Weber on social action, rationality, & political ethics
Social & Political Theory
Summer Session I, 2005
Jeff Weintraub & Joseph Soares
HANDOUT #15: Reading Weber - "Types of Social Action"
Here Weber presents a classification of four ideal-typical orientations toward social action. Even though he disclaims any intention of formulating "an exhaustive classification of types," this scheme nonetheless does have the appearance of analytical exhaustiveness. Remember that this is a set of pure types--more coherent and internally consistent than one is likely to find in reality--which Weber thinks can be used to organize and clarify the analysis of social action. Although actual human social action will almost always involve some mixture of these orientations, Weber's point is that social action can be analytically broken down into four distinct models, and that these models or "ideal types" can be used to characterize the basic thrust of any particular social action. In other words, these are not simple descriptions of acts or patterns of action; one might say that they identify four poles toward which action can tend, more or less.
"Traditional and "affectual" (emotional) social action are important but perhaps conceptually less problematic than the other two. A more difficult, but essential, distinction in Weber's typology is the distinction between instrumental rationality (Zweckrationalität) and value-rationality (Wertrationalität). If you can grasp what Weber is getting at in this distinction, many of his writings on bureaucracy, authority, politics, and meaning will become clearer.
What does Weber mean by “rational” action? To reiterate a summary formulation offered in lecture (which is not Weber’s own explicit formulation), action is rational to the degree that it involves the conscious, continuous, and systematic effort to adjust action to explicit ends. That covers both types of rational action, and both also involve value choices, so what is the basis for the distinction between them? Part of the answer is captured in a comment by Talcott Parsons, the theorist who played a major role in introducing American sociologists to Weber. Parsons offers the following interpretation of the fundamental distinction between instrumentally rational and value-rational action:
One type or level of rationality concerns maximizing results at minimum cost-this is what Weber meant by Zweckrationalität.... The other type of rationality, concerning the expression in action of types of ultimate meaning, is what Weber meant by Wertrationalität....In other words, the distinction rests on two different kinds of ends toward which rational action can be oriented. The former type of rationality is instrumental, i.e., concerned merely with practical results. The latter type of rationality is expressive, i.e., concerned with the realization of symbolic meaning in the activity itself.
(in Parsons, ed., Theories of Society, p. 970)
This distinction often seems to be combined with, or to shade off into, a different one. Weber often seems to conceive the Wert vs. Zweck distinction as involving a distinction between action oriented toward a single end vs. action oriented toward multiple ends. With pure value-rational action, the ultimate end or expressive meaning guiding the activity is absolutely fixed. There can be no compromises or cost-accounting, no rational weighing of one end against another. But in
... the case of Zweckrationalität ... Weber conceives action as motivated by a plurality of relatively independent ends, none of which is absolute. Hence, rationality involves on the one hand the weighing of the relative importance of their realization, on the other hand, consideration of whether undesirable consequences would outweigh the benefits to be derived from the projected course of action.You might ask yourself why Weber would want to slide these two distinctions together and combine them into one, i.e.:
(Parsons on p. 115 of The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, his translation of the first part of Weber's Economy and Society)
· ends of action defined in terms of the values inherent in the action itself, or adherence to a code of conduct
· action oriented toward a single absolute end (or a small number of such ends)
· ends of action defined in terms of practical results
· action oriented toward a multiplicity of ends, which have to be weighed against each other (including consideration of unintended consequences)
By implication, there is another important element involved in the distinction between Wertrationalität and Zweckrationalität. Again, both types of action are rational, and consequently involve the "conscious, continuous, systematic effort to adjust action to explicit ends" (Weintraub). Nonetheless, the relationship between means and ends is not precisely the same for Zweckrationalität and Wertrationalität. Instrumental rationality does not intrinsically require or prohibit any particular means, while value-rational action, on the contrary, tends to prescribe (and prohibit) specific means or modes of conduct. With pure instrumentally rational action, there is a specific goal (or goals), and any means whatever that produce the desired result are allowed; it is only a question of which means are most practically effective. But with value-rationality, the means are intrinsically and normatively tied to the ends of action. The distinction between means and ends in value-rationality can collapse, since using the correct means (or performing correct conduct) is an end in itself. But with instrumentally rational action the separation of means from ends is fundamental and sharply maintained.
=> This distinction is also connected, as you will discover reading the "Vocation" essays, to the line Weber draws between the "ethic of conviction" (translated somewhat misleadingly by Gerth & Mills as "ethic of ultimate ends") and the "ethic of responsibility". The "ethic of conviction" (Gesinnungsethik) seems to be a form of Wertrationalität, while the "ethic of responsibility" (Verantwortungsethik) appears to be a version of Zweckrationalität. As you will see, Weber's own value choice is not a simple one, because he implies an aspiration for combining an ethic of responsibility with an irreducible value-rational element.
When we discuss the "Vocation" essays, I will also suggest:
(a) that Weber's central distinction between the "ethic of conviction" and the "ethic of responsibility" embodies some damaging and misleading analytical confusions, since he tends to conflate his "ethic of conviction" with a somewhat different ethical orientation that can more accurately be described as an "ethic of absolute responsibility" (epitomized, for example, by a Leninist revolutionary ethic); and
(b) that these analytical confusions can be traced in part to some crucial problems in the underlying treatment of rationality on which it is based.