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Do the Standards of Rationality Depend on Resource Context?


People sometimes knowingly undermine the achievement of their own goals by, e.g., playing the lottery or borrowing from loan sharks. Are these agents acting irrationally? The standard answer is “yes.” But, in a recent award-winning paper, Jennifer Morton argues “no.” On her view, the norms of practical reasoning an agent ought to follow depend on that agent’s resource context (roughly, how rich or poor they are). If Morton is correct, the orthodox view that the same norms of practical rationality apply to all agents needs revision. I argue that Morton’s arguments fail on empirical and philosophical grounds. What’s at stake? If Morton is correct, poverty relief agencies ought to re-design their incentives so resource-scarce agents can rationally respond to them. If I’m correct, resource-scarce agents do act irrationally in the cases under discussion, and we shouldn’t be shy about saying so. Instead of declaring them rational, we should try to understand the causes of their irrational behavior and help them better succeed by their own lights.

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  1. A resource-scarce agent is an agent who typically lives in resource-scarce conditions. Resource scarcity is constituted by “a relatively narrow gap between the resources available to the agent in her context and those necessary to satisfy her ends” (Morton 2017, p. 5).

  2. This is a large group. Among them are Bratman (1987), Korsgaard (1996), Rawls (1971), and many (perhaps most) economists.

  3. The paper won the Australasian Journal of Philosophy’s “best paper” award for 2017.

  4. I call it a “meta-norm” because it’s a norm that governs when one ought to use other norms in deliberation. Ideal Rationality is not itself a first-order norm of deliberation.

  5. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter whether defenders of ideal rationality endorse the version according to which agents are required to deliberate using norms that actually best promote their ends or the version according to which agents are required to deliberate using norms they reasonably believe best promote their ends. Morton rejects both views, since neither says that the norms an agent ought to use in deliberation depend on resource context.

  6. A Raven’s Matrix is intended to test problem-solving skills. A subject is asked to select a picture to complete a pattern given by a series of pictures. A Stroop test is intended to measure cognitive control. A subject is asked, for example, to name the color of a series of letters that spell the name of some other color. Subjects must exert cognitive control when they face the mismatched stimuli.

  7. Angry Birds is a smartphone or iPad video game in which participants accumulate points by launching cartoon birds (angry about being launched in the air) at a group of targets. The more targets participants knock down with their finite supply of birds, the more points they accumulate. Angry Blueberries is the same except participants launch blueberries, not cartoon birds, at targets.

  8. Notice that this hypothesis doesn’t compete with the hypothesis that resource scarcity leads to irrationality. Each hypothesis could be true but for different agents. It could be that some agents act irrationally as a result of being in resource-scarce conditions, while others experience a preference reversal (so that they care more about their short-term than long-term goals) and therefore do not act irrationally by the standards of Ideal Rationality.

  9. Family Feud is a game in which participants compete, under time constraints, to name the most popular answers to questions asked to survey participants. Prior to the game, surveyors will ask one hundred people a host of questions such as “What’s something that might be salty?” and then record the responses, ranking them by their popularity. Contestants in the Family Feud game will then be asked “What’s something that is salty?” When contestants guess, they are hoping to name the most popular answers. The more popular the answer in the survey, the more points awarded to the contestant who guesses that answer.

  10. This assumes, of course, that the correct way to individuate modes of reasoning is in terms of short-term and long-term. This could (and probably should) be challenged, but I will not challenge it here, since I want to show that, even by Morton’s own standards, she does not offer sufficient support for No Switching.


  • Bratman, M. (1987). Intention, plans, and practical reason. Harvard University Press.

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  • Korsgaard, C. (1996). The sources of normativity. Cambridge University Press.

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  • Morton, J. (2017). Reasoning under scarcity. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 95(3), 543–559.

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  • Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Harvard University Press.

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Correspondence to Eric Sampson.

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Sampson, E. Do the Standards of Rationality Depend on Resource Context?. Acta Anal (2022).

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  • Rationality
  • Reasons
  • Ecological Rationality