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?

guest
54 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Chris Surprenant
3 years ago

Are we seriously debating whether or not it’s wonderful that a successful businessman not only gave a very large amount of money to support philosophy programs, but did so while talking about the value of philosophy generally? No wonder no one wants to fund us and our discipline is being starved of resources.

I’m happy to openly express my very sincere thanks to Bill Miller, the John Templeton Foundation, Carl Muckley (who gave UNO philosophy 2M+, where I’m on the faculty), and all other foundations and individual donors who give money to philosophy departments and individual philosophers to help further scholarship, hiring, programming, and all of the other valuable things that we do. Report

Philosoherofthefuture
Philosoherofthefuture
3 years ago

If philosophy department budgets weren’t being slashed or departments outright eliminated, I might find Huemer’s arguments more convincing. But those 9 extra philosophy jobs opening up somewhere are not going to be given to 9 mediocre philosophers, but rather to 9 philosphers who ought to have had a job in a world that properly appreciated the value of philosphy, whose jobs would have been unavailable due to a lack of funding. His argument assumes we are at an optimal level of hiring. While there may be an over-abundance of job candidates there is a serious scarcity of jobs – less openings than there ought to be – and good philosophers with valuable contributions to make are being left behind. At this point in time any more funding for the field that creates more opportunities is a good thing for philosophy and a good thing for the world.Report

Philosopherofthefuture
Philosopherofthefuture
Reply to  Philosoherofthefuture
3 years ago

…and yes I am aware of the typo in my handle above, which doesn’t help my argument, but it is hard to type on an ipad.Report

Ian
Ian
3 years ago

Maybe one way to look at this donation is as a gift from one friend to another, in which case I’m less certain the worries Huemer raises apply. That’s tricky, obviously — I don’t know if I can be friends with a philosophy dept — but it does feel as though that’s the spirit in which the money was offered.Report

Michael Cholbi
Michael Cholbi
3 years ago

If I may offer what I see as a middle ground position here: We should welcome philanthropic support of scholarly endeavors, philosophical or otherwise, and Miller’s gift will certainly be a boon for philosophy at Johns Hopkins. But (1) most elite private universities have large endowments that they could use to support philosophy (but rarely do), and (2) philosophy is cheap (most programs would receive huge benefits from their institutions increasing their budgets by, say $500,000 a year — chump change in institutions with multibillion dollar annual budgets). Yes, Miller has personal ties to JHU — but imagine what his money could do for philosophy at (say), Morgan State, Baltimore’s historically black university, or at a state community college system?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Michael Cholbi
3 years ago

At an elite private university (given their normal salary scale) I’d guess that $500,000 p/a will fund 2 tenure lines, three if you’re lucky.

Now suppose you’re the President or Provost of that elite university. Your budget is maybe in the low billions, but most of that is already committed – to staff costs, infrastructure, agreed mechanisms to cover expensive research, student support… Your discretionary budget is quite a lot lower.

Now you’re approached by philosophy and asked for 2-3 more tenure lines. Unless philosophy has some very specific case for why they in particular need it, your first thought is going to be that the case is equally good for Classics and Oriental Studies, History, English Literature, Modern Languages, Political Science, and Art/Music/Theater studies (choosing seven humanities or humanities-adjacent subjects more or less at random). So what you’re really considering (absent special pleading for philosophy) is a $4M p/a increase in the total budget for these subjects. That’s not “chump change” for any institution, even wealthy ones. (It’s the equivalent of a one-off gift of around $110 million dollars.) Report

Grymes
Grymes
3 years ago

Huemer writes that “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.” Given that Huemer is avowedly using ““marginal” in the economic sense'”, I don’t think we should expect this. Maybe we should expect the nine luminaries hired at Hopkins to be more likely to produce more true conclusions and interesting arguments than the nine marginal philosophers. But the author of the average philosophy article? They’re (on average) hired because of personal connections. In my experience, the “marginal” philosophers–who *just* missed out on getting a job–were among the most persuasive and interesting philosophical writers in my grad program. After all, they nearly got a job on the strength of their work, and in spite of their lack of connections.Report

Manny
Manny
3 years ago

How do I insert a facepalm emoji into the comment box? Just wondering….Report

Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Main, concrete result of this will be: Johns Hopkins will sky rocket in the Gourmet rankings. Like what happened with NYU, Rutgers, USC.

Miller might (a) want Hopkins to be closer to the top of the Gourmet rankings, and (b) believe that Hopkins being closer to the top is the best way to benefit the philosophy profession overall. He can want whatever he wants. But (b) is not true and just perpetuates the extreme income/prestige inequality in professional philosophy.

Most of public won’t see this and think: “I want to learn philosophy.” They will think, “the rich are getting richer.” Like if someone had amazing experiences at the Cathedral of Notre Dame and gave $75 million to fund its renovation. Worse: even assuming generously that $25 million will go to fund grad students, it looks like $50 million is basically to fund 9(!) philosophers. Not a good look.

If Miller in public deliberated philosophically about how to spend $75 million (say, by writing about it) and still given it to Hopkins, that might be better. It would put the focus on thinking philosophically instead of on a big check.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

$50 million to fund 9 philosophers is about the going rate. A tenure-track philosopher at a prominent university costs (on an annual basis) at least $70-100,000 in salary, at least $30,000 for health insurance, probably at least $20,000 in real estate for office space in a major city. That’s at least $120,000 per year, possibly $200,000 per year (and I’ve seen public listings at many state universities where salary alone reaches those numbers for some individuals, with health insurance and office space costs on top of that).

If you can assume $120,000 per year for a philosopher and a 3% interest rate, then that’s $4 million per philosopher, meaning that 9 individuals would cost $36 million. If you can assume $200,000 per year for a philosopher and a 2% interest rate, then that’s $10 million per philosopher, meaning that 9 individuals would cost $90 million.

So 9 individual philosophers for a total of $50 million really is well within the going rate. Scientists are of course far more expensive, because they need lab space as well as office space, and possibly an additional one-time million dollars of start-up cost for equipment and the like, even if you assume that future research expenses and grad student research hours will be entirely funded out of external grants.

The fact that we are so expensive is part of why Huemer’s claim is more compelling than it might at first seem.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Exactly re your last sentence. Many non-academics might assume $75 million will be divided between 9 philosophers; that so many people might assume this is a public image problem. But it’s not what I was saying. Of course all the details you (and David Wallace) state make sense. My point is that even if the tangible affect of the $75 million is 9 philosophers making $200k (or $250k with insurance, 401k, etc.), that itself seems like a problem. It seems like philosophers are happy to go along with whatever is the norm in academia, rather than rethink how at least the philosophy profession can model different values. Report

agradstudent
agradstudent
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

And what “values” would that be, in your opinion? We (academics, not just philosophers) are already overworked and underpaid to the point of nigh-exploitation.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Well, to be fair to Bharath, if you’re a professor at a top research university you’re neither underpaid nor overworked (more precisely: the non-research calls on your time are pretty manageable). Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

agradstudent, I think values based on institutional ecosystems are much better than values based on individual departments or peer groups. By “ecosystem” I mean the overall system needed for a functioning department: including all the people teaching there (not just tenure-track), and the broader network of departments (in terms of wealth, prestige, research and teaching) where faculty give talks and grad students get jobs.

I am all for benefactors. If someone gave me a million dollars to do philosophy, would take in a second. Faculty though at top research departments aren’t just individual thinkers with benefactors. They get a lot of their prestige and time from (besides their own hard work) being the most visible face of a vast framework of people and institutions. Funding them directly while ignoring the broader ecosystem leads to exploitation and eventually the collapse of the whole system.

If there are faculty at top departments talking publicaly about their dependence on the broader ecosystem, and how to foster the ecosystem, I am happy to listen and learn. But if there is going to another hot shot department with faculty focusing only on their research or their peer departments, the funding is enabling not just some good philosophy but also exploitation.Report

Andrew
Andrew
3 years ago

“Looking a gift horse in the mouth,” in these circumstances, would involve Johns Hopkins, or someone at Johns Hopkins, complaining about the size of the gift, or about the strings attached to the gift (assuming there are some), or in some other way complaining about the manner or extent to which the gift benefits them. That’s not what’s happening here. The people wondering about the gift are not at Johns Hopkins, and they aren’t suggesting that it’s deficient in some way in the manner and extent to which it benefits Johns Hopkins. They’re wondering whether it should have been put to some other, better use entirely.

Apart from quibbling about the use of the metaphor, I don’t understand why some people seem to have the view that if some money is a gift, it’s silly, or nonsense, or in some other way illegitimate to think about whether there was a better use of the gift. I understand there’s a literature here and I should look into it. For now, though, I’ll just express puzzlement and hope that someone who is already familiar with that literature will clue me in. If Bill Gates gives a billion dollars to the KKK, I think there’s good reason to question the gift, though it was a gift. If he gives a billion dollars to the NY Yankees, because he’s really passionate about the Yankees, I think there’s good reason to wonder about that use of the money. Do the people who think that there’s something illegitimate about these sorts of considerations think that because they think that no use of money is better than any other?

Wondering about whether the money could have been better spent (both in light of the goal of advancing philosophy and in light of other goals to which it could have been put) is consistent with thinking that the gift is “wonderful.” It’s a great thing that Mr. Miller is willing to put his money to this use and not, for instance, just hoard it. Why would it follow from that, though, that there is no other, better use to which it could have been put?

Is the worry that this sort of musing will put off potential donors to philosophy programs? I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe I’m wrong, but I would think that donors interested in advancing philosophy wouldn’t take issue with philosophers thinking about such things. At any rate, even if they did, and even if that meant donors were less likely to donate to philosophy, that might be a good thing, at least if they donate to other, better causes. Report

Andrew
Andrew
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Fair enough. Report

Andrew
Andrew
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

So understood, though, I guess it makes even more sense to wonder, as Bharath does, about whether there were better ways to advance philosophy. Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Income/prestige inequality persists due to the illusion which equates what is good for the best/top/elite with what is good for the whole system.

This gift reenforces the idea that the way philosophers should be rewarded is by giving them a fancy chair, minimal teaching, offices overlooking green quads and 200k-300k and health insurance for life.
This supposes either that (a) philosophy doesn’t have to be about meeting hardships in life, or (b) a professor can inspire the public re how to meet hardships even when he is guaranteed an upper class life (the Joel Osteen vision of philosophy). Neither assumption bodes well for the profession.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Hi, Justin. Could you please clarify your third comment? Are you saying you’re not much of an egalitarian when it comes to the disparity of income within the profession? Or are you not much of an egalitarian when it comes to income, period?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

“This supposes either that (a) philosophy doesn’t have to be about meeting hardships in life, or (b) a professor can inspire the public re how to meet hardships even when he is guaranteed an upper class life (the Joel Osteen vision of philosophy). Neither assumption bodes well for the profession.”

It’s just observationally obvious that not everything that philosophers do is “about meeting hardships in life”. Virtually nothing in philosophy of physics or math has anything to do with them, for instance. I suppose you could say “therefore they’re not really philosophy”, but it’s not clear what would justify that (quite apart from the fact that I gather we’re supposed to be rowing back on claims that ‘this isn’t philosophy’).

Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

David, not saying all philosophy has to be about meeting hardships in life. Obviously not true. Am not even interested in what is and isn’t philosophy.

Many in the public resent academia, especially rich universities, and especially humanities depts. Am just curious if professional philosophers have a plan to address this resentment. This gift, though wonderful, seems like it plays into the resentment. Hence not clear to me that it obviously helps the profession more generally.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Almost no-one in the country will even hear about this gift other than people who are already following academic news carefully. Almost 100% of people who follow academic news carefully have well-formed and settled opinions on the major themes of academic policy and are not going to be moved by this story. So while I’m sympathetic to the view that *some part of* the public resent academia and that this is a real problem, I don’t see this gift matters at all to that problem.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Not quite. What professional philosophers think about gifts like this might matter a great deal to the issue of how they might respond to resentment in the public domain.

Also, resentment isn’t just an issue in the public. Surely it is a big issue within academic philosophy, and not all resentment is bad or unwarranted. So instances like this gift can be a good time to have conversations about that. As opposed to just assuming that it is a happy, wonderful thing for everyone.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

“resentment isn’t just an issue in the public. ”

Sure, but your previous post was about resentment by the public. (“Many in the public resent academia… this gift, though wonderful, plays into the resentment.”) I was replying specifically to that.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Re (1): wasn’t giving a general theory of inequality. Was stating my view that a focus on rich, research departments doesn’t translate to what is good for the profession. I could be wrong. But this is a big issue for debate. This gift basically chooses, consciously or not, one side of that debate.

This is great for the Hopkins department. But if the net result is there is now one more department like NYU or Harvard, I fail to see how that helps the profession over all.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

In response to Justin’s original comment: I think there’s a lot to be said in favor of this reading, and , indeed, it seems to me that good part of what people do with charitable donations generally is to make a statement about what they value or express their valuation of something. And assuming that the thing in question actually is valuable, it seems to me that this can be quite a good thing. Part of what’s galling about Huemer’s finger wagging is that it deliberately dismisses that aspect of charity and its value. (I dunno maybe I’ve just been reading too much Elizabeth Anderson recently though).Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
3 years ago

Two somewhat-related observations:

1) This is a one-off endowment gift intended to support a permanent increase in departmental budget. That affects how you read the numbers. When I was at Oxford, we did long-term planning on the basis that we can draw down 3.75% of endowment on a longterm basis. On that basis, that $70M gift translates to a $2.6M p/a increase in JHU’s philosophy budget. That (admittedly still large) number is the right starting point in thinking about gift size.

Similarly, at Oxford we estimated the total cost to my college of a fully-funded faculty member, including office space, pensions, and other costs, at around (at current exchange rate) $150,000 p/a. But Oxford pays poorly by the standards of top US universities. If you bump that number up to $200,000 p/a (averaging over junior and senior hires) then it uses up $1.8M of the $2.6M budget increase. So (contra Bharath Vallabha’s astonishment) the size of the gift looks in the right ballpark for the intended effects (assuming some spend on graduate students and other non-staff costs, and allowing for the very hand-wavey nature of my estimates). There will have been a fairly detailed cost breakdown along these lines as part of JHU’s approach to, and negotiations with, Bill Miller; the $70M number won’t have been plucked out of the air.

2) Discussions of marginal benefit don’t always capture network effects. If I had $70M to spend on boosting some academic field’s research and graduate teaching, I’d absolutely look to find a generally-excellent university with a growth opportunity in that field, because I’d have much more confidence in the university’s overall institutional competence, its ability to steward excellent work, its attractiveness to students, and the like. And by the same token, I’m not looking to move, but if I were, I’d be *much* more confident in moving to a newly-expanding department in a highly-successful university than a superbly-funded department in an otherwise struggling university.

Of course, if you’re systematically skeptical about the value of philosophy research and education as realized in the current US system, you’re not going to be moved by either observation. But that’s a much more general criticism. Presumably, Bill Miller isn’t skeptical in this way.
Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

That damn David Wallace! Always introducing relevant facts.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Tom Hurka
3 years ago

An obvious caveat is that while I understood university funding quite well when I left Oxford, I’m mostly guessing as to how well it translates to the US system. But I think the fundamentals ought to be the same, at least in outline.Report

Brian
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

Small point, David: standard endowment payouts at U.S. universities are in the 4 to 4.5% range, so perhaps more like an extra $3million in the annual budget. Although the news articles did not address this, it would also be typical in cases like this for the donor to have secured some commitments from the university–e.g., I would hardly be surprised if the university had to agree to fund at least some of these additional lines as some basic level, with supplemental funding then coming from the gift. That is speculative, but consistent with standard donor and university practice at many institutions.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Brian
3 years ago

Thanks, that’s helpful context.

At Oxford, we generally thought US universities’ payout plans were overaggressive and left the universities too exposed to financial downturns – but that’s a normative, not a descriptive, matter.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
3 years ago

Sorry, one more observation: Michael Huemer writes

“this is among the most wasteful charitable donations I’ve ever heard of (apart from gifts to even richer universities, like Harvard)”

This is naïve about the value, or otherwise, of large gifts to universities. It is a huge achievement for the academic faculty, senior leadership, and fundraisers at JHU to have obtained a gift of this size *that is clearly advancing JHU’s core goals*. It is very easy for the fundraising departments at top universities to raise large amounts of money for things that they didn’t really want to do in the first place but which the donor is really keen on, either because the university leadership is too in love with big-ticket gifts for their own sake, or because they haven’t managed to organize and staff their development office so that they’re incentivized to raise money for the university’s goals rather than just for the sake of the number on the bottom line of their annual report.

This doesn’t really affect Professor Huemer’s larger point, of course – it’s possible to think that even well-targeted donations to already-wealthy institutions are wasteful. But it is very easy for large gifts to universities to be wasteful even in terms of the goals of those universities. This gift isn’t.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
3 years ago

Quite a few of the observations above seem to boil down to general objections to the way academic staff are remunerated by elite private-sector universities in a capitalist democracy. Of course there are perfectly reasonable objections to capitalism as a way of organizing society, but it’s odd to bring them up in this context in particular. This just in: finance multimillionaires are generally pro-capitalism; their choice of philanthropic activity is going to reflect this. Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

“Of course there are perfectly reasonable objections to capitalism as a way of organizing society, but it’s odd to bring them up in this context in particular.”

Nothing odd about it. The objections are not to capitalism per se. But to issues of where and how capitalism and liberal arts education come together. There was a time when philosophers were monks and nuns. Some monastaries were rich where the monks lived in relative luxury and some didn’t and chose more modest ways of living. Not saying one is better than the other. But the debate between the two modes of being a monk was productive, intellectually and socially. A modern, secular version of such a debate within a capitalist setting is necessary, and would be equally productive. Part of a conversation about what it means that philosophers are situated in academia, which has become so expensive. Fine for doing phil science or logic or interpreting Kant or Confucius, etc.; not so obviously fine for other modes of philosophy which seek to change the public’s habits or cultivate modes of virtuous living.Report

Robert Gressis
3 years ago

If I had they kind of money to spend on philosophy, I would fund an initiative that made a strong effort to figure out how to teach philosophy better and then disseminate the results to the profession at large. I could be wrong, but I think that would be likelier to have a more lasting impact than hiring more philosophers.

That said, I would also fund that enterprise in this spirit: is the reason why students learn so little due to deficiencies in how we teach them, or due to lack or motivation and/or ability in the students, or due to lack of some kind of institutional support? Or all?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Robert Gressis
3 years ago

How do you plan to spend $75M on that initiative? I can more or less see how to spend say $500K-$1M on it. Report

Robert Gressis
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

There would have to be lots of classes wherein different approaches are tried, controlling for teacher quality, student quality, demographics, techniques, etc.

I guess I wouldn’t have to limit it to philosophy, either.Report

?
?
3 years ago

Huemer makes two arguments against giving to phil departments— one about the marginal philosopher and one about the function of charity.

I doubt the assumptions about the job market which underwrite aspects of the marginal argument hold in practice.
Also it is far from clear what “value” any given philosopher provides so is also difficult to assess their relative value.

As for the charity argument, Huemer claims he is not criticizing the guy for failing to maximize utility and just claims the donation for fails to live up to the definition of ‘charity’. So call it a gift or a voluntary transfer. Gifts don’t have to save lives. What’s his argument then? I understand the utilitarian perspective, but not Huemer’s.

Also isn’t Huemer some sort of libertarian anarchist?
So what’s better according to such a view:
an individual giving money quite voluntarily to fund the practice of philosophy (at a private institution no less) or the state coercing individuals to pay up in order to pay the salaries of philosophers at public institutions?

Again, I don’t see how he has a coherent or principled case here.

Report

Robert Gressis
Reply to  ?
3 years ago

Huemer is indeed a libertarian anarchist.

If you were to ask him which is better, the state coercing people to fund professors, or an individual doing so privately, I’m sure he’d say the latter. But I suspect that he’s also point out that that’s a false dilemma in this case; there is a third option: an individual giving a donation that produces more good than giving to a philosophy department.

As for the charity part, Huemer is indeed not a utilitarian (I think he’s a Rossian intuitionist). But I think his point w/r/t charity is that the point of giving to charity is usually “doing good”. If *that’s* your rationale, then saying, “I want to do good, but not very much good”, is, to Huemer, irrational.
(I’m not sure he’s right about that last point, though; the rationale behind charitable contributions is “do good”, not necessarily “maximize the good you can do”. So, I’m not sure it’s irrational to give charitably but not maximize the good.) Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Robert Gressis
3 years ago

I’m not at all convinced that someone’s goal when giving to charity is always or even usually “doing good”, rather than “supporting a particular good goal”.Report

?
?
Reply to  Robert Gressis
3 years ago

Gressis, thanks for clarifying.
Agree with David Wallace that there may be a plurality of rationales behind gift giving.
And I admit I used a false, but hopefully somewhat amusing, dilemma.
Still saving lives is always on the table— whether the money is spent privately or publicly. Surely the rationale behind public spending is to do good and so the state could do better as well (whether taxation is ultimately legitimate or not.) And It’s not clear to me that paying a philosopher’s salary (marginal or otherwise) outweighs saving a bunch of lives (with the exception of philosophers who provide a better return on investment in number of lives saved.)
Report

DoubleA
DoubleA
3 years ago

One can only hope that the next massive state budget cut for Phil departments happens in Colorado. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  DoubleA
3 years ago

Because of course wishing personal ill on those with which we disagree on an intellectual or political matter is the route to individual contentment and global harmony.Report

DoubleA
DoubleA
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

You just don’t appreciate all the good that the saved money could be doing!

I don’t think Huemer spewing bullshit like a contrarian teenager merits a serious response. But please, take us down the path to global harmony, David.Report

A Third-World Philosopher
A Third-World Philosopher
3 years ago

Peter Singer would happily agree with Huemer. Report

Matt
Reply to  A Third-World Philosopher
3 years ago

Who cares?Report

NotAPhilosophyProfessor
NotAPhilosophyProfessor
3 years ago

I am very interested by Huemer’s argument that “the main effect of these added articles will be to take attention away from better articles. That is actually a social harm.” Most academic philosophers mainly read articles in their narrow disciplines, and the public rarely reads any academic philosophy. The public’s attention does not seem to be constantly pulled by various philosophers or even a few heavyweights like Martha Nussbaum but non-obviously philosophical pursuits. With respect to the academy, assuming that JHU doesn’t hire its new professors in the same discipline, having a couple more papers in an area does not seem to be a heavy burden for existing philosophers to endure, and, indeed, if philosophy professors enjoyed thinking through issues of concern, it would probably be pleasurable to them.

Is my thought process misguided?Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
3 years ago

Huemer ignores some absolutely basic issues here that are absolutely necessary to having an intelligent conversation about the subject: Is charity a duty or a supererogatory action? If it is a duty does it allow discretion in how one fulfills it, and if so how much? I take it he needs to assume that it is a duty and that we have practically no latitude in how we fulfill it. We have to give to charity and we have to do so in the way that saves the most lives. Or is the assumption that charity isn’t a duty at all, but that the only point of charity, the thing that makes it intelligible as charity is an intention to save as many lives or do as much good as possible? And so then anyone who doesn’t donate in that way is just confused about what charity even is? But who in the world besides hardcore utilitarians and Huemer actually believes any of those statements? Most of us who do give to charity don’t do so in ways that save the most lives and we don’t find anything wrong with that. I do sometimes donate money in that way myself but my wife and I also give to local art museums, the church we’re going to, and yes even coworkers and family members who are having a run of bad luck. Why? Because we have personal attachments to those things. Practically everyone else I know who even gives to charity makes their donations in the same way. Are we all failing to fulfill a duty? Are we all just woefully confused about what the whole point of charity is? That just seems silly to me.
One suggestion I would make though: If I had 50 million bucks to donate to further philosophy (and barring winning the lottery I never will) I think I would focus on student scholarships for philosophy majors. I think a lot of students who might otherwise major in philosophy don’t out of a fear that they’d be wracking up debt to get an unmarketable degree. I can think of a lot of ways having more majors would do the profession good, and, indirectly at least, it would even partially go to financing more faculty in the field.Report

A Third-World Philosopher
A Third-World Philosopher
Reply to  Sam Duncan
3 years ago

As I indicated above, Peter Singer famously argues that certain kinds of charity are our duties. Huemer’s argument is basically the same as Singer’s. While Singer’s argument receives many criticisms, my impression is that his is much better received than Huemer’s.Report

Sikander
Sikander
3 years ago

This is a bit off-topic but IMO when rich people give their handouts/throw crumbs to us peasants (or the wealthier of the peasants in this case), the appropriate response is to express gratitude because anything else would be rude and ignoble, but not to be servile or obsequious by expressing too much gratitude and/or elevating the giver to the status of a saint. All wealth accumulation is unjust and someone giving some of it to someone else is not some great act of benevolence. We should never lose our capacity for gratitude but also not a healthy sense of entitlement.

So yeah: thanks Bill Miller but this money wasn’t yours to begin with.Report

4d35t1n4t10n
4d35t1n4t10n
3 years ago

Thre things:

Didn’t make it through all comments but it seems to me as though the discussion was a little one sided?

1) huemer’s initial argument makes sense only if life is a good in itself doesn’t it? But in fact, I would think (please correct me) that the 25,000 people saved would live precarious lifes and be heavily exploited? Better still to use the money to change the political system at Large – and in that perspective, 75 million $ seem not enough to bribe enough people so as to facilitate real change.

2) that said: maybe there should be ‘strings attached:’ namely to hire philosophers that will work on pressing political issues of our time (such as the study of fascism, media philosophy and philosophy of race, trans*, feminist philosophy etc. ). Needles to say that miler’s explicit rational stands on solid neoliberal feet: namely individualism.

3) more interesting cluster of questions: who is this guy? What else did he fund? Is he responsible for the disenfranchisement and impoverishment of millions of people, their death maybe? How would we find out? And: should we be happy about ‘philosophy’ entering the family of marketable professions on a large scale? Will we now be swamped with carreerist aspiring stock market brokers? Should we offer transdisciplinary seminars on ‘philosophy’for stock market traders’ to prevent that? What is the relationship between philosophy and money in general? Questions questions..Report