Sociology 250

Quotes from Max Weber on Social Action and Protestant Ethic


A. Social Action.  Quotes 1 through 5 are from Weber, Max, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, New York, Bedminster Press, 1968.  HM57 W342


1. Sociology.  Sociology … is a science concerning itself with the interpretive understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences.  (p. 4)

2. Social action.  We shall speak of “action” insofar as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to his behavior – be it overt or covert, omission or acquiescence.  Action is “social” insofar as its subjective meaning takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course.  (p. 4)

3. Social Relationship.  The term "social relationship” will be used to denote the behavior of a plurality of actors insofar as, in its meaningful content, the action of each takes account of that of the others and is oriented in these terms.  The social relationship thus consists entirely and exclusively in the existence of a probability that there will be a meaningful course of social action – irrespective, for the time being, of the basis of this probability.  (pp. 26-27)

4. Permanence.  A social relationship can be of a very fleeting character or of varying degrees of permanence.  In the latter case there is a probability of the repeated recurrence of the behavior which corresponds to its subjective meaning and hence is expected. …  The meaningful content which remains relatively constant in a social relationship is capable of formulation in terms of maxims which the parties concerned expect to be adhered to by their partners on the average and approximately.  The more rational in relation to values or to given ends the action is, the more likely this is to be the case.  (p. 28)

5. Types of Social Action.  (pp. 24-5)

a. Instrumentally Rational.  Instrumentally rational (zweckrational), that is, determined by expectations as to the behavior of objects in the environment and of other human beings; these expectations are used as "conditions" or "means" for the attainment of the actor's own rationally pursued and calculated ends.

b. Value-Rational.  Value-rational (wertrational), that is, determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some ethical, aesthetic, religious, or other form of behavior, independently of its prospects of success

c. Emotional or Affectual.  Affectual (especially emotional), that is, determined by the actor’s specific affects and feeling states.

d. Traditional or Habitual.  Traditional, that is determined by ingrained habituation.



B. Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism – Quotes 6 through 13 are from Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Scribners, New York, 1958)


6.  Capitalism.  The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism.  This impulse exists and has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers, and beggars.  ...  Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse.  But capitalism is identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse.  But capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise. (p. 17)


7.  Calculation.  Exact calculation – the basis of everything else – is only possible on the basis of free labour.  (p. 22)


8.  Purpose of book.  [To show] the influence of certain religious ideas on the development of an economic spirit, or the ethos of an economic system.  In this case we are dealing with the connection of the spirit of modern economic life with the rational ethics of ascetic Protestantism.  (p. 27)


9.  Protestant Ethic.  In fact, the summum bonum of this ethic, the strict earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, ... is thought of ... purely as an end in itself,  ... .  Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs.  This reversal of what we should call the natural relationship, so irrational from a naïve point of view, is evidently as definitely a leading principle of capitalism as it is foreign to all peoples not under capitalistic influence.  At the same time it expresses a type of feeling which is closely connected with certain religious ideas. (p. 53).


10.  Reformers.   They were not founders of societies for ethical culture nor the proponents of humanitarian projects for social reform or cultural ideals.  The salvation of the soul alone was the centre of their life and work.  Their ethical ideals and the practical results of their doctrines were all based on that alone, as were the consequences of purely religious motives.  We shall thus have to admit that the cultural consequences of the Reformation were to a great extent, ... unforeseen and even unwished-for results of the labours of their reformers.  They were often far removed from or even in contradiction to all that they themselves thought to attain.  (pp. 89-90).


11.  Calvinism.  The elected Christian is in the world only to increase this glory of God by fulfilling His commandments to the best of his ability. (p. 108).  Brotherly love, ... is expressed in the first place in the fulfilment of the daily tasks given. ... This makes labour in the service of impersonal social usefulness appear to promote the glory of God and hence to be willed by him. (pp. 108-9).


12.  Predestination.  On the one hand it is held to be an absolute duty to consider oneself chosen, and to combat all doubts as temptations of the devil, since lack of self confidence is the result of insufficient faith, hence of imperfect grace. ... a duty to attain certainty of one's own election and justification in the daily struggle of life. (p. 111).  On the other hand, in order to attain that self-confidence intense worldly activity is recommended as the most suitable means.  It and it alone disperses religious doubts and gives the certainty of grace. (p. 112).  


13. Worldly asceticism.  But in the course of its development Calvinism added something positive to this, the idea of the necessity of proving one's faith in worldly activity.  Therein it gave broader groups of religiously inclined people a positive incentive to asceticism.  By founding its ethic in the doctrine of predestination, it substituted for the spiritual aristocracy of monks outside of and above the world the spiritual aristocracy of the predestined saints of God within the world. (p. 121).