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Frequently Asked Questions
Mike Huemer, my favorite philosopher, has two great pieces on a recent $75M donation to the Johns Hopkins Philosophy Department. They deserve a wider audience, so I'm posting them here with his permission.
Post #1: The Stimulus
I see that Bill Miller has given $75 million to the Philosophy Department at Johns Hopkins. Background: Miller is a brilliant investment manager who, it turns out, once studied philosophy at Hopkins and believes that his philosophy training helped him to think clearly and cogently.
I hate* to rain on anyone's parade, but this is among the most wasteful charitable donations I've ever heard of (apart from gifts to even richer universities, like Harvard). Let's review (a) what this money will accomplish, and (b) what else could have been accomplished with a $75 million charitable donation.
[*Note: Here, by "hate" I mean "very much enjoy".]
Hopkins will use the money to hire 9 more philosophers, and provide more funding for graduate students. This does not mean that 9 new brilliant philosophers will be created. Rather, it will most likely simply move 9 already-successful (and already well-paid) philosophers from other schools to Hopkins. These philosophers will do pretty much the same stuff they were already doing, but with more money.
Of course, the schools they leave will then try to hire replacements; on net, there will be room for 9 more people in the profession of philosophy. This means, roughly, that an expected 9 marginal philosophers will stay in the profession who otherwise would have left - that is, 9 people who would have just barely failed to make it in philosophy will instead just barely make it. Of course, there is a lot of unpredictability, but something like that is the *expected* impact of a change of this sort. Note: "marginal" is here used in the economic sense.
In addition, some graduate students will have better accommodations, or less financial strain during graduate school. Perhaps this will occasionally make the difference to whether they stay in philosophy or leave. If so, this might be a benefit to the ones who stay . . . or it might very well be a cost, since philosophy is not that great of a career for most people (again, esp. the 'marginal' people).
Also, society can look forward to a slightly increased production of 'philosophy', that is, more articles and/or books in philosophy - added to the *tens of thousands* of such articles that are already being produced every year, and already going almost completely unnoticed because we have thousands of times more of them than any human being could read.
Note again, the expected net effect is to increase production by the *marginal* philosophers, not the top philosophers - i.e., some people who would have just barely failed to get a research job will now just barely get one. The *top* researchers would have continued doing research either way; now they'll just have a little more money.
Is this marginal increase in the quantity of philosophy a social benefit? No, it isn't. It obviously isn't, for two reasons:
What else could have been done with $75 million? According to rough estimates from GiveWell, the most effective charities save lives at a cost of around $3000 per life. This means that, instead of the above effects, Bill Miller could have taken that same money and saved ~25,000 people's lives.
Now, I'm no utilitarian. I'm not just complaining that Miller failed to maximize utility. It can be rational to fail to maximize utility. But when you are specifically *giving to charity*, I tend to assume that the purpose is to do good for others. If so, it's just irrational to give to a philosophy department.
You might say: maybe his purpose wasn't to do good. Maybe he just had positive feelings toward the philosophy department where he had studied, and he was partial to those people. But then what he should have done is given money to those individuals - e.g., his favorite professors. Now his gift is going to go to *other* professors who are presently at other schools, to make them move to Hopkins. Also, some money will go to future graduate students whom Bill Miller doesn't know. So this form of partiality makes no sense to me.
If you're trying to do good for the world, give to GiveWell, the Humane League, or something like that. If you're trying to help people that you personally like or have a special relationship with, then give to those individuals. In neither case should you give to a university.
Post #2: The Response
Some philosophers are unhappy about my claim that giving $75 million to a philosophy department is a giant waste of money. In truth, I kind of knew this would happen.
My own fb friends were fairly calm about it. Not so for philosophers elsewhere on fb where the post was shared. Here are some of the comments made by the lovers of wisdom (names omitted to protect the guilty)*:
(*Note: All spelling and other errors in quotations are in the original. Material in square brackets added by me.)
Part I: Anger & Insults
1. "What's intriguing about [Huemer's post]? 'Blablabla, I'm not a utilitarian, but...'" [That was the complete comment.]
2. "I'm not impressed at all. [...] WTF is on with this 'top philosophers'/'marginal philosophers' elitism (like seriously? no philosopher that found it hard to get a job ever end up making amazing contribution to the field?)."
3. "Ugh. I am not amused by this."
4. "This whole condescending effective altruism stuff is classic 'keys under the street light' stuff."
5. "the argument that most published philosophy is false, is a *terrible* argument."
6. "[Teaching seems to be entirely discounted.] Quite. Particularly stupid of an omission [...]"
7. "Lost me at 'we already have way more philosophy than we know what to do with.' Take away this sooper-deep insight into the value of scholarship and all you have left is the usual 'effective altruism' twaddle".
* * *
Part II: Inarticulate rejections
1. "But his response is that the new people hired would be riffraff from the "almost didn't make it in philosophy" pile, so not much added value to the field (WTF?)"
2. "Well, thats a claim."
* * *
Part III: Ideology
1. "Unlike Huemer, I don't think that anybody should be allowed to be rich enough to do this anyway: simply expropriating Miller's money and redistributing it to better causes would be the way to go."
2. "I see your points, Mike, and basically agree. [...] Johns Hopkins, being the kind of institution it is, will in all likelihood not seek out young, radical, feminist or so called 'radical' or 'transgressive' thinkers. They will, I think we can be pretty sure of of that, hire a bunch of (probably older, white, established and already highly paid men) who have already been validated/rewarded for their contributions to a field which, let's be honest here, is fairly conservative (at least in the US) and dominated by middle aged and older white men. [...]
"Also, I just don't find Johns Hopkins to be at the cutting edge when it comes to literary theory, continental philosophy, film and media studies, work by women/feminists, creative writers, people of color."
3. "The discussion should not be on maximizing utility when spending billions, but on the conditions that allow this to happen at all. (Higher) Education should be a public service and a public good, not a money game."
* * *
Part IV: Objections
1. In response to the point that the gift will add 9 marginal philosophers to the profession:
2. A reductio:
3. Another reductio:
4. "Lots of US universities are privately funded through donations. This is one major donation that is targeted at a particular department. So? This happens every day (look at all the named departments and chairs), why should this one be called out?"
5. To the point that the donation will just move 9 established philosophers to JHU, to keep doing what they're already doing:
6. "What if having more philosophy courses and more respect for the field makes it a bit less likely that a Trump will be elected?"
7. "I cover effective altruism in my Intro to Ethics class [...] I find it fascinating that they can just see, pre-theoratically, that just because it is easier to calculate the lives saved if one gives to the Against Malaria foundation than the good done if one donates to a sexual violence services center or a philosophy department [...], that doesn't prove that it is better to do the first."
8. To the point that most philosophy papers must be wrong, since they regularly contradict each other:
9. "the whole argument seems to assume that the value added by philosophy professors is in their publications. Teaching seems to be entirely discounted."
10. "Further [...] it obviously wont just move people. The people moving will be replaced. There will be more total employed philosophers."
11. "For a start, no one was given a sum of 75mil to just play around with"
* * *
Exercise for the reader: match each of the above arguments to one or more of the following argumentative problems:
a. Argumentum ad ignorantiam
* * *
Survey question: Does the above increase or decrease your confidence in the value of Miller's donation?