Steve Ellis

Associate Professor and Graduate Liaison
Ph.D., Rutgers
Research areas: Decision Theory, Philosophy of Economics, Philosophy of Mind, Ethics

(405) 325-6324
office hours

My research examines both human action and social scientific accounts of human action from a philosophical perspective.  I focus, in particular, on philosophical issues in decision theory.  Most of my work has focused on set of relatively neglected desire/preference/utility issues: people have a number of irreducible objectives; sometimes they act with only one of those objectives in mind; at other times they pursue a number of ends at the same time.  Standard decision-theoretic accounts assume that each person chooses in accordance with a single preference ranking/utility function that univocally orders possible outcomes.  The failure of standard accounts to address multiple objectives raises two issues that have been the foci of my research: (1) How do we account for the fact that people act on different subsets of their objectives at different times? (2) Is it possible to form a univocal, all-of-those-things-considered preference ranking from the consideration of many different objectives?  If so, how?

The problems posed by multiple objectives and some of their implications are laid out in some detail in my paper “Multiple Objectives: A Neglected Problem in the Theory of Human Action” (Synthese 153:2 [November 2006]: 313-338).  To explain the fact that people act on different objectives at different times I propose that people selectively attend to different objectives (i.e., they understand their situations in different ways) in different situations (see my “Market Hegemony and Economic Theory,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 28:4 [December 2008]: 513-532 and an article I co-authored with Grant Hayden, “Law and Economics After Behavioral Economics,” University of Kansas Law Review, 55:3 [April 2007]: 629-675).  I examine some of the normative implications of this proposal in my paper “The Varieties of Instrumental Rationality” (Southern Journal of Philosophy 46:2 [2008]: 199-220).  This view has important implications for normative economics.  Standard economic theory assigns a dual role to a person’s preferences: in positive economics they help determine behavior; in normative economics they are the criteria for welfare.  If situation-specific preferences (i.e., the ones that determine behavior) only reflect some of a person’s objectives, however, then it is highly unlikely that satisfying them will enhance her welfare.  I develop this criticism in my working paper “Abandoning the Pareto Principle.”

The concern that it might be impossible to go from many irreducible objectives to a univocal, all-of-those-things-considered assessment of outcomes stems from worries about value-incommensurability.  I try to defang this concern in my article “The Main Argument for Value Incommensurability (and Why It Fails)” (Southern Journal of Philosophy 46:1 [2008]: 27-43).  My working paper “Prioritizing Multiple Objectives: Feeling Our Way” spells out my positive account of how people form many-things-considered evaluations.  Briefly, I think people can (and should) form many-things-considered assessments by weighting and combining the one-thing-considered assessments provided by their different objectives.  (Formally, this involves calibrating preference intervals across different one-thing-considered rankings.)  Priority weights are derived from experience and are constrained by how people feel when they act on different sets of priorities.  Essentially, priority schemes are ‘falsified’ when they lead to bad feelings.  While thinking about priorities over ends, I was struck by the libertarian political viewsbecause they give great (even infinite) weight to liberty.  I was curious about libertarian perfectionism, in particular, because it explicitly acknowledges multiple human objectives, but still assigns a lexical priority to protecting (negative) freedom from interference.  In my working paper “Is Libertarian Perfectionism Tenable?” I argue that this view is misguided.

Recent courses

PHIL 1013 Introduction to Philosophy
PHIL 3113 Reasoning & Decision Making
PHIL 3273 Ethics & Business
PHIL 3293 Environmental Ethics
PHIL 5623 Philosophy of Social Science
PHIL 6593 Contemporary Philosophy: Decision Theory

Selected publications

Click here for full CV (.docx)

“Market Hegemony and Economic Theory,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 28:4 (December 2008): 513-532.

“The Varieties of Instrumental Rationality” Southern Journal of Philosophy 46:2 (2008): 199-220.

“The Main Argument for Value Incommensurability (and Why It Fails)” Southern Journal of Philosophy 46:1 (2008): 27-43.

“Law and Economics After Behavioral Economics” (with G. Hayden), University of Kansas Law Review, 55:3 (April 2007): 629-675.

“Multiple Objectives: A Neglected Problem in the Theory of Human Action,” Synthese 153:2 (November 2006): 313-338.

Work in progress:

Abandoning the Pareto Principle” (.pdf)

Prioritizing Multiple Objectives: Feeling Our Way” (.pdf)

Is Libertarian Perfectionism Tenable?” (.pdf)