Instrumental and value rationality

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People reason daily about what they ought to do and how they ought to act. They seem to reason in two distinct ways, identified as two kinds of reasoning-at-large or Rationality. They reason about legitimate ends—what they ought to do—and about efficient means—how they ought to achieve their ends. Since antiquity, scholars have accepted this dichotomy and assigned supreme importance to understanding both kinds of rationality, as the following quotes suggest:

The rationality of beliefs and actions is a theme usually dealt with in philosophy. One could even say that philosophical thought originates in reflection on the reason embodied in cognition, speech, and action; and reason remains its basic theme.[1]:1

Rationality provides us with the (potential) power to investigate and discover anything and everything; it enables us to control and direct our behavior through reasons and the utilization of principles.[2]:xi

Rationality is interpreted here ... as the discipline of subjecting one's choices—of actions [means] as well as of objectives, values and priorities [ends]—to reasoned scrutiny.[3]:4

Following the usage of German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), reasoning about means has been labeled instrumental rationality and reasoning about ends has been labeled value rationality. Here are Weber's original definitions:

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 and 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; ...[4]

Evidence of the assumption that there are two distinct kinds of rationality appears everywhere, although rarely bearing Weber's labels. Proponents of instrumental rationality are often at odds with proponents of value rationality. In foreign policy debates, "realists" reason instrumentally that defending human rights is sometimes a practical means, while "idealists" reason that defending them is always legitimate. Debates over abortion policy find instrumental pro-choice parties reasoning that the procedure is sometimes a necessary means, while value-rational "pro-life" parties assert it is always necessarily murder. Conflicts over environmental policy find instrumentally rational scientists facing off against value rational science-ignorers claiming their moral right to traditional practices. Instrumental rationalists call their opponents irrational or impractical. Value rationalists call their opponents unprincipled opportunists. But in every case, all parties claim to be rational.

This article examines the work of four scholars to explain the dichotomy and the conflicts it engenders. John Rawls and Robert Nozick used value rationality when proposing incompatible intrinsic ends. James Gouinlock and Amartya Sen examined faulty reasoning of both kinds, and questioned the legitimacy and efficiency of reasoning separately about means and ends.

John Rawls (1921–2002)[edit]

Philosopher John Rawls employed Weber's instrumental and value rationality in two influential works: A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, and Justice as Fairness, published in 2002 after his death. But he chose to assign new labels to these reasoning capacities. He labeled Weber's instrumental rationality "the rational," and Weber's value rationality "the reasonable:" "Common sense views the reasonable, but not, in general, the rational as a moral idea involving moral sensibility.[5]:7

... the reasonable is viewed as a basic intuitive moral idea; it may be applied to persons, their decisions, and actions, as well as to principles and standards, to comprehensive doctrines and to much else.[5]:82

Searching for a legitimate moral rule—"a workable and systematic moral conception,"[6]:xvii—Rawls proposed "reasonable" views of justice capable of solving two social problems "rationally". First, democratic societies have endless conflicts over justice because of "irreconcilable differences in citizens' reasonable comprehensive religious and philosophical conceptions of the world,"[5]:3 Second, the dominant modern school of moral philosophy, Utilitarianism, can solve instrumental problems of social coordination, efficiency, and stability, but cannot achieve two intrinsic human ends—justice and truth—knowable only by value rationality.[6]:12, 58, 124

Justice is the first virtue of institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. ... laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. .... Being first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising.[6]:3–4

Rawls hoped that institutions prescribing just end-states would be immediately recognized as "worth having for [their] own sake". Each must reflect a shared conception of justice, the capacity for which most people develop once and for all as shared common sense.[6]:8, 41

... justice as fairness is not reasonable in the first place unless it generates its own support in a suitable way by addressing each citizen's reason, as explained within its own framework. .... A liberal conception of political legitimacy aims for a public basis of justification and appeals to free public reason, and hence to citizens viewed as reasonable and rational.[5]:186

Just as each person must decide by rational reflection what constitutes his good, that is, the system of ends which it is rational for him to pursue, so a group of persons must decide once and for all what is to count among them as just and unjust. The choice which rational men would make in this hypothetical situation of equal liberty ... determines the principles of justice.[6]:10–11

Rawls's "justice as fairness" theory rests on two such principles: social institutions 1) can correctly prescribe equal rights and duties to all, and 2) can endorse the resulting unequal distributions of wealth and authority "only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society". Agreement on these principles can provide an "overlapping consensus" on fundamentally just behavior patterns—institutional rules legitimately distributing rights, duties, and advantages of social cooperation.[6]:6 He claimed instrumentally rational support for his value rational principles.

The intuitive idea is that since everyone's well-being depends upon a scheme of cooperation without which no one could have a satisfactory life, the division of advantages should be such as to draw forth the willing cooperation of everyone taking part in it, including those less well situated.[6]:13

Rawls thought that identifying instrumental means for achieving value-rational justice would make his rule of justice-as-fairness generally acceptable: "... political power is legitimate only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution (written or unwritten) the essentials of which all citizens as reasonable and rational, can endorse in the light of their common human reason".[5]:41 His hope to generate a persuasive "overlapping consensus" was quickly dashed by a colleague in the Harvard philosophy department.

Robert Nozick (1938–2002)[edit]

Philosopher Robert Nozick published Anarchy, State, and Utopia in 1974, three years after Rawls's A Theory of Justice. Two decades later, in 1993, he published The Nature of Rationality, clarifying his understanding of two types of rationality and his disagreements with Rawls.

Both philosophers accepted Weber's two kinds of rationality, and searched for perfectly just institutions based on value-rational ends they judged to be permanent transcendental truths.[7]:8 But starting from different premises, they arrived at incompatible conclusions. Where Rawls prescribed institutions based on the intrinsic criterion of justice as fairness, Nozick proscribed institutions that violate the intrinsic criterion of individual entitlement to natural rights.

Nozick opened Anarchy, State, and Utopia by stating what he considered to be a value rational truth: individual rights are legitimate ends that exist before and apart from society, creating a "moral side restraint" on just prescriptions of social behaviors.

Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their right). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do.[8]:ix

Among inviolable intrinsic rights, Nozick included every human's entitlement to be treated as an end, never to be used as means to ends pursued by others.[8]:32–3, 333 His value-rational truth prohibited all social redistribution of assets and possibilities to other people from individuals rightly entitled to them.

Nozick devoted 48 pages to showing flaws in Rawls's value-rational truth that an inborn sense of justice-as-fairness can establish just distributive institutions. He called Rawls's theory an "end-result" principle, incompatible with his own entitlement principle.[8]:150–55 He replaced Rawls's complex value reasoning about fair distribution with a simple principle of distributive justice: whatever distribution results from holdings justly acquired through unplanned operation of an invisible hand must be forever respected.[8]:18–22

Despite speculating that human commitment to truth might have originally arisen from its instrumental effectiveness in solving problems,[2]:68 Nozick agreed with Rawls and Weber that instrumental rationality cannot reveal moral ends. Instrumental judgments are necessarily self-interested and short-term.

On this instrumental conception, rationality consists in the effective and efficient achievement of goals, ends, and desires. About the goals themselves, an instrumental conception has little to say.[2]:64

Something is instrumentally rational with respect to given goals, ends, desires, and utilities when it is causally effective in realizing or satisfying these. But the notion of instrumental rationality gives us no way to evaluate the rationality of these goals, ends, and desires themselves, except as instrumentally effective in achieving further goals taken as given. Even for cognitive goals such as believing the truth, we seem to have only an instrumental justification. At present we have no adequate theory of the substantive rationality of goals and desires,...[2]:139

Nozick suggested that a substantive rationality of goals could be built by developing symbolic meanings independent of causal means-end relations. Goals cannot be justified instrumentally or morally, but they can be justified with logical verbal symbols. This reasoning led him to rename Weber's two forms of rationality. He replaced Weber's motive of "instrumental rationality"—effective problem solving—with "causally expected utility"—anticipated satisfaction. He expanded Weber's "value rationality"—intrinsic end-states—into logically anticipated satisfaction labeled "symbolic expected utility" and "evidentially expected utility".[2]:137, 64 He thus identified the capacity to turn instrumental ends symbolically into intrinsic value-rational ends as a refined rational capacity, where Weber had identified intrinsic ends as contaminating both instrumental rationality and morally based value rationality.

Even if rationality were understood and explained only as instrumental rationality, that rationality can come to be valued in part for itself ... and so come to have intrinsic value.[2]:136

One way we are not simply instrumentally rational is in caring about symbolic meanings, apart from what they cause or produce. .... Symbolic meanings are a way of rising above the usual causal nexus of desires, and it is symbolically important to us that we do this. .... Even with the processes of forming and maintaining our beliefs, then, we can care not simply about what those processes causally produce but also about what they symbolize. Our discussion of principles ... was for the most part, instrumental; we considered the functions that principles could serve. Here we see a possible meta-function—to rise above the serving of other functions—and so following principles too may have a symbolic utility.[2]:139

Nozick and Rawls both remain well-respected expositors of moral philosophy, despite their failure to achieve agreement on the nature of instrumental and value rationality and appropriate labels to identify them.

James Gouinlock (b. 1933)[edit]

Philosopher James Gouinlock often wrote about instrumental and value rationality as he described and developed John Dewey's efforts to reconstruct philosophical discourse. In 1984, he introduced a volume of Dewey's works, John Dewey The Later Works 1925–53, by summarizing Dewey's practice of instrumental rationality. In 1993, he published Rediscovering the Moral Life, condemning modern philosophers’ practice of rationality, especially that of Rawls and Nozick. In 2004, he published Eros and the Good, describing his personal reconstruction and practice of rationality.

Gouinlock's 1984 introduction described Dewey's contribution to the school Instrumentalism, emphasizing Dewey's frequent use of the word "intelligence" where others spoke of "rationality": "Realization of the good life depends, in Dewey's view, on the exercise of intelligence. Indeed, his instrumentalism ... is a theory concerning the nature of intelligent conduct."[9]:ix He explained Dewey's rejection of rationalism, the school in which value rationality revealed natural kinds, and classical empiricism, the school in which instrumental means appeared as value-free facts.[9]:xi-xii He criticized Rawls and Nozick for subordinating Dewey's instrumental reasoning to value rational deductions of intrinsically valid principles of justice.[9]:xxx, xxxv-vi

In Rediscovering the Moral Life, Gouinlock criticized reasoning he called "absolutism", apparently including the rationalism of which he earlier accused Rawls and Nozick. He condemned philosophers for reasoning without considering facts of human nature and real-life moral conditions.[10]:248–68 He listed traditional forms of value rationality, all of which he found incompetent to serve humans as moral compass.

Yet philosophers have typically thought of justification as an appeal to such things as a Platonic form, a rational principle, a divine command, a self-evident truth, the characterization of a rational agent, the delineation of an ultimate good [all identified by value rationality] ...

.... If the conflicts between moral positions were all reducible to cognitive claims, then we could settle such matters by appeal to familiar procedures. They are not reducible, so additional considerations must be deployed.[10]:323

Gouinlock's "additional considerations" supplemented instrumentally rational means and value rational ends by examining empirical valuations he labeled virtues. Rawls identified absolute virtues such as truth and justice as end-states, but Gouinlock looked at virtues as dispositions to act instrumentally.

While there are neither axiomatic nor unexceptionable principles, there are virtues—enduring dispositions to behave in certain sorts of ways—that are appropriate to the moral condition and are defensible in just that capacity.

.... Virtues are not philosophic constructs. They are born of the demands and opportunities of associated life in varying environments. Courage, truthfulness, constancy, reliability, cooperativeness, adaptability, charity, sensitivity, rationality, and the like are distinguished because of their great efficacies in the life of a people.[10]:292

We are tailoring these virtues to the moral condition, not to abstract reason or to moral sentiment. We look for behavior that will address our problems, not compound them. One of the keys to this aim is to think of dispositions suitable to beginning and sustaining moral discourse and action, not bringing indisputable finality to them. They should be effective in the processes of the moral life, not in determining an inflexible outcome to them."[10]:296

By treating rationality as virtuous action rather than a capacity to reason, Gouinlock gave practical meaning to Dewey's identification of intelligence as the practice of scientific/ technological inquiry: "For the virtue of rationality I ask no more than a sincere attempt to seek the truth relevant to a given situation."[10]:296 Instead of following Rawls and Nozick in trying to imagine perfectly just institutions, he tried to identify virtuous behaviors relevant to a moral way of life. "What is finally at stake ... is not the elaboration of a system of moral principles, but a way of life—a life with a certain character and quality."[10]:324

Amartya Sen (b. 1933)[edit]

Economist Amartya Sen has engaged in philosophic discussions for years, including with his Harvard colleagues Rawls and Nozick. While never using Weber's names "instrumental rationality" and "value rationality," two of his published works dealt specifically with the nature and scope of rationality. Because he recognized that social behavior is often grounded in faulty reasoning, he expressed the hope that a critique of rationality might reduce its scope:

... prejudices typically ride on the back of some kind of reasoning—weak and arbitrary though it might be. Indeed, even very dogmatic persons tend to have some kinds of reasons, possibly very crude ones, in support of their dogmas ...[7]:xviii

Two of his published works dealt with Weber's dual rationality. In 2002 he published a collection of his papers under the title Rationality and Freedom. He there defined rationality as a discipline "subjecting ones choices ... to reasoned scrutiny".[3]:4 He argued that "reasoned scrutiny" of means and ends—a "comparative framework for public reasoning"—could eliminate flawed practices of both instrumental and value rationality.

Sen focused his critique on "some widely used but narrowly formulaic views of rationality," exemplified by the use of instrumental rationality in economists' rational choice theory.[3]:4, 28 His subsidiary focus was to critique the discipline of social choice "anchored on some underlying notion of well-being,..." as value rational ends[3]:8 He sometimes called the former "consequence-independent" theory, because its practitioners develop "right procedures"—means for reasoning—while ignoring ends. He called the latter "process independent" theory, because its practitioners adopt "good outcomes"—ends pursued independently of available means.[3]:278

Sen approved of rational choice theorists turning hypothetical instrumental rules into value-rational axioms ("what ought to be") to explain observed social action ('what is"): "When a set of axioms regarding social choice can all be simultaneously satisfied, there may be several possible procedures that work, among which we have to choose."[3]:74 But he objected to hypothetical axioms forbidding scholars to examine possibly relevant facts. Traditional Utilitarians used value-rational arguments to ignore facts about the distribution of social utility when measuring social welfare. Modern scholars use similar logical arguments to eliminate all interpersonal comparisons of utility outcomes.

Sen claimed that this arbitrary elimination of facts led to a "new welfare economics", which is still flawed. "It employs a single criterion of social improvement, viz, the "Pareto comparison" which asserts that an alternative situation would be definitely better if the change would increase the utility of everyone."[3]:71–2

Sen argued that this criterion for choosing rational means but not ends makes people "rational fools".[3]:6–7 He repeated one hypothetical example, in which an "instrumental rationalist" observes totally irrational behavior. Forbidden by hypothetical axioms to judge ends, "An 'instrumental rationalist' is a decision expert whose response to seeing a man engaged in slicing his toes with a blunt knife is to rush to advise him that he should use a sharper knife to better serve his evident objective."[3]:286, 7, 39

Regarding his colleagues Rawls and Nozick, Sen mostly accepted their practice of instrumental rationality, but was quite critical of their practice of value rationality. Their theories were largely "consequence-independent"—correct regardless of actual consequences. "Justice as fairness" and "Entitlement theory" are "not only non-consequentialist but they also seem to leave little room for taking substantive note of consequences in modifying or qualifying the rights covered by these principles".[3]:637, 165[7]:89–91

In Idea of Justice, Sen proposed additional and confusing names for Weber's two kinds of rationality. He labeled the instrumental rationality practiced by Rawls and Nozick "transcendental institutionalism" and "arrangement-focused" analysis, prescribing patterns of correlated behavior assumed to be instrumentally efficient independently of conditions. He labeled their practice of value rationality "process-independent" and "consequence-independent" because it names intended consequences without relating them to means-end processes that effectively determine actual consequences.

He proposed reforming his colleagues' flawed practice of Weber's two kinds of rationality with practices he labeled "realization-focused comparison" and "consequence-sensitive comparison". This reform focuses on actual outcomes likely to result from using existing means, elimination the contamination of rationality by separating means from ends. It is similar to Gunlock's framework of virtuous rationality as sustained moral discourse and Dewey's sustained instrumental inquiry.[7]:7–8, 96–7, 110

What is presented here is a theory of justice in a very broad sense. Its aim is to clarify how we can proceed to address questions of enhancing justice and removing injustice, rather than to offer resolutions of questions about the nature of perfect justice. .... ... determining whether a particular social change would enhance justice ... is central to making decisions about institutions, behaviour and other determinants of justice, and how these decisions are derived cannot but be crucial to a theory of justice that aims at guiding practical reasoning about what should be done.[7]:ix

There is a strong case ... for replacing what I have been calling transcendental institutionalism—that underlies most of the mainstream approaches to justice in contemporary political philosophy, including John Rawls's theory of justice as fairness—by focusing questions of justice, first, on assessments of social realizations, that is, on what actually happens (rather than merely on the appraisal of institutions and arrangements); and second, on comparative issues of enhancement of justice (rather than trying to identify perfectly just arrangements).[7]:410

Sen concludes that both instrumental and value rationality are capable of error. Neither premises nor conclusions about means or ends are ever beyond criticism. Nothing can be taken as valid "in itself". All valuations must be constantly reaffirmed in the continuity of rational inquiry.

Gunlock's and Sen's criticisms of Weber's dichotomy between instrumental and value rationality have had little impact on conventional inquiry. The value rationality practiced by Rawls and Nozick continues to dominate philosophical and scientific inquiry.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Habermas, Jurgen (1984). The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. 1. Beacon Press. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Nozick, Robert (1993). The Nature of Rationality. Princeton University Press. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Sen, Amartya (2002). Rationality and Freedom. Belknap Press of Harvard. 
  4. ^ Weber, Max (1978). Economy and Society. University of California Press. pp. 24–5. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Rawls, John (2001). Justice as Fairness. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Rawls, John (1999). A Theory of Justice. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f Sen, Amartya (2009). The Idea of Justice. Belknap Press of Harvard University. 
  8. ^ a b c d Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books. 
  9. ^ a b c James Gouinlock (1984). introduction. The Later Works, 1925-1953. By Dewey, John. Boydston, Jo Ann, ed. Southern Illinois University Press. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f Gouinlock, James S. (1993). Rediscovering the Moral Life. Prometheus Books.