Instrumental and value-rational action

Many philosophers and social scientists who study human behavior believe there are two kinds of rational action. Following the usage of German sociologist Max Weber, the kinds are frequently labeled instrumental action and value-rational action. Patterns of instrumental action are found to be operationally efficient tools--means--for achieving desired consequences. Patterns of value-rational action are taken to be intrinsically proper--ends in themselves.

Weber's distinction appears everywhere, but seldom with his precise labels. It separates activists committed to efficient practical action from activists committed to intrinsically proper action. Modern International relations theory distinguishes realists who argue that defending human rights is occasionally a practical means, from idealists who argue that defending human rights is always the proper end. Current debates over abortion pit pro-choice believers that the act is sometimes instrumental against pro-life believers that the act is intrinsically immoral. Scientists promoting environmental protection policies confront science-deniers who cling to ritual acts regardless of consequences. Defenders of instrumental action label opponents irrational and inefficient, while defenders of value-rational action label opponents immoral rootless elites. Still, both label themselves rational.

This article explores how Weber and three later scholars—Talcott Parsons, Jurgen Habermas, and John Dewey—have used Weber's distinction and tried to resolve conflicts generated by it. The article focuses on explanations of these two kinds of rational action. It does not explain the two kinds of rationality believed to explain rational action or the two kinds of criteria believed to explain rationality. Those topics are treated in articles entitled Instrumental and value rationality and Instrumental value. For further arguments for and against these incompatible kinds of acting, thinking, and judging, see Scientific realism, Instrumentalism, Consequentialism, and Veblenian dichotomy.

Max Weber (1864–1920)

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 identified four ideal types of social action which he explained with three commonsense subjective motives: beliefs, feelings, and habits. He called actions motivated by beliefs “instrumentally rational” and “value-rational.” He treated actions motivated by emotions or traditions as a-rational. They are re-actions to passing emotions or habitual traditions. They ignore means and ends, and don't reflect beliefs about efficient operations or desirable consequences.

In contrast, actions motivated by beliefs about means and ends have become the core of modern explanations of rational social action, and Weber's labels have stuck. His "instrumentally rational action" finds conditionally-efficient means. His "value-rational action" adopts behaviors believed to be intrinsically proper regardless of conditions. He found all people acting both ways, but justifying single acts either as efficient means or as a proper end.

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 an instrumentally rational belief was the universal motive of self-interest, satisfying individual desires. He accepted the traditional label "utility" for this motive.[1]:30, 63–8 His prime example of a value rational belief was natural laws that prescribe inevitable outcomes of behavior.[1]:37, 866–8

Despite finding these two kinds of belief universal, Weber labeled them variously. He called instrumental action "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 By assigning diverse and conflicting labels to rational action, he (and untold followers) promoted ambiguity in scholarly and popular discourse. But despite ambiguous labels, his original distinction survives: there are two kinds of rational action: 1) instrumental, believed to work in unique contexts, and 2) value-rational, believed to be intrinsically proper in every context.[2]: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 either means or ends became isolated from or dominant over the other.

Pre-modern peoples imputed to animate and inanimate objects alike the free-will and purpose they found in human action—a belief called animism. They sought instrumentally efficient means to control non-human wills. But 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.[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 means into permanently proper 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 accepted the efficiency of instrumental reasoning and the propriety of value-rational reasoning. But his belief in the necessity of intrinsic ends led him to reject the popular judgment that scientific debunking of religious beliefs constitutes social progress. He called this destruction of value-rational beliefs "disenchantment."[3] He thought 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 such disenchantment. But he concluded that instrumental means always require intrinsic justification through value-rational ends. Even apparently impersonal scientific inquiry depends on universal 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 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.[4]:148–51 see also[5]

Talcott Parsons (1902–1979)

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.[6]: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 and two criteria of judgment. 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 system 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 right and effective.[6]:467,675–9, 717[7]

But he blurred two key distinctions in Weber's definition. He permitted instrumental action to achieve both personal and social ends. And he permitted value-rational ends to include beliefs in both eternal moral values and culture-bound traditional values. The result was to view all reasoning as two-step: a normative taking of value-rational ends, followed by a positive finding of instrumental means. Morals became labeled fact-free, while science became labeled value-free. Weber's possibility of instrumental action conflicting with value-rational action disappeared.

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

By considering instrumental means and value-rational ends to be inherent in all reasoning, Parsons created an intellectually harmonized social system. He called it a "patterned normative order" of "cultural value patterns." Its maintenance requires coordinating four kinds of instrumental action to maintain the culture-bound value-rational order: pattern maintenance, goal attainment, adaptation, and integration.[8] This system of action embodies Webers' instrumental and value-rational action.

Jurgen Habermas (1929– )

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 using multiple labels. 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 work 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]

But finding Weber's value-rational action obscure, he proposed a new type of 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 correlating role Weber assigned to value rationality and Parsons assigned to cultural value patterns—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 acith.[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

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.

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)

Philosopher John Dewey rejected Weber's original premise that instrumental and value-rational action represent two autonomous kinds of thinking. His life work focused on eliminating such false dichotomies and overcoming the conflicts they generate.

Dewey found instrumentally rational action to be universal, as had Weber. But Weber identified it with subjectively-chosen practical ends, and assumed that legitimate moral ends require value-rational reasoning. Dewey identified it with technological means capable of achieving all individual and social ends.[14]:198

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 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 to promote the end of developmental sustainability.

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 Gunlock, 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 action successfully achieves each valued end. vAlue-rational action undertaken without regard to means can only "work" by accident. It is n to rational.

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

Dewey's assertion that instrumental action can generate both practical and moral ends is largely ignored. Debate about rational action is still dominated by the belief that Weber's dichotomy between instrumental and value-rational actions represents reality.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Weber, Max (1978). Economy and Society. University of California Press.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 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. 1 2 3 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. 1 2 3 4 5 6 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. 1 2 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. 1 2 3 4 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.
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