Regret and instability in causal decision theory

Abstract

Andy Egan has recently produced a set of alleged counterexamples to causal decision theory (CDT) in which agents are forced to decide among causally unratifiable options, thereby making choices they know they will regret. I show that, far from being counterexamples, CDT gets Egan’s cases exactly right. Egan thinks otherwise because he has misapplied CDT by requiring agents to make binding choices before they have processed all available information about the causal consequences of their acts. I elucidate CDT in a way that makes it clear where Egan goes wrong, and which explains why his examples pose no threat to the theory. My approach has similarities to a modification of CDT proposed by Frank Arntzenius, but it differs in the significance that it assigns to potential regrets. I maintain, contrary to Arntzenius, that an agent facing Egan’s decisions can rationally choose actions that she knows she will later regret. All rationality demands of agents it that they maximize unconditional causal expected utility from an epistemic perspective that accurately reflects all the available evidence about what their acts are likely to cause. This yields correct answers even in outlandish cases in which one is sure to regret whatever one does.

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Correspondence to James M. Joyce.

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For help with this paper, I would like to thank Gordon Belot, Richard Bradley, Aaron Bronfman, Andy Egan, Dmitri Gallow, Allan Gibbard, Alan Hájek, Bill Harper, Wlodek Rabinowicz, Jan-Willem Romeijn, Teddy Seidenfeld, Dan Singer, Paul Weirich, and audiences at the London School of Economics, University of Kent, University of Waterloo, University of Missouri, and the 2009 Progic Conference.

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Joyce, J.M. Regret and instability in causal decision theory. Synthese 187, 123–145 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-011-0022-6

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Keywords

  • Expected utility
  • Ratifiability
  • Causal decision theory
  • Regret
  • Decision instability
  • Reflection principle
  • Dynamics of deliberation