OPR Ch. 2.4: The Instrumentalist Approach to Social Order


This section begins with a question that Gauthier poses, one that Gaus thinks we ought to take very seriously: why pay attention to morality’s demands when those demands can be so restrictive? Where does morality get the authority to constrain the pursuit of our objectives? The Hobbesian answer to this question that Gauthier favours, one that Gaus concedes is extremely appealing, is this: accepting morality’s constraints is instrumentally rational. Morality doesn’t constrain the pursuit of our ends, it is rather the most efficient means of pursuing them, and so the tension between morality’s authority and our own aims dissolves entirely. The aim of chapter 4 is to show why this attempt to derive the authority of social morality from instrumental reasoning is doomed to fail, and the first section of the chapter is devoted to a close examination of what instrumental rationality is.

Gaus begins by alerting us to two dangers in discussing instrumental rationality. First, it’s important not to confuse instrumentally rational behaviour with self-interested or selfish behaviour. Instrumental rationality makes no assumptions about what aims or objectives people might pursue, and so super-altruists can be every bit as instrumentally rational as super-egoists. Second, Gaus warns against confusing Gauthier’s question with a similar-looking question, the famous “why be moral?” question. To ask this question, however, is to mistakenly suppose that even if morality’s normative basis and content are securely understood, we face a further question about whether we ought to be moral that must somehow be answered from outside of morality. Gauthier’s question is different and more sensible; he wants to know whether there is a good basis to support morality’s alleged authority over us. Maybe morality’s claims to authority are just a sham, and we would be better off not making moral demands, in the way we now think there’s no good basis for talking about angels and demons.

With those caveats out of the way, what is instrumental rationality? You might think it must be to a conception of Rationality as Effectiveness: Alf’s action X is instrumentally rational if and only if X-ing is the effective way to achieve his desired goals. The problem with this view (to borrow some helpful terminology from Derek Parfit’s forthcoming book, On What Matters) is that it relies on a fact-relative view of effectiveness. That is, Alf’s X-ing is only instrumentally rational if it turns out that, as a matter of fact, X-ing achieves the desired objective. But surely if X-ing looked like the right decision on the basis of all the evidence available to Alf, X-ing was instrumentally rational even if things turn out badly? If the weather service tells Alf there’s no chance of rain, then surely Alf does not fail to be rational when he doesn’t carry an umbrella, even if it does rain later that day. And surely Betty is not instrumentally rational if, for all the wrong reasons, she carries an umbrella and then ‘gets lucky’ when it starts to rain.

These objections might lead us to endorse Subjective Rationality, whereby Alf’s action X is rational if and only if his choice to X is based on his beliefs, and if his beliefs were true, X-ing would be the effective means to achieving his desired goals. But this account fails because (again to borrow from Parfit) it relies on a belief-relative standard, and this doesn’t seem like the right standard for assessing a person’s rationality. Alf might hold obviously false and silly beliefs, and it seems wrong to declare that acting on the basis of absurd or obviously false beliefs can vindicate one’s actions as instrumentally rational. Gaus concludes that what we need is a conception of instrumental rationality that is similar to the subjective view, but places some restrictions on what can count as a plausible belief. As Gaus puts it, Alf’s action X is instrumentally rational only if Alf soundly chooses X because he believes it is the best prospect for achieving his goals. Here Gaus relies on the rough idea that Alf’s beliefs must not be grossly defective from his own epistemic perspective, and the deliberation leading to action must be similarly not grossly defective, but it seems clear Gaus is wary of setting a more stringent standard.

Having defined the basic idea, Gaus then highlights three fundamental features of instrumental rationality:

  • More is Better than Less. This is pretty self-explanatory. If you can get more of what you want without sacrificing anything else that you want, then it is instrumentally irrational to prefer less of what you want.
  • Modular Rationality. Actions are routes to achieving our goals, and so instrumental rationality tends to be inherently forward-looking: the reason to perform any action must be explicable in terms of what that action will bring about. But things are actually more complex because, as Gaus explains, there are some direct consumption activities that cannot be explained in this way. Alf eats ice cream now not for some future purpose, but rather because he likes eating ice cream. He’s not doing it now because this will bring future benefits, he’s eating now because eating now is the benefit. This raises a worry about circular explanations, since we could then “explain” any individual’s act X by saying “he’s X-ing because his aim is to X”. Gaus thinks we can overcome this problem by relying on the type/token distinction in cases of direct consumption. So we explain Alf’s token act of X-ing by saying that his aim is to engage in acts of type X, and we thereby distinguish the explanandum (the token) from the explanans (the type). The more general point about instrumental rationality being modular is that it can be formalized as a decision tree. At each point in the tree Alf faces a decision about how best to promote his goals from this point forward, and each decision he makes brings him to a new node in the tree, where he faces a similar decision. Previous decisions have no necessary relevance to the current decision, in the sense that something which may have been instrumentally rational at t0 (threatening one’s enemy with nuclear annihilation should he attack) does not, at t1, make it instrumentally rational to follow through on that threat if one’s enemy has now attacked and there is no benefit to launching one’s nuclear arsenal. This point about modular rationality is significant, and will play a major role in the chapter’s critique of Gauthier.
  • Consistency. Instrumentally rational agents have transitive preferences. There is some dispute about this, but I don’t think we need to get into the details.


  • Gaus rejects the fact-relative standard of Rationality as Effectiveness, and he rejects the belief-relative standard of Subjective Rationality. Instead he favours a loosely defined view where Alf’s act must be based on beliefs and deliberation that are not grossly defective in order for Alf’s act to qualify as rational. Some people might object to Gaus’s unwillingness to make this standard more precise, but this is not the worry that I want to press (sometimes standards just have to be imprecise). Instead I want to point out that there is a third, very plausible, conception of rationality that Gaus ignores. Let’s call it (again borrowing from Parfit) Evidence-Relative Rationality. On this view, Alf’s act X is rational if and only if X-ing appears to be the effective means of advancing Alf’s goals on the basis of all the evidence accessible to Alf. Does the evidence available to Alf provide him with apparent reasons to believe that X-ing is the most effective route to his goals? This seems like a very plausible conception of instrumental rationality, and it avoids the counter-intuitive results Gaus presses against the first two views. Gaus’s view seems to me to sit somewhere in between the belief-relative and evidence-relative standards: one’s beliefs might not be grossly defective but that doesn’t show that they are the beliefs that are warranted by the available evidence. It’s not clear to me why we should prefer Gaus’s intermediate position over the more demanding Evidence-Relative standard.
  • Second, going back to some of the discussion from last week: I wasn’t entirely confident about Gaus’s distinction at the outset between the ‘why be moral?’ question as opposed to Gauthier’s question about the basis of morality. If someone asks, “what is the basis for morality’s alleged authority over me?” and he believes any successful answer to that question must appeal to some non-moral basis, like instrumental rationality, then I think the person asking the question is really asking something like the “why be moral?” question, only dressed up in different language. This is all a bit speculative, but to suppose, as I think philosophers like Gauthier do, that morality must have a point or deliver some benefits in order to have real authority over me, seems pretty indistinguishable from the person who says, “yes I see that morality’s requirements are justified because they reflect what it means to treat others as free and equal agents, but why should I follow morality’s requirements?”.
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About Jonathan Quong

Jonathan Quong is a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Manchester
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6 Responses to OPR Ch. 2.4: The Instrumentalist Approach to Social Order

  1. Related to Jon’s first question, here is a question about reason and desire. Jerry quotes Hume to the effect that reason doesn’t place any constraints on what desires or ends we should pursue, then says he will put aside the debate about whether this is true, and explains the three features of instrumental rationality Jon lists above. However, he hasn’t really avoided the debate, because the consistency requirement (transitivity) conflicts with Hume’s view, as does the “more is better than less” requirement. One other feature of Jerry’s account also conflicts with Hume’s view, I think: the evidentiary or epistemic aspect of rationality. If instrumental rationality must involve a criterion of “minimally sound belief” (or of soundness relative to the evidence one has available), then it would seem that someone who doesn’t care to form accurate beliefs is irrational. “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer total ignorance to genuine knowledge” Hume might have said – but on Jerry’s account he would have been wrong, wouldn’t he? Perhaps this is part of the debate in the literature that he didn’t want to get into, but I would be interested to know how Jerry thinks the material in section 4.2 relates to the Hume quote in section 4.3. Would he agree that rationality must include at least this one substantive goal, which is to have accurate beliefs?

  2. I too was a bit puzzled by the p.57 distinction between Prichard’s question and Gauthier’s question. Jerry emphasizes the fact that Prichard’s question is about whether I should do what morality requires of me whereas Gauthier’s is about whether we should do what morality requires of us, but since we = I1 + I2 + I3, the difference between these formulations wasn’t immediately apparent to me. I suppose the issue is that in the Prichard question morality is assumed to benefit others, and my question is whether to make an exception for myself in my own interest, whereas for Gauthier, the suspicion is that morality might not benefit anyone – it might just be bad, unhealthy, or debasing for all of us.

    I came away thinking that there are three questions:

    Why should I do the right thing, when I could gain from not doing so?
    Why should I do what is right according to the public morality, when I could advance my own morality, the true morality, by not doing so?
    Why should any of us follow morality, when it seems in certain respects repugnant, a function of either bossiness resentment?

    Question 3 seems to be a Nietzschean question; what is the value of morality? It is not that I am tempted by my interests to ignore morality. To the contrary, it is that I have an ideal of myself and my fellow human beings that makes morality repellent, in certain respects. The thought is not that I would gain from breaking its rules, but that I might let myself down and debase myself by adhering to its rules.

    Of course then we would have the problem that any such rejection of morality would presuppose a morality, at least in the sense of certain qualitative contrasts between higher and lower ways of being. When Jerry asks the question about growing up and not talking about Santa, on pp.57-8, the idea is that we might stop talking about morality, not that we would stop talking about values altogther – we would still face the task of assigning value to ourselves.

  3. Jon draws a distinction between Jerry’s “intermediate” conception of rationality and what he (following Parfit) calls an evidence-relative conception. Jon asks what reason we have to favor Jerry’s position over the more demanding evidence-relative conception he sketches. My guess is that Jerry wants to resist the evidence-relative conception primarily because of his commitment to evaluative diversity. One of the primary motivations of the book is the idea that moral philosophy hasn’t taken the problems presented by reasonable disagreement and evaluative diversity seriously enough and one thing I think we’ll see as the book unfolds is that Jerry has a rich epistemic story to tell about the foundations of these phenomena. For Jerry part of this story is going to involve the idea that a body of evidence can be interpreted in many different ways depending upon many things including: the degree of epistemic risk we’re willing to bear and the respective weights we place on various epistemic virtues. Obviously this sort of story is consistent with the evidence-relative conception of rationality, but the worry is that as soon as we start talking about ‘the beliefs that are warranted by the available evidence’ we’re apt to underestimate the diversity of reasonable views that a body of evidence typically leaves us with.

    This is looking ahead, but we’ll see later in the book that in telling the epistemic story sketched above Jerry draws heavily on the work of John Pollock. Pollock distinguishes between ‘justification’ and ‘warrant’. Roughly, justification concerns the beliefs it is rational to hold in light of the reasoning one has done up to a point and warrant concerns the beliefs it would be rational to hold once one completed all possible reasoning on a particular issue. As we’ll see Jerry is typically interested in talking about rationality in terms of which of our beliefs are justified and for good reason, since we’re rarely in situations where we’ve completed all possible reasoning. Like I said this is looking ahead a bit, but I wanted to flag this here because Jon used the idea of warrant in describing the evidence-relative conception of rationality. That said I do think we can ask Jon’s question in terms of which of our beliefs our justified by a given body of evidence.

    It seems to me then that the really important question to ask here is whether we should prefer an internalist or externalist account of rationality. Obviously that’s a big question, but going forward I think it will be important to recognize that Jerry is usually working with an internalist conception of reasons and a similalarly internalist standard of rationality.

  4. This is just a brief rejoinder to Keith’s very helpful comment. Keith may well be right about the tight connection between Jerry’s intermediary account of instrumental rationality and Jerry’s broader views about evaluative diversity and the possibility of different people being justified in adopting different epistemic norms and standards. But Jerry doesn’t explicitly make this connection when he describes his conception of instrumental rationality, so it’s hard to be certain about the strength of this connection.

    Part of the reason it’s hard to be certain is that it seems clear (as Keith acknowledges in his comment) that the evidence-relative conception of instrumental reason can be made consistent with any plausible view about evaluative diversity and epistemic justification that one might hold. Suppose Alf confronts evidence E1 and from this evidence Alf arrives at belief B1, and on the basis of that belief Alf performs action A1. The evidence-relative conception declares, roughly, that Alf’s action is only instrumentally rational if B1 is the justified or rational (I’ll use these terms interchangeably) belief to hold in light of E1, and also only if A1 would best fulfil Alf’s goals. Notice that this formulation of the evidence-relative conception remains neutral about exactly what constitutes a justified or rational belief in light of E1. Some theories might hold that if everyone faces the same evidence, then there can be no plurality of incompatible justified beliefs in light of that evidence—there can be only one justified belief or set of beliefs. But other theories of justification might hold that it’s possible for there to be a plurality of incompatible but justified beliefs in light of the same evidence (e.g. B1, B2, B3 etc…). Both these theories can be deployed within an evidence-relative conception of instrumental reason; the latter theory will simply allow a broader range of actions to qualify as instrumentally rational than the former theory.

    So even if one follows some of Jerry’s other views about evaluative diversity, this doesn’t appear to provide grounds to reject the evidence-relative conception of instrumental rationality in favour of Jerry’s intermediary position (Keith suggests that adopting the evidence-relative conception might lead us to underestimate evaluative diversity, but that’s not a flaw with the evidence-relative conception, that’s a mistake we might make about how it works). Jerry’s intermediary position, recall, only requires that one’s beliefs and deliberation not be grossly defective, but that standard is well short of requiring that one’s beliefs be justified, regardless of what particular conception of justification is endorsed. Unlike the evidence-relative conception, Jerry’s conception seems to allow that people acting on the basis of unjustified beliefs can be instrumentally rational. Why should we prefer this view to this evidence-relative view? I’m still not clear on the answer to this question.

  5. Mats Volberg says:

    Andrew, it seemed to me that the difference between the two questions that one is specific (why I should be moral in this particular case) and the other is more general (why should anybody be moral at all).

  6. I’m coming to this discussion late, being behind in my homework. I worry too about understanding Gauthier as wanting “to know whether there is a good basis to support morality’s alleged authority over us” and as not asking a more traditional question about why should I be moral (or just)? If we unpack ‘authority’ as something which gives us reasons for action — presumably Big ones, like preemptive reasons — then the two questions seem very similar. Gauthier was certainly asking the second question, as were may traditional philosophers.

    I think well of GG’s dissection of instrumental rationality but worry about his assumption that modularity is an essential feature of it. I know that everything but a handful of thinkers think modularity is a property of practical rationality and formal models thereof. But if it is assumed then GG can dispense with virtually all of his analysis of Gauthier in the chs. following, for Gauthier rejects modularity. Gauthier, McClennen, and other recent revisionists want to understand aspects of rationality as “backward-looking”. To assume that modularity is an essential feature of rationality seems somewhat question-begging.

    (A small point, relevant more to the next sections: McClennen seems committed to an instrumental conception of rationality, though he sometimes says it’s merely a working assumption for him. Gauthier is committed to instrumental rationality in his early and middle work, but I don’t think he is any more.

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