Rationality and Success

Dissertation, Rutgers University - New Brunswick (2013)
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Standard theories of rational decision making and rational preference embrace the idea that there is something special about the present. Standard decision theory, for example, demands that agents privilege the perspective of the present (i.e., the time of decision) in evaluating what to do. When forming preferences, most philosophers believe that a similar focus on the present is justified, at least in the sense that rationality requires or permits future experiences to be given more weight than past ones. In this dissertation, I examine such theories in light of the expected success of the agents who follow them. In Chapters 2 and 3, I show that this bias toward the present is a liability: it tends to make agents less successful than they might otherwise be. I also show how these problems can be avoided: In the case of rational decision making, we must privilege the beginning rather than the present (what I call “inceptive maximization”). In the case of rational preferences, we must be completely temporally neutral. In chapters 4 and 5 I introduce a larger framework in which to interpret these results. My core thesis is that practical rationality is a form of conditional reliability. Practically rational decisions, preferences, intentions, or other relevant factors reliably produce whatever we take to be of value, conditional on an agent’s beliefs. This focus on value-conduciveness is thus the analog of the focus on truth-conduciveness in reliability theories of epistemic norms. Like reliabilism in epistemology, I show that practical reliabilism is supported by a methodologically naturalistic approach to normativity. In this way and others, I argue that epistemic and practical reliabilism interconnect to create an overarching theory of normativity.

Author's Profile

Preston Greene
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


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