Bryan Caplan  

Huemer on Ultra-Ineffective Altruism

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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".]

(a)

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:
(i) We already have way more philosophy than we know what to do with; if anyone pays attention to these additional marginal philosophy articles, that attention will come at the expense of *other* philosophy articles.
(ii) Most philosophy that people write is false. We know that because published philosophy papers on the same question usually contradict each other. We should expect the added, marginal philosophy articles to be even more likely to be false, and less likely to be interesting, than the average existing philosophy article. So probably, the main effect of these added articles will be to take attention away from better articles. That is actually a social harm.

(b)

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:
"Look, I think I have been a fairly successful philosopher. I am inclined to say as successful as Huemer, but let's just go with 'better than worthless'. I almost didnt make it. My first time on the market I got one offer that I might well have turned down, and got saved with a postdoc because [famous philosopher] knew me and went to bat personally. So I was pretty close to the bottom of that pile."

2. A reductio:
"I'm curious - do you think universities in general should be shut down? Because those are the kind of sums that universities in general receive in donations in order to survive"

3. Another reductio:
"It is hard to see how this doesn't generalise. [...] it's hard to see what would justify anyone spending money on philosophy (or any other humanity discipline) except as a private consumer good."

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:
"this is totally wrong [...] Why think these people will do exactly what they would anyhow do? [The donation] allows one to plan hires systematically, and build up a new community of people who might interact with each other in interesting ways. I get *a lot* out of talking to my colleagues, and I certainly would not have done exactly the same work if I was elsewhere."

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:
"If you assume that you can equate a philosophy paper with the conjunction of the claims in it, then the fact that two papers contradict each other entails that at least one of them is false. [...] But this is compatible with there being lots of true claims in each of the papers."

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
b. Speculation
c. Anecdotal argument
d. Personal bias
e. Non sequitur
f. Missing the point
g. Failure to distinguish total utility from marginal utility
h. Straw man

* * *

Survey question: Does the above increase or decrease your confidence in the value of Miller's donation?






COMMENTS (18 to date)
Scott Sumner writes:

Good post. What followed this comment . . .

"Now, I'm no utilitarian."

Reinforces my view that people tend to find utilitarian arguments to be more persuasive that other arguments. If even leading non-utilitarian philosophers rely on this sort of argument, I'm even more convinced that utilitarianism is the most useful moral system.

Thomas Sewell writes:

You've convinced me. Shut down all the departments of philosophy and donate the money saved to GiveWell.

Daniel writes:

"Survey question: Does the above increase or decrease your confidence in the value of Miller's donation?"

Neither. Being a philosophy professor myself, and thus knowing lots of other philosophy professors, I've already had plenty of disappointing experience with people who are supposedly experts at analyzing and evaluating arguments doing a pretty poor job of it when the arguments concern matters where they have strong prior self-interested or ideological commitments.

John McDonnell writes:

This, but unironically:

I'm curious - do you think universities in general should be shut down?

…also, it sounds like that writer is unfamiliar with your work.

Chris H writes:

Any intellectual argument against more money being directed to a given group of people will be resented by the group of people who's money supply has been attacked. Even worse if the argument is actually right since that makes getting cut off more likely.

Malcolm Gladwell's podcast "Revisionist History" made similar points but with a less aggressive argument (his point was "give to relatively poor first world colleges not rich ones). These gifts are indefensible from trying to get any sort of effectiveness out of one's charity even if one artificially restricts the area you want that charity to cover to a particular subject or region. So good on Huemer for breaking from his professional interests! May we all have such courage when such a situation arises for ourselves.

Bob Murphy writes:

Responses #1 - #7 had plenty of arguments in them. I'm not saying they came from Socrates, but to dismiss them as merely "anger/insults" is deliberately not listening to why Huemer's essay should not be giving him nearly as much pleasure as it obviously does.

(That's OK since neither he nor I are utilitarians.)

Also, from the essay:

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).

So giving people money imposes costs on them now? Maybe Bill Miller could have paid Bryan to tutor Huemer on some more economics.

John Fembup writes:

Isn’t Miller even getting his name carved in stone on a campus academic building?

James writes:

"If even leading non-utilitarian philosophers rely on this sort of argument, I'm even more convinced that utilitarianism is the most useful moral system."

Most useful in what way? All moral systems are highly useful in the sense that they can be used in many scenarios for their intended purpose which is to produce answers moral questions.

Come to think of it, utilitarianism is not very useful in the case of Miller's donation. If we take the $3000 to save a life as an opportunity cost, we then have to know (1) the expected value of the future consequences of $3000 dollars worth of philosophy and (2) the marginal rate of substitution between incremental units of philosophy and lives saved to decide on utilitarian grounds if Miller's gift was a good thing.

That's the real problem with utilitarianism. Nobody actually uses it because it is too hard to actually solve a real life optimization problem.

I wish utilitarians would say things like "This problem is too hard to actually solve but my intuition says 'Do X.' and I have a gut feeling that I would get the same result if I actually applied utilitarianism here."


mike davis writes:

Hypothetical:

Bill Miller buys a new Gulfstream 650 for $75 million and has it tricked out with gold plated bathroom fixtures. I hear about it and write a blog post claiming that gold fixtures are tacky and that he should have gone with brushed nickel.

Does that make me the Michael Huemer of interior design?

JFA writes:

@Bob Murphy: nothing in your comment suggest Huemer doesn't understand economics. The point that providing money to graduate students (thereby keeping marginal students in the field) is a classic example choosing increasing today's utility vs. tomorrow's. If you subsidize bad decisions today (especially those that result in a type of path dependence... like staying in grad school), you might make that person worse off because she could have chosen a different path.

JFA writes:

"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."

This comment really solidified my intuition that giving to any humanities department is a waste, but it leads me to think that if Miller was dead set on giving money to a philosophy department, at least it was to one that meets criterion of not being "at the cutting edge when it comes to literary theory", etc.

Mike W writes:

My feeling is that Miller can give his money to anyone he wants, but the American taxpayers should not be forced to participate in his choice via the charitable contribution deduction. The $75 million gift will really only cost Miller about 60% of that amount...all other taxpayers will pick up the rest.

robc writes:

Scott,

Depends on the people. They cant be treated as a unit.

As a deontologist, I don't find utilitarian arguments at all useful.

Well, not true, once I have determined the means are moral, then a utilitarian argument over which end from moral means is best is fine.

But first the moral means premise needs to be met.

robc writes:

Mike W,

Money not taxed is not money out of my pocket.

The fact that the $75 million gift only costs him $60 million just means the tax subsidization saves him $15 million. And while I agree with you that we shouldn't do that, it doesnt mean the rest of us are paying the extra $15 million.

It should mean that congress has $15 million less to spend and spending gets cut appropriately.

The fact that they continue to spend past that point is an entirely different and unrelated problem.

Philo writes:

Giving money to a philosophy department will enable that department to offer more instruction to students--primarily undergraduates; this will achieve Miller's purpose, which was to provide more young people with some background, some training, in philosophy. Perhaps Miller overestimates the long-term benefit this will entail, but Huemer utterly fails to show that short-term "life-saving" would produce more good in the long run.

Mike W writes:

robc,

That's a very philosophical take on it.

By the way, would this tread even exist if Miller had given to the Economics department instead? Don't all of Huemer's objections apply equally to that branch of social science?

robc writes:

Mike W,

It probably wouldnt exist, as the economists would have just shut up and kept the money. :)

But, yes, the objections would apply to any dept.

Scott Sumner writes:

James, You said:

"I wish utilitarians would say things like "This problem is too hard to actually solve but my intuition says 'Do X.' and I have a gut feeling that I would get the same result if I actually applied utilitarianism here.""

But that is utilitarianism! If the computations are too hard, go with what your gut tells you would be the outcome if you could do the calculations.

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