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LST2820: Weber’s View Rationalized Society

“A more rationalised society is superior in every way, to a less rationalised one. And the same goes for legal systems: more rationalised is superior to less rationalised”. Do you think this statement accurately reflects Weber’s position? If so, why? If not, why not?:



A more rational society is not always better than a less rational society in every way. Through the gradual disenchantment of magic and religious beliefs Max Weber contended that as exact calculability and predictability in the social environment along with rationalisation had enhanced individual freedom through the complex society of morals and state monopoly[1]. However, historically, through the same change freedom and agencies are limited to trap individuals in an “iron cage” where formal rationalisation becomes evident[2].  Rationalities in the history of society will inevitability create a level of bureaucracy that contests it. The higher the level of bureaucracy, the more transparent the society and would ultimately lead to alienation[3]. He noted that everyone would become alienated due to the constant ever advancing rationalisation within capitalism.

A more rational legal system, however, is better than a less rational legal system. Rationalised laws provide are formal, abstract, exemplifying the disenchanted and modernised society. Moral codes also play a role in the establishment of laws[4]. However, having senses of justice are only emotions that “cannot be expressed except in a few very general and purely formal maxims”[5].

Weber’s Position

In order for modern economic life, corporate organisation and state bureaucracy to become successful, Weber argued that the development of formal rationalisation was an essential factor. He postulated that rationality would emerge in a socialist system where the same authority[6] would control both the economical and social aspects of the society. However, he feared that independent and free individuals, whose actions were consistent with reference to their ultimate values, would be restricted to exercise their substantive rationality[7].This would in turn reduce their freedom and many areas of the so-called ‘rationalised independent life’ would be replaced by the ‘state dominated’ rationalities and rationalism[8].

Indeed, Weber’s theory on rationality within capitalism is based on the introduction of rationalised industries, productions as well as social interactions and the reasons behind rate. The four main types of action in society are identified to be traditional action, rational action, affective action and technical based rational action. His view was the process of logic[9] in each aspect of an individual’s may vary and “each aspect may be rationalised in terms of very different ultimate goals, and what was rational from one point may well be irrational from another”[10].

Weber’s Argument

As mentioned previously, a modern individual tends to act on his logic and express arbitrary convictions that would be viewed rational or irrational depending on the point of reference[11]. These aspects are almost impossible to be communicated coherently. The statement “last men who invented happiness” is concerned with modernity in terms of ‘permeation of objectives, instrumental rationality or of purposeless agitation of subjective values’[12]. Weber argued this as the loss of freedom and moral agency in modernity as disenchantment had created a world with no objectively ascertainable grounds of one’s conviction[13].

Furthermore, unlike Marx’s jurisprudence, Webber argued that modernity and capitalism are both to be more specific and cannot be observed from a purely materialist perspective. Both were the production of a mixture of religious ideals which could not be explained solely based on ownership relations and technologies[14]. He differentiated between socialistic sciences and naturalistic sciences with relation to human social interaction in categories of traditional, affectional, value-rational and instrumental rationales.

Indeed, overall human social rationalism is based on a set of social actions governed by ‘reasoning, calculation and rational pursuit of individual interests’[15]. Individual human actions however, are subjected to circumstances in which they were placed at the time along with motivations and intentions of the actor. These rationalities are broadly intrinsic and must be in existence in order to establish a stable society[16]. However, the irony illustrated here is that ‘state dominated’ rationalism does not exhibit these un-hindering qualities of basic rationalities.

The question then becomes, “where do the basic rationalities or moral standards that do not hinder personal freedom come from, that the ‘state dominated’ rationalism cannot achieve?”

The example of naturalistic explanation: back to basics:

Piranhas are killing machines that form ruthless packets. However, even during their feeding frenzy they do not eat each other. They do not believe in moral codes, yet they do not act what they want. The question stand here is where they obtain their rational and social behaviours[17].

Weber might have contended naturalistic science, but whether or not he had considered the basic naturalistic explanation of rationalities which did not hinder individual freedom seemed to be ambiguous. How do piranhas (like humans) form packs and know not to kill each other without a supernatural commandment forbidding it or without having any religious values?

Rationalities and moral codes specifically relate to the behaviour of individuals within societies. It would be impossible to form and sustain a society without the basic rationalities or morals. The most obvious example would be, of course, killing other members of the society. The society will not propagate effectively and therefore will be not be a stable society. Trust is largely the same, for instance, wolves will pull-caring for their cubs, but do not eat them just because others are not watching[18].

If a stable society is desired, basic rationalities must be in existence in the first place. However, this does not mean that more rational society would be better. All that is required is a stable society most properties are intrinsic.

What are the bases of rational and moral convictions of a stable society?

Depending on the environment, there can be a selective pressure that favours the survival of the individuals that cooperate. In such cases, only the animals that cooperate will survive. Cooperation is observed in many species and in certain environments that yields a significant advantage[19].

These intrinsic properties are described as biological leashes[20] where some actions members of the society have many have choices from and others virtually none. For instance, humans have practically no control over the facial expressions that are used to convey emotion. They are hardwired to a point that it is even the fact that even blind persons and children who have never seen a smile[21] smile while they are happy. These biological leashes are also responsible for the basic moral codes and rational behaviour of human interactions in society. There were strong incentives not to kill other members of the same tribe as individual survival depended on the members of that society.

However, in modernity, individuals are largely devoiced from the stage of society which they are biologically tuned to live in and therefore found that, under sufficient conditions that people will therefore kill others with relatively little concern[22].  Yet in almost all rationalised societies, those who submit themselves to such conditions, training to kill other humans are seen as highly rational and moral characters[23]. The question then rises whether these actions are rational or irrational.

Indeed, these situations are not needed to highlight the volatility of rationality[24]. The very real example of total war, where bombs weredropped in cities with thousands of children to obtain victory, were considered rational “at a point of time” stated by Weber. The situation conscription is another example perfectly demonstrating the limited choice/freedom an individual has over the ‘state dominated’ rationalism.

The Concern

Economic rationality indicates each producer should maximise their own profit through increase in the price and production of products. This in turn would produce too many products and therefore lowering the demand and price relatively[25]. With that consideration in mind, producers should therefore either produce less and increase the price or produce more and reduce the price. However, this in turn would be less profitable nonetheless to the original condition. This situation presents a dilemma where the maximisation of profit cannot be achieved in a truly rationalised economic system.  This is also vastly true for a truly rationalised society where the ultimate individual freedom would be alienation.

Weber considered rationality to be necessary for organisations to operate efficiently, but he was concerned that rationality would take over more and more other spheres of society which do not require rationality to propagate. Moreover, he feared that this could result in increased control over individual actions, stifling charisma and tradition, and allowing few alternatives for creative human actions[26]. He defined state as “a compulsory association which organises domination. It has been successful in seeking to monopolise the legitimate use of physical force as means of domination within a territory. The domination of the state implied that its subordinates belief in the legitimacy of their subordination”[27]. He related his sociology of law closely to his notion of state bureaucracy and rationalities. Not only having a monopoly of force, the state also have legitimate claim of the political arenas. State domination is legitimated by legality, and such rational-legal legitimation is derived from the systemic rationalization of law and constitutionalism from doctrines of sovereignty[28].

Weber, however, seemed to only observe and did little to advocate any paths away from the ever advancing state rationalisation[29].

Rationalised Law

“An order will be called law if it is externally guaranteed by the probability that coercion (physical or psychological), to bring about conformity or avenge violation, will be applied by a staff of people holding themselves especially ready for that purpose”.  Max Weber (1954:5)

Weber directed his notion against the materialistic and idealistic of law where by no means did the legal legitimacy relate to state bureaucracy, nor did it imply constrict adherence to law. He interpreted the law as a set of reliable techniques for producing legally consistent answers[30].

Debates over human rights and ethical assumptions can often challenge’ legal formalism and value-irrationalism has equally been opposed by attempts to reinstitute objective standards of value and law as a technical tool’[31]. State’s bureaucratic legal-rational authorities are governed by procedures, a system of laws, not of men, which formally regulates social affairs. Rational laws create stable, predictable and patterned regularities in social actions and social institutions. Rationalised law is executed in the bureaucratic apparatus of the state, but it also serves the free-market economy[32].


For Max Weber, the statement “a more rationalised society is superior in every way, to a less rationalised one” does not accurately reflect his position. This is because a rationalised society permeates transparency and thus would lead to loss of individual freedom where the bureaucratic rationalised domination would ultimately lead to alienation.

However, having a more rationalised legal system would be superior to a less rationalised one as having a reliable set of techniques for producing legally consistent answers would lead to equality before the law and thus justice.

Societies enjoy stable and predictable outcomes of both economical and political events. Individual rationalities are only ‘rational’ from that individual’s point of reference. Thus only the basic rationalities are needed to establish a stable yet comfortable society are the ones which humans have already intrinsically shown.


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[1] Max Weber (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) 4.1 The “Iron Cage” and Value-fragmentation

[2][2] See note 1

[3] A comparison between Karl Marx’s “Class” society and Max Weber’s “Rational” society, and their relevance for contemporary society. Learn Essays

[4] Classical Sociological Theory: A Review of Themes, Concepts, and Perspectives. Mathieu Deflem. 3. The Rational State of Law

[5] Economy and society: an outline of interpretive sociology, Volume 2 By Max Weber, Guenther Roth, Claus Wittich pg 760

[6] In many instances, the state.

[7] Sociological Theory by George Ritzer. Pg 125

[8] See note 7

[9] See note 1

[10] 1920. “Author’s Introduction (Vorbemerkung to GARS)” in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

[11] 1920. “The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism” in From Max Weber.

[12] See note 1: 4.2 Reenchantment via Disenchantment

[13] See note 11

[14] Weber, Max The Protestant Ethic and “The Spirit of Capitalism” (1905). Translated by Stephen Kalberg (2002), Roxbury Publishing Company, pp. 19 & 35; Weber’s references on these pages to “Superstructure” and “base” are unambiguous references to Marxism’s base/superstructure theory.

[15] See note 11

[16] Why Do People Laugh at Creationists part 29: Video by Thunderfoot

[17] See note 17

[18] Aidan Ward & John Smith, Trust and Mistrust: Radical Risk Strategies in Business Relationships, Wiley 2003

[19] See note 16

[20] The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1987. Page 279

[21] The singer, Stevie Wonder

[22] For instance, War

[23] In this instance, examples are soldiers and policemen

[24] See note 16

[25] Sociology 250 Rationalization and Bureaucracy: University of Regina, Department of Sociology and Social Studies. A. Rationalization

[26] See note 24

[27] 1919. “The Profession and Vocation of Politics” in Max Weber: Political Writing. Page 310

[28]See note 4: Legitimacy and Law

[29] See note 3

[30] See note 4: The Rationality of Modern Law

[31] See note 29

[32] See note 4

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