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Eureka!: 60 Seconds

Ryan Muldoon

         Ryan Muldoon

60 Seconds with Ryan Muldoon

How Philosophy Can Help the World

Interview by Sally Jarzab

To author its 2015 World Development Report, the World Bank put together an interdisciplinary team of economists, political scientists, sociologists—and a lone philosopher. Ryan Muldoon, an assistant professor in UB’s Department of Philosophy who had done prior work for UNICEF, helped guide the thinking behind the report.

What did philosophy have to contribute to the report that other fields couldn’t?

This report was in part about challenging some core assumptions of development practice, and questioning assumptions is a big part of what philosophers do. We are also trained to step back and see the bigger picture. I was brought on the team in part for my work on diversity and in part for my work on social norms, which are both big issues in development, but I also ended up helping to think through issues around paternalism.

Are there ethical concerns about overstepping boundaries?

It’s dangerous when society steps in to make decisions for people, because it infantilizes the population if too many of their choices are curtailed—even if those choices can be considered “bad.” The idea is that a big part of what it means to be a person is to develop autonomy.

So what are development agencies to do?

If we think in terms of “autonomy-enhancing paternalism”—that is, acting on behalf of others so they can build the skills of autonomy and later make their own decisions—a good way of judging any kind of development intervention is by asking this question: Are we leaving people in a better position to do things on their own, or are we making them more dependent on aid? Are we taking away their ability to solve their own problems, or are we giving them tools to make decisions after the agency has left?

How has the report been received?

There’s been good uptake, in part because it provides a concrete set of recommendations to use across different sectors of development. I’m pleased to hear that a number of NGOs are using this report to revise how they think about the policy-making process and what metrics to use for determining whether or not they did a good job in a certain location.

What’s next?

I’ve been working with UB’s Community of Excellence on Global Health Equity, and we’ve been applying for grants from UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to do social norms-oriented health work as an interdisciplinary team.