Today my grad school buddy Brandon Butler announced his decision to leave philosophy. It's kind of funny how whenever he and I talked about this before, I thought he should stay in the profession. But now that I have to look at things from the other side of the decision, I think he's making the right choice in leaving.
Some good reasons for him to leave have to do with the two-body problem -- he wants to live in a good city and he has a wonderful girlfriend whose job puts constraints on where he can live. So it's good that the job market / location mess won't be in his future. But the biggest reason, I think, has to do with his level of obsession with philosophical research.
I can get a crazy amount of excitement from defending a particular philosophical doctrine or attacking an orthodoxy I dislike. I reflected on this as an undergrad and knew that if I end up doing philosophy for a living, I had better not ever go uncrazy. And I think the only thing that's decreased my intensity is seeing that some of those orthodoxies make more sense than I first thought (Kripke's semantics for proper names, for example) and some of the doctrines I used to love aren't that great (infallibilist epistemology). For the most part, I'm still crazy. Crazy about hedonic utilitarianism, crazy about defending internalism about semantic categories, crazy about attacking irreducible moral properties. When you think that some position is wrong and you have just the argument to beat it, writing a paper is fun.
Judging from what he wrote, I think Brandon isn't crazy. I mean, he has positions he agrees with and disagrees with, but I don't think he has the kind of mad lust for the ethereal blood of theories that makes the game fun for me. (Maybe in a world where metaethics was ruled by Moorean intuitionists and he had to join a small band of naturalist rebels to defeat the Empire, he'd be in it... but this isn't that world.) He's right about the importance of being a good researcher for career advancement, and if your heart isn't in the research game, you probably won't publish enough to get a good job. Actually, I think there's some hope for good teachers who don't do much research at small liberal-arts colleges, but there probably aren't enough of those jobs out there that one can be confident of getting one.
In the end, law school isn't such a bad place for a smart liberal guy to end up. We had a really bright student from my year -- Steve Bero -- go to Columbia law after his second year, a year ago. There's lots of need in the world for utility-increasing superlawyerheroes, even if their super power is just making a lot of money and giving some of it away to good causes. (It's even better if they do some socially beneficial stuff as lawyers!) I've even considered jumping ship for law school myself, since that could be a better way to crank out the hedons than philosophy. I don't know if it is -- I have high hopes for what a good ethics class could do -- and that's why I'm staying in philosophy for the time being. There's some pleasure in having your friends choose appealing option A when you had to go for appealing option B, since you can kind of have it both ways. That pleasure will be mine.
Illusions of Understanding
5 hours ago