Rational preference: Decision theory as a theory of practical rationality

Theory and Decision 40 (3):249-276 (1996)


In general, the technical apparatus of decision theory is well developed. It has loads of theorems, and they can be proved from axioms. Many of the theorems are interesting, and useful both from a philosophical and a practical perspective. But decision theory does not have a well agreed upon interpretation. Its technical terms, in particular, ‘utility’ and ‘preference’ do not have a single clear and uncontroversial meaning. How to interpret these terms depends, of course, on what purposes in pursuit of which one wants to put decision theory to use. One might want to use it as a model of economic decision-making, in order to predict the behavior of corporations or of the stock market. In that case, it might be useful to interpret the technical term ‘utility’ as meaning money profit. Decision theory would then be an empirical theory. I want to look into the question of what ‘utility’ could mean, if we want decision theory to function as a theory of practical rationality. I want to know whether it makes good sense to think of practical rationality as fully or even partly accounted for by decision theory. I shall lay my cards on the table: I hope it does make good sense to think of it that way. For, I think, if Humeans are right about practical rationality, then decision theory must play a very large part in their account. And I think Humeanism has very strong attractions.

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James Dreier
Brown University

Citations of this work

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Can It Be Rational to Have Faith?Lara Buchak - 2012 - In Jake Chandler & Victoria Harrison (eds.), Probability in the Philosophy of Religion. Oxford University Press. pp. 225.
What Is Risk Aversion?H. Orri Stefansson & Richard Bradley - 2019 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 70 (1):77-102.

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