Wednesday, December 23, 2020

87 - AI and the Value Alignment Problem

Iason Gabriel

How do we make sure that an AI does the right thing? How could we do this when we ourselves don't even agree on what the right thing might be? In this episode, I talk to Iason Gabriel about these questions. Iason is a political theorist and ethicist currently working as a Research Scientist at DeepMind. His research focuses on the moral questions raised by artificial intelligence. His recent work addresses the challenge of value alignment, responsible innovation, and human rights. He has also been a prominent contributor to the debate about the ethics of effective altruism.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotify and other podcasting services (the RSS feed is here).


Show Notes:

Topics discussed include:

  • What is the value alignment problem?
  • Why is it so important that we get value alignment right?
  • Different ways of conceiving the problem
  • How different AI architectures affect the problem
  • Why there can be no purely technical solution to the value alignment problem
  • Six potential solutions to the value alignment problem
  • Why we need to deal with value pluralism and uncertainty
  • How political theory can help to resolve the problem


Relevant Links

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

86 - Are Video Games Immoral?

Have you ever played Hitman? Grand Theft Auto? Call of Duty? Did you ever question the moral propriety of what you did in those games? In this episode I talk to Sebastian Ostritsch about the ethics of video games. Sebastian is an Assistant Prof. (well, technically, he is a Wissenschaftlicher mitarbeiter but it's like an Assistant Prof) of Philosophy based at Stuttgart University in Germany. He has the rare distinction of being both an expert in Hegel and the ethics of computer games. He is the author of Hegel: Der Welt-Philosoph (published this year in German) and is currently running a project, funded by the German research body DFG, on the ethics of computer games.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotify and other podcasting services (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

Topics discussed include:

  • The nature of video games
  • The problem of seemingly immoral video game content
  • The amorality thesis: the view that playing video games is morally neutral
  • Defences of the amorality thesis: it's not real and it's just a game.
  • Problems with the 'it's not real' and 'it's just a game' arguments.
  • The Gamer's Dilemma: Why do people seem to accept virtual murder but not, say, virtual paedophilia?
  • Resolving the gamer's dilemma
  • The endorsement view of video game morality: some video games might be immoral if they endorse an immoral worldview
  • How these ideas apply to other forms of fictional media, e.g. books and movies.

Relevant Links

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Should I Become an Academic? Academia and the Ethics of Career Choice

[Note: This is a draft chapter from a book project I was trying to get off the ground called The Ethics of Academia. It looks unlikely that this book will ever see the light of day, and if it does it’s even more unlikely that this draft chapter will be part of it. So, I thought there would be no harm in sharing it here. The writing style in this draft chapter is intended to be somewhat ‘tongue-in-cheek’.]

If you are reading this the odds are pretty good you are an academic or, at least, thinking about becoming one. But maybe you are having second thoughts? Maybe this career isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Maybe you are not sure that you want to spend the rest of your life churning out research papers, teaching students, or, God forbid, administering other researchers and teachers?

I commend you. The first ethical question any academic should ask of themselves is: should I exist? I don’t mean this in the profound existential sense. Albert Camus (1942) once said that the question of suicide was the first and most important of all philosophical questions. He may well be right about that, but that’s not the question I think all academics should ask of themselves. I think they should ask the slightly more mundane question: is being an academic an ethical career choice? Not everyone gets to choose their careers but I’m guessing that if you are considering a career in academia you have the luxury of some choice. There are, presumably, other things you could do with your time. Should you do them instead?

Many people fail to ask this question. Outside of some extreme exceptions — assassin, torturer, arms dealer — most of us assume that our choice of career is ethically neutral. We try do what we want to do and what we feel best suited for doing. We may not always succeed, but that’s usually the goal. Careers guidance councillors often reinforce this attitude toward career choice. They advise us to focus on our aptitudes and talents, not on the relative moral standing of careers. When you think about it, this is a very odd thing to do. Whatever we choose to do in our careers, we are likely to spend a lot of time doing it. It will be in and around 80,000 hours according to one popular estimate. It seems appropriate, then, to subject our choice of career to some serious ethical scrutiny.

In the remainder of this article I will do this for academia. My analysis will proceed in three parts. First, I’ll outline a framework for thinking about the ethics of career choice. This framework will suggest that there are two main ethical criteria that we can use to assess different careers: (i) do they produce good/bad outcomes in the world? and (ii) do they allow us to self-actualise or attain self-fulfillment? (This may not sound like an ethical criterion right now but bear with me.) Second, I will consider whether choosing to be an academic produces good or bad outcomes in the world. And third, I will consider whether we can self-actualise or attain self-fulfillment through an academic career. Initially, I will be quite critical of academia, suggesting that it isn’t a particularly ethical career choice; subsequently, I will soften the argument and suggest that it probably isn’t any worse than many other career choices. To the extent that “do no evil” is ethical principle that’s worth adopting in your own life, you have some reason to hope that you won’t do evil by becoming an academic. Perhaps that’s the most any of us can hope for.

1. Ethical Criteria for Choosing Careers

There are two criteria we can use to assess the ethical value of our careers. They are: (i) the consequentialist criterion and (ii) the self-actualisation criterion. These can be explained in the following terms:

(i) The Consequentialist Criterion: If I pick this particular career, will it allow me to cause or produce or bring about morally positive consequences in the world?


(ii) The Self-Actualisation Criterion: If I pick this particular career, will it enable me to self-actualise, i.e. allow me to attain a high level of satisfaction and fulfillment, and enable me realise and take advantage of my talents?


The consequentialist criterion views your career as a means to an end. Imagine you are choosing whether or not to be a doctor. If you apply the consequentialist criterion, then you will want to ask yourself how much good you can do by being a doctor. How many lives can you save or prolong? This consequentialist approach to career choice is favoured by several philosophers (Care 1984; Unger 1996). It is also central to the effective altruist community’s approach to career choice. The effective altruist community is a community of individuals that dedicate themselves to doing the most good they can possibly do with their lives and one of the most important things we can do with our lives is choose a career (MacAskill 2015, Singer 2015).

Although I say that the consequentialist criterion views the career as a means to an end this doesn’t mean quality of life is irrelevant to its application. Your happiness with your career is a relevant consequence of choosing that career, one that ought to be factored into any consequentialist calculation of the relative benefits of a career. That said, your individual happiness is likely to be swamped by other ethically relevant consequences. Similarly, your capacity to self-actualise through your choice of career isn’t completely irrelevant to the consequentialist criterion. After all, your talent for a particular job is likely to have some bearing on your capacity to do good with that job. It’s just not the major relevant consideration (though we will discuss a complication to this in more detail below).

Although the consequentialist criterion finds most favour among proponents of a utilitarian or consequentialist moral theory, it doesn’t only appeal to them. Consequences are relevant to most ethical theories, even if they are not decisive or constitutive of what it means to make an ethical choice. So the consequentialist criterion has broad appeal.

The self-actualisation criterion is rather different. It views a career not so much as a means to producing better ends but, rather, as a vehicle for self-fulfillment. What matters is whether you are happy and engaged by the work that you do, whether that work is suited to someone with your skills and aptitudes, and whether it develops those skills and aptitudes in an appropriate way. As I said in the introduction, this is the criterion that most of us use when choosing careers. On the face it, it doesn’t seem like an ethical criterion. Indeed, it seems like the exact opposite: it is selfish and egoistic criterion. But that’s not entirely true. For one thing, as I just noted, self-actualisation is relevant when it comes to considering the ethical consequences of a career. For another, there are some ethical theories according to which we may have a duty to fulfill our potential. Immanuel Kant, for instance, developed a complex moral theory that claims that humans have ethical duties purely in virtue of the fact that we are agents (i.e. beings with the power to choose and intend our actions). Among the duties he thought we had was a duty to make the best of our talents. As he put it, we each have a duty:

not to leave idle… rusting away the natural predispositions and capacities that [our] reason can someday use” 
(Metaphysics of Morals, 6:444-5)


That said, Kant no doubt would have accepted that there are other moral constraints on this duty. We shouldn’t make the best of our talents if doing so would, for instance, violate another of our duties toward other agents, such as the duty not to treat another agent as a means to an end. So, sad to say, even if being an assassin is the best way to make use of your talents, you still probably shouldn’t do it. Finally, it is worth noting that the self-actualisation criterion might overlap with virtue ethical approaches to the moral choice. Virtue ethics, roughly, is the view that we should act in a way that develops morally virtuous character traits (generosity; kindness; courage etc). Doing so will lead to fulfilment and flourishing. It’s possible, though I don’t think it is guaranteed, that following the self-actualisation approach could lead to the development of the virtues.

Sometimes people pick and choose one of these two criteria over the other. In fact, a significant amount of the philosophical discussion of ethical career choice is focused on figuring out which of the two should guide our decisions. But, strictly speaking, they are not in tension with each other. They are, rather, two different dimensions along which we can evaluate a career choice. To illustrate this point, we can arrange them into the following two-by-two matrix:

Ideally, you would like to pick a career that is high and to the right: one that produces good outcomes in the world and allows you to self-actualise. Sometimes, however, you will need to make a tradeoff. Some philosophers, such as Norman Care (1984), have argued that given the current injustices of the world those of us with the luxury to choose a career ought to prioritise good consequences over self-actualisation. At a first glance, that sounds plausible but it raises the obvious question: can we produce good outcomes by becoming academics?

2. The Consequences of Becoming an Academic

There is a consequentialist case to be made for becoming an academic. Think about what an academic does. According to most job descriptions and characterisations, the typical academic will be expected to do three kinds of things: (i) research; (ii) teaching; and (iii) administration. It’s possible to do good through each of these activities. Consider:

(1) It is possible for an academic to produce good outcomes through their research: they can produce knowledge or insights that are either intrinsically valuable (i.e. valuable in and of themselves) or instrumentally valuable (i.e. capable of being used to good effect). There are some uncontroversial examples of this. Albert Einstein produced groundbreaking insights and theories in physics. These insights are both intrinsically fascinating for what they say about the nature of reality and instrumentally valuable in helping us to develop satellite technology and GPS. He was, for most of adult life, an academic (yes, I know, he wrote his first famous papers while working as a patent clerk but he was always actively seeking academic work and did end up working as an academic for most of his life). Or consider Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, whose research prevented the suffering of millions of people. Or Rosalind Franklin, whose groundbreaking X-ray crystallography was important in unlocking the molecular structure of DNA. Examples could be multiplied, but you get the point. Research can do a lot of good for the world and, as an academic, you are actively encouraged to do it.


(2) It is possible for an academic to do good through their teaching, by providing their students with essential skills and knowledge that help them to live better lives: Education is something that uplifts and improves the lives of students (at least if done right). It enables them to question and analyse the world around them and explore new opportunities. For example, Tara Westover, in her memoir of growing up in a fundamentalist Christian home, explains how crucial education was in helping her to escape the limitations of that world (Westover 2018). Education helps students to develop and hone skills that are essential to securing paid employment. It may even make the world, more generally, a better place. As an illustration of this consider Carlos Fraenkel’s memoir of teaching philosophy to students in conflict zones, Teaching Plato in Palestine. Fraenkel is no starry-eyed optimist about the power of education but through his recollections he shows how it is possible to use philosophical education to facilitate discussion between competing worldviews and perhaps avoid violent conflict. What could be more valuable to the world than doing that?


(3) It is possible for an academic to do good through effective administration: Academic administration is usually criticised and rarely celebrated. Nevertheless, administration of higher educational systems (and, indeed, any complex human organisation) is essential if they are to operate effectively. Without proper administration it would be impossible for academics to do the good work they can do through research and education. So by helping out with administration, academics can help themselves produce good outcomes in the world through their teaching and research.


To be clear, none of these arguments is watertight. No one would claim that all research or all teaching produces good outcomes. Lots of academic research has been used for ill. For example, some people have used psychological research to create manipulative advertising and to design more effective forms of violent interrogation. Destructive weapons systems have been created with the help of academic research. Some teachers instil false beliefs in their students and may even crush their hopes and dreams. Plenty of academics fail to do good in their jobs. But failures of this sort are a problem in all careers. The crucial point is that it is possible to do good with an academic career.

That said, possibility alone is not enough. Some exceptional individuals may be able to do a lot of good with an academic career but what about the rest of us? Most of us aren’t exceptional. What we want to know is whether there is some reasonable probability of doing good with an academic career. When we try to assess this probability, things start to look a lot worse for the would-be academic. There are six issues, in particular, with which to contend.

First, academia is a highly competitive career. After undergoing a boom in the mid-20th century, when there was a significant undersupply of academic labour relative to the number of available careers, there is now a significant oversupply of academic labour. There are far more PhDs granted than there are academic jobs for these PhDs to fill. This trend seems likely to continue. As Bryan Alexander notes, most developed nations are undergoing a demographic shift (Alexander 2020). Traditionally the demographic structure of society represented a pyramid: there were lots of young people and relatively few old people. Thanks to improvements in healthcare, and declining fertility rates, this demographic structure is now shifting to a more rectangular shape. This means there are roughly equal numbers of young people and old people. In some extreme cases, such as Japan, the demographic structure is starting to represent an inverted pyramid in which the old outnumber the young. This presents a major challenge for the university system which has, traditionally, been designed to educate the youth population. Unless there is a significant shift in institutional design, it seems plausible to suppose that there will be a retrenchment in the higher education system in the future. In other words, to put it more bluntly, there are likely to be dwindling job opportunities for academics coupled with increasing competition for those job opportunities. This presents a major problem for anyone who wishes to do good through an academic career. Unless you are exceptionally talented, privileged, or fortunate, you are increasingly unlikely to have the chance to even get the chance to do good through an academic career.

Second, even if you overcome the odds and get an academic job, you are unlikely to be a morally successful academic. In other words, you are unlikely to do much good with your job. Consider the example of doing good through research. There are only a handful of people who manage to make significant breakthroughs with their research. The sad reality is that most academics do trivial and unimportant work. This is partly because they lack the talent and also, partly, because they don’t get rewarded in their careers for doing high impact work. The philosopher Michael Huemer has made this argument in rather stark terms in relation to philosophical research. He claims that most philosophical research and writing is done to improve the reputation of the researcher in the eyes of their academic peers; not to solve important worldly problems or to make a moral difference to society. This, he claims, equates to a massive squandering of human capital:

“Quite a bit of intellectual talent and energy is being channeled into producing thousands upon thousands of papers and books that hardly anyone will ever read or want to read. These articles and books are written almost entirely for other academics working in the same sub-sub-sub-specialization that the author works in. The main reason they are written is so that the author can get tenure or otherwise get credit for publishing. The main reason they are read even by the tiny number of people who read them is so that the readers can cite those articles in their own articles.”


And it is not just philosophers who suffer from this ignominious fate. Consider the replication crisis in biomedical science and psychology. Over the decades, thousands of experiments have been performed and research reports have been written about positive psychological and pharmacological effects. These effects have since turned out to be false or, at best, unproven (Fidler and Wilcox 2018). That equates to thousands of psychologists and biomedical researchers whose research has not made the positive difference that they once thought it did. To be clear, this is not to say that no academic research is valuable or that all academic research careers, like their political equivalents, end in failure. It’s just to say that you are unlikely to be among the privileged elite of researchers whose research does make a positive difference.

Third, something similar is true when it comes to teaching. Even if you don’t hope for success as a researcher you might hope for success as a teacher. Most academics get to teach a unique cohort of students. Through their teaching, they might hope to make a positive difference to, at least some of, the lives of that unique cohort of students. But this hope is probably forlorn. For starters, many academics are not very good at teaching. They aren’t properly trained for it and they see it as a distraction from their more important research work (even if, as I suggested above, this research is itself likely to be trivial). Even if they are engaged in teaching, there is little evidence to suggest that their teaching makes a positive difference to their students lives. It is hard to measure any difference teaching makes in terms of skills acquisition or knowledge transfer. Most students forget what they have learned within a relatively short period of time, and there is a strong case to be made that most of the value of higher education lies in signalling and credentialing, not teaching and learning (Caplan 2018). This doesn’t mean that students don’t like their teachers. Sometimes they do and sometimes they claim that their teachers have made a positive difference to their lives. The problem is that these self-reports are usually based on how likable they perceive their teachers to be. There is evidence suggesting that likability does not correlate with positive educational impact such as improved intellectual capacity or skill (Brennan and Magness 2019). Furthermore, the potential for teaching to do good for students is to a large degree dependent on other moral features of the student-teacher relationship in particular the fairness of assessment and grading practices. As I have argued elsewhere there are good reasons to think that current assessment and grading practices are morally circumspect and unfairly prejudicial. If that argument is correct then academics may actually do more harm than good through teaching.

Fourth, even if you have good intentions, and have the capacity to do good through your work, you will often find yourself hampered in doing so by institutional constraints and incentives. This is obvious enough in other careers. Perlman (2000), for example, argues that it is true for lawyers. A lot of people write about legal ethics and the ethical choices facing the typical lawyer. But the reality is that most lawyers working in large law firms (or other legal institutions) have little choice over what kinds of cases they do and what kinds of clients they take on. If you choose to be a lawyer, odds are that you will face stark ethical choices several times in your career: represent an ethically dubious client or quit your job. This leads Perlman to conclude that the most important ethical choice made by a lawyer is whether to become one in the first place and, if they do, what kind of law firm or institution they choose to join. Once they are in situ, their ethical choices will become much more constrained and their opportunities for doing good work will be limited. Something similar, though perhaps less extreme, is true for academics. They might want to do ethically valuable research or inspire their students to reach new heights, but once they find themselves in an academic institution they might quickly be disabused of these aspirations. They might learn that their preferred field of research is not rewarded by their institution or their academic peers. They might find themselves teaching hundreds of students and evaluating their performance in line with ethically dubious institutional norms. They might find themselves being evaluated using metrics that don’t encourage ethically valuable work and, in some cases, incentivise the opposite (Muller 2019). This means that, once they are in situ, they won’t have the choice, time or energy to do the good things they would like to do.

Fifth, even if you are good at what you do and you have the opportunity to do good, you are likely to be replaceable by someone who can do even better. In any highly competitive career, there are likely to be hundreds of well-qualified candidates for your job. Are you so sure that you are better than them? What if your occupying a job is denying someone more competent and more likely to do good the opportunity to do so. Saul Smilansky (2004) refers to this as the “paradox of beneficial retirement”. According to Smilansky, if you are a professional academic, then you are likely to do more good by retiring from your current job than continuing to do it. Why? Because even if you are competent at what you do you are unlikely to be exceptional. Consequently, you would make the world a better place by retiring and clearing the path for someone who is exceptional. Of course, there are problems with this argument. As James Lenman (2007) points out, for your retirement to be genuinely beneficial, you have to assume that (i) there is a plentiful supply of better candidates for your job, (ii) that one of these candidates will actually get your job if you retire and (iii) that they wouldn’t have got an equivalent job if you didn’t retire. Those conditions may not hold. Indeed, in a highly competitive career there are probably many less qualified and less competent candidates for your job as well. It’s possible that they might end up taking your position if you retired. So you might make the world a worse place by retiring. Still, Smilansky’s basic insight is an important one. It takes a peculiar kind of arrogance and self-belief to assume that you are the best candidate for your own job and, perhaps more importantly, that you will make a positive moral difference with your career choice. That’s an insight that all would-be academics should take to heart.

Sixth, and finally, there are moral opportunity costs associated with becoming an academic. Even if you can do good through an academic career, it’s possible that you might have done even more good with another career. William MacAskill, one of the co-founders of the effective altruist movement, famously popularised this analysis of career choice. In his article “Replaceability, Career Choice and Making a Difference” (MacAskill 2014) he argues that if we want to do good with our lives, we are better off choosing a job that pays well and using the money for philanthropic donations, than trying to do good through our actual careers. In other words, instead of becoming a doctor and trying to save lives, you are better off becoming an investment banker, earning lots of money, and then giving that money to other people who can save lives. His reasoning is straightforward. Money is a fungible resource: careers are not. You can do more types of good with money than you can with your job. Similarly, there is a good deal of moral uncertainty associated with career choice. As the arguments discussed above suggest, even if you want to do good by becoming an academic, you might end up doing bad. At least with money, you can compensate for any badness through the right kind of donation. If you have squandered your life doing research that makes the world a worse place, there is little chance to correct your mistake, especially if your career wasn’t very lucrative. Academics are usually intellectually gifted people and its quite likely that they could use their talents to pursue other, more lucrative, career choices. Consequently, it’s likely that budding academics could do more good for the world if they gave up their dreams of becoming academics and considered other career possibilities.

Taken together, these six arguments seem to cast doubt on the wisdom of becoming an academic. Is there anything to be said against them?

3. Academia and Self-Actualisation

The preceding analysis focused entirely on the consequentialist criterion for evaluating career choice. If we shift focus to the self-actualisation criterion, perhaps we can paint a different picture – a picture is a little more optimistic about the ethics of becoming an academic?

There are two parts to the argument I wish to develop. The first focuses on the limits of the consequentialist criterion and why we cannot completely ignore self-actualisation in the analysis of career choice; the second on the advantages of academia from the perspective of self-actualisation.

(A1) - The Limits of the Consequentialist Criterion

There are a few problems with relying solely on the consequentialist criterion to guide your choice of career. The most obvious, and most important, is that very few career choices hold up under its scrutiny. This is because it is very hard to conduct an all things considered evaluation of the consequences of an individual’s career. We cannot easily add up all the incidents and outcomes of an individual career, categorise them according to whether they are bad or good, and determine clearly whether the good outweighs the bad (or vice versa).

There are some outlier cases, of course. We can say with some confidence that Hitler’s life was, on net, bad. He did more ill for the world than good. But beyond these outlier cases our judgments are dubious and prone to bias. If you were to ask me, right now, whether I had done more good than bad through my career I would be hard pressed to give you an answer. I would like to think I have done more good but I have no idea. I don’t collect the relevant data and I don’t even know how to go about collecting it. I can pick particular incidents and anecdotes that support the notion that I am a good person, but I’m probably being conveniently selective in my approach to the data about my own life. Perhaps some of the things I have said in class to students have shattered their hopes and dreams? Perhaps I have inspired them to do wicked things? Perhaps my research has been or will be used by others to support ideologies and agendas that are evil? I don’t know. Unless you are meticulous in collecting data about the consequences of your actions, and unless you avoid bias and error in doing so, you won’t be able to tell whether your career choice was, on balance, good or bad. What’s more, since we don’t typically collect this data about people who currently follow the career you are thinking about following, you don’t have the evidence you need to apply the consequentialist criterion to your own career choice.

The problem, however, goes deeper than simply a lack of evidence. Although we might have some hope of reaching consensus on the badness of certain careers, I suspect we will find it much harder to reach consensus on the goodness of most careers. This is because there are several different conceptions of the good life and a lot of disagreement about what is truly “good” for the world.

Consider the case of Normal Borlaug. Borlaug is one of the scientists responsible for the so-called “Green Revolution” in agriculture. Working initially in Mexico in the 1940s and 50s, Borlaug successfully bred new strains of high-yield wheat that, according to his supporters, averted mass famines in the middle part of the 20th century. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and when he died in 2009, he was lauded as a humanitarian hero, perhaps “history’s greatest human being”, “who saved 1 billion people from death by starvation.”

He sounds like the model example of someone who satisfied the consequentialist criterion with his choice of career (though, to be clear, there is no evidence to suggest he thought about career choice in this way). But not everyone sees it the same way. To his critics, Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” has had disastrous social and environmental consequences. It has increased the use of artificial irrigation and chemical fertilisers, increased the power of large agricultural conglomerates, and disrupted traditional small scale communities and farms. Some critics see Borlaug as a moral monster. Alexander Cockburn, for example, has suggested that: “Aside from Kissinger, probably the biggest killer of all to have got the [Nobel] peace prize was Norman Borlaug, whose 'green revolution' wheat strains led to the death of peasants by the million.”

Cockburn’s criticisms are unfair, in my opinion. But that’s not really the point. Even judicious and fair-minded assessments of Borlaug — such as that provided in Charles Mann’s book The Wizard and the Prophet — acknowledge that the Green Revolution has had some sizeable negative consequences. So even someone lauded for their positive contribution to humanity can have a legacy that is contested and open to doubt. If this is true for the putative “greatest human being” ever to have lived, then what hope do the rest of us have? Heck, I could write the critical reappraisal of my own life right now.

As I say, this is probably most important criticism of the consequentialist criterion. There are, however, two others that are worth mentioning.

The first is that even if we did apply the consequentialist criterion we would have to apply it to other possible careers too. Academia might offer little hope for doing good but do other career choices fare any better? Consider supposedly ethical careers like being a doctor or pursuing charitable work. Can you do good through them? Sure, it’s possible. Are you likely to do good through them? Not necessarily. They are susceptible to many of the criticisms I offered of academia. They are highly competitive careers so you may not get the chance to do any good through them; you may end up being a sub-standard or relatively incompetent occupant of those careers; you may do work that is counterproductive or trivial; you will be replaceable, and so on. Similar problems arise for high-earning careers, such as investment banking, that are supported by those who think we should do good through charitable donations. You may not succeed in becoming an investment banker since the field is so competitive, you may not be a high-earning investment banker, your moral views may change as a function of occupying that role; and so on.

To be clear, some of these fears are addressed by people who write about career choice and the ethics of earning to give (MacAskill 2014). I raise them not in order to endorse a form of “futility thinking” about careers, i.e. assuming that it is impossible to do good through one’s career (cf Unger 1996). I raise them in order to highlight the fact that if we consistently apply the consequentialist criterion to the ethics of career choice, it is not obvious that academia is such a terrible career choice or that it is much worse than other, supposedly positive, careers. Consistent consequentialists are rarely able to reach such definitive conclusions.

This then relates to another criticism: It is really hard to be a consistent consequentialist. This is a long-standing criticism of consequentialist moral theories. They are often said to be “over-demanding” (Mulgan 2001; MacFarquhar 2015). They demand us to do more good with our lives and to constantly reevaluate our choices to ensure that they are, in fact, doing the most good. Sometimes it is good to demand a lot of ourselves and as long as we don’t violate the Kantian maxim that “ought implies can” (i.e. that it should be possible to adhere to a moral norm) then it’s not obvious that demanding a lot is a mark against a ethical criterion. Nevertheless, when we apply to the consequentialist criterion not just to individual choices but to our entire lives — i.e. who we are and who we choose to be — then it can become counterintuitive and counterproductive.

The philosopher Bernard Williams was one of the first people to point this out (Smart and Williams 1973). He was critiquing utilitarian moral theories when he did so, but did so by specifically raising a dilemma about career choice. He asked us to imagine a chemist named George who is out of work and desperate to earn some income for his family. George is also deeply morally opposed to biochemical warfare. George is offered a well-paying job in a chemical weapons plant. He is told that the job is competitive and that if he refuses to do it another, equally qualified and more enthusiastic, candidate will be found. Should he take the job? If George is a consistent consequentialist, then he probably should take it. He can provide for his family by doing so, and it is probably better, all things considered, if someone less enthusiastic occupies the job. It might reduce the harm done to the world. But, of course, this means that George will have to suppress or deny his profound moral opposition to chemical warfare. He will have to treat himself as a mere instrument to certain ends and not as an agent with coherent life plans and values.

Williams thinks this is a flawed approach to career choice, in particular, and moral decision-making, in general. Consequentialism seems to demand that we adopt an impartial point of view and treat our own lives as things that are alien from us and interchangeable with any other life. This impartialist logic is clearly at work in the criticisms of academia that I made in the previous section. Williams argues that we cannot consistently apply this approach because we cannot completely alienate ourselves from our own lives. We have to live with ourselves. In a sense, then, self-actualisation has to be a core part of the picture when it comes to career choice. If we didn’t think about oursleves, and whether a career is a good fit for us, we would undermine our sense of moral integrity. As Williams put it, for the chemist George to consistently apply the consequentialist criterion:

“is to alienate him in a real sense from his actions and the source of his action in his own convictions. It is to make him into a channel between the input of everyone’s projects, including his own, and an output of optimific decision; but this is to neglect the extent to which his projects and his decisions have to be seen as the actions and decisions which flow from the projects and attitudes with which he is most closely identified. It is thus, in the most literal sense, an attack on his integrity.” 
(Smart and Williams 1973, 116-117)


Proponents of the consequentialist criterion to career choice have acknowledged Williams’s concern and sought to avoid it. MacAskill (2014), for example, argues that choosing a high-earning career over a charitable, do-gooding career does not have to undermine one’s integrity. There are several reasons for this. One is simply that many high-earning careers are not necessarily attacks on one’s moral integrity. Many times people are ambivalent or unsure about the compatibility between the career and their ethical commitments. Another, perhaps more powerful reason, is that picking a high-earning career in order to pursue an ethical goal (doing good through charitable giving) can be construed as acting with the highest moral integrity. You want to do good for the world and you do this through your career choice. MacAskill uses the example of Friedrich Engels to make this point. Engels, along with Karl Marx, was an opponent of capitalism. He wrote about it, and organised against it. But he also worked for a capitalist company, run by his uncle, that he hated. The money he earned from this job funded his socialist and communist activism:

“In doing this, rather than displaying a gross violation of integrity, it seems that Engels acted with the highest integrity. He found his moral projects sufficiently compelling that he was willing to work out how best to further them and to act on that basis.” 
(MacAskill 2014, 280)


MacAskill’s point then is that you can treat your career as a mere instrument to an end without violating your integrity in the process. This is true as long as your career choice is consistent with your ultimate moral goals.

This might be plausible but, in the end, it still leads us back to the importance of the self-actualisation criterion. To successfully apply the consequentialist criterion to your choice of career you should want to be a consistent consequentialist. In other words, that should be part of what it means to be a fully actualised version of yourself. This doesn’t mean you have an excuse to ignore the consequences of your actions if that doesn’t seem to fit with your abilities and aspirations; but it does mean that you need to take some due consideration of those abilities and aspirations when deciding what to do.

(A2) - We Might Be Able to Self Actualise Through Academia

To summarise the preceding argument: it’s very difficult to apply the consequentialist criterion to career choice because it is hard to reach an all things considered assessment of the relative value of careers; given this uncertainty it’s not obvious that academia is such a morally terrible career choice; and we have to allow self-actualisation to play some role in our ethics of career choice. This then raises the obvious question: can you self-actualise through academia?

Yes, maybe. This is something that each individual will have to determine for themselves, based on their attributes and abilities. I often ask students thinking about pursuing an academic career whether they enjoy certain processes and activities. Do they like ideas and arguments? Do they enjoy the process of research? Do they like explaining ideas to others? If so, then they might find an academic career quite rewarding and self-actualising. Furthermore, academia is quite a diverse career and can be rewarding for a number of different sensibilities. If you aren’t any good at research, you might fare better with teaching. If you don’t like teaching, you might find your calling in academic administration. If you don’t like one discipline, you might be able to shift to another. There are many ways to build an academic career and one of them might be the right fit for you.

The challenge, of course, is that it can be difficult to know in advance whether academia will be self-actualising. This is because you have to try it out for yourself to see if it fits. The philosopher L.A. Paul (2014) has described this problem quite well. She argues that a number of choices in our lives are transformative. In other words, by making those choices we don’t just alter the short term experiences we might happen to have; we also change the kind of person we will become. In these cases, you need first-hand experiential knowledge of what it will be like to make the respective choice in order to fully rationally assess the options. Career choices are often like this. You can learn a bit from reading about other people’s careers and asking them what it is like, but ultimately you have to run the experiment for yourself. But academia fares no worse than other careers in this respect. We always face this epistemic “gap” when deciding who we wish to become.

So it is possible that academia can be self-actualising and if you are one of the people for whom this is true then you also have a shot at doing some good by being an academic, i.e. by doing research that changes the world for the better or by inspiring others to do good and to actualise themselves. This might seem to contradict what I said previously, but it doesn’t. It is still pretty unlikely that you will do good by becoming an academic. But it helps if you have the both the aptitude and self belief that you can do good.

In this respect, Lisa Bortolotti’s (2018) ‘agency-based’ theory of optimism can be quite inspiring. Bortolotti argues that even though most forms of optimism are irrational there is one form of optimism that might buck the trend. It is not irrational, she argues, to be optimistic about the power of your own actions to make a positive difference to the world. Bortolotti supports this thesis by highlighting a series of famous studies done on people suffering from serious illnesses such as breast cancer. These studies have found that patients who think they can positively affect their health outcomes through their choices, and who formulate reasonable, evidence-based plans for doing so, tend to do better than their more pessimistic peers. This idea is complemented by research from other fields. Philip Tetlock, for example, in his work on “superforecasters” — people who outperform others in their ability to predict future events — finds that people who believe that forecasting is a skill that they can hone and improve are more likely to be better at it (Tetlock and Gardner 2016). If this is right, then it may be worthwhile being optimistic about the ethics of academia as a career choice. If you think you can do good by being an academic, and if you formulate a reasonable, evidence-based plan for doing so, then you might just pull it off. At any rate, you won’t do much worse than you would in any other career.


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