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

207 found
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  1. 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 (...)
  2. 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 (...)
  3. Reasons for Reliance.Facundo M. Alonso - 2016 - Ethics 126 (2):311-338.
    Philosophers have in general offered only a partial view of the normative grounds of reliance. Some maintain that either one of evidence or of pragmatic considerations has a normative bearing on reliance, but are silent about whether the other kind of consideration has such a bearing on it as well. Others assert that both kinds of considerations have a normative bearing on reliance, but sidestep the question of what their relative normative bearing is. My aim in this article is to (...)
  4. The Rationality of Intransitive Preference: Foundations for the Modern View.Paul Anand - 2009 - In Paul Anand, Prasanta Pattanaik & Clemens Puppe (eds.), Handbook of Rational and Social Choice. Oxford University Press.
  5. Democracy: Instrumental Vs. Non-Instrumental Value.Elizabeth Anderson - 2009 - In Thomas Christiano & John Philip Christman (eds.), Contemporary Debates in Political Philosophy. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 213--227.
  6. The Real Puzzle of the Self-Torturer: Uncovering a New Dimension of Instrumental Rationality.Chrisoula Andreou - 2015 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 45 (5-6):562-575.
    The puzzle of the self-torturer raises intriguing questions concerning rationality, cyclic preferences, and resoluteness. Interestingly, what makes the case puzzling has not been clearly pinpointed. The puzzle, it seems, is that a series of rational choices foreseeably leads the self-torturer to an option that serves his preferences worse than the one with which he started. But this is a very misleading way of casting the puzzle. I pinpoint the real puzzle of the self-torturer and, in the process, reveal a neglected (...)
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  7. The Good, the Bad, and the Trivial.Chrisoula Andreou - 2014 - Philosophical Studies 169 (2):209-225.
    Dreadful and dreaded outcomes are sometimes brought about via the accumulation of individually trivial effects. Think about inching toward terrible health or toward an environmental disaster. In some such cases, the outcome is seen as unacceptable but is still gradually realized via an extended sequence of moves each of which is trivial in terms of its impact on the health or environment of those involved. Cases of this sort are not only practically challenging, they are theoretically challenging as well. For, (...)
  8. Temptation, Resolutions, and Regret.Chrisoula Andreou - 2014 - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 57 (3):275-292.
    Discussion of temptation has figured prominently in recent debates concerning instrumental rationality. In light of some particularly interesting cases in which giving in to temptation involves acting in accordance with one’s current evaluative rankings, two lines of thought have been developed: one appeals to the possibility of deviating from a well-grounded resolution, and the other appeals to the possibility of being insufficiently responsive to the prospect of future regret. But the current appeals to resolutions and regret and some of the (...)
  9. Self-Defeating Self-Governance.Chrisoula Andreou - 2012 - Philosophical Issues 22 (1):20-34.
    My aim in this paper is to initiate and contribute to debate concerning the possibility of behavior that is both self-defeating and self-governed. In the first section of the paper, I review a couple of points that figure in the literature as platitudes about (the relevant notion of) self-governance. In the second section, I explain how these points give rise to what seems to be a dilemma that suggests that informed self-defeating behavior, wherein one is aware of the consequences of (...)
  10. 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 (...)
  11. Understanding Procrastination.Chrisoula Andreou - 2007 - Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 37 (2):183–193.
    Procrastination is frustrating. Because the procrastinator's frustration is self-imposed, procrastination can also be quite puzzling. I consider attempts at explaining, or explaining away, what appear to be genuine cases of procrastination. According to the position that I propose and defend, genuine procrastination exists and is supported by preference loops, which can be either stable or evanescent.
  12. 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 (...)
  13. 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 (...)
  14. The Voices of Reason.Chrisoula Andreou - 2005 - American Philosophical Quarterly 42 (1):33 - 45.
    It is widely held that instrumental reasoning to a practical conclusion is parasitic on non-instrumental practical reasoning. This conclusion is based on the claim that when there is no reason to adopt a certain end, there is no reason to take the means (qua means) to that end. But, as will be argued, while there is a sense of reason according to which the previous statement is true, there is another sense according to which it is false. Furthermore, in both (...)
  15. Instrumentally Rational Myopic Planning.Chrisoula Andreou - 2004 - Philosophical Papers 33 (2):133-145.
    Abstract I challenge the view that, in cases where time for deliberation is not an issue, instrumental rationality precludes myopic planning. I show where there is room for instrumentally rational myopic planning, and then argue that such planning is possible not only in theory, it is something human beings can and do engage in. The possibility of such planning has, however, been disregarded, and this disregard has skewed related debates concerning instrumental rationality.
  16. The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination.Chrisoula Andreou & Mark D. White (eds.) - 2010 - Oxford University Press.
  17. 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. Technique and Enlightenment: Limits of Instrumental Reason in the Life-World.Ian H. Angus - 1980 - Dissertation, York University (Canada)
    The present work develops the concept of instrumental reason in order to elaborate the implications of the connection of formalistic theory and technical action. Through a critique of this concept it establishes the limitations of instrumental reason and the necessity for a deeper conception o.
  19. 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 (...)
  20. On Risk and Rationality.Brad Armendt - 2014 - Erkenntnis 79 (S6):1-9.
    It is widely held that the influence of risk on rational decisions is not entirely explained by the shape of an agent’s utility curve. Buchak (Erkenntnis, 2013, Risk and rationality, Oxford University Press, Oxford, in press) presents an axiomatic decision theory, risk-weighted expected utility theory (REU), in which decision weights are the agent’s subjective probabilities modified by his risk-function r. REU is briefly described, and the global applicability of r is discussed. Rabin’s (Econometrica 68:1281–1292, 2000) calibration theorem strongly suggests that (...)
  21. 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 (...)
  22. How to Rationally Approach Life's Transformative Experiences.Marcus Arvan - 2015 - Philosophical Psychology 28 (8):1199-1218.
    In a widely discussed forthcoming article, “What you can't expect when you're expecting,” L. A. Paul challenges culturally and philosophically traditional views about how to rationally make major life-decisions, most specifically the decision of whether to have children. The present paper argues that because major life-decisions are transformative, the only rational way to approach them is to become resilient people: people who do not “over-plan” their lives or expect their lives to play out “according to plan”—people who understand that beyond (...)
  23. 2 Prospects for a Naturalization of Practical Reason: Instrumentalism and the Normative Authority of Desire.Robert Audi - 2007 - In Michael O'Rourke Corey Washington (ed.), Situating Semantics: Essays on the Philosophy of John Perry. pp. 41.
  24. 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.
  25. 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 (...)
  26. Rationality, Value, and Preference.Kurt Baier - 1988 - Social Philosophy and Policy 5 (2):17.
    Gauthier's magnificent book erects a conception of morality, “morals by agreement,” on the foundation of his own theory of practical rationality. This is as it should be if, as he claims, following Hobbes and others, there is an initial “presumption against morality” and no theory of morals “can ever serve any useful purpose, unless it can show that all the duties it recommends are also truly endorsed in each individual's reason”, indeed, that it is a requirement of rationality that one (...)
  27. Procrastination as Vice. Baker - 2010 - In Chrisoula Andreou Mark D. White (ed.), The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. Oxford University Press.
    Philosophers often give procrastination an anemic description—a preference, a confl ict, a case of irrationality. Presumably, this is done in order to make it susceptible to analysis. But if one makes use of ethical theory, particularly one with an accompanying account of moral psychology, no arid depiction of procrastination is necessary. An ethical theory that is robust enough—such as traditional virtue ethics—can meet procrastination head on, unhindered by its complex emotionality and opaque intentionality. It can then place it alongside similarly (...)
  28. Ambivalent Desires and the Problem with Reduction.Derek Clayton Baker - 2010 - Philosophical Studies 150 (1):37-47.
    Ambivalence is most naturally characterized as a case of conflicting desires. In most cases, an agent’s intrinsic desires conflict contingently: there is some possible world in which both desires would be satisfied. This paper argues, though, that there are cases in which intrinsic desires necessarily conflict—i.e., the desires are not jointly satisfiable in any possible world. Desiring a challenge for its own sake is a paradigm case of such a desire. Ambivalence of this sort in an agent’s desires creates special (...)
  29. Maximizing, Satisficing and the Normative Distinction Between Means and Ends.Robert Bass - manuscript
    Decision theory, understood as providing a normative account of rationality in action, is often thought to be an adequate formalization of instrumental reasoning. As a model, there is much to be said for it. However, if decision theory is to adequately account for correct instrumental reasoning, then the axiomatic conditions by which it links preference to action must be normative for choice. That is, a choice must be rationally defective unless it proceeds from a preference set that satisfies the axiomatic (...)
  30. Sunk Costs.Robert Bass - manuscript
    Decision theorists generally object to “honoring sunk costs” – that is, treating the fact that some cost has been incurred in the past as a reason for action, apart from the consideration of expected consequences. This paper critiques the doctrine that sunk costs should never be honored on three levels. As background, the rationale for the doctrine is explained. Then it is shown that if it is always irrational to honor sunk costs, then other common and uncontroversial practices are also (...)
  31. A Critique of Benchmark Theory.Robert Bassett - 2015 - Synthese 192 (1):241-267.
    Benchmark theory , introduced by Ralph Wedgwood, departs from decision theories of pure expectation maximization like evidential decision theory and causal decision theory and instead ranks actions according to the desirability of an outcome they produce in some state of affairs compared to a standard—a benchmark—for that state of affairs. Wedgwood motivates BT through what he terms Gandalf’s principle, that the merits of an action in a given state should be evaluated relative only to the performances of other actions in (...)
  32. The Special Status of Instrumental Reasons.Stephanie Beardman - 2007 - Philosophical Studies 134 (2):255 - 287.
    The rationality of means-end reasoning is the bedrock of the Humean account of practical reasons. But the normativity of such reasoning can not be taken for granted. I consider and reject the idea that the normativity of instrumental reasoning can be explained – either in terms of its being constitutive of the very notion of having an end, or solely in terms of instrumental considerations. I argue that the instrumental principle is itself a brute norm, and that this is consistent (...)
  33. Acquisition of Instrumental Responding Following Noncontingent Reinforcement: Failure to Observe “Learned Laziness” in Rats.William W. Beatty & William S. Maki - 1979 - Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 13 (4):268-271.
  34. 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.
  35. 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 (...)
  36. Incentive Value of Success and Instrumental Approach Behavior.David Birch - 1964 - Journal of Experimental Psychology 68 (2):131.
  37. Practical Tortoise Raising.Simon Blackburn - 1995 - Mind 104 (416):695-711.
    In this paper I am not so much concerned with movements of the mind, as movements of the will. But my question bears a similarity to that of the tortoise. I want to ask whether the will is under the control of fact and reason, combined. I shall try to show that there is always something else, something that is not under the control of fact and reason, which has to be given as a brute extra, if deliberation is ever (...)
  38. Review of Kirk Ludwig, From Individual to Plural Agency, Collective Action: Volume 1. [REVIEW]Olle Blomberg - 2018 - Philosophical Quarterly 68 (272):626-628.
  39. The Superintelligent Will: Motivation and Instrumental Rationality in Advanced Artificial Agents. [REVIEW]Nick Bostrom - 2012 - Minds and Machines 22 (2):71-85.
    This paper discusses the relation between intelligence and motivation in artificial agents, developing and briefly arguing for two theses. The first, the orthogonality thesis, holds (with some caveats) that intelligence and final goals (purposes) are orthogonal axes along which possible artificial intellects can freely vary—more or less any level of intelligence could be combined with more or less any final goal. The second, the instrumental convergence thesis, holds that as long as they possess a sufficient level of intelligence, agents having (...)
  40. Intention, Belief, and Instrumental Rationality.Michael Bratman - 2009 - In David Sobel & Steven Wall (eds.), Reasons for Action. Cambridge University Press. pp. 13--36.
    Two approaches to instrumental rationality Suppose I intend end E, believe that a necessary means to E is M, and believe that M requires that I intend M. My attitudes concerning E and M engage a basic requirement of practical rationality, a requirement that, barring a change in my cited beliefs, I either intend M or give up intending E.2 Call this the Instrumental Rationality requirement – for short, the IR requirement.
  41. Temptation Revisited.Michael Bratman - 2007 - In Bruno Verbeek (ed.), Reasons and Intentions. Ashgate.
  42. Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason.Michael Bratman - 1987 - Center for the Study of Language and Information.
    What happens to our conception of mind and rational agency when we take seriously future-directed intentions and plans and their roles as inputs into further practical reasoning? The author's initial efforts in responding to this question resulted in a series of papers that he wrote during the early 1980s. In this book, Bratman develops further some of the main themes of these essays and also explores a variety of related ideas and issues. He develops a planning theory of intention. Intentions (...)
  43. Intention and Means-End Reasoning.Michael Bratman - 1981 - Philosophical Review 90 (2):252-265.
  44. I Two Approaches to Instrumental Rationality.Michael E. Bratman - 2009 - In David Sobel Steven Wall (ed.), Reasons for Action. pp. 13.
  45. Broome, John. Rationality Through Reasoning.Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Pp. 322. $99.95.Aaron Bronfman - 2015 - Ethics 125 (4):1194-1199.
  46. Review: John Broome, Rationality Through Reasoning. [REVIEW]Aaron Bronfman - 2015 - Ethics 125 (4):1194-1199.
  47. Review: John Broome, Rationality Through Reasoning. [REVIEW]Review by: Aaron Bronfman - 2015 - Ethics 125 (4):1194-1199,.
  48. Instrumental Reasoning.John Broome - 2000 - In Julian Nida-Rümelin & Wolfgang Spohn (eds.), Rationality, Rules and Structure. Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp. 195-207.
    Like all reasoning, practical reasoning is a process that takes a person from some of her existing mental states to a new mental state. Theoretical reasoning concludes in a belief; practical reasoning in an intention. This paper concentrates on instrumental reasoning, a species of practical reasoning in general. It argues that instrumental reasoning is correct if the content of the reasoning is a valid derivation, just as theoretical reasoning is correct if its content is a valid derivation. It also argues (...)
  49. Second-Order Preferences and Instrumental Rationality.Donald W. Bruckner - 2011 - Acta Analytica 26 (4):367-385.
    A second-order preference is a preference over preferences. This paper addresses the role that second-order preferences play in a theory of instrumental rationality. I argue that second-order preferences have no role to play in the prescription or evaluation of actions aimed at ordinary ends. Instead, second-order preferences are relevant to prescribing or evaluating actions only insofar as those actions have a role in changing or maintaining first-order preferences. I establish these claims by examining and rejecting the view that second-order preferences (...)
  50. Review: Mark Schroeder, Explaining the Reasons We Share: Explanation and Expression in Ethics. [REVIEW]John Brunero - 2015 - Ethics 126 (1):238-244.
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