Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation

Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation


Russell Heddendorf, M.A.

From: JASA Vol 12 (March 1960): 27-28.

At the root of social action theory is the problem of rationality which centers in the question of whether the individual can be completely objective and rational in his achievement of ends. The Christian has always realized that such objectivity in social action was not possible; he was willing to admit, for one thing, his ignorance of appropriate means and ends. It has only been within the past several decades, however, that sociologists have begun to state the obstacles to a theory of purely objective social action.

Although this work was initiated by Max Weber in a more preliminary form some years ago, it was in the work of Talcott Parsons that the problem became more concrete and gained new dimensions. In addition, the presentation of the concept of unanticipated social consequences by Robert Merton indicated that useful and worthwhile functions might result from social action which was not, frankly completely objective. It remained for Kingsley Davis, therefore, to popularize the notion in his classical statement on the problem of rationality.1

Briefly, Davis extracts four main reasons for action deviating from a rational course:

    a. The existence of super-empirical ends: Such ends may be goals which exist, not only ln the unknown future, hut perhaps in a completely different world. Hence, they are goals which are not a part of the present time-space culture. For this reason, the culture has not indicated the desirable means to be used in achieving these goals and any means chosen to achieve these ends might be in error since there is no empirical knowledge of a cause and effect relationship.

    b. Uncertainty of ends: The emphasis of such action is on the means without any clear realization of what the resultant ends will be. This action does not presuppose the existence of no end, as in an instinctive behavior. hut may result in any one of several possible ends.

    c. Ignorance: The great number of possible means which may be used to reach a particular end may prevent the actor from making the correct choice because of lack of knowledge of all of the means or at least, of the appropriate one. The possibility of making errors in social action a result of ignorance in our society is particularly great because specialization provides for a great many legitimate means which are not within the frame of reference of the layman.

    For these man is not entirely rational in his social action: he is no able to choose the best means-end relationship for any particular activity. His social action is to be filled with error and failure, though on many occasions he will be surprised to find that such error will result in an unexpected benefit. The individual. therefore, must accept irrationality in his social action, although "there is a correlation between rationality and success which would be perfect if the actor were om­ niscient and omnipotent.

    Of course  this "irrationality" of social action is accepted and should form a part of his daily choices of means-ends relationships. His actions on some occasions will be "non-social" because a) he will he motivated towards superempirical ends, b) he may feel called to perform a particular action even though he doesn't know what the ends will be· c) not being oriented to the means offered by the culture, he will be ignorant of many alternative means offered by his culture, d) he will be constantly limited in choice of means by Biblical precepts. Yet as the Christian relies on the omniscience and omnipotence of God, his actions become "rational", though "irrational" by the standards of his culture.

    In a Christian culture, the irrationality of the social action becomes rational. This was true, for instance, of Puritan America. Since it is possible for irrational social action to become rational with a change in the cultural milieu, it seems to be an essential sociological task to study the elements of irrational means-ends relationships. Indeed, it might even be more important for the task to be accomplished in a day when the "irrational" remains as such, for it would not only provide for a reevaluation of the non-Christian's dependence on rational social action but also provide additional credence for the Christian's understanding of social action.

    1 Davis, Kingsley, Humaa Society, Macmillan, New York, 1948, pp. 128-133.
    ibid., p. 133

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