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PHIL3008 What to Do? How to Make Rational Decisions under Uncertainty

6 points
(see Timetable)
Semester 1UWA (Perth)Face to face
Details for undergraduate courses
  • Level 3 option in the Philosophy; Philosophy, Politics and Economics major sequences
  • Level 3 elective
Just about any decision we make is made under conditions of uncertainty. This goes for common everyday decisions, such as whether to bring an umbrella or whether to cross the street, where we face uncertainty about rain and traffic accidents respectively. But it also goes for big life-changing decisions at the personal level, e.g., choosing a university degree or life partner, and at the policy level, e.g., choosing a policy to address climate change or income inequality. What should we believe in the face of uncertainty? And how can we take uncertainty into account when choosing what to do?

This unit will introduce you to rational choice theory, which aims to answer such questions. The basic ingredients of most views in rational choice theory are probabilities, which are used to represent the decision-maker's beliefs about how likely different possibilities are, and utilities, which represent the decision-maker's preferences. We will spend the majority of this unit discussing and criticizing these central notions.

More specifically, we will look at the interpretation of probability, expected utility theory as the dominant view in decision theory, the distinction between risk and uncertainty, paradoxes in decision theory, Dutch Book arguments, the recently popular epistemic utility theory, and game theory.
Students are able to (1) independently interpret complex philosophical texts from both ancient and contemporary sources; (2) demonstrate an understanding of complex philosophical arguments and positions in formal epistemology and rational choice theory; (3) evaluate complex positions and arguments in formal epistemology and rational choice theory; (4) weigh the virtues and vices of competing doctrines in formal epistemology and rational choice theory; (5) construct persuasive arguments (both spoken and written) concerning difficult issues in formal epistemology and rational choice theory; (6) demonstrate advanced written communication and research skills in expressing concepts in formal epistemology and rational choice theory; and (7) reflect on the nature and purpose of enquiry in formal epistemology and rational choice theory as it relates to other areas of philosophy.
Indicative assessments in this unit are as follows: (1) essays; (2) assignments; and (3) participation. Further information is available in the unit outline.

Supplementary assessment is not available in this unit except in the case of a bachelor's pass degree student who has obtained a mark of 40 overall and is currently enrolled in this unit which is being taught out.
Unit Coordinator(s)
Dr Remco Heesen
Unit rules
completion of 12 points
Advisable prior study:
PHIL2007 Knowledge and the Justification of Belief
Contact hours
Seminars: Up to 3 hours per week
  • The availability of units in Semester 1, 2, etc. was correct at the time of publication but may be subject to change.
  • All students are responsible for identifying when they need assistance to improve their academic learning, research, English language and numeracy skills; seeking out the services and resources available to help them; and applying what they learn. Students are encouraged to register for free online support through GETSmart; to help themselves to the extensive range of resources on UWA's STUDYSmarter website; and to participate in WRITESmart and (ma+hs)Smart drop-ins and workshops.
  • Unit readings, including any essential textbooks, are listed in the unit outline for each unit, one week prior the commencement of study. The unit outline will be available via the LMS and the UWA Handbook one week prior the commencement of study. Reading lists and essential textbooks are subject to change each semester. Information on essential textbooks will also be made available on the Essential Textbooks. This website is updated regularly in the lead up to semester so content may change. It is recommended that students purchase essential textbooks for convenience due to the frequency with which they will be required during the unit. A limited number of textbooks will be made available from the Library in print and will also be made available online wherever possible. Essential textbooks can be purchased from the commercial vendors to secure the best deal. The Student Guild can provide assistance on where to purchase books if required. Books can be purchased second hand at the Guild Secondhand bookshop (second floor, Guild Village), which is located on campus.