Toward the end of the summer, bioethicist Peter Singer raised the hackles of art lovers everywhere with a New York Times op-ed that considered a hypothetical dilemma: should you donate to a charity that combats blindness in the developing world or should you spend that money instead on an art museum? After running through a cost-benefit analysis of each option, he determined that the charity addressing blindness “offers [donors] at least 10 times the value” of the museum.
To no one’s surprise, the arts community didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for the piece, calling Singer’s argument “a shocker,” “absurd,” and “tyrannical.” Another round of alarm ensued recently when none other than megaphilanthropist Bill Gates threw his support behind Singer’s thesis. The responses from our field to date have generally coalesced around two broad counter-arguments:
- Why does it have to be “either/or”? Why can’t we support both? Singer forces a false choice in “assuming charitable giving is a zero sum game.” Weighing the value of saving a life against the value of donating to an art museum is comparing apples to oranges when “both are essential, and if either disappeared you’d be in bad shape.” We need a holistic approach to ensure we don’t “solv[e] Third World crises at the expense of fostering crises right here at home.” Just as we have “multiple passions in [our] lives,” donors can and should target multiple causes and direct their charitable dollars in a “proportionally prioritized” manner. Anyway, we can’t really be sure than curing blindness is more important than inspiring the next Jackson Pollock, and even if we were, concentrating all our resources with one or two tried and true nonprofits runs counter to the “messiness and power of America’s [decentralized] approach to charity.”
- Saving lives is all fine and good – but only if those lives have meaning. If we’re so concerned with making sure that people can see, shouldn’t we also try to make sure they have beautiful things to look at? Singer’s logic is dangerous because he fails to acknowledge the “creative outlet[s] and emotional oas[e]s that only art museum[s] can provide.” If all philanthropic dollars were channeled toward alleviating disease and poverty, arts and culture would languish, society would become monochromatic and dull, and life would cease to be worth living.
As satisfying as these rebuttals may feel to arts advocates, they unfortunately miss the point. The crucial assumptions behind Singer’s argument are that
- “there are objective reasons for thinking we may be able to do more good in one [sector] than in another,” and
- we have a moral obligation to make choices that do as much good as possible.
It’s important to understand this perspective in the context of “effective altruism,” a relatively nascent but growing area of applied ethics that has been featured more than once on this blog, not to mention a recent edition of This American Life. Besides Gates, fellow philanthropic heavyweight and past Hewlett Foundation President Paul Brest has declared himself a fan. “Effective altruists,” or EAs, are on a quest to “do good” by way of hard-nosed rationality. “Doing good” doesn’t mean recycling a little more, or occasionally doling out spare change to a beggar on the street. It doesn’t mean foregoing a high-powered corporate career to work for a nonprofit. It means taking the time to analyze how to do the most amount of good possible with the resources available – or, to use a more nerdy turn of phrase, to “[use] science and rational decision-making to help as many sentient beings” as they can.
Most funders are already in search of a big “bang for your buck,” but in trying to identify the objectively best causes to support, effective altruists stray from the conventional wisdom of mainstream philanthropy. EAs cast a global net when determining where to focus, and often settle on supporting causes in faraway parts of the world, the results of which they may never see in person. They also believe that while human lives are created equal, philanthropic causes are not. Those causes that can save or improve the most lives must take first priority.
How does this play out in practice? Let’s say you donate to the free medical clinic in your area. You do this for good reasons: you care about inequities in the American healthcare system, and want to give back to your community. You like the feeling you get when you walk by that clinic every day. Maybe you even know people who benefit from the services the clinic provides. The clinic gets its donation, and you get warm fuzzies. Everybody wins. Right?
Not so, an EA would counter. Despite your good intentions, your donation amounts to a near-waste of resources:
We understand the sentiment that ‘charity starts at home,’ and we used to agree with it, until we learned just how different U.S. charity is from charity aimed at the poorest people in the world. Helping people in the U.S. usually involves tackling extremely complex, poorly understood problems… In the poorest parts of the world, people suffer from very different problems…
We estimate that it costs [Givewell’s] top-rated international charity less than $2,500 to save a human life… Compare that with even the best U.S. programs… over $10,000 per child served, and their impact is encouraging but not overwhelming.
EAs advocate making evidence-based decisions even if they don’t resonate on an emotional or intuitive level:
Effective altruism is consistent with believing that giving benefits the giver, but it’s not consistent with making this the driving goal of giving. Effective altruists often take pride in their willingness to give (either time or money) based on arguments that others might find too intellectual or abstract, and their refusal to give suboptimally even when a pitch is emotionally compelling. The primary/driving goal is to help others, not to feel good about oneself.
If this approach leaves you with an empty feeling in the back of your throat, it is by design. “Opportunity costs” – the costs of choosing not to behave in a certain way – weigh heavily on EAs. Every time you make a donation, considering where your money could have gone is as important as considering where it will ultimately go (emphasis mine):
In the “Buy A Brushstroke” campaign, eleven thousand British donors gave a total of £550,000 to keep the famous painting “Blue Rigi” in a UK museum. If they had given that £550,000 to buy better sanitation systems in African villages instead, the latest statistics suggest it would have saved the lives of about one thousand two hundred people from disease… Most of those 11,000 donors genuinely wanted to help people … But these people didn’t have the proper mental habits to realize that was the choice before them, and so a beautiful painting remains in a British museum and somewhere in the Third World a thousand people are dead.
Weighing choices isn’t limited to how we spend our money – it also applies to how we spend our time. Just as EAs dispute the notion that people should support whichever charities they feel “passionate” about, they question whether channeling those passions into a nonprofit or medical career is the best way to make a difference. Many suggest instead that people “earn to give,” saying they “might be better off…in a high-earning job and making a deliberate commitment to give a large portion of what [they] earn away.“ The organization 80,000 Hours, founded to “become the world’s number one source for advice on pursuing a career that truly makes a difference in an effective way,” elaborates,
Working at a non-profit can be a great way to make a difference. But it’s no guarantee. Amazingly, lots of non-profits probably have no impact. And do workers at [a] non-profit have more impact than the people who fund them? The researchers who push forward progress? The entrepreneurs who transform the economy? Policy makers? Maybe. No one stops to ask.
Putting ideas like these on the table is a great way to make those of us in the arts squirm. While there are echoes of the effective altruism movement in some recent trends within our field, like the “universal call” for better data on the impact of the arts and the pointed questions about who ultimately benefits from arts funding, the arts are chock-full of people – artists and arts administrators alike – who were drawn to their work by that same passion that EAs claim clouds our judgment. The idea of allowing cold rationality to dictate and limit our quest to “do good” flies in the face of our artistic sensibilities, and challenges the assumptions many of us made when we entered the nonprofit sector in the first place – even those of us who have a sincere desire to address social inequities.
Tempting as it may be, it would be short-sighted to dismiss the EA movement as the pet project of a bunch of aesthetically stunted curmudgeons. It’s hard to dispute the notion that we could improve the human condition if only we could get our act together and commit our resources to a data-driven approach. After all, the nonprofit darling of the moment, collective impact, is based on the same premise. What effective altruism does is counter our cause-specific argument for the arts with a dizzying moral appeal for cause agnosticism. And to be honest, it’s hard to see how the arts win if they play the game by the EAs’ rules. The “both/and” argument mentioned previously is unlikely to sway an effective altruist who weighs each decision as a choice between two different futures, one in which a museum gets funded and some lives get saved and one in which the museum struggles and more lives get saved. Even if the museum shut down completely, its patrons could probably find or create an alternative “creative outlet and emotional oasis,” while the people dying of malaria can’t very well make the mosquito nets themselves. The “we give lives meaning” argument likewise rings hollow when we’re talking about lending privileged lives (anyone living on more than $2 a day is privileged in a global context) a dose of incremental “meaning” at the expense of giving others a shot at basic survival. It also comes across as incredibly condescending to those others considering that they would likely never get the opportunity to visit or benefit from Singer’s hypothetical museum. In any case, art is hardly the only possible delivery mechanism for meaning. In the words of one effective altruist,
Trying to maximize the good I accomplish with both my hours and my dollars is an intellectually engaging challenge. It makes my life feel more meaningful and more important. It’s a way of trying to have an impact and significance beyond my daily experience. In other words, it meets the sort of non-material needs that many people have.
Whether the EA movement sputters or gathers steam, taking the time to engage with its principles, even critically, is a healthy exercise. The bottom line is that EAs may actually be onto something when they argue it’s possible to make a bigger dent in one sector than another. Rather than insisting otherwise or dodging the argument altogether, we could heed the call to examine how altruism really manifests in our work, particularly when examined through the lens of what benefits the people we engage, rather than what benefits our organizations or our donors. Might we, too, have objective reasons for thinking we may be able to do more “good” in one program, or with one population, than in another? Do we, too, have a moral obligation to maximize that good? How would that change how we operate and who we serve? Do we want to change how we operate?
If the effective altruism debate makes anything clear, it’s that to be able to make art, not to mention argue about it, is to be fortunate. Taking a hard look at our assumptions about what draws and keeps us to this work may not be easy, but if we squirm a little, so be it. In the grand scheme of things, a little squirming is a luxury too.