University of Kansas, Fall 2006
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. Some material written by the instructor is also used.

Class schedule: M, W, F, 11–11:50, in 4011 Wescoe Hall


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

assignment weight
homework 30
first test 20
second test 20
third test 20
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 the University Senate Rules and Regulations. Article 2 of those rules and regulations—“Academic Work and Its Evaluation”—contains a section called “The Grading System,” part of which I have copied below from

Along the way, I may grade many assignments on a 0–100 scale instead of with letter grades. You can get a sense of how you are doing by using the following conversion scale (which is the scale I’ll use to convert your final average—as computed in the manner described above—to a letter grade for you for the whole course):

To do well in this course, you should be prepared to commit a considerable amount of time outside of class to reading the texts and doing problems for practice and for credit. According to section 5.1.1 of the Faculty Senate Rules and Regulations (, “One semester hour means course work normally represented by an hour of class instruction and two hours of study a week for one semester.” Thus, for a three-credit course such as this one, you should be prepared to spend six hours per week outside of class on reading and other out-of-class work.

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 other graded work. 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 (, at 22 Strong Hall or at 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 Mondays and Wednesdays from 2 to 2:50, but you are also welcome to stop by at other times, either with an appointment or without. I spend most Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in and around my office, so your chances of finding me on one of those days 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:

Most 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 frequently, instead of relying on a hard copy.

There are two things that will be posted on the Blackboard site for the course rather than on the (non-Blackboard) course web site. (If you’re not already logged in, you can log in at at

  1. The first thing I’ll be using Blackboard for is a record of your grades for for this course, since I don’t know how to make a web page that will allow each student to view his or her own grades but not those of other students. 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, click on ‘Tools’, then ‘My Grades’.)
  2. The other thing I’ll be putting on Blackboard is the series of handouts I’ll be providing to you. I hope to work these up into a textbook, and so I don’t want them out on the (non-password-protected part of the) web. At the Blackboard site for this course, click ‘Course Documents’; that’s where I’ll be putting the handouts, in PDF format.

So, 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 and my textbook-ish handouts. All course-related documents, such as this syllabus and assignments, will be at the non-Blackboard site whose URL is given above.

E-mail distribution list:

I’ve had the KU computer folks set up an e-mail distribution list for the course. 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 known problem with 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 ( and look at the answer to question 2: “Some of the people on my list say they’re not getting my list mail. Why?”


We’ll start by working through some material prepared by the instructor. Later, we’ll work through parts of 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 material and bring to class your answers to the problems—not to turn in, but to have ready for review. Related homework assignments for credit will follow.


August 18:

Week 1 (August 21–25):

Utility Theory

Week 2 (August 28–September 1):

Week 3 (September 4–8):

Week 4 (September 11–15):

Week 5 (September 18–22):

Game Theory

Week 6 (September 25–29):

Week 7 (October 2–6):

Week 8 (October 9–13):

Week 9 (October 16–20):

Week 10 (October 23–27):

Social Choice Theory

Week 11 (October 30–November 3):

Week 12 (November 6–10):

Week 13 (November 13–17):

Week 14 (November 20–24):

Week 15 (November 27–December 1):

Week 16 (December 4–December 8):

Wednesday, December 13: final exam (10:30–11:20 a.m.)

(See for KU’s final-exam schedule.)

The final-exam period will be used for the test on social choice theory, not a cumulative exam. So, we will use only the first 50 minutes of the exam period.