Rational Intransitive Preferences

Politics, Philosophy and Economics 21 (1):3-28 (2022)
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According to a widely held view, rationality demands that the preferences of a person be transitive. The transitivity assumption is an axiom in standard theories of rational choice. It is also prima facie very plausible. I argue here that transitivity is not a necessary condition of rationality; it is a constraint only in some cases. The argument presented here is based on the non-linearity of differential utility functions. This paper has four parts. First, I present an argument against the transitivity assumption (I, II). Second, I discuss some objections; this will also bring out some features of the view defended here, like the essentially comparative nature of choice (III). Then, I discuss certain proposals that promise to avoid my conclusion (IV). Finally, I go into some implications concerning the nature of rational decision making (V). To accept some intransitivities as rational does not make our life easier; it can even lead to hard choices. However, it does not lead to skepticism about rational choice.

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Peter Baumann
Swarthmore College

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Reasons and Persons.Derek Parfit - 1984 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
Morals by agreement.David P. Gauthier - 1986 - New York: Oxford University Press.
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Truth and probability.Frank Ramsey - 2010 - In Antony Eagle (ed.), Philosophy of Probability: Contemporary Readings. New York: Routledge. pp. 52-94.

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