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Instrumental and value rationality

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People act all the time as if there are two kinds of rationality--reasoning about means and about ends. Sociologist Max Weber observed these two kinds of reasoning and gave them labels that have stuck, despite the fact that scholars keep coining new labels. Weber labeled reasoning about means instrumental rationality and reasoning about ends value rationality. He used these labels to explain patterns of correlated behavior he called social action.

Weber labeled reasoning about means "instrumental rationality" because people treat means as conditionally efficient tools they think will "work" to achieve their ends. He labeled reasoning about ends "value rationality" because people value ends they think are unconditionally "right" rules of behavior. Instrumental rationality seems to occur in peoples' heads or brains or minds. Value rationality seems to occur in peoples' hearts or guts or souls. Here are his 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; ...[1]

Relating instrumental means to valued ends creates rationally correlated patterns of social action. But separating means from ends produces unintended consequences and social disputes. It is paradoxical for groups of homo sapiens--the rational animal--to be unable to agree on rational beliefs and behaviors.

Witness modern public policy disputes. In foreign policy debates, instrumental reasoners treat human rights as conditionally practical means, but value reasoners always treat them as unconditionally legitimate ends. Abortion policy debates find instrumental pro-choice partisans judging the procedure to be a conditionally efficient means, but value-rational "pro-life" partisans assert it is intrinsically illegitimate--murder. Environmental policy debates find instrumentally rational scientists defending their conditionally true facts against science-deniers claiming their unconditional value-rational right to continue traditional polluting activities.

Instrumental rationalists denigrate their opponents as irrational and impractical. Value rationalists denigrate their opponents as unprincipled opportunists. Both claim to be rational, but the habit of isolating reasoning about means from reasoning about ends contaminates the rationality of both parties.

This article examines the work of four scholars to demonstrate the paradox of contaminated human rationality and the conflicts it engenders. John Rawls and Robert Nozick proposed incompatible value rational theories of social justice. James Gouinlock and Amartya Sen argued instrumentally against both the legitimacy and the efficiency of these philosophers' value rational arguments. Neither pattern of reasoning has eliminated the practice of treating either instrumental rationality or value rationality as totally rational in itself. Rational beliefs and behaviors continued to be disputed,


John RawlsEdit

Philosopher John Rawls observed an apparent failure of human rationality to correlate social action. Throughout history, people have been unable to agree rationally on the meaning of justice. He sought to discover--by reasoning value rationally--some minimum patterns of behavior that everyone would instinctively recognize as both efficient means and just ends. In two works, A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, and Justice as Fairness, published in 2002 after his death, he proposed a theory of justice to serve as a moral compass for humanity.

Rawls took for granted Weber's instrumental and value rational reasoning capacities, but did not use Weber's labels. He wanted to distinguish between intrinsic emotional judgments of ends that are just, and practical behaviors prescribed by social authorities to produce just results. He renamed Weber's instrumental rationality "the rational"--prescribed patterns understood in the head. He renamed value rationality "the reasonable"--intrinsic principles felt in the heart. He searched universal common sense for unconditionally reasonable moral principles: "Common sense views the reasonable, but not, in general, the rational as a moral idea involving moral sensibility." "... 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."[2]:7, 82

His search for minimal unconditional principles came up with "justice-as-fairness" as an intrinsic criterion for justice--"a workable [instrumental] and systematic moral [value rational] conception."[3]:xvii If everyone can agree on a fair distribution of social advantages, this legitimate rule will overcome the "irreconcilable differences in citizens' reasonable comprehensive religious and philosophical conceptions of the world ..."[2]:3 It will replace the dominant moral theory in the English-speaking world, utilitarianism, which maintains that "society is rightly ordered, and therefore just, when its major institutions [means] are arranged so as to achieve the greatest net balance of satisfaction [valued end] summed over all the individuals belonging to it".[2]:20 This utilitarian prescription for rational humans to pursue their self-interest often has unjust consequences. Humans need a better theory.

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 [utilitarian] welfare of society as a whole cannot override. .... Being first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising.[2]:3–4

Rawls hoped that institutions distributing advantages fairly would be immediately recognized as "worth having for [their] own sake." Each would reflect a communal conception of justice, the capacity for which most people develop once and for all as shared common sense.[3]:8, 41 But despite claiming that justice as fairness is unconditional, he called on conditional instrumental rationality to authorize it.

... justice as fairness is not reasonable in the first place unless it generates its own [instrumentally rational] support in a suitable way by addressing each citizen's [value rational] 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.[3]: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 [unconditional] principles of justice.[2]:10–11

Rawls rested his theory of justice-as-fairness on two generalizations: social institutions can 1)legitimately prescribe equal rights and duties for all citizens, 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."

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.[2]:13

Rawls thought that identifying instrumental means to achieve value rational justice-as-fairness would enable communities to design rational constitutions to correlate behavior voluntarily: "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".[3]:41 His hope to generate a persuasive rational "overlapping consensus" on just institutions was quickly dashed by a colleague in the Harvard philosophy department.

Robert NozickEdit

Philosopher Robert Nozick followed Rawls in seeking a value-rational theory of justice to provide human societies with a moral compass. He 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 instrumental and value rationality and his disagreements with Rawls's conclusions.

Both philosophers assumed, as had Weber, that instrumental means and valued ends are rationally independent. Both searched for perfectly just institutions as means to the transcendental end of justice.[4]:8 But, starting from different value rational premises, they arrived at incompatible conclusions. Rawls prescribed correlating social action around justice-as-fairness. Nozick denied the justice of any such pattern of behavior.

Nozick started with a single value rational truth. He opened Anarchy, State, and Utopia by stating a human right that exists before and independently of human societies: the utilitarian right to pursue one's own interests. Any social rules that violate this right are unjust.

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.[5]:ix

This intrinsic right creates a "moral side restraint" on social patterns of correlated behavior any society can justly prescribe. There can be no society-wide moral compass of the sort Rawls proposed because the just society can only correlate pre-existing self-interests of its members. Individuals can use instrumental rationality to accomplish their own ends. But societies cannot, with justice, impose either instrumental or value-rational justifications for interfering with individual judgments.

Two noteworthy implications are that the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection.[5]:ix

Among inviolable unconditional rights, Nozick included every human's entitlement to be treated as an end, never to be used as means to ends pursued by others.[5]:32–3, 333 This premise immediately invalidated Rawls's premise of an intrinsic right to fair distribution.

Nozick devoted 48 pages to showing flaws in Rawls's intuitive justice-as-fairness. He replaced Rawls's complex value reasoning with a simple principle of distributive justice: whatever distribution results from holdings justly acquired must be forever respected.[5]:18–22

Nozick speculated that human commitment to value rational virtues like justice might have originally arisen from its instrumental success in correlating social action.[6]:68 But he agreed with Rawls and Weber that instrumental rationality cannot reveal moral ends. Instrumental judgments are necessarily self-interested and conditional. Rational means are value-free.

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.[6]: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 [factual] rationality of goals and desires,...[6]:139

Since instrumental rationality is value free--knowing what works but not what is right--Nozick sought to turn value-free facts into symbolic utilitarian advantages that all community members could value. This reasoning led him to rename Weber's two forms of rationality. He replaced Weber's "instrumental rationality" with "causally expected utility," meaning anticipated satisfaction. He expanded Weber's "value rationality"—intrinsic ends—into logically expected satisfaction labeled "symbolic expected utility" and "evidentially expected utility".[6]:137, 64

His new labels enabled Nozick to impute value to conditional instrumental means as a new kind of moral end. Anticipated satisfaction is valuable in itself, a symbol of the fact-free end of justice. "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 [fact-free] value.[6]:136

One way we are not simply instrumentally rational is in caring about symbolic meanings, apart from what they cause or produce. .... Symbolic meanings [fact-free values] 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.[6]:139

Nozick concluded his value-rational analyses with some practical reasoning. In the real world, there are multiple communities with multiple patterns of correlated behavior. None of these patterns is likely to appeal to everyone. But, if people are free to move, everyone can find their own just society, their own utopia.

Some communities will be abandoned, others will struggle along, others will split, others will flourish, gain members, and be duplicated elsewhere. Each community must win and hold the voluntary adherence of its members. No pattern is imposed on everyone, and the result will be one pattern if and only if everyone voluntarily chooses to live in accordance with that pattern of community.[5]:316

Despite Nozick and Rawls each rejecting the value rational conclusions of the other, this rational paradox did not lead them or philosophers at large to consider that the paradox resulted from judging means and ends separately. But a few critics considered the possible contamination of rationality by separate treatment of means and ends.

James GouinlockEdit

Philosopher James Gouinlock often wrote about instrumental rationality 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."[7]: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.[7]:xi-xii He criticized Rawls and Nozick for subordinating Dewey's instrumental reasoning to value-rational deductions of intrinsically valid principles of justice.[7]:xxx, xxxv-vi He labeled their work “rationalistic and absolutistic philosophising”.

In Rediscovering the Moral Life, he again singled out Rawls and Nozick for criticism. He condemned philosophers for reasoning without considering facts of human nature and real-life moral conditions.[8]: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 [logical] procedures. They are not reducible, so additional considerations must be deployed.[8]:323

Gouinlock's "additional considerations" supplemented instrumentally rational means and value-rational ends by examining empirical valuations he labeled virtues: moral facts. Rawls identified absolute virtues such as truth and justice as end-states, valuable in themselves. 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 [instrumental] efficacies in the life of a people.[8]:292

We are tailoring these virtues to the moral condition, not to abstract [value-rational] 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."[8]:296

By treating rationality as virtuous instrumental 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."[8]: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 [institutional] character and quality."[8]:324

Amartya SenEdit

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 ...[9]:xviii

In 2002 he published a collection of his papers under the title Rationality and Freedom. He there defined rationality as a discipline "subjecting one's choices ... to reasoned scrutiny".[10]:4 He argued that "reasoned scrutiny" of means and ends could eliminate flawed practices of both instrumental rationality and value-rationality. To scrutinize choices seems to mean treating them as hypotheses to be tested, not as knowledge already acquired.

Sen recognized bipolar rationality in its popular flawed form, which seeks to achieve "knowledge" using a single pole. His labels replaced Weber's by identifying the pole thinkers left out.

Weber's instrumental rationality he labeled "consequence independent" reasoning. It ignores the value pole as it identifies objective means—"right procedures"—capable of achieving any valued consequences whatever. Its use produces value-free knowledge.

Weber's value-rationality he labeled "process-independent" reasoning. It ignores the instrumental pole as it judges subjective consequences—"the goodness of outcomes"—valuable in themselves, regardless of means required. Its use produces fact-free knowledge.[10]:278-81

Sen's message was that rationality requires using both poles in all reasoning: "both the [instrumental] 'dueness' of processes and the [value-rational] 'goodness of narrowly defined 'outcomes.'"[10]:314

Reason has its use not only in the pursuit of a given set of objectives and values, but also in scrutinizing the objectives and values themselves. .... Rationality cannot be just an instrumental requirement for the pursuit of some given—and unscrutinised—set of objectives and values.[10]:39

In Idea of Justice, Sen proposed additional labels for Weber's two kinds of rationality, relating them to specific flaws he found in the reasoning of Rawls and Nozick. He found both applying instrumental reasoning to value-rational concepts of justice and human rights. He judged their theories to be largely "consequence-independent"—correct regardless of actual consequences.

Sen gave two labels to the patterns of behaviour—the procedural systems—they prescribed: "transcendental institutionalism" and "arrangement-focused" analysis. For Rawls, there are eternally and universally just rules of fairness: "comprehensive goals,... deliberately chosen ... through an ethical examination of how one 'should' act [value-rationally].[10]:163 For Nozick there are eternally and universally "right rules that cover personal liberties as well as rights of holding, using, exchanging, and bequeathing legitimately owned property."[10]:279

... Rawls's (1971) "first principle" of "justice as fairness" and Nozick's (1974) "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.[10]:637

Sen traced some of the verbal complexities found in common analyses of rationality, but his message was not complex. He concluded that both instrumental rationality and value-rationality are capable of error. Neither premises nor conclusions about means or ends are ever beyond criticism. Nothing can be taken as relevant or valid in itself. All valuations must be constantly reaffirmed in the continuity of rational inquiry.

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).[4]:410

Sen wanted humans to achieve a comprehensive rational capacity: "We have to get on with the basic task of obtaining workable rules that satisfy reasonable requirements."[10]:75 This is similar to Gouinlock's framework of virtuous rationality as sustained moral discourse, and of Dewey's sustained instrumental inquiry.

Gouinlock's and Sen's criticisms of Weber's dichotomy between instrumental rationality 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 alsoEdit


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