Section III Talcott Parsons: epistemology and social order

Kantian epistemology also influences Parsons's theory of society; however, unlike Weber, Parsons does not define modern society in terms of a plurality of gods and demons. Parsons's sociology attempts to show the existence of one system of values upon which social order stands. This section argues that Parsons’s theory of society is Kantian in the sense that it uses the idea of practical reason to offer a voluntaristic theory of action, a theory that also reflects Parsons’s justificationism.

Kantian epistemology and Parsons’s theory of voluntaristic action

Richard Munch (1981: 709-739) has offered an insightful reading of the Kantian foundation of Parsons's sociology. Munch argues that, according to Kant, an interpenetration of intellect and experience shapes scientific knowledge, and Parsons similarly defines human action as an interpenetration of a normative orientation towards the ultimate values and the pursuit of self-interest. Munch (1981: 712) argues that . . Talcott Parsons’s sociology is everywhere permeated with the structure of the philosophy of Kant”. In brief. Munch aims to lead us to see the Kantian foundation of Parsons’s sociology.

As Munch (1981: 715) reminds us,

For Kant, modern scientific knowledge is explainable neither as a habitual generalization from empirical experience, as in Hume's empiricism, nor as a series of deductions from the first principles of reason, as in the rationalism of someone like Descartes, but only as the mutual interaction of theory and experience.

Munch reasons that Parsons's action theory uses the interpenetration of moral obligations and self-interest to address the question of social order.

Kant’s theory of knowledge inspires him to propose his notion of practical reason: Kant

rejects all utilitarian moral theories. Just as we cannot account for the objective necessity of causal laws by reference solely to the content of sense perceptions, so we cannot derive the necessity of a moral law valid for all men at all times from the desires - or the calculation of utility - of individuals. Private calculations of utility may yield different results for different individuals . . . We cannot explain the obligatory force of moral law as the sum of all calculation of utility, because these calculations would yield externally variable results, and we would have made no progress towards a concept of true obligation .. .

(Munch 1981: 716)

Parsons’s voluntaristic action theory is Kantian because it answers the question of the conditions for a universally biding moral law.

Any particular rule of action can be adjudged valid to the extent that it enables us to attain a given end, but there is no direct path from this "hypothetical” validity to a universal, unconditional validity, since our first particular rule might be called into question by other particular rules which function as means to other given ends. To bring order to the multitude of particular rules and to answer the question of their universal validity, we cannot begin from below, but must apply a scheme of categories from above. For Kant, order is produced by a “categorical imperative”.

(ibid.: 717)

Munch observes that Parsons applies this same logic to offer his solution for the problem of social order by revealing an interaction between moral obligations and the pursuit of self-interest.

Parsons’s unit act and voluntaristic action theory

Parsons's major contribution to the sociological theory of action may be seen in terms of a unification of Durklieim's and Weber's value and instrumental rationalities in one ‘unit act’. Parsons (1968a [1937]: 44) introduces the unit act in the following way:

... an “act” involves logically the following: (1) It implies an agent, an “actor”. (2) For purposes of definition the act must have an “end”, a future state of affairs toward which the process of action is oriented. (3) It must be initiated in a “situation” of which the trends of development differ in one or more important respects from the state of affairs to which the action is oriented, the end. This situation is in turn analyzable into two elements: those over which the actor has no control . . . and those over which he has such control. The former may be termed the “conditions” of action, the latter the "means”. Finally, (4) there is inherent in the conception of this unit, in its analytical uses, a certain mode of relationship between these elements. That is, in the choice of alternative means to the end, in so far as the situation allows alternatives, there is a “normative orientation” of action.

In Weber's ideal types of action, the rationality of the ends separates from the rationality of the means, whereas Parsons’s proposes merging these two types of rational action into one unit act. According to Parsons (1968b [1937]: 651), the two ideal types involve specific norms: the efficient adaptation of the means to the ends, called the norm of efficiency, and the norm of legitimacy or moral obligation. Parsons argues that there is no reason whatsoever for the actor not to apply these two types of rationality in one unit act.

Like Kant, Parsons (1968a [1937]) argues that ultimate ends of human action cannot be subjective utilities, but are rather moral judgments made by individuals in view of the ends. Parsons recognizes that the utilitarian model of action assumes that the ends of an action are subjective utilities and that the rationality of action is reflected only in the norms of efficiency. This subjective nature of the ends also indicates its randomness. Given the subjectivity and the randomness of utilities as the ends of an action, a rational actor seeks only the most efficient means to realize subjective utilities. Such a utilitarian model cannot address the origin of action ends.

Parsons (1968a [1937]: 61) argues that the utilitarian model proposes a negative conception of the randomness of ends due to a lack of concern for the choice of the ends. The subjective nature and randomness of the ends create a major problem for the utilitarian theory of action: with subjective and random ends, the private calculation of utility may yield varied results for diverse rational actors. Hence, there would not be any objective ground upon which the actor could opt for his preferable ends. Parsons (1968a [1937]: 63-64) argues for only one possible way to escape this limitation:

If ends were not random, it was because it must be possible for the actor to base his choice of ends on scientific knowledge of some empirical reality. But this tenet had the inevitable logical consequence of assimilating ends to the situation of action and destroying their analytical independence, so essential to the utilitarian position . . . Then action becomes determined entirely by its conditions, for without the independence of ends the distinction between conditions and means becomes meaningless.

Parsons concludes that the utilitarian model of action faces the following ‘dilemma’:

.. . either the active agency of the actor in the choice of ends is an independent factor in action, and the end element must be random; or the objectionable implication of the randomness of ends is denied, but then their independence disappears and they are assimilated to the conditions of the situation, that is to elements analyzable in terms of nonsubjective categories .. .

Considering none of these options to be tenable. Parsons offers the voluntaristic action theory to show how the ends of an action can be rationalized by a voluntarily orientation to ultimate values, thus denying the actor the use of instrumental reason to make other human beings the means for his own ends.

As pointed out by Munch (1981: 716), Kant argues that private calculations of utility may yield different results for different individuals.

The criterion of a moral law, however, is that it is binding for all men at all times. We cannot explain the obligatory force of moral law as the sum of all calculation of utility, because these calculations would yield externally variable results, and we would have made no progress towards a concept of true obligation.

The voluntaristic nature of Parsons's action theory can be understood in the context of Kantian moral philosophy.

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