instrumental rationality versus moral reasoning

Fabio’s post about the ethics of Wal-Mart protesting caught my attention because I’ve been thinking quite a lot about this distinction between instrumentality and morality lately. I don’t see the two as in complete opposition, but as Selznick notes in his brilliant book The Moral Commonwealth, the two are often in tension:

[A] fundamental tension exists between instrumental rationality and moral reason. The former depends on definite purposes and clear criteria of cost and achievement, with a natural preference for specialization and for the autonomy of professional or craft decisions. This way of thinking tends to narrow perspectives and limit responsibilities. Moral reason, by contrast, makes goals problematic and broadens responsibility. It asks: Are the postulated ends worth pursuing, in the light of the means they seem to require? Are the institution’s values, as presently formulated, worthy of realization? What costs are imposed on other ends and other values? (321).

A main reason protesters of Wal-Mart take action is because they feel that Wal-Mart threatens a way of life, a particular set of values or meaningful experiences common in their community. Wal-Mart’s design, no matter what net consumption benefits it holds, is at odds with their core values. Thus, protesters are not assessing the ethicality of their decisions based on this kind of instrumental calculus that Fabio lays out. (You could say that even the local businesses that want to keep Wal-Mart out for fear of being displaced choose to combat Wal-Mart because of a commitment to a particular way of life more than they protest them as a threat to their economic well-being.) The cost-savings from having Wal-Mart in the community and the threat that Wal-Mart represents to their community ideals are incommensurable. Asking a community activist to evaluate the net increase in utility satisfaction with the introduction of Wal-Mart would be like asking Yavapai Indians to put a price tag on their ancestral homeland. Sorry, it’s just not going to happen.

In most cases, you might say that these two logics for action are compatible. First, you choose what values or ideals are worth pursuing, and then you formulate goals and design an organization that can help you accomplish this in a most effective way. Even protesters (or especially protesters) are aware of the importance of effective means to accomplishing their stated ends. But this distinction breaks down once you consider the various commitments that community activists have to a particular tactical repertoire and identity. One of the key insights from Selznick is that it’s very hard to distinguish means from ends. As soon as people organize, whether you’re talking about creating a Wal-Mart or an anti-Wal-Mart community organization, means quickly become bundled up with the very ends they were created to pursue. Gabriel’s summary of Jasper is pretty apt: “some people enjoy getting themselves worked up about WalMart.”  This is not to say that we shouldn’t have a conversation about whether stopping Wal-Mart is the right end (which I think is what made Fabio’s post so interesting), but it’s not a simple thing to break down that ethical decision down to one simple metric when the groups involved have very different views about the way the world should be.

Thus, judging the ethicality of protesters depends a lot on which institutional point-of-view you’re taking: capitalist society or the local community. From one vantage point bringing in Wal-Mart makes a lot of sense, but from the other it may be morally objectionable.


Written by brayden king

December 6, 2010 at 10:35 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Just to emphasize, you can find all these points in the ancient greek philosophers. But it’s certainly a philosophical discussion, in contrast to Fabio’s simple calculus.



    December 7, 2010 at 8:42 am

  2. […] « Instrumental rationality versus moral reasoning » – […]


  3. […] our conversation about the ethics of protesting Wal-Mart, it occurred to me that one of the substantive values at stake for the local […]


  4. I’ve always felt that the most good most protests do is for the protestors themselves. Protesting Wal-Mart means that many communities have loud conversations in their local newspapers, school boards, and around dinner tables about what their values as a community are and about what they should or shouldn’t allow. Protesting something, or responding against a protest, or just trying to decide how one feels about an issue, means a level of engagement that might not otherwise have happened if everyone had just taken Wal-Mart’s arrival as a given.


    Benjamin Mako Hill

    December 19, 2010 at 7:21 am

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