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Jason Brennan

Jason Brennan

Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

Articles by Jason Brennan

Anti-Competition as the Incel Mentality

June 1, 2020

Observe:Incel: “Stacy choose Chad over me. I have the right to retaliate by killing Stacy and/or Chad.”Michael Fett, a guy on Facebook, justifying Guitar Center being looted: “Guitar Center put Mom and Pop guitar stores out of business. They deserve to be destroyed.”To be precise, though, Guitar Center didn’t put them out of business. We did by choosing to buy from GC rather than the mom and pop stores. GC didn’t show up and burn their stores. It offered a lower price, more convenience, bigger selection, and in some cases better quality. Consumers chose to buy from GC. Now, perhaps GC engaged in some hidden rent seeking which screwed over those stores. If it did, fine, that changes things. But that is not what this guy is arguing, nor is what most people argue when they say

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The AAAS Agrees with Magness and Me

June 1, 2020

New report on the state of the humanities:https://www.amacad.org/sites/default/files/media/document/2020-05/hds3_the_state_of_the_humanities_in_colleges_and_universities.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0lCu4KOkSq62KnkXdaOOaQtMBkxJN6affH61kgOctQZks7GsEJqzulHowIt concurs with what Phil and I say in Cracks and our other published work:

1. Adjuncts are not replacing full-time faculty.2. Full-time humanities employment is in fact growing rather than shrinking.3. Most humanities faculty are still tenure-track.

Inside Higher Ed published a piece summarizing this, but the author immediately discounted the stuff on adjuncts because, well, it doesn’t fit the approved narrative. They asked, why is there such a gap between perception and reality when it comes to adjunctification? Here’s a partial

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An Excerpt from *When All Else Fails*

May 30, 2020

Here are the concluding paragraphs of When All Else Fails.

Over the past eight chapters, we’ve examined a wide range of arguments which attempted to show that government agents enjoy special immunity against civilians. Other arguments tried to show that some government agents at least enjoy special immunity against other government agents or would-be government agents. The arguments all failed. Until we get a successful argument to the contrary, we should conclude government wrongdoers are morally on par with civilian wrongdoers. 

Many of us have seen videos showing the police choke Eric Garner to death.[i] Half of us have seen “Bou Bou’s” wrangled face after police threw a flash grenade in the sleeping toddlers’ crib.[ii] The Washington Post now runs a column dedicated to

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Is It Time for Private Punishment?

May 29, 2020

When All Else Fails is about defensive actions, not punishment. If someone had justly and rightly shot the cops who murdered George Floyd, they would be trying to stop them from killing Floyd, not trying to punish them for their wrongful actions. In the same way, if I stop a would-be mugger, I’m trying to protect myself, not reform or punish the mugger, and not trying to change the culture at large.I largely stay silent on the issue of whether citizens may privately punish state officials and officers.However, let’s take a quick stab at this issue. In Injustice for All (one of those books about intersectionality, Jacob Levy?), Surprenant and I talk at great length about the hidden financial and other incentive structures which explain why the US criminal justice system is so

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The Two Big News Cases and Philosophy

May 27, 2020

Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd by crushing his neck with a knee while he lay prostrate, helpless, and handcuffed. This is precisely the kind of case When All Else Fails is about. Every “hypothetical” example in the book is in fact a real case, but we had to say “based on” real cases for legal reasons. It would obviously be imprudent to attack the cops in this case, as they will likely shoot back and murder you. But would it be immoral–or instead justified–to do so? If you could have shot one from a window and escaped, would it be justified? (I argue yes.) Would it even be obligatory? Amy Cooper lied to the cops, saying that “an African American man…is threatening me and my dog.” Given how the police in the US often behave (see above), this lie is like calling in

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How Government Leaders Violated Their Epistemic Duties During the SARS-CoV-2 Crisis

May 20, 2020

Written with Eric Winsberg and Chris Surprenant, forthcoming in The Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal.Abstract: In spring 2020, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, world leaders imposed severe restrictions on citizens’ civil, political, and economic liberties. These restrictions went beyond less controversial and less demanding social distancing measures seen in past epidemics. Many states and countries imposed universal lockdowns. In this paper, we argue that these restrictions have not been accompanied by the epistemic practices morally required for their adoption or continuation. While in theory, lockdowns can be justified, governments did not meet and have not yet met their justificatory burdens.Read it on SSRN here:

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What Is Public Choice?

May 14, 2020

Here’s some silliness from Henry Farrell.

Why is public choice specifically unhelpful here? Rather than starting from the many definitions of public choice offered by its enemies, I’ll begin with the definition provided by one of its major proponents. As described by the late Charles Rowley, longtime editor of the journal Public Choice, the public choice approach is a ““program of scientific endeavor that exposed government failure coupled to a programme of moral philosophy that supported constitutional reform designed to limit government.” In other words, it is not a neutral research program, but one that has a clear political philosophy and set of aims. Bluntly put, it starts from governments bad, markets good, and further assumes that the intersection between governments

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Likeville Podcast about the Quarantine

May 12, 2020

Here. Eric Winsberg, Chris Surprenant, and I talk to John Faithful Hamer about the quarantine, precautionary principles, political incompetence, civil liberties, the problems with the data and models policy-makers relied upon, how lockdowns are a limited and vanishing resource, and the surprising fact that governments around the world have not yet done the kinds of studies we would need to know just how dangerous COVID-19 is and what we should actually do about it.

Published on: May 12, 2020May 12, 2020Author: Jason Brennan

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How Did the Great Recession Affect Academic Employment?

May 12, 2020

Here are the total number of people employed as full-time assistant professors in the United States over the past 20 years, according to the US Department of Education. The figure below does not include part-time faculty, adjuncts, instructors, lecturers, post-docs, or other junior jobs.

During the Great Recession, the total number of people working as assistant professors kept increasing. There wasn’t a dip until a few years after.This is surprising, because for those of us who lived through and went on the market during that time, the conventional wisdom was that all the job disappeared. But they didn’t.Note that if you graph the charts for full-time associate and full professors, you get basically the same shape. So, contrary to what you might have heard back in 2008, it

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Good Work If You Can Get It: How to Make Your Time as TA Work for You

May 11, 2020

Good Work If You Can Get It is backordered on Amazon, but you can still get it on Kindle. Thanks, readers! The book combines data-based analysis of what it takes to succeed with practical advice. Note that I trying to explain how to succeed in academia as it is, not trying to justify how it is.Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on succeeding in grad school, specifically on how to spend your time as a teaching assistant. If this advice seems obvious to you, good. Unfortunately, most grad students don’t follow it.

 In the humanities, social sciences, and even in the natural sciences, graduate students usually receive their living stipends in exchange for working as teaching assistants, often for large 101-type introductory/gen-ed courses with hundreds of disinterested

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Just Published: Good Work If You Can Get It

May 5, 2020

Out today: A peer-reviewed, data-driven book about how to hack it in academia. Despite not being a modest person, I admit even I felt a bit weird about writing a book like this when JHU approached me. But it provided a chance to use my research from Cracks in the Ivory Tower for a positive end.BLURB:

What does it really take to succeed in academia?Do you want to go to graduate school? Then you’re in good company: nearly 80,000 students will begin pursuing a PhD this year alone. But while almost all of new PhD students say they want to work in academia, most are destined for disappointment. The hard truth is that half will quit or fail to get their degree, and most graduates will never find a full-time academic job. 

In Good Work If You Can Get It, Jason Brennan combines

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Prejuria without Utopophobia

May 1, 2020

In a previous post, I questioned why Estlund thinks the state is just. Like Cohen, he argues at length we shouldn’t dumb down the requirements of justice to accommodate common moral failings. But if people were just plain decent, let alone morally perfect, it’s unclear why we would need to create a centralized authority which threatens people with violence to ensure conformity to various rules.To motivate the need for a state, Estlund gives the example of Prejuria in Democratic Authority:

Ms. Powers, who owned one of the community’s general stores, was seen by at least a dozen people (so they say) sneaking out the back of Faith Friendship’s general store, with which Ms. Powers’s store competes for customers, just before Mrs. Friendship’s store burned to the ground. This

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Is *Democratic Authority* Utopophobic?

April 29, 2020

At a recent PPE Society author-meets-critics sessions, I asked whether Estlund’s new book Utopophobia is compatible with his Democratic Authority. Utopophobia argues at length, among other things, that we must not dumb down the requirements of justice to accommodate bad human motivations. Officially, it remains officially agnostic about the content of justice. But it is puzzling why one would think that good people who never act wrongly would need a state. If everyone were willing to contribute voluntarily to public goods, no one ever wanted to violate anyone else’s rights, no one ever wanted to do anything unjust, etc., why would we need a state?Greg Kavka has a famous argument that even angels would need a state. You can read a systematic, and I think decisive, response to

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When Suddenly Everyone Is a Technocratic Epistocrat

April 17, 2020

SHORT VERSIONJB, 2016: Epistocracy?Them, 2016: Tetlock proved experts know nothing! There is no reason to defer to experts. We should trust the masses. Also, if we have epistocracy, governments will claim to have special, hidden knowledge so they can push the masses around.JB 2020: Jesus, the major models calculating the fatality rate of COVID-19 used data with severe selection bias. Seriously, we learned in, like, week 3 of methods classes not to do this kind of thing. When are they going to start using proper statistical methods so we can get a proper estimate? Also, shouldn’t be concerned that, e.g., Neil Ferguson has a long track record of overestimating the dangers of past diseases by many orders of magnitude?Them, 2020: Shut up! We should all defer to the experts! Policy

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“Defer to Epidemiologists”

April 16, 2020

I’ve been criticizing epidemiologists–including the ones publishing in JAMA, the Lancet, NEJM, etc., and the famous ones who were making apocalyptic predictions on TV last month–for doing what is clearly bad work. My main complaint is, again, that their estimates about the danger of the virus are based on the wrong data (current infections) collected the wrong way (non-random testing of people who present themselves as sick). We all know better than that. You don’t sample on the dependent variable. You don’t sample in ways that suffer from severe selection bias. If you mostly test people who show up saying they are sick, and 3.4% of them die, it doesn’t tell you how many people have the infection, nor does it tell you what percent of people who have the infection will die.Now,

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Government Authority, Incompetence, and SARS-CoV-2

April 15, 2020

Previously, I’ve commented on how the data we are using to estimate the danger of this disease are extremely poor. Until very recently, for the purposes of estimating the danger, we have been testing the wrong thing (current shedding of the virus) the wrong way (mostly testing people who present themselves as sick). When you read that as of March 3, the WHO estimated the death rate of COVID-19 cases at 3.4%, you have to keep in mind they had non-random testing, testing only for current infection, and testing based almost entirely on sick people presenting themselves for care. The result is that there is severe selection bias which pushes the hospitalization and death estimates upward. The big question is by how much. None of us would be able to publish a paper in a third-rate

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Moral Badness and Altruism

April 9, 2020

Something I’ve been thinking about:To what degree are our moral obligations to provide help and assistance to strangers reduced because those strangers are likely to be morally bad people?Consider a hypothetical. You have a sandwich you don’t need. There are two starving people you could feed. One is a moral saint and the other is a rotten scoundrel. Seems like you should feed the saint rather than the scoundrel. (As a saint myself, I can tell you that’s what the saint would say.) So far this just shows that you should prefer one to the other. But what if we change the situation a bit? You have $2200. You can use it either to buy yourself an awesome new Mesa TC100, which you’ll enjoy a great deal, or to feed Bob for two months. Bob is a rotten, vile person. Imagine he’s a child

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On SARS-CoV-2 and Methods

April 9, 2020

For me, what’s been most startling about the COVID crisis (other than how it has exposed how many academics are mentally unstable) is how willing world leaders and journalists are to rely upon bad data, and how willing medical journals are to publish papers using bad data. Even as someone who writes about government and institutional failure, I was surprised.Most of the early models we saw in the news and in the medical journals relied upon obviously flawed data collection techniques, techniques which violate what everyone learns within a few weeks of taking a statistical methods class. If we want to know how dangerous a disease is, we would want to do random sampling of large numbers of people, to determine not current infections, but what percent have ever been infected. If we

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Should Police Kill People Who Violate Stay-at-Home Orders?

April 8, 2020

Philosopher Irfan Khawaja–who has been posting obsessive rants about Phil Magness–thinks so.

There is no moral reason why we must leave social distancing to voluntary persuasion or agreement. If we make unenforceable suggestions, people will flout them, as they already have. Those free riders aren’t just creating some morally neutral or equanimity-compatible “externality”; they are aggressing against others by an epidemiological version of Russian roulette–where a bullet in the chamber means critical care hospitalization or death for others (or oneself, come to that).

Those who refuse to distance are initiating force against innocent victims. And like it or not, that force must be met with sufficient retaliatory force to stop its initiation. We don’t let bank robbers

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Statism as Accepting Moral Extortion

February 19, 2020

I’m reading David Estlund’s new book Utophophobia right now for an symposium at the PPE Society. Estlund’s book got me thinking more about non-ideal theory and the moral status of the state in non-ideal circumstances. While ideal theory asks, “What institutions would we have if everyone were perfectly good and just?,” non-ideal theory asks, “What institutions should we have in the real world, where many people are evil, where people will take advantage of the rules, and where people’s willingness to comply is not a given?”. Non-ideal theory is generally much harder work than ideal theory, because ideal theory imagines away most of the interesting problems and most of the complexity of actual social life. Ideal theory is the arithmetic to non-ideal theory’s differential

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Advisor Influence vs Reliability

February 13, 2020

In a previous post, I remarked that philosophers are probably strongly influence by their advisors, and then argued this should cause us to reduce our credence in our own work and our reliability. Irfan Khawaja finds the claim (that advisees significantly get pushed/influenced to believe what their advisors believe) implausible and wonders why I didn’t cite a study to prove it. Admittedly, I thought the claim was so obviously true and widely accepted that I didn’t need to argue for it; instead, I was exploring an implication of what I thought was a commonly accepted fact.I don’t know of a study that actually tests this empirically. It seems there is lots of correlation between what advisors and advisees think, but it’s hard to know how much is selection and how much treatment,

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Doing Philosophy Means Being Wrong, but with Style

February 11, 2020

Context: Michael Huemer claims that the “great” philosophers are usually bad thinkers. They defend implausible ideas with bad arguments.Vallier responds that the great philosophers are like architects. Their great achievement is that they build coherent systems of thought.I’m not much convinced by Vallier’s response in part because, when I studied the history of philosophy or read papers in the field, it seems that the “greats” often have incoherent systems. A large number of published papers on the greats, and good number of the classes, take the form of “Great Thinkers says X here and Y here, but X and Y are seemingly incompatible. Let me try to figure out a way to spin X and Y to render then coherent.” Anyway, I’m rather pessimistic about philosophy in general, not just the

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The Kochs Are Going to Destroy Academia with Their Evil Kochness!

January 30, 2020

One of the pastimes of various second- and third-rate intellectual activists is to complain about the perniciousness of Koch money and of other sources of private funding that go to libertarians. (P.S., I am not Koch-funded. I’m posting this in part because I’m witnesses a new round of brouhaha on Facebook.)I would have far more respect for people who do this if they just came clean and said, “I think libertarianism is wrong and I want to fuck with libertarians to stop them from succeeding in the academy. I only want people who share my politics to get jobs.” We all know that’s what’s really going on. They keep up a pretense that it’s about academic freedom or academic purity. However, it’s clear they don’t mean it, because they do not apply their arguments consistently. (See

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It’s EA to Say Voting Is EA Even Though It Isn’t EA

January 17, 2020

“Voting is effective altruism,” many EAs say.Is it, though?

It’s weird that so many effective altruists celebrate voting. Here’s why:1. The question of the best way to calculate the probability of a vote being decisive is still open. Most models say it’s very low. EAs love to latch on the Edlin, Gelman, and Kaplan view, which says it can be pretty high if you live a swing state.2. They often just assign subjective values to the differences in the expected value of two different candidates or parties. This seems rather anti-EA. Aren’t we supposed to carefully measure the differences using the best available research, just like we do when assessing where to donate our cash? Also, lots of research says that parties and candidates have little to no real impact on policy.3. They

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Voting as Conspicuous Caring

January 17, 2020

Brennan in USA Today: Voting is almost never a form of effective altruism. If you want to help others, go to work and donate your earnings to a GiveWell charity.

Published on: January 17, 2020January 17, 2020Author: Jason Brennan

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Why the Politicization of History Is So Disturbing

January 16, 2020

As a field, history seems to have gotten worse. It seems to have become more political and ideological, and less concerned with the truth. Prominent historians often come across as warriors for a cause rather than academics.For instance, consider the responses to Edward Baptist or Nancy MacLean, both of whom regularly engage in quotation alteration, by inserting words that aren’t there or removing words that are to change the meaning. This practice is considered a serious form of intellectual dishonesty in serious fields—it’s the kind of thing that would get you expelled from a graduate program or even make you lose your tenured job. But when confronted about these problems, they and they defenders respond that economists and others simply don’t understand proper historical

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Weaponizing Principles and Methods

January 8, 2020

Somewhere around week 2 or 3 of introduction to philosophy, you learn a basic methodological principle in philosophy: When a person offers an argument against or an objection to some position P, you have to ask whether that objection also applies to that person’s own position and their own argument. For instance, suppose some crackpot English professor says, “There is no Truth and no one can claim objective knowledge!” After you’re done laughing, you then point out that by hypothesis, the professor’s claim is not the true, does not describe how things are, and is merely his or her subjective opinion for which she cannot claim knowledge or justification. In political philosophy, it seems that people frequently fail to ask whether the objections they offer against other positions

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The Dangers of Recruiting Low-Income, First Generation College Students into Academia

January 6, 2020

In recent years, philosophers have become more interested in the problem of inclusion. They recognize the profession tends to be filled with people from privileged backgrounds. They worry this reflects unfair biases in admission and hiring. They also worry it hurts the reliability of the field—perhaps we’re just creating an echo chamber because people come from the same background and have the same point of view.

I come from a low-income (by American, not world, standards), working class, non-traditional family and was the first person in my family to attend college. But I’ve made it—I have one of the most plum jobs in the academy. Surely, you’d suspect, I’d encourage others from my circumstances to follow my lead, and I’d encourage elite institutions to try to recruit more

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*Injustice for All: How Financial Incentives Corrupted and Can Fix the US Criminal Justice System*

December 20, 2019

The official release date is today. It’s out of stock on Amazon, but they’ll have more soon. Please order!You can think of this book as Cracks in the Ivory Tower, but for criminal justice. We argue that most of the unusually high level of dysfunction in the US criminal justice system can be explained by unusually bad incentives created by which positions are subject to democratic votes, how various groups can shift costs onto others, perverse incentives in securing federal funding, and more. Bad rules creates bad incentives which produce bad outcomes.Here’s the cover copy:

American criminal justice is a dysfunctional mess. Cops are too violent, the punishments are too punitive, and the so-called Land of the Free imprisons more people than any other country in the world.

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No One Is Really a Democrat

December 14, 2019

I’m not a moral relativist. I don’t think democratic elections have much justificatory force. I’m happy to say that democracy is good only insofar as it generates better results than the alternatives. That’s all there is to it.People gasp in horror when I say that. But I’ve noticed that people who say they are committed to democracy for principled reasons are nearly always disingenuous. The evidence for this is that when they don’t get their way, they always claim the process was perverted. Consider the following dialogue:

Me: “Yeah, a bunch of ignorant people voting to do X doesn’t justify doing X.”

Many on the Left: “Oh, no, that’s horrible!”

Me: “What do you think of the recent UK election?”

Same people: “Obviously, a perversion of democracy caused by the……ahem,

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