Instrumental and value-rational action

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Daily life requires people to decide constantly how they ought to act, and they are observed to decide in two ways. Sometimes they decide to re-act without reasoning, responding to emotion or habit. And sometimes they decide to act after reasoning in two ways. They reason about means to achieve their ends, and about ends they ought to pursue.

Actions explained by reasoning about means are often called "instrumentally rational". They are supposed to be efficient means or tools for achieving consequences. Actions explained by reasoning about ends are often called "value-rational". They are treated as action rules, legitimate in themselves, such as "Honesty is the best policy" or "Justice requires taking an eye for an eye."

Evidence of the distinction between these two kinds of rational action is everywhere. Consider actions expected in various professions. Engineers, physicians, teachers and coaches are expected to reason constantly about efficient means, but not about the legitimacy of their professional ends. Police, clergy, lawyers, and accountants are expected always to obey existing rules, but not to reason about the efficiency of those rules.

To clarify meanings of and problems with these two kinds of rational action, this article reports how Max Weber, the German sociologist who coined these labels, and three later scholars—Talcott Parsons, Jurgen Habermas, and John Dewey—explained and used them.

Max Weber (1864–1920)[edit]

Max Weber is considered one of the founders of the discipline of sociology. He spent years studying reasons people give for their actions, and came to believe that unobservable reasons or motives can explain observable actions. He focused on reasons for socially coordinated behaviors he labeled "social action".

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...[1]:4

Weber found people acting in two ways, sometimes without reasoning and sometimes after reasoning. People who said they acted on emotion or out of habit without reasoning he called non-rational. But people who acted after reasoning about means and ends he called rational. He labeled actions believed to be efficient means "instrumentally rational." He labeled actions believed to be legitimate ends "value-rational." He found everyone acting for both kinds of reasons, but justifying individual acts by one reason or the other. His distinction has become the core of modern explanations of rational social action.

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.[1]:24–5

Weber's prime example of instrumentally rational action was satisfying individual wants. He accepted the traditional label "utility" to explain actions thought to be efficient means to that end.[1]:30, 63–8 His prime example of value-rational action was conforming to natural or spiritual laws believed to prescribe necessary relations of means to ends.[1]:37, 866–8

Despite proposing these precise labels, Weber often replaced them. He sometimes called instrumental actions "calculation of material interests" and "everyday purposive conduct" He called value rational actions "ideal motives enjoined by religion or magic.[1]:212,13, 400, 242–44 This lack of consistent labels promoted ambiguity in subsequent scholarly and popular discourse; new labels continue to appear endlessly. But his original distinction survives: there are two kinds of rational action: 1) instrumental, believed to be efficient tools in unique conditions, and 2) value-rational, believed to follow rules that are intrinsically legitimate in all conditions.[2]:II:301

As Weber studied human action in religious, governmental, and economic settings, he found peoples' reasoning evolving and often contaminating itself. Patterns of action once considered conditionally efficient become authorized as static rules, unconditionally legitimate in themselves.

Pre-modern peoples impute to animate and inanimate objects alike the free-will and purpose they find in human action—a belief called animism. They seek instrumentally efficient means to control non-human wills. But applying means-end reasoning to control spirits and inanimate objects contaminates instrumental reasoning. A rain-dance once thought to work instrumentally becomes a prescribed ritual action proclaimed to be permanently legitimate regardless of consequences. Instrumentally-ineffective patterns of action often became prescribed value-rational ends-in-themselves.[1]:25, 33, 401–2, 422–4, 576–7[2]:48

Similar contamination occurs in modern societies when instrumental actions that actually "work" in temporary contexts become accepted as intrinsically efficient, converting context-dependent action-as-means into permanently correct action-as-end.

... the more the value to which action is oriented is elevated to the status of an absolute [intrinsic] value, the more "irrational" in this [instrumental] 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.[1]:26, 399–400

Weber observed the expanding authority of instrumental action since the European "Age of Reason" or Age of Enlightenment. He regretted the loss of moral authority he still found in value-rational action. He called the discrediting of spiritual beliefs "disenchantment",[3] and feared that placing faith in practical ends destroys human freedom to believe in ultimate moral values.[1]:65[2]:I:159, 195,244[4]:11–17 Jurgen Habermas quoted his dismay at this destruction of an intrinsic moral compass:

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.[2]:I:160

As a scientist, Weber did not judge disenchantment. But he continued to believe that instrumental means require authorization by value-rational ends. Even apparently impersonal scientific inquiry, he argued, depends on intrinsic value-rational beliefs as much as does religion.[4]:43–6 A recent study argues that his analysis provides legitimate means for restoring value-rational action as a permanent 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.[4]:148–51 see also[5]

Talcott Parsons (1902–1979)[edit]

In his 1938 work, The Structure of Social Action, sociologist Talcott Parsons accepted Weber's belief in two kinds of rational social action. He even quoted Weber's definition of instrumental and value-rational motives.[6]:II:642–3 He sought to advance sociological theory by integrating Weber's dichotomy into a theory of socially harmonized action systems.

Parsons called his theoretical framework a "means-end schema" in which individuals coordinate their instrumental actions by an "efficiency-norm and their value-rational actions by a "legitimacy-norm".[6]:II:76, 652 His prime example of instrumental behavior was the utilitarian pattern of action satisfying individual wants.[6]:51–5, 698 His prime example of value-rational action was ritual—patterns of behavior culturally prescribed as eternally correct and effective.[6]:467,675–9, 717[7]

But he reclassified Weber's non-rational emotional and habitual action as forms of value-rational behavior. This treated immediate re-actions learned in cultural contexts as rationally legitimate value-rational rules. Weber had treated such rules as a context-free moral compass.

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.[6]: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.[6]:II:698–9

For Parsons, all rational action involves two steps. First, intuition or faith legitimizes a value-rational end—"what ought to be;" then, independently, existing instrumental means—"what is"—are chosen to achieve it. Chosen ends become fact-free utilitarian preferences. Chosen means become value-free but practically efficient tools.

By redefining Weber's individual instrumental and value-rational action, Parsons imagined a rational social system. He called it a "patterned normative order" of "cultural value patterns". Rational social action has the end of maintaining a culture-bound value-rational order, legitimate in itself. Four instrumental actions, judged by their efficiency, are the means: pattern maintenance, goal attainment, adaptation, and integration.[8] Weber's dichotomy between instrumental and value-rational action survives as a system of culturally correlated means and ends.

Jurgen Habermas (1929– )[edit]

In his 1981 work, The Theory of Communicative Action, philosopher Jurgen Habermas endorsed Weber's belief that instrumental and value-rational motives can explain observable actions. He applied multiple labels to Weber's dichotomy. Instrumental action appeared as "teleological" or simply "work". Value-rational action appeared as "normatively regulated".[2]:II:168–74[9][10]:63–4 In later works he sharpened Weber's original labels. Instrumental action is motivated by "nonpublic and actor-relative reasons" and value-rational action is motivated by "publicly defensible and actor-independent reasons".[11]

In addition to clarifying Weber's labels, he proposed a new kind of social action—communicative—to explain how individual instrumental action becomes embedded in legitimate patterns of social interaction.[12] 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.[13]:269

Habermas argued that language communities share a background of common symbols that constitutes "a normative context recognized as legitimate".[2]:15 It establishes an "intersubjectively shared lifeworld of knowledge that plays the moral guidance and correlating role Weber assigned to value rationality and Parsons assigned to cultural valuations—a trans-empirical realm of shared beliefs.[2]:11–13 Shared understanding produced by direct communication creates a collective consciousness of instrumental knowledge—technological reality—and of moral rules—value reality—capable of generating prescribed patterns of correlated behavior.[2]:II:313

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 action.[2]: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.[2]:II:236, 310[10]: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 ...[2]:II:323

Habermas replaced Weber's spiritual value-rational ends and Parsons' rational maintenance of patterned normative ends by communicative action to explain efficient instrumental action and legitimate value-rational action.

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 through communication ... then the reproduction of the species also requires satisfying the conditions of a rationality that is inherent in communicative action.[2]:397

John Dewey (1859–1952)[edit]

Philosopher John Dewey rejected Weber's original premise that rational action is of two kinds. He saw judging means and ends as inseparable steps in solving problems: deciding what one ought to do and how to do it. Where Weber justified instrumental action by the utilitarian criterion of want-satisfaction, Dewey justified it by efficient control of means-ends relations in life's problematic situations.[14]:198 He treated value-rational principles as ritualistic.

Through examination of the relations which exist between means (methods) employed and conclusions attained as their consequence, [instrumental] reasons are discovered why some methods succeed and other methods fail. ... rationality is an affair of the relation of means and consequences, not of fixed [value-rational] first principles as ultimate premises ...[15]:9

Dewey argued that singular 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 actors. Every action is embedded in biological and cultural environments, which humans continuously shape instrumentally to promote developmental patterns of behavior.

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.[15]:14 note 5

Dewey agreed with Habermas that correlated action depends on communication. But communication is not a separate form of action preceding and enabling instrumental action. Rather, according to James Gouinlock, Dewey held that communication inheres in 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.[16]

Once correlated patterns of behavior become habitual, they require little thought, as Weber recognized. "... life is impossible without ways of action sufficiently general to be properly named habits".[15]:12 But habits arise only after instrumental actions successfully achieve each valued end. They are neither non-rational, as Weber classified them, nor immediately-known value-rational actions, as other philosophers classify them, undertaken without regard to existing means.

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."[15]:9–10

Where Parsons and Habermas concluded that culturally accredited rules legitimized value-rational ends, Dewey concluded that they were often contaminated instrumental valuations—flawed stereotypes—that should be eliminated rather than treated as moral affirmations of rational behavior.

Dewey's challenge to Weber's dichotomy remains unanswered. Both instrumental and value-rational action, identified with constantly shifting labels, remain legitimate traits of rational action. Currently popular labels continue to separate reasoning about what one ought to do from how one ought to do. Individual "fast thinking" prescribes value-rational actions as legitimate ends, and "slow thinking" prescribes instrumentally rational actions as efficient means.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Weber, Max (1978). Economy and Society. University of California Press. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Habermas, Jurgen (1989). The Theory of Communicative Action. Beacon Press. 
  3. ^ Janicaud, Dominique (1994). Powers of the Rational. Indiana University Press. pp. 39–45. 
  4. ^ a b c Koshul, Basit Bilal (2005). The Postmodern Significance of Max Weber's Legacy: Disenchanting Disenchantment. Palgrave Macmillan. 
  5. ^ Bruun, Hans (2007). Science, Values, and Politics in Max Weber's Methodology. Ashgare. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Parsons, Talcott (1968). The Structure of Social Action. Free Press. 
  7. ^ Parsons, Talcott (1966). Societies. Prentice Hall. pp. 39–40. 
  8. ^ Parsons, Talcott (1966). Societies. Prentice Hall. pp. 10–12, 16–18. 
  9. ^ Habermas, Jurgen (1970). Toward a Rational Society. Beacon Press. pp. 91–2. 
  10. ^ a b Edgar, Andrew (2005). The Philosophy of Habermas. McGill-Queen's University Press. 
  11. ^ Habermas, Jurgen (2013). Finlayson, James Gordon; Freyenhagen, FAbian, eds. Habermas and Rawls. Routledge. 
  12. ^ Habermas, Jurgen (1987). "Preface". The Theory of Communicative Action. Translated by McCarthy, Thomas. Beacon Press. pp. I:vi–ix. 
  13. ^ Gouinlock, James (1993). Rediscovering the Moral Life. Prometheus Books. 
  14. ^ Hickman, Larry (1992). John Dewey's Pragmatic Technology. Indiana University Press. 
  15. ^ a b c d Dewey, John (1938). Logic the Theory of Inquiry. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. 
  16. ^ Gouinlock, James (1972). John Dewey's Philosophy of Value. Humanities Press. pp. 54–5. 
  17. ^ Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.