Democracy versus the Domination of Instrumental Rationality: Defending Dewey's Argument for Democracy as an Ethical Way of Life

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Colleges, School and Institutes


For some, the problem with the domination of instrumental rationality is the tendency towards anomie. However, this fails to recognise the instrumental use of norms by elite groups to manipulate public opinion. Such manipulation can then allow elite groups to treat the citizenry as a means for the pursuit of their self-interest. Horkheimer was one of the first to recognise the problem in this form, but was unable to offer any solution because he conceptualised the citizenry as passive. By contrast, Dewey argued for an active citizenry to value participation in public life as good in, and of, itself. This is associated with his conception of democracy as an ethical way of life offering the possibility for the domination of instrumental rationality to be transcended. In this article Dewey’s resolution of the problem is addressed in the light of the weaknesses attributed here to Horkheimer and to later developments by Bellah, Bernstein, Gellner, Habermas and Honneth.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19-41
Number of pages23
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2014