Instrumental and value-rational action are modern labels for an ancient belief that humans can act rationally in two separate ways. They can act in ways they think will "work" as means or tools to achieve their ends, and in ways they think are "right" as legitimate ends or rules. Acting in ways thought to work is called instrumental action. Acting in ways thought to be right is called value-rational action.
In practice, instrumental action cannot be separated from value-rational action, because every rational act identifies specific means relevant to achieving a specific end. But the two can be separated in thought, sometimes with harmful consequences. People may think an instrumental means is good if it "works" efficiently to achieve an immediate end, but they ignore side-effects. They may think a valued end is legitimate if it seems "right" in itself, but they ignore predictable consequences of pursuing it. Such actions are not rational.
Sociologist Max Weber coined the labels "instrumental" and "value-rational" action after observing widespread separation of means from ends. But he warned of irrational consequences. Here are his original definitions and his warning. An action may be:
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;
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; :24–5
... 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.:26, 399–400
To explain some consequences of separating instrumental from value-rational action, this article reports how four scholars--Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, Jürgen Habermas, and John Dewey--employed the separation to explain social patterns of behavior.
Max Weber 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 two ways people rationally correlate group behavior 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...:4
Weber found people attaching two subjective meanings to their actions. They acted as they did because they thought it would work as means, or was right as an end. Acts people treated as means he labeled "instrumentally rational." Acts people treated as ends he labeled "value-rational." He found everyone acting for both kinds of reasons, but justifying individual acts by one reason or the other.
He did not consistently use these labels, sometimes calling instrumental actions "calculation of material interests" and "everyday purposive conduct," and calling value-rational actions "ideal motives enjoined by religion or magic.:212,13, 400, 242–44 His failure to use his labels consistently obscured--and continues to obscure--the widespread separation of instrumental means from value-rational ends. But his original distinction survives as the core of modern explanations of rational social action: instrumental means, thought to be efficient tools, and value-rational ends, thought to be intrinsically legitimate rules.:II:301
As Weber studied human action in religious, governmental, and economic settings, he found peoples' reasoning evolving and often contaminating itself by converting conditionally efficient means into unconditionally legitimate 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. They seek instrumentally efficient means to control non-human wills. But applying means-end reasoning to control spirits and inanimate objects contaminates instrumental reasoning. A rain-dance mistakenly thought to work instrumentally becomes a prescribed ritual action proclaimed to be permanently legitimate regardless of consequences. Instrumentally-ineffective means often became prescribed value-rational ends-in-themselves.:25, 33, 401–2, 422–4, 576–7:48 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. He called this discrediting of value-rational ends "disenchantment", and feared that placing faith in practical ends destroys human freedom to believe in ultimate moral values.:65:I:159, 195,244:11–17 Jürgen Habermas quoted his dismay at this destruction of an intrinsic moral compass for human societies:
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.:I:160
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.:43–6 A recent study argues that his analysis provides legitimate means for restoring value-rational action as a permanent constraint on instrumental action.
Weber's analysis shows [instrumental] scientific rationality to have much more in common with [value-rational] 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.:148–51 see also
Talcott Parsons used Weber's instrumental and value-rational action in his theory explaining society-wide patterns of behavior. In his 1938 work, The Structure of Social Action, he quoted Weber's definitions.:II:642–3 He integrated Weber's two kinds of action into the theory he called "social harmonized action systems," turning individual actions into prescribed patterns of correlated behavior. 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".:II:76, 652 His prime example of instrumental action was the same as Weber's: using utilitarian means to satisfy individual ends.:51–5, 698 His prime example of value-rational action was rituals: culturally prescribed but eternally legitimate ends.:467,675–9, 717
Rational humans pursue socially legitimate value-rational ends by using operationally efficient instrumental means.
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.: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.:II:698–9
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 a system of culturally correlated means and ends.
Jürgen Habermas followed Parsons in using Weber's instrumental and value-rational action, under various labels, in a theory of human behavior. In his 1981 work, The Theory of Communicative Action, he sometimes called instrumental action "teleological" or simply "work". Value-rational action appeared as "normatively regulated".:II:168–74:63–4 In later works he identified instrumental action as motivated by "nonpublic and actor-relative reasons," and value-rational action as motivated by "publicly defensible and actor-independent reasons".
In addition, he proposed a new kind of social action—communicative—to explain how individual instrumental action becomes embedded in legitimate patterns of social interaction. 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.:269
Habermas argued that language communities share a background of common symbols that constitutes "a normative context recognized as legitimate".:15 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.: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.: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 [instrumental] calculations of success but through [value-rational] 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 action.:I:285–6
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 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.:II:236, 310:235–8
To the extent that methodological-rational conduct of life gets uprooted, purposive-rational action orientations become self-sufficient; technically intelligent [instrumental] adaptation to the objectified milieu of large organizations is combined with a utilitarian calculation of the actor's own interests. .... Ethical [value-rational] obligations to one'e calling give way to instrumental attitudes toward an occupational role ...:II:323
Habermas replaced Weber's supernatural value-rational ends and Parsons' rational maintenance of patterned normative ends by communicative action to explain efficient instrumental action and legitimate 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.:397
John Dewey could agree with Weber's observation that people act as if they can judge--and act separately on--instrumental means and value-rational end. But he denied that the practice created two separate kinds of behavior. It mixed competent and contaminated instrumental action. The flaw lay in separating means from ends.:12, 66
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 [value-rational] first principles as ultimate premises ...:9
Dewey argued that singular human 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 instrumentally to promote developmental patterns of behavior.
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.:14 note 5
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.
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.
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".:12 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.
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.":9–10
Where Parsons and Habermas concluded that culturally accredited institutions legitimize value-rational ends, Dewey concluded that they are often contaminated instrumental valuations—flawed generalizations—that should be reconstructed rather than treated as moral affirmations of rational behavior.
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.
- Instrumental and value rationality
- Intrinsic value (ethics)
- Scientific realism
- Veblenian dichotomy
- Fact-value distinction
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- Habermas, Jürgen (1989). The Theory of Communicative Action. Beacon Press.
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- Habermas, Jürgen (1987). "Preface". The Theory of Communicative Action. Translated by McCarthy, Thomas. Beacon Press. pp. I:vi-ix.
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