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Summary

To be instrumentally rational is, roughly, to take necessary and effective means to one’s end. For instance, if you decide to give up smoking, it would be instrumentally rational to stop buying cigarettes, and to limit the time you spend around other smokers. It would be irrational not to take any means to this end. Instrumental rationality raises several sets of questions, including: (i) what are the principles of instrumental rationality? (ii) what is the normative status of the principles of instrumental rationality? (iii) might instrumental rationality be all of practical rationality?

Key works

Much recent discussion of this topic takes off from Bratman 1987, Broome 1999, and Korsgaard 1997. Kolodny 2005, Raz 2005, and Schroeder 2009 are central contributions to the subsequent debate. A different stream in the literature focuses on decision theory as a theory of instrumental rationality.Gauthier 1986 includes a classic and fairly accessible statement of this idea.

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  1. Facundo M. Alonso (2016). Reasons for Reliance. Ethics 126 (2):311-338.
    Philosophers have in general offered only a partial view of the normative grounds of reliance. Some maintain that either one of evidence or of pragmatic considerations has a normative bearing on reliance, but are silent about whether the other kind of consideration has such a bearing on it as well. Others assert that both kinds of considerations have a normative bearing on reliance, but sidestep the question of what their relative normative bearing is. My aim in this article is to (...)
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  2. Paul Anand (2009). The Rationality of Intransitive Preference: Foundations for the Modern View. In Paul Anand, Prasanta Pattanaik & Clemens Puppe (eds.), The Handbook of Rational and Social Choice. OUP Oxford
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  3. Elizabeth Anderson (2009). Democracy: Instrumental Vs. Non-Instrumental Value. In Thomas Christiano & John Philip Christman (eds.), Contemporary Debates in Political Philosophy. Wiley-Blackwell 213--227.
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  4. Chrisoula Andreou (2015). The Real Puzzle of the Self-Torturer: Uncovering a New Dimension of Instrumental Rationality. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 45 (5-6):562-575.
    The puzzle of the self-torturer raises intriguing questions concerning rationality, cyclic preferences, and resoluteness. Interestingly, what makes the case puzzling has not been clearly pinpointed. The puzzle, it seems, is that a series of rational choices foreseeably leads the self-torturer to an option that serves his preferences worse than the one with which he started. But this is a very misleading way of casting the puzzle. I pinpoint the real puzzle of the self-torturer and, in the process, reveal a neglected (...)
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  5. Chrisoula Andreou (2014). Temptation, Resolutions, and Regret. Inquiry 57 (3):275-292.
    Discussion of temptation has figured prominently in recent debates concerning instrumental rationality. In light of some particularly interesting cases in which giving in to temptation involves acting in accordance with one’s current evaluative rankings, two lines of thought have been developed: one appeals to the possibility of deviating from a well-grounded resolution, and the other appeals to the possibility of being insufficiently responsive to the prospect of future regret. But the current appeals to resolutions and regret and some of the (...)
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  6. Chrisoula Andreou (2014). The Good, the Bad, and the Trivial. Philosophical Studies 169 (2):209-225.
    Dreadful and dreaded outcomes are sometimes brought about via the accumulation of individually trivial effects. Think about inching toward terrible health or toward an environmental disaster. In some such cases, the outcome is seen as unacceptable but is still gradually realized via an extended sequence of moves each of which is trivial in terms of its impact on the health or environment of those involved. Cases of this sort are not only practically challenging, they are theoretically challenging as well. For, (...)
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  7. Chrisoula Andreou (2012). Self-Defeating Self-Governance. Philosophical Issues 22 (1):20-34.
    My aim in this paper is to initiate and contribute to debate concerning the possibility of behavior that is both self-defeating and self-governed. In the first section of the paper, I review a couple of points that figure in the literature as platitudes about (the relevant notion of) self-governance. In the second section, I explain how these points give rise to what seems to be a dilemma that suggests that informed self-defeating behavior, wherein one is aware of the consequences of (...)
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  8. Chrisoula Andreou (2008). The Newxin Puzzle. Philosophical Studies 139 (3):415 - 422.
    A variety of thought experiments suggest that, if the standard picture of practical rationality is correct, then practical rationality is sometimes an obstacle to practical success. For some, this in turn suggests that there is something wrong with the standard picture. In particular, it has been argued that we should revise the standard picture so that practical rationality and practical success emerge as more closely connected than the current picture allows. In this paper, I construct a choice situation—which I refer (...)
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  9. Chrisoula Andreou (2007). Understanding Procrastination. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 37 (2):183–193.
    Procrastination is frustrating. Because the procrastinator's frustration is self-imposed, procrastination can also be quite puzzling. I consider attempts at explaining, or explaining away, what appear to be genuine cases of procrastination. According to the position that I propose and defend, genuine procrastination exists and is supported by preference loops, which can be either stable or evanescent.
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  10. Chrisoula Andreou (2006). Might Intentions Be the Only Source of Practical Imperatives? Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 9 (3):311 - 325.
    I focus on the broadly instrumentalist view that all genuine practical imperatives are hypothetical imperatives and all genuine practical deliberation is deliberation from existing motivations. After indicating why I see instrumentalism as highly plausible, I argue that the most popular version of instrumentalism, according to which genuine practical imperatives can take desires as their starting point, is problematic. I then provide a limited defense of what I see as a more radical but also more compelling version of instrumentalism. According to (...)
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  11. Chrisoula Andreou (2006). Temptation and Deliberation. Philosophical Studies 131 (3):583 - 606.
    There is a great deal of plausibility to the standard view that if one is rational and it is clear at the time of action that a certain move, say M1, would serve one’s concerns better than any other available move, then one will, as a rational agent, opt for move M1. Still, this view concerning rationality has been challenged at least in part because it seems to conflict with our considered judgments about what it is rational to do in (...)
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  12. Chrisoula Andreou (2005). The Voices of Reason. American Philosophical Quarterly 42 (1):33 - 45.
    It is widely held that instrumental reasoning to a practical conclusion is parasitic on non-instrumental practical reasoning. This conclusion is based on the claim that when there is no reason to adopt a certain end, there is no reason to take the means (qua means) to that end. But, as will be argued, while there is a sense of reason according to which the previous statement is true, there is another sense according to which it is false. Furthermore, in both (...)
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  13. Chrisoula Andreou (2004). Instrumentally Rational Myopic Planning. Philosophical Papers 33 (2):133-145.
    Abstract I challenge the view that, in cases where time for deliberation is not an issue, instrumental rationality precludes myopic planning. I show where there is room for instrumentally rational myopic planning, and then argue that such planning is possible not only in theory, it is something human beings can and do engage in. The possibility of such planning has, however, been disregarded, and this disregard has skewed related debates concerning instrumental rationality.
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  14. Chrisoula Andreou & Mark D. White (eds.) (2012). The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. OUP Usa.
    The essays collected in this volume explore procrastination in relation to agency, rationality, and ethics -- topics that philosophy is well-suited to address.
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  15. Ian H. Angus (1980). Technique and Enlightenment: Limits of Instrumental Reason in the Life-World. Dissertation, York University (Canada)
    The present work develops the concept of instrumental reason in order to elaborate the implications of the connection of formalistic theory and technical action. Through a critique of this concept it establishes the limitations of instrumental reason and the necessity for a deeper conception o.
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  16. Brad Armendt (2013). On Risk and Rationality. Erkenntnis 79 (S6):1-9.
    It is widely held that the influence of risk on rational decisions is not entirely explained by the shape of an agent’s utility curve. Buchak (Erkenntnis, 2013, Risk and rationality, Oxford University Press, Oxford, in press) presents an axiomatic decision theory, risk-weighted expected utility theory (REU), in which decision weights are the agent’s subjective probabilities modified by his risk-function r. REU is briefly described, and the global applicability of r is discussed. Rabin’s (Econometrica 68:1281–1292, 2000) calibration theorem strongly suggests that (...)
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  17. Marcus Arvan (2015). How to Rationally Approach Life's Transformative Experiences. Philosophical Psychology 28 (8):1199-1218.
    In a widely discussed forthcoming article, “What you can't expect when you're expecting,” L. A. Paul challenges culturally and philosophically traditional views about how to rationally make major life-decisions, most specifically the decision of whether to have children. The present paper argues that because major life-decisions are transformative, the only rational way to approach them is to become resilient people: people who do not “over-plan” their lives or expect their lives to play out “according to plan”—people who understand that beyond (...)
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  18. Robert Audi (2007). 2 Prospects for a Naturalization of Practical Reason: Instrumentalism and the Normative Authority of Desire. In Michael O'Rourke Corey Washington (ed.), Situating Semantics: Essays on the Philosophy of John Perry. 41.
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  19. Kurt Baier (1988). Rationality, Value, and Preference. Social Philosophy and Policy 5 (2):17.
    Gauthier's magnificent book erects a conception of morality, “morals by agreement,” on the foundation of his own theory of practical rationality. This is as it should be if, as he claims, following Hobbes and others, there is an initial “presumption against morality” and no theory of morals “can ever serve any useful purpose, unless it can show that all the duties it recommends are also truly endorsed in each individual's reason”, indeed, that it is a requirement of rationality that one (...)
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  20. Baker (2010). Procrastination as Vice. In Chrisoula Andreou Mark D. White (ed.), The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. Oxford
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  21. Derek Baker (2010). Ambivalent Desires and the Problem with Reduction. Philosophical Studies 150 (1):37-47.
    Ambivalence is most naturally characterized as a case of conflicting desires. In most cases, an agent’s intrinsic desires conflict contingently: there is some possible world in which both desires would be satisfied. This paper argues, though, that there are cases in which intrinsic desires necessarily conflict—i.e., the desires are not jointly satisfiable in any possible world. Desiring a challenge for its own sake is a paradigm case of such a desire. Ambivalence of this sort in an agent’s desires creates special (...)
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  22. Robert Bass, Maximizing, Satisficing and the Normative Distinction Between Means and Ends.
    Decision theory, understood as providing a normative account of rationality in action, is often thought to be an adequate formalization of instrumental reasoning. As a model, there is much to be said for it. However, if decision theory is to adequately account for correct instrumental reasoning, then the axiomatic conditions by which it links preference to action must be normative for choice. That is, a choice must be rationally defective unless it proceeds from a preference set that satisfies the axiomatic (...)
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  23. Robert Bass, Sunk Costs.
    Decision theorists generally object to “honoring sunk costs” – that is, treating the fact that some cost has been incurred in the past as a reason for action, apart from the consideration of expected consequences. This paper critiques the doctrine that sunk costs should never be honored on three levels. As background, the rationale for the doctrine is explained. Then it is shown that if it is always irrational to honor sunk costs, then other common and uncontroversial practices are also (...)
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  24. Robert Bassett (2015). A Critique of Benchmark Theory. Synthese 192 (1):241-267.
    Benchmark theory , introduced by Ralph Wedgwood, departs from decision theories of pure expectation maximization like evidential decision theory and causal decision theory and instead ranks actions according to the desirability of an outcome they produce in some state of affairs compared to a standard—a benchmark—for that state of affairs. Wedgwood motivates BT through what he terms Gandalf’s principle, that the merits of an action in a given state should be evaluated relative only to the performances of other actions in (...)
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  25. Stephanie Beardman (2007). The Special Status of Instrumental Reasons. Philosophical Studies 134 (2):255 - 287.
    The rationality of means-end reasoning is the bedrock of the Humean account of practical reasons. But the normativity of such reasoning can not be taken for granted. I consider and reject the idea that the normativity of instrumental reasoning can be explained – either in terms of its being constitutive of the very notion of having an end, or solely in terms of instrumental considerations. I argue that the instrumental principle is itself a brute norm, and that this is consistent (...)
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  26. William W. Beatty & William S. Maki (1979). Acquisition of Instrumental Responding Following Noncontingent Reinforcement: Failure to Observe “Learned Laziness” in Rats. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 13 (4):268-271.
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  27. Cristina Bicchieri, Dalla Chiara & Maria Luisa (eds.) (1992). Knowledge, Belief, and Strategic Interaction. Cambridge University Press.
    In recent years there has been a great deal of interaction among game theorists, philosophers, and logicians in certain foundational problems concerning rationality, the formalization of knowledge and practical reasoning, and models of learning and deliberation. This unique volume brings together the work of some of the preeminent figures in their respective disciplines, all of whom are engaged in research at the forefront of their fields. Together they offer a conspectus of the interaction of game theory, logic, and epistemology in (...)
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  28. Cristina Bicchieri & Maria Luisa Dalla Chiara (eds.) (2011). Knowledge, Belief, and Strategic Interaction. Cambridge University Press.
    There has been a great deal of interaction among game theorists, philosophers and logicians in certain foundational problems concerning rationality, the formalization of knowledge and practical reasoning, and models of learning and deliberation. This volume brings together the work of some of the pre-eminent figures in their respective disciplines, all of whom are engaged in research at the forefront of their fields. Together they offer a conspectus of the interaction of game theory, logic and epistemology in the formal models of (...)
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  29. David Birch (1964). Incentive Value of Success and Instrumental Approach Behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology 68 (2):131.
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  30. Simon Blackburn (1995). Practical Tortoise Raising. Mind 104 (416):695-711.
    In this paper I am not so much concerned with movements of the mind, as movements of the will. But my question bears a similarity to that of the tortoise. I want to ask whether the will is under the control of fact and reason, combined. I shall try to show that there is always something else, something that is not under the control of fact and reason, which has to be given as a brute extra, if deliberation is ever (...)
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  31. Nick Bostrom (2012). The Superintelligent Will: Motivation and Instrumental Rationality in Advanced Artificial Agents. [REVIEW] Minds and Machines 22 (2):71-85.
    This paper discusses the relation between intelligence and motivation in artificial agents, developing and briefly arguing for two theses. The first, the orthogonality thesis, holds (with some caveats) that intelligence and final goals (purposes) are orthogonal axes along which possible artificial intellects can freely vary—more or less any level of intelligence could be combined with more or less any final goal. The second, the instrumental convergence thesis, holds that as long as they possess a sufficient level of intelligence, agents having (...)
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  32. Michael Bratman (2009). Intention, Belief, and Instrumental Rationality. In David Sobel & Steven Wall (eds.), Reasons for Action. Cambridge University Press 13--36.
    Two approaches to instrumental rationality Suppose I intend end E, believe that a necessary means to E is M, and believe that M requires that I intend M. My attitudes concerning E and M engage a basic requirement of practical rationality, a requirement that, barring a change in my cited beliefs, I either intend M or give up intending E.2 Call this the Instrumental Rationality requirement – for short, the IR requirement.
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  33. Michael Bratman (1987/1999). Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason. Center for the Study of Language and Information.
    What happens to our conception of mind and rational agency when we take seriously future-directed intentions and plans and their roles as inputs into further practical reasoning? The author's initial efforts in responding to this question resulted in a series of papers that he wrote during the early 1980s. In this book, Bratman develops further some of the main themes of these essays and also explores a variety of related ideas and issues. He develops a planning theory of intention. Intentions (...)
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  34. Michael Bratman (1981). Intention and Means-End Reasoning. Philosophical Review 90 (2):252-265.
  35. Michael E. Bratman (2009). I Two Approaches to Instrumental Rationality. In David Sobel Steven Wall (ed.), Reasons for Action. 13.
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  36. John Broome (2000). Instrumental Reasoning. In Julian Nida-Rümelin & Wolfgang Spohn (eds.), Rationality, Rules and Structure. Kluwer 195-207.
    Like all reasoning, practical reasoning is a process that takes a person from some of her existing mental states to a new mental state. Theoretical reasoning concludes in a belief; practical reasoning in an intention. This paper concentrates on instrumental reasoning, a species of practical reasoning in general. It argues that instrumental reasoning is correct if the content of the reasoning is a valid derivation, just as theoretical reasoning is correct if its content is a valid derivation. It also argues (...)
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  37. Donald Bruckner (2011). Second-Order Preferences and Instrumental Rationality. Acta Analytica 26 (4):367-385.
    A second-order preference is a preference over preferences. This paper addresses the role that second-order preferences play in a theory of instrumental rationality. I argue that second-order preferences have no role to play in the prescription or evaluation of actions aimed at ordinary ends. Instead, second-order preferences are relevant to prescribing or evaluating actions only insofar as those actions have a role in changing or maintaining first-order preferences. I establish these claims by examining and rejecting the view that second-order preferences (...)
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  38. John Brunero (2012). Instrumental Rationality, Symmetry and Scope. Philosophical Studies 157 (1):125-140.
    Instrumental rationality prohibits one from being in the following state: intending to pass a test, not intending to study, and believing one must intend to study if one is to pass. One could escape from this incoherent state in three ways: by intending to study, by not intending to pass, or by giving up one’s instrumental belief. However, not all of these ways of proceeding seem equally rational: giving up one’s instrumental belief seems less rational than giving up an end, (...)
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  39. John Brunero (2005). Instrumental Rationality and Carroll's Tortoise. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 8 (5):557 - 569.
    Some philosophers have tried to establish a connection between the normativity of instrumental rationality and the paradox presented by Lewis Carroll in his 1895 paper “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.” I here examine and argue against accounts of this connection presented by Peter Railton and James Dreier before presenting my own account and discussing its implications for instrumentalism (the view that all there is to practical rationality is instrumental rationality). In my view, the potential for a Carroll-style regress just (...)
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  40. John Brunero (2004). Korsgaard on Motivational Skepticism. Journal of Value Inquiry 38 (2):253–264.
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  41. John Brunero & Niko Kolodny, Instrumental Rationality. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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  42. Krister Bykvist (2007). Satisficing and Maximizing: Moral Theorists on Practical Reason, Edited by Michael Byron. Cambridge University Press, 2004, 245 Pages. [REVIEW] Economics and Philosophy 23 (2):240-245.
  43. Michael Byron (ed.) (2004). Satisficing and Maximizing: Moral Theorists on Practical Reason. Cambridge University Press.
    This collection of essays explores two competing views of practical rationality. How do we think about what we plan to do? One dominant answer is that we select the best possible option available. However, a growing number of philosophers would offer a different reply. Since we are not equipped to maximize, we must often choose the next best alternative--one that is no more than satisfactory. This strategy choice is called "satisficing" (a term coined by the economist Herb Simon).
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  44. Michael Byron (1998). Satisficing and Optimality. Ethics 109 (1):67-93.
    It is common, though perhaps not correct, to think that practical rationality is strictly instrumental.1 The functions of instrumental reason include finding suitable means to our determinate ends, helping to determine our indeterminate ends, and implementing our principles in appropriate actions. One reason that might be given for adopting instrumentalism with respect to rationality might be that our best scientific evidence offers little support for the idea that our brains have powers to detect good and bad as such in persons, (...)
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  45. Ruth Chang (ed.) (1997). Incommensurability, Incomparability and Practical Reason. Harvard University Press.
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  46. Ruth Chang (1997). Introduction. In Incommensurability, Incomparability, and Practical Reason. Harvard University Press 1-34.
    This paper is the introduction to the volume. It gives an argumentative view of the philosophical landscape concerning incommensurability and incomparability. It argues that incomparability, not incommensurability, is the important phenomenon on which philosophers should be focusing and that the arguments for the existence of incomparability are so far not compelling.
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  47. Ruth Chang (ed.) (1997). Incommensurability, Incomparability and Practical Reason. Harvard University Press.
    And what are the implications for moral and legal decision making? In this book, some of the sharpest minds in philosophy struggle with these questions.
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  48. Luis Cheng-Guajardo (2014). The Normative Requirement of Means-End Rationality and Modest Bootstrapping. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 17 (3):487-503.
    “Myth theorists” have recently called the normative requirement of means-end rationality into question. I show that we can accept certain lessons from the Myth Theorists and also salvage our intuition that there is a normative requirement of means-end rationality. I argue that any appeal to a requirement to make our attitudes coherent as such is superfluous and unnecessary in order to vindicate the requirement of means-end rationality and also avoid the problematic conclusion that persons ought to take the means to (...)
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  49. Dennis Chong (1995). Rational Choice Theory's Mysterious Rivals. Critical Review 9 (1-2):37-57.
    Although rational choice theory has enjoyed only modest predictive success, it provides a powerful explanatory mechanism for social processes involving strategic interaction among individuals and it stimulates interesting empirical inquiries. Rather than present competing theories to compare against rational choice, Don Green and Ian Shapiro have merely alluded to alternative explanatory variables such as culture, institutions, and social norms, without showing either how these factors can be incorporated into a more powerful theory, or how they are inconsistent with rational choice (...)
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  50. D. S. Clark (2002). Pragmatism's Instrumental View of Moral Reasoning. Essays in Philosophy 3 (2):13.
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