The beginning of the term affords opportunities to think about things I normally don’t think about, so here is a topic brought by reading discussions of hiring practices: tiebreaker reasons.
What are tiebreaker reasons? They are the reasons that determines an agent’s decision or judgment when all other reasons are equal. For the intuitive notion, consider the following example. When one says, “Our final two candidates, First and Second, are as good as each other with respect to their research, teaching, and service, but we should hire First because she is from Winnipeg,” one is offering being from Winnipeg as a tiebreaker reason for hiring First over Second. As the name indicates, intuitively tiebreaker reasons should only matter when there is a tie.
Tiebreaker reasons like that one are, I think, often offered in casual conversations. But I worry: are there really tiebreaker reasons? how should tiebreaker reasons be modeled? and ultimately, are tiebreaker reasons epistemically rational to have?
To begin, consider an initially plausible, but ultimately unsuccessful, way of modeling tiebreaker reasons. Let’s say we give all reasons some epistemic weight with respect to a decision or judgment–roughly, this measurement includes factors such as how epistemically good a reason is and how relevant it is. One might think to model tiebreaker reasons as reasons that are given infinitesimally small epistemic weight ε. This way, I think, ends up running against the intuitive notion of tiebreaker reasons because it sometimes makes tiebreaker reasons matter even when there is no tie. Consider a modification of the hiring case above. Suppose research, teaching, and service considerations give us reasons weighted N in favor of Second and reasons weighted N-ε in favor of First. Then it seems that though there’s previously no tie, giving epistemic weight to the fact that First is from Winnipeg results in a tie. It appears that being from Winnipeg no longer deserves to be called a tiebreaker reason. So this infinitesimally small way of modeling tiebreaker reasons cannot be quite right.
Its failure suggests a different way of modeling tiebreaker reasons that better fits our intuitive notion. It is not enough to give tiebreaker reasons infinitesimally small weight, it must be given no weight when there is no tie. That is, we could put in a ceteris paribus clause: all else being equal, assign the reason some arbitrary non-zero epistemic weight; else, assign it zero epistemic weight. Although this ceteris paribus way of modeling tiebreaker reasons seems successful in capturing the intuitive notion, I now worry about whether it makes tiebreaker reasons irrational, in the thick epistemic sense, for an agent to have.
Having a tiebreaker reason seems irrational because it means that the agent has to assign that reason an epistemic weight independent of factors such as how epistemically good that reason is and how relevant it is. Put this concern in the form of a question: why should what other reasons an agent has, if they have no direct bearings, matter for what epistemic weight she assign to a reason? That seems arbitrary and unjustified.
Perhaps there is another way to model tiebreaker reasons that both preserves the intuitive notion and does not make them irrational to have, but I have just overlooked it. Or perhaps, just as the ideal text of physical laws does not include any ceteris paribus laws*, the ideally rational agent’s list of reasons does not include any tiebreaker reasons. There are, literally speaking, no tiebreaker reasons; what we put forth in casual conversation as tiebreaker reasons are best understood as hinting at underlying non-tiebreaking reasons–perhaps reasons of the infinitesimally small weight sort.
(I do not mean to say the strong conclusion is supported by what I say earlier; just throwing an idea out. The post is probably best read as a train of thought on something I find interesting rather than an argument. Discuss! As always, comments that clue me in to relevant discussions would be welcomed!)
* Cheeky point thrown in to make the post more controversial.