The Myth of Instrumental Rationality

Article excerpt

Recent interest in the nature and presuppositions of instrumental rationality was inspired to a considerable degree by arguments designed to show that it presupposes other forms or kinds of rationality, or (to put it in the nonequivalent way in which the point is more commonly put) that claims that there are reasons to pursue the means to our ends presuppose that the ends themselves are worth pursuing, or that there are adequate reasons for pursuing them. The discussion of instrumental rationality is bound up with discussions of instrumental reasons and of instrumental reasoning that guides deliberation, and which, other things being equal, it is irrational knowingly to flout. The interest in understanding instrumental rationality was thus at least partly a result of an interest in--often hostility to--an ambitious claim, namely that all practical reasons are instrumental, that practical normativity is about the normativity of following the means to our ends.

I say little about this issue. My main aim is to explain the normative character of the phenomena that are commonly discussed when theoretical writers discuss instrumental rationality and instrumental reasons. The discussion will assume that there are forms of practical normativity, of practical reasons, which are not instrumental in nature. The question central to the inquiry is what, if any, normative difference does adopting or having an end make? For example, are there instrumental reasons and, if there are, how do they relate to having ends? Are instrumental reasons distinctive kinds of reasons, whose normativity differs in its underlying rationale from that of, say, moral reasons, or of other kinds of reasons? Similarly, is instrumental rationality a distinct form of rationality?

Reflecting on these questions, we are liable to be torn both ways. On the one hand, we feel that the value of the means derives from the value of the ends. If there are reasons to take the means, they must be none other than the reasons to pursue the ends, or at least they must derive from them. On the other hand, we also feel that failure to take the means to one's ends is a distinct kind of failure, different from the failure to have proper ends, or to value them properly. The first response--that there are no distinctive instrumental reasons--is reinforced by the thought that, say, a would-be murderer cannot create for himself a reason for poisoning his intended victim just by making it his goal to kill him. The second response, however, is reinforced by the thought that a person with evil or worthless ends who fails to take the proper means to his ends is, perhaps luckily, irrational in a way that is indifferent to the character of his ends. He is irrational in the same way as someone whose ends are worthy, but who fails to take the means toward them.

In the first section, I will suggest that (subject to some qualifications) we have (instrumental) reasons to facilitate the realization of anything of value whose realization is not deeply impossible, regardless of whether or not its realization is one of our ends. In section 2, I agree with those who (a) deny that our ends (and intentions) are reasons to take the means for their realization and (b) argue that, nevertheless, our ends affect what is rational for us to do. I do, however, contend that some attempts to square this circle failed, and offer a different solution. Section 3 defends the proposed position by arguing that we do not have reason to avoid contradictions as such. Section 4 complements the earlier discussion by pointing to additional practical implications of ends.

The conclusions of these sections, while following in the footsteps of a number of recent writers on the subject, do deviate from long-established ways of treating the phenomena philosophers discuss under titles such as instrumental reasons, normativity or rationality. Section 5 faces the oddity of my conclusions. It does so by challenging the thought, common to some writers who otherwise vary considerably, that instrumental rationality or instrumental reasons or both are a distinctive type of rationality or of reasons. …