Inside the classroom: The Theory of Rational Decision

A day in the life

Inside the classroom: The Theory of Rational Decision


I think students feel very respected in this process, feel like they have a seat at the table, that they are part of a genuine and on-going debate about ideas as they are being created.

Contribute to cutting edge philosophy

In Philosophy 4120 The Theory of Rational Decision, students like to hunt for weaknesses in Philosophy Professor Duncan MacIntosh's arguments. They challenge him to think beyond his field of expertise, search for mistakes in his essays, and ask him how his ideas apply to real life. And often, they'll make him change his mind.

“I'm always astounded at how good people can be at philosophy at the undergraduate level if you prepare the ground well enough for them and give them the background they need for their natural intelligence to come up with good ideas," says Dr. MacIntosh.

The Theory of Rational Decision makes Dr. MacIntosh—and his students—live more deeply with the ideas of his research specialty: decision making.

Live deeply with your ideas

It is an intensive research course. Half the readings involve his writing, so each class poses a kind of deadline for him to revise a paper in progress. Likewise, by discussing works in progress, students are taking part in cutting-edge philosophy.

“You can actually write on his work and if you can find a problem with it, then of course, he will take that into his research and try to solve it," says Dave Dexter, a fourth year honours student in Philosophy. "Or maybe he has a problem that you will figure out how to solve. That's really dynamic.”

Nearly 100% participation rates

In each three-hour class, Dr. MacIntosh starts with a lecture outlining issues and standard approaches to a particular topic. Then, he gives them his own theory. After a pause where students think up responses, the discussion starts.

I call on each person in the room, one at a time, to hear what they have to say, whether it's a question about interpretation, an objection, a suggestion for extending the idea, or a new piece of relevant data.”

He designs the course so students feel confident enough to comment and he receives almost a 100% participation rate from students.

“I try to make philosophy a highly verbal, discussable thing—something with little arguments you can hear and hold in your mind long enough for your critical faculty to process.”

When philosophy is presented this way, it’s possible to make intellectual progress quickly.

Get to the bottom of what you really think

"What really stands out about his class structure is that it's really clear,” Dave Dexter says. “The content is really cool. He deals with the really difficult questions that there doesn't seem to be clear answers for.”

Talking out ideas helps everyone get to the bottom of what's really on their minds. And class discussions can become so completely absorbing, Dr. MacIntosh says, you lose yourself in a living idea.

You forget your own ego, your own fear and self-consciousness, your own insecurity, and you just suddenly find yourself in a "flow" moment, contributing your part to the conversation of ideas.”

Alumni Story

Careers in ethical decision-making
Daylian Cain

Alumnus Daylian Cain remembers talking with friends about this course years after graduation.

"Someone said, 'In class discussion, he makes you seem smarter than you really are.' One of the great things about his class is that it was a small, cosy learning environment. You could raise your hand and he was very egalitarian. I really felt like I had access to him."

Read more about how our Philosophy program inspired Daylian Cain to become an expert in business ethics and behavioural economics.