soon as an individual takes an action, whatever that action
may be, it begins to escape from his intentions. The action
enters into the universe of interactions. (Edgar Morin,
2008, p. 55)
quest for rational action Our
attempt to clarify the notion of good professional practice
has already taken us quite far into new and accordingly unfamiliar
territory. In addition, some time has passed since I published
the first two parts of this series of essays on good practice,
in March and May, 2011. It may be useful, therefore, to begin
this third of the four planned parts with a summary on where
In Part 1 (Ulrich, 2011a) we examined the conventional concept
of professionalism and concluded that it fails to furnish a sufficient
basis for understanding and promoting good professional practice.
As it has no methodological basis for dealing with questions
of "good" practice in openly and critically normative
terms, it ends up with a one-sidedly technical notion of professional
competence. This does not justice to the normative
core of professional intervention, its inevitable value basis and value implications. Three
lines of argument supported this conclusion. First, the "sociological"
argument considered the institutional framework and pressures
under which professionals work. Next, the "ethical"
argument recognized the unavoidable selectivity of all practice
with respect to what is considered relevant, good, and rational.
And finally, the "methodological" argument analyzed
the faultiness of the means-end scheme that underlies the technical
concept of competence.
In Part 2 (Ulrich, 2001b)
we examined more thoroughly what we mean by good practice:
What are "good answers" to "practical questions"?
As "practical" questions we defined action-oriented
questions (What are we to do?) inasmuch as they
cannot be answered in the terms of theoretical or instrumental
reason alone. As "good" answers to such questions
we recognized answers that consider action proposals both in
the light of theoretical (i.e., instrumental)
and practical (.i.e., normative) reason; moreover, with
regard to the latter dimension of reason, they should distinguish
between "good" and "right" action proposals,
that is, between ethical and moral questions or claims. We then
considered what it means to deal "reasonably" (or
rationally) with questions of rightness and found the answer
to point to the moral kernel of practical reason, the idea that
there are some standards of good practice that merit recognition
by everyone. But how, we had to ask consequently, can we expect
to strengthen this aspect of reason in an age of ethical pluralism
and relativism? In fact, It is precisely because we accept ethical
pluralism, we found, that we need some overarching standards to resolve
ethical conflicts peacefully, "with reason" (i.e.,
argumentatively) rather than just with force (non-argumentatively);
this is precisely what we mean by moral standards of
good and right action. The
essence of moral reasoning thus consists not in adhering to
some dogmatic standards of what is right and wrong (standards
defined by some religious or political authority, for example)
but in the idea of basing our claims
and actions on "reasons" (motives, principles, and notions
of improvement) that can be questioned and supported argumentatively
and moreover, because they do not embody a merely private agenda, can be
shared publicly with everyone concerned. Moral reasoning
as we understand it embodies an "open" (tolerant)
rather than a "closed" (dogmatic) stance towards what
is right and rational for different people. It is grounded in
the existential need of humans to coordinate their human affairs,
and in the public constitution and use of reason that this need
entails (reason's political dimension as a guardian of public arguability,
with which we concluded Part 2).
In a subsequent
note, I put this deeply Kantian idea into context by aligning
it a bit more systematically with Kant's concepts of rationality,
morality, and politics (see Ulrich, 2011c). In a previous systematic
introduction to Kant's practical philosophy (Ulrich, 2009b),
we had familiarized ourselves with the ideal that Kant (1786b, 1788)
formulated for practical reason, the principle of moral
universalization; it helped us to understand not only his "categorical
imperative" but also many other well-known concepts of
moral reasoning, for example, the age-old "golden rule"
of reciprocity of conduct and consideration; the "impartial
spectator" of Adam Smith (1795); the "moral point
of view" of Kurt Baier (1958); the "stages of moral
development" of Lawrence Kohlberg (1968, 1976, 1981); and
the "veil of ignorance" of John Rawls (1971). For our present
purpose, we may sum up the core idea by saying:
practical reason is what argumentatively "disciplines" claims to rationality in
all areas of human endeavor against
the ever-present danger of their masking merely
private agendas. While grounding the quest for good professional
practice in theory and expertise remains a meaningful and indispensable
idea, it does not guard
us against hidden private agendas but often serves to mask them.
For this reason, good practice
should always also (although not exclusively) be grounded in an effort of practical reason.
this is easier said than done. Practical philosophy, the philosophical
endeavor of explaining what practical reason is and how we can
put it into practice, has not
exactly produced the application-oriented, down-to-earth kind of literature that
research practitioners and professionals might be looking for.
Its scholarly discourse is far from being easily accessible
to practitioners, and to the extent it is accessible, it does
not lend itself to being put into practice without further ado.
Further, just as the literature on professionalism has tended
to ground its concept of professional competence one-sidedly
in theoretical-instrumental reason – in "technical"
competence along with abstinence from value judgments ("disinterestedness")
practical philosophy has tended to substitute
the idea of practical reason for that of rational
(or reasonable) practice,
as if the rationality (or reasonableness) of practice could
be secured within the bounds of reason. Contemporary discourse-theoretical
approaches and in particular the discourse ethics
of Jurgen Habermas (1990, 1993a, b) illustrate the point: they
tend to equate a model
of rational discourse on practice with rational practice
itself, rather than explaining how the former can support the
latter. In effect they thus substitute rational speech for
rational practice. (For a substantial discussion of the issue, and for my resulting
early doubts about the practical fruitfulness of Habermas' program,
insightful as it is theoretically, see Ulrich, 1983, pp. 31-34 and 152-172.)
as research theorists and as research practitioners, we should never
good practice necessarily bursts the bounds of reason. The
quest for good practice needs to move beyond research, reflection, and discourse and
must translate into action. However
compelling our notions of good reasoning and discourse
about practice may be, they must
ultimately materialize out there in the imperfectly rational
world of human practice. There is forever a tension between the
idea of practical reason
and the struggle for rational practice: rational practice may be inspired and disciplined by reason, but it can be implemented
only through – always imperfectly rational – action.
Accordingly, the central concern of the present
part of our considerations on the nature of professionalism
must be that practical reason and reasonable (or rational) practice
are not the same. In this respect, theoretical and practical reason
are in the same situation: neither can secure rational practice,
only rational action
can. The crux of an adequate concept
of rational practice is thus an adequate understanding of what
we mean by rational action. What constitutes
"rational" action, and how can we rationally justify or criticize
claims to having achieved it?
Max Weber's typology of rational
than perhaps any other social theorist, the German
sociologist Max Weber (1968) has given a central place to the concept
of rational action. It is still worthwhile, and for serious
study indispensable, to read his writings today, as they tell
us so much about the origins and nature of our contemporary
understanding of rationality, concerning, for example, the role of
formal and calculating modes of reasoning; bureaucratic modes
of organization; and the importance of the rule of law and of
professional expertise in modern
industrial societies. In his analyses of these topics, Weber
has coined many ground-breaking sociological concepts – think of "interpretive"
social science, "ideal-type," "process of rationalization,"
"bureaucratization," "protestant ethic," the
"spirit of capitalism," or the "disenchantment of the world"
– that not only have been very influential in the social sciences but
also continue to be relevant today to many fields of research
as well as of professional and everyday practice.
Rationality to Weber is a basic sociological
concept, for it gives meaning to human action and renders it
intelligible. Meaning in this context stands for regularities and patterns of action
that allow us to interpret action in terms of certain intentional
states or action
orientations, that is (in my terms), the motives, attitudes, and standards –
in short, the subjective reasons, whether they are consciously
and freely chosen or not –
that motivate an action and which also make it understandable to observers,
if only they understand those reasons. Actions are rational
for Weber to the extent such action orientations are chosen
consciously. Inasmuch as they are, we will also say that actions
are rationally motivated (or rationally oriented).
the role he gives to rational action, Weber does not mean to
introduce a cognitive or even rationalistic bias to sociology
but only a "methodological device" (Weber, 1968a,
p. 7). The subjective reasons that make an action meaningful
to an agent, and which also render it understandable to an
observer, need not be objectively rational or well-reasoned;
they can in fact be mainly emotionally or conventionally determined,
so long as they are consciously adopted. We might say, rational
actions as Weber defines them are actions that we can explain,
whether we find them rational or not. Because they orient action and render
it subjectively meaningful, they also provide the
social scientist and everyone else with a basis for interpretive understanding.
to Weber's famous definition of sociology as an interpretive
social science, it is indeed
the aim of sociology to help us understand and explain individual actions
by relating them to the contexts of meanings that shape them.
These action orientations are of two basic kinds; they may be
purely subjective, oriented to the agent's individual view and
values, or they may also consider the views and values of others
and then amount to "social"
… is a science concerning itself with the interpretive understanding
of social action and thereby with causal explanation of its
course and consequences. We shall speak of "action"
insofar as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning
to his behavior – be it overt or covert, omission or acquiescence.
Action is "social" insofar as its subjective meaning
takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented
in its course. (Weber, 1968a, p. 4, italics added)
will thus say that individual
are social to the extent they are influenced by
and/or oriented towards
other agents; they are nonsocial or merely subjective
to the extent their rationality
does not depend on such an orientation. When several agents act
with a view towards one another, there emerges a social relationship.
Social action then may (but need not) become interaction, depending,
for example, on whether the relationship is of an emotionally
friendly or hostile nature; whether the situation is one of
cooperation or competition; or whether there exist any barriers
of space or time to interaction. Actual interaction is not a necessary
basis of social action in Weber's sense; it is quite sufficient
that two or more agents consciously orient their actions towards
term "social relationship" will be used to denote
the behavior of a plurality of actors insofar as, in its meaningful
content, the action of each takes account of that of the others
and is oriented in these terms. The social relationship thus
consists entirely and exclusively in the existence of a probability
that there will be a meaningful course of social action
… it is essential that there should be at least a minimum of
mutual orientation of the action of each to that of the
others.… The definition does not specify whether the relation
of the actors is cooperative or the opposite. (Weber, 1968a,
p. 26, italics added)
social and nonsocial actions may be "rational." They
are rational to the extent
they are (again in my terms) consciously oriented towards the
views and values that together
make up certain
kinds of action orientations, whether they are the agent's own
or those of other agents; they remain nonrational
to the extent such orientations are not consciously in play.
Rationality as Weber understands
it is thus a very broad
concept indeed; it is almost synonymous with
a consciously applied and therefore to some extent also
action orientation. All that Weber demands of "rational"
actions is that they follow a certain logic of which
the agents are aware, however subjective and ill-founded that logic may look from
the perspective of others. For example, "primitive" man
may be understood
to act (subjectively) rationally when performing a magical ceremony
with the aim of securing favors from a god (cf. Weber, 1968,
of the major subjects of sociology, and of the social sciences
in general, are the social structures (e.g., social groups and
movements, social classes) and institutions (e.g., corporations,
the professions, the free market, the political-administrative
characterize specific societies or societal domains (e.g., politics,
jurisdiction, science, education, civil society, and the economy). Readers
might wonder why, if this is so, Weber aims to ground sociology
in interpretive social science and the latter in an understanding of the actions of individual agents?
But what might at first look like a certain inconsistency of ends and
means is actually a deliberate methodological strategy:
in order to understand social phenomena, Weber argues, we need
to analyze the way they result from "the particular acts
of individual persons, since these alone can be treated as agents in a course of subjectively
understandable action." (Weber 1968, p. 13) Inasmuch as social structures
and institutions have meaning, it is because they are meaningful
in the eyes of individuals who attach meaning to them.
is thus an irreducibly subjective element in social science,
at least inasmuch as it aims at more than merely descriptive
social statistics. This
methodological perspective – Weber's earlier-mentioned "methodological
device" for explaining social phenomena – is now generally
known as "methodological individualism." Although
the term was coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter (1909), Weber
is one of the main representatives, along with a few other prominent
scholars of his time with whom he corresponded, in particular Friedrich von Hayek and
Karl R. Popper. Methodological individualism is now often criticized
on the ground that it risks losing sight of the irreducibly
collective element in social phenomena and indeed also in
individual consciousness. The issue was central to the work
of another founding figure of sociology, Emile Durkheim (1964,
1982), who maintained that the subject matter of sociology –
the social realities it aims to explain – cannot be reduced
to subjective or psychological phenomena. Accordingly sociology
for Durkheim starts with his famous proposition that "social facts are to be treated as things"
(Durkheim, 1964, p. xliii; 1982, p. 35).
own view is that the alternative is wrongly posed. Both perspectives
can help us understand the social realities in which we live
and struggle to act reasonably. I would maintain that Weber's
methodological individualism has its merits; it can provide
a stronghold against a merely or mainly functionalist view of
social institutions and collectives as it prevails today and which
has accustomed us to reify them as
they could replace individuals who assume the responsibility
for their (the institutions') behavior. As Weber recognized in remarkably foresighted
terms, there is a loss of richness in a one-sidedly functionalist
view of social structures and institutions (or "collectivities"
as he calls them with one word) which can be dangerous:
analysis of the relation of "parts " to a "whole"
[as it is useful particularly in the natural sciences but also
for purposes of sociological analysis] is convenient for purposes
of practical illustration and provisional orientation. In these
respects it is not only useful but indispensable. But at the
same time if its cognitive value is overestimated and its concepts
illegitimately "reified," it can be highly dangerous.
[To be sure] in certain circumstances this is the only available
way of determining just what processes of social action it is
important to understand in order to explain a given phenomenon.
But this is only the beginning of sociological analysis as here
understood. In the case of social collectivities … we are in
a position to go beyond merely demonstrating functional relationships
and uniformities. We can accomplish something which is never
accomplishable in the natural sciences, namely the subjective
understanding of the action of the component individuals. The
natural sciences on the other hand cannot do this, being limited
to the formulation of causal uniformities in objects and events
and the explanation of individual facts by applying them. We
do not "understand" the behavior of cells, but can
only observe the relevant functional relationships and generalize
on the basis of these observations. This additional achievement
of explanation by interpretive understanding … is the specific
characteristic of sociological knowledge. (Weber, 1968, p. 15)
basic action orientations
identifies four basic action orientations that he sees as fairly
universal, in the sense that they occur in all cultures and epochs
of human civilization. At the same time, they are specific
to different spheres of life, in that they explain the historical
development of certain domains of society rather than of human civilization
in general. Here is Weber's definition of the four orientations:
action, like all action, may be oriented in four ways. It may
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
(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;
affectual (especially emotional), that
is, determined by the actor's specific affects and feeling states;
traditional, that is, determined by ingrained habituation.
(Weber, 1968a, p. 24f)
these four action orientations, only instrumentally rational action
and value-rational action are fully rational in Weber's
sense of a consciously adopted and rationally considered orientation
towards meaningful action. Instrumentally rational action
(also translated as purposive-rational action) embodies for
Weber the highest degree of rationality in
that it includes the prudent choice of means and ends in the
light of expected consequences. Prudent choice of ends
in turn includes consideration of the ultimate values to be
attained as well as of the scarcity of available means. Its
rationality is different from value rationality, however, in
that its focus is on ensuring success, that is, on reaching
the ends in the most expedient manner according to both the
technical principle of least effort and the economic
principle of lowest cost (see, e.g., 1968, p. 65f). Not following
Weber for a moment, we also call such success-related ends "purposes."
In a famous formulation of John Dewey (e.g., 1915,
p. 518), purposes are "ends-in-view," that is, means to other
ends rather than ends-in-themselves (values). Purposive-rational
action accordingly stands for the rationality of the selection
of means with a view to achieving purposes, or of the selection
of purposes with a view to achieving further ends, but not necessarily
for the rationality of the ends themselves.
Value-rational action is best
translated as value-coherent action, although such a translation
is not customary. Unlike what the term might be understood to
imply, value-rationality as Weber understands it does not stand
for the rationality of the values in question but only for the
conformity of action with their demands. (This is analogous
to purposive-rationality, which does not stand for the rationality
of the purposes but only for the conformity of means to ends.) That
is, value-rational action is rational
in the limited sense that it is consciously oriented towards
values and pursues these values methodically so as to secure
their best possible attainment, but it does not question the
values themselves. It shares this "instrumental" (means-end)
orientation with purposive-rationality. Unlike the latter,
however, in its pure or ideal-typical
form as Weber understands it, value-rational action does not consider the consequences such adherence to
ultimate values may have. Agents oriented towards
value-rational action will adhere to values they recognize
as right (e.g., the value of friendship or solidarity, or a moral principle)
even when doing so runs counter to their current individual (e.g., economic)
interests. Unlike purposes, values hold regardless of expediency. Value-rational
action shares this aspect with merely affectual action:
"the meaning of the action does not lie in the achievement
of a result ulterior to it, but in carrying out the specific
type of action for its own sake." (1968a, p. 25)
two orientations, affectual (or emotional) and traditional
customary) action, may but need not stand for forms of
rational actions. They may embody merely habitual or even uncontrolled reactions to situations
and then are not rationally oriented at all. However, there
is no intrinsic reason why they should preclude any rational consideration of how meaningful they may
be in a given situation, which is
why Weber includes them in his typology of rational action.
Furthermore, they describe residual aspects of rationally oriented action
that frequently go along with a primary orientation of
the value-rational or instrumentally rational type. We need to
consider them to fully
understand the subjective or social logic of
actions, although by themselves (as pure types) they do not stand for adequately
of action We
here encounter Weber's (e.g., 1968a, pp. 6-9, 20f) famous concept
of ideal-types. The
four action orientations do not usually occur in pure form;
rather, they all inform real-life practical action to various
degrees and in various combinations.
This is why Weber (1968a, p. 6)
refers to them as "conceptually pure" or "ideal"
rather than empirically observable types of rational
action. They stand for rationality patterns or aspects that help us analyze
action orientations but which as such we may hardly ever encounter
empirically in pure form. As measured by the ideal-types, actions
as we observe them in practice are thus nearly always imperfect
expressions – and combinations – of rational behavior. Accordingly, the ideal-types are
useful not only to understand why people act the way they do
but also to gain insight
into the rationality deficits involved:
state what course a given type of human action would take if
it were strictly rational, unaffected by errors or emotional
factors and if, furthermore, it were completely and unequivocally
directed to [the intended meaning].
In reality … there
is usually only an approximation of the ideal type. (Weber,
1968a, p. 9, italics added)
individual actions in terms of underlying ideal-types is thus
to do justice to the less than completely rational situations
in which people act. Empirical actions are not simply rational or not;
they involve different elements of rationality
that each can assume a higher or lower degree of practiced rationality;
for example, an agent may intend to act instrumentally rational but
fail to do so for emotional or value-rational reasons as well
as due to a lack of knowledge (i.e., incorrect means-end calculation).
ranking of rationalities The four ideal-types
also stand for a hierarchy
of decreasing degrees of rationality: instrumentally
rational action is (for Weber) more completely rational than
value-rational action, which in turn is more rational than emotionally
and traditionally oriented action.. The more lower-level elements
an action involves, the less perfectly rational it will
be in Weber's view.
useful way to explain and summarize Weber's ranking of the four
ideal-types is by means of a scheme proposed by another major
theorist of rationality, Jurgen Habermas (1984, pp. 279-284). Referring to a pertinent
observation by Schluchter (1979, p. 192;
English transl., 1981, p. 129), he characterizes Weber's four ideal-types of action
in terms of the four main categories of subjective meanings that Weber uses to describe them –
means and ends, values, and consequences (Tab. 1):
Table 1: Weber's
typology of action as analyzed by Habermas
Habermas 1984, p. 282, with reference to Schluchter,
1981, p. 129)
meaning covers the following elements:
2012 W. Ulrich
The scheme explains
why a purposive-rational
(zweckrational) action orientation ranks highest for
Weber: he sees in it the only form of rationality that
account all four sources of meaningfulness, although its central
focus clearly is on the adequacy of means for reaching a defined
end. All other action orientations increasingly narrow down
the range of considerations: a value-rational
orientation as Weber understands it excludes from its range
of considerations the consequences of adherence to alternative
values; affectual action in addition excludes the values
concerned themselves; and merely habitual or traditional action also excludes
consideration of ends.
Weber's construction of
interpretive understanding depends essentially on his notion
action. The basic outlook of his rational agent is utilitarian.
To be sure, Weber understands the four ideal-types of rationality to be
present in all social action, although to various degrees. He
does not mean to reduce rational action to nothing but
instrumentally rational action. Even so, since purposive-rationality is
the ideal-type of action that most completely embodies a rational
orientation, it is clear that social action as seen through his framework
is most rational when its
dominating action orientation is towards instrumental rationality.
Somewhat ironically, the very prevalence of functionalist thinking
that Weber meant to avoid with his "device" of methodological
individualism thus re-enters through the backdoor of his understanding
of rationality. The temptation involved appears to have been
too strong: purposive-rational action, unlike the other
three types of action, allows an "objective" evaluation of its success,
simply by observing whether the means chosen to achieve a given
end do actually achieve it. Accordingly careful we will have
to be when it comes to this aspect of his typology.
of rationalization: capitalism, professionalism, bureaucracy
ideal-types do not only stand for basic rationality patterns that allow us to understand
the subjective (or "social") logic of individual actions, they also stand for overarching
processes of rationalization – for societal modernization patterns
– that historically shape
the development of specific spheres of
life in different societies. While the four types of action
just introduced stand for universal human orientations and capacities,
rationalization processes are specific to certain societal,
cultural, and historical constellations through which empirical
patterns of modernization unfold. For example, the differentiation
of the capitalist economy (private-sector institutions) and
the modern state (public-sector institutions) into largely independent
spheres of development (the market vs. the political sphere)
is a basic modernization pattern that characterizes the specific
rationalization path of Western societies but which is less prominent
outside the Occident. Or, as a second example, the rise of bureaucratic principles
of administration both in the public and corporate sectors of modern societies can be
understood as an important rationalization pattern of the 19th
and 20the centuries, particularly in Germany and some other
theoretical, and formal rationality
Weber uses his ideal-types of rationality to
investigate historical and contemporary rationalization patterns
in different spheres of life (e.g., religion, science, economy,
law, and politics) and societies (e.g, Western vs. other societies).
He does not, however, employ them very systematically, often
not even explicitly. Along with instrumental (sometimes also
specified as "technical" or "economic")
and value-rational action, he also frequently refers to "theoretical"
and "practical," as well as to "formal"
and "substantive" forms of rationality and corresponding
strands of rationalization. Kalberg's (1980) provides a useful
survey of the appearance and use of these different categories
of rationality in Weber's applied studies. A very brief summary
must suffice here. Basically, practical rationality for
Weber is the combined use of instrumental rationality and value-rationality
in the everyday quest for "mastering" the world. A
pragmatic and self-interested orientation prevails: dealing
rationally with one's everyday needs and desires means to see
realities as they are and to look for the most expedient ways
to achieve what is needed or desired. Such a practical perspective
is rational to the extent it relies on proven means to reach
ends (instrumental rationality) and minimizes the input
of resources according to economic principles (the "calculating"
rationalization of formal rationality). At the same time,
it will determine its ends and priorities among the ends in
a way that is coherent with the individual's value system (value-rationality).
Finally, it will systematically consider the consequences of
alternative courses of action and for this purpose will rely
on established knowledge of their likely effects and possible
risks (theoretical rationality).
Weber fails to make clear – and here ends my relying on Kalberg's
– is that philosophically speaking, these expressions of "practical"
rationality are not as different as they present themselves
sociologically, for methodologically they move within the same, theoretical-instrumental,
dimension of reason. Inasmuch as they have no way of rationally
questioning the values they serve, they risk amounting to mere
techniques of rationalization that are blind to the
ethics of their own notion of rationality. From a perspective
informed by practical philosophy, such far-reaching identification
of "practical" rationality with techniques of rationalization
arouses the suspicion of a fundamental category error.
rationality: the ethics of rationalization
Interestingly though, Weber finds – empirically rather
than philosophically – that under specific cultural conditions,
this sort of "practical" rationality becomes impregnated
with an ethics that shapes it and has the potential to transform
it into an expression of substantive rationality. Unlike
all other forms of rationality, substantive rationality reaches
beyond a mere concern for the conformity of means to chosen
ends, and of ends to the demands of adopted values; beyond such
mere conformity, it aims
at a systematic enhancement of the achieved values themselves
(cf., e.g., 1968, p. 85). Weber's most famous example is
laid out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
(1930), where he argues that it was the ascetic work ethic of
the early Puritans and Calvinists which paved the way for the
development of capitalist and industrial forms of production
and for a methodical-rational conduct of life in Western civilization
quite generally. Everyday practical rationality thus grows beyond
its basically instrumental and opportunistic perspective and
gains an ethical dimension of its own. We might say, substantive
rationality for Weber points beyond mere value-rationality,
and with it beyond all primarily instrumental and formal aspects
of practical rationality, in that it "cares" for its
own normative content. Just how far it does and how such a concern
for value-enhancement rather than mere value-conformity can
be pursued rationally within Weber's basically instrumental
conception of rationality, remains largely unclear in his account.
Inasmuch as his interest as a sociologist is descriptive rather
than prescriptive (methodological), he apparently can afford
to leave this normative side of rationality – or perhaps better,
the rational side of normativity – unclear.
thus gain a somewhat ambivalent picture of Weber's understanding
of rationality. On the one hand, in his typology of rational
social action, he clearly attributes the highest degree of rationality
to the theoretical, technical, economic, and formal aspects
of instrumental rationality and largely equates practical rationality
with them. The normative content of such "practical rationality"
remains out of focus except in the form of value-rationality,
which again is defined in the instrumental and formal terms
of conformity of ends to given values. On the other hand, in
his sociological analyses, he is keenly interested in the ways
in which rationality and rationalization in all spheres of life
depend on, and promote, certain sets of values, and these analyses
remain insightful and inspiring to this day. Yet his related
concept of "substantive rationality," which suggests
an attitude of caring about normative concerns – an ethics of
rationalization –, is not part of his systematic typology of
rational action and remains unclear with respect to the degree
of rational treatment to which it lends itself, as distinguished
from remaining a mere matter of subjective acts of faith.
rationality and responsibility The perspective of substantive rationality
comes to the fore in Weber's views on the nature of good and
rational professional practice. In Economy and Society
and particularly in its parts on the sociology of religion,
Weber argues that rationalization, the process that is
so fundamental to occidental modernity, has brought forth and
demands for its further development not only the peculiar
value basis that he recognizes in protestant ethics but also
a unique type of rational personality, characterized
by the "alert, rationally controlled patterning of life
… [of] the 'man of vocation' or 'professional' (Berufsmensch)"
(1968, p. 556). In his famous lecture on "Science
as a vocation," Weber (1991b) similarly describes the scientist
as a man of vocation and characterizes him by values such as
intellectual discipline and self-restraint, objectivity or abstinence
from value judgments, and integrity. And in his equally famous
lecture on "Politics as a vocation," Weber (1991a)
also describes the professional politician and particularly
the "charismatic political leader," along with the
political journalist and part of the legal profession, as persons
of vocation "who (in the economic sense of the term) live
exclusively for politics and not off politics"
(1991a, p. 85, italics added).
hallmark of a professional orientation is for Weber an "ethic
of responsibility" (Verantwortungsethik), as distinguished
from what he calls an "ethic of conviction" or of
"ultimate ends" (Gesinnungsethik) (1991a, pp.
120-127). By an ethic of responsibility, Weber means
a moral stance that accepts responsibility for consequences;
while by an ethic of conviction he means a moral stance that
refers to ethical values or principles without regard for consequences.
At this point Weber's notion of professionalism links back to
his ideal-types of rational action and reveals its normative
core: it is clear from his account that he associates
"responsibility" with instrumentally rational action
and "conviction" with value-rational action. That
is, "responsibility" is located entirely within the
theoretical-instrumental dimension of reason, while "conviction"
stands for a practical-normative dimension of practice that
is taken to allow of nonrational acts of faith only. Although
I do not find such an opposition of the two ethical orientations
convincing – it represents a basically positivist scheme – I
mention it here for two reasons: first, we need not agree
with Weber's way of framing the ethical side of rationality
to agree with him that there is a connection between rationality
and responsibility; and second, it points to some
limitations of Weber's concept of socially rational action
to which we will return in a moment.
much for a basic introduction to Weber's typology of rational
action. Let us now turn to some critical conjectures, as a basis
for subsequently drawing some conclusion as to how an alternative typology
rational action might look. We can conveniently begin with Weber's understanding
of responsibility, as it is quite characteristic of what is
problematic in his framework.
Some critical comments on Weber's typology
Weber restricts the reach of his "ethic
of responsibility" to those aspects of practice which are
accessible to theoretical, instrumental, and formal rationality.
This restriction is philosophically as arbitrary as it is unproductive
with regard to the need for guiding decision-makers, citizens,
and professionals everywhere towards better practice. True,
Weber's notion of "substantive rationality" adds to
rational action a sense of caring about values, in a
way that goes
beyond mere conformity of actions to them.
But the value judgments that inform such caring
(e.g., the professional's ethos or commitment to certain notions
of improvement) remain personal acts
of faith – mere "convictions" – about which one supposedly cannot think
and talk rationally. Inadvertently, Weber thus immunizes
not only these value assumptions against critique but equally the consequences
of professional action. If values and their underlying "convictions"
do not lend themselves to rational discussion, who can ask us
to defend our value judgments and their consequences
snag is, indeed, that value judgments have consequences.
If we immunize value judgments against rational discussion, we
also immunize their consequences against rational critique.
We thereby weaken rather than strengthen the ties that Weber
as I understand him tries to establish between responsibility
and rationality. When it comes to the value content of (claims
to) rational social action, a thus-conceived responsibility
ends; for it can only refer to "convictions" which,
according to its own premises, it cannot question or defend systematically.
In fact, not only responsibility but also rationality ends at
this point, for a rationality in the service of unquestioned
and unquestionable values is itself questionable. A thus-conceived
rationality has no
notion of its own normative implications for those
who may have to live with the consequences. At the crucial
point where values and consequences meet, Weber's conception
of responsible rationality breaks down. Responsibility gives
way to mere conviction. Accordingly weak remains the link between
rationality and responsibility.
problem of an ethical grounding of rational practice
In a short formula, we may agree with Weber's intention
to tie ethics to rationality; but we must disagree with his
attempt to tie rational ethics to purposive-rationality
only. This attempt creates an unbridgeable divide between the
two sides of responsible action that in Kant were still thought
together, man's empirical nature as an agent who, within conditions
set by nature, can exert causality through his will and bring
about desired consequences, and man's moral nature as an agent
who, beyond mere self-interest and natural inclinations, can
take an unconditional moral stance of good will. As I would
argue, the problem of an ethical grounding of rational action
arises precisely because human agency always has these two sides.
Treating them as alternatives means to miss the core of the
problem. How should we rationally appreciate empirical circumstances
and consequences of intervention without
some clear notion of improvements, that is, value standards?
And how should we rationally appreciate value standards without
some clear notion of their empirical consequences? If rationality
and responsibility are to go hand in hand, we must not separate
them along the lines of Weber's two ethics, a distinction that
of course is reminiscent of the traditional opposition
of consequentialist and deontological ethics. Customary as it
is even in moral theory, it does not live up to the full meaning of morally responsible
action. It avoids rather than meets the demands on rationality
that responsible action implies, demands that Kant has explained
with unmatched intellectual clarity and consequence.
follows that the normative core of rational practice cannot
be adequately grasped in the terms of Weber's framework, as
if acting rationally (as measured by consequences) and acting
responsibly (as measured by value standards) constituted a meaningful
alternative or even an irredeemable opposition. Rational and responsible
action thus become separated. Responsibility is narrowed to
a matter of correct means-end calculation: if the consequences
are not those we wanted, however detrimental they may be for
the affected parties, all we can say as professionals is that
regrettably, we got our facts or calculations wrong. Our professional
ethic and morality is not at stake; for it seemingly remains
a private matter of conviction rather than a professional matter
of competence. When it comes to values, a thus-conceived responsibility
must become silent or in any case cannot respond rationally.
opposed to such a morality of silence – of taking a rational
or intellectual holiday in normative matters so to speak – it
would seem to me that between the two limiting cases of purely
calculation (responsibility for consequences) and merely subjective
value judgments (conviction regarding value standards) there lies a wide
range of normative issues that in practice are relevant to the
ethical quality of actions and also allow of rational and responsible
deliberation. The core question touches upon this whole range
of issues: What are "adequate" consequences?
are obviously the fruit of employing adequate means for achieving adequate ends,
but just as obviously, "adequate" is always a normative category:
adequate to whom, with what end in mind, according to what standards of quality or improvement, and
applied to what kinds
of issues or situations? In rational deliberation about practice,
it is neither possible nor necessary to separate these two sides
of responsibility – here consequences, there valuations; the
ones objectively empirical, the others subjectively normative.
Consequences and valuations come hand in hand and matter together;
they both have an empirical as well as a normative side. Kant
(1787, B75) once famously reminded us that just as "thoughts
without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind."
Adapting his insight to the problem of an ethical grounding
of rational practice, we might say:
not informed by values are empty,
values not informed by
consequences are blind.
values have consequences.
difficult it is to see why, then, any effort to question
an action's ethical implications
(What forms of life does it promote?) and moral basis (What
moral principles justify or question such a preference?) should
amount to a merely subjective, nonrational or even irrational act of
faith, a mere matter of conviction. Can't we rationally evaluate and criticize ethical
assumptions and moral principles in the light of their empirical
or anticipated consequences, just as we can rationally evaluate observed or
anticipated consequences in the light of values and principles?
It seems to me, the very concept of rational social action
implies that there is more to responsible rationality than technical
or formal means-end calculation. Responsible rationality
means "rationality that responds."
conception of rational social action does not respond to the
insights of two thousand years of practical philosophy. It suffers
not only from a
certain lack of terminological clarity and carefulness, as Kalberg (1980, pp. 1146)
observed, but also from a striking absence of practical-philosophical
reasoning. Despite the important role that Weber was prepared
to give to
values, value-rationality, and substantive rationality, he apparently was not fully aware of how
impoverished his concept of practical rationality remained as
compared to that of Kant. Nor has the reception of
his influential work, as far as I can see, sufficiently
considered this serious limitation of his framework and its
resulting lack of clarity about the nature of rational practice.
These shortcomings have had the paradoxical effect that his work, against his best
intentions, has actually helped foster the modern triumph of instrumental and
over a richer, "Kantian" conception of responsible
How is it possible, readers may wonder, that a major
social theorist such as Max Weber should have adopted such a
rather impoverished notion of the ethics of rational social
action? And why, if this is so, should we spend so much effort
to try and understand his theory of social action? Taking the second question
first, the answer is simple: because it exists and still
shapes our contemporary notions of rationality. Few other theorists
have written so extensively about the concept of rational action;
none has been as influential. Our previous analysis of the notion
of professional competence (cf. Ulrich, 2011a) illustrates how
influential Weber's framework has been and still is as a model
for thinking about rational practice. I consider this model
symptomatic indeed of what is wrong with today's prevalent understanding
of rationality. In a somewhat ironic way, Weber's typology is
perhaps more important today than it has ever been: it
can help us diagnose the spirit of the time of which, against
its original intentions, it furnishes a representative, if insufficiently
to the other question, we need to remind ourselves that Weber
aims to explain how an explanatory social science would be possible.
He sees in interpretive social science both the medium and the
end of an adequate analysis of the nature of rational social
action. Accordingly his perspective is that of an interpretive
observer, not that of a responsible agent. There are basically
two ways in which an observer can interpret the actions of others,
that is, understand their meaning: actions can be understood
as rational (deliberate, reasoned) or spontaneous (affective
or customary) responses to situations. But what can be the basis
of certainty of such interpretations? It lies for Weber in the
intrinsic logic of the agent's response to the situation.
The more rationally considered the response is, the better an
observer can appreciate its logic and provide a reliable account.
What matters, then, is the relative weight that rational
as compared to merely empathetic understanding assumes
in the social scientist's understanding:
basis for certainty in understanding can be either rational
[or] empathetic.…. Action is rationally evident chiefly
when we attain a completely clear intellectual grasp of the
action-elements in their intended context of meaning. Empathetic
or appreciative accuracy is attained when, through sympathetic
participation, we can adequately grasp the emotional context
in which the action took place. The highest degree of rational
understanding is attained in cases involving the meanings
of logically or mathematically related propositions; their meaning
may be immediately and unambiguously intelligible. We have a
perfectly clear understanding of what it means when somebody
employs the proposition 2x2=4
or the Pythagorean theorem in reasoning or argument, or when
someone correctly carries out a logical train of reasoning according
to our accepted modes of thinking. In the same way we also understand
what a person is doing when he tries to achieve certain ends
by choosing appropriate means on the basis of the facts of the
situation, as experience has accustomed us to interpret them.
The interpretation of such rationally purposeful action possesses,
for the understanding of the choice of means, the highest
degree of verifiable certainty. (Weber, 1968a, p. 5;
wants to make sure that interpretive social science is as accurate
and reliable as possible. But his attempt to explain the logic
of the social scientist's interpretation leads him astray:
he fails to distinguish sufficiently between the rationality
of the social scientist's understanding on the one hand and
that of the social practice to be understood on the other hand.
As the former moves into focus, the latter becomes blurred. Only
for the former are accuracy and reliability adequate criteria;
for the latter, it is indispensable to consider an action's
quality as social action, that is, the extent to which
it responds and does justice to the views and values of everyone
concerned. Since he fails to distinguish clearly between the
two issues, he inadvertently substitutes the former for the
must, then, understand the inadequacy of Weber's framework as
the result of a rather trivial methodological error:
Weber attaches so much importance to the social scientist's
need for understanding the logic of observed actions that he
falls into the trap of attributing the highest degree of rationality
to that action which is best understandable to observers,
rather than to the action that best secures rational social
practice. "Rational" action in Weber's action-theoretic
framework has tacitly become equated with what is rationally
understandable to the social scientist, a criterion that
does not at all imply that it is also rationally understandable
and acceptable to all the parties concerned and that
in this richer sense, it could be said to be socially
rational action, that is, conducive to good social practice.
fallacy in Weber's typology of rational action is now obvious.
That means-end calculation, despite its obvious limitations,
becomes in it the pinnacle of rationality is the price that
Weber pays for giving more importance to the observer's
rationality in interpreting social action (the rationality of
social science) than to the agent's rationality in orienting
social action (the rationality of social practice). Weber may
in this way have rendered possible an interpretive social science;
but it is a science that achieves little in the way of promoting
good social practice. To that end, it would need some grounding
in practical philosophy. This deficit strikes back: Weber's
typology, due to its lacking grasp of the dimension of practical
reason, ultimately even misses its purely descriptive aim of
explaining the rationality of social action properly
an alternative framework of rational action
The question is, where do we go from here?
First of all, if an action-theoretic framework is to be adequate
for both explaining and guiding rational practice, it
will need to be informed by practical philosophy as well as
by social science. Such a framework will put Weber's typology
(as shown in Table 1 above) back on its head, by moving
instrumental rationality to where it belongs, locating it at
the bottom rather than the top of our understanding of rational
social action. Instrumentally rational action will again be
treated as that which its very name makes clear it is, a means
rather than an end of rational practice. Only because his hero
was the interpretive social scientist, purposive-rationality
could become a surrogate purpose to Weber as it were; but the
true hero of an adequate framework of rational practice is everyone
who tries to act rationally and responsibly. In analogy to the
notion of the "general intelligent reader," we might
speak of the general responsible agent as the proper
user of a typology of rational action.
the distinction of instrumentally rational vs. value-rational
action, as the two genuinely rational action orientations that
Weber's typology foresees, is clearly insufficient to capture
the rich and complex implications of the quest for rational
practice. Weber himself demonstrated this deficit by finding
it necessary, in his influential sociological studies, to employ
categories of rationality that are not part of his typology of rational
action. An alternative framework
will need to give room to these missing aspects of rationality.
It will thus give an adequate place to the concepts of practical (as
distinguished from theoretical)
and substantive (as distinguished from formal) rationality;
it will consequently also revise the ways in which Weber's four basic aspects of meaningful
action – means, ends, consequences, and values – relate to the resulting
new list of ideal-types. Based on our discussion thus far, I
propose the following revised typology (Table 2).
2: Revised typology of rational action
framework revised with a view to explaining and guiding
ranked according to reach of rationality)
(ideal: practical reason)
(ideal: relevant knowledge)
(ideal: value conformity)
2012 W. Ulrich
now have four genuinely rational action orientations, rather
than only two. All of them furnish ideal-types of rational action
that we will hardly ever encounter empirically in pure form
but which nevertheless (or rather, because of their pure
nature) can serve as models or standards for analyzing and assessing
expressions or deficits of rationality as we encounter them
in real-world action. Weber's four aspects of meaningfulness
now stand for four equivalent sources of meaning, a designation
that should remind us that they can help us understand an agent's
logic of action but do not thereby validate it. Validation of
rational action will be a matter of competent argumentation,
within democratically legitimated processes of decision-making,
among all the parties concerned, rather than just being a matter
of the researcher's understanding of an agent's subjective logic
of action. Further, the four sources of meaning
are now related not only to the ideal-types of action but also
to Weber's distinction between substantive and formal rationality,
as well as to Kant's distinction of the theoretical and practical
dimensions of reason. As in Weber's framework, no rationalistic
bias is intended; it is, rather, our purpose which demands a
focus on those elements of action which are rationally motivated.
We will obviously still need to acknowledge the existence of
nonrational, emotionally or traditionally motivated elements;
but unlike Weber, we no longer treat them as ideal-types of rational
action. Together, and in the suggested rank order, the four
ideal-types of rationally motivated action orientations constitute
what we mean by "rational practice."
be sure, any such typology is to some extent arbitrary. It is
a definition of what we mean by rational practice and as such
it can support but not replace careful theoretical and methodological
analysis of underlying assumptions and ensuing validity claims.
We have thus far considered the assumptions underlying Weber's
theory of social action; we now need to try and find a more
adequate basis for our envisaged alternative framework. The most urgent issue such a
theoretical basis should clarify is the
specific rationality aspects that we take to characterize rational
social action, an aspect that we have found to be underdeveloped
in Weber's framework. This aspect is also of particular importance to the
quest for good professional practice, as professional intervention
almost always takes place in contexts that involve a plurality
of agents and stakeholders.
guide for a next part of the way ahead will now be the German sociologist and practical philosopher
Jurgen Habermas, who probably is the major contemporary theorist
of rationality. In The Theory of Communicative Action,
Habermas (1984, pp. 143-337) develops his "communication-theoretic"
framework of critical social theory through an extensive discussion
of Weber's framework (a further indication of the ongoing influence
and relevance of Weber's thought). It will be sufficient for
our purpose to limit ourselves to that part of Habermas' discussion
in which he analyses the core issue of present interest to us,
Weber's relative neglect of the social constitution of
rationality in favor of his preference for methodological individualism.
communicative turn Habermas'
analysis begins exactly at the point we have reached thus far.
It is because Weber does not start from a concept of social action,
Habermas argues, that he is bound to end up attaching the highest
degree of rationality to nonsocial, purposive-rational action
and consequently can recognize in social action a deficient
type of rationality only:
does not start from the social relationship. He regards as rationalizable
only the means-end relation of teleologically conceived, monological
action. If one adopts this perspective, the only aspects of
action open to objective appraisal are the effectiveness of
a causal intervention into an existing situation and the truth
of the empirical assumptions that underlie the maxim or the
plan of action – that is, the subjective belief about a purposive-rational
organization of means. So Weber chooses purposive-rational action
as the reference point of his typology. (Habermas, 1984, p. 281).
Weber's own terms:
is instrumentally rational (zweckrational)
when the end, the means, and the secondary results are all rationally
taken into account and weighed.… Choice between alternative
and conflicting ends may well be determined in a value-rational
manner.… or the actor may … simply take them as given subjective wants
and arrange them in a scale of consciously assessed relative
urgency. He may then orient his action to this scale in such
a way that they are satisfied as far as possible in order of
urgency, as formulated in the principle of "marginal utility."
Value-rational action may thus have various different relations
to the instrumentally rational action. From the latter point
of view, however, value-rationality is always irrational..
(Weber, 1968, p. 26; emphasis added.)
is as consequent as it is revealing that Weber should arrive
at such a conclusion. Schluchter (1981, p. 128), who basically
aims to strengthen Weber's theory of action, formulates the
trap most succinctly: "Weber's approach may show
weaknesses by proceeding from action rather than
interaction." In my own terms, as Weber starts from an individualistic concept of goal-oriented action,
he must try to construct his notion of rational social
action around it, rather than starting from it in the
first place. I would argue that in
such an understanding of rationality, social action
is bound to become an impoverished variant of economic action: any
orientation other than towards economic
values, including emotional, cultural/
traditional and ethical/
values, is seen to diminish rather than enhance the rationality
of action. Even
value-rationality, as we have seen, takes on the formal meaning of calculating
the best among alternative courses of actions for achieving
given values, a form of means-end calculation. Value-rationality
in the richer sense of taking a moral point of view, a
stance of respect for
the views and values of others as well as for different customs
and traditions, thus takes at best the place of a footnote to
the quest for rational practice; it may be "nice to have" but is not a constitutive aspect of the
rationality of social action.
Habermas (1984, pp. 282-284) responds
to this situation by abstracting from Weber's work a richer, "unofficial" version of his typology
of action, in which the non-instrumental qualities of social action take a more important place. It
did not entirely escape Weber in his sociological
studies that understanding social action confronts us with
questions that his typology is ill-suited to grasp. In particular,
how can agents coordinate their actions
in ways that are conducive
to rationally oriented social action? Or, as Habermas (1984,
p. 283) puts it, is coordination
to be achieved through some tacit or negotiated complementarity
of interests or rather through argued agreement on underlying
norms of action? A distinction
thus emerges in Weber's work between social relations that
gain stability as a merely factual order (based on accepted
co-existence) and social relations that embody a recognized
legal order (based on social validity, or speaking with
Geltung). In either case, the degree of rationality
involved can be low (based on custom or convention) or high (based on strategic action,
with Weber's term: Interessenhandeln, or on
mutually agreed action, Gesellschaftshandeln). We may
also relate the difference between "low" and "high"
rationality to Kohlberg's (1968, 1976, 1981) earlier introduced
distinction between the "conventional" and the "postconventional"
stages of moral development (cf. Ulrich, 2009b, p. 19f). Habermas
thus distills from Weber's
work four alternative types of social action that Weber employs
in his work but fails to explicate
systematically (Table 3):
Table 3: Weber's "unofficial" typology of action
according to Habermas
adapted from Habermas 1984, p. 283)
facto customary action
based on agreement
action based on agreement
2012 W. Ulrich
is on this "unofficial" typology of social action
orientations that Habermas relies for developing his own framework;
for it reveals, in the bottom line of the table, the core of
his communicative turn of the understanding of rationality
Habermas' typology of action
Habermas (1984, p. 285) proposes a typology of action that
is partly derived from Weber's analysis but which I find
both more comprehensive and more useful, for practical and for
practical purposes. It draws on a richer concept of rationality
that avoids the trap of reducing practical to instrumental rationality;
and it can guide reflective practice. Its crucial new aspect is that it systematically distinguishes
between situations in which interpersonal relationships do and
do not play a role (social vs. nonsocial action situation):
In addition, it refines this distinction in terms of two different action orientations that matter for grasping
the social quality of actions: action oriented
towards securing success vs. action oriented towards reaching
Cross-tabulating the two distinctions yields the following scheme
Table 4: Social
and nonsocial types of rational action
from Habermas 1984, p. 285)
2012 W. Ulrich
Habermas' fundamental category of communicative action
emerges as a form of rationally oriented social action that can
help us to recover the normative
dimension lost in Weber's concept of practical rationality,
and in our contemporary notion of rational practice quite generally. At the
same time, the scheme explains why counter to what is often
assumed in the management and planning literature, "strategic"
rationality does not embody a sufficient form of social action: it
is oriented towards the actions of others only with a view to securing
its own success. It remains bound to the limitations of
purposive-rationality and thus is, strictly speaking, only a
variant of instrumental action and of its underlying core principle
calculation. By contrast, "communicative" rationality reaches beyond such
means-end calculation in that it also addresses the value assumptions
and implications of "rational" action. This latter
aim can be achieved only through intersubjective exchange oriented
towards mutual understanding, ideally resulting in some shared norms of
find this scheme as powerful as it is simple. It is easy to
apply to almost any kind of real-world practice, yet can make
a genuine difference to the way we think about "rational"
social practice. I have discussed the theoretical underpinnings
of the scheme in more detail than is possible and necessary
here on some earlier occasions (see Ulrich, 1988, pp. 140-146;
for the scheme's language-analytical basis, also compare Ulrich,
2009c and d); at this place I am more interested in its implications
for a framework of good professional practice.
two-dimensional view of rational practice
As a guide to good practice, a main advantage of the
scheme of Habermas is that it avoids the one-sidedly utilitarian
outlook of Weber's framework. Instead, it allows us to bring
back into play the lost dimension of practical reason, now in the new form
of communicative rationality. It thus offers us a chance to
ground our notion of rational practice in a more comprehensive,
two-dimensional, understanding of rationality, as I have previously
attempted it in my work on critical systems heuristics (CSH;
see Ulrich, 1983 and 1988). Such an understanding lends itself
to critical purposes such as uncovering the value basis of claims
to rationality and related deficits of their knowledge basis;
analyzing deficits of communicative conditions and taking measures
to improve them, for example, by securing better argumentative
chances to ill-informed or otherwise disadvantaged groups of
stakeholders; supporting reflective and
emancipatory practice by helping those involved or affected
to question the notions of rationality and ethics built into
action proposals; or training the critical competencies of citizens
and other users of professional expertise, for example, in civic
education or researchers' training. With a view to such critical
and didactic uses, Table 5 offers
a comparative characterization of the two dimensions of rationality.
The idea is that they embody two complementary concepts of rationality,
each of which can furnish a critical perspective on the other.
Table 5: Two
dimensions of rational practice
adapted from Ulrich, 1988, p. 144f)
nonsocial or social
(in a strategic sense)
(in an ethical sense)
concept of reason (Kant)
"true" means-end calculation
"right" norms of action
rationalization of practice: growth of steering
rationalization of practice: growth of potentials
of mutual understanding
paradigm of applied disciplines
choice: decision theory
communication: discourse theory
2012 W. Ulrich
be sure, in real-world contexts of professional action these
two sides of rational practice are not always as nicely complementary
as one might like. More often than not, they clash. Optimizing
either type of rationality often tends to work against the other;
for example, the attempt to do justice to everyone's views and
values (communicative rationality) tends to run counter to the
quest for the most economic use of available resources (including
time), and vice-versa. The question thus poses itself:
What does it mean to act rationally when the two dimensions of
multi-level concept of rational practice
In view of the clash of rationalities that
characterizes virtually all real-world practice, we need to
go beyond Habermas' scheme. Merely "adding" the communicative
dimension to success-oriented rationality is not good enough,
for it does not alter the fact that in
real-world practice, the instrumental-strategic and the communicative-normative dimensions of practice rarely go together easily
and harmoniously. The utilitarian perspective has a strong tendency
to "take over" and to dominate what ultimately counts
as rational, even where an effort is made to integrate the communicative
dimension. It may help at this stage to introduce two typical examples,
to which we can then also refer later on.
examples My first
example is the now popular idea of stakeholder management,
an attempt on the part of private corporations and, to a lesser
degree, also of public organizations, to become more responsive
to the needs of customers, employees, suppliers, shareholders,
and other stakeholders (e.g., local communities, minorities,
or underpaid workers in developing countries). As valuable as the basic idea is, I observe that the
literature on stakeholder management, the so-called "stakeholder
theory" of the firm, has never managed to sufficiently clarify the
relationship between the two dimensions of rationality involved.
The most cited definition of "stakeholders" reveals
this immediately: it defines as stakeholders "any group
or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement
of an organization's objectives" (Freeman, 1984, p. 46,
similarly p. 52). As well-intended as this definition is,
in that it does not from the outset exclude those who may be affected but have no
influence whatsoever on the organization – it
appears to forget that it is proposed within a framework of
strategic management (the title of Freeman's book, Strategic
Management: A Stakeholder Approach, is quite accurate in
this respect). Freeman's subsequent explanation of the aim of
stakeholder theory accordingly reads:
have stakeholders. That is, there are groups or individuals
who can affect, or are affected by, the organization's mission.
I have shown that if business
organizations are to be successful in the current and future
environment then executives must take multiple stakeholder groups
into account. (Freeman, 1984, p. 52, emphasis added)
the basic definition might be taken to suggest that stakeholder
theory is a development of management theory that aims for a
two-dimensional understanding of rationality in the sense of
Table 5 (a development that would be much needed), this
formulation of the aim of stakeholder management makes it quite
clear that the underlying paradigm remains predominantly success-oriented.
Since stakeholder theory does not reflect on the underlying
clash of rationalities, it misses the chance to overcome the
one-dimensional utilitarian outlook of managerial thought. The
normative dimension of rational practice moves out of focus
just when it might have been recognized as a core deficit of
conventional management thought. Instead, stakeholder management
into the usual, one-dimensionally utilitarian outlook of strategic
rationality. Taking stakeholders into account, we learn, is
a must "if business organizations are to be successful."
One can find such revealing passages throughout the book; it
clearly and systematically puts the focus of stakeholder management
on "the stakeholders whose support is necessary for survival"
(Freeman, 1984, p. 33). So does the bulk of the stakeholder literature
of which I am aware, due to its inadequate philosophical grounding
and its resulting failure to question the underlying notion
of rational management sufficiently.
be sure, I do not mean to suggest that the proponents of stakeholder
management are not sincere in their efforts, quite the contrary;
I appreciate their intent to propose an alternative theory of
the firm and to add a social, communicative dimension to the
strategic management literature. I recognize that these
efforts have actually done a lot to expand the universe of discourse
of strategic management and have also contributed to the rise
of public awareness about the inadequacy of present-day management
education and practice. But the crucial step towards a more
adequate framework of thought has been missed; little – too
little – has changed in management education and practice. The
pioneers of stakeholder theory apparently underestimated the
tenacity with which accustomed patterns of rationality prevail,
particularly when they have the economics on their side. As
they failed to systematically work out the two different rationality
dimensions involved and to clarify their relationship, stakeholder
theory to this date includes no methodological provisions
that in practice might discipline the prevailing utilitarian
outlook of strategic management. As we noted above, it is not
good enough merely to add the communicative dimension while leaving
the precise relationship and handling of the two dimensions
of rationality open. In the terms of strategic management, stakeholder
theory fails to take into account the "competitive advantage"
of the utilitarian dimension as it were. This situation will
hardly change unless we find some systematic ways to integrate
the missing communicative dimension into the rationality concepts
of management theory, education, and practice, so that rationality
claims without it will increasingly become unthinkable and untenable.
second example is offered by the so-called open systems approach
in systems thinking. There is a widespread belief in the systems
literature that an "open systems" perspective is more
conducive to societally rational decision making than are conventional
closed systems models. But again, this assumption turns out
to be mistaken, as it is not grounded in a clear conception
of the two rationality dimensions at issue. I have on earlier
occasions analyzed this "open systems fallacy," as
I have called it, and have found it a useful way to explain
one of the core ideas of my work on "critical systems heuristics"
in contrast to "closed," systems models consider the
social environment of the system; but so long as the system's
effectiveness remains the only point of reference, the consideration
of environmental factors does nothing to increase the social
rationality of a systems design. In fact, if the normative orientation
of the system in question is socially irrational, open systems
planning will merely add to the socially irrational effects
of closed systems planning. For instance, when applied to the
planning of private enterprise, the open systems perspective
increases the private (capital-oriented) rationality of the
enterprise by expanding its control over the environmental,
societal determinants of its economic success, without regard
for the social costs that such control may impose upon third
a one-dimensional expansion of the reach of functional systems
rationality that is not embedded in a simultaneous expansion
of communicative rationality threatens to pervert the critically
heuristic purpose of systems thinking – to avoid the trap of
suboptimization and to consider critically the whole-systems
implications of any system design – into a mere heuristics of
systems purposes. This means that it is no longer "the
system" and the boundary judgments constitutive of it that
are considered as the problem; instead, the problems of the
system are now investigated. (Ulrich, 1988, p. 156, orig.
reference to Ulrich, 1983, p. 299)
unlike what has happened to management theory and education,
systems thinking has become seriously impoverished as it has
lost sight of the other, non-utilitarian dimension of rationality.
The two fields also have in common that they both have been influential,
in the past few decades, in shaping our contemporary notions
of good and rational practice. So much so that an effective handling of the
many pressing problems of our epoch is now almost synonymous
with calls for more systemic thinking and for stakeholder management.
imperative it is that the two-dimensional nature of rationality
receive more attention and become integrated in our contemporary
notions of rationality, in a manner that would clarify their
mutual relationship and thereby would also strengthen the communicative
dimension. As long as we merely see in the latter an added dimension
that is nice to have but, regrettably, often clashes with the
need for successful action, little will change. Since the two
dimensions clash, it is indeed difficult to think and argue
clearly and consistently about rational practice; accordingly
difficult it is for professionals and decision makes to act
rationally, and for all the parties concerned to think clearly
and argue compellingly about the rationality claims involved.
In short, a scheme is needed that would translate Tables 4 and
5 into a basic, widely applicable framework for critical reflection
and rational argumentation about good practice.
need for a multi-level conception of rational practice
As I want to argue, a vertical, multi-level conception
of rational practice offers such a scheme. Such a solution is
in line with Kantian reasoning: we can avoid an unresolved
conflict between the two competing perspectives of theoretical
and practical reason if we bring them into a hierarchical order,
so that we recognize both the philosophical (methodological)
and the pragmatic (everyday) primacy of practical over theoretical
briefly, practical reason is philosophically primary
because, unlike theoretical reason, it is not limited to what
can be decided by empirical observation and testing (i.e., by reference
to the phenomena and laws of nature). Its reach is more comprehensive
and includes the realm of human freedom and agency – in particular,
moral and other norms of conduct we give ourselves, and the
efforts we undertake through actual practice (action) to improve
the human condition. Practical reason is pragmatically
primary because it alone can give to theoretical reason
the necessary direction that the latter needs for its proper use; for,
as we noted before, as long as we use theoretical reason (i.e,
the knowledge and instrumental know-how it yields) for pursuing
questionable ends and values, the over-all resulting rationality
is also questionable. Taking the two considerations together,
theoretical reason may tell us what we can do, but only
practical reason tells us whether we should indeed do it and why,
that is, for what reasons and with a view to what notions of
improvement and justification.
philosophically and pragmatically speaking, then, the quest
for rational action needs to break through the usual dominance
of theoretical-instrumental rationality. To this end, we need
to "discipline" the use of theoretical-instrumental
rationality by subjecting it to the primacy of practical reason,
thus advancing from a state of mere co-existence of theoretical
and practical reason ("mere" in that it remains methodologically
undefined and gives us no orientation as to how to handle
their clash) to an understanding of rational practice that gives
practical reason a chance. We should then also be able, for example, to
practice value clarification and value discourse as integral
parts of the quest for rational practice. The basic methodological
device for achieving this, I suggest, is to translate the "horizontal"
framework of Table 5 into a "vertical" framework
as shown in Table 6.
Table 6: Three-level
concept of rational practice
adapted from Ulrich, 1988, p. 148, cf. p. 156f,
and 2001b, p. 81)
of corporate management:
ethical integration of conflicting
corporate values/ social responsibility;
effective steering of complex
corporate competitive advantage;
efficient use of scarce resources
corporate operations; organizational
structures and procedures
2012 W. Ulrich
three-level framework of Table 6 emerges from an attempt
to combine Tables 2, 4, and 5 in a way that keeps it simple
and widely applicable. Without simplification, integrating all
the ideas of these previous tables would result in an overloaded
scheme. The four revised Weberian
ideal-types of rational action in Table 2 have therefore
into merely two types, akin to Kant's two dimensions of reason
and also to Habermas' distinction between an orientation to understanding
vs. to success. This simplification has two advantages: (i)
it makes the core idea of a two-dimensional
rationalization of social practice stand
out more clearly and (ii) it makes room for differentiating
the realm of theoretical-instrumental reason into its nonsocial
("instrumental") and social ("strategic")
forms, adopting Habermas' terminology.
The resulting scheme brings the three rationality concepts of
Habermas into a hierarchical order,
so that we can now understand them as levels
of increasing rationalization. In this scheme, the three
ideal-types of rationality can no longer be seen as meaningful
alternatives; instead, they now stand for a progress of rationalization
in which all three levels
as indispensable constituents of good practice. Although in
actual practice the three levels may of course be developed
to varying degrees, it is clear that each one depends for its
full rationalization on the other two. Any
gains of rationality at the two higher levels build on
the two lower levels, and at the same time, the upper levels provide
orientation to the good use of the lower levels. The scheme
thus suggests that each type of rationality is deficient so
long as it is not informed and supported by the other two. It thus
lends itself to critical use.
the scheme's vertical
structure also means that when the rationalities of the three levels
clash, the lower levels should basically be seen to have the
character of means for achieving the ends specified at the higher levels. The
notion that comes into play here is Kant's above-mentioned concept
of the primacy of practical reason. Although the
framework considers theoretical and practical reason
as complementary dimensions of rationality,
it is practical reason which defines the ends for the
use of theoretical reason and not vice-versa. To put
it differently, it is practical reason that infuses
meaning to both strategic and instrumental thinking and makes
them "valuable," that is, oriented to values
and thus to creating value. In this way, the scheme avoids the lack of orientation that results from
clashing rationalities (orientation to success vs. understanding;
"my rationality" vs. "yours"
and "theirs") and which in practice makes it so easy
to limit oneself to a self-interested success orientation.
example of corporate management: beyond mere
The example of corporate management offers itself for illustrating
the difference that the suggested three-level concept of rational
practice can make. What is new is not so much that it considers
different levels of practice rationalization but rather, that
it includes the dimension of practical-normative reason. Multi-level
schemes of rational practice were suggested both
before and after the original version of my scheme was published (Ulrich, 1988), for
Jantsch (1970, 1975), Beer (1972
/ 1981), Espejo et al. (1996),
and Schwaninger (2001, 2009). These schemes offer a useful extension
of the predominantly functionalist and managerial perspective
of the fields in which they were developed, in particular organizational cybernetics, technological
forecasting and planning, and management theory. However, they differ from the scheme suggested here in one important
respect: they are not grounded in practical philosophy.
they are not grounded in practical philosophy, they are prisoners
of their underlying strategic orientation towards success.
like the conceptions of "open systems" modeling and
of "stakeholder management" mentioned before, they
tend to fall into the trap of tacitly assuming that the organization
whose policies and strategies are at issue furnishes the point
of reference for defining what is rational and what is not.
Thus their focus and language remain geared to aims described
in terms such as improving
"organizational fitness," "viability," and "complexity management,"
as understood from a perspective of functionalist systems thinking
or, in the terms of Habermas, success-oriented action. Inasmuch
as there are references to norms and communication, the former
stand for a focus on organizational policy rather than on the idea of practical
reason, and the latter for a cybernetic focus on the organization's
structures of "communication
and control" rather than for a two-dimensional understanding
of rationality and for accordingly designed participative processes of
the terms of Table 6, these earlier and later schemes
tend to treat the top level of "normative management"
in the terms of complexity management, that is, as a problem
of adapting the organization's
policies to its "complex" environment, with a view
to securing its survival. By contrast, Table 6 associates
the top level with conflict management properly speaking,
that is, with the problem of
securing rational practice in a sense that is not merely strategic
but includes a moral and political basis of legitimation.
Well-intended as these
(at first glance) similar schemes are, in practice they risk falling back into
a managerialist conception of rational practice. They pursue
a Weberian concept of practical rationality, which as we have
seen relies on a tacit orientation to success while remaining
badly equipped to grasp and analyze its own normative content. There
is no place in such a framework for dealing systematically with the
"other," practical-normative dimension of reason.
It is indeed the
hallmark of managerialist thought as I would define
it that it ignores practical reason as an integral component
of rational practice.
to their encouraging a wider perspective of management, which
for example at the policy level may include environmental
issues such as future scarcity of certain resources, these schemes nevertheless
embody a certain progress as compared
to their fields of origin. It also
seems to me they gradually open themselves up to a less narrowly
managerial understanding of the "social"
aspects of rationality, even if it may be due more to the challenges
that strategic management encounters in practice than to their
underpinning theoretical assumptions. It just
is no longer possible today in many situations to secure strategic
success by treating it as a matter of course that "the system's"
values (in this example, corporate interests) furnish the main
if not only reference point for rational decision-making.
so, the underlying orientation of these models of management
essentially strategic, as they lack an alternative theoretical
conception. Meanwhile, the kinds of problem pressure that contemporary
management faces is changing. The difficulty now is that it
lacks an adequate philosophical basis, and
therefore also has no adequate methodological means, for dealing with the normative
issues that are emerging ever more urgently. There is an obvious need for questioning
the broader environmental and social implications
of strategic rationality, as well as the moral and political basis
for dealing with the demands of normative management. The
prevailing managerial patterns of thought leave managers and
for dealing with such issues. The typical response
will of course be to ensure the public that "the company is
stakeholders very seriously." But how this is to be done in
a rational way remains unclear so long as these models only
support a strategic orientation. Paying lip service to "stakeholding"
does little to remove the lack of clarity regarding the rationality
standards to be applied, and thus also regarding the values
(interests and objectives) that really count. In an epoch in which successful
corporate management is still largely synonymous with increasing
the company's balance sheet and "shareholder value,"
corporate executives are suddenly expected to look after the
interests of their company's stakeholders, without clear notions
as to how the conflicts of interest involved – diverging interests
between the company and its stakeholders as well as between
different stakeholder groups – should be resolved
and to whom, if not to the company's owners, the managers are
accountable. The inevitable result is a blurring of responsibilities
– a kind of organized irresponsibility
– in which unresolved rationality conflicts go hand in hand with
unresolved conflicts of accountability, a situation that the
German sociologist Ulrich Beck (1992, 1995) has described as
one of the root problems of what he calls the "risk society."
Sooner or later, contemporary
management theory will need to find ways of handling such clashes of rationality and
accountability in a manner that is not merely strategic. Today's theory of the firm is rapidly losing its
firm ground, so to speak. In this respect, our three-level-concept
is apt to make a fundamental difference. Grounded in practical
philosophy as it is, its core idea is vindication beyond mere reference to self-interest (Ulrich,
2011b, p. 9). That does not mean we should expect
everyone to be altruists and to forget about acting successfully;
certainly not. There is nothing wrong with an orientation to
success, so long as it is embedded in a larger view of what
rationality and responsibility mean. The issue is how we can
do that without ending up with blurred notions of rationality
and unclear values or objectives. Our three-level concept of rational practice
permits translating this core issue into a more specific – and
manageable – question:
How can we handle its three levels of rationalization systematically
as complementary levels and still maintain a sense of clear
values and rationalities? In response to this question, I propose
a principle of reflective practice that I derive from the three-level
concept and suggest as a way to handle its vertical structure;
I call it the principle of critical
vertical integration of rationalization levels or, as a convenient
shorthand, the principle of vertical integration.
principle of vertical integration
The term "vertical integration"
was to my knowledge first used by Erich Jantsch (1969, esp. p. 190f) in
the context of technological forecasting and planning. He used
refer to the integration of all the activities (or "functions,"
as he called them) that such
planning involves, from exploration
of existing technologies and anticipation of possible technological futures
to the definition of objectives and policies. The idea was to
bring these functions together within an integrated, systems-theoretically
and scientifically based framework of "policy sciences"
(the seminal publication is Lerner and Lasswell, 1951).
Jantsch called this integration of forecasting and planning
functions "vertical" in distinction to the need for
considering, in each stage of technology development, the larger
context of the different
subsystems involved (man-technology, nature-technology, and
society-technology), to which he referred as "horizontal"
integration. In a different context, Jantsch (1975, pp. 123, 209, 224) also spoke of "vertical centering," in a sense that
comes closer to what I mean with the vertical
integration of rationality levels. I can best explain my intention
by means of a drawing, which again is inspired by Jantsch (1973 and 1975, p. 209),
although I have adapted it a bit and more importantly, my understanding
of it does not entirely follow his (Fig. 1).
1: The principle of vertical integration of rationalization
adapted from Ulrich, 1975, p. 75, and Jantsch, 1973 and
1975, p. 209)
figure betrays its origin in cybernetic thinking and more specifically,
in Ozbekhan's (1969, p. 133) notion
of controlling feedback loops among levels of
policy planning, which provided the inspiration for Jantsch's earlier
drawing. In my use of this kind of graphic representation
of integrative multi-level thinking, the
planning levels of course have become levels
of rational practice in general. As the previous discussion should also
have made clear, I do not follow Ozbekhan and Jantsch
in their "cybernetic" rather than moral and political
understanding of "control"; the point for me is not
to "adapt" our plans or acts to supposedly objective or
natural requirements of the plan's (or agent's) '"environment"
but rather, to subject them to the views and values of those
who may have to live with the consequences – the communicative
dimension of rationality as we understand it with Habermas. The fact
that the idea of communicative
rationality was not available to Ozbekhan and Jantsch at the
time may explain why their frameworks for technological planning
and policy "sciences" remain strangely apolitical
and also do not (or at least, not systematically) take up the ethical
questions involved, despite frequent references
to values and "normative" forms of planning. Again,
the difference is that Ozbekhan and Jantsch did not ground their
notion of rational policy-making in practical philosophy but
on the contrary, aimed to extend the reach of science into practical-normative
territory (compare my recent discussion,
in Ulrich, 2012, pp. 6-9, of the
two opposite models of improving practice).
I understand the figure, it suggests that well-understood communicative,
strategic, and instrumental rationalization should
always move between and across the different levels at which ends and means,
and with them also values and consequences, can be defined and
questioned. Only thus can each level of rationalization infuse meaning – whether in the form of guidance or questioning
– to the others. Consequently, each of our three levels of rational
practice also calls for examination both from a top-down and a bottom-up
perspective. To handle the three levels reflectively, we therefore need to conceptualize means and ends
at five levels, as suggested by Fig. 1:
of action: highest standards or principles of action
(e.g., moral and democratic
principles); they shape our values and ideals.
ends: standards of improvement defined by personal
and institutional values and by related notions of intended
consequences; they shape our policies.
ends: objectives defined by policies; they shape
our strategies and tactics of action.
ends: goals defined by strategies and tactics;
they shape specific operations or procedures
of action. And finally,
basic resources defined by available sources of support;
they shape the feasibility and efficiency
may also capture the
idea of a mandatory process of moving up and down the hierarchy
by referring to the three rationalization levels
as integrative levels, a concept that to my knowledge
was first to explain systematically, although still in a context
of mainly functional thinking (e.g., in biology and ecology).
In the present context I understand integrative levels as conceptual
levels of rationality that gain their full meaning and validity
only in the light of a combined, or "integrative," multi-level perspective. The practical way to implement this
idea is by an iterative process of vertical centering:
is at regular intervals (iteratively rather than permanently) to
be in the center
of systematic review both from above and from below.
way of visualizing and describing the idea of vertical integration should also
remind us that each of
the three concepts of rationality has to play a critical role with respect to the other two. Each level is to help
us "discipline" the claims to rationality of the others,
as it were. Well-understood vertical integration is first of
all rationality critique. The principle of vertical integration is thus a
principle of reflective practice; it understands rational action
as the result of a self-reflecting and communicative process
of rigorous scrutiny of its
assumptions and implications across the three levels of rationalization.
Speaking of vertical integration
is thus really just a convenient short formula for what is more
precisely called the principle of critical vertical integration.
two examples Our two earlier examples,
stakeholder theory and
open systems thinking, offer themselves for the
purpose of illustrating the difference that critical vertical
integration can make to our thinking. Let us try and apply
the principle to these two examples.
stakeholder theory Readers
will probably recall the widely adopted definition of stakeholders as "groups or individuals
who can affect, or are affected by, the organization's mission"
(Freeman, 1984, p. 52).
Now, what happens when we look at this definition
not only in terms of strategic management
(Freeman's perspective) but equally in terms of normative management (Habermas'
perspective of communicative rationalization)? Such a shift of perspective immediately suggests to me that the alternative
is wrongly posed. Why should the two groups of stakeholders
– those who can affect the organizations's policies and those
who are affected by it –
be treated as alternative target groups of stakeholding? Reading
the definition in this way may not have been Freeman's conscious
intention, but it is what stakeholder theory has been doing
ever since. I would agree that inasmuch as the two target groups
may require different
ways of integrating their concerns, we face a meaningful distinction;
but does that imply we also face a meaningful alternative? Obviously
– it is always the concerns of both groups that call for
communicative as well as strategic rationalization (with
primacy given to the former). In fact, from a perspective of
vertical integration the second group ("those affected
by the organization's mission") is more important, as
it is apt to throw a different light on the organization's strategic
management. Freeman thus got it doubly wrong: the logical operator
that links "those who can affect" and "those who are affected"
ought to be a logical conjunction ("as well as")
rather than a disjunction ("any of the two"), and
in addition he should have made certain that in practice, the
primary focus is on "those who are affected" rather
than on "those who can affect.".
as we leave it open which one of the two alternative conditions
applies and is given priority, it is clear that within a framework
of strategic management the focus will be on the first group.
Within a merely strategic notion of rationality it will obviously
be more urgent or "rational"
to focus on those stakeholders who can affect the organization
(and thus its success) than on those who cannot. Paying attention to the first group pays; doing
the same with the second only costs. It is then hardly surprising
that both in theory and in practice, stakeholder management tends
to focus (and from the outset was asked by Freeman to do so) on "the stakeholders whose support is necessary for survival"
(Freeman, 1984, p. 33).
a focus that does little to improve
the social rationality of the organization's policies and actions,
for it leaves the underlying reference system for
defining good and rational
action unchanged. Those stakeholders who "can affect the
organization's mission" will in any case see their interests
considered, as they effectively co-determine the reference system
for defining what is "successful," "good"
and "rational" for the organization. Whether their
ability to have influence runs under the name of stakeholder
management or not makes little difference in this respect. By
contrast, integrating those stakeholders who normally cannot
affect the organization's policies would make a real difference.
It is in respect to them that stakeholder management could and
should shift the managers' dominating perspective of strategic
reasoning to one of communicative rationalization; yet it is
precisely this group of stakeholders that stakeholder theory's
most basic definition permits managers to neglect. Which is
precisely what happens in practice: the subgroups of
stakeholders most considered in stakeholder theory and practice
are the organization's owners (or investors
and creditors), its customers, suppliers, and (with some
along with some external groups such as government regulatory
and tax-collecting agencies, competitors, the media, and so-called
pressure groups. All
these are in a position to influence the organization's success
so that the organization's strategic management would anyway
have to consider their concerns; with or without an explicit
commitment to stakeholder management. Much less interest receive,
on the other hand, stakeholders such as the population of local
communities; underpaid and exploited workers in developing countries;
neglected concerns of minorities; the often ignored rights
of animals; future generations; and, as a last example, citizen movements
organizations that engage themselves for
environmental, social, or human rights issues (except, of course,
when they happen to be in a position of "pressure groups"
that can affect the organization's
success, if only indirectly through their influence on public
opinion). The reason for such a limited, merely strategic orientation
of stakeholder management is clearly to be seen in stakeholder
theory's lack of an adequate conception of rationality, which
despite its declared intention of "including" the
concerns of stakeholders in the theory of the firm makes it
fall victim to an insufficiently reflected, utilitarian outlook. As Freeman
the standpoint of strategic management, or the achievement of
organizational purpose, we need an inclusive definition. We
must not leave out any group or individual who can affect or
is affected by organizational purpose, because that group
may prevent our accomplishments. Theoretically, therefore,
"stakeholder" must be able to capture a broad range
of groups and individuals, even though when we put the concept
to practical tests we must be willing to ignore certain groups
who will have little or no impact on the corporation at
this point of time. (1983, p. 52f, emphasis added)
the outset, stakeholder management thus fails to recognize –
or take seriously – the
conflict of rationalities involved. It knows only one type of
rationality, that which serves its own interests. Consequently
it also fails to systematically develop the idea that stakeholding
might serve a self-critical purpose and might to this end be driven by different rationalities
and corresponding action orientations.
In the terms of Table 6, it would indeed make a fundamental difference
if we would approach stakeholders not only with a strategic but
also, and primarily, with a communicative concept of rationality
in mind. In the terms
of critical vertical integration, so long as stakeholding
relies on an unquestioned strategic concept of rationality,
deals inadequately with the normative level of management and
thereby forsakes much of its potential for improving
management practice. Which after all is what stakeholder theory,
by advancing a supposed alternative to the
classical, economic and managerialist theory of the firm, meant
to achieve in the first place.
Second example: open systems thinking
Applying vertical integration to the theory of open
systems thinking is even easier. It allows us to formulate
the required shift of rationalities in somewhat more general
terms. Generally speaking, reflective practice calls not only for an
extension of our horizon of considerations but also for a conscious change
of the standpoint from which we seek to extend it. A mere expansion
of systems boundaries does not achieve this, as the underlying
rationality remains basically the same. Within a framework of conventional
systems thinking, chances are that an expanded "systems
rationality" will remain focused on the
success of the system of interest. It will thus tend to remain
subject to a strategic (nonsocial) rather than communicative
(intersubjective) handling of the social aspects of the situation.
The open systems fallacy occurs when our systems thinking aims
at an expansion of rationality without being embedded in a reflective
and communicative effort of challenging the notions of
rationality in play (cf. Ulrich, 1988, p. 156f).
systems thinking that understands the issue becomes critical
systems thinking. Its methodological focus will
be on systematically questioning what counts, and what should
count, as the reference system – the universe of relevant
facts and concerns – for defining good and rational
action. For example, how do we delimit the real-world context
that we define as the relevant "problem situation"?
What selection of facts and concerns do we
have in mind when we claim that some action brings an "improvement"
or is "rational"? Whose problem are we trying to solve,
that is, who is to be treated as a stakeholder and who not?
Whose solution has effectively been proposed or implemented
as measured by its consequences rather than declared intentions?
risks and costs may it mean for whom? And so on. Critical heuristics has proposed some basic
tools for such contextual questioning. I have explained them
previous occasions (for some introductory reading see, e.g., Ulrich, 1987, 2000,
and 2005) and can therefore merely recall them here. Three main tools are:
principle of boundary
principle of systemic triangulation
of reference systems, and
polemical employment of boundary judgments against
people who are not prepared to handle their boundary
As a fourth
basic principle, I would now like to add the idea captured
in Fig. 1,
- the principle of critical
vertical integration of rationalization levels.
additional principle urges us to systematically shift our perspective between
strategic, and normative modes of questioning, according to
the three levels of rational practice. Further, it gives
the primacy among these sources of orientation to the core concept
that lies at the heart of normative questioning, the idea(l)
of practical reason. The basic concern of open systems thinking
that we should enhance our understanding of situations and issues
by adopting a "larger," expanded perspective – thus
gets connected to yet another and just as essential kind of
conceptual "enlargement," which consists in switching
from a one-dimensional to a two-dimensional concept of reason
and in employing each of the two dimensions as a reference
point for reviewing the other.
integration, to be sure, is not meant to replace horizontal integration
but rather to give it a new depth, so to speak. A well-understood
"open systems" perspective will henceforth open our reference systems
up and unfold their implications in both horizontal and vertical
direction. Horizontally, it will expand our
view of a situation and ideally (although this is not part
of the classical concept of open systems thinking that I have
criticized) it will then also use this expanded view for systematically
shifting our standpoint, at least tentatively for self-critical
purposes. Vertically, it will
systematically vary between instrumental, strategic, and normative
modes of questioning and will thus make sure that we rely on
a genuinely two-dimensional concept of reason.
three-level concept of rational practice thus translates into
a process of systematic rationality review. In a deliberate reversal of my earlier-quoted critical
comment on the open systems fallacy, systems rationality will
then no longer focus exclusively on the "problems
of the system" but instead will now consider "the
system," and the boundary judgments constitutive of it,
as a basic problem of rational action (cf. Ulrich, 1988, p. 156).
suggest to stop our discussion of vertical integration at this
point, as its competent use in professional practice will
interest us further in the fourth and final part of this series
of essays. At this stage, I would like to conclude with a few
reflections on what we have learned in the present, third essay.
the quest for rational action, or how to bring practical reason
back in to our notions of good practice
We started with an analysis of a framework of thought
that has shaped our contemporary notions of rationality perhaps
more than any other, Max Weber's (1968) ideal-types of rational
action. We found an essential idea to be absent in it – Kant's
concept of practical reason, along with the basically two-dimensional
understanding of practical rationality that is entails. We discussed
in some detail two examples of how in the absence of this idea,
our notions of rational practice tend towards "horizontal"
expansion of existing rationalities rather than thorough-going
rationality critique. In the name of theory and expertise, our
patterns of thought tend to lack depth of reflection (vertical
integration); to champion agendas that we cannot share publicly
with all the parties concerned (communicative rationality);
and ultimately, to amount to a far-reaching crisis of rationality
and responsibility (organized irresponsibility).
an alternative framework – an antidote to flat systems thinking
as well as to hidden private agendas – I have proposed a three-level
concept of rational practice that incorporates the practical-normative
dimension of reason (Table 6). In addition, I have proposed
a methodological guideline for employing it properly, the principle
of critical vertical integration (Fig. 1). We analyzed
the underlying ideas in some detail and discussed the difference
they can make, again applied to the two previous examples. The
core concern is to bring back in to our notions of rational
action the lost dimension of practical reason and to give it
an essential critical role to play in the quest for good professional
However, practical reason is a difficult idea, related
as it is to Kant's ideal of moral universalization. Although
the basic ideas of reciprocity and fairness of treatment, as
expressed in Kant's (1786b, 1788) "categorical imperative"
and Rawls' (1971) "veil of ignorance," along with
many related notions of moral action, are fairly
easy to grasp and in fact correspond to many people's basic moral intuition,
we nevertheless face an ideal that we cannot
hope to achieve completely. The question is, is it possible
to pragmatize the idea of practical reason, and the way I suggest
it in a comprehensive concept of rational practice, so that
these ideas may support and enhance the quest for professional
question will be in the center of the fourth and final part
of this series of essays. Although the preceding discussion
of the three-level concept of rational practice and of the principle
of vertical integration have given some basic hints, an adequate
pragmatization strategy still requires more work. My guiding
idea will be this: given that the quest for rational
practice is so difficult and involves ideals (of practical reason
and rational action) that are bound to remain unachievable,
can we at least learn to deal competently with the fact that
they are unachievable? To put it differently, I suggest that
the basic way to pragmatize the quest for rational practice
is by understanding it as a quest for competence. We may not,
under normal conditions of professional intervention, be able
to achieve fully rational practice; but we may still be able
to improve our competence as professionals. And for such improvement,
it is essential that we have a clear sense of what improvement
means and how it translates into clear patterns of rational
risk sounding idealistic, but I don't think I am. The fact that
my discussion has thus far focused somewhat one-sidedly on the ideals of practical reason
and rational action is an expression of my perception of a contemporary
crisis of rationality, rather than of a personal bias against
pragmatically oriented and theoretically-instrumentally based
modes of reasoning. As a research philosopher interested particularly
in the nature of good professional and research practice, I
certainly believe in the relevance of good research and sound
theory, as well as in the virtue of acquiring personal expertise
and experience. However,
to recognize that the normative is
always there in all research practice and professional engagement,
is a matter of realism rather than an idealistic choice of mine.
The normative side of rationality exists and that should be reason enough
to take it seriously and study it, lest we become blind to it. We can choose to
ignore it, but a more rational stance is to acknowledge it as an inevitable source
of selectivity and to handle it accordingly. The suggested primacy of practical reason is
a way to conceive of this task. As it is a new
and still unfamiliar idea to most researchers and professionals,
it calls for more emphasis and explanation than other, more familiar
key ideas such as applied science and expertise or applied systems
thinking, ideas that I have discussed with the necessary emphasis
on other occasions (see,
e.g., Ulrich, 2008b, and 2011d).
the idea of practical reason is important not only as a basis
for diagnosing the contemporary crisis of rationality. It is
equally important as a way forward, for it provides the
only generally shareable standard there is for handling the
normative side of rationality, that is, clashes of people's
and values. Once we have grasped the unavoidability of the idea
that good reasons are reasons that we can share, it becomes
clear that rational practice involves a systematic effort to
identify and assess the
extent to which our rationalities are particular, that is, less than generally
shareable. It may be useful to recall what we concluded in Part 2
about the importance of practical reason and its underlying
idea (or test) of moral universalization:
humans need to coordinate their different views and preferences,
whether in the interest of understanding and mastering the complex
world we live in or in the interest of living together well
despite all the diversity of individual beliefs and values, it is
a necessary condition for deciding among alternative views and
wishes "with reason," rather than just on the basis
of power, that there be a minimum of basic criteria and principles
which all the individuals actually or potentially concerned
can share. In other words, there must be some standards that
are sufficiently general to merit being accepted by everyone.
The generalizable is what disciplines the rational. (Ulrich,
2011b, p. 27, original emphasis)
generalizable disciplines the rational, that is, by revealing
it as the particular. Rationally oriented action then needs
to review and limit its claims accordingly. Therein consists
the value of practical reason as a guide to rational action
and personal competence.
is clear, however, that in real-world practice, instrumental and strategic
considerations will still demand and deserve the lion's share
of our attention. We
will often need to "bracket" the normative core of
action as it were – suspend critique – while focusing
economic, procedural, and strategic aspects. There is nothing wrong with such a
pragmatic orientation, so long as we do not forget that the "brackets"
are there. Being aware that they are there and how they
were defined, we will be so much better
prepared to handle them adequately, that is, by considering
their implications in the light of practical no less than theoretical-instrumental
What I have
called here "critical vertical integration" is a way
to handle these brackets adequately, in a transparent and self-reflecting
manner. Attempting to do this is indeed crucial to the quest for
rational practice. For in the end, when reflection ends and
we have to take action, no such brackets will protect us any
more. Our claims to rationality will then be measured by their
consequences and will be challenged – at all
three levels of rational practice – by those who may have to live with them.
on idealism and realism:
action a mere utopia? Forecasts
and rational action have something in common: just as
forecasting is difficult when it concerns the future, the quest
for rational action is difficult when we face it under real-world
conditions of imperfect rationality. Fact is, both are meaningful
precisely because of the difficulties in question. If
it were not that we have to act under conditions of
imperfect rationality, it would be pointless to try and work
towards a bit more rational practice. The reproach of idealism,
rapidly at hand as it is whenever someone comes up with an unfamiliar
way of looking at things, is thus rather pointless. The point
is not that we should accomplish an ideal, only that we
should orient our professional practice – our personal quest
for improvement – in the right direction. And improvement, clearly, is necessary.
Professional practice today has lost some of its former credibility
and status. While the problems it faces are increasingly difficult,
the solutions it is able to offer get increasingly contested. We
have no choice but to try and do better. The first and essential
step towards better practice is to better understand what "improvement"
means. Only so can we take
some (however small) steps in the right direction.
realize of course that our
current patterns of thought have accustomed us to see the normative
core of practice – the presence of values – as an unwelcome complication of the quest for rational action, a kind of embarrassment
as it were to any rational agent. Wrongly so, I think. We tend to forget that
if we would (and could) keep values out of consideration, rational action would for
ever be the prisoner
of the past, for it could then only extend the patterns of rationality
that have shaped
the present. But what an impoverished kind of rational action
that would be! We need to realize that it is only thanks
to the presence of critically considered values that we are not prisoners of the past. It is due to the normative
side of practice that we have a chance to improve it, rather
than to just prolong it into the future.
is, then, a truly deep connection between values and rational action:
the values that inform our instrumental and strategic
rationality make all the difference. Without their normative
force, our actions could not burst the boundaries of present
rationalities and lead us towards true improvement, towards
some genuine gain of rationality.
Adopting practical philosophy in the suggested way does not
ask us to be idealists but rather, to become realists.
To open our eyes, that is, and start seeing the impoverishment
and narrowness of the utilitarian and managerial patterns of
rationalization that dominate our epoch so much. As realists,
we will take the less than ideal tools we have available
to help us see through the limitations of these patterns.
Instead of closing our eyes to these limitations, we can then
have our eyes wide open and look at what we see in the light
of practical reason. Practical reason, thus understood, is not just an
abstract ideal, much less a form of utopianism or ideology. It
is, rather, a challenge to confront reality as it is. To become
realists in the light of the ideal of practical reason, that
is the challenge. The reproach of idealism is always a possible escape in
the face of such a challenge; but it does not make us "realists"
in a well-understood sense.
What our epoch
probably calls for most urgently are improved patterns of thought;
notions of rationality that can help us, as professionals
and as citizens, to develop our sense of reality.
A good sense of reality includes a sense for real (i.e., right) values.
Yes, values are "only ideas"; but if ideas don't make a difference
in the end to the ways people act, what will?
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