Benjamin Mullins grew up in a small town in England but was drawn to the capital as soon as he could leave home. With no plan or direction, he finished secondary school at the age of 15 and moved to London. There, he worked in restaurants, initially as a dishwasher and later as a sous chef. “After a couple of years, I realised that everyone around me was far better educated than I was. I decided to take evening classes to try and put me on a par with colleagues when it came to conversation. It didn’t really matter what the course was.”

Magical experience

Whilst searching online, Mullins stumbled on a philosophy course offered by the University of London designed to enable people without the right prior education to nevertheless continue studying. Philosophy was the only programme Mullins could enrol in with his current qualifications.

He continued to work as a sous chef next to attending classes. “That first time sitting in a lecture hall was a magical experience. It looked exactly like it does in the films. The setting and the course content immediately fired me up. The professor who taught that lecture ended up being my thesis supervisor a few years later.”

Books a year: 25 to 50

Favourite genre: “I used to read a lot of fiction, but I stick to philosophy now. The plan is to go back to reading fiction at some point in the future.”

Primary motivation: knowledge

Last book read: Living High and Letting Die by Peter Unger

Making a difference (or not)

Mullins’ research pertains to individual contributions to a collective problem. Climate change is a concrete example. This is down to our collective behaviour, but an individual’s behaviour will not change the climate. It is similar to the sorites paradox, or paradox of the heap, explains Mullins. If a man has a full head of hair and pulls one out, this will not make him bald, but if you keep repeating the process, eventually he will be. But at what point will we be able to say that he is bald? Which hair will be the one that tips the balance?

“There’s no accepted philosophical solution”, says Mullins, “but there is a political answer. In politics you can just draw an arbitrary line and say ‘enough is enough’. This might be necessary to avoid a climate catastrophe. But as a philosopher, I’m more interested in whether there is a non-arbitrary solution.”

Collective moral problem

He has been working on this topic for years now. He wrote an article on collective moral problems whilst doing his Master’s in London. His lecturer recommended that he read Derek Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons. “I was blown away. Parfit’s way of framing these moral collective action problems really captured people’s imagination. He also raised interesting problems about future populations.”

One idea goes like this: the different policies that we adopt now are almost certain to affect who, and how many people live in the future. We might adopt a policy that has bad effects on specific future people. However, if we had adopted a different policy, these people never would have existed, so it cannot be argued that the policy made them worse off, since they never would have come into being to begin with.

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Englishman in Dordrecht

As his Master’s in Philosophy was coming to an end, Mullins noticed a PhD position at Erasmus University. The fact that he would have to relocate from London to the Netherlands did not put him off. “Door-to-door, the time it takes to get from London to Rotterdam by train is shorter than getting from London to my parents’ town”, he reasons.

Despite the relative proximity, the difference between his life in London and life in the Netherlands is greater than he had imagined beforehand. “I don’t speak the language and feel a bit embarrassed having to admit that to people, for instance.” He’s learning to appreciate his homeland and understand it better. “The Netherlands is so efficient; the streets are clean and everything is well organised. The infrastructure, and even nature, is managed here. There is room for improvement when it comes to nature conservation in England. We do not have any double-decker trains like you do here, for example. Maybe that’s because the trains couldn’t fit under our ancient stone bridges.”

Mullins spends his days reading philosophical books in his flat in Dordrecht. “Reading philosophical texts for relaxation is difficult. Maybe Plato. His style could be described as literary.” Mullins hopes that the years he has put into his PhD will stand him in good stead going forward. During working hours, he reads philosophy in his research area, and during his free time, he gravitates towards philosophy from other disciplines. He prefers a Spanish lifestyle, starting the day by working for a few hours and then having a siesta for a couple of hours. He does a lot of cooking in the afternoons – ‘to recharge my mental battery’ – and then carries on working on his PhD until around eight o’clock.

Benjamin Mullins is a PhD student at the Erasmus Institute for Philosophy and Economics and the Erasmus School of Philosophy. His research lies at the intersection between philosophy and economics and forms part of the How Much is Enough? project.