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; ...[1]

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.

John Rawls (1921–2002)

Philosopher John Rawls studied a very abstract idea--justice--that has very real consequences for human societies. Human groups must develop value-rational rules to correlate member behavior peacefully and productively. Rules must be accepted as just, or they will fail to correlate group behavior. Rawls sought facts about justice to turn this abstract fact-free end into acceptable social rules as means.

He felt that utilitarianism, the predominant moral theory in the English-speaking world, often failed to correlate behavior justly. This theory maintained that "... society is rightly ordered, and therefore just, when its major institutions [rules] 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 that rational humans pursue their own self-interest often resulted in injustice. Humans need a better theory.

In 1971 he published A Theory of Justice in which he proposed moral principles that he hoped would promote more just institutions to replace utilitarian conflict with cooperation. He developed his theory further in Justice as Fairness, published in 2002 after his death. In both books he treated justice as a value-rational end--an unconditional social virtue that can be realized by conditional institutions: prescribed patterns of correlated social action.

Rawls's basic premise was that, despite the multitude of moral systems in democratic societies, there exist a few principles common to all. If these universally-acceptable ends can be identified, all rational humans will accept them as a social contract. Moral facts will provide a compass on which societies can design acceptable rules of justice. Less-fundamental and debatable principles can be tested by their conformity to this "workable and systematic moral conception ..."[2]:xvii When community members agree contractually on these basic principles, the community will achieve an "overlapping consensus" on its moral institutions.[2]:6 "Mission accomplished."

He separated the just end of institutions--their value--from their factual efficiency as means to correlate behavior.

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

To develop his theory, Rawls replaced Weber's labels for bipolar reasoning capacities with his own. He wanted to distinguish between intrinsic emotional judgments of what is just, and practical behaviors prescribed by social authorities to produce just results. He labeled his replacement of Weber's value-rationality "the reasonable," intrinsic principles felt in the heart. He labeled Weber's instrumental rationality "the rational," prescribed patterns understood in the head. Moral principles that are right are reasonable ends, while institutions that work are rational means. Rawls's new labels turned the distinction between factual and valuable knowledge into a distinction between rational and reasonable knowledge.

... 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.[3]:82

Common sense views the reasonable, but not, in general, the rational as a moral idea involving moral sensibility.[3]:7

Searching for intrinsic value-rational principles that everyone would consider just, Rawls came up with two. They are the foundation of his theory of justice as fairness.

... the first requires equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties, while the second holds that social and economic inequalities, for example inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society. .... The intuitive ideas 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 hoped that institutions prescribing just end-states would be immediately recognized as "worth having for [their] own sake". Each must reflect a shared conception of justice, the capacity for which most people develop once and for all as shared common sense.[2]:8, 41

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

Rawls hoped that institutions prescribing just end-states would be immediately recognized as "worth having for [their] own sake." Every institutions would reflect the shared conception of justice, the capacity for which most people develop once and for all as shared common sense.[3]:8, 41

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

Rawls thought that identifying instrumental means for achieving value-rational justice would make his rule of justice-as-fairness generally acceptable: "... 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 "overlapping consensus" was quickly dashed by a colleague in the Harvard philosophy department.

Robert Nozick (1938–2002)

Philosopher Robert Nozick 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 two types of rationality and his disagreements with Rawls.

Both philosophers accepted Weber's instrumental and value-rationality, and searched for perfectly just institutions based on value-rational ends they judged to be permanent transcendental truths.[4]:8 But starting from different premises, they arrived at incompatible conclusions.

Unlike Rawls, who built his theory of justice on two value-rational social principles, Nozick started from a single value-rational truth. He opened Anarchy, State, and Utopia by stating a human right that exists independently of human societies: the 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 rules, specifically patterns for distributing group costs and benefits. Individuals, given their own ends, can use instrumental rationality to accomplish their missions. 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

A further implication of this right, Nozick argued, is 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 fact-free premises. He replaced Rawls's complex value reasoning about fair distribution with a simple principle of distributive justice: whatever distribution results from holdings justly acquired must be forever respected.[5]:18–22

Despite speculating that historically humans might have accepted principles of justice because they worked instrumentally to correlate group behavior,[6]:68 Nozick agreed with Rawls that instrumental rationality cannot reveal moral ends. Instrumental judgments are necessarily self-interested and short-term. In Rawls's terms, reasonable ends are fact-free and 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

Nozick suggested that a substantive rationality of values could be created by assigning them symbolic meanings independently of causal means-end relations. Values cannot derive from value-free facts, but they can appear as logical value symbols--value-rationally. 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 environmental facts as a new kind of moral fact. 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 patterns is imposed on anyone.[5]:316

Despite their failure to agree on the nature of and labels for instrumental and value rationality, both Nozick and Rawls remain well-respected expositors of moral philosophy.

James Gouinlock (b. 1933)

Philosopher James Gouinlock often wrote about instrumental 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 philosophizing.”

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 Sen (b. 1933)

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 ...[4]:xviii

In 2002 he published a collection of his papers under the title Rationality and Freedom. He there defined rationality as a discipline "subjecting ones choices ... to reasoned scrutiny".[9]:4 He argued that "reasoned scrutiny" of means and ends could eliminate flawed practices of both instrumental 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 unscrutinized--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 behavior--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 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 Gunlock's framework of virtuous rationality as sustained moral discourse, and of Dewey's sustained instrumental inquiry.

Gunlock's and Sen's criticisms of Weber's dichotomy between instrumental 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 also


  1. ^ Weber, Max (1978). Economy and Society. University of California Press. pp. 24–5. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Rawls, John (1999). A Theory of Justice. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Rawls, John (2001). Justice as Fairness. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 
  4. ^ a b c Sen, Amartya (2009). The Idea of Justice. Belknap Press of Harvard University.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Sen 09" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  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 (2002). Rationality and Freedom. Harvard University Press. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Cite error: The named reference Sen02 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
Retrieved from "