Critical rationalism and the theory of human action

Masoud Mohammadi Alamuti


The question of how human action contributes to social order has a central place in sociological theory. This chapter applies the general theory of critical rationalism for reformulation of the ideal types of value and instrumental rationality. Its argument that the separation of justification and criticism enables the theory of action to avoid infinite regress lies in the very concept of reason that the utilitarian and the normative models of action employ to explain how reason may drive human action. The philosophy of critical rationalism offers a non-justificational concept of reason that lets the theory of action to address the role of rational actors in giving themselves a moral law to govern the pursuit of self-interest necessary for the rise of a peacefill social order. To these ends, the chapter proceeds in five sections.

Section I: non-justificationism and the rationality of action

As observed in Chapter 5, the separation of justification and criticism leads to the new conception that a belief, whether moral or scientific, is rational if the premises and inference forms through which it is drawn are not shown to be false by argument or experience. This section uses this new concept of rationality for redefining the ideal types of rational action at the core of the theory of action. For doing this, a look at the justificational foundations of the utilitarian and normative models of human action gives us important insights.

Justificationist theories of action: utilitarian and normative

As argued in Chapter 6, justificationist epistemology has contributed to the theory of action in classical and modern sociology. According to our case studies, justi-ficationism is recognized in Durkheim's social epistemology, in Kantian epistemology, which influences Weber's and Parsons's sociologies, and in Habermas'sconsensual epistemology. In these case studies, the concept of rationality originates in the justified tme belief account of knowledge, and the meaning of rational action is defined by such justificationist concepts of rationality.

It is worthy of note that, Durklieim and Parsons use the justificationist concepts of reason to develop a normative theory of action criticizing the utilitarian action theory. The utilitarian model of action implies that the means of action can be based on objective knowledge to inform us of the effective tools for realization of a given end although the action goals are subjective and incapable of being rational. From a non-justificationist perspective, utilitarians may argue that the goals of human action are subjective because the actor is unable to justify the moral claims regarding them by positive reasons. In other words, the action goal remains unjustified and is regarded as epistemologically irrational if a validity claim regarding the end of the action is to be justified in order to be considered true, but cannot be verified.

This justificational critique allows the utilitarian theory of action to claim that the goals of action are by nature subjective rather than objective. Since action ends are not based on objective knowledge, i.e. on justified true belief, the utilitarian model assumes them to be subjective. Hence, the utilitarian model claims that the goals of action are determined by passion, whereas the means of action are determined by reason due to the objective knowledge upon which the actor can justify the efficiency of the means for realizing the action end. The main upshot of this epistemological reading of the utilitarian concept of rationality for the theory of action is that passion drives action and that reason is only a servant of passion usable for finding effective means to actualize a given end.

However, Durklieim and Parsons realize that a peaceful social order cannot come into existence if individual actors follow mere passion and self-interest. Durklieim proposes his social epistemology, arguing that the categories of thought, such as space, time and causality, originate from religious practices. Hence, the rationality of the goals lies in the religious practices defining the categories of thought reflecting them. Durklieim argues that a system of values in society integrated into the categories of thought constructs the moral content of action goals. Unlike utilitarianism, Durkheim's theory views the categories of thought as objective social facts rather than subjective or personal preferences and claims that the objectivity of such categories is justifiable by experience. My argument against this, however, is that justification involves infinite regress, so Durklieim cannot prove the categories of thought as objective by his social epistemology. Thus, Durkheim’s normative concept of rationality, in terms of categories of thought originating in society, suffers from infinite regress, which renders it unacceptable as solution to the problem of the rationality of action goals.

As argued in Chapter 6, Parsons presents his voluntaristic action theory as a critique of the utilitarian model. Inspired by Kantian epistemology, Parsons argues that the utilitarian claim that the ends of action are subjective means that, statistically, they are subject to random variation. However, as pointed out by Hans Joas

(1996: 11),“... any possible statement akin to a law on the distribution of wishes would call into question the free will of each individual”. Joas continues:

To Parsons' mind the dilemma utilitarianism faces thus consists of it having either to assume that free will exists and therefore to assert that goals vary at random, or conversely to assume that goals do not vary at random, at the cost of no longer being able to find a place for free choice and individual decisions in its conceptual framework. Parsons considers the first assumption to be untenable, as there is no sense in human choice from among random goals. . . . Parsons insists that choice already presumes intrinsically unique structures in the sphere of alternative choices, as otherwise choice itself would resemble chance.


However, acceptance of Kant’s epistemology and the resultant moral philosophy does not involve the assumption of goals of action guided by passions. Inspired by the Kantian doctrine of practical reason. Parsons offers a normative model of action.

In accordance with Parsons’s voluntaristic model of action, the actor’s value rationality determines the action goals by taking on a voluntary orientation towards the moral law existing in society. In fact, the actor rationalizes the ends by orienting them towards a system of values (the moral law). Given this Kantian foundation of Parsons’s action theory, the problem of infinite regress appears. If Kant’s theories of pure and practical reason involve infinite regress, then Parsons’s voluntaristic theory of action faces the same problem. Hence, the goals of action cannot be assumed to be ’rationalized’ by a voluntarily orientation towards a universal moral law. If Parsons's normative alternative for the utilitarian model is inspired by Kantian epistemology, then the rationality of the goals of action has not actually been addressed by his normative alternative due to its justificationism.

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