About this topic

To be instrumentally rational is, roughly, to take necessary and effective means to one’s end. For instance, if you decide to give up smoking, it would be instrumentally rational to stop buying cigarettes, and to limit the time you spend around other smokers. It would be irrational not to take any means to this end. Instrumental rationality raises several sets of questions, including: (i) what are the principles of instrumental rationality? (ii) what is the normative status of the principles of instrumental rationality? (iii) might instrumental rationality be all of practical rationality?

Key works

Much recent discussion of this topic takes off from Bratman 1987, Broome 1999, and Korsgaard 1997. Kolodny 2005, Raz 2005, and Schroeder 2009 are central contributions to the subsequent debate. A different stream in the literature focuses on decision theory as a theory of instrumental rationality.Gauthier 1986 includes a classic and fairly accessible statement of this idea.


Related categories

208 found
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  1. added 2019-01-01
    Subjectivism, Instrumentalism, and Prudentialism About Reasons: On the Normativity of Instrumental Transmission.Arash Abizadeh - forthcoming - European Journal of Philosophy.
    According to a subjectivist theory, normative reasons are grounded in facts about our desires. According to an instrumentalist theory, reasons are grounded also in facts about the relevant means to desired objects. These are distinct theories. The widespread tendency to conflate the normativity of subjective and instrumentalist precepts obscures two facts. First, instrumentalist precepts incorporate a subjective element with an objective one. Second, combining these elements into a single theory of normative reasons requires explaining how and why they are to (...)
  2. added 2018-09-18
    Cognitivism About Practical Rationality.John Brunero - 2014 - Oxford Studies in Metaethics 9:18-44.
  3. added 2018-09-14
    What is Good Reasoning?Conor McHugh & Jonathan Way - 2018 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research:153-174.
    What makes the difference between good and bad reasoning? In this paper we defend a novel account of good reasoning—both theoretical and practical—according to which it preserves fittingness or correctness: good reasoning is reasoning which is such as to take you from fitting attitudes to further fitting attitudes, other things equal. This account, we argue, is preferable to two others that feature in the recent literature. The first, which has been made prominent by John Broome, holds that the standards of (...)
    No categories
  4. added 2018-08-01
    Practical Reason, Sympathy and Reactive Attitudes.Max Khan Hayward - 2017 - Noûs.
    This paper has three aims. First, I defend, in its most radical form, Hume's scepticism about practical reason, as it applies to purely self-regarding matters. It's not always irrational to discount the future, to be inconstant in one's preferences, to have incompatible desires, to not pursue the means to one's ends, or to fail to maximize one's own good. Second, I explain how our response to the “irrational” agent should be understood as an expression of frustrated sympathy, in Adam Smith's (...)
  5. added 2018-06-05
    Do Hypothetical Imperatives Require Categorical Imperatives?Jeremy Schwartz - 2010 - European Journal of Philosophy 18 (1):84-107.
    : Recently, the idea that every hypothetical imperative must somehow be ‘backed up’ by a prior categorical imperative has gained a certain influence among Kant interpreters and ethicists influenced by Kant. Since instrumentalism is the position that holds that hypothetical imperatives can by themselves and without the aid of categorical imperatives explain all valid forms of practical reasoning, the influential idea amounts to a rejection of instrumentalism as internally incoherent. This paper argues against this prevailing view both as an interpretation (...)
  6. added 2018-05-25
    Willing the End Means Willing the Means: An Overlooked Reading of Kant.Wooram Lee - 2018 - Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 5.
    In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant famously calls the following proposition “analytic”: “whoever wills the end also wills the indispensably necessary means to it that is in his control”. Read naïvely, with little attention to the caveat in the parenthesis, this proposition is most straightforwardly interpreted as specifying a descriptive relation between willing an end and willing the necessary means to it. It simply tells us what we do in willing an end, not what we ought to (...)
  7. added 2018-05-11
    Trying Cognitivism: A Defence of the Strong Belief Thesis.Avery Archer - 2018 - Theoria 84 (2):140-156.
    According to the Strong Belief Thesis (SBT), intending to X entails the belief that one will X. John Brunero has attempted to impugn SBT by arguing that there are cases in which an agent intends to X but is unsure that she will X. Moreover, he claims that the standard reply to such putative counterexamples to SBT – namely, to claim that the unsure agent merely has an intention to try – comes at a high price. Specifically, it prevents SBT (...)
  8. added 2018-03-28
    On What Is in Front of Your Nose.Anton Ford - 2016 - Philosophical Topics 44 (1):141-161.
    The conclusion of practical reasoning is commonly said to rest upon a diverse pair of representations—a “major” and a “minor” premise—the first of which concerns the end and the second, the means. Modern and contemporary philosophers writing on action and practical reasoning tend to portray the minor premise as a “means-end belief”—a belief about, as Michael Smith puts it, “the ways in which one thing leads to another,” or, as John McDowell puts it, “what can be relied on to bring (...)
  9. added 2018-02-16
    Instrumental Desires, Instrumental Rationality.Michael Smith - 2004 - Supplement to the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 78 (1):93-109.
    The requirements of instrumental rationality are often thought to be normative conditions on choice or intention, but this is a mistake. Instrumental rationality is best understood as a requirement of coherence on an agent's non-instrumental desires and means-end beliefs. Since only a subset of an agent's means-end beliefs concern possible actions, the connection with intention is thus more oblique. This requirement of coherence can be satisfied either locally or more globally, it may be only one among a number of such (...)
  10. added 2018-01-24
    Review of Elijah Milgram Practical Induction. [REVIEW]Sarah Buss - 1999 - Philosophical Review 108 (4):571.
  11. added 2017-12-28
    Review: John Broome, Rationality Through Reasoning. [REVIEW]Review by: Aaron Bronfman - 2015 - Ethics 125 (4):1194-1199,.
  12. added 2017-12-27
    Review: Mark Schroeder, Explaining the Reasons We Share: Explanation and Expression in Ethics. [REVIEW]John Brunero - 2015 - Ethics 126 (1):238-244.
  13. added 2017-12-27
    Broome, John. Rationality Through Reasoning.Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Pp. 322. $99.95.Aaron Bronfman - 2015 - Ethics 125 (4):1194-1199.
  14. added 2017-12-27
    Review: Mark Schroeder, Explaining the Reasons We Share: Explanation and Expression in Ethics. [REVIEW]Review by: John Brunero - 2015 - Ethics 126 (1):238-244.
  15. added 2017-12-27
    Review: John Broome, Rationality Through Reasoning. [REVIEW]Aaron Bronfman - 2015 - Ethics 125 (4):1194-1199.
  16. added 2017-12-27
    Two Approaches to Instrumental Rationality and Belief Consistency.John Brunero - 2005 - Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 1 (1):1-20.
    R. Jay Wallace argues that the normativity of instrumental rationality can be traced to the independent rational requirement to hold consistent beliefs. I present three objections to this view. John Broome argues that there is a structural similarity between the rational requirements of instrumental rationality and belief consistency. Since he does not reduce the former to the latter, his view can avoid the objections to Wallace’s view. However, we should not think Broome’s account explains the whole of instrumental rationality since (...)
  17. added 2017-12-06
    The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination.Chrisoula Andreou & Mark D. White (eds.) - 2010 - Oxford University Press.
    When we fail to achieve our goals, procrastination is often the culprit. But how exactly is procrastination to be understood? This edited volume integrates the problem of procrastination into philosophical inquiry, exploring the relationship of procrastination to agency, rationality, and ethics--topics that philosophy is well-suited to address.
  18. added 2017-11-30
    Temptation Revisited.Michael Bratman - 2007 - In Bruno Verbeek (ed.), Reasons and Intentions. Ashgate.
  19. added 2017-11-24
    Review of Kirk Ludwig, From Individual to Plural Agency, Collective Action: Volume 1. [REVIEW]Olle Blomberg - 2018 - Philosophical Quarterly 68 (272):626-628.
  20. added 2017-11-07
    A New Theory of Humean Reasons? A Critical Note on Schroeder's Hypotheticalism.Matthew Bedke - 2008 - Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy (3):1-5.
  21. added 2017-11-03
    A Paradox for Supertask Decision Makers.Andrew Bacon - 2011 - Philosophical Studies 153 (2):307.
    I consider two puzzles in which an agent undergoes a sequence of decision problems. In both cases it is possible to respond rationally to any given problem yet it is impossible to respond rationally to every problem in the sequence, even though the choices are independent. In particular, although it might be a requirement of rationality that one must respond in a certain way at each point in the sequence, it seems it cannot be a requirement to respond as such (...)
  22. added 2017-10-31
    What Kind of Theory is the Humean Theory of Motivation?Caroline T. Arruda - 2017 - Ratio 30 (3):322-342.
    I consider an underappreciated problem for proponents of the Humean theory of motivation. Namely, it is unclear whether is it to be understood as a largely psychological or largely metaphysical theory. I show that the psychological interpretation of HTM will need to be modified in order to be a tenable view and, as it will turn out, the modifications required render it virtually philosophically empty. I then argue that the largely metaphysical interpretation is the only a plausible interpretation of HTM's (...)
  23. added 2017-10-31
    The Scope of Motivation and the Basis of Practical Reason.Robert Audi - 1999 - Philosophic Exchange 29 (1).
    This paper explores the relationship between motivation, desire, pleasure and value. I argue that the motivational grounds of action are the kinds of desires that tend, in rational persons, to be produced both by experience of the good, and by beliefs that something one can do would be good.
  24. added 2017-10-30
    The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination.Chrisoula Andreou & Mark D. White (eds.) - 2010 - Oxford University Press.
  25. added 2017-10-10
    Rationality and Morality.E. M. Adams - 1993 - Review of Metaphysics 46 (4):683 - 697.
    The purpose of the article is to challenge widely accepted views of the relationship among rationality, morality, and prudence. It contends that we cannot understand either the rational or the moral enterprise without a correct philosophical view of the human self, and that such a view of the self is impossible without taking account of the rational and the moral enterprises themselves. The paper concludes that the moral point of view is anchored in the nature of selfhood so that one (...)
  26. added 2017-09-28
    Repliken.Benjamin Kiesewetter - 2017 - Zeitschrift für Philosophische Forschung 71 (4):578-83.
    This a a reply to Gerhard Ernst's and Erasmus Mayr's critical comments on my book 'The Normativity of Rationality'.
  27. added 2017-07-17
    Constitutive Arguments.Ariela Tubert - 2010 - Philosophy Compass 5 (8):656-666.
    Can the question "Why do what morality requires?" be answered in such a way that anyone regardless of their desires or interests has reason to be moral? One strategy for answering this question appeals to constitutive arguments. In general, constitutive arguments attempt to establish the normativity of rational requirements by pointing out that we are already committed to them insofar as we are believers or agents. This study is concerned with the general prospects for such arguments. It starts by explaining (...)
  28. added 2017-06-25
    Circularity, Naturalism, and Desire-Based Reasons.Attila Tanyi - 2017 - Res Philosophica 94 (4):451-470.
    In this paper, I propose a critique of the naturalist version of the Desire-Based Reasons Model. I first set the scene by spelling out the connection between naturalism and the Model. After this, I introduce Christine Korsgaard’s circularity argument against what she calls the instrumental principle. Since Korsgaard’s targets, officially, were non-naturalist advocates of the principle, I show why and how the circularity charge can be extended to cover the naturalist Model. Once this is done, I go on to investigate (...)
  29. added 2017-02-01
    Neither Humean nor (Fully) Kantian Be: Reply to Cuypers.Harvey Siegel - 2005 - Journal of Philosophy of Education 39 (3):535–547.
  30. added 2017-01-27
    Instrumental Rationality.Timo Airaksinen & Katri Kaalikoski - 1994 - ProtoSociology 6:177-188.
    The standard view of rationality distinguishes between instrumental rationality and the rationality of ends. We discuss this conception briefly before introducing an alternative theory. According to it, means and ends are interconnected so that the means will produce the ends. In other words, the means are used to shape our ends. We describe and discuss this view, asking whether it can be called rationality. It is clear that this alternative view has many irrational features. But at the same time it (...)
  31. added 2017-01-26
    Critique of the Instrumental Interest in Nature.Trent Schroyer - 1983 - Social Research 50.
  32. added 2017-01-22
    Why Is Instrumental Rationality Rational?Troy Jollimore - 2005 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 35 (2):289 - 307.
  33. added 2017-01-22
    Some Postulates for an Instrumental Philosophy.Orland O. Norris - 1931 - The Monist 41 (3):407-433.
  34. added 2017-01-18
    Means/Ends Rationality.Morton A. Kaplan - 1976 - Ethics 87 (1):61-65.
  35. added 2017-01-17
    From Interrelational Ontology to Instrumental Ethics in Advance.Lenore Langsdorf - forthcoming - Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology.
  36. added 2017-01-17
    The Current Metamorphosis of Instrumental Rationality.Michael Hauser - 2014 - Philosophy Study 4 (7).
  37. added 2017-01-16
    The Groundless Normativity of Instrumental Rationality.Donald C. Hubin - 2001 - Journal of Philosophy 98 (9):445.
  38. added 2017-01-14
    V. Instrumental Rationality and Its Limits.Robert Nozick - 1994 - In The Nature of Rationality. Princeton University Press. pp. 133-182.
  39. added 2016-12-12
    The Authority of Reason.Jean E. Hampton - 2009 - Cambridge University Press.
    This challenging and provocative book argues against much contemporary orthodoxy in philosophy and the social sciences by showing why objectivity in the domain of ethics is really no different from the objectivity of scientific knowledge. Many philosophers and social scientists have challenged the idea that we act for objectively authoritative reasons. Jean Hampton takes up the challenge by undermining two central assumptions of this contemporary orthodoxy: that one can understand instrumental reasons without appeal to objective authority, and that the adoption (...)
  40. added 2016-12-12
    Satisficing and Maximizing: Moral Theorists on Practical Reason.Michael Byron (ed.) - 2004 - Cambridge University Press.
    How do we think about what we plan to do? One dominant answer is that we select the best possible option available. However, a growing number of philosophers would offer a different answer: since we are not equipped to maximize we often choose the next best alternative, one that is no more than satisfactory. This strategy choice is called satisficing. This collection of essays explores both these accounts of practical reason, examining the consequences for adopting one or the other for (...)
  41. added 2016-12-08
    Reasons for Action.David Sobel & Steven Wall (eds.) - 2010 - Cambridge University Press.
    What are our reasons for acting? Morality purports to give us these reasons, and so do norms of prudence and the laws of society. The theory of practical reason assesses the authority of these potentially competing claims, and for this reason philosophers with a wide range of interests have converged on the topic of reasons for action. This volume contains eleven essays on practical reason by leading and emerging philosophers. Topics include the differences between practical and theoretical rationality, practical conditionals (...)
  42. added 2016-12-08
    The Newxin Puzzle.Chrisoula Andreou - 2008 - Philosophical Studies 139 (3):415-422.
    A variety of thought experiments suggest that, if the standard picture of practical rationality is correct, then practical rationality is sometimes an obstacle to practical success. For some, this in turn suggests that there is something wrong with the standard picture. In particular, it has been argued that we should revise the standard picture so that practical rationality and practical success emerge as more closely connected than the current picture allows. In this paper, I construct a choice situation—which I refer (...)
  43. added 2016-12-08
    The Structure of Instrumental Practical Reasoning.Christian Miller - 2007 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 75 (1):1–40.
    The view to be defended in this paper is intended to be a novel and compelling model of instrumental practical reasoning, reasoning aimed at determining how to act in order to achieve a given end in a certain set of circumstances. On standard views of instrumental reasoning, the end in question is the object of a particular desire that the agent has, a desire which, when combined with the agent’s beliefs about what means are available to him or her in (...)
  44. added 2016-12-08
    Temptation and Deliberation.Chrisoula Andreou - 2006 - Philosophical Studies 131 (3):583-606.
    There is a great deal of plausibility to the standard view that if one is rational and it is clear at the time of action that a certain move, say M1, would serve one’s concerns better than any other available move, then one will, as a rational agent, opt for move M1. Still, this view concerning rationality has been challenged at least in part because it seems to conflict with our considered judgments about what it is rational to do in (...)
  45. added 2016-12-08
    Might Intentions Be the Only Source of Practical Imperatives?Chrisoula Andreou - 2006 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 9 (3):311-325.
    I focus on the broadly instrumentalist view that all genuine practical imperatives are hypothetical imperatives and all genuine practical deliberation is deliberation from existing motivations. After indicating why I see instrumentalism as highly plausible, I argue that the most popular version of instrumentalism, according to which genuine practical imperatives can take desires as their starting point, is problematic. I then provide a limited defense of what I see as a more radical but also more compelling version of instrumentalism. According to (...)
  46. added 2016-12-08
    Instrumental Rationality and Carroll's Tortoise.John Brunero - 2005 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 8 (5):557-569.
    Some philosophers have tried to establish a connection between the normativity of instrumental rationality and the paradox presented by Lewis Carroll in his 1895 paper “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.” I here examine and argue against accounts of this connection presented by Peter Railton and James Dreier before presenting my own account and discussing its implications for instrumentalism (the view that all there is to practical rationality is instrumental rationality). In my view, the potential for a Carroll-style regress just (...)
  47. added 2016-12-08
    Practical Reason and the Stability Standard.Valerie Tiberius - 2002 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 5 (3):339-354.
    In this paper I argue that one of the standards that governs practical reasoning is the stability standard. The stability standard, I argue, is a norm that is constitutive of practical reasoning: insofar as we do not take violations of this norm to be relevant considerations, we do not count as engaged in reasoning at all. Furthermore, I argue that it is a standard we can explicitly employ in order to deliberate about our ends or desires themselves. Importantly, this standard (...)
  48. added 2016-12-08
    Knowledge, Belief, and Strategic Interaction.Cristina Bicchieri & Maria Luisa Dalla Chiara (eds.) - 1992 - Cambridge University Press.
    There has been a great deal of interaction among game theorists, philosophers and logicians in certain foundational problems concerning rationality, the formalization of knowledge and practical reasoning, and models of learning and deliberation. This volume brings together the work of some of the pre-eminent figures in their respective disciplines, all of whom are engaged in research at the forefront of their fields. Together they offer a conspectus of the interaction of game theory, logic and epistemology in the formal models of (...)
  49. added 2016-10-29
    Instrumentalism About Practical Reason: Not by Default.Thomas Schmidt - 2016 - Philosophical Explorations 19 (1):17-27.
    Instrumentalism is the view that all requirements of practical reason can be derived from the instrumental principle, that is, from the claim that one ought to take the suitable means to one's ends. Rationalists, by contrast, hold that there are requirements of practical reason that concern the normative acceptability of ends. To the extent that rationalists put forward these requirements in addition to the instrumental principle, rationalism might seem to go beyond instrumentalism in its normative commitments. This is why it (...)
  50. added 2016-10-12
    Epistemic Instrumentalism and the Reason to Believe in Accord with the Evidence.Nathaniel Sharadin - 2018 - Synthese 195 (9):3791-3809.
    Epistemic instrumentalists face a puzzle. In brief, the puzzle is that if the reason there is to believe in accord with the evidence depends, as the instrumentalist says it does, on agents’ idiosyncratic interests, then there is no reason to expect that this reason is universal. Here, I identify and explain two strategies instrumentalists have used to try and solve this puzzle. I then argue that we should find these strategies wanting. Faced with the failure of these strategies, I articulate (...)
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