"I want change" by m.a.r.c.

“I want change” by m.a.r.c.

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:

As satisfying as these rebuttals may feel to arts advocates, they unfortunately miss the point. The crucial assumptions behind Singer’s argument are that

  1. there are objective reasons for thinking we may be able to do more good in one [sector] than in another,” and
  2. 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.

  • Gary Steuer

    A very timely post. I also wrote about the connection between effective altruism and the arts a couple of weeks ago. Readers may be interested in an additional perspective: http://artscultureandcreativeeconomy.blogspot.com/2013/11/what-does-effective-altruism-mean-for.html

    I agree that a little “squirming” about this trend within the arts is not a bad thing. It is good to think deeply and rationally about the value we bring to people and society through the arts. It is also good for us to ALSO care about poverty, lack of opportunity, access to health care, etc. And, it is gratifying that a generation of young people are thinking about how to commit their time and money to improving people’s lives. That said, I also think it is productive to push back on the absolute rationality of effective altruism that turns everything into a numbers game.

    • @Gary – Yep, yours was one of the responses linked in the opening paragraphs of Talia’s piece. I give you a lot of credit for taking the initiative to grapple with EA as a movement in your post.

  • Crystal

    Talia, thank you so much to write about this. I have been struggling with it ever since the article came out in the Chronicle of Philanthropy last week.

    Effective Altruism does not pass the “gut-check” test for me, but I haven’t yet been able to pinpoint why. Maybe it’s because I think that the benefit to the donor is an essential part of philanthropy- the good feelings on both sides of the equation are integral to the process. And also because I tend to commingle the concept of philanthropy with the concept of community- tying individuals together, the giver and the receiver, through the organization providing a service.

    There is more to philanthropy than dollars and cents. I just wish I could articulate it a little better.

    • Crystal,
      Your struggle resonates deeply with me. I guess an effective altruist would counter that linking philanthropy with community-building is problematic when we fail to take a step back and consider who is excluded from that community. If we expanded our consciousness of how we can have “more effective” impact, we would still be “tying individuals together,” just on a global scale.
      I support several nonprofits that work directly in my community, and am very aware that I benefit (both directly and indirectly) from their work. Since writing/researching this piece, though, I have asked myself whether I’ve inadvertently limited the scope of what I can do. “Giving from the gut” may align better with my value system than effective altruism, but I also recognize that my gut has a corresponding set of blinders. I have a responsibility to take those blinders off every now and again.

    • David Moss

      I’m pretty sure an Effective Altruist (I count myself as one, but I won’t presume to speak on behalf of the entire movement) would point out that any good accruing to the donor counts as well as the good done to the beneficiary of the donation. In fact, that follows directly from the EA focus on simply doing as much good as possible: it is merely the case that typically any benefit to the donor is far, far outweighed by the benefits to the primary beneficiary. In this actual world, the “good feelings” of the donor are invariably less morally consequential than the “good feelings” of not dying of easily treatable disease.

      Effective Altruists do spend enormous amounts of time and energy to thinking about the importance of the “good feelings” of the altruist though, in terms of whether one would be better to give to a marginally less efficient charity that you care about if it will motivate you to give more or whether you should not work in a high-earning corporate job and give away all your earning (on the basis that it will erode your motivation).

  • There is an underlying neo-liberal ilk to this EA thinking. It puts the responsibility on solving the worlds problems on the fortunate individual while at the same time removing responsibility from the society via the collective government.
    How preposterous it even is to suggest that what little we invest in the arts is a possible waste compared to what we spend on international war, militarization of our police, criminalizing drug use, environmental degradation, and corporate welfare.
    I’m not going to squirm one iota on championing the arts until we get our collective priorities in order.

    • David Moss

      Except that EA is primarily oriented to individual altruists, concerning how they can do the most good. It’s not primarily oriented to government spending, so the points about militarization of the police are not germane.

      If you wanted to consider this question, the answer would clearly be that spending money on a net negative oppressive policy is worse than spending on an at best innocuous art program for the comparatively privileged which is worse than saving millions of lives of the less privileged.

    • Nick Robinson

      Hi, Richard Kooyman,

      I think you make a good point that it is very important not to take pressure of Governments to do more about a lot of these things. And also that it’s important that, even if you give to where you think the donation can help most, you don’t stop caring about the other problems (like over spending on military, say, or under-investing in environmental issues).

      I don’t see this as undermining the effective altruism idea, that when we give some of our time or money to others, some opportunities will allow us to offer a really very large benefit to others and we should give to those outstanding opportunities that offer the most benefit to others. Perhaps not framing this in terms of responsibility, but as opportunity to help other people, lowers the worry that we’re taking responsibility off governments. In terms of getting collective prioritise in order, effective altruism sounds like a promising way to start.

      (note: I am involved in effective altruism, giving 10% of my income away, and have volunteered for some related organisations)

  • Terrific article! Thanks for writing this!

  • Carter

    Thanks, Talia, for putting together such a challenging post! We do need to think these issues through, so I’m glad you have raised them.

    I can understand why the EAs are taking this approach. We should want to be smarter about how we make decisions. Rationality has a place in that. But where I think they seem to miss the point is that rationality is not simply an instrument of agnosticism or a universal leveling device. Its a servant of causes. It can’t simply take two completely different points of view, add them to the calculus, and always come up with clear answers. It belittles the multiplicity of human interests to think that one version of rationality supporting one version of our interests outweighs all others. It is, perhaps, the model we have from the sciences, where we suppose that confusion is being slowly sorted through, inconsistencies resolved, to give us the deeper more true picture of how things stand. Science aims at incontrovertibility. Its a beguiling but incorrect picture when it moves out from the physical sciences…

    But because science works so well we have this idea that truth is only found by rational means, and that everything is subject to a rational calculus. Its simply more tricky in the world of competing human values. Rationality can link means to ends, but it can’t provide those ends by itself. The universe itself doesn’t care. And the human answer is that different ends will always require different means. We can’t simply look up a Table of Virtue to see where everything is supposed to fit. Human goals didn’t evolve because they were designed to all fit some arch-calculus. They evolved because these are the things that mattered to those people. Different people. At different times. In different places. Caring about different things. Comparison with other sets of values was never part of the project.

    The EA boast seems to fall flat in another way. I’d also like to point out that attempting to shoe horn some objective seeming rationality to decisions for the ‘best possible results’ of human action will always be limited and severely handicapped in its scope. It doesn’t just implausibly invent itself as the way to mediate between causes, it also fabricates its insight into cause and effect. It makes claims far beyond its reach.

    But we can understand why this is tempting. Of course it makes sense to use our best judgment. Its important to not make simple mistakes or overlook obvious consequences. But we also need the humility to recognize that we can’t foresee every possible influence we might have. Not in the short term, and especially not in the long term. And while using a snapshot of how we might appraise those effects as our basis for deciding is a reason we justifiably might have, its not the only reason available, and its not necessarily the most important….

    The EAs seem to think that there is an ultimate good that everything can be weighed against, that things will always scale relative to it. That’s such a naive view that it could only happen with an overly simplistic view of the way that rationality works. What’s best for the universe may not be what’s best for the planet. What’s best for the planet may not be what’s best for human beings. What’s best for human beings may not be what’s best for other species. What’s best for one group of people may not be what’s best for another….

    Of course we want to make comparisons. Of course we want to weigh different things in our decision making. But its not a simple equation of calculating straightforward odds. ‘Benefit’ is such a slippery customer. Some values are easy to spot while others are less transparent. Some values are immediate while others are long term. Some values are specific while others are more global. One person’s values will not coincide with another’s. What we feel they may desire, want, and even need, they themselves can dismiss as irrelevant…. Its complicated.

    The larger truth seems to be that rationality is all very well and good at promoting causes and clarifying the picture from particular points of view. What its not so good at doing is mediating between different perspectives and adjudicating between different systems of value. There is no meta layer of rationality that covers these things. It is and always will be an expression of human intelligence, which as with other human things has a history, influences, and biases that it promotes. If everyone agreed first, things might be simple. But its because we disagree that they are not, and a super-rationality has little grist for its mill in many cases. Simply pretending that there is a ‘magical’ solution to our differences is only the clarity of delusion. There needs to be other ways of looking at the world than science. If we fail to acknowledge those, the case for art is already lost….

    The EA’s version of rationality doesn’t simply trump that of gut checking free associating artist types. Its not the agnostic version of looking at the world that it pretends. We can’t simply do an Ultimate Science of human values. Humans value different things. The best we can do is make a survey. An Anthropology. Sometimes there will be overlapping agreement, sometimes not. We can make sense of other people, sometimes, but to ignore our differences is hardly a sign of tolerance.

    The way forward will depend on which agenda we are promoting. At best rationality serves particular causes, and we can see that causes which embrace more at least have that going for them. But there is no grand scheme in which all things matter. Small causes matter only to the people who hold them dear. But they do matter. And if we make a choice to support one way of looking at things we needn’t pretend that all things else have been weighed equitably. The cracks these small things slip through are not insignificant.

    We are passionate creatures, we humans. And that’s okay. Rationality isn’t the magic bullet that smooths our biases. More often it is the arsenal we bring to bear on our detractors, the girding we use to bolster our values. It solves differences only with its own penchant for causes. The only meaning in the universe is human meaning.

    That seems worth considering…..

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  • Helen Alten

    Being in a community with a history of suicide, pedophilia, and abuse, I find that there is a strong case for a museum that provides uplifting experiences, positive volunteer work, and learning opportunities for children. We are essential to the well-being of the community and the quality of life of rural residents.