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How to be a high impact philosopher, part II

In a previous post, I discussed how, as a philosopher, one should decide on a research areas.  I suggested that one method was to work out what are potentially the biggest problems the world faces, work out what the crucial normative consideration are, and then work on those areas.  Call that the top-down method: starting with the problem, and working backwards to the actions one should take.

There’s a second method for high impact philosophy, however.  Let’s call it the bottom-up method.

  1. Begin by asking ‘which are the biggest decisions that one typically makes in life?’
  2. Then ask: ‘What are the crucial normative considerations that might affect how I should make those decisions?’
  3. Then figure out which of these crucial considerations is most likely to produce an action-relevant outcome given your marginal research time.
  4. Then work on that topic!

As in my previous post, I’ll go through each step in turn.

1. What are the biggest decisions one typically makes in life?

By ‘biggest decisions’ I mean the decisions that potentially have the greatest positive or negative moral impact.  In general, these will be those decisions that involve the greatest amount of resources – where having greater ‘resources’ is just the power to make things happen.

So what are the biggest decisions one typically makes in life?  The list would certainly include the following:

i. How should I spend my money?


Over a lifetime, a high school graduate can expect to earn $1.2million.  With a bachelor’s degree, that figure almost doubles to $2.1 million; with a professional degree that number doubles again, to $4.4 million.  Considered over a lifetime, almost every person reading this blog is a millionaire.

ii. What career should I choose?


A typical lifetime career involves over 80,000 hours of work – that’s more time than we’ll spend on any other activity, except sleeping.


2. What are the crucial normative questions?

There are some questions that have analogues for both (i) and (ii).  For instance: Should I just spend my money/time wherever it has greatest current expected benefit? What are the conditions under which I should:

  • Invest my money (e.g. in an index fund) or time (e.g. getting a degree) so that I generate a bigger payoff later?
  • Use my money/time to fund/do research into how best to spend my money/time?
  • Use my money/time to fund/do research into how best to invest my money/time?

There are also subtle concepts that are relevant to both.  For example:

Replaceability: Sometimes, if I don’t work for an organisation, someone else will take my place.  Similarly, sometimes, if I don’t donate to a charity, then someone else will do so instead, and they’ll fill their room for more funding anyway.

Compensation: if we remove one doctor from the NHS, then all the other doctors in the NHS will compensate: they’ll stop doing the least important tasks, and do the more important tasks that that one doctor would have done.  So the benefit from a marginal (that is, one additional) doctor is far smaller than the average benefit from all doctors.  Similarly, I should expect that charities do the most cost-effective interventions first, and so the benefit from a marginal dollar will be less than the average benefit from the charity’s expenditure.

And there are questions to do with the interaction between these two issues.  For example: How should I value my time, in monetary terms?  Under what conditions should I turn time into money, and vice versa?


3. Which topics would be advanced the most from one’s marginal research time?

Again, a good heuristic is to look at which topics are the least well-studied.

The question of ‘giving now vs giving later’ has had only one academic article written about it: interestingly, people tend to find the idea that one should save and give later odd, even though we’re perfectly happy with the idea that one should invest time in oneself (e.g. by getting a degree) in order to have greater influence later on; and we’re perfectly happy with the idea that, for self-interested reasons, one should save one’s money now, in order to consume more later on.

The question of how much we should discount future time and money has been extensively discussed by economists; but not, to my knowledge, in the condition where one’s principal aim is to benefit others (rather than oneself).

I don’t know of any in-depth philosophical discussions of replaceability or compensation effects.

So, though the top-down approach has had very little attention within philosophy, the bottom up approach, to my knowledge, has had basically none.  This is remarkable, given the ubiquity and importance of the questions.  One possible explanation is practical ethics’ obsession with developments in biomedical science; another might be that so many of the issues often blur with economics, so it’s difficult for non-specialists to contribute.   But, finally, it’s worth considering that ethical scrutiny of career choice and our spending habits is radical, in terms of its potential impact on our lives, in a way that discussions of the wrongness of stealing or of cloning typically aren’t.  And it can be difficult to write on issues that can so greatly affect how one ought to spend one’s time (especially when the conclusion might be that one should stop being a philosopher).

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14 Comment on this post

  1. The last line of your post reminds me of Peter Unger’s request, in Living High and Letting Die, that people stop doing academic philosophy so they can make money and send it to Oxfam (or something along those lines). And, if we must do philosophy, I believe Unger’s next best suggestion was to work in ethics.

    1. Maybe philosophy should ALWAYS be used to denounce and make criticism on power. Maybe the best you can do to be a REAL high impact philosopher (one which is remembered at least 100 years after their death) is try to criticize the real power in your society. First, of course, you need to learn WHICH ONE is the real power in your society and not speak all the time of things that other people spoke of only because they did it.

      Oxfam, by the way, is not the solution. Oxfam is only a way of avoid that the governments become responsible for their own mistakes and their own abuses of power. And a way of avoid that we, citizens in the north, feel guilty for doing nothing to save that little poor hungry black boys. If a big counter power organization (Like IA, Oxfam, etc.) can survive it is only because it has become a part of the power and serves to maintain the status quo.

    1. Hi – David that’s really interesting. I would expect there to be more on the giving now vs giving later question that I just don’t know about. But your link doesn’t work for me. Could you say the title of the article and place of publication?

      1. Paying for Patented Drugs is Hard to Justify: An Argument about Time Discounting and Medical Need
        Journal of Applied Philosophy
        Volume 29, Issue 3, pages 186–199, August 2012

  2. It sounds like you want to be a welfare economist (Dasgupta, Sen, Heal, that sort of thing). Why don’t you just retrain? I can think of a few defences of academic philosophy: (1) if you guys don’t do it some other people will and they’ll be worse at it than you are and it’ll become a dreary, pointless and predictable backwater like sociology; (2) not everyone can do the same, super-high-value-added best-you-can-be job. The way economies actually work is that we all specialise, like animals finding their niches in an ecosystem. Some very smart cleaners get paid mega-bucks to shovel money around. Other very smart people get paid a bit less to build the next revolutionary gizmo. Still other very smart people get paid less again to sit around and write articles for journals and keep teenagers off the streets. Still other very smart people get paid to clean toilets. All those jobs are valuable, in their own ways. The relevant skill sets for each job might be more or less scarce and more or less well-remunerated, but each of them play a role in a well-functioning economy. Getting into a bout of angsty self-loathing about not being at the top of the income range misses the point, I think: if you use your magical powers of persuasion and argument (ie the unique(ish) skill set you obtained because you took philosophy) and manage to persuade a roomful of high earners that they ought to see the world the way you do, then you’ve done more to further your cause than you would have as one single high earner.

    1. Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comment. There’s quite a lot in your comment, though, that I don’t understand. As it happens, I’m actually teaching myself welfare economics (at the moment working through Wulf Gaertner’s excellent book ‘A Primer in Social Choice Theory’); but that’s mainly because of its relevance to topics in normative ethics (decision-making under moral uncertainty, and questions surrounding the aggregation of wellbeing). The questions I focus on above – “where should I spend my money?” and “what career should I choose?” are much more applied than most questions in philosophy, and so knowledge of economics in general will come in very useful. But I’m not sure why you think they’re more amenable for treatment by welfare economics rather than ethics (to my knowledge neither have focused on these issues), and why it would be worth the retraining costs?

      I’m also not sure why you think that I’m arguing that people should leave philosophy? In my work on career choice, I’ve made exactly the argument that you make in your final sentence; and in my previous blog post on this topic I said “I think that research within certain areas of philosophy is among some of the most important and practical research that one can do”. I say that the conclusion of working on the ethics of career choice ‘might’ have the conclusion that one ought to leave philosophy – but that’s just to say that it’s not yet a closed question.

      I’m also not sure why you think I think we should feel angsty or feel self-loathing about being at the top of the income range?

      1. I think I was probably over/mis-interpreting your final sentence: “And it can be difficult to write on issues that can so greatly affect how one ought to spend one’s time (especially when the conclusion might be that one should stop being a philosopher).” Apologies if I’ve misconstrued you.

        Substantively, I think starting from “where should I spend my money?” and “what career should I choose?” begs a bunch of questions about the good life, and basically stacks the deck in favour of fairly constrained flavours of consequentialism, and of those flavours I think welfare economics is the most promising (since it focuses on the welfare implications of various flows of goods/services, which seems to be arena you’re in). [But then we’ve been around that loop several times.]

        It’s plausible that the best career for you (given your preferences) might well be something like a policy analyst at Treasury/other central agency. Central agencies (1) have a lot of clout/impact a lot of lives; (2) are often short of skill sets like yours; (3) play a role in shaping the wider ethical/intellectual climate that’s probably greater than is the case with private sector groups like banks and NGOs. They’re very messy, of course,** and they tend to offend philosopher’s preferences for elegance & tidiness, but in our sorts of societies they’re a major part of the ways we institutionalise ethical precepts like those in which you’re interested.

        **Even Bismarck, no fan of theoretical purity, made an observation to the effect that “to preserve respect for sausages and laws it is best not to see them being made.”]

  3. Nice strategy, but I would add one crucial step:

    1.5 Identify a missing market or a field (or sub-field) that’s underexplored, e.g., geoengineering ethics, synthetic biology ethics, and so on.

    A crowded field such as bioethics or animal rights, while important, isn’t likely to yield opportunities to stand out, i.e., to make an impact. Oxford’s ethics centers are particularly minding these gaps…

  4. Nice strategy, but I would add one crucial step:

    1.5 Identify a missing market or a field (or sub-field) that’s underexplored, e.g., geoengineering ethics, synthetic biology ethics, and so on.

    A crowded field such as bioethics or animal rights, while important, isn’t likely to yield opportunities to stand out, i.e., to make an impact. Oxford’s ethics centers are particularly good at minding these gaps…

  5. P.S. I take my suggestion to be obvious, and maybe it’s already implied by step (3). In business, it’d be the difference between selling a better mousetrap, or bringing to market something truly new. Of course, you can still make an impact with a better mousetrap if it’s a substantial improvement over existing products, e.g., replacing toilet paper with three-seashell technology…

    1. Yes, I entirely agree with your suggestion, as I presume that research hours on a particular topic have, in the long run, diminishing marginal value. I also like your Demolition Man reference.

  6. How sad that philosophy is treated as a sub-discipline of accounting.. Money and hours spent are all that counts.
    I frankly prefer Ecclesiastes : Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?
    But I am perhaps a very low- impact sort of person

  7. I don’t think anyone here is suggesting that philosophy ought be be pursued with high impact in mind, but only that if you’re concerned about making a real-world impact, then here’s some advice. Some philosophers may be content to be enlightened alone on a mountaintop, and that’s fine.

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