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”.]


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.

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

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

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
(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.


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’

* * *

Part II: Inarticulate rejections

“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?