Milk Round success is tragic, culpable failure

Several times this term I’ve staggered out onto Oxford station, cramped and queasy from Cattle Class, and seen packs of sleek suits ooze out of First Class, briefcases in their hands and predatory gleams in their eyes. ‘Let’s go hunting’, one floppy-haired account manager said to his confederates. They climbed into cabs, which they saw as safari Land Rovers heading to the bush, and went off to a panelled room in some college.

To that room, lured by canapés and Mammon, lots of undergraduates will have come. Fizz (far more expensive than the students would ever buy themselves, but not of a standard that would be tolerated in the hunters’ own Esher homes) will have been waiting on silver trays. Vol au vents will have been smilingly circulated by bought-in labour (or possibly by the  hunters’ own menials, in their best suits, slightly creased from travelling with me in Cattle).

There will have been some smooth smooching by the top brass, and some gushing by last year’s intake from Oxford, and then perhaps a nice little PowerPoint (conjured up by those clever people in HR) to go with the smoked trout, with headings like ‘Prospects’, ‘Clients’ and ‘Fringe Benefits’. Then more fizz, more delicious lines like ‘You sound just right for us’ (how sweet that ‘us’!), and the confidential handing over of the business cards.

Next year, some of those students, in new suits, will be making the journey up from London, to the same panelled rooms. Then they’ll be doing the gushing thing. Quite a few of them will be philosophy graduates.

This denotes a woeful failure by their tutors. There is no serious philosopher – not one – from any time or any place, whose conception of the Good Life encompasses the life of a Goldman Sachs director or a partner at a big firm of City Solicitors – let alone the life of one of their lieutenants.

Philosophy is a practical subject. Someone who writes the most dazzling essays on the Good Life and then goes off to work for a merchant bank has failed woefully.  That failure needs to be recognized. There are, broadly, two ways of recognizing it. Both should be implemented without delay.

First, the students need to be targeted directly. A place at any institution regulated by the Financial Services Authority, or at one of the Magic Circle law firms should mean an immediate reduction by one notch in the class of degree awarded.  There’s an argument for making the reduction more than that in the case of intellectually first class students: someone who has a First Class understanding of Aristotle and still jumps into bed with a bank is arguably more culpable- and more truly ignorant – than the 2:2 Aristotelian. But perhaps that is too radical. Certainly the incentives should work the other way round too. A student who chooses to go off and make yurts in the Black Mountains should gain a grade.

The institutions are canny. We’d have to recognize that, with such a system,  they’d hold back on their offers until after graduation. And so there must be provision for retrospective reevaluation of degree results. Five years is probably enough. Any student who became employed by one of the institutions at any time up to five years after leaving Oxford would lose the grade.

Second: there should be a rebuttable presumption that any philosophy or Classics tutor (there’s a case for other subjects too, but slowly, slowly) who has a student who goes off to work for one of the evil institutions should lose half a paper per lost student in the next REF. The loss could be avoided if the tutor proved that he or she had made strenuous efforts to discourage the student from signing on the dotted line. Likewise, the tutors of yurt-makers should gain half a paper.

It sounds brutal. But it would make philosophy a serious subject again.


  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit

16 Responses to Milk Round success is tragic, culpable failure

  • Keith Tayler says:

    ‘Philosophy is a practical subject’. How things change. The notion that philosophy could ever be practical would have been laughable when I graduated. Back then there were no jobs for philosophy graduates except yurt-making or social work. (Just think, graduates aspired to becoming social workers.) Eventually everybody ended up in some area of ICT (even the yurt-makers), as I suspect will still be the case today. Graduates might think they are on the road to becoming merchant bankers or partners in a law firm, but they will eventually become part of ICT because these jobs will become just one more branch of ICT. Adam Smith was right; the division of labour viz computing will reduce all labour, especially intellectual labour, to the same level of expertise.

    Oh yes, have a good New Year.

    • Keith: many thanks. The notion that philosophy is a practical subject is a terribly old, terribly traditional one – the natural assumption of the ancients. If you really have nothing better to do with your time, there’s a piece by me on this: see

      • Keith Tayler says:

        Sorry – I was not suggesting it was not or should not be practical, only that Wittgenstein’s stricture that ‘philosophy leaves everything as it is’ was still the rule when I graduated. I have always believed it to be practical, but I do have my doubts about self-appointed experts in philosophy becoming involved in policy-making, futurology and of course merchant banks.

        • Dave Frame says:

          Keith wrote: “I do have my doubts about self-appointed experts in philosophy becoming involved in policy-making […]”

          I agree with this – I’m often struck by how impractical and democratically implausible are the policy suggestions made here and elsewhere by philosophers (and other humanities folks). It’s not unreasonable to think the “practical” bit requires roughly as much attention as the “ethics” bit…

  • Sarah says:

    “There is no serious philosopher – not one – from any time or any place, whose conception of the Good Life encompasses the life of a Goldman Sachs director or a partner at a big firm of City Solicitors – let alone the life of one of their lieutenants.”

    Well there are all the philosophers associated with the Effective Altruist movements-or are they not serious?

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      Indeed, Will MacAskill had an essay on this very topic here a while ago:

    • Charles Foster says:

      Sarah: many thanks. Yes, they are indeed serious. But I don’t read any of them as saying that the only relevant criterion in determining whether one should do action X is whether or not it maximises the amount of good in the world. Or, put another way, I don’t hear any of them saying that criteria going to the personal satisfaction of the actor are irrelevant. Suppose that (1) one could earn a huge amount of money by prostituting oneself in a way that one found personally distasteful, painful, degrading etc, and (2) that one resolved to give almost all that money away; and (3) the cold utilitarian calculation was that the net amount of suffering in the world was reduced by one doing this; and (4) the net amount of suffering in the world would be reduced less if one did something less distasteful and more satisfying, and gave away the same proportion of ones taking. Would any of the Effective Altruists say that prostitution was ethically mandatory? I doubt it: they’re pretty nuanced people.

      • Sarah says:

        No, they do not say that banking is ethically mandatory. However, your argument was that *anyone* who becomes a banker (whether they find it degrading or not) is too ignorant to get a first class degree etc.

        We might consider spending a gap year building wells as features in pleasure gardens was a fairly value neutral activity. But if the same person spent that gap year building wells to provide people with access to clean water, that would be an extremely valuable activity. I would expect that that person would look back on that year with a different view of whether it was a “Good Year” even if their actual actions all year were exactly the same (digging etc).

        So it might be that people who are doing the corporate rounds so they can have a maserati instead of a ford don’t have a good life. But the people who keep the ford and give their money away do have a good life, even if they both spend 18 hours a day tied to a desk.

        It might not on the other hand, but it seems like an argument not incompatible with philosophy.

        • Charles Foster says:

          Sarah: thank you. My argument was that anyone who opted for a career in one of the big City institutions did not have a first class understanding of philosophy.
          My argument wasn’t mainly about ethics – although I think that behaving ethically is an imporant component of eudaimonia. You introduced altruism. The most important element of my argument was simply that it’s pretty subjectively wretched working for one of these institutions. You work long hours, sacrifice your relationship with your family (if you find time between deals to have one), stab in the back and are stabbed, toady relentlessly, and constantly watch your email to see if you’ll be one of the casualties of the week. I entirely agree that some of this wretchedness might be mitigated to some degree if you were doing it altrustically, knowing that the world would be a better place because you’d selflessly decided to work miserably as a banker instead of happily as a yurt-maker. But the mitigation doesn’t begin to make the eudaimonic case for banking, even if one supposes that yurt-makers all know themselves to be selfish parasites. So: let E be eudaimonia. EB is the eudaimonia of a banker. EY is the eudaimonia of a yurt-maker. Let SAB be the maximum possible satisfaction that comes from altruism as a banker. Let SAY be the maximum possible satisfication that comes from altruism as a yurt marker. Suppose that the sum can be expressed in some eudaimonic unit. For all imaginable conditions: EB + SAB < EY – SAY

          • Davide says:

            You write ‘ pretty subjectively wretched’.

            But shouldn’t the fact the claim that these people must necessarily NOT have understood Philosophy (which is applied retroactively – quite odd, since they would have been tested to get their grades anyway, wouldn’t they?) be justified objectively, especially you – effectively – want to punish them.

            I also find it odd that you say you were NOT talking about Ethics, yet used terms such as Mammon (a metaphor for Greed, generally considered evil) and ‘the Good Life’.

            And you describe these institutions as ‘evil’ when talking about how to punish professors for their student’s behavior.
            How is that not ethical language?

            While I am no fan of the banking/financial world, I think retroactively lowering someone grades because of what they did after their education is a terrible idea;

            The one case where I think would make sense is where it turns out that these grades were a result of cheating, and this is not the case.

            You also say you would consider extending this to ‘other subjects’.
            I don’t want to make a slippery slope fallacy, I am actually genuinely curious to know what these might be.

            Might be a controversial example and I am sorry if it sounds like a strawman (I think it’s a decent example, only slightly exaggerated), but what if you got a degree in Theology or Religious Studies (let’s say from a traditionally religious institute, rather than from a more secular one), but after graduation became an anti-religious atheist.

            Should your grade be lowered since you ‘obviously’ did not really understand the subject matter?
            For an opposite example – someone who studies Biology and Evolution Theory and then, post-graduation, becomes a Creationist. Very unlikely, I suppose, but not impossible, is it?

            Would it be fair to sum up your post as ‘if you study a subject matter where the consensus is that X is wrong/evil, and then turn to X, you obviously did not understand the subjet even if at the time it seemed otherwise’?

            (I had not commented at first although I mildly disagreed with the original post, but seeing you say ‘this is not about ethics’ really surprised me, so I couldn’t resist criticizing this, sorry)

            • Davide says:

              Re-reading, I see you said ‘not MAINLY about ethics’. So sorry about that, you did admit this was about Ethics, though it seems to me you implied it was not a primary concern of yours.

          • Sarah says:

            Well, if subjective wretchedness is the criterion then surely being a philosopher is equally bad:

            You work long hours, sacrifice your relationship with your family (if you find time between teaching, pressure to publish, admin, funding applications, networking, conference travel and so on to have one), stab in the back and are stabbed, toady relentless, and constantly watch your email to see if your short term contract will be followed by another one (probably not). And you don’t have the compensation of money to spend altruistically or otherwise. So EA (academic eudoaimonia) -SAA (maximum academic altruism satisifaction)< EB+SAB<EY-SAY, no?

  • Dave Frame says:

    I don’t see any specific ethical objection to careers in the financial sector. I hear a lot of people grumble about the finance sector, and I’ve never understood why. There are basically two industries that can make you rich* or pull the rug from under the global economy: finance and oil. These turn out to be excellent ways of generating the sort of surplus that macroparasites like (serious) philosophers rely on. You should be encouraging your hosts, not excoriating them!

    *Glance at the list of the top two dozen or so countries in terms of GDP/capita.

    • Anthony Drinkwater says:

      There are some thing that I’ve never understood either, Dave, such as how finance actually generates a real surplus anywhere, anytime. But I concede that when mismanaged it can pull the rug from under milllions of people … (though very rarely from under the mismanagers themselves).
      As for country rankings, I would guess that the revenues of armaments industries are also pretty well correlated with GDP per capita : does this mean that it is improper for macroparasites to challenge their ethics ?

      • Dave Frame says:

        On finance’s contribution to growth – efficient investment means less stuff gets wasted on bad ideas, and that good ideas get backed earlier. This speeds up technological progress, economic growth etc and raises living standards faster than would be the case if bad investments were made (or if there were huge barriers to investment).


Subscribe Via Email