Epistemic Rationality as Instrumental Rationality: A Critique
Appeared in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. LXVI, No.3, May 2003
University of Notre Dame
My aim in this paper is to explore the relationship between epistemic rationality and instrumental rationality. By epistemic rationality, I mean, roughly, the kind of rationality which one displays when one believes propositions that are strongly supported by one's evidence and refrains from believing propositions that are improbable given one's evidence. Prominent epistemologists frequently emphasize the disparate ways in which this term is employed and occasionally question its theoretical usefulness on this account.1 With an eye towards such concerns, I will in what follows consider only examples in which the correctness of its application is more or less uncontroversial. Thus, if I have strong, undefeated evidence that the butler committed the crime, and my belief that the butler committed the crime is based on that evidence, then my belief that he did so is epistemically rational. By instrumental rationality, I mean the rationality which one displays in taking the means to one's ends. Thus, if I have the goal of asking the speaker a question, and I know that I will only be able to ask the speaker a question if I raise my hand, then (all else being equal) it is instrumentally rational for me to raise my hand.
How are epistemic and instrumental rationality related? Here is a particularly radical suggestion: epistemic rationality just is instrumental rationality. More precisely: epistemic rationality is a species of instrumental rationality, viz. instrumental rationality in the service of one's cognitive or epistemic goals. Call this way of thinking about epistemic rationality the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality. My primary concern in this paper is to explore the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality--what is involved in thinking about epistemic rationality in this way, why this view would be of philosophical importance if true, and whether it is true or false. I will argue that although it possesses a certain intuitive appeal and enjoys considerable popularity among both epistemologists and philosophers of science, the instrumentalist conception is ultimately indefensible. After having argued for the distinctness of epistemic rationality and instrumental rationality, I will in a final section of the paper attempt to delineate the role of each in typical instances of theoretical reasoning.
First, some clarification. On anyone's view, the fact that I possess certain cognitive goals can make it instrumentally rational for me to do things which it would not be instrumentally rational for me to do, if I did not possess those goals. Suppose that, wanting to know the identity of the person who committed the crime, I engage in the activity of looking for evidence which bears on the question. Here, the fact that I have the goal of learning a certain truth gives me an instrumental reason to act in a certain way: all else being equal, it is rational for me to engage in the activity of looking for evidence. Uncontroversially, the rationality in play here is instrumental rationality in the service of a cognitive goal. Suppose that my search is successful: I discover strong evidence that the butler committed the crime. The character of this evidence singles out a certain response on my part as the epistemically rational response: it is rational for me to believe that the butler committed the crime. What is the relationship between the rationality which I exhibit in responding to the evidence in the epistemically appropriate way, and the rationality which I exhibit in acting so as to acquire that evidence? As we will see, this question is controversial. An instrumentalist wants to assimilate the rationality of my responding to the evidence in the epistemically appropriate way to the rationality of my looking for that evidence in the first place. Those who reject the instrumentalist conception, on the other hand, think that it is a fundamental mistake to think about epistemic rationality in this way.
That I have the goal of asking a question gives me a reason to raise my hand; that I have the goal of avoiding the flu gives me a reason to get a flu shot. But no one would think that there is some deep distinction between two kinds of rationality here: asking-a-question rationality and avoiding-the-flu rationality. On the other hand, some have thought that there is a deep and fundamental distinction between epistemic rationality and other types of rationality. If the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality is correct, however, then this thought is mistaken, and it is mistaken in exactly the same way as the thought that there is some fundamentally different kind of rationality called asking-a-question rationality. The instrumentalist conception is thus at bottom a reductionist view: it entails that there is, in fact, only one thing where is it natural to suppose that there are two.
The instrumentalist conception enjoys considerable popularity among both epistemologists and philosophers of science. It is, for example, the guiding idea behind one of most thoroughly developed and theoretically sophisticated theories of epistemic rationality to be put forth in recent decades, Richard Foley's 'subjective foundationalism'.2 For Foley, all rationality--the rationality of belief as well as the rationality of action--is a matter of rationally pursuing one's goals. According to Foley, epistemic rationality is distinguished from other types of rationality simply by its distinctive goal: the goal of now believing true propositions and not now believing false propositions.3
Within the philosophy of science, the instrumentalist conception is endorsed by Larry Laudan, author of a much-discussed position known as ‘normative naturalism’. According to Laudan
Epistemic rationality...is simply a species of the genus instrumental rationality...Epistemic
rationality, no less than any other sort of rationality, is a matter of integrating ends and
means...Good reasons are instrumental reasons; there is no other sort (Laudan, 1990b, p.318).
A list of other prominent philosophers who have explicitly expressed enthusiasm for this way of thinking about epistemic rationality would include Robert Nozick (1993, ch.3), Philip Kitcher (1992), and Ronald Giere (1989).
Before inquiring as to the correctness of the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality, I want to take up the question of why it matters whether this view is true or false. Why might someone want this view about epistemic rationality to be true?
2. The Instrumentalist Conception: Why It Matters
2.1 The Instrumentalist Conception and Naturalism
For Laudan, the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality is central to the project of naturalizing epistemology and the philosophy of science while preserving their normativity (Laudan 1996, ch.9). The essential idea is due to Quine. In his "Reply to Morton White", Quine wrote
Naturalization of epistemology does not jettison the normative...For me, normative
epistemology is a branch of engineering. It is the technology of truth-seeking...it is a matter
of efficacy for an ulterior end, truth...The normative here, as elsewhere in engineering,
becomes descriptive when the terminal parameter is expressed.4
In general, the idea that the normativity of epistemology is simply the normativity of instrumental reason is especially popular among those who, following Quine, advocate the naturalization of epistemology and the philosophy of science but who do not want to abandon the traditional normative aspect of those disciplines.5
It is not difficult to see why the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality would be popular from the perspective of naturalism. For it is widely held, by both enthusiasts for and detractors of naturalism in philosophy, that the apparent existence of various kinds of normativity constitutes one of the greatest potential obstacles for naturalism.6 The burden of the naturalist is thus to show that any apparent kind of normativity is either spurious or naturalistically unproblematic. With respect to epistemic normativity, several of the options available to the naturalist are fairly radical. Thus, a naturalist might be an eliminativist about epistemic normativity and advocate the replacement of normative epistemology by a purely descriptive branch of cognitive psychology. Quine is often read as such an eliminativist about epistemic normativity.7 Alternatively, a naturalist might offer a non-cognitivist, expressivist account of epistemic normativity, according to which claims about what it is epistemically rational to believe are neither true nor false, but merely serve to express the attitude of the speaker towards the norms which license the belief in question. Hartry Field--whose career has largely been devoted to the project of naturalizing that which seems beyond the naturalist pale--has recently embraced expressivism in epistemology.8
In contrast to such radical alternatives, the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality seems to promise a way of preserving a full-blooded, cognitivist account of epistemic normativity which is naturalistically unproblematic. After all, many philosophers regard the normativity characteristic of the reasons which one has to take the means to one's ends as utterly unproblematic for naturalism. And if in fact the normativity of instrumental reason is naturalistically unproblematic, and epistemic normativity is simply the normativity of instrumental reason, then (presumably) epistemic normativity is itself naturalistically unproblematic. The truth of the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality then, would seem to be something of a coup for the naturalist. Thus, it is not surprising that the assimilation of epistemic rationality to instrumental rationality should often be viewed with great enthusiasm by proponents of naturalism.9
Conversely, those who have attacked this conception of epistemic rationality have typically been staunch opponents of naturalism. Again, the motivation for such attacks is not hard to discern. In particular, the vindication of the instrumentalist conception would seem to undermine a favorite tactic of opponents of naturalism, viz. the appeal to 'companions in the guilt' arguments. It is widely thought, by both friends and foes of naturalism, that the existence of anything which possesses categorical normative force--that is, force which is binding on any rational agent, regardless of the goals or ends which he or she happens to hold--is not a possibility which the naturalist world view countenances.10 Of course, categorical normative force is exactly the kind of force which moral reasons are often claimed to possess. In view of this, many naturalists are quite prepared to dispense with moral reasons so construed--for such thinkers, the fact that naturalism does not countenance the existence of such reasons no more counts against naturalism than the fact that naturalism refuses to countenance, say, divine intervention in human affairs. It is at this point that the defender of moral reasons is apt to appeal to a 'companions in the guilt' argument and remind the naturalist that epistemic reasons, no less than moral reasons, seem to have categorical normative force. And because many naturalists who would not hesitate to throw out moral reasons would hesitate to throw out epistemic reasons, this is indeed a powerful rejoinder by the opponents of naturalism.11
The instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality seems to threaten this otherwise-powerful rejoinder by showing that epistemic reasons are not companions to moral reasons in the relevant respect: contrary to what one might have thought, epistemic reasons get their grip on us only insofar as we possess certain cognitive goals. The normative force of epistemic reasons is not, after all, categorical, but rather hypothetical. The triumph of the instrumentalist reduction would seem to show that one can throw out any alleged entities with categorical normative force without dispensing with epistemic reasons. Moral reasons might not have any companions in the guilt. There is then, a strong incentive for the opponent of naturalism to show that the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality is mistaken.12
To this point, much of what little explicit discussion the instrumentalist conception has received has taken place within the context of larger debates over the tenability of naturalism.13 However, the interest of the instrumentalist conception is not, I want to insist, exhausted by its potential implications for the project of naturalizing the normative. Suppose that it turns out that, contrary to what many assume, the normativity involved in taking the means to one's ends is not naturalistically unproblematic, and that, moreover, there is no naturalistically acceptable account of instrumental rationality to be had.14 If that turned out to be the case, then clearly, the envisaged reduction would hold little if any appeal for the naturalist. Nevertheless, the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality would still be an interesting view, for it is, I believe, a philosophically interesting view in its own right. If in fact epistemic rationality turns out to be a special case of instrumental rationality, then this would be a deep and unobvious fact about the nature of epistemic rationality--and therefore, a fact of considerable interest for the epistemologist.
Consider an analogous case drawn from the philosophy of mathematics. Like instrumentalism, logicism is a reductionist thesis: roughly, logicism is the thesis that mathematical truth is really just logical truth. In the present century, much of the enthusiasm for logicism has been on the part of empiricists. It's not hard to see why logicism might look attractive to an empiricist: given that mathematics has always been the great thorn in the side of empiricism, the suggestion that mathematical truth is reducible to some other kind of truth looks like progress, or at least, potential progress. Of course, even if the logicist reduction had gone through, it's not as though the empiricist would have been home free. In particular, the empiricist would still have been faced with the task of showing why empiricism is not undercut by logic--surely no easy task. Now, it might be that there is no satisfying empiricist story to tell about logic; and in that case, the distinctly empiricist motivation for the logicist program would be undercut. Even so, it would be a great mistake to conclude that logicism is therefore devoid of interest. On the contrary, if mathematical truth had turned out to be reducible to logical truth, then this would be an extremely interesting fact about the nature of mathematical truth, even if a fact which is irrelevant to the traditional debate between empiricism and rationalism. Analogously, if epistemic rationality is reducible to instrumental rationality, then this would be an extremely interesting fact about the nature of epistemic rationality, even if a fact which is irrelevant to the ongoing debate over the merits of naturalism.15
Moreover, in addition to its intrinsic interest, whether the instrumentalist conception ultimately proves tenable may very well have important implications for philosophical debates other than the debate over naturalism, implications which have gone largely unnoticed to this point. I mention one such debate here.
2.2 The Instrumentalist Conception and the Ethics of Belief
Should one believe a proposition for which one lacks evidence if doing so promises to have beneficial consequences? Should one abstain from believing a proposition for which one has a considerable amount of evidence if believing that proposition would have pernicious consequences for oneself or for others? Questions of this sort have been pursued under the rubric 'the ethics of belief'.16 My suggestion is that whether the instrumentalist conception is true has crucial implications for the way we should think about such questions. In particular, the truth of the instrumentalist conception is incompatible with certain quite natural positions about the ethics of belief.
Consider, for example, the following very natural reaction to the kind of examples which fuel the ethics of belief literature:
In cases in which what it is epistemically rational to believe clearly diverges from what it is
practically advantageous to believe, there is simply no genuine question about what one
should believe: Although we can ask what one should believe from the epistemic
perspective, and we can ask what one should believe from the practical perspective, there is
no third question: what one should believe, all things considered. In any case in which
epistemic and practical considerations pull in opposite directions, there is simply nothing to
be said about what one should believe all things considered.
Call this view the Incommensurability Thesis.
The Incommensurability Thesis is endorsed by Richard Feldman in the course of expressing his skepticism about
the meaningfulness of questions about whether epistemological considerations are
outweighed by moral or prudential considerations in figuring out what one ought to do all
things considered (Feldman 2000, p.15).
According to Feldman
Suppose that one belief is prudent for me...but it is not a belief I epistemically ought to have
since I lack evidence for it...I can see no values to which we could be appealing when we ask
whether the prudential benefit trumps the epistemic cost...There is...no meaningful question
about whether epistemic oughts trump or are trumped by other oughts (Feldman 2000,
However, if the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality turns out to be correct, then this would, I think, cast severe doubt upon the Incommensurability Thesis. For if epistemic rationality just is instrumental rationality, then there need be no more incommensurability with respect to the ethics of belief than there is within the province of instrumental reason itself.
Consider: among the goals which I hold at the present time are (1) preserving my life and (2) obtaining a chocolate milkshake. The fact that I have these goals gives me reasons to act in certain ways and reasons not to act in other ways. Of course, my holding these two goals might lead to conflicts--conflicts which would not arise if I held either goal in the absence of the other. Suppose, for example, that I can obtain a chocolate milkshake only by engaging in behavior that would place my life in extreme danger. We can imagine a philosopher who insists that, in such circumstances, although we can ask what it is rational for me to do with respect to the goal of obtaining a chocolate milkshake, and we can ask what it is rational for me to do with respect to the goal of preserving my life, there is no third question: what it is rational for me to do all things considered. But this, I think, would not be an impressive suggestion. Because of the way that my goals are ordered with respect to one another, it would be (I can truly report) all-things-considered irrational for me to jeopardize my life in order to obtain a chocolate milkshake.18
Suppose then that the instrumentalist conception is correct: epistemic rationality is simply instrumental rationality in the service of one's cognitive goals. In that case, it looks as though there will be counterexamples to the Incommensurability Thesis, i.e., cases in which there is a fact of the matter about what it is rational to believe all things considered. Suppose, for example, that I can save my life by holding some epistemically irrational belief. Suppose further that the belief concerns some subject matter with respect to which my having true rather than false beliefs is a matter of relative indifference. Now, if epistemic rationality just is instrumental rationality, then I think that we can safely conclude: all things considered, it is rational for me to hold this belief, given that I am able to do so. At least, there is no more reason to deny this, than there is to deny that it is instrumentally rational for me to abstain from pursuing a chocolate milkshake in order to save my life. For both cases involve a comparison of the strength of competing instrumental reasons.19
The truth of the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality would, I think, undermine the Incommensurability Thesis.20
But is the instrumentalist conception true? It is to this question which I now turn.
3. Which Cognitive Goals Do We Have?
Perhaps the most serious reason for skepticism about the instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality is this: what a person has reason to believe does not seem to depend on the content of his or her goals in the way that one would expect if the instrumentalist conception were correct.
It is a characteristic feature of an instrumental reason that one's possessing such a reason is contingent on one's possessing the relevant goal. I have a reason to raise my hand because I have the goal of being called upon by the speaker; if I did not have this goal, I would have no such reason. An instrumental reason is a hypothetical reason, in the sense that it depends for its existence on the fact that the individual for whom it is a reason possesses a certain goal or goals. This seems to contrast with the categorical character which epistemic reasons apparently possess. On an instrumentalist conception of epistemic rationality, facts about what I have reason to believe are contingent on my possessing certain goals.
One might find this implausible. After all, in our ordinary thought and talk about epistemic reasons, we think and speak of having reasons for belief, not of having reasons for belief insofar as we have goals of such-and-such a sort. We certainly treat epistemic reasons as though they are categorical reasons in the course of our ordinary practice. Moreover, we treat epistemic reasons in this way from both the first- and third-person perspectives. That is, one treats epistemic reasons as categorical reasons both in offering such reasons to others as well as in responding to such reasons in the course of one's own theoretical deliberations.
One way of pressing this objection is to appeal to the intersubjectivity of epistemic reasons. If both of us know that all of the many previously-observed emeralds have been green, then both of us have a strong reason to believe that the next emerald to be observed will be green, regardless of any differences which might exist in our respective goals. Similarly, in arguing for my conclusions in this paper, I think of myself as attempting to provide strong reasons for believing my conclusions, and not as attempting to provide strong reasons for believing my conclusions for those who happen to possess goals of the right sort.
As Tyler Burge notes in a passing remark:
Reason has a function in providing guidance to truth, in presenting and promoting truth
without regard to individual interest. That is why epistemic reasons are not relativized to a
person or to a desire (Burge 1993, p.475).21