Viewing archives for Dr. Michael Plant

Moral Uncertainty, Proportionality and Bargaining

Patrick Kaczmarek, Harry R. Lloyd and Michael Plant


As well as disagreeing about how much one should donate to charity, moral theories also disagree about where one should donate. In light of this disagreement, how should the morally uncertain philanthropist allocate her donations? In many cases, one intuitively attractive option is for the philanthropist to split her donations across all of the charities that are recommended by moral views in which she has positive credence, with each charity’s share being proportional to her credence in the moral theories that recommend that particular charity. Despite the fact that something like this approach is already being used by real-world philanthropists to distribute billions of dollars of donations, it is not supported by any of the approaches to moral uncertainty that have been proposed thus-far in the philosophical literature. In this paper, we will develop a bargaining-based approach to moral uncertainty that honors the proportionality intuition in favor of splitting one’s donations. We also show how this bargaining-based approach has several further advantages over the best alternative proposals.

Make people happier – not just wealthier and healthier


“Basically, economists wanted to be more scientific,” explained Michael Plant, who leads the Happier Lives Institute. “They thought something only counts as science if it’s objectively measurable. Feelings aren’t objectively measurable, therefore they are not science.”

So economists turned away from squishy concepts like happiness and toward objective proxies for well-being, like GDP. In the postwar period, GDP became the go-to way for measuring well-being, even though the concept’s inventor, Simon Kuznets, warned that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.”

Can tracking happiness improve your wellbeing?


Plant (“an old-fashioned utilitarian”) is pragmatic in his approach. He argues that improving lives can be as important as saving them. Research by the Institute has concluded that spending $1,000 on group therapy in low-income countries—the Institute advocates for a charity called StrongMinds—is a more cost-effective way to improve wellbeing than investing in mosquito nets.

William MacAskill, What We Owe The Future: A Million-Year View

Michael Plant


In “What We Owe The Future (WWOTF)”, William MacAskill makes the case for longtermism, the idea that positively influencing the longterm future is a key moral priority of our time. By ‘longterm’, MacAskill means the really longterm: the book is subtitled ‘A million-year view’. MacAskill says his case is based on three premises:

  1. Future people count.
  2. There could be lots of them.
  3. We can make their lives go better.

He remarks ‘these premises are simple, and I don’t think they are particularly controversial. Yet taking them seriously amounts to a moral revolution’ (p. 9). His main proposals are to focus on reducing the chance of premature extinction, allowing continued moral development by strengthening liberal institutions, and growing longtermism as a research field.

The book certainly marks an evolution in MacAskill’s own thinking: he is a leading light in effective altruism, the research field and social movement that aims to find the best ways to help others. MacAskill recounts that he used to believe that this meant focusing on the global poor, but others eventually persuaded him of longtermism. Although MacAskill states his aim was to ‘write the case for longtermism that would have convinced me a decade ago’ (p. 6), the book is clearly aimed at the general public, not academic philosophers. Instead of dense, technical text and a creeping barrage of thought experiments, we are treated to flowing prose and a whistlestop tour of history; it was joyful, even moving, to read.

Given the objective of persuading others, the book must count as a runaway success. For its launch, MacAskill pulled off a media blitzkrieg, with either a profile of himself, or a review of the book – in either case usually glowing – seeming to materialise in every outlet this author had ever heard of. He even featured on a US late-night talk show, not the normal domain of philosophers.

However – and although I wanted to share MacAskill’s enthusiasm for longtermism – I found the case unpersuasive. Further, it seems too bold to claim that the premises are simple or uncontroversial or, if taken seriously, would amount to a moral revolution.

To be clear, my concern is not that MacAskill does not treat his topic with the painstaking rigour he is clearly capable of – that would be unreasonable, given he is writing for a general audience. Rather, it is simply that MacAskill does not do enough to identify or anticipate, then address, the weaknesses in his argument. At times, I found the book uncomfortably polemical, as if MacAskill had set out to convince the reader, as effectively as possible, to share his conclusion, even if they would not fully understand the reasons for it and the challenges to them. Before I elaborate on my concerns, I will summarise the book.

Improving wellbeing scales

Dr Caspar Kaiser and Dr Michael Plant sparked lively discussion at the latest of the Wellbeing Research Centre’s Seminar Series after sharing results of their latest pilot study assessing how subjective wellbeing measurement might be improved.

Their work, supported by the Happier Lives Institute, examines the neutrality, comparability and linearity of individual wellbeing scales: three issues that need to be met in successfully implementing wellbeing policy.

Watch the full presentation on the Centre’s YouTube channel.

Assessing the neutrality, comparability, and linearity of subjective wellbeing measurements: a pilot study

Dr. Michael Plant

Whilst studying for his PhD in moral philosophy at the University of Oxford, Michael realised there was a pressing need for more research on the most cost-effective, evidence-based ways to improve global happiness – he founded the Happier Lives Institute in 2019 as a result. As well as directing HLI, Michael is also a Research Fellow at Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre. Before that, he was a research assistant to Peter Singer, a researcher for the Rt Hon Sir Michael Fallon MP, and founded Hippo, a happiness-tracking app.

The Meat Eater Problem

Michael Plant

Here are two commonly held moral views. First, we must save strangers’ lives, at least if we can do so easily: you would be required to rescue a child drowning in a pond even if it will ruin your expensive suit. Second, it is wrong to eat meat because of the suffering caused to animals in factory farms. Many accept both simultaneously—Peter Singer is the pre-eminent example. I point out that these two beliefs are in a sharp and seemingly unrecognised tension and may even be incompatible. It seems universally accepted that doing or allowing a harm is permissible—and may even be required—when it is the lesser evil. I argue that, if meat eating is wrong on animal suffering grounds then, once we consider how much suffering might occur, it starts to seem plausible that saving strangers would be the greater evil than not rescuing them and is, therefore, not required after all. Given the uncertainties and subjective assessments here, reasonable people could substantially disagree. The surprising result is that a moral principle widely considered to be obviously true—we must rescue others—is not, on further reflection, obviously true and would be defensibly rejected by some. Some potential implications are discussed.

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Positive Thinking: Searching for Lasting Happiness

BBC Radio 4

Sangita Myska goes in search of the innovators who think they hold the key to improving the way we live. Each week, we hear from a different innovator trying to solve a different problem. You’ll find out what motivates them, why they’re tackling it, and what their solution is. We’ll then stress test their idea with a panel of experts.  In this episode we’re tackling nothing less than the secret to lasting happiness. Our innovator is former Chief Business Officer for Google X, Mo Gawdat who says he has come up with a mathematical solution to happiness. 

Contributors include: Prof. Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist and Professor of Psychology at Yale University.  Dr. Michael Plant, a moral philosopher who researches how to make people happier. He’s the Founder-Director of the Happier Lives Institute and a post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. Emily Esfahani Smith, is the author of  ‘The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness’….

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Back to Bentham? A discussion on the optimal distribution of wellbeing

Back to Bentham? The Optimal Distribution of Well-being