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Defending Instrumental Rationality against Critical Theorists

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Accepted/In press1 Jan 2020
Published4 Aug 2020

King's Authors


Central to much critical theory is the critique of instrumental rationality (roughly, the ability to pick good means to ends). This critique is overstated, I suggest. Critical theorists often depict instrumental rationality too narrowly, and many criticize the wrong target, for example, attacking capitalist instrumental rationality when the fundamental problem is capitalism, not instrumental rationality. Nonetheless, critical theorists’ critique requires certain changes to orthodox accounts of instrumental rationality. I offer a more palatable definition, highlight instrumental rationality’s essential contestability, and show that it can actually help us pick ends. Everyone needs instrumental rationality, especially Habermasian critical theorists. And far from instrumental rationality being amoral, I argue that because instrumental rationality almost always involves multiple ends, one end may prohibit immoral means, acting as a side-constraint. Ultimately, the substance of critical theorists’ critiques remains highly important but should not be framed in opposition to instrumental rationality.

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