[ Course Contents | Reading Material | Schedule | Grading ]

October 2010
Instructor: Eric Pacuit
Teaching Assistant: Dominik Klein
Office Hours: by appointment
Office Location: Room 142, Dante Building
Meeting Times: Mondays 19:30 - 21:15
Course Number: 700188
Credits: 6 ECTS credits
Semester: Spring 2011
First Class: Monday, January 24, 2011
Location: DZ 6 (Danted building)


Please submit to me (by email) a short description of your final paper including a brief outline of the ppaer and the main references you will use (this should be no longer than 2-3 pages). This needs to be submitted before Thursday, May 12.

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
  • Bounded rationality and heuristics
  • ‘Maximizing’ versus ‘satisficing’
  • Paradoxes of game theory (prisoner's dilemma, backwards induction)
  • Group rationality (social choice theory: Condorcet paradox, Arrow's theorem, judgement aggregation)

Reading Material

The required textbook for this course is (on sale at the bookstore): In addition, we will read contemporary research papers published in academic journals (see the schedule below for links to the papers) and found in the books below. In particular, we will supplement our readings with excerpts from the following texts:
  • [OPPE] Gerald Gaus, On Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Wadsworth Philosophical Topics, 2008. (Publisher Site, Google Preview, Amazon)
  • [HR] Alfred Mele and Piers Rawling (editors), The Oxford Handbook of Rationality, Oxford University Press, 2004. (Publisher Site, Google Preview, Amazaon)
  • [REAS] Jonathan Adler and Lance Rips (editors), Reasoning: Studies of Human Inference and its Foundations, Cambridge University Press, 2008. (Publisher Site, Amazon)
  • David Christensen, Putting Logic in its Place: Formal Constraints on Rational Belief, Oxford University Press, 2004. (Publisher Site, Google Preview, Amazon)
  • Simon Robertson (editor), Spheres of Reason: New Essays in the Philosophy of Normativity, Oxford University Press, 2009. (Publisher Site, Amazon)
The following surveys cover many of the topics we cover in this course: 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.


Please consult this schedule regularly throughout the semester as meeting times and readings may change.

Part 1: Reasons, Rationality and Reasoning
The first part will introduce different notions of rationality found in the philosophical literature. We will introduce different "modes" of practical and theoretical reasoning.
Lecture Date Content
1 1/24 Introduction (version for printing). The first lecture will introduce the main topics of the course. The readings for this lecture are:
  • Chapter 1 of [RC]: "Feasibility and Desirability"
  • G. Harman. "Rationality" in: Reasoning, Meaning and Mind, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pgs. 9 - 45, 1999. (this will be made available in class)
  • W. Spohn, The Many Facets of the Theory of Rationality, Croatian Journal of Philosophy, Volume 2, Issue 6, pp. 249 - 264, 2002.
2 1/31 Tutorial Questions. This lecture will be led by Dominik Klein and will be a tutorial focused on the basics of logic and probability theory. The students will be given 30-40 minutes to think about five questions about probability and logic (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, Dominik will discuss possible solutions to the questions.
3 2/7 Modes of Reasoning (version for printing). This lecture goes into more detail about the complex relationship between logic and reasoning. The readings for this lecture are:
4 2/14 Practical Reasoning (version for printing). We discuss practical reasoning and what constitutes a reason for action. The readings for this lecture are:
Part 2: Theoretical and Practical Rationality
This part will examine basic questions about the nature of rational beliefs. Why should rational (graded) beliefs conform to the laws of probability? Why should an agent adopt the means to achieve her desired ends? 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? How should a rational agent change her beliefs over time?
Lecture Date Content
5 2/21 Rational Constraints on Beliefs. We start by discussing different models of beliefs then we will analyze the Dutch Book arguments.
6 2/28 The Dutch Book Argument. We continue our discussion about rational constraints on beliefs and discuss rational constraints for belief change. The take-home midterm questions will be due before class on March 14.
3/7 No Class Scheduled
7 3/14 Normativity of Rationality. We explore the nature of rational constraints. The take-home midterm questions will be due before class on March 17.
  • N. Kolodny, Why be rational?, Mind, Vol. 114, pgs. 509 - 561, 2005.
  • S. Robertson, Introduction in Spheres of Reason: New Essays in the Philosophy of Normativity
  • J. Way, The Normativity of Rationality, Philosophy Compass, Volume 5, Issue 12, pages 1057–1068, December 2010
3/21 No Class Scheduled
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.
Lecture Date Content
8 3/28 Class canceled due to illness
9 4/4 Instrumental Rationality and Utility Theory. We will discuss the foundations of utility theory. The readings for this lecture are:
  • I. Gilboa, Chapter 2: "Utility Theory", in [RC]
  • G. Gaus, Chapter 1: "Instrumental and Economic Rationality" and Chapter 2: "Utility Theory" in [OPPE]
10 4/11 Rational Choice Theory. We will continue our discussion of rational choice theory.
  • I. Gilboa, Chapter 4: "Expected Utility" in [RC]
  • R. M. Sainsbury, Section 1: Newcomb's Problem of Chapter 4: Paradoxes in [REAS] (handed out in class)
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".
Lecture Date Content
13 4/18 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]
4/25 No Class Scheduled
14 5/2 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.
  • P. Pettit and R. Sugden, The Backward Induction Paradox, Journal of Philosophy, 86:4, pgs. 169 - 182, 1989.
  • P. Vanderschraaf and G. Sillari Common Knowledge in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007. (focus on Section 1, 2.1, 2.2, 2.5 and 4)
  • S. Kuhn, Prisoner's Dilemma in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007.
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.
Lecture Date Content
15 5/9 Introduction to Collective Rationality. 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
  • E. Pacuit, Voting Methods, prepared for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (under revision, comments welcome!)
16 5/16 Fairness and Concluding Remarks. We will finish our tour of social choice theory with a discussion of some key issues in fair division. We will then conclude with a discussion of the broad issues we touched on in this course. The following papers provide nice surveys of the topics we discussed in this course.


Final grades for the course will be calculated as follows:

  1. (10%) 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. (40%) Midterm exam: 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. The midterm exam (available here) is due March 14, 2011
  3. (50%) Final paper: Students will be required to write a final paper on a topic of their choosing (under consultation with the instructor).
    • You must submit a short summary (2-3 pages) of your final paper before May 12, 2011. 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. Note that you must hand in the summary before you start working on your paper, so I can approve your topic.
    • 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.
    • The final paper is due June 15, 2011. Submit it by email (e.j.pacuit@uvt.nl) with with subject line Final paper for Rationality, Spring 2011
  4. A few points to keep in mind when writing the final 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.