In courses on Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School, one lecture I used to give was about “instrumental reason” (or instrumental rationality).
Like many academic concepts, the work on instrumental reason can become complex and involved. The aspect of instrumental reason that I focused on was, however, concisely summed up by Jürgen Habermas, who suggested in 1968 that it meant, partly at least, something to do with “manipulating living and dead nature.”
The medical historian and scientific anti-vivisectionist Hans Ruesch, writing in his famous book Slaughter of the Innocent (1979), gave this vivid example of thinking instrumentally
- When a young man who was joining together rats was asked, “What on earth can be the use of this experiment to humanity?”, he answered: “I don’t know what good it is going to do humanity, but I know what good it is going to do me: it is going to get my degree.”
In my courses, I would relate this rather abstract consequence of instrumental reason: it means taking a tree and seeing “timber,” or, while viewing a tree, seeing reams of paper rather than the tree’s beauty: seeing the pages of a book in the limbs of a tree.
Being concerned with ruthless practicalities, one effect of instrumental reason is the separation of fact and value. Thus, it becomes concerned with how to do things and not with questions of WHAT SHOULD be done.
In 1994, Stephen Bronner stated that Critical Theorist Herbert Marcuse felt that the growth of a society in which “the alienating logic of instrumental rationality” prevailed meant that “the ethical element” in society was threatened with eradication.
Indeed, members of the Frankfurt School argued that instrumental rationality needed to be replaced by another form of reason, which they called Critical Theory. For them, thinking critically revealed existing society to be irrational and oppressive, while the glittering consumer “goodies” in prevailing society, governed by instrumental reason, help to destroy humanity’s ability to make rational choices collectively.
So, while keeping in mind the idea that instrumental reason is to do with manipulating living and dead nature, while a society based on instrumental reason is a threat to its ethical dimension, what examples are there that are relevant to animal rights advocacy, and what examples are there that underline the importance of an intersectional approach to thinking about what David Nibert calls the entanglements of oppression and liberation?
First is the way some human beings look at living other animals, particularly “livestock,” horses, and dogs. Obviously, in a speciesist society, they do not look at such others as rights bearers; more in terms of bloodlines, speed, and the money that may be made through gambling.
I have known a rescued greyhound (Zami) for a good long time now and it is a frequent occurrence that men in particular comment about what they assume should be her uses: racing, hunting, and breeding for racing and hunting. Often men will ask if Zami is “for sale.”
I was once stood with Zami outside of a charity shop waiting for her human to return when a man approached asking if “it” was a racer. I said she was a rescued greyhound. He then asked if I was willing to breed “it” as “its” puppies would be valuable. When I said that she was not able to have children and, anyway, there is no way we would seek to use her in this manner, the man seemed genuinely puzzled. What else are greyhounds “for?”
At a “livestock” market a farmer’s social status is enhanced if he (it is an overwhelming male environment) is able to demonstrate that he has “an eye” for good “stock.” What’s less known is the phenomenon of some men (and women) who regard some humans as “livestock” in modern forms of slavery and human trafficking.
Feminists have long talked about woman and girls being subject to a generalised “male gaze,” but the instrumental rationality of those who regard human females as “breeding stock” is more particular.
In September 2015, members of a paedophile ring were jailed in England. There are very many violent pornography films, many of which feature children and babies. Millions of pictures and films have been found of children being horrifically abused. What has emerged in recent cases is the fact that trafficked victims of the sex trade may be deliberately made pregnant, then their children, just like in the case of “cattle,” are removed to be used and abused. The children, who are never allowed to go to school, or socialise with other children apart from others being abused, may in turn be made pregnant from the age of, for example, eleven, so their offspring become available for use too.
All these are examples of instrumental reason.
A society based on instrumental rationality promotes the viewing of others as things and as objects to be utilised. A general Left view may suggest that the capitalist mode of production inevitably leads to people and other things being regarded as commodities and a means to securing profit. Similarly, feminist insights suggest that women and girls will be seen instrumentally in patriarchal cultures.
This means that, just as we may meet people – men overwhelmingly – eyeing up a greyhound for the uses he or she may be put, so too will there be some looking at young women, young girls, and even babies thinking about the “porn” films and the scenes in which they may “star” in.
Thinking instrumentally is indeed a destroyer of ethics and a means to the gross manipulation of others.