Greg Bognar is Senior Lecturer in Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University and a Senior Researcher at the Stockholm Centre for Healthcare Ethics (CHE). His research is in normative and applied ethics, especially bioethics and PPE (politics, philosophy, and economics). He is co-author of the book The Ethics of Health Care Rationing: An Introduction (Routledge, 2014). In the 2019-2020 academic year, he was Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellow at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University.
DSPS alumnus Miklós Zala (Political Theory track, 2017) caught up with Greg at the beginning of 2021 to talk about his experience at CEU in the early 2000s, his career after graduating, and what the different positions he has held have taught him.
Hi, Greg, it is great to have you here. Let me start by asking how you ended up at CEU and why did you choose the Political Theory track?
I finished my undergraduate degree in 1998 in Philosophy at ELTE in Budapest, and I wanted to continue in a graduate program. I don't think it would have been realistic to go abroad right away, although that was the eventual plan. So, I applied to the Political Science Department’s MPhil Program. My background was in philosophy, but back then, there was no Philosophy Department at CEU. The Department of Political Science, however, offered an MPhil in Political Theory. It was a short, two-year program. That was exactly what I wanted to do. But at the end of my first year, the Department decided to transform the MPhil program into a doctoral program. I applied to a couple of MA programs in the US and received one offer, but János Kis convinced me that I would be better off continuing in the Political Theory PhD program. Thus, I ended up in the doctoral program somewhat unintentionally.
So, basically, when you entered the CEU MPhil, you already knew that you wanted to be a professional philosopher.
Yes, I did. One thing that appealed to me about continuing my studies the way I did was that in the Political Theory track I could take most of my courses in political, social and moral philosophy. Whereas if I had gone to some sort of general philosophy MA, then I would have had to take complementary courses in areas in philosophy I was less interested in. So, this was an advantage.
What was your impression of CEU?
My experiences were very positive. We are talking about the early 2000s in Budapest, which was a perfect time to be a doctoral student at CEU. There was a great community. Five or six of us specialized in political philosophy and it was nice to have partners to think and learn with. A lot of things were experimental back then—for instance, I was one of the first students who received a faculty-student research grant that enabled us to work as TAs. In fact, I ended up co-teaching a course several times, which was excellent teaching experience, especially since I wasn't just a TA but almost a co-equal professor. I don't know about the experiences of later cohorts, but we had great opportunities.
I also received a scholarship from CEU to go to Oxford, where I spent one year—and after that I got a little bit disconnected from the program, because I got another scholarship that allowed me to visit the Australian National University for another year, and then I went back to work as a researcher for yet another year in Australia. I submitted my thesis from there, but the defense was delayed by several months until I returned. Even though I spent most of the second half of my doctoral studies away, I always thought that CEU was the best place at the best time for me to be.
So, it was a vibrant environment with excellent opportunities.
Absolutely. We had lots of visitors – top people in my field came to give talks, and sometimes even to hold courses. I don't know how that works today, but in the early 2000s, CEU was blooming.
I have a question about course work. Today, if you are student at the DSPS, you need to take courses for a few semesters. Was this the same at that time?
We needed to take courses for two semesters. The third semester was devoted to proposal writing. When I entered the doctoral program, I had to make up some gaps in political science by taking a couple of extra courses, such as survey methodology. So in the second year, I took or audited two or three additional courses.
Do you think this training was better than going through a traditional philosophy program, where you need to take courses in epistemology, logic, etc.?
In some ways, yes. I was not always excited about certain courses in political science, but in retrospect, it turns out that I understand social science better than many philosophers. Back when I entered the job market, empirical philosophy was not a thing, while today, it is all the rage, and to be able to do keep up with it, you need some social science background. So, in a way, it was very fortunate that I ended up studying some other things as well. It is an enormous advantage that you can look at a given problem from a different disciplinary perspective. For example, public choice theory gives you a perspective on social and political philosophy that theorists with a traditional philosophy training often lack. If I had studied metaphysics instead, I would not have that. But of course, it is also a matter of luck because you can end up in a field where a lot of what you have learned is not that relevant.
What was your dissertation topic?
My proposal aimed to offer a new moral theory. It was ridiculously ambitious, so I ended up elaborating on its first chapter, which was on well-being. Thus, the thesis ended up being about well-being. It tried to bridge the gap between objective and subjective theories. But as time has passed, I have become more of an objectivist about well-being, hence I am now less interested in bridging the two kinds of views.
Who was your supervisor?
János Kis was my primary supervisor, and at that time, there was a second supervisor, who was Loránd Ambrus-Lakatos. But he never really did any work with the thesis. That was just before he left CEU, and while I really liked him as a teacher, once I started in the doctoral program, we did not get on the same wavelength. So I worked only with János.
What did a doctoral defense look like in those days? Did you have the same system of having your supervisor, an internal and an external reader, and of course, a chair?
I defended in 2005, and I had my supervisor there. The external member was John Broome, with whom I worked at Oxford. Of course, there was a chair at the defense, but I don't remember who that was. My old thesis advisor from ELTE was there, and some of my teachers at CEU as well. And, of course, some of my peers and friends from the university. It turned out to be an almost three-hour-long marathon exam.
So, you finished your program in 2005. What happened then?
That fall, CEU offered me to teach a one-semester course, which was a great thing to do while I was looking for a job. And in December, I was asked whether I would hold another course in the winter term. That was even better because I could teach for a whole year.
Then, I guess some of your applications resulted in interviews.
I had only one phone interview, but it was with Harvard’s Program in Ethics and Health. A few days later, Dan Brock—who has died just a couple of weeks ago—called me and asked if I would like to go to Boston.
I just can't believe he asked that!
Ha! Of course not. I don't remember what he actually said, but obviously, I couldn't believe my ears. A postdoc at Harvard was wildly beyond my hopes.
I can imagine. How were Harvard and its bioethics program?
Unsurprisingly, they were very impressive. In effect, I went through another training. We had a regular research seminar and we were expected to read up on a lot of things on our own. It was very demanding. In the end, it changed my area of specialization. I became a bioethicist.
So, you finished the two years at Harvard and continued as a bioethicist. What was the next step?
I hit the job market again, of course. I had a few job interviews and a couple of offers. I accepted a three-year position at New York University in their newly formed Center for Bioethics.
Was that another post-doc?
No. NYU regularly offers fixed-term assistant professorships—or at least they did back then. It was one of those. Basically, you are a regular assistant professor for three years, but they don't offer you tenure. I was there between 2008 and 2011.
What came next?
I went back to the market, and it was a disaster. This was not long after the financial crisis, when the academic job market all but collapsed. Still, I managed to land around a dozen interviews, but I ended up with another non-tenured position. That was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). I was supposed to teach in the PPE and Philosophy programs.
Well, that was one of the times when the Republicans were trying to shut down the government in opposition to President Obama. All visa processing ground to a halt. So I had to leave the States and I couldn't take up my new position. I came back to Hungary, and CEU helped out by hiring me to co-teach the Scope and Methods MA introductory course in the fall semester. I was very grateful. The visa that I needed to be able to start teaching at UNC the next semester came through at the last possible moment—Christmas morning!—but at least I could start at UNC. Meanwhile, I kept applying for jobs and finally received a permanent position in Australia. Thus, in the end, I left UNC early.
At which university?
La Trobe University. I love Australia and always wanted to go back, so I was happy to have the opportunity to live in Melbourne.
Isn't La Trobe the university where Peter Singer, one of the most renowned ethicists, started his career?
Yes, Singer and Robert Young gave the course "Practical Ethics" that became a famous book with the same title, authored only by Singer. It was one of the strongest philosophy departments in Australia in the 1960s-70s. Unfortunately, that was way before my time. I eventually started submitting applications again—not sixty or eighty a season, as you do when you don’t have a permanent job, but just a few to positions here and there that I liked. A job at the University of Stockholm came through, so I started there in 2015.
What was La Trobe's reaction when they learned you wanted to leave?
They understood. La Trobe is a high turnover place. My replacement left after one year.
Do you know the reason for this?
The university was going through a challenging time. There was very little research money, many people had left the university, and the general atmosphere wasn’t great. But that was an important experience for me because I learned how vital it is to have a good institutional culture.
Nevertheless, I consider my time at La Trobe perhaps the most important in my career. Before it, I had taught only at elite universities, and I definitely consider CEU one of those. At La Trobe, the student body was very different—lots of first-generation students, working students, students from non-traditional backgrounds. They made me realize how bad I had been as a teacher. At an elite place, you can take a lot of things for granted. In the real world, you have to start from scratch and explain philosophical ideas from the ground up. And that makes you understand them better—otherwise you can’t do it. It also helps you develop your skills as a communicator: for instance, it teaches you how to write and speak to non-specialist audiences. Everyone should try something like that if they want to share their ideas beyond their disciplinary boundary.
But all of this was a lot of work. I’ve never prepared so much for my classes than I did at La Trobe.
In retrospect, do you consider that the PT track was an asset, or more like a hindrance, when you were applying for jobs?
I don't really know. Because I don't know what happened with all of those applications that never got any response. I got jobs in the end, of course. And if I am now a member of a search committee and have a philosophy job that somebody applies to, and they don't have a philosophy degree, I would look at their application more carefully. So, it can be a disadvantage that your application receives more scrutiny, but it can also be an advantage if people like the rest of the application. I would say that if you want to do something more interdisciplinary, the PT degree makes a lot of sense. And of course there are jobs specifically in political theory.
What are your future plans?
I don’t know. I’m very happy at Stockholm. It is the best place so far in my career. But you never know. There can be an offer that is impossible to reject. As far as projects are concerned, I am working on the second edition of our book with Iwao Hirose on The Ethics of Health Care Rationing, I have a long-standing project on moral relativism, and I’m considering writing a book on COVID-19. Meanwhile, I’m also co-editing a book on the ethics of age discrimination and I spend a lot of time thinking about the philosophical implications of demographic change.
Final question: what do you like to do in your free time?
These days, I don’t have much free time. Like many others, I work from home because of COVID, trying to balance work and family. I go running when it is not too cold. The closest thing to a hobby that I have is an interest in typesetting and text processing—which is now all on computers, but it’s a profession, or art form, that goes back to Gutenberg. It’s about organizing and presenting information in a way that’s appealing and easy to understand. Think of a beautiful book—there’s actually a lot of thought going into what it should look like, which readers are not even aware of, but which makes a big difference to the reading experience. Of course, we live in a world of Word and PowerPoint and websites with flashing animations, so a lot of this knowledge is ignored and forgotten.
Thank you very much, Greg, for the interview!