University of Kansas, Fall 2005
Philosophy 666: Rational Choice Theory

Rational Choice Theory

Description: Assume a person has certain preferences over various possible outcomes of a situation in which she finds herself, and that one of the things determining which possible outcome will actually occur is a choice she is about to make. To what principles must her choice conform, in order for her choice to be a rational one? This question is the fundamental question of rational choice theory, and this course examines the main concepts and principles normally used to answer it. The first part of the course is devoted to individual decision theory, in which we imagine an agent choosing essentially in isolation from other agents (as in the case of an agent choosing which of several possible books to read or choosing which of several possible stocks to buy). The second part of the course is devoted to game theory, in which the paradigm situation is one in which the outcome that an agent obtains depends on the choices of other agents whose choices depend, in turn, on those other agents’ reactions to, or predictions of, the agent’s own choices (as in the case of an individual negotiating to buy a car, or a firm deciding whether to defect from a price-fixing cartel). The third and final part of the course is devoted to social choice theory, in which we consider the problem of how a set of individual preferences can be aggregated in such a way as to plausibly represent the preferences of the whole group (as in the case of a few people deciding where to have lunch, or a society deciding who its next president will be). Throughout the course, the methods of instruction and assessment are relatively formal, akin to those of mathematics, economics, and logic. The primary texts are Choice Theory: A Very Short Introduction, by Michael Allingham, and Choices: An Introduction to Decision Theory, by Michael D. Resnik.

Class schedule: M, W, F, 12:30–1:20, in 4011 Wescoe Hall


Here are the factors that will determine your overall grade, and their weights (in percentages):

assignment weight
homework 40
mid-term exam 20
final exam 30
class participation 10
total 100

Further information about these assignments will be provided as the course progresses.

Work will be graded in accordance with the university’s grading system, as stated in article 2, section 2 of the of the University Senate Rules and Regulations.

In addition, I should note here that I take academic misconduct, especially cheating on tests and plagiarizing papers, extremely seriously, and am generally disposed to impose the harshest permissible penalties when it occurs. To enable you to meet my expectations in this regard and to do so without fear of inadvertently falling short of them, I will provide clear and specific guidance as to what does and does not constitute academic misconduct in advance of tests and when papers are assigned. Meanwhile, you may consult article 2, section 6 of the University Senate Rules and Regulations for university policy in regard to this matter.

If you have a disability for which you may be requesting special services or accommodations for this course, be sure to contact Disability Resources (22 Strong Hall / 864-2620 (V/TTY)), if you have not already done so, and have that office send me a letter documenting the accommodations to which you are entitled. Please also see me privately, at your earliest convenience, so that I can be aware of your situation and can begin to prepare the appropriate accommodations in advance of receiving the letter from Disability Resources.

Finally, you should feel free to come by my office (3070 Wescoe Hall) at any time. I have office hours on Fridays from 1:30 to 2:20, but you are also welcome to stop by at other times, either with an appointment or without. I spend most of the work week in and around my office, so your chances of finding me should be reasonably high; and although in rare cases I may have to ask you to come back at another time, in general I will be happy to speak to you at your convenience.

Books to buy:
Course materials on the web:

Course documents, including this syllabus, will be available on the web site for the course, the URL of which is

(If you don’t want to type in this whole thing, you can stop after ‘utile’—at which point you’ll be at my personal web site—and then follow the links to the web site for this particular course.)

Assignments, information about tests, and other useful materials will be posted at this site. The syllabus is also one of the pages at the above site, and since it will be revised and elaborated as the course progresses, I encourage you to check it online from time to time, instead of relying on a hard copy.

One thing that will not be posted on the web site is your record of grades for this course, since I don’t know how to make a web page that will allow each student to view only his or her own grades. So, to allow you to have online access to your grades, I’ll be entering your grades into the “online gradebook” at the Blackboard site for this course (if you’re not already logged in, then log in here; once you get to the Blackboard site for the course, click on ‘Tools’, then ‘View Grades’). Note that although Blackboard provides a shell for all sorts of course-related documents, I am using it only to provide you with access to your grades; all course-related documents, such as this syllabus and assignments, will be at the site mentioned above.

Using J-Stor:

Some of the hyperlinks in the schedule below are to articles that are available electronically from the J-Stor online journal archive. J-Stor’s home page——can be accessed by anyone, but the contents of its archives cannot be legitimately accessed without a subscription. KU has a subscription, and you can use this subscription to access the J-Stor archive in either of two ways:

  1. While using a computer with a KU IP address (which I imagine would be any of the on-campus computers—e.g., in the computer labs, in the libraries, etc.), just click on the link for the article you’re interested in. It should appear with no problem.
  2. While using a non-KU computer, follow these steps:
    1. Go to
    2. Unless you are already logged into the KU libraries’ server, you will be confronted with a log-in screen. Log in with your KU username and password.
    3. When the J-Stor screen appears, use “Search” or “Browse” to find the article, based on the bibliographic information supplied below.

Once you have the article on the screen, you will probably want to print it. Look for the gray “PRINT” link at the top of the page you’re viewing, and click on it. You’ll then be given further instructions and links. In order to print J-Stor articles, the computer you’re using needs to have installed on it either (1) the Adobe Acrobat Reader (installed on most or all campus computers, and downloadable free from Adobe; see the link on my home page) or (2) J-Stor’s own printing application (details available with J-Stor’s instructions for printing; click on “Set your printing preferences” after clicking on the “PRINT” link).

E-mail distribution list:

I’ve had the KU computer folks set up an e-mail distribution list for the course, and its address is

I’ve asked that it be set up so that not only I, but also you, can use it, so that you can communicate with everyone in the class (including me) whenever you are so inclined.

In general, I’ll try to mention everything important (whether substantive or procedural) in class. But at times, I may use the e-mail distribution list to send you information that you will be responsible for having or acting on, so it is your responsibility to make sure that you read mail that I send to this list. You can do this by making sure that you (1) have an e-mail address, (2) are registered for the course (because this list is updated every night to reflect current enrollment, taking account of drops and adds), and (3) read your e-mail. There is one complication that you should be aware of: if you have both an Exchange e-mail address (e.g., and a non-Exchange e-mail address (e.g.,, and you prefer to receive e-mail at the latter address, then mail sent to the e-mail distribution list for the course will not necessarily go to it, even if you have registered it with KU as your primary e-mail address. (This is a minor glitch in the KU distribution-list system.) To deal with this problem, either check your Exchange account as often as your check your non-Exchange account, or arrange for mail sent to your Exchange account to be forwarded to your non-Exchange account. For more information on this problem and how to solve it, see the Exchange Distribution List Primer, question 2: “Some of the people on my list say they’re not getting my list mail. Why?”


We’ll start by working through the Resnik book, supplemented by the Allingham book. Additional readings, such as journal articles, will be added along the way.

For each day, you should read the assigned sections and bring to class your answers to the problems in the book—not to turn in, but to have ready for review. Related homework assignments will follow.

August 19:

Week 1 (August 22–26):

Week 2 (August 29–September 2):

Week 3 (September 5–9):

Week 4 (September 12–16):

Week 5 (September 19–23):

Week 6 (September 26–30):

Week 7 (October 3–7):

Week 8 (October 10–14):

Week 9 (October 17–21):

Week 10 (October 24–28):

Week 11 (October 31–November 4):

Week 12 (November 7–11):

Week 13 (November 14–18):

Week 14 (November 21–25):

Week 15 (November 28–December 2):

Week 16 (December 5–9):

Friday, December 16: final exam (11:30 a.m.–1 p.m.)

(The final-exam period is from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., but we will not use the first hour of our time slot. See for KU’s final-exam schedule.)