The economists' instrumental rationality and Osama Bin Laden's final triumph

05/05/2011 by

In a recent post I argued that Bin Laden’s final act, being killed by US special forces, will prove the greatest legitimiser of his own brutality. Today I want to add another wrinkle to this point: A firm connection between the economists’ mindframe and bin Laden’s posthumous success.

Taking a step back, it is worth remembering that the ‘civilised’ West has struggled for centuries to discard the alluring prospect of basing its moral philosophy on consequentialism: on the moral supremacy of the consequences of one’s acts (over one’s choice of means by which to bring these consequences about). Even since economics has become a poorer cousin of 19th century physics (around the 1870s, 80s and 90s), economists have had no compunction about adopting even a cruder version of that philosophy (what I call instrumental rationality) as their one and only notion of rational action.

Instrumental rationality is pure simplicity in its meaning: You are rational if your selection of actions is efficient in pursuit of given, current and sovereign objectives. In this sense, our Reason is a mere tool at the service of our passions, desires, goals. That which David Hume cast in stone with the famous phrase that Reason can pretend to have no other role than to be the “slave of the passions”. What’s wrong with this kind of rationality? The quick answer is that it is fine for cats and dogs but insufficient as a guide to fully human behaviour. To put it simply, cats and dogs are indeed ‘rational’, or smart, to the extent that they behave in a manner that helps them achieve their objective (e.g. catch the mouse or make you open the right can for them). What they do not aspire to (and for this reason instrumental rationality is all they can aspire to) is a capacity to ask themselves questions such as: “Should I want to kill this mouth?” Or “should I want to eat this terrible stuff at this time of day?” In other words, instrumental rationality is fine as long as no reflection, no proper judgment (not to be confused with calculation), no self-doubt, no assessment of one’s own ends is desirable or even possible. But this is the very definition of the fanatic: the person who does not reflect, who has no self doubt, who refuses steadfastly (like George Bush, like Dick Cheney and, indeed, like Osama Bin Laden) to subject their desires and goals to critical scrutiny.

To put my point succinctly, Bin Laden imposed upon the West the logic of instrumental rationality as the dominant moral philosophy of our post 9/11 age. He started with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney who quickly, and gladly, fell into his trap by lowering the standards of US justice, by legalising and prescribing torture as a legitimate state policy tool, by opening up Gunatanamo Bay. At the time, some progressive jurists, including a young legal eagle named Barack Obama, opposed the onward march of instrumental rationality. However, this week, the same Obama (in some operations room at the White House) oversaw the liberal West’s unconditional surrender to the logic of instrumental rationality that was always the last resort of the fanatic (and, of course, of the mainstream economist).

If in doubt of all this, recall what Dick Cheney said when he found out about the way in which torture (waterboarding they call it) was utilised to extract from an Osama courier the location of his master: He lambasted Obama’s earlier critique of the Bush administration’s means-ends rationale for torture and gloated that the new President adopted, at long last, their method and their moral philosophy. What he did not say was that this method and this moral philosophy was, first and foremost, that of Bin Laden himself.

For decades before Bin Laden even made an appearance on the terrorist stage, moral philosophy students grappled with the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario: Imagine that a powerful bomb is ticking, capable of killing thousands. You have caught the bomber but he refuses to give you the combination that will unlock the bomb and stop its timer. Is it legitimate to torture him? Most students answered, reluctantly, that, yes, it may well be. At that point, their teacher pointed out the slippery moral slope on which they just tread.

For if the ends justify the means, if our Reason is to be an instrument guided solely by a calculation of the consequences, then all sorts of troubling conclusions are reached. For example, suppose the bomber is a hardened terrorist who does not talk, even under severe torture. But suppose also that he has a three year old daughter whom he dearly loves. Instrumental rationality prescribes that if the task of saving thousands is what matters above the rights of a person not to be tortured, this child ought to be tortured in front of her father’s eyes until he tells us the combination number that will diffuse the bomb. At this point, the terrorist wins hands down. For is, suddenly, has become impossible to claim moral superiority over him or his kind. Fanaticism’s best mate is instrumental rationality; the very foundation of modern economic thinking about how we, humans, function.

Suddenly, the murder to thousands of innocents at the twin towers can be justified by weighing their lives, on some imaginary scales, against those of thousands of the West’s victims in Palestine, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. At that point the world will have descended into an abyss of moral relativism and impossible ‘calculation’. The greatest victim will be humanism and the only triumph left will be that claimed by fanatics.

To recap, by forcing the US (and the West more generally) to kill without a trial, to violate ancient norms of returning the body of your enemy to his family for burial (recall Antigone’s arguments to Creon), to celebrate in the open the death of a deadly opponent, Osama Bin Laden achieved his last triumph against a Western civilisation that comes out of this affair weaker, less secure and more wedded to fundamentalism than ever before. 

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