Expected comparative utility theory: A new theory of instrumental rationality


This paper aims to address the question of how one ought to choose when one is uncertain about what outcomes will result from one’s choices, but when one can nevertheless assign probabilities to the different possible outcomes. These choices are commonly referred to as choices (or decisions) under risk. I assume in this paper that one ought to make instrumentally rational choices—more precisely, one ought to adopt suitable means to one’s morally permissible ends. Expected utility (EU) theory is generally accepted as a normative theory of rational choice under risk, or, more specifically, as a theory of instrumental rationality. According to EU theory, when faced with a decision under risk, one ought to rank one’s options (from least to most choiceworthy) according to their EU and one ought to choose whichever option carries the greatest EU (or one of them in the event that several alternatives are tied). The EU of an option is a probability-weighted sum of each of its possible utilities. In this paper, I argue that EU theory is not the correct theory of instrumental rationality. In its place, I argue for a new theory of instrumental rationality, namely expected comparative utility (ECU) theory. I first show that for any choice option, a, and for any state of the world, G, the measure of the choiceworthiness of a in G is the comparative utility of a in G—that is, the difference in utility, in G, between a and whichever alternative to a carries the greatest utility in G. On the basis of this principle, I then argue, roughly speaking, that for any agent, S, faced with any decision under risk, S ought to rank her options (in terms of how choiceworthy they are) according to their ECU and S ought to choose whichever option carries the greatest ECU (or one of them in the event that several alternatives are tied). For any option, a, a’s ECU is a probability‐weighted sum of a’s comparative utilities across the various possible states of the world. In this paper, I show that in some commonplace decisions under risk, ECU theory delivers different verdicts from those of EU theory.

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