Value-rational action
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"Instrumental" and "value-rational action" are terms scholars use to identify two kinds of behavior that humans can engage in. Scholars call using means that "work" as tools, instrumental action, and pursuing ends that are "right" as legitimate ends, value-rational action. These terms were coined by sociologist
Max Weber Maximilian Karl Emil Weber (; ; 21 April 186414 June 1920) was a German sociologist, historian, jurist and political economist, who is regarded as among the most important theorists of the development of modern Western society. His ideas prof ...
, who observed people attaching subjective meanings to their actions. Acts people treated as conditional means he labeled "instrumentally rational." Acts people treated as unconditional ends he labeled "value-rational." He found everyone acting for both kinds of reasons, but justifying individual acts by one reason or the other. Here are Weber's original definitions, followed by a comment showing his doubt that ends considered unconditionally right can be achieved by means considered to be conditionally efficient. An action may be:


Max Weber

Although Weber coined these terms for rational action, he did not use them consistently. Sometimes he called instrumental means "calculation of material interests" or "everyday purposive conduct." He called value-rational ends "ideal motives enjoined by religion or magic. His inconsistency—followed by later scholars—makes it hard to decide which kind of action is under consideration. But his original distinction survives as the core of modern explanations of rational social action: instrumental means are thought to be value-free conditionally-efficient tools, and value-rational ends are thought to be fact-free unconditionally-legitimate rules. As Weber studied human action in religious, governmental, and economic settings, he found peoples' reasoning evolving and often contaminating itself by converting conditional means into unconditional ends. Pre-modern peoples impute to animate and inanimate objects alike the free-will and purpose they find in human action—a belief called
animism Animism (from Latin: ' meaning 'breath, spirit, life') is the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. Potentially, animism perceives all things— animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, h ...
. They use instrumentally efficient means to control non-human wills. But applying means-end reasoning to control spirits and inanimate objects contaminates human knowledge. A rain-dance mistakenly thought to work instrumentally becomes a prescribed ritual action proclaimed to be permanently legitimate regardless of actual consequences. Instrumentally-ineffective means became prescribed value-rational ends-in-themselves. Similar contamination occurs in modern societies when instrumental actions that actually "work" temporarily become accepted as intrinsically efficient, converting context-dependent action-as-means into permanently legitimate action-as-end. Weber knew (and personally regretted) that European societies had been rejecting supernatural rules of behavior since the
Age of Enlightenment The Age of Enlightenment or the Enlightenment; german: Aufklärung, "Enlightenment"; it, L'Illuminismo, "Enlightenment"; pl, Oświecenie, "Enlightenment"; pt, Iluminismo, "Enlightenment"; es, La Ilustración, "Enlightenment" was an intel ...
. He called this discrediting of value-rational ends "
disenchantment In social science, disenchantment (german: Entzauberung) is the cultural rationalization and devaluation of religion apparent in modern society. The term was borrowed from Friedrich Schiller by Max Weber to describe the character of a moder ...
", and feared that placing faith in practical conditional ends destroys human freedom to believe in ultimate moral ends. Jürgen Habermas quoted Weber expressing dismay at this destruction of an intrinsic moral compass for human societies: As a scientist, Weber did not judge disenchantment. But he continued to believe that instrumental means are neither legitimate nor workable without value-rational ends. Even apparently impersonal scientific inquiry, he argued, depends on intrinsic value-rational beliefs as much as does religion. A recent study argues that his analysis provides legitimate means for restoring value-rational action as a permanent constraint on instrumental action.


Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons Talcott Parsons (December 13, 1902 – May 8, 1979) was an American sociologist of the classical tradition, best known for his social action theory and structural functionalism. Parsons is considered one of the most influential figures in sociol ...
used Weber's classic terms for society-wide patterns of rational action. In his 1938 work, ''
The Structure of Social Action ''The Structure of Social Action'' is a 1937 book by sociologist Talcott Parsons. In 1998 the International Sociological Association listed the work as the ninth most important sociological book of the 20th century, behind Jürgen Habermas' '' Th ...
'', he quoted Weber's definitions and integrated them into the theory he called "social harmonized action systems. He 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". His prime example of instrumental action was the same as Weber's: widespread use of utilitarian means to satisfy individual ends. His prime example of value-rational action was institutionalised rituals found in all societies: culturally prescribed but eternally legitimate ends. Rational humans pursue socially legitimate value-rational ends by using operationally efficient instrumental means. Parsons thus placed Weber' rational actions in a "patterned normative order" of "cultural value patterns". Rational social action seeks to maintain a culture-bound value-rational order, legitimate in itself. The system maintains itself by means of four instrumental functions: pattern maintenance, goal attainment, adaptation, and integration. Weber's instrumental and value-rational action survives in Parson's system of culturally correlated means and ends.


Jürgen Habermas

Despite coining new names,
Jürgen Habermas Jürgen Habermas (, ; ; born 18 June 1929) is a German social theorist in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism. His work addresses communicative rationality and the public sphere. Associated with the Frankfurt School, Habermas's wo ...
followed Parsons in using Weber's classic kinds of rational action to explain human behavior. In his 1981 work,'' The Theory of Communicative Action'', he sometimes called instrumental action "teleological" action or simply "work". Value-rational action appeared as "normatively regulated". In later works he distinguished the two kinds of action by motives. Instrumental action has "nonpublic and actor-relative reasons," and value-rational action "publicly defensible and actor-independent reasons". In addition, he proposed a new kind of social action—communicative—necessary to explain how individual instrumental action becomes prescribed in legitimate patterns of social interaction, thus eliminating their separation. James Gouinlock expressed Habermas's proposal as follows: Habermas argued that language communities share a background of value-rational symbols that constitutes "a normative context recognized as legitimate". It establishes an "intersubjectively shared ''lifeworld'' of knowledge that plays the role of correlating moral actions that Weber assigned to value rationality and Parsons assigned to institutions—a trans-empirical realm of shared beliefs. 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. Habermas reasoned that mutual understanding produced by communicative action provides socially legitimate value-rational 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 over value-rational 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. Habermas replaced Weber's unconditional value-rational ends and Parsons' unconditional maintenance of patterned normative ends by communicative action to explain observed action correlating instrumental means and value-rational ends.


John Dewey

John Dewey John Dewey (; October 20, 1859 – June 1, 1952) was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. He was one of the most prominent American scholars in the fi ...
could agree with Weber's observation that people act as if they judge and act separately on instrumental means and value-rational ends. But he denied that the practice creates two separate kinds of rational behavior. When judged independently, means cannot work and ends are not legitimate. Dewey argued that singular human actions cannot be explained by isolated motives, as Weber sought to do. For humans in society, the bulk of individual actions are habitual "ways of acting," like driving a car. Every action is embedded in biological and cultural environments, which humans continuously reshape instrumentally to promote developmental patterns of behavior: efficient driving adapts constantly to road conditions. Dewey had argued before 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. Once correlated patterns of behavior become institutionalised habits, they require little thought, as Weber recognized. "... life is impossible without ways of action sufficiently general to be properly named habits". 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. Where Parsons and Habermas concluded that culturally accredited institutions legitimize value-rational ends, Dewey concluded that they are often contaminated instrumental valuations—flawed inductive generalizations—that should be reconstructed rather than treated as moral affirmations of rational action. Dewey's challenge to Weber's separation between instrumental and value-rational action remains unanswered. The distinction persists in both common sense and scholarly explanations of human behavior.


See also

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Consequentialism In ethical philosophy, consequentialism is a class of normative, teleological ethical theories that holds that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct. Thus, from a ...
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Instrumental and value rationality "Instrumental" and "value rationality" are terms scholars use to identify two ways individuals act in order to optimize their behavior . Instrumental rationality recognizes means that "work" efficiently to achieve ends. Value rationality recogni ...
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Instrumentalism In philosophy of science and in epistemology, instrumentalism is a methodological view that ideas are useful instruments, and that the worth of an idea is based on how effective it is in explaining and predicting phenomena. According to instrum ...
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Intrinsic value (ethics) In ethics, intrinsic value is a property of anything that is valuable on its own. Intrinsic value is in contrast to instrumental value (also known as extrinsic value), which is a property of anything that derives its value from a relation to ano ...
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Scientific realism Scientific realism is the view that the universe described by science is real regardless of how it may be interpreted. Within philosophy of science, this view is often an answer to the question "how is the success of science to be explained?" T ...
* Veblenian dichotomy * Fact-value distinction


References

{{Reflist, 30em Sociological terminology Jürgen Habermas