One of the first serious essays I remember studying in my philosophy classes in school was called “The Normativity of Instrumental Reason”. I thought it was a cool phrase. It means, basically, where does reason — logic — get the power to make things right or wrong?
Instrumental reason is the kind of reason like, “I want A. A requires that I do B. So I should do B.” I want a nice apartment. Getting a nice apartment requires money. Investment bankers make a lot of money. Therefore, I should be an investment banker.
Here’s the money quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
Phaedrus went a different path from the idea of individual, personal Quality decisions. I think it was a wrong one, but perhaps if I were in his circumstances I would go his way too. He felt that the solution started with a new philosophy, or he saw it as even broader than that—a new spiritual rationality—in which the ugliness and the loneliness and the spiritual blankness of dualistic technological reason would become illogical. Reason was no longer to be “value free.” Reason was to be subordinate, logically, to Quality, and he was sure he would find the cause of its not being so back among the ancient Greeks, whose mythos had endowed our culture with the tendency underlying all the evil of our technology, the tendency to do what is “reasonable” even when it isn’t any good. That was the root of the whole thing. Right there. I said a long time ago that he was in pursuit of the ghost of reason. This is what I meant.
Instrumental reason is dualist, subject-object thinking. I, Josh, want nice apartment, therefore I Josh get money to get nice apartment. The argument Zen and… makes is that drawing this line between me, the observer with goals, and the world, the object of my desires, is sick. It’s a diseased way of seeing the world. It leads to spiritual emptiness.
It’s a spiritually empty perspective because, where do values come from in the first place? How do we know what we want and don’t want? From the objective point of view, the rational agent must somehow evolve these desires herself, and then, by careful studying of natural laws, learn to manipulate her surroundings to bring them into being. Set goal. Achieve goal. Munch.
Other people, from this perspective, are also objects — they’re out there mixed in with the buildings and cars and other external manifestations we have to deal with. They’re animate clods of meat, sometimes useful and sometimes a hindrance for achieving our goals. Of course, then we look in the mirror, and we see that we’re also a clod of meat. And like other people are, sometimes we’re useful and sometimes we’re a hindrance to ourselves getting what we want.
And what do we want? Meat wants to protect itself. Meat wants to be safe, to stay alive, to consume other meats for sustenance and not be consumed itself.
Meat builds fortresses. Meat buys iPhones. Meat paves the roads and fights the diseases and reads the evening news and makes the world a safe, sterile place for meat to grow in. Meat is very, very smart.
The point Zen and… is making is that as smart as instrumental reason is, it’s a limited kind of smart, because it can’t evolve its goals. Where do values come from in the first place? How do we know what we want and don’t want? If we let our guards down, if we let some objectivity leak away and blur the lines between the actor and the acted-on, sometimes wants appear by themselves. By merging ourselves with the things around us we become concerned with their integrity. We start appreciating beauty, we start caring for people and places and things.
It’s a much messier process because it involves collapsing the wall between ends and means. When the means are the ends, or shape the ends, we’re driving without knowing where we’re going. We might have an idea, but the idea becomes changed in the execution of it, because that’s the point of having an idea in the first place.
Here’s a quote from today’s front page of TechCrunch:
Facebook is not the only company to invest in development of products that take better advantage of the Android homescreen. South Korean messaging app KakaoTalk also recently announced its intentions to release a rival Android launcher. And now, Highland Capital, Andreessen Horowitz and others have invested $1.8 million into Aviate, an ex-Googler backed intelligent homescreen for Android…
To me, this is a very ugly quote. I went to TechCrunch thinking I would find an example of an ugly quote there, and I found one very quickly. There are probably much uglier ones I could find if I put more time into looking for ugly things (which can actually be a form of beauty in and of itself).
We are making an economic transition from a world where the dictate of instrumental logic is to go into finance to a world where the dictate of instrumental logic is to go into technology. To me this is an interesting transition because technology culture overlaps with maker culture, and maker culture actually understands that “good” is a product of the process, not just the destination. However, I read quotes like the TechCrunch one above and it makes me sad, because it means the poison is in the tech world too.
From a non-dualistic point of view, the concept of making money becomes something that requires thought. What is money? It’s a social contract to give each other gifts of goods and services. It’s a debt that other people owe us. So “making money” means, getting the system to agree it’s indebted to us, to get it to agree that we should be a beneficiary of the nice things that the system produces.
From that vantage point, it seems strange to care about making money without caring about the system that makes the money worthwhile. This can be dramatically illustrated by looking at systems that stopped working, such as Weimar Germany during hyperinflation, or Rwanda during genocide. When an insane homeless person owes you a million dollars, that debt is not worth very much.
So when I hear talk in the startup world of “killing it”, “making it rain”, “big exits”, “valuations”, and all the other terminology of plunder, I feel like people must be thinking instrumentally, as opposed to holistically. From a practical standpoint, you can buy an awful lot of nice cars and apartments and dinners before the system becomes so insane and so homeless that it all dries up. But from an aesthetic, moral standpoint, how can you feel good about pursuing those things without simultaneously thinking about how to make the system a little less crazy, a little happier, a little wealthier? If you love someone, it would be odd behavior indeed to do them a favor, and then go around talking about how much they owe you now… but that’s what people on sites like TechCrunch do every day.