Instrumental Rationality and the Instrumental Doctrine

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Instrumental Rationality and the Instrumental Doctrine

ABSTRACT: In opposition to the instrumental doctrine of rationality, I argue that the rationality of the end served by a strategy is a necessary condition of the rationality of the strategy itself: means to ends cannot be rational unless the ends are rational. First, I explore cases-involving ‘proximate’ ends (that is, ends whose achievement is instrumental to the pursuit of some more fundamental end) — where even instrumentalists must concede that the rationality of a strategy presupposes the rationality of the end it serves. Second, I draw attention to the counter-intuitive consequences — in cases involving ‘non-proximate’ ends — of substituting (allegedly more manageable) questions about de facto ends for questions about the rationality of ends. Third, I argue-against Nozick — that it is a mistake to suppose that the only question dividing instrumentalists from non-instrumentalists is whether the instrumental doctrine needs supplementation. Finally, I try to show that questions about the rationality of ends need not be viewed as impossibly daunting.

According to the instrumental doctrine of rationality in the version relevant to the argument of this paper, an action (decision, policy, strategy, etc.) is rational provided it is an effective and economical means to the achievement of some de facto objective. If we formulate the instrumentalist position in terms of the familiar doctrine of the practical syllogism, the crucial thesis is that the action which forms the conclusion of the syllogism is rational provided (1) the major premise identifies a de facto objective of the agent's, and (2) the minor premise shows the action to be an effective and economical means to the achievement of that objective. The typical noninstrumentalist position, by contrast, would be that for the action in the conclusion to be one it is rational for the agent to perform, it must serve an objective it is rational for the agent to pursue: the major premise must identify a rational objective of some sort, not simply an objective the agent happens to have.

I. The Instrumental Doctrine and "Proximate" Ends

One way of denting the instrumentalist position is to explore cases where the action said to be rational is an effective and economical means of enabling the agent to achieve an end he or she is pursuing only because its achievement is (held to be) indispensable to effective pursuit of some more fundamental objective. These are cases where the agent is pursuing (what we might call) a "proximate" end, an end which is thought to be worth pursuing only because its achievement is a means to effective pursuit of a more basic end.
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