Instrumental and value-rational action

"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, 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:

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;


... 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.[1]:26, 3994004

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.[1]:212,13, 400, 242–44 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.[2]:II:301

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. 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.[1]:25, 33, 401–2, 422–4, 576–7[2]: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",[3] and feared that placing faith in practical conditional ends destroys human freedom to believe in ultimate moral ends.[1]:65[2]:I:159, 195,244[4]:11–17 Jürgen Habermas quoted Weber expressing 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.[2]: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.[4]: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.[4]:148–51 see also[5]

Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons used Weber's classic terms for society-wide patterns of rational action. In his 1938 work, The Structure of Social Action, he quoted Weber's definitions and integrated them into the theory he called "social harmonized action systems.[6]:II:642–3 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".[6]:II:76, 652 His prime example of instrumental action was the same as Weber's: widespread use of utilitarian means to satisfy individual ends.[6]:51–5, 698 His prime example of value-rational action was institutionalised rituals found in all societies: culturally prescribed but eternally legitimate ends.[6]:467,675–9, 717[7]

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.[6]: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.[6]: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.[8] 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 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".[2]:II:168–74[9][10]:63–4 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".[11]

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.[12] James Gouinlock expressed Habermas's proposal as follows:

Human action predicated on individual reason yields no universally valid [value-rational] 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.[13]:269

Habermas argued that language communities share a background of value-rational symbols that constitutes "a normative context recognized as legitimate".[2]: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.[2]: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.[2]: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.[2]: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 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.[2]:II:236, 310[10]: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 ...[2]:II:323

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.

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.[2]:397

John Dewey

John Dewey 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.[14]: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 ...[15]:9

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.

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 [conditional] end of inquiry.[15]: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.[16]

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".[15]: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."[15]: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 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


  1. Weber, Max (1978). Economy and Society. University of California Press.
  2. Habermas, Jürgen (1989). The Theory of Communicative Action. Beacon Press.
  3. Janicaud, Dominique (1994). Powers of the Rational. Indiana University Press. pp. 39–45.
  4. Koshul, Basit Bilal (2005). The Postmodern Significance of Max Weber's Legacy: Disenchanting Disenchantment. Palgrave Macmillan.
  5. Bruun, Hans (2007). Science, Values, and Politics in Max Weber's Methodology. Ashgare.
  6. Parsons, Talcott (1968). The Structure of Social Action. Free Press.
  7. Parsons, Talcott (1966). Societies. Prentice Hall. pp. 39–40.
  8. Parsons, Talcott (1966). Societies. Prentice Hall. pp. 10–12, 16–18.
  9. Habermas, Jürgen (1970). Toward a Rational Society. Beacon Press. pp. 91–2.
  10. Edgar, Andrew (2005). The Philosophy of Habermas. McGill-Queen's University Press.
  11. Habermas, Jürgen (2013). Finlayson, James Gordon; Freyenhagen, FAbian (eds.). Habermas and Rawls. Routledge.
  12. Habermas, Jürgen (1987). "Preface". The Theory of Communicative Action. Translated by McCarthy, Thomas. Beacon Press. pp. I:vi–ix.
  13. Gouinlock, James (1993). Rediscovering the Moral Life. Prometheus Books.
  14. Hickman, Larry (1992). John Dewey's Pragmatic Technology. Indiana University Press.
  15. Dewey, John (1938). Logic the Theory of Inquiry. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  16. Gouinlock, James (1972). John Dewey's Philosophy of Value. Humanities Press. pp. 54–5.