Defending Instrumental Rationality against Critical Theorists

Published date01 December 2021
Date01 December 2021
Subject MatterArticles
2021, Vol. 74(4) 1067 –1080
Political Research Quarterly
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920958492
Frankfurt-School critical theory is hugely important.
Critical theory challenges “traditional” theory’s fact/
value divide and the ensuing tendency to support the sta-
tus quo. Critical theorists prefer a broader perspective,
with more emancipatory goals (Bohman 2019; Geuss
1981, 1–2; Horkheimer 1972, 188–243).
Such views have been extremely influential—and not
only among political theorists and political philosophers
(e.g., Allen 2015; Benhabib 1986; Fraser 1985; Marasco
2015). Critical theory is one of the nine major theoretical
perspectives covered in The Oxford Handbook of
International Relations (Reus-Smit and Snidal 2008) and
underpins many empirical studies in that field (see Risse
2015). Work on the public sphere by Jürgen Habermas, a
key critical theorist, underlies theoretical work on civil
society (e.g., Cohen and Arato 1992) and empirical work
by political scientists (e.g., Wampler and Avritzer 2004).
Critical theory is particularly important in deliberative
democracy, both in theory (e.g., Dryzek 1990; Hammond
2019; Rostbøll 2008) and underlying much empirical
analysis (e.g., Steiner et al. 2004). So, critical theory is
not just abstract: it is also widely applied in empirical
research in politics. The same holds in other disciplines
(Blau 2011, 40; 2019).
Critical theory is highly and increasingly diverse (Rush
2004, 7), but the critique of instrumental rationality is
“probably its most notable contribution” (Alford 2017,
425). Instrumental rationality—roughly, the ability to
choose good means to ends—is typically seen by critical
theorists as amoral, narrow, or having damaging effects.
Such concerns go back to predecessors of critical theory,
including Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, and
Lukács (Schecter 2010). And similar criticisms are made
by many outside critical theory (e.g., in an economics
textbook by Varoufakis 1998, 92–93, 100–101, 114,
264–65, 356–58). Much of my response applies to such
thinkers too. Of course, not all critical theorists discuss
instrumental rationality, and those who do so sometimes
offer different analyses (Smulewicz-Zucker 2017). But
the critique is central for many critical theorists and
informs many empirical studies as exemplified above.
My key argument is that this critique of instrumental
rationality is overstated. Critical theorists can and should
attack particular conceptions and applications of instru-
mental rationality. But instrumental rationality itself,
properly understood, is a sensible idea. And it is one that
958492PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920958492Political Research QuarterlyBlau
1King’s College London, UK
Corresponding Author:
Adrian Blau, Department of Political Economy, King’s College
London, Bush House, North East Wing, 30 Aldwych, London WC2B
4BG, UK.
Defending Instrumental Rationality
against Critical Theorists
Adrian Blau1
Central to much critical theory is the critique of instrumental rationality (roughly, the ability to pick good means
to ends). This critique is overstated, I suggest. Critical theorists often depict instrumental rationality too narrowly,
and many criticize the wrong target, for example, attacking capitalist instrumental rationality when the fundamental
problem is capitalism, not instrumental rationality. Nonetheless, critical theorists’ critique requires certain changes to
orthodox accounts of instrumental rationality. I offer a more palatable definition, highlight instrumental rationality’s
essential contestability, and show that it can actually help us pick ends. Everyone needs instrumental rationality,
especially Habermasian critical theorists. And far from instrumental rationality being amoral, I argue that because
instrumental rationality almost always involves multiple ends, one end may prohibit immoral means, acting as a side-
constraint. Ultimately, the substance of critical theorists’ critiques remains highly important but should not be framed
in opposition to instrumental rationality.
critical theory, Frankfurt School, Habermas, instrumental rationality, instrumental reason, means and ends

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