Today I started writing for Quartz magazine, the Atlantic’s new on-line business magazine. My first article is on saving the world by funding charities rather than working for charities – a topic that I’ve written on previously for the Practical Ethics blog. The basic idea is that, often, one can do more good by choosing to fund not-for-profits rather than work for them directly – and that a good way to fund them is to ‘earn to give’, that is to deliberately take a high-earning career and donate a large chunk of one’s earnings to the best causes.
In 1900 the mathematician David Hilbert published a list of 23 of the most important unsolved problems in mathematics. This list heavily influenced mathematical research over the 20th century: if you worked on one of Hilbert’s problems, then you were doing respectable mathematics.
There is no such list within moral philosophy. That’s a shame. Not all problems that are discussed in ethics are equally important. And often early graduate students have no idea what to write their thesis on – and so just pick something they’ve written on for coursework previously, or pick something that’s ‘hot’ at the time. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine the same is true of many other academic disciplines. Continue reading
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.
- Begin by asking ‘which are the biggest decisions that one typically makes in life?’
- Then ask: ‘What are the crucial normative considerations that might affect how I should make those decisions?’
- Then figure out which of these crucial considerations is most likely to produce an action-relevant outcome given your marginal research time.
- Then work on that topic!
As in my previous post, I’ll go through each step in turn.
It’s an axiom of healthcare prioritisation that all persons should be treated equally. Different theories of prioritisation give different interpretations of this idea; but the basic thought is the same across all plausible theories of prioritisation. All persons’ lives are of equal value, so if it’s one life against one thousand, one should save the thousand. But if it’s one life against another, then one shouldn’t have a preference between the two.
However, though this sentiment is correct, its phrasing can give rise to a confusion: though the intrinsic value of each person is the same, the instrumental value of each person can be very different.
Suppose that I discover two drowning people. I am able to save the life of one of the people, but not both, so I have to choose who to save. They are both the same age, have had the same history, and have the same life expectancy, the same expectation of disability, and both are strangers to me. Is that enough for me to know that I shouldn’t have a preference to save one over the other? Standard accounts of healthcare prioritisation would say so, as the benefit to each person is the same.
But now suppose that we know that one person is a medical researcher, on the cusp of making a radical breakthrough that will result in tens of thousands of lives being saved. The other works on a factory line, and will produce comparatively little in the way of social impact. Does this change the situation?
Given our starting axiom, it has to. Our life-or death situation is not, now, a choice between saving one life or another. It’s a choice between saving one life – the life of the factory worker – or saving thousands of lives – the life of the medical researcher plus all the lives that that medical researcher would save. The lives that the medical researcher would save might be causally more distant and therefore less salient – but that does not make them less important. So I should save the medical researcher.
That is, when making life-or-death decisions – as happens when we make decisions about healthcare prioritisation – we can’t just look at the intrinsic value of each life. We have to look at the instrumental value the person has as well – the good that that other person will go on to achieve.
Currently, this is not properly taken into account by healthcare services, or by health economists that rely on the unit of $s per Quality Adjusted Life Year as a metric for deciding between different health interventions. But this idea could be taken into account, and it should be. Health economists are already able to assess the social impact of cures of different diseases. We could do similar assessment for the social impact of different forms of employment; and greater healthcare resources could be devoted to those whose employment has a greater impact. Similar reasoning would motivate prioritising the young over the retired, as they will, in general, generate a greater social impact. The same thought could also apply to the distribution of educational resources. All other things being equal, the more talented and hardworking children will produce greater social value in their life than their peers. So, all other things being equal, greater educational resources should be invested in them, because society as a whole has more to gain from doing so.
Valuing not merely the person under consideration, but also the lives of those who that person will go on to affect, is a simple consideration. But there would be huge ramifications for resource prioritisation if we seriously took this consideration into account.
Philosophy is often impractical. That’s an understatement. It might therefore be surprising to think of a career as a philosopher as a potentially high impact ethical career – the sort of career that enables one to do a huge amount of good in the world. But I don’t think that philosophy’s impracticality is in the nature of the subject-matter. In fact, I think that research within certain areas of philosophy is among some of the most important and practical research that one can do. This shouldn’t be surprising when one considers that philosophy is the only subject that addresses directly the fundamental practical question: what ought I to do?
In this post I’ll focus in on normative ethics, practical ethics, and decision theory. Within these areas, I’m going to give a recipe for choosing research topics, if one wants to maximise the practical importance of one’s work as a philosopher. Here it goes:
Electoral reform is an often-discussed topic. But the issues often concern minor modifications to the status quo. Here I suggest an entirely new approach to electing leaders of a country. It would have numerous benefits over the current system, including:
- Better voter turnout
- Better representation of the working classes among those who vote
- Better fulfillment of democratic values
- Producing a better informed electorate
- The election of more competent leaders
- The election of less deceitful leaders
- Greater social mobility from the working classes to the ruling class
The electoral system is principally modeled on three popular television shows: the X-Factor, Big Brother, and, to a lesser extent, Strictly Come Dancing. I call it ‘The P-Factor’.
In the first round, we would have open auditions from all around the country. This is modeled closely on the X-Factor. Candidates would have to audition in front of a studio audience and a panel of judges. They would have five or ten minutes or so to give the top few reasons why they would be excellent as a ruler of the country. (At this stage, we would use a regimented interview structure, which avoids many of the biases associated with unregimented interviews). Rather than a decision by judges, which would be undemocratic, the decision would be made by a studio audience of 100 people or so, randomly selected from the UK population.
This stage has the benefit that the opportunity to rule the country would be genuinely available to everyone in the country, rather than the tiny proportion of people who have had a sufficiently good education and the right contacts to enable them to run for parliament. It could thus be a powerful driver of social mobility: even someone with no home and little education could do extremely well. Moreover, insofar as the pool of potential candidates in this system would be vastly greater than the current pool of potential candidates, this system would be much better at filtering the population to discover undiscovered latent political talent, in much the same way as the X-Factor succeeds at discovering phenomenal vocal talent that would not otherwise be found.
Those that are particularly promising, at this stage, would make it through to the televised auditions round. The auditions would be similar to those at the first round. However, in order to make sure that the process was sufficiently entertaining so that the ratings stayed high – so that we would have a sufficiently informed and engaged electorate – we would require every candidate to also demonstrate their crowd-pleasing ‘special talent’, which would be akin to the skills displayed on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’.
One might object that those candidates who would get voted through at this stage are those who would have the best ‘special talent’, like whoever could swallow the weirdest object. But it’s difficult to see how this objection can be made given the presupposition that the government should be elected in accordance with democratic values. If the current demos wishes to elect a leader based on their ability to make a dog dance, then that is what should happen. (Though I doubt that this is what would happen).
At this stage, there would be judges. Two independent political and economic experts, in order to point out aspects of the candidate’s performance that are particularly auspicious, qua political leader. But also Amanda Holden, as the voice of the people, and Simon Cowell, again to keep the ratings up. However, the judges would not be allowed to vote, as this would be undemocratic. The voting at this stage would be open to the public, with the judges only there to offer expert opinion.
The voting system would be modeled on Strictly Come Dancing, which uses range voting (ranking each candidate on a scale of 1 to 10). As even a cursory glance at the literature on voting theory will show, this is a far better voting system than the current first-past-the-post system, or the Alternative Vote system (which, incidentally, are among the worst voting systems ever seriously proposed: the former limits itself to the smallest possible amount of information from the voter; the latter violates conditions like monotonicity). Though the Strictly voting system is vulnerable to tactical voting, in the presence of tactical voting it collapses into Approval voting, which is another excellent voting system. (For those who are worried by this, we could alternatively use a sophisticated Condorcet method like the Schulze method.)
At this point, the 50 or so candidates with the greatest number of votes would enter a 2 month-long ‘boot camp’ phase, where the candidates undergo extensive training in how to lead a country – including personal presentation, debating skills, and education in economics and politics. This would give those from the working classes a better chance against those who have had a long and expensive education.
Each week, during the boot camp’phase, there would be a different test that the candidates would have to perform, such as debating, oration, political knowledge (perhaps in the style of ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’), IQ tests, heuristics and biases in decision-making, and economic forecasting. Again, in order to keep the ratings up, and to make the conditions more realistic, these tests would have to be done in a variety of stressful conditions – such as while sleep deprived, or while being insulted in every possible way by journalists. Again, every week the voting would be open to the public, so they could use the additional information that came through the testing as they saw fit. Insofar as this system would employ assessment of the skills required for good political leadership, whereas the current system has almost no such assessment, we should expect the leaders produced by this method to be more competent.
Once the candidates were down to a small number – let’s say the final ten – then we enter the final, ‘Big Brother’ round, where all ten candidates have to live in a house together, under constant surveillance. A recurring complaint among the electorate is that politicians cannot be trusted: insofar as it would be almost impossible to dissimulate one’s personality for 24 hours a day, for ten weeks, using the Big Brother systems enables us to get a sense of the true character of all the potential candidates, and to develop something like a feeling of friendship and understanding towards the better candidates. Again, we would subject the candidates to a variety of tests. (I personally would favour Takeshi’s Castle-style challenges. But perhaps that’s just getting silly).
This would answer the problem that voter turnout is often disappointingly low: though the claim that Big Bother has a better voter turnout than general elections is unfounded, I would guess that this competition would be far more popular (and more entertaining) than the previous Big Brother shows, and would get overall a much larger vote. It would also ensure that turnout is better distributed in proportion with the range of the social spectrum, rather than being biased in favour of the middle and upper classes.
One final benefit of this approach is the cost. One might worry that this system would require a substantially larger infrastructure than the current voting system. However, it seems pretty plausible that the money could be made back and more through advertising during breaks.
So this electoral system seems to have an awful lot going for it. However, the point of this blog post is not to seriously suggest the above as a new way of electing the leaders of a country (though, I confess, in writing it, I find it remarkably convincing). The likelihood of my coming up with the optimal system of electing the leaders of a country over an hour-long coffee with my fiancé is vanishingly small. But I do want to suggest that, aside from the fact that people wouldn’t take it seriously, the system described above is far better than the current system of electing leaders, in the UK or the US. And I designed it as a joke.
Political debate can often take too much for granted; in its attempt to be ‘practical’, it can unthinkingly put great weight on the status quo. Philosophy allows us to take a step back and realise that, sometimes, what is needed is not a minor repair here and there, but rather to tear down an institution, completely redesign it, and start over.
Practical ethics aims to offer advice to decision-makers embedded in the real world. In order to make the advice practical, it typically takes empirical uncertainty into account. For example, we don’t currently know exactly to what extent the earth’s temperature will rise, if we are to continue to emit CO2 at the rate we have been emitting so far. The temperature rise might be small, in which case the consequences would not be dire. Or the temperature rise might be very great, in which case the consequences could be catastrophic. To what extent we ought to mitigate our CO2 emissions depends crucially on this factual question. But it’s of course not true that we are unable to offer any practical advice in absence of knowledge concerning this factual question. It’s just that our advice will concern what one ought to do in light of uncertainty about the facts.
But if practical ethics should take empirical uncertainty into account, surely it should take moral uncertainty into account as well. In many situations, we don’t know all the moral facts. I think it is fair to say, for example, that we don’t currently know exactly how to weigh the interests of future generations against the interests of current generations. But this issue is just as relevant to the question of how one ought to act in response to climate change as is the issue of expected temperature rise. If the ethics of climate change offers advice about how best to act given empirical uncertainty concerning global temperature rise, it should also offer advice about how best to act, given uncertainty concerning the value of future generations.
Cases such as the above aren’t rare. Given the existence of widespread disagreement within ethics, and given the difficulty of the subject-matter, we would be overconfident if we were to claim to be 100% certain in our favoured moral view, especially when it comes to the difficult issues that ethicists often discuss.
So we need to have an account of how one ought to act under moral uncertainty. The standard account of making decisions under uncertainty is that you ought to maximise expected value: look at all hypotheses in which you have some degree of belief, work out the likelihood of each hypothesis, work out how much value would be at stake if that hypothesis were true, and then trade off the probability of a hypothesis’ being true against how much would be at stake, if it were true. One implication of maximizing expected value is that sometimes one should refrain from a course of action, not on the basis that it will probably be a bad thing to do, but rather because there is a reasonable chance that it will be a bad thing to do, and that, if it’s bad thing to do, then it’s really bad. So, for example, you ought not to speed round blind corners: the reason why isn’t because it’s likely that you will run someone over if you do so. Rather, the reason is that there’s some chance that you will – and it would be seriously bad if you did.
With this on board, let’s think about the practical implications of maximising expected value under moral uncertainty. It seems that the implications are pretty clear in a number of cases. Here are a few.
One might think it more likely than not that it’s not wrong to kill animals for food. But one shouldn’t be certain that it’s not wrong. And, if it is wrong, then it’s seriously wrong – in the same ballpark as murder. So, in killing an animal, one risks performing a major moral wrong, without any correspondingly great potential moral upside. This would be morally reckless. So one ought not to kill animals for food.
One might think it more likely than not that it’s not wrong to have an abortion, for reasons of convenience. But one shouldn’t be certain that it’s not wrong. And, if it is wrong, then it’s seriously wrong – in the same ballpark as murder. So, in having an abortion for convenience, one risks performing a major moral wrong, without any correspondingly great potential moral upside. This would be morally reckless. So one ought not to have an abortion for reasons of convenience.
One might think it more likely than not that it’s not wrong to spend money on luxuries, rather than giving it to fight extreme poverty. But one shouldn’t be certain that it’s not wrong. And, if it is wrong, then it’s seriously wrong – in the same ballpark as walking past a child drowning in a shallow pond. So, in spending money on luxuries, one risks performing a major moral wrong, without any correspondingly great potential moral upside. This would be morally reckless. So one ought not to spend money on luxuries rather than giving that money to fight poverty.