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    PloughCast 45: Effective Altruism and a Scholarly Inheritance

    Generations, Part 3

    By Dhananjay Jagannathan, Phil Christman, Joseph M. Keegin, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    January 31, 2023

    About This Episode

    Peter Mommsen talks with Phil Christman and Joey Keegin about effective altruism.

    Then, Peter and Susannah welcome Dhananjay Jagannathan to discuss his piece “What Is Our Scholarly Inheritance?” Both past and future, Dhananjay argues, make us who we are, and in scholarship as in other human cultural pursuits, we step into a world, receiving an inheritance and becoming responsible for enriching and passing on that inheritance. Though this kind of generational relationship is not biological, it is very deeply human, and the chosen and unchosen aspects of non-biological generational obligations are what make up a civilization.

    His uncle Mark’s scholarship was an inspiration to him, and on his uncle’s death, he felt the obligation to take up aspects of his work. The project of humanism is a multigenerational one, and not one that we do alone.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Section I: Phil Christman and Joey Keegin: Effective Altruism

    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! This is the third episode in our new series, covering our Generations issue. I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough.

    Peter Mommsen: And I’m Pete Mommsen, editor-in-chief at Plough. In this episode, we’ll be speaking with several Plough repeat offenders: first, Phil Christman and Joey Keegin will discuss effective altruism, and then we’ll speak with Dhananjay Jagannathan about genealogies in the intellectual life.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing. His most recent book is How to be Normal. Phil is a regular Plough columnist with his Book Tour reviews, and is a wife guy: his wife, Ashley Lucas, is a Plough contributor and friend. Twitter: @phil_christman.

    Peter Mommsen: Joseph Keegin is a writer and editor at Athwart and The Point currently living in Chicago. He is also a wife guy.

    And today we want to talk about how to be a good ancestor.

    That’s tied to Phil’s latest piece for us. It’s a web exclusive with the Generations issue from his “Book Tour.” There, Phil, you write about a few books. One of them, What We Owe The Future by William MacAskill is from one of the leading theorists of what’s known as effective altruism. We’re definitely going to get into that. A couple of others too.

    Phil, do you want to just walk us through what makes you a good ancestor? What were your conclusions in your piece?

    Phil Christman: Oh yeah, I definitely have a ten point plan for how to achieve that.

    Peter Mommsen: That’s what I was hoping.

    Phil Christman: I offer a coaching service. The piece came out of … well, you guys pitched me on contributing to the Generations issue. I had been thinking about the concept of being a good ancestor ever since I wrote about Olúfẹ́mhi Táíwò’s book. I apologize. Olúfẹ́mhi, if I just murdered your name, I’m genuinely sorry.

    But his book, Reconsidering Reparations, which I wrote about in my first Plough column of the year, where he introduces that idea in a social justice context. OK. What do we do with the fact that we’re trying to think about how to draw up a more just system of resource distribution and international relations in an era of climate change?

    Who knows how long any of our works are going to last anyway? He said look, sometimes what you can do is to be a good ancestor. And I thought, “That’s really powerful. That’s a useful thought.” So I read this book by one of these guys who’s associated with The School of Life, this weird life coaching, popular philosophy press. I don’t know how to pronounce the guy’s name. Boy, I should have looked these up, but Roman Krznaric, something like that. He has a book called The Good Ancestor. I read that and boy did it suck compared to Reconsidering Reparations. If you’re really interested in this concept, go read that book.

    Peter Mommsen: Don’t read that book.

    Phil Christman: Do read Táíwò’s book, don’t read The Good Ancestor. It was fine. I call it philosophical smooth jazz in the review. That’s what I think. Or another image I use when talking about books like this is it’s intellectual NPR. It’s, like, fine. It’s mostly inoffensive, but it kind of falls apart if you think about it for very long.

    And then I noticed a kind of bubbling up of people talking about it, the effective altruism movement, which also engages some of the same questions. I threw that in along with a really good Douglas Rushkoff book that’s about Silicon Valley and its plans for the future.

    It’s a much more skeptical look at that. Rushkoff’s book is like, “Here’s what Silicon Valley billionaires actually do when they start thinking about the future.” And William MacAskill’s What We Owe The Future, which came out this summer is more like, “Here’s what this one Oxbridge ethicist thinks Silicon Valley should do. Here’s what he’s trying to talk them into doing.” Look, good luck, buddy.

    The conclusion I came to is like yeah, you should try to be a good ancestor, but you should focus more on the good part than the ancestor part, because one of those things is more under your control than the other.

    Peter Mommsen: One person that William MacAskill, the Oxford ethicist, talked into giving away lots of money was someone who’s been in the news quite a bit recently – actually, since you wrote your review. Sam Bankman-Fried of FTX and 90 percent owner of Alameda Research.

    That’s been a huge story for those who haven’t followed it or didn’t read about it. There probably will continue to be a bunch of lawsuits about that for years and years and years to come, where billions of dollars in crypto investments kind of vanished in smoke over the course of November 2022.

    William MacAskill, this ethicist, according to a big New Yorker profile that came out around the same time of his book, was the guy who actually got Sam Bankman-Fried AKA SBF into this effective altruism thing. Can you first, I guess, just catch listeners up if they haven’t been … if effective altruism is just a bunch of syllables to them, what that is and what MacAskill wanted a Silicon Valley billionaire like Sam Bankman-Fried to do.

    Phil Christman: Yeah, yeah. Effective altruism, you hear those two syllables or those two words and you think about what they mean. Yeah, that sounds good. If I’m trying to do something for other people, then I would like to do that thing in a way that actually works. You don’t want to be doing sort of white elephant charitable works.

    But what makes effective altruism as a movement distinctive is that it’s coming out of a corner of academic ethics that is A, hardcore utilitarian, and B, really interested in the field of population ethics. And in population ethics, the big question that people have been trying to resolve ever since the 1980s when Derek Parfit came on the scene, it’s called the repugnant conclusion.

    What he says is basically, if you run the numbers – what numbers? I don’t know – but if you run the numbers, if you do the math, if you follow it out logically, a society in which billions, trillions, a large number of barely hanging on people, people who are just this side of, “Do I even want to continue?” Just on the right side of the line that separates, do I want to continue living from, “No, I definitely don’t.” A society where almost everybody is there, but there’s just tons and tons and tons of people is happier and better than a society where there’s not that many people, but they’re all extremely happy.

    Be that as it may, what MacAskill thinks is that the repugnant conclusion is true. He doesn’t try to wiggle out of it. He thinks given the methods that utilitarians use for assessing what is good and what is bad, that is the repugnant conclusion is self-evidently true. And so we need to bring that about. We need to basically figure out how we can live in such a way that someday there will be a galaxy spanning megalopolis of squintillions barely hanging on people.

    That is the vision that he’s trying to be effectively altruist for. That’s just going to focus your thinking about the future in certain ways. For example, it’s really important to him that we develop strong AI in the near future because it’ll make it easier to build that kind of society. He also takes it as a certainty that that’s something that can exist and will exist. But we also need to make sure that the strong AI doesn’t hate us or doesn’t accidentally snuff us out.

    He thinks that we should make sure that it has the best possible moral and existential inputs, that it does its reasoning from the best possible premises. He agrees that we haven’t figured out what those are, so he suggests that maybe there should be a long period of maybe a few thousand years where different groups of people live in different ways and then we all come together and figure out what the good optimized ethical system is.

    Thinking about how to achieve a hypothetical far future of just good enough for an indefinitely large number of people, it just in my opinion, warps your thinking in ways that sound very much like a Philip K. Dick novel. I’ve barely begun to get into all the ways that MacAskill’s book is very weird. At the same time, I tried to be generous to the book because you try to do that when you’re writing a book review.

    Also, I really feel a little naive now. I was really operating under the premise that MacAskill is goofy but sincere. And that may be true, but I don’t know. The fact that he keeps trying to woo rich people to join his movement – You’ve mentioned Bankman-Fried, but there’s also … we now have chat logs of him talking to Elon Musk trying to get him to join the effective altruists.

    Honestly, if you’re doing that, it makes sense from a utilitarian standpoint because those guys have a lot of money to play with. Or they used to six months ago. And you could do a lot of good if you captured some of that money and sent it toward whatever worthy projects. But he is either really deeply gormless, or just completely incapable of assessing character if he thinks he can turn Elon Musk toward usefulness. All that guy really wants is to recapture the feeling of being in a walk-on role in one of the Iron Man movies from twelve years ago.

    If you can’t see that about Elon Musk pretty easily, I don’t know what to tell you. You don’t know much about human beings. Yeah, I feel the piece has some pretty good burns in it and I basically stand by it, but I can’t believe that MacAskill is actually that naive. I don’t know. I’m having trouble.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, shockingly, Phil, I read your piece and I didn’t feel actually that you were about to become a long-termist yourself.

    Phil Christman: Oh no. I’m totally turned off by the whole project.

    Peter Mommsen: Well Joey, let’s get you in this There’s The Good Ancestor aspect and there’s this whole question of how is this utilitarian way of thinking about doing good actually working out. So what are your thoughts on this, Joey?

    Joey Keegin: That’s a great question. I really enjoyed Phil’s column on this stuff and I thought he had an especially good line in here. He says, “Analytic philosophers give themselves Galaxy brain syndrome as the Curies gave themselves radiation poisoning, so we don’t all have to.” It seems basically right.

    Peter Mommsen: That was the line.

    Joey Keegin: Yeah, yeah. It’s great. Yeah, it’s interesting. It seems to me that the effective altruism thing is two different endeavors squished into one. One of those endeavors is I think a really sound and interesting institutional critique about how poorly charities actually use their money. But then the other thing that’s stuck onto it is just as Phil described, this kind of bizarre space alien-like, analytical, ethical philosophy that... Yeah, it’s derived from this particular milieu of academic utilitarians. It flows largely from people like Derek Parfit, and then Peter Singer is the other name that I’m not sure that Phil mentioned. He gives TED Talks in favor of effective altruism. He’s, in many ways, seen as one of the godfathers of this way of approaching ethics and thinking about what it means to do good. Singer has been, I think, rightly taken to task for a lot of these assumptions. I was reading through Practical Ethics last night, just trying to remind myself what it felt like to think in a Singerian mode.

    Somebody described it to me once as a philosophy about how to do good to other people, for people who don’t care about other people. It treats other people as all of the stuff that characterizes our experience with others are various spheres of intimacy and familiarity, the specific shape of our relationships to others, whether that person is a stranger or our brother or a mentor or an enemy. All of these things fall away and we’re only supposed to regard others morally speaking as just another human person who’s just as fungible as any other person. And then we act on them in that way.

    Singer and Parfit and generally this whole world of utilitarian ethics has been criticized by people like Roger Scruton for exactly that reason that it is a very anti-human way of thinking about other people. That seems basically right to me.

    Phil Christman: Yeah. One of the big emphasis in effective altruism is basically the idea that if you are situated so that you could generate a lot of income and then give that income away, you should just do so. Which means for a long time they were telling people, young people, if you can get a job at an oil company and rack in some of those profits and then give 20 percent of your income away because you’re making so much money that … how much of that stuff do you really need? You’re doing more good than somebody who protests oil companies, which is just like … it’s insane. Even from just a utilitarian standpoint, that’s insane. I hate to tell you, but it’s getting warm out there.

    Joey Keegin: Or even on a smaller scale I think, it’s something like, if you can use your money to benefit 3,000 strangers that you’ve never seen, it’s morally the same as … that’s a morally superior action. Yeah, it’s morally better than when you walk past somebody bleeding on the street, helping them directly and keeping that one person from dying that actually, if you’re given some … they construct all these ways of thinking through these kinds of thought experiments.

    From what I can tell, the thought experiments are ways of kind of hacking normal human experiences of the world and other people. It’s a way of disintegrating our human categories of thought and a kind of acid bath of supposed reason. But if you had to choose between you’re walking down the street and you see a bleeding child and you need to rescue that particular bleeding child, but actually what you’re currently on the way to conducting some kind of important transaction that’s going to help 3,000 people in a distant land somewhere else, you absolutely have to pass the child.

    Phil Christman: Yeah. I’m on the way to talking Elon Musk into pledging this much money to buying mosquito nets for Africans, which he’s definitely going to do. I’m definitely going to get a pledge from him that means anything at all. He definitely doesn’t have a history of making and breaking huge promises to benefit humanity or anything. Which – why would you bother learning to tell a totally fraudulent billionaire from a normal person if you’re a utilitarian and for you, human beings are all kind of, as Joey says, fungible.

    Joey Keegin: Human beings are just locuses of happiness quotient. The real agent of the world is like pleasure/happiness and happiness understood as pleasure basically being located in a particular place. Peter Singer, for instance, doesn’t even regard the distinction between humans and other animals as being morally significant. The human person isn’t even that important.

    Phil Christman: Which is where he gets into hardcore ableism too, because he imagines categories of people who have less going on upstairs and thus less capacity for pleasure or pain than a really smart pig. Which like hey man, I’m all for … we need to treat pigs better. I’m on board for that part, but that doesn’t mean that you get to dismiss people who have certain kinds of intellectual disabilities. That’s crazy.

    Joey Keegin: Yes. It seems to me that one of the major things that this utilitarian calculative approach misses is the notion of having anything like a moral character or what the ancients might have regarded as something like virtue. Because you can make a lot of these same arguments about the need for the wealthy to be especially generous about the need to assist others as much as you possibly can.

    All of these things aren’t bad in themselves. It’s just the kind of … it’s this underpinning, this vision of the world, this vision of the human person, this vision of society that underlies all of this stuff is so twisted and it’s twisted by this kind of … I think Horkheimer and Adorno and even Heidegger have a way of talking about this particular form of reasoning that is so abstracted from human things. It’s sort of surgical reasoning. It’s so cut away from our lives and it breaks our experience in such a way that the kind of person and world and society that’s disclosed in this kind of utilitarian thinking is unrecognizable to basically any human person that …

    Phil Christman: Any human person that likes being a human person.

    Joey Keegin: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.

    Phil Christman: Well, and it’s also what are they … effective altruism, but effective for what? For whom? The answers to those questions that they sort of bury in the adjective effective and then don’t question any further, I think warp the whole project. To be fair, they’ve stopped giving the “work for an oil company and give your salary away” advice in the last few years.

    But that is also telling in that their threat assessments are pretty weird to me too. MacAskill explicitly says the reason why we should … or a reason why we should not put so much carbon into the air right now is a far-far future civilization after we’ve recovered from climate change and whatever mass human die offs happen over that period of time, a far future human civilization might need that coal to do a second industrial revolution, and we don’t want to waste it.

    Section II: Phil Christman and Joey Keegin: Fuzzies and Utils

    Peter Mommsen: There’s two things I’d love to dive into a bit. One is this question of proximity. You just were mentioning this scenario of walking past a bleeding child on the way to an appointment with Elon Musk.

    There’s this kind of memorable quote from this rationalist writer, Eliezer Yudkowsky, where he says, “You should purchase your fuzzies and utilons separately.” So you should …

    Phil Christman: Sorry, I’ve got to go throw up now.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. Basically, if you’re going to do things like mentor underprivileged youth or work in a soup kitchen or feel like you’ve been involved in advocating for prisoners and prisoner rights, you should do that. If that makes you feel good, do that on the side as this concession to your human weakness essentially. But then get to the real business of effectively helping. How do you think about that? Because it’s like from a Christian point of view, that’s the opposite of the Good Samaritan story.

    Joey Keegin: The Parable of the Lost Sheep is another one that came to mind for me – going and finding that one sheep. Even if the ninety-nine are fine, you still go out and get the one, right?

    Phil Christman: Yeah, it’s not accidental. OK. I’m not going to say that the term virtue signaling doesn’t name a real behavior that you can see people doing. I don’t think it’s accidental that the mainstreaming of that term as a putdown came from that community though because someone like Eliezer Yudkowsky … I’m not sure he has virtues to signal. Amoral people are incapable of imagining that other people act from generous motives.

    They assume that it’s all strutting around and pretending to impress someone, which then raises the question, well, how did we ever get the idea that that is impressive to someone? It doesn’t even answer the question, it just kicks the can down a road a little bit.

    Joey Keegin: In this sort of utilitarian stuff, there’s always this question of will this, the moral calculus of utilitarianism, does it obligate doing seemingly bad things if those bad things produce the conclusion of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, even if by accident. Do you just have to suck it up and do something that’s really grotesque, if on the other side of that grotesque thing there lies something that is seen as morally good by the utilitarian calculus?

    Again, the effective altruists are really fixated on this notion of doing good. But I think that just as you were noting earlier, with the notion of effective, that notion of doing good, it goes sadly under-explored. I’m not sure they do enough thinking about like what is the good, what is the human good? What is a good human life? These kinds of …

    Phil Christman: What are humans?

    Joey Keegin: What are human beings? Yeah, exactly. What is a good society that if you actually ask these questions and think about them seriously, I think you come to a profoundly different conclusion, a profoundly different set of conclusions than the ones that they’ve come to.

    Phil Christman: Yeah. I don’t know. You mentioned Peter Singer earlier. I think one nice thing you can say about Peter Singer and Will MacAskill is that they really, really, really love the idea of tithing. I’m assuming that they do it, they claim to and they encourage …

    Joey Keegin: I’m pretty sure that they do. They give a lot of money away.

    Phil Christman: So a book that I read more than probably fifteen years ago and I don’t even remember … oh, it was Passing the Plate. It was these three sociologists who were studying giving habits among American Christians. It was a very damning book as you would imagine, but it was also a really inspiring book because the opening chapter, they just say, “Here are the things we could do if everybody that makes over …” I think it was like $40,000 a year, and this was in mid-2000s dollars.

    If everybody who makes this much money who says they’re a Christian and goes to church, I think was more than once a month. If all those people tithed, if they all tithed, here are the things, here is the money that would be freed up, here are the things we could do. Anyway, it was like a socialist utopia, that opening chapter. It was like this is such low hanging fruit. 10 percent is like it’s this basic obligation that the early Christians, at least in the community described in the Book of Acts, obviously it went way above and beyond, but it’s supposed to be something that all the adherence of the three major monotheisms who can afford it are supposed to do. And it’s like, how hard would it be to get people to do that? Look at the amazing world we could have if people did.

    I think one use that even Galaxy brained dudes like MacAskill and Peter Singer have for Christians basically is a cudgel to beat each other up with because these guys are insane and their ethical vision is warped, and they’re kind of morally compromised at this point in very serious ways, whether it’s MacAskill by the relationships he’s tried to build as part of this movement with idiot billionaires or whether it’s Peter Singer being the world’s biggest ableist.

    Yet, these guys manage tithing and they talk their friends who think like they do into tithing. We’re not as a community pulling that off. When I think about the effect of altruism people, first I start from a place of, ha-ha, you guys are lunatics. And then I always end up back at this really depressed place of – Man, but even they are pulling off this thing that it took me years to reach the point where I was disciplined enough to be doing it.

    Joey Keegin: That seems really good. But I can’t not think that these kinds of dimensions of their project are not very seriously harmed by the other dimension of their project, their vision of the human person, their vision of society, their vision of the political.

    I guess this is the thing we haven’t talked about very much, but has been one of the critiques that’s been leveled at them. I think you mentioned Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò earlier, he’s written about this before about how the effective altruists, they seem to have this vision of society wherein just as you say with MacAskill courting eccentric billionaires, that for them, they understand the project to be moral. It’s about doing morally good things or something.

    Phil Christman: If there’s even a 1 percent chance that I can talk Elon Musk into making himself useful, then it’s worth it. Yeah. Yep.

    Joey Keegin: Yeah, exactly. And then Elon Musk and guys like him, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates is the effective altruist, like, saint. Because he’s the richest guy who gives the most money. It puts all of the moral agency in the hands of extremely wealthy people and doesn’t really offer very much to normal average people.

    Phil Christman: If you’re not a wealthy STEM Lord, you have nothing to contribute to the human race. That’s basically what they’re saying.

    Joey Keegin: And then also, the political organizations that we’ve built for specific reasons. Basically the entire history of political philosophy, of political institution building, so on and so forth, just becomes meaningless to them. Why would it matter that we have the specific structure of federal democratic republic in America if that federal democratic republic is not quite producing the sort of happiness juice that they would want?

    It seems like they would be perfectly fine with a utilitarian oligarchy wherein five of the richest people on the entire planet are deciding the policies of basically everywhere in order to produce whatever the society in the vision of the repugnant conclusion, whatever that demands. The local differences between different kinds of communities, between different kinds of political organizations, all of those things fall away. What morality seems to demand for them, it really is something like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, these are the guys who are the moral agents and everybody else is just to be expected to be on the receiving end of their benevolence. That doesn’t sound like a good world to me, but I’m not an effective altruist.

    Phil Christman: No, no, no. Yeah. I picture a world in which almost everybody is a “happy enough that I don’t actively want to kill myself” worker drone for a handful of visionaries.

    Joey Keegin: Boy, this is dark.

    Phil Christman: It is dark. Human history will continue to be a nightmare from which we are trying to wake up, but their vision is not going to happen because it is so... Strong AI is such a fundamental part of it. And like I say in the article, I don’t think we’re going to have strong AI, I think only people who already have an insanely reductive view of human beings such that they can become hardcore utilitarians. I think only people like that can actually think that human intelligence is so easy that you can just make an algorithm that does it.

    I don’t think it’s going to happen. We’re going to continue to make machines that we then lop off pieces of ourselves in order to serve. But we’ve been doing that for a long time and it’s not a new struggle, it’s just a continuation of an old struggle to stop that.

    Joey Keegin: My usual critique on this, which I still stand by, is that the threat is not that computers become more like humans, but that humans become more and more like computers. I really think that the effective altruists calculative approach to “doing good” is exactly that.

    It is a way of turning yourself and of sort of hacking all of your native human modes of experiencing and modes of relating to the world and to other people and just becoming... Trying harder and harder to turn yourself into a calculator. And that seems bad. Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: So for any of our listeners who came to this podcast expecting that powerful endorsement of effective altruism, we’re sorry to disappoint you. There’s one other thing that I think that jumps out from this movement though, that is a good thing and it’s the tithing, but it’s more widely, there’s a huge readiness for self-sacrifice among some parts of this movement.

    People giving up kidneys for strangers. There are effective altruists living extremely frugally and trying to give away as much as they can. That part of it does seem like something that Christians could think about a bit.

    Phil Christman: Yeah, I agree. Like I said, I think Christians need to be using Peter Singer and Will MacAskill as a form of pressure on ourselves to do better. It was uncharitable of me to have fulminated this much about this movement without saying apparently, I don’t know anybody personally who’s done this, but apparently lots of EA people have literally given up kidneys to strangers, which is something I’ve thought about doing and then got distracted and didn’t do.

    There you go. Again, we’ve got to stop … the main thing that I conclude from this questionable philosophical movement is like, it’s the old Saturday Night Live skit where Dukakis and Bush are arguing, are debating in 1988. And Dukakis is like, “How am I losing to this guy?” How are we losing to these guys? I don’t know, but a lot of us are, and the more fortunate Christians are really more materially fortunate Christians are really losing these guys. Let’s stop losing these guys.

    Joey Keegin: Yeah. What I’ve got to say about the kidney thing is God bless them. That’s a fantastic thing to do. Again, I think they do a lot of really heroic and interesting and genuinely very inspiring things.

    I would just encourage them to look into the history of ethical thinking. I know that a lot of the analytic philosophy types really dislike reading old books. They think that reading old books is a waste of time. They think that they have in their heads this kind of progressive historical attitude towards them. We’ve overcome that stuff. It’s irrelevant, so on and so forth.

    Or they just think that you can simply discover the world and all the important things by means of your own humongous intelligent brain and you don’t have to rely upon the wisdom of other people. But we have thousands of years of really, really serious and committed and very inspiring ethical thinking on all kinds of different questions going back to ancient Greece, back into the early Hebrew tradition and Chinese philosophy has things like this.

    I think there are better ways of justifying these kinds of actions than this utilitarian greatest happiness for the greatest number thing. I would encourage them to broaden their understanding of the history of ethical thinking. Yeah, there’s justification for this stuff in ways where you don’t have to lose your humanity.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, thanks so much guys. We possibly didn’t solve how to be good completely in this episode yet.

    Joey Keegin: All right.

    Peter Mommsen: But Joey, what you just said I think sets this up for thinking better about that. So thanks so much. Hopefully none of us land up in a repugnant conclusion world anytime soon. It’s been really fun talking. Thanks for joining us.

    Joey Keegin: Yeah, thanks so much for having us. It’s been good.

    Phil Christman: Yeah, thanks guys. God bless.

    Section III: Dhananjay Jagannathan: Scholarly Inheritances

    Peter Mommsen: And now, we’ll be speaking with Dhananjay Jagannathan, an assistant professor of philosophy at Columbia University, where he works in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and the history of ethics. He is also a wife guy, and his wife, Tara Isabella Burton, is another frequent contributor to Plough.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome Dhananjay. Thank you so much for coming on. You’ve written a lovely piece for us about non-biological genealogies. Can you talk a little bit about the kind of thing that you mean when you talk about that?

    Dhananjay Jagannathan: The best example of this in my mind is the relationship between all the people who have carried out some activity in the past and made it what it is and handed it onto you. One example of that which I worked through in the piece is in academia. I’m a college professor and a scholar of ancient Greek philosophy among other things. That’s the field where the topics that I work on have been around for a long time and a lot of people have written about them. And so all those people are in a big conversation and I feel an obligation, a responsibility to those people and to the people who will come after me.

    But I think it’s actually a phenomenon that turns up in a lot of different aspects of life. I’m also a big fan of sports. My favorite sport, like your husband’s, Susannah, is cricket. And one of the wonderful things about that is that the sport’s been around and the current modern form for a few hundred years, and there are always innovations, but there’s also a connection to what people have done in the past. Cricket fans are great.

    Final example is I have an interest in Renaissance music and I’ve written about that for Plough before. There’s a performance history there, but there’s also an interpretive history and try to make sense of the manuscripts of music that we’ve received and have been passed down and recopied over the last few hundred years. And thinking about what it means to make that music today is something that inevitably brings you into contact with people from the past.

    Susannah Black Roberts: One of the more concrete examples of the academic version of this you mentioned in your piece was the mathematical genealogy project. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

    Dhananjay Jagannathan: I remember encountering this project, I think when I was in college, maybe even when I was still a math major, or recently having stopped being a math major. It’s this wonderful online resource that tracks the genealogy of mathematicians, so who their doctoral advisors were and who those advisors’ advisors were and so on so backward, up and up. And if they happen to advise people themselves, their descendants.

    What’s fascinating about this is you can trace lineages and groups of lineages back and it doesn’t take you too many jumps to get back to people like Leibniz and Euler and these famous mathematicians. And that tends to happen, of course, because it’s the important famous mathematicians that have lots of students. And so their lineages were more likely to survive. There’s a version of this for other disciplines you can find some of them online, but they’re not as systematic because the mathematicians really got into it.

    I think that has something to do with the way that mathematics works a lot of the time. You get a problem from your doctoral advisor to try to solve so that you get a PhD. So there’s a very personal relationship and some other fields, including in philosophy, can be a little bit more remote where you work with people and you develop your ideas together with them. But it’s not quite so dependent on any given advisor. But still, I can say as someone who had two wonderful doctoral advisors that I owe a lot to them, and I can see traces of influence on them from their advisors and so on several generations back.

    Susannah Black Roberts: There’s a version of this that I had read about recently. It’s called the Piano Teacher Family Tree or something like that. And it basically traces people who are current performance pianists back to Beethoven based on who taught them. It’s a wonderful way of thinking about and visualizing that particular kind of living tradition, which is very much you need to do it in person. There’s no way to really teach piano by reading. It has to be a lived relationship of care almost.

    Dhananjay Jagannathan: Yeah. One dimension of this that we’ve been talking about is the kind of vertical dimension going up to your teachers, maybe down to your children. But I think one of the things that these genealogical projects also reveal is how many siblings and cousins you have and many more than in most people’s biological families.

    There are other opportunities to become enmeshed or intertwined with your colleagues by reading their work, of course, by interacting with them in person. Academia is, despite the experience of the last few years where we’ve gone online for conferences and the like, a very personal kind of field in some ways.

    You can have these deep friendships and connections that last for decades with people who read your work. It’s not always, the people who agree most with you might be the people who are most interested precisely to disagree with you, especially in philosophy. Philosophical friendship is all about disagreement. There are all these kinds of more and less diffused relationships just among your contemporaries as well as this kind of generational lineage.

    Susannah Black: An example of this that we ran into inadvertently in the last couple of issues of the magazine actually has to do with your Uncle Mark and his work and the relationship of his work to another family who we interviewed a member of. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

    Dhananjay Jagannathan: Yeah. The genesis of the piece that I wrote was really reflecting on my late Uncle Mark and his academic career. He and his wife, my Aunt Indira, were the first two academics I really got to know as a child. I talk about how lucky it is that I come from this family, this academic family. For me, it was very natural to think of academia as a path. And I’ve ended up taking that path.

    He taught mathematics and physics, but Mount Holyoke was a liberal arts college, so it was also a place where he developed broader interests and his interest in Italian culture led him to scholarly work on Dante and Galileo and more broadly to thinking about renaissance mathematics and science.

    In his work, especially toward the end of his life, he was interested in students of Galileo and other mathematicians at the time. One of the things that they were grappling with was the Aristotelian model of scientific knowledge. Actually, Mark and I came to have some shared interests in thinking about that, although that’s not a time period that I tend to work on. We had this kind of funny convergence in the end, although my own scholarly journey was largely independent.

    Susannah Black Roberts: One of the interesting things that happened, I think probably about a year ago, was that I was interviewing Sperello Alighieri, who we can drop a link to this interview in the show notes, who is Dante’s great, great, great, great, et cetera, grandson. He himself was an astrophysicist and sort of research astrophysicist in Italy. And then belatedly got interested in his ancestors’ poetry and so had this kind of humanistic awakening in the later part of his life.

    In the course of writing a book about his ancestor’s cosmology, he referenced a paper that your uncle had written about Dante’s picture of the universe and then mentioned, just in conversation, your uncle’s name. I don’t know. My mind was blown. The world is very small.

    Dhananjay Jagannathan: It is. There’s a deep, deep connection between Dante and Galileo and that was one of the central insights that Mark pursued in his book, Galileo’s Muse. Dante is someone who’s writing at a time where knowledge is really seen as unitary, in part because the universe is seen as a single cosmic whole.

    But in one way of approaching that was through theology. And another way of approaching that was through mathematics. And so that wasn’t a foreign thought. And I think it’s one of those thoughts that feels very foreign to us now because we have academic disciplines that are divided up and knowledge is treated as a matter of expertise and in particular topics and scholarly understandings that rely on a body of study that one could not possibly carry out in all these different fields at the same time, even if one tried.

    Susannah Black Roberts: One of the things that you and I have been talking about recently that I’ve been thinking about is the way that reading and scholarship in general, they’re not private goods. They’re examples of a common good. They’re the experience both of reading and of obviously more obviously something like a symposium or a seminar discussion.

    These are real experiences of a common good. They’re not things like a piece of birthday cake that you can take off and eat by yourself. It’s more like being at the birthday where the participation with other people is part of what it is that you’re enjoying. Can you talk a little bit about what that common good aspect of scholarship and reading is like?

    Dhananjay Jagannathan: Part of my reflections on this topic are due to thinking through Zena Hitz’s wonderful book Lost in Thought, which is all about how social striving and competition, which are important aspects of modern academia, are really at odds with the intellectual life. But there’s something striking about some of the examples that Zena gives in that book, which is of people who are reading on their own, in part because they might have no other choice, whether they’re simply isolated or they’re in prison or what have you.

    Those examples really show you that the pursuit of truth is something that one can enjoy on one’s own in that way. But implicit in that is the thought that that’s a defective version of something that could be better when our social nature is directed to its proper end. Not a competitive, but a cooperative end. Academic life, insofar as both our research and our teaching depend heavily on others.

    You can’t teach without students. I like to point out to my students that you could imagine that teaching was a matter of just communicating ideas outward and without worrying about whether they’re being received. There’s this famous story about an Oxford don who was appointed to give a certain set of lectures in a given term, and it just so happened that no one turned up for the lectures. But of course, he gave his lectures anyway to the empty auditorium.

    You could think about teaching as that, as kind of a sort of broadcasting, I suppose, and in the hope that maybe someone would pick up the scraps. But I think a much better model of it is as a kind of cooperative inquiry where there are differentiated roles surely, but still it’s something that’s undertaken in common. Likewise with academic scholarship, especially I think in the humanities, it’s just impossible to envision that as something that one really pursues on one’s own because the very questions that one asks are dependent on conversations that are already happening.

    There is a kind of conversational character to the cultural activity quite generally that points to its fundamentally cooperative nature.

    There’s this famous letter Machiavelli to Vettori, which is often printed in editions of The Prince because of its date. He’s gone into political exile from Florence. And so he’s isolated by force and he tries to describe to Vettori how he still is able to have this intellectual life in the companionship of others, but not other people who are living and with him and surrounding him in his political community.

    But in his study when he enters “the ancient courts of ancient men” where he’s able “to feed on that food, which only is mine and which I was born for.” In other words, in the reading practice that he has where he convinces the ancients to answer his questions. Of course, what’s wonderful about this is that he describes it as a form of solace and poverty and death no longer frightened him because he has this other source of value.

    But the model here of reading alone in isolation, I think is not the way that we should read. We should. In the best case, we’re able to read alongside others. You and I, and Tara of course, are reading Purgatorio right now, Susannah.

    Reading groups are wonderful and they’re an important part of understanding texts because very often others see what we don’t or we can work out our ideas in conversation. The model for this is the small seminar, the model of education that I think best suits humanistic inquiry where we try to make arguments to each other. We try to explain what’s going on in a text and why it matters.

    That’s always relative to a set of concerns and interests that a group of people have. And really to make a text intelligible is not just to try to achieve some kind of private understanding, but a shared understanding, one that could open out in various directions to all the things that make it attractive to read a book in the first place, to seek truth, to seek beauty, to understand them, and also to be able to pursue them.

    Susannah Black Roberts: One of the things that I’ve kind of wondered about is whether it’s actually the case that … say you start with The Symposium, as in Plato’s Symposium. Is it the case that through a kind of set of actual discussions with other people, there’s been a philosophical succession that parallels apostolic succession where the philosophical discussion has been passed on from one person to the next because of overlapping conversations and overlapping groups?

    It seems kind of likely to me that that’s the case, that there has been. There were enough people at that first symposium. We know some of them went on to have other conversations with other people who then went on to have other conversations with other people. That it seems quite possible to me that even persisting through some of the leaner years of the dark ages, if we’re allowed to call them that. There might be this kind of unbroken succession of conversations that when we join together in our own symposia or our own seminars, we’re part of.

    Dhananjay Jagannathan: Absolutely. I think there’s two ways in which that’s really interesting. One is that the very beginning of Plato’s The Symposium is this embedded conversation several levels down. So we’re getting a reported conversation of a reported conversation. That already tells us that there’s something essentially shareable.

    You didn’t have to be there at the house at the party to find out what’s going on, because this is the kind of thing that can be related to others. Even when we have a very particular conversation with a group of people, I think we can imagine other audiences for what we’re saying and what we’re trying to make sense of. And then reading is an important part of it as well.

    When we read, we read alongside all the other readers. I think one of the marvelous things about that is that it can close those gaps of time and space that divide us from others, not just the authors, but the other possible readers of a text can come into view.

    That is what manages to keep this tradition alive despite all kinds of distance and the possibility of a kind of loss of meaning that is very evident when we think about the remarkable luck, the grace that’s involved in the transmission of knowledge from antiquity, not just from Ancient Greece, but from all these different places that had intellectual traditions stretching back thousands of years. It’s extraordinary.

    I recently taught in my history of philosophy class, the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna and the text that we have of his, The Dispeller of Disputes, is itself a conversation of a kind. He’s reacting to a text that we don’t have, but we know about his interlocutor from him. And so the conversations can be preserved and sustained in text. Now, of course, we should also keep in mind what Socrates says about texts in the Phaedrus. They’re no substitute for the real thing, at least if we treat them as having a certain kind of authority over us.

    In that conversation, we enter into a kind of partnership and I think Machiavelli describes that really beautifully. There’s a kind of reverence that he has for these ancient men. He represents himself walking into the ancient courts. He thinks of them as having this kind of dignity and status. That’s right. In taking a text seriously, we are not necessarily giving it authority, but giving it a place at our table.

    I think that we can see ourselves as entering into existing conversations precisely because we might have something to add to them. So in addition to that reverence, there is the responsibility we have to respond, to think for ourselves to communicate to others. So I think it always opens outward.

    Section IV: Dhananjay Jagannathan: Intellectual Guest Friendship

    Peter Mommsen: That story highlights something that comes out in your essay, Dhananjay, which really jumped out at me, the fragility of this passing on of patrimony between generations. And your epigraph actually is from Homer, “As are the generations of leaves, so are those of men.”

    But you get into that in your piece in a way that I found just really helpful in terms of some of the things we’re discussing on this series of podcasts, this sort of interplay between chosen and un-chosen inheritance. Could you talk about that a bit? Because obviously one of the things genealogy has often been used for is there’s royal genealogies used to validate the holding of power.

    But as you get into talking about the place in The Iliad where that comes from. It kind of really opened up a way in which the family of humanity is a real thing.

    Dhananjay Jagannathan: The fragility comes in a few different ways. One is the thought that what’s important to us now may not be important to people in the future. We pursue these cultural activities, whether it’s in art or music or sport or scholarship in the hope that there will be others to take our perspectives on in our ideas and our contributions on.

    But there’s no guarantee. One of the fascinating things about genealogy that is really striking when you look at maybe who your own ancestors are is that once you go back enough generations, it all kind of fades into the shared family of humanity. Go back ten or twenty generations. Most of us are likely to have quite a few ancestors in common, which is this kind of amazing thing.

    There are a lot of paradoxes of exponential growth that are involved in this. If you think about the generations of our families that are nearest to us, our parents, our children, our grandparents, our grandchildren, those are determinant individual people. But multiply that process just a few more times and usually you don’t get what you get say between Dante Alighieri and Sperello Alighieri, this kind of direct link. It has to be a very famous ancestor or a royal one, I think, to maintain that kind of connection across so many generations.

    But I think especially if we think about the un-chosen dimensions, so not just the fact of our ancestry, but the fact that we come into the world in a certain cultural and historical and social position and we make sense of the world from that position, at least up to a point. I think we are making sense of a shared world, a real world that’s there.

    But our identity and our perspective does have a lot to do with things that we don’t have any control over. And then there are also chosen dimensions because of course there are the things that we pursue in our of interest to us. Even when it comes to family, when we think about marriage and adoption, those are matters of choice. The story from The Iliad, I think, is a really beautiful reflection of all these ambiguities and connections because the lines are spoken in book six of the Iliad. When you read the epigraph just by itself, it can make you think about the fragility of each human life, that it’s going to end in death and there’s a kind of fading away. The glory that the warriors of The Iliad are after is something itself ephemeral, of course, unless they’re immortalized by Homer himself in a text.

    But the words are actually … they’re spoken by Glaucus who’s on the side of the Trojans. He says them to Diomedes, who is a Greek soldier. And he is replying to Diomedes’ question of whether Glaucus is a God in disguise, which is something that happens in the world of Iliad. What they realize when they stop to talk with one another is that there’s a really important link between their families that there’s a bond of guest friendship, which is a kind of familial or quasi familial relationship that is a matter of voluntary affiliation. It’s not something that we tend to name in our modern societies where we tend to distinguish between family and strangers.

    But I think it’s something we all experience through deep friendships, connections that maybe are as significant as those of family and that are also, although they might begin with a voluntary choice, connected with things that we can’t choose.

    The guest friendship between and Glaucus and Diomedes is a matter of a connection between their ancestors that gets passed down intergenerationally. But even within our relationships with other people that we choose to be close to what used to be called kith as well as kin, those relationships involve people that we also can’t control. They have their own lives and their own worlds and there’s always an aspect of the un-chosen in choosing someone. I think all of that is there in this story. What it helps us to see is that this little remark about the generations of leaves and the generations of men is not a bitter reflection on the fragility of human life. But I think an affirmation of the connectedness of people, the regrowth, the possibility of renewal in each generation. That’s a matter both of chosen and un-chosen bonds.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It seems to me that with relationships like friendship or adoption, where it seems as though there’s more of a sense of choice. That’s almost where you can see … obviously Providence is in charge of all of this. To be more specific, God is in charge of all of this in his providential sort of role.

    One of the things that blew my mind when I was digging around about The Dream of Scipio, because as I say I’ve been obsessed with this a little bit recently, is that … Scipio Africanus Minor who’s the one who is telling about this dream that he had, he basically has this dream where he’s been taken up into the heavens by his grandfather, Scipio Africanus Major. This ancestor of his shows him, talks to him about his political fate and then kind of shows him the cosmic smallness of the empire as compared to the whole surface of the globe.

    Kind of gives him a little bit of a kick in the pants about the fragility of human reputation. But what I didn’t realize was that Scipio Africanus Minor was actually adopted into that gens. He was not originally the biological grandson. But because of the strength of that adoption, even the kind of spiritual grandfather, the genuineness of the strength of that adoption is manifested in the fact that this grandfather who died before this adopted grandson was born recognizes him as a grandson and takes him up into the heavens to show him the smallness of the earth and the music of the spheres. That was actually something that I thought was really beautiful and kind of striking in this foundational text of really that kind of lurks behind a lot of other texts that we know better.

    Dhananjay Jagannathan: I think that’s right and I think it points to something about family and lineage that’s surprising. I think maybe at first glance that the un-chosen dimensions of it, the fact that Scipio was adopted by someone who happened to have this famous father, Scipio Africanus, it’s not a matter of personal connection, but this is a matter of inheritance, something that we pick up.

    One of the complicated aspects of inheritance is that there will be aspects of our inheritance that we want to reject and aspects that we want to affirm. That gives us a sphere of choice that is then contextualized within a sphere of what is un-chosen. These things always go hand in hand in thinking about our families, but also thinking about culture more generally and patrimony, which is this notion that brings these two dimensions of human life together.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, Dhananjay, thank you so much for your time and speaking with us. I think I want to recommend to our listeners that if this kind of connection and intellectual genealogy is something that they think that they might want to participate in, Zena Hitz who you mentioned earlier, Dhananjay, who’s a mutual friend, has this thing called The Catherine Project, which is, that you can go to.

    She’s a tutor at St. John’s College, which is a kind of classical great books college. She also, as a side project, runs this great books program for everyone where she gathers together seminars of small groups of people to read through texts in the way that we’ve been talking about together. is something that anyone can check out if they would like to.

    Dhananjay Jagannathan: While we’re doing plugs, I should of course mention that my Uncle Mark Peterson’s book is Galileo’s Muse: Renaissance Mathematics and the Arts, which was published by Harvard University Press in 2011. It’s a book that still brings me a great deal of joy.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We will drop that link in there.

    Peter Mommsen: Thank you so much Dhananjay for this beautiful essay. It’s also the essay itself is an example, sort of what we’re talking about as a tribute to your uncle.

    Dhananjay Jagannathan: Thank you so much. It’s a joy as always to talk to you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Contributed By DhananjayJagannathan Dhananjay Jagannathan

    Dhananjay Jagannathan is an assistant professor of philosophy at Columbia University, where he works in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and the history of ethics.

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    Contributed By PhilChristman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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    Contributed By JosephMKeegin Joseph M. Keegin

    Joseph M. Keegin is a writer and editor at Athwart and The Point currently living in Chicago.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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