (1902-1979)[edit]

In his 1938 work, The Structure of Social Action, sociologist Talcott Parsons accepted Weber's belief that unobservable motives go far to explain social action. He even quoted Weber's definition of instrumental and value-rational motives.[11]:II:642–3 He sought to advance sociological theory by integrating Weber's theory of individual motivation into a theory of socially harmonized action systems.

Parsons called his theoretical framework a "means-end schema," and endorsed Weber's two forms of rational action. Individuals coordinate their instrumental actions by an "efficiency-norm and their value-rational actions by a "legitimacy-norm"[11]:II:76, 652

But he blurred Weber's distinction between instrumental action to attain personal ends and value-rational action to attain impersonal ends. He recognized that social conditions generate both personal and impersonal ends, motivating both forms of action. Individuals rationally adopt both traditional ends—which Weber treated as non-rational motives for action—and ethical, esthetic, and religious values—which Weber treated as value-rational ends, good in themselves. Parsons did not distinguish efficient individual ends from legitimate social ends.

The central fact--a fact beyond all question--is that in certain aspects and to certain degrees, ... human action is rational. That is, men adapt themselves to the conditions in which they are placed and adapt means to their ends in such a way as to approach the most efficient manner of achieving these ends.[11]:I:19

The starting point ... is the conception of intrinsic rationality of action. This involves the fundamental elements of "ends" "means," and "conditions" of rational action and the norm of the intrinsic means-end relationship.,[11]:II:698–9

By considering the means-end relationship to be inherent in all reasoning, Parsons greatly expanded the scope of instrumental action. By not questioning the legitimacy of socially-accepted norms and values, he obscured Weber's observation that personal instrumental means can conflict with impersonal value-rational ends.[9]:II:206–9, 291

Jurgen Habermas (1929- )[edit]

In his 1981 work, The Theory of Communicative Action, philosopher Jurgen Habermas endorsed Weber's belief that unobservable motives can explain observable actions. He accepted Weber's distinction between instrumental and value-rational action, but sometimes called Weber's instrumental action "goal-directed," "purposeful," "teleological," or "work." He sometimes called value-rational action "normatively regulated action.";[9]:II:168–74[12][13]:63–4 He proposed a new form of action—communicative—to explain how individual purposive action becomes embedded in prescribed patterns of social interaction.[14] James Gouinlock expressed Habermas's proposal as follows:

Human action predicated on individual reason yields no universally valid norms. To attain the latter, we must appeal to communicative action; that is, we must arrive at norms and action by means of free and equal rational discourse.[15]:269

Habermas argued that language communities share a background of common symbols that constitutes "a normative context recognized as legitimate."[9]:15 It establishes an "intersubjectively shared lifeworld of knowledge that plays the correlating role Weber assigned to value rationality and Parsons assigned to social norms--a trans-empirical realm of shared beliefs.[9]:11–13 Mutually-shared understanding produced by direct communication creates a collective consciousness of empirical knowledge and moral-practical insight capable of generating prescribed patterns of correlated behavior.[9]:II:313 Based on conditions of shared knowledge, individually-efficient means can become socially-legitimate ends.

We call an action oriented to success instrumental when we consider it under the aspect of following rules of rational choice and assess the efficiency of influencing the decisions of a rational opponent. .... By contrast, I shall speak of communicative action whenever the actions of the agents involved are coordinated not through egocentric calculations of success but through acts of reaching understanding.

In communicative action participants are not primarily oriented to their own individual successes; they pursue their individual goals under the condition that they can harmonize their plans of action on the basis of common situation definitions. In this respect the negotiation of definitions of the situation is an essential element of the interpretive accomplishments required for communicative acith.[9]:I:285–6

Habermas reasoned that mutual understanding produced by communicative action provides socially legitimate norms. But power structures, such as Weber's religions, bureaucracies, and markets, prescribe contaminated patterns of behavior resulting in "cultural impoverishment" similar to Weber's disenchantment. He shared Weber's fear of the domination of instrumental action: "... instrumental rationality (as functionalist reason) has expanded from its appropriate realm of system organization into the lifeworld, and has thereby begun to erode the communicative competences of the members of that lifeworld." Instrumental motives for conformity to amoral institutional norms replace voluntarily shared norms of communicative action.;[9]:II:236, 310[13]:235–8

To the extent that methodological-rational conduct of life gets uprooted, purposive-rational action orientations become self-sufficient; technically intelligent adaptation to the objectified milieu of large organizations is combined with a utilitarian calculation of the actor's own interests. .... Ethical obligations to one'e calling give way to instrumental attitudes toward an occupational role ...[9]:II:323

Individual capacity to correlate social actions that are both efficient and legitimate demands communicative action among participants before they can apply instrumental rationality to develop life-supporting patterns of correlated behavior.

If we assume that the human species maintains itself through the socially coordinated activities of its members and that this coordination has to be established trough communication ... then the reproduction of the species also requires satisfying the conditions of a rationality that is inherent in communicative action.[9]:397

For Habermas, it is not Weber's value-rational ends that guide and constrain instrumental means, but rather communicative action that legitimates both efficient instrumental action and moral value-rational action.

John Dewey (1859-1952)[edit]

Philosopher John Dewey analyzed rational action in Logic: the Theory of Inquiry, published in 1938. His analysis shared many points with the scholars described above, but also contained significant original and incompatible elements.

Dewey dealt mostly with instrumentally rational action, as had Weber. But while Weber identified instrumental action with subjectively motivated ends, Dewey identified it with technological operations to achieve both individual and social ends.[8]:198

Through examination of the relations which exist between means (methods) employed and conclusions attained as their consequence, reasons are discovered why some methods succeed and other methods fail. It is implied ... that rationality is an affair of the relation of means and consequences, not of fixed first principles as ultimate premises ...[3]:9

Instrumental action is always embedded in biological and cultural environments, continuously shaped by humans to provide means of life and experience. Operations are cumulative sequences of using means that "work" to achieve developmental ends.

As a general term, "instrumental" stands for the relation of means-consequence, as the basic category for interpretation of logical forms, while "operational" stands for the conditions by which subject-matter is 1) rendered fit to serve as means and 2) actually functions as such means in effecting the objective transformation which is the end of inquiry.[3]:14 note 5

Dewey argued that singular embedded actions cannot be explained by isolated motives, as Weber sought to do. They are better thought of as revealing habitual "ways of acting" learned by the actor. And they depend on communication, as Habermas came to emphasize. But not communication as a separate form of action preceding instrumental action, because continuous communication is required for all correlated behavior.

Effective social action, Dewey argued, requires deliberation that is public and social, which has communication as its indispensable constituent. Social deliberation is a process of sharing concerns; exchanging proposals for concerted activity; considering, modifying, uniting them ..., and trying to achieve as much consensus as possible regarding which one finally to act upon.[15]:54–5

Dewey saw correlated behaviors primarily as habitual patterns that, once they successfully provide means of life, are carried on with little thought as Weber recognized. "... life is impossible without ways of action sufficiently general to be properly named habits."[3]:12 But instrumental reasoning is required to originate and adjust habits to changing conditions, which Weber did not recognize when he denied rationality to behavior "determined by ingrained habituation." Dewey included Weber's value-rational action within instrumental action, since beliefs in intrinsic values are learned habits. His conflation of value-rational and traditional action within the purview of instrumentally-rational action closely matched Parson's analysis.

In Dewey's thought, instrumental action is humanity's primary tool for facing the uncertainties of life. Instrumental action may fail to achieve intended consequences, and unintended consequences are a constant risk. But he rejected all claims that value-rational action, prescribed without regard to temporary conditions, is capable of identifying efficient and developmental patterns of correlated behavior. Instrumental ways of acting are developmental, as ends achieved become means to achieving future ends.

Reasonableness or rationality is, according to the position here taken, ... an affair of the relation of means and consequences. In framing ends-in-view, it is unreasonable to set up those which have no connection with available means and without reference to the obstacles standing in the way for attaining the end. It is reasonable to search for and select the means that will, with the maximum probability, yield the consequences which are intended."[3]:9–10

Dewey's view is held by a minority of modern scholars. As captions for Weber's distinction between instrumentally-rational and value-rational action shift, debates over the nature, scope and validity of each persist.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b McCarthy, George E. (2001). Objectivity and the Silence of Reason: Weber, Habermas, and the Methodological Disputes in German Sociology. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. ISBN 9780765800534. Retrieved 12 May 2016. 
  2. ^ Tiles, Mary; Oberdiek, Hans (1995). Living in a Technological Culture: Human Tools and Human Values (1st ed.). London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415071000. Retrieved 12 May 2016. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Dewey, John (1938). Logic the Theory of Inquiry. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. 
  4. ^ Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books. p. 32. 
  5. ^ Sen, Amartya (2009). The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pp. 20–4. ISBN 0674060474. Retrieved 12 May 2016. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Guenther Roth (1978). introduction. Economy and Society: an Outline of Interpretive Sociology. By Weber, Max. Roth, Guenther; Wittich, Claus, eds. Translated by Fischoff, Ephraim. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520280021. 
  7. ^ a b c d Koshul, Basit Bilal (2005). The Postmodern Significance of Max Weber's Legacy: Disenchanting Disenchantment. Palgrave Macmillan. 
  8. ^ a b Hickman, Larry (1992). John Dewey's Pragmatic Technology. Indiana University Press. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Habermas, Jurgen (1989). The Theory of Communicative Action. Beacon Press. 
  10. ^ Bruun, Hans (2007). Science, Values, and Politics in Max Weber's Methodology. Ashgare. 
  11. ^ a b c d Parsons, Talcott (1968). The Structure of Social Action. Free Press. 
  12. ^ Habermas, Jurgen (1970). Toward a Rational Society. Beacon Press. pp. 91–2. 
  13. ^ a b Edgar, Andrew (2005). The Philosophy of Habermas. McGill-Queen's University Press. 
  14. ^ Habermas, Jurgen (1987). "Preface". The Theory of Communicative Action. Translated by McCarthy, Thomas. Beacon Press. pp. I:vi–ix. 
  15. ^ a b Gouinlock, James (1993). Rediscovering the Moral Life. Prometheus Books.