Don’t Be an Ass: Rational Choice and its Limits

Reason Papers 37 (1):137-147 (2015)
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Deliberation is often seen as the site of human freedom, but the binding power of rationality seems to imply that deliberation is, in its own way, a deterministic process. If one knows the starting preferences and circumstances of an agent, then, assuming that the agent is rational and that those preferences and circumstances don’t change, one should be in a position to predict what the agent will decide. However, given that an agent could conceivably confront equally attractive alternatives, it is an open question whether rational choice theory can ever eliminate indeterminacy. The clearest support for such a limitation comes from the “Buridan’s ass” scenario, where an agent is confronted with two (or more) equally attractive/unattractive options. Does rationality by itself have the resources needed to prevent such paralysis of action? Those who cannot accept the idea of decisional impotence devise various ways to avoid it: postulating a neutral valence, tipping the utilities, positing sub-personal influences, and bunching the options. I argue that each of these responses is either unwarranted or flawed. All parties to the debate agree that, factually, paralysis of action is not a pervasive phenomenon. This is either because (i) the utilities one assigns to two or more options can never be balanced or because (ii) thanks to some non-rational faculty (say, the will), we would not be stuck even if those utilities were perfectly counterpoised. By looking critically at four untenable responses, I aim to show that (i) is often just a dogma and (ii) is by no means a silly position.
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