Friday, February 10, 2017

The other “One Percent”

Let us pause and reflect on the following: those who hold PhD degrees are the Warren Buffetts of epistemic resources. They have been privileged with more educational experience and access to intellectual activities than 99% percent of living humans. Consider that simply having been awarded a bachelor’s degree puts one in the top 30% of educated persons in the United States, a Master’s degree will put one in the top 7% and a PhD degree the top 1%. Worldwide, the statistics are much more striking.[1] Although there is plenty of criticism to direct at higher education, it is hard to argue against the following: those who hold college degrees have had an experience of great epistemic value that others have not. Notwithstanding, it is rarely, if ever, suggested that PhD’s ought to share this intellectual wealth.[2] But why not?

Given the importance of epistemic resources to a life well-lived, it seems a bit odd that epistemic generosity is not morally expected, especially of those who are of noticeable intellectual wealth.[3] In various ways epistemic resources are as valuable as financial resources. So why wouldn’t epistemic 1%ers have as much of an obligation to share their epistemic wealth as the financial 1%ers have to share their monetary wealth? This post argues that epistemic 1%ers do have this moral responsibility and that those who fail to share their unique type of wealth are in fact failing to do what they ought. This moral “oversight” can be understood as a vicious character trait, i.e., many of the intellectually wealthy are epistemically greedy.

I will use the term “epistemic greed” as follows. Epistemic greed is greed for epistemic resources. “Epistemic resources” should be understood broadly. Examples include, physical goods, epistemic services, cognitive states and intellectual abilities that are specially related to knowledge, understanding, rationality, etc. Those who are epistemically greedy keep, take, acquire, or stockpile epistemic goods which they might otherwise share with the epistemically less advantaged. Here is a first shot at defining epistemic greed:
Epistemic Greed (EG): To hoard, acquire, or use an excessive amount of epistemic resources with insufficient concern for those who less epistemically advantaged
While the above definition is on the right track, I think too much is left vague by the expression “excessive.” Let us try a definition with more specificity:
Epistemic Greed (EG): Sharing comparatively little of one’s total epistemic resources with those who are less epistemically privileged than oneself.
In line with Aristotle’s notion of generosity, this second definition places a higher moral obligation on those who are epistemically wealthy. Let us helpfully recall that Aristotle argued the followin:
 “[I]n speaking of generosity we refer to what accords with one’s means. For what is generous does not depend on the quantity of what is given, but on the state [of character] of the giver, and the generous state gives in accord with one’s means. Hence one who gives less than another may still be more generous, if he has less to give”(2014;51). 
This Aristotelian understanding seems to fit with our everyday, pre-theoretical, understanding of the “non-epistemic” concept of greed. We expect, for example, those who are rich to give more than those who are not rich. ”[4] And just as monetary greed influences the egalitarian (or lack thereof) make-up of society, so does intellectual greed have an effect on the societal distribution of epistemic goods. If this much is correct, then the paucity of discussion on epistemic greed is a noteworthy philosophical oversight.

For too long moral and political discussions have focused primarily on economic inequalities at the expense of ignoring other types of morally weighty inequalities. One reason for this oversight might be another oversight: we have overlooked that just as an improvement in one’s economic means makes it easier to acquire epistemic resources, the converse is true as well: bettering one’s epistemic position makes it easier to improve one’s economic position. Intelligence can help one get a job, get accepted into college, and in various other ways provide means to a more satisfying life. Educational accomplishments, especially degree accomplishment, are closely tied to lifelong income prospects. In such respects financial and epistemic resources are importantly similar. Both are effective means to a variety of ends helpful in achieving life goals. [5]  Not all goods are of this kind. While I may very much enjoy my leather couch, it cannot help me achieve my dream life of an enjoyable career and basic level of material comfort. Epistemic and financial goods, however, can indeed help me in this regard. Money and knowledge are general purpose tools for a variety of life goals.

Discussing these ideas with academic friends and colleagues, I have heard many object that those with lower educational levels or poor analytic skills have little desire for epistemic goods. “I see your point,” they would protest, “But no one wants what we (academics) have to share.” To me such assertions suggest a disconnect between epistemic elites and their less privileged counterparts. Academics seem prone to mistaken assumptions about those who are epistemically underprivileged. While it may be true that many “ordinary people” dislike college classes and love The Kardashians, I would surmise that even Kardashian fans have some areas of epistemic interest in which some academics could be of help. Yes, often these epistemic interests are pragmatic. Hence helping the disadvantaged might require the epistemic 1%ers to step out of their comfort zone. While many people (university professors, for instance) are capable of helping persons improve their resumes and learn basic computer skills, few are familiar with this type of tutoring. This is no excuse, however, because it is quite easy to become so familiar. Learning what the epistemically disadvantaged desire and how to help requires dedication and open-mindedness, but not much more. Hence the decision not to share is inexcusable. It is simply a socially accepted form of greediness. Society should accept this vice no longer.

Maura Priest
The Humanities Institute
University of Connecticut, Storrs


A., & Reeve, C. (2014). Nicomachean ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Bailey, M. J., & Dynarski, S. M. (2011). Gains and gaps: Changing inequality in US college entry and completion (No. w17633). National Bureau of Economic

Belley, P., & Lochner, L. (2007). The changing role of family income and ability in determining educational achievement (No. w13527). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Data Sources: Key Takeaways from the 2014 Survey of Earned Doctorates | Council of Graduate Schools. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Mayer, S. E. (2002). The influence of parental income on children's outcomes. Wellington,, New Zealand: Knowledge Management Group, Ministry of Social Development.


[1] See, and, and Note that often the statistics are shown in terms of age-group.

[2] I will use the terms “epistemic” and “intellectual” interchangeably. While there are contexts in which this use would be inappropriate, this paper is not one of those.

[3] Long-ago when Aristotle discussed the virtue opposite greed (generosity) according to his specific virtue-theoretic framework, he had in mind a notion specifically associated with the giving of financial resources. Nonetheless, Aristotle’s opinion should not always be understood as the final word on virtue.

[4] One critical difference between the points I make in this post and many common discussions of distributive inequality is that I am not solely focused on governmental obligations and solutions. My focus, rather, is on the character of individual epistemic agents and how they ought to treat other epistemic agents. That said, this paper in no ways rules out either the possibility that the government might be obligated to rectify epistemic inequalities nor that it simply might be prudent to use the government for egalitarian ends.

[5] While there has long been a connection between wealth and education, recent empirical studies suggest that the last few decades have seen this correlation get much stronger. For a few studies on this increasing divide and more generals research into income and education see Belley, P., & Lochner, L. (2007), Bailey, M. J., & Dynarski, S. M. (2011), and Mayer, S. E. (2002).


  1. Maura, thanks for this provocative piece!

    I like your point at the end that the moral obligation of the epistemic 1% isn't necessarily to share the relatively arcane knowledge we have committed 99% of our time in the academy to accruing. Of course, it might be said that this recognition requires us to break with your analogy, since it suggests that we are hoarding the epistemic wealth we have accumulated and that this is what needs to be shared. In fact what you seem to be saying, or at least drifting towards, at the end is that we in the academy need to recognize that we have an incredibly privileged existence, really materially indistinguishable from the regular 1%, and that giving back in whatever way we can is a moral obligation. Giving back in kind, i.e., epistemically, seems fitting, but I am betting that's not what you are ultimately requiring of us.

    If I am right about that, then perhaps this rejoinder has some merit. Most professors are making far less money doing what they do than what they could earn in the outside world. Any philosopher, e.g., could be an attorney easily clearing several hundred thousand dollars a year. This means that we value what the academy offers so much that we are willing to forego huge sums of money to do it.

    One might argue that the value shouldn’t be understood solely in terms of personal utility. I might, e.g., say, yes there is a close possible world in which I am making 300,000 dollars as an attorney, rather than the 70,000 I receive as a tenured professor. But frankly it is worth 200,000 dollars to me just to be a professor, and if I were an attorney making that kind of dough, I would hope I would give at least 30 thousand a year to charitable causes. In other words, relative to our alternatives, we have in fact already taken a relative vow of poverty so that we might share what we have learned with others.

    1. Hi Randolph,

      Thanks so much for your comment! I like your analogy about wealth, but I have a slightly different take on it. I think that choosing to make way less money for the privilege of doing philosophy is a fair trade. In other words, rather than make an extra say 200k a year I am choosing to have intellectual goods. But I think that speaks to why academics still have to share. We think, after all, that someone who makes say 200k a year is doing well and has a special obligation to share their resources. But if I am trading that money for the intellectual life, it suggests the intellectual life is just as good and hence I should share too. My 200k just does not come in the form of cash, but I should still share.

      Now you are quite right that sharing intellectual wealth is not so straight forward. In my academic paper, I argue that sharing intellectual wealth comes in the form of "opportunity costs." Rather than actually share my research paper, for instance, I could spend the 30 minutes I would be writing my research paper tutoring someone who needs help with writing.


  2. Hi Maura,
    Welcome to Sac State.
    Here's the contrapositive of your view.
    One of the responsibilities that come with the privilege of being a university professor is the obligation to speak up when faced with falsehood or misinformation about your area of expertise.
    This is not the obligation to give your opinion whether or not you're asked. It's the obligation to provide the truth when falsehood has been uttered, intentionally or not.
    This is frequently a way of avoiding popularity. In some small number of unfortunate cases it's a way of avoiding tenure too.
    But if there is an ethics peculiar to our privileged profession, that's part of it.
    Looking forward to your visit.
    Tom Pyne

    1. Hi Thomas,

      Thanks for your comment!

      Yes I completely agree. I think that speaking up when no one else has done so is indeed an epistemic and ethical obligation, and I think more should be written about that. Perhaps that might fall under the virtue of epistemic courage, but I would have to do more thinking about that.

  3. Thanks for this, Maura. You're of course right to highlight the mutually reinforcing connection between economic and educational resources. Some economists have identified this as a sorting effect. One model showed that 30% of US men and women's returns from schooling is attributed to marriage. Maybe epistemic generosity requires college grads to be more willing to marry someone with a low IQ or a high school drop-out.

    1. Hi Kyle,

      Thanks that is a great point. I wonder whether we might say the same thing about wealth, that perhaps rich people have an obligation to marry people with less money? That is certainly a new way to think about generosity and I know many would object, but it seems worth considering!

  4. Hello Dr. Priest,

    Thank you for taking the time to share this with us :). I am a Philosophy Major at Sacramento State University and I hope to be able to come to your teaching demonstration (I've recently taken some interest in Adam Smith's Moral Sentimentalism) and the student search committee.

    I have a few questions about your article:

    Is it regularly the case that PhD's do not engage in teaching to some degree and level in an attempt to share their epistemic wealth? My status as a student of philosophy probably gives me a very one-sided view, it seems all the PhD's I know are attempting to share their epistemic wealth with me all the time haha.

    It may not be the case that it is often suggested that PhD's share their epistemic wealth, but to what extent do they anyways?

    As a follow up to the previous question, what are the avenues of sharing epistemic wealth? It seems like there are a variety of ways it is engaged in, whether at the community, junior college, university, private/consultation, or mass media level. When factoring in all the ways that information is transmitted, it seems to me that PhD's are very involved in attempting to get epistemic goods into the hands of those who do not otherwise have them.

    But again, my current experience is to regularly be a recipient of epistemic goods, so my view is very skewed. I would like to know your thoughts.

    Thank you very much,
    Stan Lovelace

    1. Hello Stan,

      Thanks for your comment! And I hope you get a chance to come to my teaching demo. It is great to hear that you are taking an interest in Smith's Sentimentalism. Please feel free to ask me any questions in that regard.

      You bring up some great points which I discuss at length in my academic paper. So while there is a sense in which many PhD's teach and in that way share their epistemic wealth, I don't really think it "counts." By teaching one is fulfilling one's paid contractual duties. If someone is a rich financial adviser, for instance, they might help their clients make money during their consultations. But since they are being compensated for doing so it doesn't count much in the area of generosity.Now if a professor goes above and beyond and spends a lot of extra time in office hours for instance, that would count.

      As for how one might share their intellectual wealth, as I noted above this usually comes in the form of epistemic opportunity costs. A professor spends time sharing when they could be enriching their own intellectual life. There are many ways to do this. One great example is an engineer who used his skills to help prove that a low income housing area had contaminated water. But there are lots of other ways that are more simple:

      -Tutor people who need to learn basic computer skills
      -Record free lectures which you offer online
      -Volunteer to teach at a prison (there are a number of philosophy professors who do this)
      -Offer to help low income high school students prepare their college application
      -Write a book specially geared toward a non-academic audience of a lower education level.

      Those are just a few examples. What matters is that time is specially devoted outside of one's regular or paid working hours. I have faced a lot of objections to this suggestion, and in my academic paper I explain why it is not quite as demanding as one might think.

      Thanks again for the great question!

    2. Thank you for your response Dr. Priest. I had a feeling you were not talking about paid labor, I think you are bringing up a very reasonable point for discussion. I hope that someday I have epistemic wealth worth sharing haha ;).

  5. Maura,

    I like the 1%er tie in with academia. It gives a different perspective to the concept of the "top 1%".

    While I agree that PhD holders are morally obligated to share their intellectual wealth, I would argue that intellectual wealth is not always obtained or measured through academic means. It is a moral obligation, nonetheless, and any human with intellectual wealth should share it with those that do not.

    It is hard to stay motivated to help those with seemingly non-existant rationales, but it shouldn't stop one from trying. That is basically why I am majoring in Philosophy...I am tired of feeling like I am unarmed in the war on ignorance (not that I am not ignorant). I just want to help people "mo betta".

    -Kris McCandless

  6. Hi Kris,

    Thanks for your comment! I hope I will get to meet you next week.

    And I completely agree that not only academics have the obligation of epistemic generosity. There are indeed 1%ers who are not academics. I think one becomes a member of the 1% intellectual class via various means, and academia is probably the most common but certainly not the only means.

  7. Maura, I've been thinking about your richly insightful post (pun intended), and I've got to say three quick things about it.

    First, I think you are correct that wisdom and understanding are (to echo an old proverb) more precious than gold and silver.

    Second, I wonder whether you really think that the narrow class of PhDs (as opposed to, say, the broad group of those with the competence to run explain a computer to their grandparents) have a special duty to teach economically useful educational skills (like how to use a computer) to those who lack them, simply because they are among the most well educated. I guess I would have thought that they would have a duty to (say) share their specialized abundance of specialized knowledge with those who lack (and want) it, much like a super-rich tycoon might have a duty to (say) share a million dollars with a charity that lacks (and wants) it…

    Third, I wonder whether your comparison of educational wealth to economic wealth might actually be used to challenge some conventional wisdom about the latter regarding 1%ers. For example, in my classes discussing economic justice, after polling the class to see who thinks that the richest 1% should have to share with others to a higher degree (say, the least well off), and getting a large percentage of the class to affirm this is a good idea, I then make an announcement (meant to be humorous) that I've decided to take the top scoring 1% of the class and redistribute some of their points to the lower scoring portions (especially the least well off) to see what they think of it. Most disagree, and this opens up some discussion of the relevant differences in their intuitions between the educational and the economic cases. Should I change my joke?

  8. Thanks so much for your helpful comments! Let me answer them in turn.

    1. I do not mean that it is only the class of PhD's that have a duty to share in their epistemic wealth. In fact, I would very much agree that computer experts would likely have a similar duty. I focused on PhD's because they are a unified and easily identifiable class of epistemic elites, but I do think duties of epistemic generosity would apply to all epistemic elites, which is much broader than the class of Phd's. In general, my claim is that those who are rich in money or knowledge have an all-purpose useful good and hence both groups have special duties of generosity.

    2.Next, I like your joke no you shouldn't change it :). There are a few differences with the case you bring up. One is that I am suggesting that generosity demands people voluntarily give of their epistemic wealth, and simply taking points and redistributing them isn't voluntary. Now what you might suggest (if you were to say something along my lines) is that the students who score the best on the assignments have a moral duty to help the students who did not do as well.This would solve the other part of the problem as well, which is that grading is a form of assessment and hence just giving away points interferes with the honest assessment of skill level. But if a student was tutored and hence improved his/her skills, there is no longer reason to object.