Valuable Student Exercises
And they’re not just for students.
Georgetown philosophy professor Jason Brennan, a friend on Facebook and an actual friend, posted recently on Facebook a set of 20 exercises to give students to help them learn. Jason is a strong proponent of the view that you learn best, not by being lectured to (he might say “at”), but by doing.
He gave me permission to use these. He got the idea from Jessica Flanigan, a philosophy professor at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School. Some of the ideas below are his and some of these are Jessica’s. According to Jason, Jessica’s students do one exercise each week as a “Purpose Project” assignment in one of her classes. Jason told his students to choose 10 of the 20 options below.
1. The Singer Project
Make your phone background one of the pictures of a GiveDirectly recipient. As you spend money throughout the week, write a short note to that person explaining why you need to make that purchase instead of giving them money. At the end of the week, write a reflection paper about your moral reasons for spending or giving throughout the week.
2. The Hedonism Project
Think about the things that make you happiest while they are happening and the things that you want for your life. This assignment is designed to make you appreciate the paradox of hedonism and the potential appeal of utilitarianism. On one day, whenever you have the choice, choose whatever will make you happy at that moment (within reason, folks). On the next day, try to live in a way that contributes to the happiness of the people around you whenever you can. What are some examples of the differences between these days? What did you learn by reflecting on what would make you happy in the moment? How did you feel on the day you devoted to the happiness of others? Write a response paper where you evaluate how satisfying each day was and what you learned about the moral significance of happiness. Which kinds of days would you want more of in your life?
3. The Honesty Project*
For a 12-hour period, in which you are awake and interacting with others, try to be completely honest. You needn’t answer every question someone asks, but you must avoid engaging in strategic speech, deception, obfuscation, exaggeration, signaling, understatement, and the like. [DRH note: this reminds me of two movies: the hilarious 1997 movie “Liar, Liar” with Jim Carrey and the more interesting 2009 movie “The Invention of Lying” with Ricky Gervais.]
Was this difficult or easy? How did it make you feel? How did people react to you?
4. The Paternalism Project*
Choose a trusted friend or family member who cares about your wellbeing. Tell them your goals for yourself and identify the ways that you are falling short. Ask them to plan a day for you that they think will help you make progress on some of your goals. Follow their plan for the day and write a reflection about whether it actually did bring you closer to your goals. If so, why was your friend helpful here? If not, what information did they lack or why did they fall short?
5. The Political Disagreement Project*
Talk to someone you disagree with about politics for 20-30 minutes about a political topic. Ask them to explain why they think their view is correct. Record the conversation and write 700 or words explaining and defending their argument for their position. Show them the summary and have them email me telling me whether they think your summary is fair, charitable, and accurate.
6. The Obligation Project*
Part 1: I’m not saying you should break the law when you judge that the law is stupid, useless, and unjust, solely for the purpose of developing your anarchist spirit. But it’s at least worth thinking about the many laws you could break in this spirit! Make a list of at least 5 laws or rules that you think are totally permissible to break, and explain why it’s fine (or good?) to break these laws.
Part 2: You’re probably a free rider. This week, spend at least 2 hours contributing to public goods in your home, community, or workplace (e.g. tidying common spaces, picking up trash, playing pleasant music for others, lending a helping hand at the gym, etc.). How did it feel to contribute to public goods when most other people were free riding? How did others respond to your contributions? Do you think you will continue to contribute going forward?
7. The Democracy Project*
Think of a decision that you need to make in the next week. Gather at least 7 people to vote on the decision. (You can use social media to do this with a poll.) The more people voting the better! Let the crowd choose for you and follow the wisdom of the crowd.
8. The Equality Project
On Day 1, try to live as a distributive egalitarian by leveling yourself down in order to equalize. (For example, you might spend time that you’d ordinarily devote to your own studying helping a struggling student or you could buy lunch for someone who has fewer resources than you) On Day 2, try to relate to everyone as an equal. Pay attention to status hierarchies and work to combat inequalities of status and esteem in your life.
9. The Drugs and Vices Project
Talk to someone you know who uses a lot of recreational drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, study drugs, or the like. Ask them how they got started using the drugs. How do they circumvent rules trying to stop them from using the drugs? Do they like using the drugs and plan to continue? How much more would they be willing to pay for the drugs than they currently pay? Do they regret starting using them and wish they didn’t use them now?
Alternative: Do the same for some other activity commonly seen as a vice.
10. The Tradition Project*
Think of something that is considered a tradition in your community which you have not done. Try doing it. How did it make you feel to do it? Why do you think this tradition exists? What’s the best case for it? What might be lost of value if the tradition goes away?
Alternatively, think of a long-standing norm or tradition in any society which at first glance seems unjustifiable to you. Make the best case you can for it. What possible purpose or value might it serve? Are there legitimate reasons why this norm or tradition exists? What might be lost of value if the tradition goes away?
11. The Laborer Project
Find a person who works at what you consider a “blue collar” or “sweaty” job. Interview them about their work. Do they like it? Do they think they are paid well? Are they proud of their work? What sorts of skills do they use and how did they get into the work? What do they think of the people who manage them, if there are any such people? Do they think those managers add value? Do they want to become managers themselves? If the laborer works for themselves, ask them what value they think their self-management activities (scheduling, advertising, accounting, etc.) adds compared to the actual labor.
12. The Envy Project
Think of someone who has something you do not, someone you are envious or at least jealous of. Make the best case you can for why they might deserve it or be entitled to what they have. Make the best case you can for why they don’t deserve it or aren’t entitled to it. Explain as best you can how things seem from their perspective. (You can feel free to ask them.) How would your life be better if you weren’t jealous or envious?
13. The Immigration Project
Pick two countries where you are not a citizen, one rich and one poor, where you do not speak the most common language. Research what would it take for you (yourself, not a hypothetical person) to get the legal right to live and work there long term, if you could get such a right at all. What kind of jobs do you think you could get and what kind of lifestyle would you lead? What would your quality of life be?
Tip: You might find people from those countries and ask how they think you would fare.
Alternative: Find two immigrants to your own country, one from a rich country and one from a poorer country. Ask them why they moved. How are they doing? What did it take to enter? How long may they stay? Do they want to stay or plan to return?
14. The Reputation Project*
Write down a short summary of what you believe your reputation is among some group of people you care about or whom you at least need to work with. (Examples: Teammates, family, people in your dorm, people in this class.) Now, find some reliable way to check if your view of your reputation is correct or not. For instance, ask a trusted friend to show people the summary and to take notes about whether people agree. Or set up an anonymous poll.
15. The Economic Growth Project
Try to find a country or place from before 1850 AD where the typical person is leading a lifestyle and has a qualify of life that you think would be as good or better than your own. Explain why their life is better than yours. If you cannot find such a country or place, explain why not. In that case, pick a place and explain why yours is better.
16. The Moral Exemplar Project
Talk to someone who you view as a moral exemplar, in some aspect of how they live their life. Do they view themselves in this way? What sets them apart, in your view, as a moral exemplar. Are they especially morally motivated or do they have other reasons for their actions?
17. The Perverse Incentive Project*
Identify a persistent problem or flaw in an organization which you are involved in (such as a team, club, Georgetown University, etc.), a problem which is caused by perverse incentives. Explain how one might feasibly change the incentives to produce better outcomes. What are the potential downsides to your idea? Why hasn’t the organization already adopted the proposed change? Bonus if you get them to actually change.
18. The Taboo Market Project
Pay someone to do something taboo or accept money to do something taboo. (Don’t do anything illegal.) For example, pay someone to wear clothes of your choosing or to put a temporary tattoo on their head.
Write up a short report about how the spender and buyer felt, whether they regret it, and whether they would do it again.
19. The Socialism Project
Take some property of yours (which you value but can afford to lose, if it comes to that) and announce to everyone in your dorm (or some other suitably large group where people know you but not that well) that for one week you consider this property a common bounty for all. Tell them they may use it at will and do what it takes to let them borrow it/ use it. How did they treat it? How did people respond to this? Did it get destroyed or overused?
20. The Trading Project*
Select an item worth [DRH note: I’m pretty sure that Jason means “priced at”] approximately $1 USD, such as a candy bar. Over the course of a week, try to sell or trade that object for items of higher value. Trade each new object in turn and try to end up with the highest value object or most amount of money you can, just from trading.
Note: You cannot add something to the objects to increase their value. For instance, don’t offer to tutor someone in calculus II if they buy your candy bar. Don’t tell them you are raising money for charity.
The monetary value must be something we can easily establish from retail websites and the like; you cannot, for instance, just say you personally value some ten-cent item at $1 million.