Friday, June 11, 2021

Koch Money and Double Standards

One of the favorite pastimes of leftist academics is to concern troll that Koch money is corrupting academia and hurting academic freedom. (Full disclosure: I don't get Koch money, though I'm pretty sure I've given like 2 or 3 talks over the last decade in which part of the honoraria came from Koch funding.)

What are their complaints about Koch money and the centers it often funds?

A.    The centers do not produce honest research, but instead promote an ideological agenda.

B.    The lure of easy money corrupts professors and graduate students, inducing them to advocate positions they would not otherwise support.

C.     The money allows libertarians or supporters of free markets to have outsized influence in academia.

D.    Because the centers are not supervised by other departments, they are a threat to academic freedom at the host institutions.

E.     The centers in question are governed by different rules from other centers; in particular, they supposedly allow funders to have significant discretion over what these centers do.

Let's examine these at some length.

Burden of Proof

Anyone asserting A-E bears the burden of proof. They need to do proper social science to prove these claims. But, oddly, they never try to meet this burden. They usually make the accusation and then demand others prove them wrong. But obviously that's not proper. 


Imagine Koch money really does corrupt the people who get it. Nevertheless, it might turn out that getting some corrupt people to debate the other corrupt people in academia overall improves the quality of research and output. Academics tend to be ideological hooligans who work in and want to work in echo chambers, so perhaps sprinkling in a few hooligans of a different stripe forces people to do better work, since now they have to hear and deal with actual challenges for their work. I won't belabor this point here. You can insert the familiar argument from Mill about the value of intellectual diversity, and then insert the known studies about how academics discriminate in favor of hiring people who share their politics. This isn't healthy and almost certainly corrupts research. 

What if Libertarianism Is Correct?

Whether the money corrupts depends in part on whether the ism it defends is correct. There cannot be a fully content-neutral evaluation.

Consider: Take the mix of wacky mediocrities and propagandists who regularly post at Crooked Timber. Suppose I could pay them $5000 to take a magic pill that would cause them to stop believing the silly things they advocate and start believing true things instead. While their motive in taking the pill is not the right kind of motive, by hypothesis, taking the pill improves their overall epistemic state. So overall the money would improve them rather than hurt them. It's too bad that the Crooks aren't willing to believe the truth for the sake of the truth, but at least the money improves them.

Something similar could happen with Koch money. If, say, libertarianism is true, and the money induces people to be libertarian, then it improves them. If libertarianism is false, nevertheless, it might induce people to move closer to the truth. For instance, maybe it makes leftist academics that it influences a little less overtly racist, a little more open to immigration, a little more in line with mainstream economics, and so on. 

Again, it depends on the truth of the ism.

Bullshit Ideas about Academic Freedom

At Wake Forest University, the faculty senate voted to reject the Eudaimonia Institute’s funding on the grounds that it interfered with faculty freedom. To protect academic freedom, the senate demanded discretion over each of the following: 

1.     Whether the Eudaimonia Institute would be created.

2.     Whether and from whom the institute would receive funding.

3.     The right to determine whom the institute may hire.

4.     The right to decide what the faculty affiliated with the institute may present or publish.[I]

Obviously, if the Senate had gotten its way, this would have destroyed rather than promoted academic freedom. Faculty freedom means not that the faculty as a collective exercises complete authority and control over each individual professor. Rather, it means that the professors do not have to ask permission from other professors about what to write and say. It means the economics and philosophy departments don’t need to ask Marxist studies or English for permission to hire new faculty or publish new books, and vice versa.

Consider an analogy. Suppose billionaire Arnold Cunningham becomes convinced that Mormonism is the correct religion. He pours billions into producing Mormon pamphlets, crafting beautiful and alluring Mormon temples and meetinghouses, funding missionaries, shooting and airing catchy pro-Mormon commercials, and the like. Suppose his efforts pay off and Mormonism soon becomes the fastest growing religion around the world.

Now suppose that all the other churches and religious denominations in, say, the United States get angry. They think Cunningham and his money have a pernicious influence. Accordingly, they get a new law passed which states that any new Mormon meetinghouse, any new Mormon bishops, and any new religious material, pamphlets, missionary work, talks, meetings, and commercials must first be approved by a majority vote of all the other non-Mormon churches, mosques, and temples in the country. Any new money going to Mormon causes must first get their collective approval.

It would be absurd to cast this new law as a law protecting religious freedom. But the senate at Wake Forest seems to think it would count as protecting freedom.

Obvious Double Standards

The Koch Foundation advocates a libertarian or classical liberal ideology. That by itself does not imply it is dogmatic or corrupt, but nevertheless the people at the Koch Foundation have a point of view. They are not interested in advancing Marxism, Keynesian economics, orthodox Rawlsianism, or left-liberalism. Since many academics dislike the libertarian point of view, they conclude that Koch funding is bad, and then rationalize a number of bad arguments to this effect. But what’s intriguing about this is how they do not apply similar standards to their own sources of funding.

For instance, Wake Forest also hosts a number of left-wing, progressive research institutes—e.g., the Pro Humanitae Institute and Anna Julia Cooper Center—which receive funding from various left-wing foundations and sources. The Pro Humanitae Institute’s directors and faculty are not in any obvious way more impressive or accomplished than Jim Otteson, who at the time of the controversy was the director of the Eudaimonia Institute. (Jim has since been hired by Notre Dame, a much better university.) The Pro Humanitae Institute pushes left-wing social justice causes. As far as I can tell from their website, it focuses far more on activism than on scholarship.[i] Indeed, as far as I can tell, it does not focus on scholarship at all; in contrast, the Eudaimonia Institute is research and teaching center with no apparent activist activity. The Anna Julia Cooper Center focuses on “advancing justice through intersectional scholarship”; by its own self-description, scholarship is meant to serve a political outcome.[ii] Even though I publish on social justice issues and have a first rate academic résumé, I doubt they’ll invite me to speak anytime soon. I don’t share their politics, and their website reveals they only invite people with their political viewpoint.[iii]

The faculty at Wake Forest have not caused a stink about these groups. UnKoch My Campus has not demanded these centers be subject to the same scrutiny as the Eudaimonia Institute.  No one has signed a petition demanding that the faculty associated with such centers be subject to group control over what they may say, present, teach, and publish. No one, other than a campus conservative magazine, has asked them to disclose their funding or demanded proof that their funders are not interfering with hiring or other decisions.[iv]Oddly, they do not appear to have hired any conservative or libertarian scholars, but no one takes that as evidence that their donors are exercising veto power.

Why the difference in treatment? It’s possible that the well-motivated faculty petitioners at Wake Forest simply overlooked these two centers. It’s also possible that the well-motivated faculty petitioners scrupulously examined how these two left-wing centers were funded, examined how hires were made, and then concluded they were free of any corrupting rules or behaviors. But, there’s no evidence this happened. Rather, most likely, the faculty have not raised concerns about academic freedom simply because the centers push the political agenda of the majority of the faculty. 






Thursday, June 10, 2021

Dismissal Strategies in Political Thought

Many political philosophies have what we might call "dismissal strategies". A dismissal strategy, as I define it here, is a set of propositions which are meant to allow the person who holds that ideology to ignore criticisms of their view and to conclude that the critics are not worth engaging with.
For instance:
Marxists : I can ignore criticisms of my views because obviously the critics are corrupted by bourgeois ideology.
Rawlsians: I can ignore criticisms of my views because obviously the critics are "unreasonable".
Critical theorists: I can ignore criticism of my views because obviously my critics are racist oppressors who have internalized oppression.
In my experience, philosophical Marxists are less likely to indulge in dismissal strategies than Rawlsians or Critical Theorists. Ironically, public reason theorists are especially likely to employ such strategies, which flies against the very foundations of their view. But that's probably because PRL is a degenerate research program.

What might a libertarian dismissal strategy be? The best candidate is probably this: "Oh, we know that nearly all academics are either directly employed by the state or indirectly depend on state funding for their own incomes. At elite colleges with elite students, the professors also get their money by educating future government leaders. So, of course, statist and authoritarian academics are merely lapdogs to their masters. And one doesn't need to reason with or argue with lapdogs."

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Koch Grants and Government Grants: What's the Difference?

Many academics object to Koch grants but not government grants. As far as I can tell, the objections to the former apply with equal or greater force to the latter. Consider two:

1) The Kochs have committed injustices and accepting Koch money makes you complicit in those injustices, even if the funded project is wholly unrelated to them.


But of course the government has committed injustices; indeed, injustices far graver than anything the Kochs have been accused of (e.g. murdering people daily).  Furthermore, most of what people find objectionable about the Kochs is their lobbying efforts. Yet the government should also bear some responsibility for seeking and accepting the influence of Koch money in that case. If you accept money as part of your murder for hire business, you are at least as morally blameworthy as the buyer.


2) There are allegations of cases where Koch has applied ideologically-motivated pressure to recipients. But the same is true of government funding. Addiction research is an example:


“There are ideological constraints tied to what gets funded," says Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York City. An example? The tendency to fund "abstinence only" programs and the war on drugs at the expense of drug prevention research. "There is not a lot of evidence of what works because it does not get studied. Today, kids lose their drug virginity before their sexual virginity. What’s the needle exchange of today?"


Here’s a plausible reply that a defender of government funding could make: just because the government applies ideological pressure in one case doesn’t make it wrong to accept government funding in a different case without that pressure. Fair enough, but this reply works just as well for the defender of Koch funding.


Furthermore, 56 percent of left-leaning philosophers (who make up the vast majority of the profession) express an explicit willingness to discriminate against right-leaning job candidates. This atmosphere of discrimination creates a tremendous amount of pressure to publicly conform to the dominant political ideology of the field. Consider these statements from anonymous philosophers:


“I said that I am left-leaning and sometimes feel pressure to stay quiet about my beliefs. [. . .] I think this pressure is not coming from right-wing members of the profession, but from left-wing members who might believe that I am not left-wing enough.”


“If my professional colleagues knew that I am moderately right-wing then half of them would call me a ‘subhuman pig’ and treat me accordingly. The other half would keep silent for fear of being next.”


And here’s Robert Nozick—then a tenured professor at Harvard—explaining what a relief it was when his colleagues mistakenly thought he had abandoned libertarianism:


“You know, it was a moment of weakness on my part, but it was so nice for people to be slapping me on the back and telling me that they had faith in me and they believed in me. Because they hadn't been saying that for years. And they started welcoming me back into the fold. And you know, God help me, but I just liked to not be vilified for a change. I liked to not be not a pariah in my own department. And so I went along with it. I could have done the snarky thing and said, No, your approval of me is based on a misunderstanding. I could have said that, but I just didn't. I was tired and I just let it go.”


This sort of widespread viewpoint discrimination creates vastly more pressure to conform to a political ideology than some Koch money.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Huemer's *Knowledge, Reality, and Value*: The Best Intro Textbook Ever!

In Knowledge, Reality, and Value, Mike Huemer sets out to write the world's best introduction to philosophy. I haven't read enough of his competitors to know for sure if he succeeds, but I can say he sets the bar extremely high and it would be hard to beat. 

The book is clear and easy to read. In fact, it's so clear that it serves as a test. If you can't handle this book, philosophy is not for you.

Lots of philosophers hide their bad arguments, and sometimes even good arguments, behind bad writing and obscure prose. Huemer cuts right through it all and gets to what's important and what's worth thinking about. 

Huemer doesn't hold back from telling which positions he thinks are correct and why, but he is also fair to other side(s) and lets you know when he's taking a minority position. 

While most intro books (I've seen) focus heavily on the history of thought for the sake of the history of thought, Huemer instead examines topics that a normal person might and should care about, and looks at arguments because they might help us figure out the truth, not because some old person said them. 

Perhaps the best part of this book, if you were to assign it to students, is that it does not merely teach them what philosophers have said and why. It helps teach them how to do philosophy and do it well. Huemer not only includes helpful guides about writing essays, making arguments, and avoiding getting stuck on semantic bullshit (see, e.g., the "democracy is an essentially contested concept" junk that ruins so much democratic theory), but leads by example. You get to see him reason through hard topics, including when he manages to reframe debates that people get stuck on. 

Further, many intro textbooks make it seem like philosophy is kind of waste of time. Here are hard questions. Here are some answers. None of the answers work. We've made no progress. Guess you should've taken a different class to fill out your gen eds, no? But Huemer has none of that. He makes it clear why these questions are important, why smart people might get stuck on them, but then in the end helps you see that yes, we've learned something. 

I highly recommend this book, regardless of whether you're new to philosophy or a soon-to-retire professional. You'll learn something and have fun along the way. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

If We’re Egalitarians, How Come We Aren’t More Worried about Grades?

Social egalitarians associate inequality with a host of evils: servility, contempt, domination, loss of self-respect, and the like.  In her famous paper, “What Is the Point of Equality?” Elizabeth Anderson imagines a State Inequality Board, which has the institutional role of compensating people for their bad luck.  She wonders how it would feel to receive compensation for being untalented, ugly, or awkward.  She even writes a sample letter from the board to an imagined unlucky citizen:

To the stupid and untalented: Unfortunately, other people don't value what little you have to offer in the system of production. Your talents are too meager to command much market value. Because of the misfortune that you were born so poorly endowed with talents, we productive ones will make it up to you: we'll let you share in the bounty of what we have produced with our vastly superior and highly valued abilities. (p. 305)

Anderson’s purpose was to expose how traditional egalitarians had (to that point) missed something that mattered a lot: the bad feelings associated with one’s lower status being publicly recognized.

Of course, no one really writes letters like that.  Well, almost no one.  Some people thought that this was an objection to Anderson, but that doesn’t matter for now.  What I want to emphasize is that there is one place in society where we do issue formal notice of people’s intellectual standing relative to others: grades.  And in fact, being on the bottom of the grading system is strongly associated with bad mental health outcomes.  Causation will be a tricky issue here, but my guess is that giving students grades functions much like Anderson’s imagined letter.  Grades expose students who are at the bottom of the academic hierarchy, and that leads to feelings of domination, servility, loss of self-respect, and the like. Just what the social egalitarians had worried been worried about all along.  The pandemic hasn’t helped, but this stuff was true before.

I don’t know why I’m trying to persuade you with internet explainers and citations.  My own experience of grades is so vivid that I can’t imagine things are too different for others.  There’s a sense in which grades are even worse than the State Inequality Board’s letter, which is at least respectful enough to be candid.

It’s weird to me that the one part of the world academics can actually control is also the one in which the egalitarian dystopia is most pointedly realized. 

Now, you might say that a lot of the objections to grades I’ve surveyed are really objections to grading on a curve.  Why not just do away with the curve?  Fine, so long as we are clear that once the curve is gone, so too is our ability to use grades to discriminate between better and worse performers.  Some people tell me their assessments are non-curved AND still happen to yield a nice, normal distribution of grades.  I can do that, too.  I have years of data on my exam questions, and intro student cohorts perform remarkably similarly, so I can select questions so as to yield whatever grade distribution you want.  But if we’re being honest, this is just building the curve in ex ante.  I would bet you a month of lunches in the university dining hall that from the student’s point of view, the feelings associated with grades will be just the same.

I have another worry about putative non-curved or criterion-referenced grading.  Some skills have a clear threshold for competence.  Either I can tie my shoes or I can’t.  Either I can drive well enough to get around safely, or not.  But for others kills, competence is not so clear.  Consider my tennis ability.  Do I have a competent forehand?  Kind of.  I try to keep my arm loose, start the racquet low and finish high, moving my wrist upward to impart some top spin as I’m rotating my shoulders, etc.  If you don’t play tennis, I hope you’d think I have a competent forehand.  But compared to the worst person on my university’s tennis team, I’m terrible. 

My point is that in tennis, unlike in driving, there is less a clear line of competence and more a gradual ascension from worse to better.  Once judgements of competence are indexed to a comparison group, then we’re right back to where we were with the curve. 

Second point: I strongly suspect that philosophy is more like the tennis case and less like the driving case.  I fully understand that you can set the threshold for competence in such a way that any student in the class can meet it.  But my guess is that once we do that, we’ll end up giving out a lot of A level grades, and once again grades won’t be sending much of a signal.

I’m not against that outcome.  In fact, I welcome it.  Quick personal story: I went to school for a very long time.  If you’ve read this far, first – thank you, and second – I realize you probably did as well.  For what it’s worth, there are two classes in my personal history that stand out above all others in terms of actually teaching me something valuable.  In one of these classes, everyone just got an A more or less for taking the class.  In the other, there were no grades at all.  And that is my experience more generally. I always love and learn a lot from reading groups, and always hated classes – excepting those I just mentioned, where grades were off the table. 

Most of the solutions to the problems with grading curves are really just ways of emptying grades of their meaning. 

I think there are three things we might care about in education:

(1) Learning

(2) Fun 

(3) Creating a neat ranking of students from best to worst.

Here is my provisional conclusion.  We can either have the first two, or else we can have the third. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Must Good Samaritans Vote?

Jason Brennan and I have a new article out at Politics titled “Must Good Samaritans Vote?” We’ve both argued that there is no duty to vote—it’s perfectly permissible (and perhaps obligatory) to help in other ways. In this article we address the objection that one must help in other ways and vote. From the introduction:


“Julia Maskivker (2018, 2019) has argued that citizens have a Samaritan duty to vote. Samaritan duties obligate us to provide easy aid – that is, to help others when we can do so at a low and non-repeating cost to ourselves. (Think of the proverbial drowning child that you can rescue with a single pull.) Competent governance helps millions of people, and at least for many already well-informed citizens, voting is a low-cost way of contributing to that good. Although Maskivker concedes that an individual vote will never be decisive and will usually have negligible marginal impact, she claims that the duty of Good Samaritanism obliges us to make easy contributions to collective activities that help others […]


Maskivker’s argument purports to rebut what are perhaps the most serious challenges to the claim that there is a duty to vote. For instance, Brennan (2011, 2016) argues against any general obligation to vote. He says that many defences of this purported duty run into a ‘particularity problem’: to show that there is a duty to vote, it is insufficient to appeal to some general duty and then show that voting is one way to discharge that duty, or to some general goal and show that voting could support that goal. One must explain why these goals could not be supported or these duties not discharged through some other means. One must show why voting in particular is obligatory, not merely that it is one way to discharge an obligation. For instance, if someone claims that voting is obligatory because one must avoid complicity with injustice, Brennan would ask why the duty to avoid complicity cannot be discharged through other means, such as by engaging in activism or contributing to charities which promote justice.


Freiman (2020: 131–137) goes further. He claims that if a person intends to help others or avoid complicity with injustice, then voting is not only one of many choices, but generally a bad choice people are obligated to avoid. Freiman argues that obligations to help others, avoid complicity, promote the public good, and pay one’s debts to society cannot be discharged by performing ineffective actions; for instance, if one donates 10% of one’s income to a worthless or harmful charity, one has not discharged the duty to act beneficently. Since individual acts of voting have no positive effect, they cannot qualify as mechanisms of helping others, avoiding complicity, and so on.


Maskivker’s work is perhaps the most explicit and rigorous attempt to date to overcome this particularity problem. She claims that the duty of easy aid obliges us to contribute in the ways we advocate but also obliges us to vote. That you have authorized a monthly donation to the Against Malaria Foundation does not permit you to ignore the unique opportunity to do good presented by an election. The opportunity to vote is unlike other opportunities to do good: elections only arise at certain times, they contribute significantly to social welfare, and you can vote easily. Thus, if we are saying, ‘Why not fundraise instead of voting?’, Maskivker can respond, ‘Why not both?’


We will argue that when Maskivker says, ‘Why not both?’ in response, we can successfully respond, ‘Instead of both voting and doing some other action, one can do two of those other actions’. If Maskivker responds, ‘Why not voting plus those other two actions?’, we can respond, ‘Why not three of the other kind?’, and so on. Thus, we show that Maskivker’s attempt to overcome the particularity problem nevertheless falls back into it.”

Friday, April 30, 2021

In Defense of Effective Altruism

With Peter Singer in the spotlight, this criticism of effective altruism—that it is anti-democratic and “excludes poor people”—is making the rounds. There’s a lot wrong with it.


On one interpretation of the objection, it’s obviously false that effective altruism excludes poor people. After all, effective altruists offer aid to the global poor, who willingly accept it. If I’m thirsty and someone offers me a drink, which I in turn accept, it would be bizarre to say that I was excluded from this transaction.


But it seems like Rubenstein has a different sense of exclusion in mind here. When attempting to enact institutional reform within a community, one ought to partner with, and even defer to, members of that community. This sounds absolutely right to me. However, I’ll note that folks on the left who lodge this sort of criticism against Singer often fail to take their own advice when it’s ideologically inconvenient for them (e.g., ignoring communities’ preferences for school choice).


More importantly, this criticism overlooks the crucial point that we can have a division of moral labor. Not all help must or even should involve political reform. It’s true that institutional change is needed to address the root causes of poverty and injustice, but it’s important that some people address the harmful effects of poverty and injustice too. I doubt that critics of effective altruism would criticize food banks and their volunteers on the grounds that food production is at the root of alleviating hunger. It’s good that some people produce food and that others distribute it. Indeed, fewer people would get fed if everyone farmed than if some farm and some volunteer at food banks. So criticizing Give Directly for not focusing on institutional reform is as unpersuasive as criticizing Feeding America for not focusing on farming.


Lastly I’ll add that for almost everyone reading this post, the expected good of allocating your philanthropic resources to reforming global institutions (Rubenstein’s preferred course of action) is zero and it comes at the cost of allowing particular individuals to die that you otherwise could have saved.