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Talcott Parsons on Utilitarianism - Dictionary of Arguments

Habermas IV 305
Utilitarianism/Parsons/ParsonsVsUtilitarism/Habermas: in "The Structure of Social Action" Parsons shows by the concept of purpose-rational action that utilitarianism cannot justify the subject's freedom of decision.
Habermas IV 311
The utilitarian dilemma:
1. The acotr faces exactly one objective world of existing facts and has a more or less exact empirical knowledge of this situation.
Habermas IV 312
2. Success/Parsons: in this case is measured exclusively by whether the goal has been achieved.
Norms: are limited here to regulating the relationship between purposes, means and conditions. The choice of purposes is therefore left undetermined. "("randomness of ends"). (1)
3. Purposive Rationality: does not provide for a mechanism through which the actions of different actors can be coordinated. This is what Parsons calls the "atomistic" concept of action. Stability can only result from coincidentally intertwined interests.
Dilemma: how can freedom of decision as the core of freedom of action be developed from the utilitarian concept of action?
Habermas IV 313
a) Purposes may vary regardless of means and conditions, this condition is necessary but not sufficient. As long as no values other than decision maxims are permitted, there is room for two opposing interpretations, both of which are incompatible with freedom of choice, both in a positivist and rationalist sense.
b) the determination of purposes as a function of knowledge: Here the action is a process of rational adaptation to the conditions. The active role of the actor is reduced to understanding the situation.
Problem: neither the rationalist nor the positivist interpretation of the utilitarian model of action
Habermas IV 314
can explain why the actor can make mistakes in a not only cognitive sense. (See Autonomy/Parsons).
Habermas IV 321
Utilitarianism/Parsons/Habermas: Parsons sticks to the core of the utilitarian concept of action. Perhaps he believes he can only save voluntarism by conceiving freedom of choice as contingent freedom of choice, in the language of German idealism: as arbitrariness.
Habermas IV 371
Utilitarianism/Parsons/ParsonsVsUtilitarianism/Habermas: from the criticism of utilitarianism, Parsons initially gained the idea of a selection of purposes regulated by values and maxims.
Solution: cultural values should be related to action situations by means of institutionalisation and internalisation and be linked to sanctions; in this way they should gain the stability of substantial morality in the reality of life forms and life stories.


1.Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action, NY, 1949, S. 49.


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.

ParCh I
Ch. Parsons
Philosophy of Mathematics in the Twentieth Century: Selected Essays Cambridge 2014

ParTa I
T. Parsons
The Structure of Social Action, Vol. 1 1967

ParTe I
Ter. Parsons
Indeterminate Identity: Metaphysics and Semantics 2000

Ha I
J. Habermas
Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne Frankfurt 1988

Ha III
Jürgen Habermas
Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns Bd. I Frankfurt/M. 1981

Ha IV
Jürgen Habermas
Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns Bd. II Frankfurt/M. 1981


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