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  • Erin L. Miller


Updated: Oct 2, 2020

Somber statue of thin man in art museum

This piece comes on the tail of a recent dive into the effective altruism movement. If you're not familiar, it's a philosophical and social movement centered on doing the most good possible with the resources we have available. It uses data and acute reasoning to determine which parts of the world need the most help and which charities are the most impactful. It scrutinizes wealth disparity in the world and tries to provide a solution for why those in developed countries don’t help those in third world countries when we have more than enough resources to do so. With so much readily available information, it's still easy for Americans to forget about those across the world who are suffering from hunger, disease, and genocide. On the whole, effective altruism is a focused, discerning movement that goes beyond philosophy into tangible action and results. It’s a necessary arm into tipping the scale toward actually making the world a better place. I think we’ll see more benefits arise as a result of its philosophies and followers.

Surprisingly, the seemingly innocuous mission statement and the sentiments taken by many of the folks behind the movement have stirred up some controversy in the last few years. Most of the bad blood is rooted in one main idea: the result of doing the most good possible means sacrificing areas deemed not “beneficial” enough. Under the effective altruism methodology, things like art and having children are a detriment to doing good.

Some of the underlying tenets of the movement lean on the belief that justification for giving to these areas could lend to a "slippery slope" mentality. If we let the arts in, will our walls of resolve eventually dissolve until we're back in the same consumerist mindset we started with? What this forgets is that people are driven by certain biological and fulfillment-seeking drives. Some have the drive to have children, even though that translates to over $200,000 per child brought into the world that could be spent on existing children in need. Some are driven to the arts or certain communities that bring meaning to their lives (some aspects of which cost money).

My main gripe with this argument against things like arts and starting a family is that it’s one small scope of the movement as a whole. It serves as a distraction to the larger, more effective measures EA is trying to accomplish.

Also, if we’re strictly talking numbers (the number of hungry mouths we can feed in countries with limited food resources, or the number of lives saved in an area devastated by war), we start to step into some hairy theoretical territory. One such scenario was explored in a conversation between William MacAskill and Sam Harris on Harris’ podcast Waking Up. It posed the scenario of finding yourself in a burning building. You only have enough time to save a young girl or a multi-million-dollar painting on the wall. Under the purest methodology of effective altruism, no life holds value over any other (if you can save 100 over 1, save 100). Under these standards in this situation, you would help more people by saving the painting and selling it to donate to those in need. What this imagined scenario supposes is that we’re creatures made up entirely of reason. Saving a painting while letting a child die is not something (aside from sociopaths) we are capable of doing without the backlash of remorse, trauma, and societal backlash. The innate human drives I spoke of earlier? They’re the same ones that make us save the girl instead of the painting. And those aren't drives I wish to abandon.

This thought experiment tries to take the movement at face value and present it in absolutist terms. We have to be careful when thinking of anything in black and white, which MacAskill himself argues for and rallies behind. Yes, we could help more people by measuring humans in terms of numbers. But that’s just not how we operate—our biological makeup doesn’t allow it. What I find the most fascinating about the movement is that it’s a moral philosophy based on reason and data (two worlds that scarcely rub elbows).

As mentioned above, one sphere that’s taken a hit as a result of EA are the arts. Why donate to an art museum when you could use that money toward fighting malaria in Africa? I’ll concede to this argument on the grounds of excess (dropping $20 in a donation bucket at a local art gallery is a far cry from shoveling out $500,000 on a Banksy painting). Many people have taken this argument and run with it though. Art, in and of itself, shouldn’t so quickly be cast aside as “not beneficial enough.”

Art and altruism are not mutually exclusive

When viewed in direct oppositional terms, we can see the logic behind the statement. When someone tells you that you’ve killed a child by donating to a museum, you feel the guilt screwing into your gut because it’s easy to make the connection. What this doesn’t account for is the idea that we’re allowed to care about more than one thing. We have space for art and altruism. In fact, the two often overlap.

Art programs can be altruistic themselves

You can give to sick children in third world countries while still supporting local art in your community. Some art programs actually lend a great deal to humanitarian causes: art therapy programs, the outreach efforts of the Wick Poetry Center, the American Art Therapy Association. There’s even a link to arts involvement and an altruistic drive. Artists make up many of the folks who do give back.

Shunning the arts doesn’t account for elements like fulfillment and meaning

Part of living a healthy life is extending a hand to others. I think it’s a duty as a human being to help those in need when you have the means (which, by the way, doesn’t mean you have to be in the wealthy class to give back). You can help others while still living a fulfilling life though. A person can’t sacrifice everything for other people. It’s not sustainable. Yes, give as much as you possibly can to those in need, but don’t strip yourself completely of the things that give you meaning. This is one of the mainstays of the minimalist movement. Live simply but keep the things that fulfill you. For some, art is included in that list of essentials.

Art has been around for at least the past 35,000 years. It speaks to a form of expression that fills a space for many people, including those in need. Gary P. Steuer succinctly expressed these ideas in an article in The Washington Post:

“The effective altruists’ completely dispassionate assessment of 'value' — lives saved per dollar — does not allow for a holistic approach to what makes a healthy society." / "many of the things that are important to our souls — beauty, hope, joy, tolerance, inspiration — are fostered through the arts. They may be very hard to sufficiently measure in a world of purely data-driven philanthropy. This does not mean they are not important.”

Everyone’s globe of fulfillment is different. Some use art to feel fulfilled. Some have children. Others like giving to programs that aid in mental health or LGBT issues or animal rights groups (all programs deemed not beneficial enough). The spectrum of human suffering is wide and varied. Making someone feel guilty for giving to something that could lessen that suffering fails to address the larger picture. The argument against charities evaluated as less important is a distraction for some of the larger issues we’re facing. Instead, let's discourage people from spending on frivolous material things that don’t provide meaning or help the less fortunate. Educate people on the charities that have the most positive effect per dollar.

As a country, we have a lot to learn about fulfillment, minimalism, consumerism, and true charitability. Ultimately, I think the effective altruism movement is taking significant steps in ending some of the world’s largest misfortunes that are actually within our reach to fix. I hope, at least to this degree, the behaviors and beliefs of those behind the movement inspire others to adopt the same line of thinking. Maybe we’ll reach a point one day where we’ll be closer aligned to a more ideal, salt-of-the-earth society.

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