[ Course Contents | Reading Material | Schedule | Grading ]

Instructor: Eric Pacuit
Office Hours: by appointment
Office Location: Room 142, Dante Building
Meeting Times: Thursdays 18:45 - 20:30
Course Number: 700188
Credits: 6 ECTS credits
Semester: Fall 2010
First Class: Thursday, September 2, 2010
Location: PZ 9 (Prisma building)
Course Load: 6 ECTS credits


I hope you enjoyed the course! The final paper is due February 16, 2011 (either send it by email or put it in my pigeon hole). Details about the final paper can be found below. Feel free to email me if you have any questions.

Course Contents

'Rationality' means different things to different people. Beliefs, degrees of belief, preferences, decisions, behavioral patterns, persons, groups, and even nations can be said to be rational --- or not. But what is rationality? Why is it desirable, at least typically? Can it be undesirable? To what extent is it attainable? Rationality has been the focal point of much fascinating research by philosophers and social scientists. This course will discuss some of this research. It will concentrate on philosophical accounts of rational action and belief, and examine the role of rationality in modern scientific theories, especially in economics and psychology. An important theme throughout this course is which conception of rationality is most appropriate for socio-economic sciences that want to give a faithful and comprehensive account of human agency. Topics will include:
  • Rational preferences and rational decision
  • Paradoxes in diachronic rationality
  • Paradoxes of decision theory
  • Weakness of will and the paradox of addiction
  • Rational belief and rational belief change
  • Blind spots in rational belief
  • Bounded rationality and heuristics
  • ‘Maximizing’ versus ‘satisficing’
  • Paradoxes of game theory (prisoner's dilemma, backwards induction)
  • Group rationality

Reading Material

Most of the reading for this course will be contemporary research papers published in academic journals (see the schedule below for links to the papers). It would be a good idea to have easy access to the following two texts (they will be put on reserve at the library): The following texts are recommended for further reading:
You may be interested in listening to an episode of the radio show Philosophy Talk discussing topics which we will discuss this semester.


Part 1: Reasons, Rationality and Reasoning
The first part will introduce different notions of rationality found in the philosophical literature. We will examine two diametrically opposed views of what reason can tell us about (rational) action, exemplified by two great philosophers of the Enlightenment. David Hume asserted that reason is a "slave of the passions" and unable to determine more than appropriate means to a given end, thus anticipating the modern instrumental conception. Immanuel Kant, however, argued that reason is able to provide us with a universal law of rational action, the categorical imperative. This dichotomy is important in recent debates as well, and will accompany us throughout the course.
Week Date Content
1 9/2 Introduction. The first lecture will introduce the main topics of the course. The readings for this lecture are:
  • G. Harman. "Rationality" in: Reasoning, Meaning and Mind, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pgs. 9 - 45, 1999. (this will be made available in class)
  • Chapter 1 of [RC]: "Feasibility and Desirability"
2 9/9 Reasons, Reasoning and Logic. This lecture goes into more detail about the complex relationship between logic, reasoning and reasons. The readings for this lecture are:
  • G. Harman. "Rationality" in: Reasoning, Meaning and Mind, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pgs. 9 - 45, 1999. (focus on this paper for your one-page summary)
  • K. Stenning and M. van Lambalgen, Chapter 2: "The Anatomy of Logic" in Human Reasoning and Cognitive Science, The MIT Press, 2008.
  • J. Adler, "Introduction: Philosophical Foundations" in [REAS]
Part 2: Theoretical and Practical Rationality
This part will examine basic questions about the nature of practical and theoretical rationality. Should a rational agent always adopt the necessary means to achieve a desired goal? Why should rational (graded) beliefs conform to the laws of probability? What is the relationship between the laws of (classical) logic and rational belief? It is clearly not rational to hold the belief that p and that not-p, but what about deductive closure: if an agent believes p and that p implies q (and is interested in whether q is true), should the agent then believe q?
Week Date Content
3 9/16 Practical Reasoning. After finishing the discussion on reasoning (see the slides above), we go into more detail about practical reasoning and what constitutes a reason for action. (You may choose either the Williams article or the Kolodny article for your 1-page summary.)
4 9/23 Rationality Constraints. We start by discussing the nature of normativity and reasons (we focus on the Williams piece below). We then discuss to important paradoxes about rational beliefs: The Preface Paradox and the Lottery Paradox.
5 9/30 Dutch Book Arguments. This lecture will explore rationality constraints on graded beliefs.
  • J. Joyce, Bayesianism in [HR]
  • I. Gilboa, Chapter 5: "Probability and Statistics", in [RC]
6 10/7 Dutch Book Arguments and Representation Theorems. We continue our discussion of the Dutch book argument and move on to Savage's Representation Theorem. Note that this weeks class will end early. You can use either Joyce's article or Chapter 2 from Christensen for this week's summary.
7 10/14 Review of the Material So Far, Newcomb's Paradox and the Allais Paradox. You can use either of the following two articles for your 1-page summary.
  • R. M. Sainsbury, Section 1: Newcomb's Problem of Chapter 4: Paradoxes in [REAS] (handed out in class)
  • I. Gilboa, Questions in Decision Theory, Annual Reviews in Economics, 2 (2010), pgs. 1-19.
Fall Break/Exam Week
8 10/21 No Class: Fall Break (October 16 - 23)
9 10/28 No Class Scheduled: Exam Week (essay questions due November 4th)
Tutorial: Reasoning about Probability
10 11/4 Tutorial Questions. This class is start with 30-40 minutes where the students can think about five questions about probability (mostly puzzles and paradoxes analogous to the ones we discussed over the past few weeks). (Of course, feel free to discuss the possible solutions which each other.) Then, a guest lecturer (Dominik Klein) will discuss possible solutions to the questions.
Part 3: Rational Choice Theory
Rational choice theory, the core of the economic approach to human behavior, has become an influential approach in all of the social sciences. What makes individual actions rational? Rational choice theory offers a very simple answer: actions are rational if they reflect the maximizing of a consistent preference ordering. Is this a plausible account of human behavior? How can it be defended? One measure of the success of rational choice theory, perhaps, is for how long it has been able to withstand criticism. Recent developments, especially in behavioral economics, however, have succeeded in putting the standard model under pressure. We will also examine different objections to the standard model of rational choice.
Week Date Content
11 11/11 Instrumental Rationality and Utility Theory. We will discuss some important foundational issues in the theory of rational choice. Choose from any of the following for your 1-page summary:
  • I. Gilboa, Chapter 2: "Utility Theory", in [RC] (Dominik will hand copies of this out in class on Nov. 4)
  • G. Gaus, Chapter 1: "Instrumental and Economic Rationality" and Chapter 2: "Utility Theory" in [OPPE]
12 11/18 Rational Choice Theory. We will continue the discussion of (ordinal/cardinal) utility theory. For the 1-page summary, please choose any of the following two papers:
  • J. Elster, "The Nature and Choice of Rational Choice Explanation" in Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science (This was made available in class)
  • J. Pollock, How do you Maximize Expectation Value?, Nous, Vol. 17, No. 3 (1983), pp. 409-421
Another paper that is definitely worth reading (though is rather advanced) is:
Part 4: Rationality in Interaction
John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern wrote in their seminal book, often cited as the starting point of modern day game theory, that "we wish to find the mathematically complete principles which define 'rational behavior' for the participants [in a game]" (pg. 31, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, Princeton University Press, 1944). To what extent they and subsequent game theorists have succeeded in this lofty goal is the subject of much debate. After introducing some basic concepts in game theory, we will focus on the well-known Prisoner's Dilemma, which seems to pose some problems for the instrumental conception of rationality. Time-permitting, we will also consider another important issue in the foundations of game theory: the paradox of backwards induction, which seems to pose a problem for the key assumption that it is common knowledge that players "behave rationally".
Week Date Content
13 11/25 Introduction to Game Theory. This class will introduce some basic concepts of game theory, focusing on games of coordination and the prisoner's dilemma.
  • I. Gilboa, Chapter 7: "Games and Equilibrium" in [RC] (Copies available in class)
  • C. Bicchieri, Rationality and Game Theory in [HR]
  • G. Gaus, Chapter 4: "Game Theory" in [OPPE]
14 12/2 Game Theory: Common Knowledge of Rationality. We will continue our discussion of game theory focusing on the the underlying assumption of common knowledge of rationality, the backwards induction paradox and finally focus on issues that arise when trying to define the "best" outcome for a group. You can choose any of the following papers for your 1-page summary.
Part 5: Group Rationality
How can a group of "rational" individuals arrive at a rational choice? This module will introduce the key issues in social choice theory (eg., Arrow's Theorem on the "impossibility" of a rational group decision procedure) and, time-permitting, related work on judgement aggregation.
Week Date Content
15 12/9 Introduction to Social Choice Theory. We will introduce the basic ideas of Social Choice Theory (and Judgement Aggregation). You can choose any of the following for your 1-page summary. Note that your 2-3 page proposal for your final paper is also due before before this class.
  • G. Gaus, Social Choice, Chapter 5 in [OPPE]
  • I. Gilboa, Aggregation and Preferences, Chapter 6 in [RC]
  • P. Pettit, Rationality, Reasoning and Group Agency, Dialectica Vol. 61, No. 4 (2007), pp. 495–519
16 12/16 Topics in Voting Theory and Concluding Remarks. We will finish our tour of social choice theory with a discussion of some key issues in voting theory. We will then conclude with a discussion of the broad issues we touched on in this course. For your last 1-page summary, you can either choose one of the following papers to read or write some general comments about the topics covered in this course (eg., which topics you found particularly interesting or which topics you feel we should have spent more/less time discussing).
  • L. Blume and D. Easley, Rationality in the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2007.
  • K. Arrow, Mathematical Models in the Social Sciences, The Policy Sciences, 1951 (an old paper that is somewhat out-of-date, but contains some very interesting discussion)
  • I. Gilboa, Utility and Well-Being, Chapter 10 in [RC]


Final grades for the course will be calculated as follows:

  1. (30%) Participation & attendance: Students are required to attend all lectures and actively participate in the discussions. In order to facilitate discussion, students will be required to submit a short (at most 1 page) reaction to the readings each week.
  2. (30%) Short paper: Roughly half-way through the semester there will be a short take-home exam consisting to 2-3 essay questions based on the material covered.
  3. (40%) Final paper: Students will be required to write a final paper on a topic of their choosing (under consultation with the instructor). Following Tilburg policy, the final paper will be two two months after the end of class: The final paper is due on February 16, 2011 (of course, you can hand in the paper earlier). Please put the paper in my pigeon hole.
  4. You are free to choose a topic for the final paper that interests you, but it must be relevant to the topics we discussed in this course. A good way to start is to select at least 2 papers/chapters from books which I refer to in my slides or on this website.

    A 2-3 page summary of your paper is due on December 9, 2010. This should include a couple paragraphs explaining what you want to write about, an outline of the paper and the main literature you will review. I will return this to you with comments on the topic and suggestions for literature that you should discuss on the last class (December 16). Note that you must hand in the summary before you start working on your paper, so I can approve your topic.

    A few points to keep in mind when writing the paper
    1. Do not try to solve all the philosophical problems related to rationality. The best papers focus on a specific topic or issue.
    2. The paper should be 10-12 pages (of course, this may vary depending on your topic, but I would expect that 10-12 pages with a reasonable font is a good length)
    3. Please double check your English. While most of your grade is based on how well you understand the issue you are discussing and your arguments, a portion of your grade will be based on the quality of the writing. Also, papers which are well-written (few spelling/grammar mistakes, complete sentences, well-structured) always make a better impression!
    Here are some suggestions for possible topics:
    • We discussed a number of puzzles and paradoxes (eg., the Preface Paradox, Lottery Paradox, Newcomb's Problem, Condorcet's Paradox) throughout the course. One idea for a paper is to choose one or more paradoxes and survey the different "solutions"/responses found in the literature.
    • Survey the and critically examine the arguments for and against the assumption that an agent's preferences should be (are) transitive. A good place to start is Section 1.3 of the article Preferences in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Sven Ove Hansson Till Grune-Yanoff.
    • Is addiction irrational? How should we think about akrasia? Explain the different positions in the literature. A good place to start is the article Weakness of Will in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by S. Stroud.
    • There is a large literature starting from B. Williams seminal paper about an internal vs. an external account of "reasons for". Survey the different positions found in this literature. A good place to start is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article: Reasons for Action: Internal vs. External
    • What is the role of emotions in practical reasoning? (actually, this is probably too big of a topic and the question should be refined: a good place to start is the article Emotions and Practical Reasoning by P. Greenspan in [HR]).
    • Explore alternative analyses of the Prisoner's Dilemma (focusing only on the one-shot case). game and compare and contrast them to Sugden's analysis using team reasoning (focus only on the one-shot games as there is an extensive literature on iterated versions of the game). More specifically, compare and contrast the following analyses: analysis with
      1. An analysis using "team reasoning" by Robert Sugden (see the paper: The Logic of Team Reasoning, Philosophical Explorations, 6(3), pg. 165 - 181, 2003)
      2. An analysis proposed by the Philosopher Robert Nozick using "symbolic utility" (see Chapters 1 & 2 of "The Nature of Rationality" and also Chapter 4 in "On Philosophy, Politics and Economics by Gerald F. Gaus); and
      3. A recent proposal by Steven Brams and Marc Kilgour using ideas from voting theory (available here)
    • Another option is to write an extended book review for one of the following books (i.e., discuss the main arguments of the book and any criticisms you may have, also provide some general discussion to explain what is significant about this book):
      • Robert Nozick, The Nature of Rationality, Princeton University Press, 1993. (Publisher Site, Google Preview)
      • Ken Binmore, Rational Decisions, Princeton University Press, 2009. (note that this book can be technically quite challenging, Publisher Site, Google Preview)
      • K. Stenning and M. van Lambalgen, Human Reasoning and Cognitive Science, The MIT Press, 2008.