Instrumental Rationality • 12 August 2008

Fussy. Sorry, internet. Here goes.

Remember the ashtanga energy market? This is related, in a way. 

When you love a practice—sociology or ashtanga—being around careerist people is sometimes really hard. That’s been the main distraction of letting academia draw me in on a professional level, as is now happening. And I’m transparent, so my feelings about this are inconveniently obvious.

Instrumental rationality is useful for getting things done and can coexist along with more value-based motivations. Actions can be partly instrumental and partly value-driven; people ourselves are some of both.

But god is pure instrumentalism tacky. It’s so apparent when someone asks “what can I get out of this?” with respect to every relationship. Yes—I see the little wheels turning. Right there.

It’s also obvious when someone is obsessed with social hierarchies and institutional power and jockeying for their own position in the web. When some self-promoter wants to be close to the energy, the power, the money—even if they have no energy or real intelligence of their own to contribute.

For two years I’ve considered writing an anonymous piece for the Chronicle of Higher Ed on the tragedy of professional success for grad students whose egoes are too fragile to take it—how this creates a slithering kind of professionalism and dissolves community. Today year I’d actually do it if I had the time. It would start with a discussion of how many people now practice yoga to get through their dissertations, and an exhortation to ethical arbitrage: bring the karma-yoga ethic of Arjuna over to your professional life. Put a little soul in your soulciology.

Anyway. It seems obvious that my love of true believers grows out of this exact shadow—my despair when I see the “what can I get out of this relationship?” mechanism churning. Userism. You don’t have to be a player to be in the game, and you don’t have to hate the game even if the players make it ugly. “Networking,” and some bit of instrumental rationality, are natural to professions and networks and social life.

But it’s people who actually have little energy or love or inspiration or intelligence to give, and who play for the get, who seriously damage the practice. Stop that, ok?

Here’s more free-association from the world of Evangelical music. It’s all coming back to me these days from my subconscious. You people listening to Madonna and Wham! in your misspent youths, oh what you missed without Sparrow Records. Good thing you read this blog. As a reward for getting through this post, here’s something hilarious. It's not a parody.