Instrumental and value rationality

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People reason daily, individually and in groups, about what they ought to do and how they ought to act. They seek to obey legitimate rules thought of as ends, and to use efficient tools as means. Philosophers and social scientists label this reasoning capacity "rationality," and assign supreme importance to understanding it, 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 as well as of objectives, values and priorities—to reasoned scrutiny.[3]:4

Since antiquity, scholars have divided rationality in two, distinguishing good reason for means from good reasons for ends. Following the usage of German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), these capacities are often labeled instrumental rationality and 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]

Cognitive scientists have renewed and revised these labels in their "Great Rationality Debate." "Instrumental rationality" remains close to Weber's definition, but his "value-rationality" is now labeled "epistemic rationality," meaning immediate knowledge.[5]

Examples of these two kinds of rationality and their incompatible prescription of action are everywhere, although they rarely bear Weber's labels. In foreign policy debates, "realists" reason instrumentally that defending human rights is occasionally a practical means, while "idealists" reason that defending human rights is intrinsically 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 intrinsically sinful murder. In environment policy, instrumentally rational scientists face off against value rational science-deniers claiming their moral right to traditional beliefs. Instrumental rationalists call their opponents irrational and impractical. Value rationalists call their opponents unprincipled opportunists. But in every case, all parties claim to be rational.

To clarify meanings of this divided rationality and the conflicts the division engenders, this article identifies uses and critiques of Weber's two kinds of rationality by four scholars. John Rawls and Robert Nozick accepted the distinction and proposed incompatible value-rational ends, while James Gouinlock and Amartya Sen questioned the distinction and found flaws in the practice of both instrumental and value rationality.

John Rawls (1921–2002)[edit]

Philosopher John Rawls recognized and used 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 those 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.[6]: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.[6]:82

Searching for "a workable and systematic moral conception,"[7]:xvii Rawls identified "reasonable" views of justice capable of "rationally" solving two problems. First, democratic societies have endless conflicts over justice because of "irreconcilable differences in citizens' reasonable comprehensive religious and philosophical conceptions of the world,"[6]:3 Second, the dominant modern school of moral philosophy, Utilitarianism, can solve practical problems of social coordination, efficiency, and stability, but cannot achieve two human ends--justice and truth--knowable only by value rationality.[7]: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.[7]:3–4

Uncompromising virtues are prescribed end-states, permanently "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.[7]: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.[6]:186

Despite embracing irreconcilable value-rational conceptions of the world, Rawls felt that humans can agree on a few basic moral principles. He hoped to prescribe a pattern of correlated behavior that would be instantly accepted as just at all times in all conditions.

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.[7]: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 distributing rights, duties, and advantages of social cooperation.[7]: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.[7]:13

Rawls hoped that basing his theory on both value and instrumental rationality would make it 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."[6]:41 His hope that his principles would 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. Almost twenty years later, in 1993, he published The Nature of Rationality, clarifying his understanding of two types of rationality and his disagreements with Rawls.

Both philosophers were searching for perfectly just institutions, to be discovered by recognizing value-rational ends as permanent or transcendental truths.[8]:8 But starting from different premises, they arrived at incompatible conclusions. Where Rawls prescribed institutions based on the criterion of justice as fairness, Nozick proscribed institutions that violate the 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 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.[9]: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.[9]:32–3, 333 His intrinsic 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 can establish just distributive institutions. He called Rawls's theory an "end-result" principle, incompatible with his own entitlement principle.[9]: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.[9]: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.

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. 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" into "symbolic expected utility" and "evidentially expected utility."[2]:137, 64 He thus identified the capacity to turn instrumental ends symbolically into permanent value-rational ends as a refined rational capacity, where Weber had identified that activity 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 rationality and common names for discussing that nature.

James Gouinlock (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."[10]:ix He explained Dewey's rejection of rationalism, the school in which value rationality appeared as intuited essences, and classical empiricism, the school in which instrumental means appeared as known sense data.[10]:xi-xii He criticized Rawls and Nozick for subordinating Dewey's practical reasoning to value rational deductions of permanently valid principles of justice.[10]: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.[11]:248–68 He listed traditional forms of value rationality, all of which he found incompetent to establish moral rationality.

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.[11]:323

Gouinlock's additional considerations went beyond both instrumental and value rational cognitive claims by examining empirical 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.[11]: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."[11]: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."[11]:296 Instead of following Rawls and Nozick in trying to identify perfectly just institutions, he tried to identify virtues 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."[11]:324

Amartya Sen (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 deal specifically with the nature and scope of rationality. Because he recognizes that much social behavior is irrational, he expresses the hope that a critique of bad reasoning can 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 ...[8]:xviii

In 2002 Sen 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 common weak and arbitrary practices of both instrumental and value rationality.

His main focus was to critique "some widely used but narrowly formulaic views of rationality," exemplified by economists' Rational Choice Theory. It is a sample of Weber's instrumental rationality.[3]:4, 28 His subsidiary focus was to critique the discipline of Social Choice "anchored on some underlying notion of well-being,..." It is a sample of Weber's 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 regardless of available means.[3]:278

Sen approved of Rational Choice Theory devising instrumental rules of behavior to explain social action: "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 the narrowing of information when axioms that do not "work" as means are eliminated. Where traditional Utilitarianism ignored the distribution of social utility when measuring social welfare, modern scholars eliminated all interpersonal comparisons of utility outcomes.

Faced with this informational restriction, utilitarian welfare economics gave way, from the 1940s onwards, to a so-called "new welfare economics," which used only one basic criterion of social improvement, viz, the "Pareto comparison." This criterion only asserts that an alternative situation would be definitely better if the change would increase the utility of everyone.[3]:71–2

Sen argued that narrowing the information acceptable for rational choice means makes people "rational fools,"[3]:6–7 limited to judging means. He repeated one hypothetical example, in which an "instrumental rationalist" observes totally irrational behavior. Forbidden by premises 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 accepted their exercise of instrumental rationality, but was quite critical of their exercise 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[8]:89–91

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

He labeled Weber's instrumental rationality "realization-focused comparison" and "consequence-sensitive comparison" because it focuses on the actual outcomes likely to result from using existing means, but totally ignores ends. His comparative framework eliminates that contamination of rationality, just as Gouinlock's virtue of rationality as sustained moral discourse and Dewey's sustained instrumental inquiry do.[8]: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.[8]: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).[8]:410

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. ^ Stanovich, Keith E. (2011). Rationality and the Reflective MInd. Oxford University Press. p. 6. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Rawls, John (2001). Justice as Fairness. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Rawls, John (1999). A Theory of Justice. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Sen, Amartya (2009). The Idea of Justice. Belknap Press of Harvard University. 
  9. ^ a b c d Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books. 
  10. ^ a b c James Gouinlock (1984). introduction. The Later Works, 1925-1953. By Dewey, John. Boydston, Jo Ann, ed. Southern Illinois University Press. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f Gouinlock, James S. (1993). Rediscovering the Moral Life. Prometheus Books.