Advice for the Steady: Decision Theory and the Requirements of Instrumental Rationality

Dissertation, University of Toronto (2017)
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Abstract

Standard decision theory, or rational choice theory, is often interpreted to be a theory of instrumental rationality. This dissertation argues, however, that the core requirements of orthodox decision theory cannot be defended as general requirements of instrumental rationality. Instead, I argue that these requirements can only be instrumentally justified to agents who have a desire to have choice dispositions that are stable over time and across different choice contexts. Past attempts at making instrumentalist arguments for the core requirements of decision theory fail due to a pervasive assumption in decision theory, namely the assumption that the agent’s preferences over the objects of choice – be it outcomes or uncertain prospects – form the standard of instrumental rationality against which the agent’s actions are evaluated. I argue that we should instead take more basic desires to be the standard of instrumental rationality. But unless agents have a desire to have stable choice dispositions, according to this standard, instrumental rationality turns out to be more permissive than orthodox decision theory.

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Johanna Thoma
London School of Economics

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