Instrumental Rationality Without Separability

Erkenntnis 85 (5):1219-1240 (2020)
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This paper argues that instrumental rationality is more permissive than expected utility theory. The most compelling instrumentalist argument in favour of separability, its core requirement, is that agents with non-separable preferences end up badly off by their own lights in some dynamic choice problems. I argue that once we focus on the question of whether agents’ attitudes to uncertain prospects help define their ends in their own right, or instead only assign instrumental value in virtue of the outcomes they may lead to, we see that the argument must fail. Either attitudes to prospects assign non-instrumental value in their own right, in which case we cannot establish the irrationality of the dynamic choice behaviour of agents with non-separable preferences. Or they don’t, in which case agents with non-separable preferences can avoid the problematic choice behaviour without adopting separable preferences.

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Johanna Thoma
London School of Economics

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The Logic of Decision.Richard C. Jeffrey - 1965 - New York, NY, USA: University of Chicago Press.
Risk and Rationality.Lara Buchak - 2013 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.John Von Neumann & Oskar Morgenstern - 1944 - Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.

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