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The Triumph of Instrumental Values

12 August 2013 03:48 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


It is natural for human beings to look for ways and means of satisfying their basic human drives. People in hunter- gatherer societies killed animals and collected whatever food they could find in the wild. In modern, highly -monetised economies, people strive to earn money so that they could buy their necessities. But what distinguishes human beings from animals is the fact that the former has the potential to elevate themselves to a higher plane and go beyond mere instrumental activities in order to engage in more meaningful endeavours aimed at a higher purpose. When we look back, certain individuals stand out as exemplary figures, who have made a significant contribution to humanity. They certainly have gone beyond mere instrumental activities in their lives. They have set examples that not many people can even imagine emulating. Yet, they continue to inspire thousands of people across the world after many years since their passing. Such individuals have been guided by what has been referred to in the classical sociological literature as ‘substantive rationality’.

The notion of substantive rationality has a greater significance in the modern world where money has become the key instrument in achieving the life goals of both the rich as well as the poor. It is widely felt that with money one can achieve almost anything in life, such as property, pleasure, power and prestige. The result is that some of the more noble human endeavours have become largely instrumental activities primarily devoted to earning money and achieving other highly individualised goals. Some notable examples are teaching, research, medicine, law, politics, public service, writing, sports and the arts. Each one of these activities has the potential to serve a wider societal purpose but the dominant trend among professionals today is to treat their work merely as an instrumental activity. Being exposed to such professionals almost on a daily basis, ordinary people have become frustrated, helpless and restless because the latter usually expect the so- called elites in society to be caring, considerate and humane.  

The triumph of instrumental rationality is in a way a by-product of liberalism that privileges the individual often at the expense of the community. Individuals are free to pursue their life goals and those who are successful are well rewarded and recognised. On the other hand,  a social and moral order is possible only if the rules of the game are clearly defined and followed. In other words, it  is social regulation that gives rise to a social and moral order. Individuals pursuing their personal life goals are expected to conform to social standards that are determined by social consensus, widely held cultural values and rules and regulations. In the context of such a moral economy, it is the means that justify the ends, not the other way around. Individuals are expected to use socially and culturally sanctioned means to attain their goals. However,  when the long-established social and moral order is eroded by social and political upheavals or by a process of gradual social change, instrumentalist behaviour of individuals can become largely independent of social and moral regulation. This tendency can create a situation where individuals may pursue their life goals by resorting to any means that become available to them. When such individual actions become pervasive in society in general and institutions in particular, the result is social and moral collapse creating a situation of lawlessness. What we observe in Sri Lanka today is dangerously close to such a situation. When faced with a human induced calamity, ordinary people tend to suspect institutions and authorities. Recent public protest leading to several deaths in the Gampaha district over the deteriorating ground water quality in the area is a case in point. The general public no longer thinks that people behind institutions, occupying various positions share any collective interest any more, no matter what the actual situation is in a particular case. The general public perception is that a majority of those who are in positions of authority, be it a school principal, university academic or a politician do not respect the long-established standards but pursue their naked self interest at any cost. Examples of people who lead exemplary lives or pursue careers with dignity, self respect and honour have already become quite uncommon.

Instrumental rationality not only drives individuals into action both in their private and public lives but also guides decision making at an institutional level. Though institutional decisions are collective and therefore do not necessarily reflect personal interests of decision- makers, their impact on the wider environment or the general public might be adverse. So, the purpose of an institutional intervention or a project should not be determined entirely on the basis of instrumental values alone. For instance, the development of transport infrastructure in a country is a complex issue that has wider implications. While there are various options to choose from, each option needs to be evaluated taking into account its various implications. Some of these implications include environmental impact, equity, long-term sustainability, opportunity, cost and other more desirable options available. We would look into all these implications before taking a decision only if we are guided by substantive rationality, not when we treat the intervention or the project as a means to a narrow personal or sectarian goal.

" What we observe in Sri Lanka today is dangerously close to such a situation. When faced with a human induced calamity, ordinary people tend to suspect institutions and authorities "

We could examine many institutional areas in line with the above analysis, be it education, health or food production. If we do so, it would become quite clear that these endeavours cannot be narrowly defined in an instrumentalist way. In other words,   institutional decision-making in these areas needs to be guided by a set of higher level values. For instance, the key purpose of education should not be to simply facilitate the achievement of highly personal goals of individuals. Education should also help achieve societal goals such as moral development, social integration, equity, innovation, social justice and sustainability. So, those who  are in the business of education have a wider social responsibility, not simply to treat or promote education as an instrumental activity. The same is true of a plethora of other areas. While some of these were mentioned earlier, they cannot be discussed here for want of space.

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