2012 Uncategorized

On Weber, rationality, the spirit of capitalism, and the Protestant Ethic

This is question 4 from a social theory (SOC 401) essay exam in undergrad. Keep in mind the wording of the professor’s questions – particularly where he says “according to Weber” and “What does he see…” This is me explaining through Weber’s eyes. I may agree/disagree or see things differently in parts. But stating that agreement or disagreement wasn’t necessarily pertinent to this particular prompt. (I could have touched on that later in question 5, but I ended up talking about 3 other social theorists in that response. Perhaps one day, though…)


Rationality, and rationalization, are central to Weber’s social theory.  Define his categories of zweckrationality (instrumental rationality) and vertrationality (value rationality).  Which one is it that increases inexorably, according to Weber, in the modern world?  What does he see as the dark side of this process, what he calls “The Iron Cage”?  According to Weber, what does asceticism have to do with the rise of modern, rational capitalism? 

My response:        

Zweckrationality, instrumental rationality, is a type of action in which both the act and the intended result are based on knowledge. Whether or not the inspiring knowledge is accurate or based on magical belief or rumors, it is a zweckrational act. For instance, if an athlete wears the same armband every game because every time he wears that armband to a game his team wins, it is a zweckrational action. The armband is not the cause of the victory, but the knowledge of the means and the end are still his human knowledge. If a fan attends the game because she knows her friends will be there and she will get to spend time with them, that is also a zweckrational action. The means and the end are both in her knowledge and linked one to the other.

Vertrationality, or value rationality, is behavior based on an individual’s values. According to Weber, “value rational action always involves ‘commands’ or ‘demands’ which, in the actor’s opinion are binding.” Value-rational action is expressed in the saying “it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” If a student chooses not to cheat on an exam – not because he fears the consequences but because in his system of beliefs that would be wrong – it is a value rational act. He takes the test without cheating simply to do what is right, and that is the end in itself.

Zweckrational action is that which extends inexorably into the modern world. Both economics and politics, strong forces in modern society, are based in this form of action. The dark side of this process, the “iron cage,” lies in the zweckrational culture of capitalism. Instead of wanting to work, we are forced to do so. It is taught and reinforced to us to use reason supported by knowledge to achieve our goals with a sense of duty. We lack spirit, heart, consumption, and enjoyment of that which we work so hard to gain and yet we believe we are at a higher level of civilization than ever before.

The role asceticism plays in the rise of modern capitalism is that it originates from the Protestant ethic. Asceticism has at its core a sense to defer gratification, to give up worldly pleasures to pursue some other goal. This belief is based on the Protestant directives that forbid enjoyment of parts of social life that do not have explicit religious value. The work has religious value, but spending money to watch a movie, go out for a night on the town, and practically any secular or leisure activities have no religious values, so these activities are to be avoided. According to asceticism of the Protestant ethic (and in turn the spirit of capitalism), work is an end of itself to be valued, trade and profit are signs of virtue, life is to be organized methodically, and gratification should be delayed in favor of future satisfaction. In line with asceticism, people accumulate wealth to show their virtuosity – to show that God loves and favors them. Thus, asceticism has given rise to modern capitalism with the spirit that says work now, be happy later (if at all).


For a more in-depth look at Weber’s thoughts and theory, see his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (html version).

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