Tuesday, September 23, 2008

On Instrumental Reason

Listening to so many people these days, on blogs, in newspapers, in person everywhere in fact, it seems as if the only thing that is wrong with this world is that the "incentives" are not in the right place. Once you get the incentives right everything will fall into its rightful place! It makes me want to start ranting like Dostoevsky's Underground Man who was railing against the same kind of utilitarian and (shallow) rationalist thinkers in nineteenth century.

This is also I think reflects a general trend in modern societies - the growing influence of "instrumental reason" in human affairs and progressive rationalization of our social institutions. Even legal thinkers who should be concerned with ethical questions are more worried about material outcomes of any law. Also related to this is the fact that both people with backgrounds in Economics (at least those involved in policy and planning) and Management are in the positions of power and in control of the decision making bodies, two disciplines which are based mostly on instrumental thinking. (Engineering is of course the most prominent example of instrumental reasoning but thankfully they are generally not very influential, although many people in management do have backgrounds in engineering.)

One immediate effect of this has been the gradual disappearance of ethical vocabulary from the public sphere - it is as if our language itself has been depleted. I wanted to mention it in the post where I linked to an essay on "virtue ethics." Now it feels strange to even talk of something inherently good or virtuous or an act worthy of condemnation. You need to justify it in terms of the material outcomes of any action. On top of that all we get is the talk of "rights." Everyone has to right to do what he or she pleases to do so long as it doesn't interfere in the rights of others to do the same. This kind of liberalism robs us of our shared ethical precepts and vocabularies and it results in atomised society. One is free but it is a very lonely kind of freedom and a recipe of despair.

Coming back to underground man, his main grouse with people like Mill or Chernyshevsky was that their thought didn't take his freedom and identity into consideration. They didn't realize that one could choose to act even against one's own narrow material interests just to assert one's freedom and identity. In fact it is only in that choice that true meaning of morality lies. By the same logic an incentivized and rationalized society basically is an agent of dehumanization - because it robs human beings of their identities and freedom.

It is also from this perspective that I find the success of (pseudo-)Economics books which use the same homo economicus cliches to explain human affairs and the general public discourse which use similar language so depressing. If there is a more vulgar and philistine idea than "human being as utility maximizing automaton" ever thought by a human brain, I would like to know about that. The popular interpretations of Darwinian theories fall in the same category. Only this time it is not the material interests but rather biological interests (which are worse because they are supposed to be "hardwired" in the brain.) I must say that it is only the popularisers and journalists who interpret these theories that I find vulgar. I don't have any problems with these scientific disciplines or the real thinkers who must be aware of these philosophical issues.

All of this sounds very amateurish but this is also something that troubles me a lot personally. I think it is the primary source of alienation in our societies because it comes from the realization that our lives are instrumentalized as well. We are required to justify all of our actions in material terms as well, or some such notion defined in "rational" terms. This is also the reason why I find so much solace in art and literature and even blogging. You sell yourself everyday as alienated labour just so that you can buy some stupid shit. Blogging then feels like an escape, an escape into freedom.


Falstaff said...

I think one has to distinguish between the normative and the descriptive. One could certainly argue that human beings should act in ways that go beyond the 'rational' pursuit of narrow self-interest, and it is certainly true that at least some works of art are valuable precisely because they celebrate that kind of action. But it's hard to argue that the rational (or at least boundedly-rational) pursuit of narrow self-interest is not an accurate description of how the majority of human beings do, in fact, act.

In any case, the logic of incentives and of instrumental reason doesn't preclude moral action. For one thing, I would think the ethics of an action would depend upon the outcome it's instrumental in achieving. More importantly, nothing about the incentives / instrumental rationality perspective says that personal utility has to come from greater wealth, status, etc. Utility functions are almost always pre-existing and assumed. So if acting in ways that were 'ethical' or that helped other people was of positive utility to you, then you would rationally act in ways that were ethical / helped others.

Alok said...

I agree the distinction between the "normative" and the "descriptive" is quite important and I think there was some confusion between the two when I was thinking about it. This probably also explains how you manage to appreciate poetry and are also able to think and explain things in purely economic terms (I am thinking about your comments on marriage on the feminist blog)...

about ethics I was actually thinking about the idea of ethics that Greeks had - the concepts of "virtue" and "character" or actually any system of non-consequentialist or non-utilitarian ethics. This essay for example argues what I am trying to say in much more philosophically literate way. Decline of religion and rise of modern liberalism has made this kind of thinking unfashionable but I feel we need to reclaim that old idea of ethics. For example it is hard to to enter a conversation about the ethics of pornography these days. I am not saying it is either good or bad but rather that the language in which such discussion can take place itself is full of consequential thinking. Same is with the language concerning environmentalism. Nothing is good or bad in itself, one can only judge from the utility. This I felt was dehumanizing and also a convenient escape from responsibility, something which really defines who we are more than anything else.

Falstaff said...

alok: It's an interesting essay, but one I can't agree with. What it ignores, I think, is the problem of how these 'virtues' are to be arrived at. Either something is deemed a virtue because it is in some sense 'rational' or 'useful', which takes us back to instrumental reasoning, or it is deemed a virtue because those with power happen to like it and force everyone else to conform, so that the 'virtue' becomes a means of oppression. It's all very well to indulge in nostalgia for the golden past, but it's useful to remember that these 'virtuous' systems frequently involved significant amounts of suffering and suppression. To take just one example, much of the patriarchies stifling of the freedom of women is done in the name of 'virtue'. How many of the people enslaved under the old 'virtuous' systems would want to return to those times?

The recognition that to enforce a common social standards you need to either use reason or use force underlies the libertarian world view, which prefers the use of reason to the use of force. Even if libertarianism has created a world where the individual has the right to be unhappy in his or her own way (and I'm a) unconvinced that that's true and b) unconvinced that even if it is true it needs to be that way) it's still preferable, in my view, to a world where a few people have the power to be truly happy while everyone else suffers without freedom. To support a world based on incentives (and you do economists a disservice by ascribing that view only to them - the notion that behavior is motivated by outcomes is at least as much a psychological one) is to recognize that the alternative is a world based on coercion.

Alok said...

I didn't mean to say that enforcing a common social standard of morality was a good idea and I don't know what those final set of virtues will be like. That is something we all have to think about and that's what living an "examined life" is all about. I only wish that the public discourse and general debates and arguments would take ethical concepts into consideration and would at least see some value in a culture where people live their lives based on ethical principles.

For example take the example of the debates surrounding women getting equal wages. Now we get this smart MBA researcher who goes out and publishes a paper saying that giving women equal wages is good for the health of the organization! That is his argument! Or similarly some evolutionary psychologist has to *prove* some dumb theory like women can also do math or some crap like that, only then that original position can be justified.

I am not arguing against rationality or thinking at all. Just that rationality should mean much more than just rule following. Rationality in the ancient philosophical sense - Reason with a capital "R".

the notion that behavior is motivated by outcomes is at least as much a psychological one) is to recognize that the alternative is a world based on coercion.

Underground Man wouldn't agree. To him this expectation of following incentives is coercive too. The kind of rationality which doesn't come from the inside, something which is not part of who he is but is imposed from the outside.

Falstaff said...

Alok: I'm all for the examined life as well, but we need to ask what this examination consists of if not of some form of instrumental reasoning. How do we decide whether a certain action / quality is good or worthwhile without reference to what it achieves / makes possible? Why, for instance, is equality good? I would argue that the championing of virtues without explicit consideration of why those virtues are virtuous is as much, if not more, a form of rule following as anything instrumental reasoning could device.

In any case, notice that classical economics is emphatically not about rule-following. On the contrary, the typical economic agent is actually an extreme case of the examined life because she makes every decision based on a hyper-rational calculation of what will maximize her expected utility. It is precisely because real human beings are not capable of that kind of relentless reason that norms (aka rules aka virtues) evolve. So whatever else you want to blame economists for, you certainly can't blame them for encouraging rule following.

Finally, leaving aside the question of why Underground Man is relevant (I find it hard to believe that the Underground Man would be happy in a world run by virtues), I'm not sure how he is being coerced into anything. If he doesn't like the incentive system he's welcome to not participate in it. This may surprise others but no one is going to force him to accept a paradigm he doesn't want to. Which is the opposite of what a 'virtue' approach would require - because there everyone would be coerced into adhering to the norm.

Falstaff said...

Sorry, but just wanted to add a comment on your point about appreciating poetry. To me, the appreciation of poetry is inherently utilitarian - in that I assess poetry based on whether it stimulates / excites me, and not on whether it conforms to some theory or norm. As Marianne Moore puts it (and I quote from memory, so I may be getting this wrong) "These things are important not because some high-flown interpretation can be put upon them, but because they are useful."

Alok said...

I think I agree with what you are saying. I will have to think more on this...

I guess my original problem with instrumentality was only in so far as the final "good" was thought to be something materialistic or something else which is similarly easily quantifiable (like success in narrow careeristic sense). Like if you tell someone that you are passionate about poetry, she will tell you "oh so, why don't you try get a degree in poetry criticism instead?" As if otherwise all that time and effort you put into reading poetry would get wasted!

The other part was the way ethical questions were being diluted and obfuscated by bringing in science & economics. Gender Equality for example is primarily an ethical issue, not a scientific or an economic one (they may or may not play a part, that shouldn't change the nature of the debate). This I think links back to the confusion between nomative and descriptive which you pointed out earlier.