Instrumental Rationality: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Emily Cummins
What do we mean when we say we're acting rationally? In this lesson, we'll talk about the philosophical concept of instrumental rationality, or an approach to thinking and action that focuses on using the most efficient means possible to achieve an end.

Instrumental Rationality

What does the word 'rational' mean to you? When you hear it, you might think about things like making a rational decision or thinking rationally about something. In philosophy, rationality means something a little bit different. Instrumental rationality is a pursuit of any means necessary to achieve a specific end.

Have you ever heard the expression ''a means to an end''? Instrumental rationality means doing whatever it takes to achieve a goal so long as it aligns with your ultimate objective. The idea here is that only the end really matters. Philosophers have noted that instrumental rationality is about making decisions that maximize accomplishments by using the most efficient or economical approach. This drive for economic efficiency does not necessarily take non-economic consequences into account.

The emergence of what philosophers see as instrumental rationality coincides with broader societal trends. In earlier societies, people largely believed that things were pre-ordained, or the work of God. Decisions were directed through this religious order until the enlightenment. The enlightenment broadly refers to a period in Western history that begins around the mid-17th century and involves major developments in technology, philosophy, politics, and society. Importantly, as science developed as a field of knowledge, people began to use scientific methods over religion to explain the world. So, the philosophical concept of rationality emerged in this broader context when people started to focus more on themselves as individuals, guiding their own lives, and making personal choices.

Consequences of Instrumental Rationality

There are some important philosophical critiques of instrumental rationality. Max Weber, a very important figure in modern sociology, saw the increasing rationalization of society as highly problematic. In fact, he likened it to being trapped in a cage. Through a metaphor he called the iron cage, Weber saw the unending drive for efficiency as trapping us. Instead of guiding our choices through values and emotions, it was choices made by efficiency at any cost.

Max Weber
instrumental rationality

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