, Volume 191, Issue 18, pp 4353–4376 | Cite as

The locality and globality of instrumental rationality: the normative significance of preference reversals



When we ask a decision maker to express her preferences, it is typically assumed that we are eliciting a pre-existing set of preferences. However, empirical research has suggested that our preferences are often constructed on the fly for the decision problem at hand. This paper explores the ramifications of this empirical research for our understanding of instrumental rationality. First, I argue that these results pose serious challenges for the traditional decision-theoretic view of instrumental rationality, which demands global coherence amongst all of one’s beliefs and desires. To address these challenges, I first develop a minimal notion of instrumental rationality that issues in localized, goal-relative demands of coherence. This minimal conception of instrumental rationality is then used to offer a more sophisticated account of the global aspects of instrumental rationality. The resulting view abandons all-or-nothing assessments of rationality and allows us to evaluate decision makers as being rational to varying degrees. My aim is to propose a theory that is both psychologically and normatively plausible.


Decision theory Instrumental rationality Rational requirements Preference reversals Preference construction 



For their thoughtful comments and objections, I would like to thank Achille Varzi, Anubav Vasudevan, Dana Howard, Don Hubin, Glenn Ross, Guillermo Del Pinal, John Brunero, John Collins, Katie Gasdaglis, Mark Alfano, Sigrun Svavasdottir, and two anonymous referees for Synthese. I also thank the audiences at Kansas State, Columbia University, the Decisions, Games & Logic Workshop, and the Canadian Society for Epistemology for their comments on earlier versions of the paper


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Bowdoin CollegeBrunswickUSA

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