I received a nice reply from Dean which I’ve asked if I can share. Assuming he says yes, I’ll have a more thought out response to this point soon.
Here are some quick thoughts: There are many issues in all academic fields, the vast majority of which are not paid the appropriate amount of attention. Some are overvalued, some are unfairly ignored. That’s too bad, and I’m very glad that movements like EA exist to call more attention to pressing research questions that might otherwise get ignored.
What I’m afraid of is living in a world where researchers see it as part of their charter to correct each of these attentional inexactitudes, and do so by gathering bands of other academics to many-author a paper which basically just calls for a greater/lesser amount of attention to be paid to some issue.
Why would that be bad?
It’s not a balanced process. Unlike the IGM Experts Panel, no one is being surveyed and there’s no presentation of disagreement or distribution of beliefs over the field. How do we know there aren’t 30 equally prominent people willing to say the Repugnant Conclusion is actually very important? Should they go out and many-author their own paper?
A lot of this is very subjective, you’re just arguing that an issue receives more/less attention than is merited. That’s fine as a personal judgement, but it’s hard for anyone else to argue against on an object-level. This risks politicization.
There are perverse incentives. I’m not claiming that’s what’s at play here, but it’s a risk this precedent sets. When academics argue for the (un)importance of various research questions, they are also arguing for their own tenure, departmental funding, etc. This is an unavoidable part of the academic career, but it should be limited to careerist venues, not academic publications.
Again, those are some quick thoughts from an outsider, so I wouldn’t attach too much credence to them. But I hope that help explains why this strikes me as somewhat perilous.
Once shared, I think Dean’s response will show that my concerns are, in practice, not very serious.
Hi! I thought I might jump in to make sure we’re not conflating the Medium essay, which wasn’t written by the whole group, the Social Choice and Welfare paper, which Mark Budolfson and I wrote, and the Utilitas paper, which reflects the whole group. It is not the case that the Utilitas paper, as you write, “basically just calls for a greater/lesser amount of attention to be paid to some issue” (although that would not necessarily seem bad—often there are collaborative statements about methodology in the research literature; see, for a valuable example Lancet Commissions). Here is the main claim of the Utilitas paper, which takes a substantive position in population ethics:
1. What we agree onWe agree on the following:1. The fact that an approach to population ethics (an axiology or a social ordering) entails the Repugnant Conclusion is not sufficient to conclude that the approach is inadequate. Equivalently, avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion is not a necessary condition for a minimally adequate candidate axiology, social ordering, or approach to population ethics.
We agree on the following:
1. The fact that an approach to population ethics (an axiology or a social ordering) entails the Repugnant Conclusion is not sufficient to conclude that the approach is inadequate. Equivalently, avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion is not a necessary condition for a minimally adequate candidate axiology, social ordering, or approach to population ethics.
To respond to the other thoughts:
Population ethics has, from the beginning, been an interdisciplinary field including economists (who are more likely to collaborate and sometimes address policy audiences), philosophers (who are more likely to address scholarly audiences and tend to write single-authored papers), and others. So there is already a long and valuable interdisciplinary tradition of collaborations in population ethics, especially where population interacts with public policy. An important IPCC consensus document talks about it, for example. The Institute for Futures Studies in Stockholm achieves distinction in the field by promoting high-quality interdisciplinary collaborations in large part about population ethics, with an explicit goal of being policy-relevant (and with, I understand, public funding). This sort of interdisciplinary, multi-author collaboration is especially common in climate research, but one sees it in many fields. Here is a similar example from my home field of sanitation in developing countries, where we were concerned that the scholarly and policy implications of a few prominent randomized experiments were being misunderstood.
Of course, there are incentives throughout scholarly publishing and careers. Academic publishing is never a level playing field. Some people have incentives to overstate their disagreement or invent a new idea so that they can start a career. Some people have an incentive to defend old views so that they can maintain a career. Attention, time, and resources are all scarce, so there is no easy solution to the challenge of experts needing to choose what they are going to pay more attention to.
Thanks Dean! Good to hear from you.
I hope you don’t feel like I’m misrepresenting this paper. To be clear, I am referring to “What Should We Agree on about the Repugnant Conclusion?”, which includes the passages:
“We believe, however, that the Repugnant Conclusion now receives too much focus. Avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion should no longer be the central goal driving population ethics research, despite its importance to the fundamental accomplishments of the existing literature.”
“It is not simply an academic exercise, and we should not let it be governed by undue attention to one consideration. ”
That is from the introduction and conclusion. I’m not sure if that constitutes the “main claim”. I may have been overreaching to say that it “basically” only serves as a call for less attention. As I noted in the comment, my intention was never to lend too much credence to that particular claim.
I fully agree with your points on the interdisciplinary of population ethics and the unavoidability of incentives.