Maximizing, Satisficing and the Normative Distinction Between Means and Ends

Abstract

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 conditions. The crucial feature of standard decision theory for present purposes is that it conceives rational action as maximizing, as doing the best that one can in terms of satisfying one’s preferences. For maximizing to be possible, the preference set in question must completely order a person’s options. But I have argued elsewhere that that condition is often unmet by actual preference sets, so maximizing is not always available. Given that it is not, satisficing deserves attention, both as the most important alternative to maximizing and for the lessons it can yield with respect to goal-directed action. With those lessons in hand, standard maximizing decision theory is reconsidered, with the aim of showing that it does not adequately represent the normative distinction between means and ends.

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Robert Bass
University of North Carolina at Pembroke

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