What’s Wrong With Donating $75 Million to a Philosophy Department?

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Philosopher Mike Huemer (Colorado) has given What’s Wrong? permission to repost the following comments, which he initially posted on Facebook:

I see that Bill Miller has given $75 million to the Philosophy Department at Johns Hopkins (https://www.bizjournals.com/…/bill-miller-donates-75-millio…). 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 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.

2 responses to “What’s Wrong With Donating $75 Million to a Philosophy Department?

  1. Graham P Thomas

    Isn’t Mike missing something though? Those 9 extra Philosophers also potentially mean 9 extra Philosophy teachers, and, if Bill Miller’s crediting of Philosophy with his success is correct, the potential for plenty more Bill Miller’s who will also go on to make their fortunes. A subset (or all of them for all we know) may decide to donate portions of their own fortune to worthier causes. If the sum of the total of these is more than $75 million, then there is the potential to save more than the 25,000 lives that the original money could have saved.

    I mean, if we’re going to reduce everything to simple utilitarian calculations, let’s at least include all the relevant variables. Philosophy isn’t just about writing papers in obscure journals. It’s also about teaching. That’s why Bill Miller donated the money in the first place, because he saw that teaching as essential to his own success.

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  2. Every year, publishers release a bunch of cartoonishly shitty business books of the form “How X Made Me a Successful Businessperson,” where X is some idiosyncratic or unusual life experience, interest, hobby, or training the businessperson received.

    For instance, there are books where the businessperson says he used Marine Corps training methods in his business. Or where the businessperson says he uses F. A. Hayek’s insights about the meaning of money to run the business. Or where the author talks about how having fun throwing fish around is useful. Etc.

    The problem with these books is that they are unscientific. N = 1. They don’t have any real way of establishing whether the method being used genuinely helped, made no difference, or hindered the business practice. They rely upon the author’s unreliable introspection and person belief that X was beneficial. But they lack proper social scientific evidence.

    Something similar goes on with Miller. He sincerely believes that his philosophy training made him a better businessperson. It’s possible he’s right. But he doesn’t have sufficient evidence. Maybe it’s a selection effect–the reason he was successful wasn’t because he took philosophy but because he was the kind of person who would choose to study philosophy. Maybe the secret of his success is something else and he falsely attributes it to philosophy. Etc. The only way to know is to do actual social science.

    Unfortunately, people have done such social science, and it mostly looks like selection effects. The evidence in educational psychology overwhelmingly finds that students do not transfer classroom learning to their jobs. Maybe Miller is an exception, but even if so, having people take philosophy in order to turn them into better businesspeople (or other workers) is in 99% of cases hopeless. See Bryan Caplan’s new book *The Case Against Education* for a thorough summary of the transfer of learning literature.

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