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On Three Alleged Theories of Rational Behavior


What behavior is rational? It's rational to act ethically, some think. Others endorse instrumentalism – it is rational to pursue one's goals. Still others say that acting rationally always involves promoting one's self-interest. Many philosophers have given each of these answers. But these answers don't really conflict; they aren't vying to describe some shared concept or to solve some mutually acknowledged problem. In so far as this is debated, it is a pseudo-debate. The different uses of ‘rational action’ differ merely in meaning. I shall defend the following claims: ‘rational behavior’ is used in ethical, prudential, and instrumental ways (section I); these uses of ‘rational behavior’ are distinct (section II); they do not represent competing theories of rational behavior (section III); we should stop using ‘rational behavior’ ethically and prudentially, but we may continue its instrumental use (section IV).

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William K. Frankena , ‘Sidgwick and the History of Ethical Dualism’, Essays on Henry Sidgwick, ed. B. Schultz (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 175–98, at p. 194

J. J. C. Smart (with Bernard Williams), ‘An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics’, Utilitarianism For and Against (Cambridge, 1973), pp. 374, at pp. 46–7

R. M. Hare , Moral Thinking (Oxford, 1981), pp. 104–5 and p. 214

Bernard Williams , ‘Internal and External Reasons’, Moral Luck (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 101–13

M. Allingham , Rational Choice (Basingstoke, 1999), pp. 12

J. E. Hampton , The Authority of Reason (Cambridge, 1998)

Peter Gardenfors and Nils-Eric Sahlin , ‘Introduction: Bayesian Decision Theory – Foundations and Problems’, Decision, Probability and Utility, ed. P. Gardenfors and N. Sahlin (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 115, at p. 4

E. Eells , Rational Decision and Causality (Cambridge, 1982), p. 5

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  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
  • URL: /core/journals/utilitas
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