Instrumental and value-rational action  

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Daily life requires people to decide constantly how they ought to act, and they have been observed to decide in two ways. Sometimes they decide to re-act without reasoning, responding to emotion or habit. And sometimes they decide to act after reasoning--also in two ways. Humans reason about means to achieve their ends, and about ends they ought to pursue.

Actions explained by reasoning about means are often labeled "instrumentally rational". They are supposed to be efficient tools for achieving consequences. Actions explained by reasoning about ends are often labeled "value-rational". They are rules of behavior, legitimate in themselves, such as "Honesty is the best policy" or "Justice requires taking an eye for an eye."

Evidence of the distinction between these two kinds of rational action is everywhere. Consider actions expected in various professions. Engineers, physicians, teachers and coaches are expected to reason constantly about efficient means, but not about the legitimacy of their professional ends. Police, clergy, lawyers, and accountants are expected always to obey existing rules, but not to reason about the efficiency of those rules.

But this evidence is inconclusive. Rational people reason comprehensively about the legitimacy of their means and the efficiency of their ends. If either kind of action produces unintended consequences--fossil fuels producing pollution, protection of human rights increasing social chaos--the separation can no longer be justified. Social action must constantly correlate valued ends with efficient means to sustain social life. Perhaps instrumental and value-rational action are inseparable.

To clarify meanings of and problems with separating these two kinds of rational action, this article reports how four scholars explained and used the distinction. Max Weber, the German sociologist who coined these labels, felt social action had to be justified by supernatural values. Talcott Parsons and Jurgen Habermas accepted social values as legitimate. John Dewey argued for the legitimacy of instrumentally-rational value.

See also

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