, Volume 64, Issue 1, pp 101-114

Transitivity, the Sorites Paradox, and Similarity-Based Decision-making

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Abstract

A persistent argument against the transitivity assumption of rational choice theory postulates a repeatable action that generates a significant benefit at the expense of a negligible cost. No matter how many times the action has been taken, it therefore seems reasonable for a decision-maker to take the action one more time. However, matters are so fixed that the costs of taking the action some large number of times outweigh the benefits. In taking the action some large number of times on the grounds that the benefits outweigh the costs every time, the decision-maker therefore reveals intransitive preferences, since once she has taken it this large number of times, she would prefer to return to the situation in which she had never taken the action at all. We defend transitivity against two versions of this argument: one in which it is assumed that taking the action one more time never has any perceptible cost, and one in which it is assumed that the cost of taking the action, though (sometimes) perceptible, is so small as to be outweighed at every step by the significant benefit. We argue that the description of the choice situation in the first version involves a contradiction. We also argue that the reasoning used in the second version is a form of similarity-based decision-making. We argue that when the consequences of using similarity-based decision-making are brought to light, rational decision-makers revise their preferences. We also discuss one method that might be used in performing this revision.

Manuscript submitted 28 July 2004 Final version received 10 February 2005