Giving the Horse A Thorough Dental Exam

T1: Johns Hopkins announces that its Department of Philosophy is receiving a $75 million gift from investor Bill Miller—the largest single donation ever to a philosophy department.
T2: Philosophers say, “This isn’t a good idea.”

Oh, philosophers, I love you.

There was some minor criticism of the donation in the comments on the post about it here at DN and also on social media, but it is most fully worked out in a post by University of Colorado Professor of Philosophy Michael Huemer, in a post at What’s Wrong?:

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)… [*Note: Here, by “hate” I mean “very much enjoy”.]

Huemer argues, first, that the money won’t accomplish much. It may make aspects of life and work better for the philosophers at Johns Hopkins University (JHU), but beyond that, he says, the gift—which is intended to create 9 new tenure-track lines in the department—will ultimately just mean that “9 people who would have just barely failed to make it in philosophy will instead just barely make it” (not because JHU’s hires would have just barely failed to make it, but because their hiring, in effect, makes room elsewhere for 9 additional philosophers to be hired elsewhere). Further, the academic employment of nine additional middling philosophers won’t make the world a better place. Sure, they might write some philosophy, but “the main effect of these added articles will be to take attention away from better articles. That is actually a social harm.”

He also argues that the opportunity cost of the donation is enormous. “What else could have been done with $75 million?” he asks.

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.

Read the whole post here.

Elsewhere online, in a public Facebook post, Ram Neta, professor of philosophy at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, comments on Huemer’s criticism of the donation:

Of course Mike is right that this donation won’t immediately save any lives… But the same is true of all resources dedicated to creative or scholarly or research activity of any kind. None of these activities aim to save lives immediately. But all of them aim (with whatever level of success) to cultivate understanding, appreciation, and sensitivity. And those qualities can save far more lives than any charity can. Imagine the consequences for human well-being, for instance, if these qualities had been effectively cultivated in every American voter.

When asked about the donation by Inside Higher Ed, one thing I said (but that didn’t make it into the article) is that I hoped that the widespread publicity the gift is receiving brings philosophy to the attention of other philanthropists. As I noted in a talk on philosophy funding at the Pacific APA last year, non-university funding in philosophy in the U.S. is dominated by a single organization, the John Templeton Foundation. (I estimate that in the period from 2011 – 2016 Templeton has provided over eight times more funding to projects in academic philosophy in the U.S. than the National Endowment for the Humanities—some examples here.) It would be beneficial to the discipline to have access to more funds from a greater variety of significant donors, in part because philosophers and philosophy departments could use the money, and in part to dampen the ability of one organization, through its dominance, to change the course of the history of philosophy. (See this related post.) Whether this consideration changes our all-things-considered assessment of Bill Miller’s donation to Johns Hopkins, I don’t know.

Your thoughts, philosophers?

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