University of Kansas, Fall 2007
Philosophy 666: Rational Choice Theory

paper assignment—version 2

This will probably be the last version of the paper assignment. It’s unchanged from version 1 except for the addition of some social choice theory topics.

Your assignment is to write a paper on some topic relevant to this course. Below are some suggested topics, but you are welcome to propose another topic for my approval. (Do not write a paper on any topic not listed below without getting my approval first.)

Your paper should not be longer than 3,000 words, and will be due, in hard copy, at the beginning of class on Wednesday, December 5. You are welcome to turn in your paper early. Papers turned in late will be penalized 10 percentage points per 24 hours (or fraction thereof) of lateness. I will accept papers electronically, but with a penalty of 10 percentage points.

utility theory topics:

  1. One of the most vigorously debated problems in rational choice theory in the past few decades has been Newcomb’s problem. Explain Newcomb’s problem, critically comment on at least two scholarly discussions of it (including the 1969 paper in which Robert Nozick introduced the problem to academic philosophy), and state and defend your view of the appropriate reaction (or, perhaps, solution) to the problem.
  2. The maximin rule for choice under uncertainty came to the attention of political philosophers with the publication of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971. Explain the role of this rule in Rawls’s work, critically comment on at least two scholarly discussions of it, and state and defend your view of the proper role (if any) of this rule in theories such as Rawls’s.
  3. In this course, we’ve treated risk aversion and diminishing marginal utility as two sides of the same coin (pardon the monetary pun). A Few years ago, however, there appeared a notable paper with the intriguing title “Diminishing Marginal Utility of Wealth Cannot Explain Risk Aversion” (Matthew Rabin, 2000). Explain the main argument of this paper, critically comment on at least one scholarly discussion of it, and state and defend your opinion as the correct view of this issue.
  4. In 2001, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended that physicians with pregnant patients try to get them and their partners to consent to be tested to see whether they are carriers of a genetic mutation that could cause cystic fibrosis—but only if they are white. If they’re black, or Hispanic, or of Asian descent, it was not recommended that they be encouraged to be tested. Explain this initially puzzling recommendation by using the information in A.C.O.G.’s brochure “Cystic Fibrosis Carrier Testing: The Decision is Yours” (at and figuring out how to represent pregnant parents’ decision to be tested or not so that the decision to be tested has positive expected utility for white parents, but negative expected utility for parents of other racial or ethnic groups. If you choose to write your paper on this topic, talk to me about how to proceed, rather than just giving it a shot on your own.

game theory topics:

Pick one of the following texts and give a brief overview of the author’s purpose and main point(s), explaining particularly important points in more detail and drawing connections between what the author discusses and topics covered in our course. (You can learn more about these options on the Internet, or elsewhere. I am also happy to tell you a little bit about any of these that might interest you. When you have made your decision, if you cannot conveniently get the text to read, let me know by e-mail, and within a few days I’ll make available to you a PDF file that you can download and print.)

  1. Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation, part III: “Cooperation without Friendship or Foresight”
  2. Douglas C. Baird, Robert H. Gertner, and Randal Picker, Game Theory and the Law, chapter 1: “Simultaneous Decisionmaking and the Normal Form Game”
  3. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, chapter 5: “Aggression: stability and the selfish gene”

social choice theory topics:

Pick one of the following conditions and present an argument for a claim to the effect that it is, or is not, an appropriate constraint to impose on social welfare functions. In addition to arguing for your view, describe and rebut one or more opposing considerations.

  1. the unrestricted-domain condition
  2. the independence-of-irrelevant-alternatives condition
  3. the non-dictatorship condition
  4. the citizens’-sovereignty condition
  5. the positive-association condition
  6. the Pareto condition
  7. the liberty condition