I plan to start answering questions on Friday, August 20th.
I’m the Flanagan Family Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. I’m the author/co-author of fifteen books, including Business Ethics for Better Behavior (Oxford University Press, 2021), Why It’s OK to Want to Be Rich (Routledge, 2020), Cracks in the Ivory Tower (Oxford University Press, 2019) and In Defense of Openness (Oxford University Press, 2018). I work at the intersection of politics, philosophy, and economics, often focusing on the normative and empirical analysis of perverse incentives, on taboo markets, or on democratic theory. My most famous book is Against Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2016), and my books have been translated 25 times into 13 languages.
At Georgetown, I teach a range of courses, including “Managing Flawed People,” “Social Entrepreneurship, Non-Profits, and Effective Altruism,” “Business-Government Relations,” “The Structure of Global Industries,” and “The Moral Foundations of Market Society”.
I recently won a $2.1 million grant from the Templeton Foundation for a 3-year project on “Markets, Social Entrepreneurship, and Effective Altruism”. The funding will be used for visiting faculty, conferences, case competitions for social entrepreneurship projects, student research, pedagogical materials, and to fund the expansion of a social entrepreneurship project throughout our MBA program and at other universities.
The Ethics Project
The keystone project in each of my courses is the Ethics Project. You can read a lot more about it here and a little more about it here. Here is NBC Nightly News coverage of one student project.
The Ethics Project’s basic idea is simple:
Think of something good to do. Do it.
At the end of the semester, students, working in groups, are asked to make a presentation and write a report to answer a wide range of questions, including:
- How did you interpret the imperative to do something good, and why?
- How did you consider the trade-off between what’s best and what’s feasible?
- What was your opportunity cost?
- What obstacles did you expect to encounter, how did you plan for them, what obstacles did you in fact encounter, and how did you respond?
- Did you add value to the world, taking into account the value of your outputs and the costs of all of your inputs?
- Was your project a success, and how should we measure it?
- What did you learn and what would you do differently?
Student projects range from the profound to the mundane. For instance, some students helped teenagers in a poor country start their own business, which quadrupled their family income in a short period. Others have started their own businesses on campus—with the most successful grossing something like six figures over a few years with about a 33% margin. One group installed plumbing features which saved the university tens of thousands of dollars in wasted water per year. Others have conducted fundraisers (with the record now at about $17,000), run events, purchased goods for charities and schools, and more.
The Ethics Project is an excellent way to teach business ethics, management, philosophy, economics, and effective altruism, because rather than asking students to talk about ethics, it asks to students to learn by deliberating, acting, and then reflecting on what they did.
Ask me anything!
I’d be happy to answer questions on any of the topics I work on, teaching ethics and altruism, academic life, guitar/amp gear geekdom, work-life balance, or anything else you find of interest.
Do you think making the moral case for capitalism could be a very important thing to do? My impression is that the case for it seems to have been lost among the young, which could have important effects down the line
I saw on your page that you have a book on criminal justice reform, and this is also an area Open Phil works in.
Maybe this is asking a bit much for an AMA in case you aren't already very familiar with their work, but I'll go ahead anyway:
What is your view of population ethics? What do you make of longtermism?
People tomorrow matter. We cannot simply imposes costs upon them. As Feinberg argued long ago, if I left a time bomb underground that would explode in 200 years, when it kills people, I am a murderer.
Still, we have good reason to think overall that people in the future will be much better off than we are. That doesn't license us to hurt them for our benefit, but we can take steps that impose costs upon them IFF doing so is part of a reasonable risk-sharing scheme from which they benefit more than they lose.
What do you think EAs get wrong about politics?
It depends on the EA. I don't know if there is a universal trend or generalized flaws. EAs seem so diverse that it's hard to generalize.
Still, if I generalize based on what I've read and whom I've talked to, here's what I see:
1. EAs sometimes forget political economy issues. When they offer a political policy that would work, they forget that it will likely be captured by others who don't share their values, or that the people running it will possibly be incompetent. In general, for politics, I recommend imagining that your preferred policies will cost 3 times what you expect and deliver 1/3rd the goods. Look at how incompetent the US government is and then remember institutions like this will be in charge.
2. EAs sometimes forget that most other people are not rationalists and do not base their opinions on evidence. The EA message doesn't sell not because their arguments are bad--their arguments are sound!--but but because good arguments do not persuade people.
Which of your writings (including things like blog posts) do you consider most important for making the world a better place? Assuming many people agreed to deeply consider your arguments on one topic, what would you have them read?
Do you think that the West's disastrous experience with Coronavirus (things like underinvesting in vaccines, not adopting challenge trials, not suppressing the virus, mixed messaging on masks early on, the FDA's errors on testing, and others as enumerated in this thread- or in books like The Premonition) has strengthened, weakened or not changed much the credibility of your thesis in 'Against Democracy', that we should expect better outcomes if we give the knowledgeable more freedom to choose policy?
For reasons it might weaken 'Against Democracy', it seems like a lot of expert bureaucracies did an unusually bad job because they couldn't take correction, see this summary post for examples:
For reasons it might strengthen the argument, it seems like the institutions that did better than average were the ones that were more able to act autonomously, see e.g. this from Alex Tabarok,
Or this summary
What do you make of Glen Weyl's argument for a common-ownership self-assessed tax? In general, do you think people have strong rights of self-ownership? Do you think that people have strong ownership rights over the natural world, or do you think there are strong egalitarian restrictions on that? where do you stand on left-libertarianism vs right-libertarianism?
Do you think that any political or institutional reform projects could be highly impactful? What would you recommend - would it be Garret Jones 10% less democracy-type stuff or something more radical?
Are there any small-scale, experiments with Epistocracy you think that countries or other jurisdictions should try as a first stab at testing this form of government? What would you like to see and where?
Which areas of philosophy are currently neglected - research-wise and teaching-wise - and which get too much attention? How should philosophy research and teaching change? Are there structures or incentives that make philosophers less likely to focus on the most important topics? How could that change?
The public reason field seems to have all the makings of a degenerate research project. It's a bunch of people debating fine points of definition and who clearly don't believe in what they say. Take, for instance, Gerald Gaus. He theorized about diversity of thought because he hated it; he didn't respect anyone other than those that agreed with him and did his philosophy his way. He wanted disciples. He was willing to sabotage his own department to make sure he got his way in hiring acolytes. Yet, oddly, public reason theorists who say they care about public justification never bother to learn what the public thinks or try to justify institutions and policies to them. In my view, Peter Singer cares much more about public justification than Rawls, Freeman, Gaus, Weithman, Benn, Quong, or Vallier. Singer provides public reasons to advocate his ideas; they don't.
In general, political philosophy still seems to reward people for working on very abstract topics that don't really matter. I'm not sure why. PPE-style philosophy and non-ideal theory is much harder and more cognitively demanding than definition-spinning and ideal theory, because you have to know more and have to deal wi... (read more)
What do you think are EAs getting wrong and why?
EAs are bad at marketing to non-EAs.
Illustrative anecdote: A few years ago, I was in charge of our first year seminars at Georgetown. Every year, we pick a non-profit partner who gives the students a real problem that non-profit needs to have fixed. The students act as consultants to offer solutions in a case competition. The winners usually intern with the organization afterward to implement their ideas. I picked a major EA charity. They said, "We need to figure out how to raise money from more diverse sources other than EA people. Almost all of our money comes from EA utilitarians and libertarians. How can we appeal to more people without diluting our message or using non-evidence-based forms of marketing?" During their presentation, I asked them, "Look, if you are evidence-based, what about the strong evidence that evidence-based marketing doesn't appeal to the majority of donors? If EA is about taking effective means to one's ends, doesn't that mean sometimes using non-EA arguments and forms of persuasion?"
What do you make of Rob Wiblin's post on the value of voting - https://80000hours.org/articles/is-voting-important/
You have written about the importance of economic growth - what do you make of Lant Pritchett's arguments on that topic?
Do you have a place where you've addressed critiques of Against Democracy that have come out after it was published, like the ones in https://quillette.com/2020/03/22/against-democracy-a-review/ for example?
Most liberals and libertarians identify with non-consequentialist ethics. Consequentialism is (sometimes?often?) seen as an antagonist or threat to liberalism or libertarianism. Sometimes, I worry that the strong connection of Effective Altruism to consequentialist ethical positions serves as a hindrance in popularizing it among modern liberals and libertarians.
Do you agree with this assessment? Do you think this can change? In what ways would you like to see consequentialists engage with liberal or libertarian ideas? In what ways can we make liberals or libertarians engage more with consequentialist ideas?
Can you address these concerns about Open Borders?
Open borders is in some sense the default, and states had to explicitly decide to impose immigration controls. Why is it that every nation-state on Earth has decided to impose immigration controls? I suspect it may be through a process of cultural evolution in which states that failed to impose immigration controls ceased to exist. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Boer_War for one example that I happened to
What do you think EAs get wrong about economics?
You mention that part of your Templeton Foundation grant will fund "student research in effective altruism".
How likely do you think it is that your writing against voting will affect the results of a government election, at any level of government anywhere? :P
If it did, what kind of difference would you expect from it, if any?
I have an unusually high amount of influence and public uptake. I am not as famous as Singer or Sandel, but I get more attention than most.
Despite that, I expect not to have much influence on actual policy or behavior. It'd be surprising if I did have much.
There's a long shot game I'm sort of playing: You get new ideas out there. They spread around into the public discourse. People know of the arguments and ideas even if they don't know the source. Then, when a crisis occurs, maybe 20-50 years down the road, they might be willing to experiment with your ideas to fix the crisis. That seems to be what happens with most big ideas in political philosophy that have any traction. It takes decades for the philosopher to influence outcomes, and when they do, people don't even know the philosopher they are responding to. Maybe my stuff on what's wrong with democracy and how we can improve it will be like that. Against Democracy has had a lot of success, so it's possible. But I would think it's more likely than not that it won't do anything despite that.
What do you think of the proposals in Longtermist Institutional Reform? If you're supportive, what should happen at the current margin to push them forward?
What specific reforms do you think are most worthy of an additional dollar?
What ethical views do you hold that you disagree most on with other ethicists?
How did you get into effective altruism?
What are some things that convinced you the Ethics Project was working well for its intended purpose? Are there any particular student stories, or things students said, that really stick with you as examples of the Project fulfilling its goals?
If you had to participate in the Ethics Project yourself, doing something good with $1000, what might you end up doing?
The more challenging version: Assume you'll spend at least as much time as the average MBA student, and that you'll be aiming to do more good than any of the students in the current round of the project.
What are your views on metaethics and normative ethics (consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, a mix of them; theory of value like hedonism, preference view; any other specifics)?
A couple questions: What, if any, personal donations do you make?
Would you welcome a philanthropist who came into the political philosophy sphere and urged top philosophers like yourself, Chris Freiman, Michael huemer, David Schmidtz, to join together and write a “master argument” (attempting to have the same effect in philosophy that Rawls Theory of Justice had) to advance the neoclassical liberal/anarchist brand of political philosophy? do you think this project would be worth funding? (I.e. do you think extra funding would help you and other philosophers produce a new theory of justice for the 21st century? Or: Would funding make any difference?)
How tractable do you feel are some of your more taboo political ideas?
What can an EA academic do to improve the incentives in the research side of academia? To help reward quality or even positive impact?
What advice do you have for teaching EA courses in an academic context (esp. philosophy)? Besides the Ethics projects, which parts of your classes on the topic do you think are most successful or most popular?
How do you think about the 'demandingness of morality' (i.e. what percentage of your income you should give; the amount of time you spend working on high-impact topics)? If you can meet your obligations of beneficence, what is the underlying principle or reason that explains where that falls?
What is your understanding on whether decision makers and the general public are more in favour of a political system which implies certain nice values (democracy implies all should have a political voice and can meaningfully contribute to policy discussions) versus being open to one that might limit participation in favour of efficacy?
I'm particularly curious as to whether you believe people are becoming more open to the latter in the context of technological developments and increasing complexity of prominent public policy issues which means that the layperson (myself include) is becoming less able to deeply understand and contribute to a wide variety of policy debates