Instrumental and value rationality  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Instrumental and value-rationality are modern labels for the ancient belief that human reasoning is bipolar, split in two. Human groups must be able to reason about moral ends--what they ought to do—and, separately, about efficient means--what they are capable of doing to achieve their ends. Humans learn what is true by reasoning instrumentally. They learn what is just by reasoning value-rationally

Following the usage of German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), reasoning about means has been labeled instrumental rationality and reasoning about ends has been labeled value rationality. Here are Weber's 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; ...

Belief that reasoning is bipolar grew out of philosophers' attempts to understand how humans correlate group behavior to maintain social life. Bipolar reasoning produces bipolar knowledge. Thinkers imputed factual instrumental knowledge to heads or minds or brains. They imputed emotional moral knowledge to hearts or guts or souls. They themselves divided into realists who understood instrumental means and idealists who understood value-rational ends.

Bipolar rationality correlates group behavior when the poles work together: instrumental means achieve valued ends: "Mission accomplished!" But when the poles disagree--if hearts know that something that works is undesirable, or heads know that right intentions can't work--the result is discord: "Mission not accomplished." When rationality fails to correlate means and ends, people don't know whether to believe their head or their heart, and come to doubt the capacity of reason to establish either truth or justice.

Faced with this quandary, people act as if they can choose rationally between head and heart. They become partisans: "realists" claim their instrumental knowing alone is rational, and "idealists" claim their value-rational knowing alone is rational.

Evidence of conflict between these two kinds of rationality appears everywhere, although rarely bearing Weber's labels. Instrumental reasoners often quarrel with value reasoners. In foreign policy debates, "realists" reason instrumentally that defending human rights is sometimes a practical means, while "idealists" reason that defending rights is always legitimate. Debates over abortion policy find instrumental pro-choice parties reasoning that the procedure is sometimes a necessary means, while value-rational "pro-life" parties assert it is intrinsically murder. Conflicts over environmental policy find instrumentally rational scientists facing off against science-deniers claiming their value-rational right to moral traditions. Instrumental rationalists call their opponents irrational and impractical. Value rationalists call their opponents unprincipled opportunists. But in every case, all parties claim to be rational.

This article examines the work of four scholars to explain how bipolar rationality works and the conflicts it engenders. John Rawls and Robert Nozick reasoned value-rationally when proposing theories of just behavior. James Gouinlock and Amartya Sen criticized Rawls and Nozick instrumentally for their value-rational work. Conflict persists.


See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Instrumental and value rationality" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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