The Political Views of Philosophy Majors


U.S. philosophy majors in the are more likely to have favorable attitudes towards socialism than undergraduates majoring in other subjects, according to a new poll by College Pulse.

The poll surveyed 10,590 undergraduates. According to it, 39% of philosophy majors had a “very favorable” view of socialism, more than any other major and nearly double that of the next highest group—English majors—at 21%. Another 39% of philosophy majors have a “somewhat favorable” view of socialism, leading both College Pulse and Newsweek to report the results with this headline: “Almost 80% of Philosophy Majors Favor Socialism.” (Note to journalists: if you write about philosophers, you can expect them to point out things like the equivocation between the modest sense of “favorable” in the poll questions and the all-things-considered comparative implication of “favor” in the headline—that is, having even a very favorable view of socialism does not imply that one favors socialism over its alternatives.)

Below is a graph showing the poll results for several majors.

source: College Pulse

You can read more about the poll here and see some demographic details here.

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MA student - King's College London
MA student - King's College London
1 year ago

Interesting that Economics, the subject with perhaps the most direct access into the debate concerning free markets and state planning, has the 2nd highest combined unfavourable view of socialism and the 3rd lowest combined favourable rating of it.

Students of Philosophy, beware.Report

Griff
Griff

Access to the debate doesn’t mean it occurs. Most schools have a very narrow and unphilosophical approach and treat their discipline like a science when it isn’t.Report

Bobbk
Bobbk
Reply to  Griff
12 days ago

Economics is a Science and is even one of the more rigorous. It’s just that having to do with politics, there is a huge diffculty in admitting to be wrong 😄Report

Bob
Bob

Does the poll disambiguate between different senses of ‘socialism’? Students of economics are perhaps also likely to understand the term differently than students in other fields. Economists, for instance, do not often regard the Nordic economic model operative in Sweden, FInland, Denmark, etc. as a form of socialism, but of course in popular American discourse it’s often described as such. Regardless of the discipline the students are coming from, one can imagine answers to the poll differing depending on how the term is understood. Not a few of us would, for instance, hold an unfavorable view of socialism in its traditional and economic sense, but quite a favorable view of the Nordic model. The differences aren’t trivial — at least, a good number of people don’t see them as trivial, and so it’s not at all clear what this poll is telling us.

Imagine a poll asking whether people have a favorable attitude to ‘social justice.’ Without explanation of what that term means, the poll would in all likelihood show that a good portion of even conservative Roman Catholics turn out to be supportive of social justice. But of course Catholic Social Thought, where the term ‘social justice’ originates, differs on quite a few points from much of what secular and non-Catholic folks take that term to involve. So it would be far from clear what the poll was telling us, aside from what slogans and catchphrases people like.

Perhaps in this case we can take the results to show that students with a favorable attitude to ‘socialism’ have a favorable attitude to at least some significant government involvement in economic affairs or in supporting social services. That’s less informative than one might have hoped, but I suppose it’s not nothing.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Bob
1 year ago

Relevant to the Scandinavia consideration – it’s just as appropriate to call the Scandinavian countries the best examples of neoliberalism in the world (along with Singapore and Hong Kong) as to call them the best examples of socialism in the world, even though neoliberalism and socialism are thought to be contraries!Report

Joel
Joel
Reply to  Bob
1 year ago
Dylan
Dylan

Let us remember economics majors – along with finance and accounting majors – stand to profit from capitalism. Report

M
M
Reply to  Dylan
1 year ago

And philosophy undergrads stand to profit from strong welfare programs Report

PhilosophyUndergrad
PhilosophyUndergrad
Reply to  M
1 year ago

Most of my peers are going to law school. There are links on this site to the evidence that phil majors are some of the highest earning in the humanities. Try againReport

M
M
Reply to  PhilosophyUndergrad
1 year ago

Highest earning does not mean that there is also a low unemployment rate. The best the dailynous has posted on that subject just says “well it isn’t that much worse than every other major” so I don’t think that I will try againReport

What?
What?
Reply to  M
1 year ago

If thats the case then its true that everyone stands to benefit from welfare programs as there is nothing about phil majors themselves that makes them special when it comes to standing to benefit from welfare programs. There are lots of majors with low unemployment rates. Where I live (not the US) there are not so many opportunities for any grads including grads of more ‘lucrative’ majors such as engineering. What is it special about phil majors that makes them especially stand to benefit from welfare program when there are so many others of different majors (including ‘lucrative’ ones) that stand to do the same?Report

An Economically-Literate Philosopher
An Economically-Literate Philosopher
Reply to  Dylan
1 year ago

Let us remember instead that everyone stands to benefit from capitalism.Report

Ian
Ian

Yes, Iran benefited a lot from capitalism when the US government overthrew its democratically elected government under pressure from British Petroleum. Lots of benefits there.Report

An Economically-Literate Philosopher
An Economically-Literate Philosopher
Reply to  Ian
1 year ago

That’s not capitalism. That is a rogue government overthrowing another. Capitalism has saved more people from poverty and advanced the overall cause of human rights more than any other force in all of human history. And it is continuing to do so at a faster rate than ever.Report

An Economically-Literate Philosopher
An Economically-Literate Philosopher

Google “Hans Rosling new insights on poverty”. Greater human rights protections, increased lifespan, and poverty reduction follow economic growth throughout history up through today, and capitalism produces economic growth. Report

What?
What?

This reply is meant for “an economically-literate philosopher”.

Can you substantiate the claim that everyone stands to benefit from capitalism? Workers are ine group that quite clearly do not benefit capitalism as capitalism perscribes their exploitation. We see this all over the world. Without regulation, the lives of workers are worse off than if their exploitation is not incentivized. So how exactly does everyone stand to benefit from capitalism?Report

Economically-Literate
Economically-Literate
Reply to  What?
1 year ago

Google “Hans Rosling new insights on poverty” and look at the history of any country (such as India) that liberalized markets. In every case the result is short term “exploitation” followed by vast reductions in poverty and vastly increased living standards for the average person. My father did business in India over many decades, both before and after economic liberalization qua capitalism. He visited there recently and said he was astounded how far living standards have risen. The empirical facts back this up around the world. Again google Hans Rosling on poverty. His TED talk which shows the historical and present results of economic growth should clear things up for you.Report

Bobbk
Bobbk
Reply to  What?
12 days ago

Your definition of capitalism is a little bit strange.

Capitalism increase productivity and increase total wealth. Since wages should increase in line with productivity, capitalism improve condition of workers. If life of workers are going to get worse in some sector o geographical area, that is not a technical matter, but a political one. Capitalism is not the same thing as neoliberalismReport

Scott Paeth

One economically literate philosopher would agree with your contention is Karl Marx, who was on record as admiring the ability of capitalism to expand productivity and increase the overall wealth of a population.

However, at the same time, he noted numerous problems with capitalism, from the alienation of workers from the product of their labor to the extraction of surplus value from workers by capitalists, which is what’s usually meant by “exploitation.”

However, before socialism can replace capitalism as a mode of production, capitalism has to exhaust itself as a viable economic system. It’s not at all clear to me that we’re there yet.Report

Aeon J. Skoble
Aeon J. Skoble
Reply to  Dylan
1 year ago

– if you mean that econ majors will “go into business” and get rich, and therefore endorse capitalism, I don’t think it works that way.Report

pg
pg
Reply to  Dylan
1 year ago

As an economics and philosophy major, you’re wrong about both.Report

Devin
Devin

Given that this survey is of undergrads it’s possible (I think likely) that these numbers say more about the pre-existing commitments of students pursuing various majors than the effects of pursuing those majors. It might be that the sort of person who is attracted to an economics major tends to already disapprove of socialism.Report

Vaffangool
Vaffangool

Balkanised though it may be, economics is categorically a philosophy. Hobbs, Locke, Hegel, Kant, Rousseau, Hayek, Klein and Friedman all closely echo one another in describing economics as a philosophy borne of the pursuit of a logically-reconcilable, behaviourally-predictive (and only later mathematically-projectable) social science.Report

Scott Paeth

It’s not at all clear that economics is the discipline that “has the most direct access to the debate about markets.” On the contrary, it seems most economics programs take the rightness of markets in all most all circumstances for granted, and mostly go about justifying their superiority.

If you want an actual DEBATE about markets, you’re far more likely to get one in a philosophy or a political science class than an economics class.Report

Bobbk
Bobbk

The majority of economics college courses have a clear inclination towards liberism, that is the prevalent ideology in academia (it’mainstream but it is not intellectually superior by any mean). Anglo-american universities are more mainstream, but in Europa there are several departiments which use postkeynesian economics in their works and lessons. Il has to do a lot with the history of the country and their most influential economists.Report

Chris Surprenant
1 year ago

Well, that’s depressing. Philosophy “beating” English here is similar to Louisiana “beating” Alabama when it comes to who has the crappiest public education.Report

Mark Silcox
Mark Silcox
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
1 year ago

Yeah, or Sweden ‘beating’ the US according to wacky, arbitrary criteria such as rates of infant mortality and adult literacy.Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Mark Silcox
1 year ago

Sweden isn’t socialist. It’s a free market economy with a large welfare state. Do academic philosophers really not understand the difference between the two?Report

Mark Silcox
Mark Silcox
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
1 year ago

Could be, bro. But most of us are still pretty good at spotting facile semantic distinctions and childish ad hominems,Report

Swede
Swede
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
1 year ago

Sweden most definitely is not a socialist country, and pretty much no one here wants it to be. Social democratic leaders haven’t referred to themselves as socialists for decades, mainly because doing so would be political suicide. Any talk of socialism, revolution etc are generally met with extreme suspicion by the public. Scandinavian social democracy belongs to a deeply reformist tradition on the left, and its rhetoric and ideals are very different from the revolutionary left in e.g. southern Europe. My impression is that this distinction isn’t usually drawn in US-centric discussions about socialism. No offense but I usually roll my eyes when I hear Americans on the left refer to Sweden/Nordic social democracy as their ideal and then in the next breath talk about how what the US needs is a revolution. Those two stances aren’t really compatible Report

Swede
Swede
Reply to  Swede
1 year ago

For these and other reasons I agree with Bob’s comment above: it’s not at all clear what the poll is measuring given that no definition of socialism is providedReport

Aeon J. Skoble
Aeon J. Skoble
Reply to  Swede
1 year ago

Exactly. I’d bet that most respondents think it means “the rich should pay more of their fair share” and “we should be able to get free college and health care,” not “private property should be abolished” and “the means of production must be centrally controlled by the state.” But I guess it’s also sad that 78% of philosophy majors think that’s what socialism is.Report

Mark Silcox
Mark Silcox
Reply to  Swede
1 year ago

It’s doesn’t strike me as especially interesting what politicians choose to refer to themselves as in the present context. Social democracy throughout the west has always shared its intellectual pedigree with what you refer to as “socialism” – dropping the “-ism” was itself a merely political decision, in something like the same way (albeit less creditably) that Marxists I knew at the time started calling themselves “Marxians” around 1989. Read a little about the history of Gunnar Myrdal’s participation in electoral politics if you don’t think this is what happened in your own country.

Only brainwashed American nationalists (and their over-excitable left-liberal counterparts) are historically ignorant enough to think that all “true” forms of socialsm advocate revolution. That doesn’t mean they deserve a monopoly on how the word gets used.Report

Swede
Swede
Reply to  Mark Silcox
1 year ago

I’m going to ignore your rude and patronizing tone and go ahead and note that, terminology aside, Sweden still isn’t a socialist state in any remotely plausible sense of the term. It’s a mixed economy, and not very different from most European countries in this sense. This really isn’t controversial, but if you want to dispute this please feel free to offer some arguments for your position. Having free education, free health care, strong trade unions etc doesn’t add up to a socialist social system. Those things are compatible with (regulated) capitalism Report

Mark Silcox
Mark Silcox
Reply to  Swede
1 year ago

Arguments about the precise outer bounds of a word’s extension exhibit exactly the sort of boringness and vacuity that our profession is too often justly reviled for, and they aren’t made any more exciting by the silly posture of wounded gravitas you’re trying so hard to adopt. So I’ll pass, thanks.Report

Swede
Swede
Reply to  Swede
1 year ago

Since you won’t engage further I suppose this is superfluous, but I still would like to clarify that I asked for *any argument at all* to support your position that Sweden is a socialist state, not ‘about the precise outer bounds of a word’s extension’. If that is too much, why participate in the discussion at all? Only to be rude? Report

Bob
Bob
Reply to  Mark Silcox
1 year ago

I think you’re missing the point in treating it as a mere semantic issue. Look at it this way: there is a economic-political system of the sort that Sweden has, and there is a economic-political system sort implemented in the 20th century by countries calling themselves socialist and largely basing their understanding of socialism on Marxist-Leninist thought (Russia, East Germany, Afghanistan, Cambodia, North Korea, North Vietnam, Romania, Ethiopia, etc.). The two important points are (i) that these are significantly different sorts of economic-political systems, with the first sort embracing a wide range of economic policies and institutions repudiated by the second, and vice versa; (ii) that different people with different academic backgrounds use the term ‘socialism’ ambiguously, with some using it to refer to the first kind and not the second, others using it to refer to the second and not the third, and still others using it to cover both. The claim — at least my claim — is not that one of these is the right use of the term (though I resist the use that conflates the Nordic model with the Marxist-Leninist model). It’s that, given different uses in different fields and among people even in the same fields, just recording people’s answer to the unelaborated question ‘how favorable is your view of socialism?’ is not necessarily telling us much at all. It may be obscuring agreement, or disagreement, or both. As I tried to illustrate: lots of economists think that the Nordic model is great, but very few think that the Marxist-Leninist model is any good at all; if you ask an economist whether she favors socialism, it’s likely that she’ll take the term to refer to the Marxist-Leninist system and not to the Nordic system. If you are a fan of the Nordic system and you inferred from the economist’s answer to the question that she disagrees with you, there’s a good chance you’d be wrong. That is the problem. It has nothing to do with “facile semantic distinctions” and everything with different people using the same expression with very different meanings.

(For this reason, the history of social democratic movements is also irrelevant — though one might think that dropping the “-ism” was not quite the trivial move you suggest, but rather an attempt to indicate that social democracy and social market economies are what their proponents often say they are, viz. syntheses of different approaches rather than wholesale applications of them — but the historical development of the terms matters here no more than the historical development that explains how ‘idea’ came to name a private mental entity in Locke after a long life as the name for a fundamental metaphysical principle; that might be an interesting history, but it’s not relevant to clearing up confusion between people using the word ‘idea’ in Locke’s way and in Plato’s way).Report

Bob
Bob
Reply to  Bob
1 year ago

And yes, I need to improve my proofreading. Report

Vaffangool
Vaffangool
Reply to  Mark Silcox
1 year ago

Infant mortality is no unimportant metric, unless you are so petty as to dismiss any measure in which the United States underperforms, say, Cuba, as “wacky”. Your failure to be appalled by the extent to which illiteracy endures in this country is categorically indicative of your tolerance of an imbecilic President.Report

Vaffangool
Vaffangool
Reply to  Mark Silcox
1 year ago

@ Mark Silcox
It occurs to me that your comment makes more sense when the reader is presumed to be better-equipped than I to perceive sarcasm. If true, I extend all due apologies—if not, please continue to take offense.Report

random grad
random grad
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
1 year ago

It’s not that surprising to me that philosophy undergrads have a stronger moral compass than students in other disciplines, though I would largely explain this fact by self-selection rather than the college education they’re receiving.Report

Andrew Smith
Andrew Smith
1 year ago

I’m glad that our discipline’s project of political indoctrination is working. Next step: indoctrinate our students to more closely follow the instructions on course assignmentsReport

Matt Weiner
Reply to  Andrew Smith
1 year ago

My course assignment hasn’t failed, it’s just never been tried. Report

om
om
1 year ago

relevant to this is the survey done by economist ariel rubinstein where he found that when asked to hypothetically fire a significant amount of the workers in a factory in order to maintain the previous year’s profit (even though one could choose to fire less workers and still make a profit), economic students would on average fire as many people as possible, while philosophy students would fire the least.
there was also a significant difference between groups when the question was presented using a mathematical formula versus natural language only.

http://arielrubinstein.tau.ac.il/papers/73.pdfReport

Urstoff
Urstoff
1 year ago

This poll completely confirms my belief that the field I like has the correct, righteous opinion and the field I don’t like has the incorrect, immoral opinion.Report

James Peron
1 year ago

Socialism, like god, achieves it’s support provided you never define the term.Report

Kenny Easwaran
1 year ago

I clicked through to the survey and was sad to discover that the only terms that were asked about were “socialism” and “capitalism” (as well as whether the adjective forms were positive or negative descriptors of a politician). My hypothesis was that philosophy majors would in general be more positive about any unfamiliar system (like socialism, enlightened dictatorship, lottocracy, anarchism) and less positive about familiar ones (capitalism, democracy) than other majors, just by virtue of being more willing to consider far-fetched scenarios as real alternatives. But the survey didn’t give any useful test for that.Report

ehz
ehz
1 year ago

Perhaps not surprisingly, philosophy majors are also the most opinionated: 98% have some opinion on socialism, while in all other majors only 71% to 89% have an opinion.Report

Louis
Louis
1 year ago

The implication/suggestion, which might be inferred from some of the above discussion, that Nordic social democracy and USSR-style top-down planning pretty much exhaust the possible meanings of “socialism” is not right, as anyone for instance who is aware of the literature on market socialism (or the experience of a couple of countries that tried some form of it) will know. Markets don’t imply anything necessarily about forms of ownership: that markets and private ownership have tended to go together historically does not mean they are conceptually or practically inseparable. They aren’t.

As for economic growth under capitalist auspices, it is definitely a mixed blessing, certainly in recent years. While it has lifted substantial numbers of people out of absolute poverty, it has also significantly worsened inequality and also caused or contributed to severe environmental degradation that may eventually drive some people who have escaped poverty back into it, as well posing a real threat to the Earth’s ability to sustain human life in anything approaching tolerable conditions. Report