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

Rational Choice Theory


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 utility 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 text is Choices: An Introduction to Decision Theory, by Michael D. Resnik. Some material written by the instructor is also used.

Class schedule:

Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, 10–10:50, in 4011 Wescoe Hall (enrollment code 37523 for undergraduates, enrollment code 37529 for graduate students)

Meeting with me and contacting me:

You should feel free to come by my office (3070 Wescoe Hall) at any time. I have office hours on Mondays from 1:30 to 2:20, and on Wednesdays from 1 to 1:50, but you are also welcome to stop by at other times, either with an appointment or without. I’m in and around my office most Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, as well as some Tuesdays and Thursdays; 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. You are also quite welcome to make an appointment with me, by e-mailing me at the address given above. Please note that I tend to use e-mail only for scheduling appointments and answering logistical questions, not for substantive discussions of course material.


At the end of the course, I’ll give you a grade of A, B, C, D, or F. The grades A, B, C, and D are given specific interpretations in KU’s University Senate Rules and Regulations, which I adhere to. Article 2 of those rules and regulations—“Academic Work and Its Evaluation”—contains a section called “The Grading System” (at, which says that an A should be given for achievement of outstanding quality, a B for achievement of high quality, a C for achievement of acceptable quality, and a D for achievement that is minimally passing, but of less than acceptable quality.

What letter grade I give you will depend on the final average of the scores you get on the various tests and assignments in the course (which I’ll outline below). I’ll use the following scale to convert your final average to a letter grade:

Many (if not all) tests and assignments will be graded numerically, rather than with letter grades, and you can also use this scale to interpret the numerical scores you get in this class during the semester.

Your final average will be determined by your scores on the following six components of the course.

assignment weight (percent)
homework 24
test on utility theory 16
test on game theory 16
test on social choice theory 16
paper 16
class participation 12
total 100

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

Book 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. (You can access Blackboard at

  1. The first thing I’ll be using Blackboard for is a record of your grades for for this course. To view your grades in Blackboard’s “online gradebook,” go to the Blackboard site for this course, and click on ‘Tools’, followed by ‘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 other 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 the second question: “Some of the people on my list say they’re not getting my list mail. Why?”

Time commitment, academic integrity, and disability accommodation:

To do well in this course, you should be prepared to commit a considerable amount of time outside of class to reading the textbook and practicing the skills this course is intended to teach. 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 available 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 when I tell you about the tests and the paper assignment. If would like to see KU’s policy on academic integrity, it is in article 2, section 6 of the University Senate Rules and Regulations (

Finally, 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 give me a letter from that office 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 Disability Resources letter.


We’ll start by working through some material prepared by the instructor. Later, we’ll work through parts of the Resnik book. Additional readings may 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 17:

Week 1 (August 20–24):

Utility Theory

Week 2 (August 27–31):

Week 3 (September 3–7):

Week 4 (September 10–14):

Week 5 (September 17–21):

Game Theory

Week 6 (September 24–28):

Week 7 (October 1–5):

Week 8 (October 8–12):

Week 9 (October 15–19):

Week 10 (October 22–26):

Social Choice Theory

Week 11 (October 29–November 2):

Week 12 (November 5–9):

Week 13 (November 12–16):

Week 14 (November 19–23):

Week 15 (November 26–30):

Week 16 (December 3–7):


end-of-semester information: