“If you want to become a better philosopher, you need to be comfortable with a lot of uncertainty”: A Conversation with Sam Huang

Blueprint LSAT prep instuctor bio picure - Sam

By Edward S. Garza

Sam Huang is a man of many disciplines, as you’ll see in a second. I could give you his biography, but I think he does that better on the website for Blueprint, the LSAT prep company he works for. That bio reads:

Sam follows two mantras. First, as Sun Tzu says, “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.” Second, as another venerable scholar and philosopher (Ice Cube) says: “Check yo’ self before you wreck yo’ self.”

Sam grew up in the Mile High City of Denver but emigrated to the east coast to study business at U Penn’s Wharton School (cue Rocky theme). After a brief investment banking stint (yep, not so good timing), he went back to school to get a Master’s in engineering at Stanford. Because that wasn’t quite enough schooling, he’s currently at Rice University working on a PhD in philosophy (cue Jeopardy theme).

You’ll find Sam to be friendly and personable. He sprinkles analogies and stories throughout class (lyrics from Weird Al and Flight of the Conchords have been known to make an appearance) to help illustrate the study habits that helped him obtain a 170 on his own LSAT. Rumor has it he will also provide an occasional song if the situation calls for it and if you ask him nicely.

When he’s not teaching or discovering new music, Sam rocks out with his blue beta fish, Nemo.

I think that tells you what you need to know before reading the interview. In it we discuss Sam’s academic backgrounds, doctoral work, favorite philosophers, and, of course, H-Town.

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Since your academic narrative invites the question, could you discuss what’s driven your interdisciplinary journey? In other words, could you describe what turned a young finance major into an engineering grad student and then into a doctoral candidate in philosophy?

I guess I’ll try to give the relatively short version. In high school I was initially interested in medicine, then I slowly gravitated toward the business and policy aspect of health care, so I decided to major in health care management and finance. After college, I worked in investment banking, but I found that I missed the academic environment. Upon leaving investment banking, I decided to look apply for graduate school again. I chose to do a Master’s in industrial engineering, which essentially looks at certain systems and tries to make them more efficient. I chose to enroll as I wanted to strengthen my quantitative skills and apply these tools to analyze health care systems. During my time at Stanford, I became increasingly interested in studying more theoretical and normative issues related to health care, especially in bioethics. And soon enough, I was hooked on philosophy. I started taking some more classes in it, then applied for doctoral programs. Philosophy, I think, is a subject that for certain people has a pull that is hard to resist. I find a good philosophical discussion to be a uniquely enjoyable and rewarding experience. It’s unfortunate that philosophy often has a reputation of being esoteric, because I think it’s a field that most everyone can find some interesting questions in, contribute to, and benefit from studying.

After spending years studying business and science, how did entering the liberal arts feel? Were there some unexpected differences? How has the experience matched up with your initial expectations?

I think the main difference from applied fields to philosophy deals with the uncertainty or abstractness, for lack of a better term, of philosophy and other liberal arts. In business and engineering, often there is a push for the answer. “What should this company do in this situation? What is the best way to improve traffic flow? How can you demonstrate your answer with ratios, market studies, et cetera?” Part of this, of course, is because people who work in finance, consulting, or engineering, are hired to help make difficult decisions. But these kinds of answers are not going to help very much in answering questions like if we really have free will, or why or when we should keep our promises. Another difference deals with the nature of how philosophy is done. You will encounter people who not only question the accuracy of your results but your very way of thinking. If you want to become a better philosopher, you need to be comfortable with a lot of uncertainty, because you find that all, or almost all, of the views have objections and problems. And philosophy, at least writing philosophy, is also by its nature a lot more individual than applied fields, where we had a lot of group projects and presentations, and I think because of that it takes a certain type of discipline to study. There’s also a couple of unexpected ways that my background has helped me. The rigor from engineering – of going through different alternatives, isolating factors – is quite similar to the practice of analytic philosophy, of thinking up arguments, formalizing them, and subjecting them to counterexamples. Another benefit deals with my experience taking marketing classes in college, and learning about customizing products to different consumers and target audiences. This is applicable even in fields like philosophy, where you are usually writing to professors that have views and preferences of how they think good work should look. There are certain ways that you want to format and word things that are likely to be more approved of by your audience. Lastly, having worked in finance, where standards for editing and presentation are extremely high and you will get yelled at for one spelling mistake, has helped me develop skills in proofreading papers and work that I do now.

Tell us about your research and dissertation.

Like many philosophers, I have some diverse research interests, but most of my work deals with normative and applied ethics, political philosophy, and philosophy of law. I’m interested in questions like how the state should respond to civil disobedience, and when and to what degree consequences should make a moral difference. My dissertation is on commodification, the thought that certain things should be unavailable for purchase, or off-limits to market forces. Most people think that there should be some limits set on markets – that, for example, it would be wrong to sell votes or babies – but the questions of which particular things, and why, are tough to resolve, so my thesis is aimed at answering these questions.

How have your backgrounds in finance and engineering informed or enriched your research? 

I’d say that my background has helped in two main ways. One of them is the obvious one that several ethical issues are raised directly in business and engineering. For instance, in business ethics you have insider trading, false advertising, environmental ethics, et cetera. I think having studied the applied fields helps in thinking about the types of decisions people face in these fields and the types of factors they consider. Another way is that problems in finance and engineering usually involve maximizing under constraints. With investments you want to maximize return and minimize risk and with engineering you want to maximize something else – usually efficiency – within a budget or with other constraints. This comes into play in philosophy when evaluating moral or political theories that try to maximize welfare or goodness, such as utilitarianism. These views are attractive in theory, but they can be hard to define clearly and have some difficulty in capturing things like rights and justice. The finance and engineering backgrounds can help if you are trying to formulate how these would look, and there are clear applications in things like cost-benefit analysis for public policy decisions.

What have you been discovering about the state of commodification? Has your research challenged or supported your initial thesis, or a bit of both?

Initially I was thinking that there’s something about the intrinsic nature of certain goods that make them unsuitable or inappropriate for exchange. Now I’m finding it more plausible that the type of transaction may also make a moral difference – for instance, donating something may be less objectionable than demanding compensation for it – and that selling or exchanging things can comprise other important values. Let’s take artwork as an example. Artists make a living by selling their works, but an artist who explicitly or solely creates art for commercial purposes is often deemed an inferior artist or “sellout.” So there may be values or virtues in certain transactions that are compromised in an objectionable way.

In what direction/s would you say commodification is heading? How do you see it affecting – or maybe I should say further affecting – people’s lives in the near-to-distant future?

I think there’s at least two directions that commodification is heading in the future. One of them has been covered a lot by Michael Sandel, who has argued that many things that were formerly either public or “sacred” are now becoming private and “for sale.” This can apply to both physical spaces – such as naming rights of stadiums, or someone who was paid thousands of dollars to put an ad on her forehead – and to professions and fields such as education, health care, the arts, and literature. I mean, studying this I have started to see how commodified my own life is. If I look around my room and see that pretty much everything in it was purchased or given with an associated supplier, retailer, et cetera, it can be kind of be an unnerving discovery because it shows how much of our lives is commercially intertwined. It’s like that Fight Club quote about how the things we own end up owning us. The second direction is that I think in the future, with the advent of the information economy, commodification is becoming more connected with intellectual or non-tangible goods or “property,” things like putting patents on genes, software, and even plants and animals. This is controversial for a number of reasons, because a lot of these things often can, and arguably should, be used for public good, but property is typically seen as exclusive and private. So that will be a delicate balance to handle.

Since you mention Sandel, I feel compelled to ask this question: what were some books and authors that influenced, and perhaps continue to influence, your intellectual journey? Describe your experiences with them.

Since I’m an ethicist, two historical authors who have influenced me are no surprises: Aristotle and Kant. Philosophy is by and large specialized and professionalized now, but they wrote about everything. Reading their work, you can see that philosophy wasn’t just a hobby or vocation for them – it was an all-encompassing way of thinking. I also admire the way their views on wide philosophical topics fit together so seamlessly and consistently. It would be interesting to see what they thought about commodification. In political philosophy today, much of the work is related to Rawls’ view of liberalism or Nozick’s view of libertarianism, so they have also been quite influential. Within contemporary authors, I also enjoy the work of Thomas Nagel and Fred Feldman. I think that there’s a temptation today to use philosophical tools primarily to impress or defeat others with your arguments, but these authors, I think, keep that sense of openness, wonder and mutual discovery that accompanies the best philosophical thought and discussions.

You grew up in Denver, moved to Philadelphia for your undergraduate years, Palo Alto for your Master’s, and then finally to Houston. I would suppose that, to the philosopher, the Bayou City invites discussion on topics ranging from bioethics to the effects of urban sprawl. What about Houston interests you philosophically?

I think that Houston raises a number of interesting philosophical issues and you identified two of the biggest ones. Let’s start with bioethics. Because Houston has the largest medical center basically in the world, you see first-hand how ethical issues related to health care really impact people’s lives. This is true both in at the micro-level, where patients and their families have to make really difficult decisions, and on the macro-level, where within the same city, you can find the some of the most advanced and specialized treatments and procedures in the world, but also a large population of uninsured and underinsured patients. You also mention sprawl, and of course the sprawl here in Houston is known because of the lack of zoning. Sprawl may be a good example of what philosophers call an ideal/non-ideal theory issue, where we need to make distinctions between what the best thing to do is in an “ideal world,” and what the best thing to do is given certain background conditions – usually the actual world. A lot of the opponents of sprawl point to negative environmental and public health effects, but it is difficult to come up with solutions or responses to sprawl that are feasible given current conditions or constraints. Another somewhat related issue, for me, is how the hot summers here lead me to spend so much of my time indoors, both work and leisure time. Whether this is contributes to sprawl additionally might be an interesting question.

More casually, what have you enjoyed about living in Houston?

I think three main benefits stand out to me. The first and foremost is the people. I’ve found Houstonians to be friendly and easy to converse with, and have made some good friends here. The second is the low cost of living, everything from gas to food to real estate, which is a nice change from California. The last is a rather unexpected surprise, which is the quality of the Houston culinary and arts scenes. The opportunity to walk to some great symphony concerts, and be within ten minutes of several excellent museums and a huge variety of food options is really a nice perk of living here as well.

Lastly, what are your plans for the rest of your time at Rice?

I’m working on my dissertation proposal now, and if that goes well I will need to write the thing over the next couple of years. I’ll also be trying to write additional papers, hoping to gain some additional teaching experience here and there. And trying to stay cool in the summers.


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