Decision Theory, Political Theory and the Hats Hypothesis

  • Philip Pettit
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 117)


In a typically suggestive aside, John Watkins writes:

Instead of the unified preference-map of normative decision theory, most of us operate with one or other of a number of preference-systems, according to the ‘hat’ we are currently wearing. When we come home from the office or go out to a party, we may switch easily and unnoticingly from one system to another. (A holiday-maker lazes on the beach in hot sun and hedonic mood. Then he jumps up: a swimmer is in difficulties. His hedonic calculus switches off, moral concern switches on.) But sometimes, of course, the other preference-system stays switched on. If they indicate conflicting decisions the agent will have to make some sort of meta-decision about which system shall now predominate before he can decide what to do.1

This paragraph offers a statement of what we may call ‘The Hats Hypothesis’. The hypothesis is that human beings are predisposed to act in such a way that we can usually represent their choices as a function of two variables: on the one side, the social context, or at least the perceived social context, of the action; on the other, a utility function, in particular a set of preferences, which that context selects as suitable.


Utility Function Public Choice Decision Theory Political Theory Public Benefit 
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  1. 1.
    John Watkins, ‘Imperfect Rationality’, in Robert Borger and Frank Cioffi, Eds., Explanation in the Behavioural Sciences, Cambridge University Press, 1970, p. 207.Google Scholar
  2. 3a.
    On this ambiguity see Frank Jackson, ‘Internal Conflicts in Desires and Morals’, American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 22 (1985)Google Scholar
  3. 3b.
    Frank Jackson ‘Davidson on Moral Conflicts’ in E. LePore and B. McLaughlin, (Eds.), Actions and Events, Blackwells, Oxford, 1985.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    On this point see Jackson, ‘Internal Conflicts in Desires and Morals’.Google Scholar
  5. 6a.
    The picture is well entrenched in the Aristotelian tradition. See Joseph Raz (Ed.), Practical Reasoning, Oxford University Press, 1978.Google Scholar
  6. 6b.
    See too David Milligan, Reasoning and the Explanation of Actions, Harvester Press, Brighton, 1980, Chapter 3. It is invoked in Jackson’s ‘Internal Conflicts in Desires and Morals’. The Gorman Lancaster translation of commodities into characteristics represents a parallel in economics.Google Scholar
  7. 6c.
    See Amartya Sen, Choice, Welfare, and Measurement, Blackwells, Oxford, 1982, p. 30.Google Scholar
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    See Philip Pettit, ‘The Life-World and Role-Theory’, in Edo Picevic (Ed.), Phenomenology and Philosophical Understanding, Cambridge University Press, 1975.Google Scholar
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    See in this connection my paper ‘Towards a Social Democratic Theory of the State’, Political Studies, Vol. 35 (1987), 42–55.Google Scholar
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    See Philip Pettit and Geoffrey Brennan, ‘Restrictive Consequentialism’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 64, (1986), 438–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republic Tradition, Princeton University Press, 1975.Google Scholar
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    See Arthur O. Lovejoy, Reflections on Human Nature, Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1961, Lecture V.Google Scholar
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    For a fuller development of this theme see Philip Pettit, ‘The Freedom of the City: A Republican Ideal’, in Alan Hamlin and Philip Pettit (Eds.), The Good Polity: Essays in Normative Analysis of the State, Blackwells, Oxford, 1988. That paper draws in particular on two articles by Quentin Skinner: ‘Machiavelli on the Maintenance of Liberty’, Politics, Vol. 18, (1983)Google Scholar
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    Quentin Skinner ‘The Idea of Negative Liberty: Philosophical and Historical Perspectives’, in Richard Rorty, J.B. Schneewind and Quentin Skinner (Eds.), Philosophy in History, Cambridge University Press, 1984. See also his more recent paper ‘The Paradoxes of Political Liberty,’ in S.M. McMurrin (Ed.), The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Vol. 7, Cambridge University Press, 1986.Google Scholar
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    The predicaments are all prisoner’s dilemmas. See Philip Pettit ‘Free Riding and Foul Dealing’ Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 83 (1986); reprinted in The Philosopher’s Annual, Vol. 9, (1987).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philip Pettit
    • 1
  1. 1.Australian National UniversityAustralia

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