Is it OK to make art?

by 3300 3,300 words
  • Read later or Kindle
    • KindleKindle

Is it OK to make art?

Photo by John Greim/LightRocket/Getty

If you express your creativity while other people go hungry, you’re probably not making the world a better place

Rhys Southan is a freelance writer and former vegan. He has written for The New Inquiry, The New York Times and his own blog, Let Them Eat Meat, and is working on a book about the ethics of eating meat.

3300 3,300 words
  • Read later
    • KindleKindle

With less than a week to finish my screenplay for the last round of a big screenwriting competition, I stepped on a train with two members of a growing activism movement called Effective Altruism. Holly Morgan was the managing director for The Life You Can Save, an organisation that encourages privileged Westerners to help reduce global poverty. Sam Hilton had organised the London pub meet-up where I’d first heard about the movement (known as ‘EA’ for short; its members are EAs). The pair of them were heading to East Devon with a few others for a cottage retreat, where they were going to relax among sheep and alpacas, visit a ruined abbey, and get some altruism-related writing done. I decided to join them because I liked the idea of finishing my script (a very dark comedy) in the idyllic English countryside, and because I wanted to learn more about the EA goal of doing as much good as you possibly can with your life. We were already halfway there when my second reason for going threatened to undermine my first.

Around Basingstoke, I asked Hilton what EAs thought about using art to improve the world. In the back of my mind I had my own screenplay, and possibly also Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 Oscar acceptance speech for best director, which I’d once found inspiring:
I want to thank anyone who spends a part of their day creating. I don’t care if it’s a book, a film, a painting, a dance, a piece of theater, a piece of music. Anybody who spends part of their day sharing their experience with us. I think this world would be unlivable without art.

It turns out that this is not a speech that would have resonated with many Effective Altruists. The idea that someone’s book, film, painting, or dance could be their way to reduce the world’s suffering struck Hilton as bizarre, almost to the point of incoherence. As I watched his furrowing brow struggle to make sense of my question, I started to doubt whether this retreat was an appropriate venue for my screenwriting ambitions after all.

In 1972, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer published an essay called ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, which contained the following thought experiment. Suppose you saw a child drowning in a pond: would you jump in and rescue her, even if you hadn’t pushed her in? Even if it meant ruining your clothes? It would be highly controversial to say ‘no’ – and yet most of us manage to ignore those dying of poverty and preventable disease all over the world, though we could easily help them. Singer argues that this inconsistency is unjustifiable. The EAs agree, and have dedicated their lives to living out the radical implications of this philosophy. If distance is morally irrelevant, then devastating poverty and preventable disease surround us. Any break we take from working to reduce suffering throughout the world is like having a leisurely nap beside a lake where thousands of children are screaming for our help.

The EA movement started coalescing in Oxford in 2009 when the philosophers Toby Ord and William MacAskill came together with around 20 others to work out how to make radical altruism mainstream. MacAskill told me that they went by the jokey moniker ‘Super Hardcore Do-Gooders’, until they came up with ‘Effective Altruism’ in 2011. Along with various other EA-affiliated organisations, Ord and MacAskill co-founded Giving What We Can, which suggests a baseline donation of 10 per cent of your income to effective charities.

This is often what EA comes down to: working hard to earn money and then giving as much of it as you can to the needy. Good deeds come in many forms, of course, and there are other ways of making a difference. But the gauntlet that EA throws down is simply this: does your preferred good deed make as much of a difference as simply handing over the money? If not, how good a deed is it really?

Once we’d settled in at the cottage, Hilton and I stepped out for a walk through the bits of forest that hadn’t been razed for pasture, and he asked if my script would be one of the best scripts ever written. At the time I thought he was trolling me. I obviously couldn’t say ‘yes’, but ‘no’ would somehow feel like an admission of failure. It was only after talking to other EAs that I came to understand what he was getting at. As EAs see it, writing scripts and making movies demands resources that, in the right hands, could have saved lives. If the movie in question is clearly frivolous, this seems impossible to justify ethically. If, on the other hand, you’re making the best movie of all time… well, it could almost start to be worthwhile. But I told Hilton ‘no’, and felt a lingering sense of futility as we tramped on through the stinging nettles around the cottage.

I did manage to finish the script that weekend, despite Hilton’s crushing anti-pep talk. I felt good about it – but something about the movement had captured my interest, and over the following weeks I kept talking to EAs. Like Hilton, most of them seemed doubtful that art had much power to alter the world for the better. And somewhere between submitting my script in September and receiving the regret-to-inform in December, I started to feel like they might have a point.

The central premise of Effective Altruism is alluringly intuitive. Simply put, EAs want to reduce suffering and increase lifespan and happiness. That’s it; nothing else matters. As Morgan explained in an email to me:
I find that most of us seem to ultimately care about something close to the concept of ‘wellbeing’ – we want everyone to be happy and fulfilled, and we promote anything that leads to humans and animals feeling happy and fulfilled. I rarely meet Effective Altruists who care about, say, beauty, knowledge, life or the environment for their own sake – rather, they tend to find that they care about these things only insofar as they contribute to wellbeing.

From this point of view, the importance of most individual works of art would have to be negligible compared with, say, deworming 1,000 children. An idea often paraphrased in EA circles is that it doesn’t matter who does something – what matters is that it gets done. And though artists often pride themselves on the uniqueness of their individuality, it doesn’t follow that they have something uniquely valuable to offer society. On the contrary, says Diego Caleiro, director of the Brazil-based Institute for Ethics, Rationality and the Future of Humanity, most of them are ‘counterfactually replaceable’: one artist is as pretty much as useful as the next. And of course, the supply is plentiful.

Replaceability is a core concept in EA. The idea is that the only good that counts is what you accomplish over and above what the next person would have done in your place. In equation form, Your Apparent Good Achieved minus the Good Your Counterfactual Replacement Would Have Achieved equals Your Actual Good Achieved. This is a disconcerting calculation, because even if you think you’ve been doing great work, your final score could be small or negative. While it might seem as though working for a charity makes a major positive impact, you have to remember the other eager applicants who would have worked just as hard if they’d been hired instead. Is the world in which you got the job really better than the world in which the other person did? Maybe not.

Artists paint the beautiful landscape in front of them while the rest of the world burns

It is in the interests of becoming irreplaceable that a lot of EAs promote ‘earning to give’ – getting a well-paid job and donating carefully. If you score a lucrative programming job and then give away half your income, most of your competition probably wouldn’t have donated as much money. As far as the great universal calculation of utility is concerned, you have made yourself hard to replace. Artists, meanwhile, paint the beautiful landscape in front of them while the rest of the world burns.

Ozzie Gooen, a programmer for the UK-based ethical careers website 80,000 Hours, told me about a satirical superhero he invented to spoof creative people in rich countries who care more about making cool art than helping needy people, yet feel good about themselves because it’s better than nothing. ‘I make the joke of “Net-Positive Man,”’ Gooen said. ‘He has all the resources and advantages and money, and he goes around the world doing net-positive things. Like he’ll see someone drowning in a well, and he’s like, “But don’t worry, I’m here. Net positive! Here’s a YouTube Video! It’s net positive!”’

If, despite all this, you remain committed to a career in the arts, is there any hope for you? In fact, yes: two routes to the praiseworthy life remain open. If you happen to be successful already, you can always earn to give. And if you aren’t, perhaps you can use your talent to attract new EA recruits and spread altruistic ideas.

‘We’re actually very stacked out with people who have good mathematic skills, good philosophy skills,’ Robert Wiblin, executive director of the Centre for Effective Altruism, told me. ‘I would really love to have some artists. We really need visual designers. It would be great to have people think about how Effective Altruism could be promoted through art.’ Aesthetic mavericks who anticipate long wilderness years of rejection and struggle, however, would seem to have little to contribute to the cause. Perhaps they should think about ditching their dreams for what Caleiro calls ‘an area with higher expected returns’.

For an aspiring screenwriter like me, this is a disappointing message. Brian Tomasik, the American writer of the website Essays on Reducing Suffering, told me that artists who abandon their craft to help others should take solace in the theory that all possible artwork already exists somewhere in the quantum multiverse. As he put it: ‘With reducing suffering, we care about decreasing the quantity that exists, but with artwork, it seems you’d only care about existence or not in a binary fashion. So if all art already exists within some measure, isn’t that good enough?’

I actually do find that mildly comforting, if it’s true, but I’m not convinced that it will win many supporters to the EA cause. The problem, ironically, might actually be an aesthetic one.

Effective Altruism is part subversive, part conformist: subversive in its radical egalitarianism and its critique of complacent privilege; conformist in that it’s another force channeling us towards the traditional success model. The altruistic Übermensch is a hard-working money mover, a clean-cut advocate or a brilliant innovator of utility-improving devices or ideas. As usual, creative types are ignored if their ideas aren’t lucrative or if they don’t support a favoured ideology. Crass materialism and ethical anti-materialism now seem to share identical means: earning money or rephrasing the ideas of others. But there are plenty of people drawn to the media and the arts who care about making the world better. For them to accept the EA position will often require that they give up what they love to do most. What do EAs say to that? For the most part, they say ‘tough’.

‘Effective Altruism would sometimes say that the thing you most enjoy isn’t the most moral thing to do’

‘What’s implied by utilitarianism,’ explained Michael Bitton, a once-aspiring Canadian filmmaker turned EA, ‘is that nothing is sacred. Everything that exists is subject to utilitarian calculations. So there’s no such thing as, “Oh, this is art, or, oh, this is my religion, therefore it’s exempt from ethical considerations.”’ Wiblin has a similar view. ‘It is true that Effective Altruism would sometimes say that the thing you most enjoy isn’t the most moral thing to do,’ he told me. ‘And yeah, some people wanted to be writers, but actually instead they should go into development aid or go into activism or something else.’

Still, disappointed arts types might be able to console themselves with the thought that not even science is exempt from EA’s remorseless logic. ‘I myself was extremely interested in evolutionary biology,’ Wiblin said, ‘and I would have liked to become an academic in that area. But I couldn’t really justify it on the effects that it has on helping other people, even though I found it fascinating.’

The iron logic of replaceability leaves many dreams dead on the ground, to be sure. But is this a problem with EA as an ideology, or a problem with reality? It would be great if the arts and humanities were hugely beneficial to the world, because they tend to be personally satisfying. Still, if they’re not in fact helping much, artists might be operating on some questionable values. Is your self-expression more important than human lives and suffering? Would you rather contribute to the culture of rich societies than work to reduce the suffering of the poor, or of future generations? Is it not arbitrary to fill the world with your own personal spin on things, simply because it’s yours?

Here’s a simple test to determine if you’re creating art for yourself or for the world. If you discovered that someone else had independently come up with a project idea that you’d also had, but they produced and distributed their work first, would you be upset? Or would you be thrilled that this vitally important stuff was out there, altering perspectives and making everything better in a real, quantifiable way – even though it wouldn’t increase your social status?

‘I think that there’s sort of a mass delusion among artists and writers that just because there’s almost nothing that confers more privilege and prestige and symbolic capital than art, just because it’s high-status, people think it’s of a high importance,’ said the Australian writer Chris Rodley. ‘And I think that’s wrong. Which is probably a weird, contradictory position for someone who wants to do art to take.’

Rodley is one of the two EAs I talked to with a media and arts background. The other was Michael Bitton, who is a postgraduate in media production in Toronto. ‘I wanted to be a filmmaker, and then I thought, “Well what good does this do?”’ he told me. ‘So I kind of stopped wanting to be a filmmaker.’

Despite their reservations, both Rodley and Bitton are investigating the kinds of creative projects with potential to do the most good, on the assumption that it could sometimes make sense for EAs to influence culture through arts and media. For Bitton, this means questioning whether ‘the traditional criteria of artistic greatness, like the profundity of ideas, or the emotional impact, or originality or timelessness or popularity’, automatically translates into good consequences. ‘The concept of artistic integrity is inherently in opposition to the concept of Effective Altruism,’ he told me. ‘I don’t think you could go all the way Effective Altruist as an artist without compromising your “artistic integrity”.’ In theory, Bitton suggests, ‘you could have an artist who’s making stuff that he or she has no interest in whatsoever, doesn’t like, doesn’t find interesting or funny, doesn’t know the point of, but that’s the optimal work of art according to our magic consequences calculator…’

‘what greater utilitarian deed could you accomplish than averting infinite suffering?’

Rodley suggests that EA artists could have something to learn from the medieval period, when social value and impact were the goals of art, before the ‘art for art’s sake mythology’ shifted the focus to intrinsic merit. Take the Christian mystery plays: ‘They were proto-utilitarian art works. A lot of them were trying to save the audience’s souls. And what greater utilitarian deed could you accomplish than averting infinite suffering?’

Of course, most EAs don’t believe in souls, much less eternal damnation, so a return to passion plays and Last Supper paintings isn’t what they’re suggesting. They’re more interested in how we could use art to reduce the suffering of humans, animals, and future beings – including AI computers and emulated minds. I talked to Bitton and Rodley separately, but they converged on some general guidelines for the utilitarian-minded artist.

Firstly, the entertainment value of a project is fleeting, so what really matters is how it influences political or social behaviour. That’s why narrative, or at least some way of expressing concrete ideas, is essential. ‘It’s hard to see how a vase or something would really impact culture in any one way, because what does it teach you about life?’ Bitton said. He suggests that it might be useful to sneak good memes such as ‘racism is bad’ or ‘sexism is bad’ into mainstream fictional works, especially if you can avoid the heavy-handed ‘very special episode’ feel.

Rodley, meanwhile, pointed to experimental sound design as an anti-utilitarian dead end. In general, the avant-garde is suspect because art’s impact grows by reaching larger audiences, which gives the advantage to books, films, lyrical songs, video games and smartphone apps that make altruistic ideas palatable. ‘Look at Singer’s shallow-pond analogy,’ Rodley said. ‘In a way, that’s sort of an artistic, fictional parable. It’s quite striking and has many of the features of a creative work.’

Still, if we were to consult our magic utilitarian consequences calculator, how often would it tell us to bother making art at all? Persuasive, progressive art might be better than nothing, but that doesn’t make it an optimal use of time and resources. Even if a socially minded piece of media gets enough attention to make a positive impact (rare enough in itself), its noticeable effects are often mixed.

Explore Aeon

Rodley pointed out that the US TV series Will and Grace might have made some Americans more accepting of gay people, but it also arguably imposed ‘homonormative’ expectations on how gay people are supposed to act. Similarly, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) apparently turned many white Americans against slavery while also perpetuating damaging stereotypes. The US documentary Searching for Sugar Man (2012) claims that the music of Sixto Rodriguez helped to inspire anti-apartheid protestors in South Africa, but presents this as an accidental and serendipitous side-effect rather than something Rodriguez could have consciously set out to do. Famous artists have a lot of influence and money to give away to good causes. But, said Rodley: ‘By definition, most artists are mediocre, and their art doesn’t really please many people, if any.’

If what you want to do is make the world better, the impact of paying to treat many people with curable diseases might seem a little humdrum compared with the revolution in human consciousness that will surely come when you publish your novel. But if donating to charity feels a bit generic, the lives it saves are not. All of which to is to say, when I thought that writing a movie was the best way for me to contribute to the world, I was almost certainly kidding myself. Then again, to some extent, we all do.

‘If you accept the shallow-pond analogy, everyone is morally horrific,’ said Rodley. ‘Even Peter Singer himself. Everyone can be doing more than they currently are.’

For now, that will have to be my justification. I’m not ready to give up writing. I’m not ready to take up some high-paid job that I’d hate in order to reduce the world’s suffering. Maybe that will change. For now, call me Net-Positive Man.

Read more essays on art, ethics, making and work


  • Frank

    Wow, you are quite full of yourself, man. I wonder if this article is going to reduce the pain in this world.
    Nothing that can't be questioned? Than start with questioning your own extreme ideology. Here's a thought experiment: Let's say from tomorrow on everybody would do nothing but help. No science, no art, no craft, no beauty, no inspiration, no joy, no playing around for the sake of it. Soon we would be brain dead.
    Your view of that marvelous wonderful world is incredibly narrow.

    • Viktor

      I think you need to read that article a bit more closely before accusing the author.

  • Gyrus

    Warning: intellectual troll.

    • Ed Lake

      You mean you think the entire EA movement is trolling you?

      • Gyrus

        No, I mean my experience of this author is that there's a certain degree of trolling going on. I know that in some sense this stems from good intellectual traditions of provocation and debate. I just think the author overshoots, and provokes debates that waste time in exactly the way he claims to deride here. He deals with some important issues, but badly, in a way geared to maximizing page views.

        • Ed Lake

          We shall have to agree to disagree. I find Rhys remarkably sincere, and in this case I find it hard to imagine a more even-handed presentation of ideas that, by his own admission, he can't altogether accept.

          • Gyrus

            Re-reading, you're right. This is much less off the mark than his previous pieces. I guess the combination of the link-bait headline, potentially over-abstract ethical dilemma, and the author's reputation skewed my view of the article's substance. In the end my little "warning" was prompted by seeing the first comment, and wanting to steer people away from over-reacting to the more provocative aspects here. But I didn't do it well, and it's probably a fruitless effort in any case!

          • Sandy Asirvatham

            Gyrus, I'd go with your first claim, at least a bit. There's something too....pat about this author's wholesale acceptance of the EA principles, at least as framed here. It feels contrived and deliberately provocative. That said, the article is intriguing even if we look beyond the author's primary perspective....

          • Sandy Asirvatham

            The other possibility is that he is just very, very, very young. :-)

    • Ozzie Gooen

      I think that the title makes it seem much more alarming than the content. I would imagine that Rhys didn't choose this title and would have preferred a more neutral one.

      If anyone is the troll here, it's mostly the editor, but they are chosen to optimize page views anyway. It's standard media fare.

      • Ed Lake

        I am the editor in this case, and you are correct. We chose the title because we want people to read the piece.

        • Ozzie Gooen

          Just want to say, I think it's really cool that you're participating in the discussion. I hear a lot of writers/editors don't like doing so (I imagine it's not the most thankful task) but it definitely seems useful.

          • Ed Lake

            Thank you! To be honest, I do it because I enjoy it, but I'm glad you find it useful.

  • Nicola

    I would say you should ditch your dark comedy and start on your dystopian novel about the "better world" created by the magic consequences calculator. There's a modern classic in there somewhere......or perhaps it has already been written many times before.

    • Melissa

      It's a pretty common trope already in sci-fi. It seems particularly common in video games.

      • Sally Murray

        Interesting Melissa! Which charities are you thinking of, besides SCI? (My understanding is that deworming can be enough to eliminate the disease, because of its human-human transmission, and that this is a cheaper long-term eradication solution than interventions focusing on e.g. sanitation and hygiene)

  • stephendhood

    EA seems to insist on a zero sum proposition that I think is incoherent. Thanks but no thanks.

    • Ed Lake

      It insists on a set of priorities that many people are unwilling to commit to. But that's not the same as being incoherent.

    • Danny Stein

      It's not pushing a zero sum proposition. It simply saying, given extra resources (time and money), you should be putting much more at helping the world than you are probably doing. Obviously you can do both, but if two people are drowning, and you can save both, why would you just save one?

  • Matt Sharp

    Two things:

    1) Effective altruism is not the same as utilitarianism. There are quite a few EAs who are that way inclined, but many are not.

    2) Effective altruism is not fundamentally against the existence of art. Life without music and art would kinda suck. But there's already loads of art and music in existence; more than anyone can experience in a lifetime!

    Contrast this with the relative under-supply of charity and aid that can make a huge difference to preventing people from suffering, getting them out of poverty, and *allowing them greater opportunities to experience all this art that's already out there*.

    • Ed Lake

      Are you an EA yourself? Your first point is interesting. What sort of non-utilitarian motives do people have for supporting the movement?

      • Matt Sharp

        I would consider myself EA, yes.

        I don't know how strong your background in ethics is, but you could be a supporter of EA because you perceive it is demanded by justice.

        For example, you may believe that large inequality is fundamentally unfair and that you should play a part in reducing it by giving some of your wealth away.

        Or you may think we have a general duty (perhaps due to religious motives, or Kantian ethics) to assist others. It's then only a short-step from being motivated to help others, to being motivated to help others in the most cost-effective way you can find.

        • Ed Lake

          Off the top of your head, what do you reckon the breakdown of broad philosophical motives within the EA movement is?

          • Buck

            My impression is that about 70% are utilitarian, 30% deontologist. Many of the deontologists are religious.

          • Matt Sharp

            I'd roughly agree with Buck, though I suspect many of the 70% are utilitarian-leaning, rather than the full-on 'maximise total pleasure, reduce total pain' of 'pure' utilitarianism.

          • Ed Lake

            That makes sense, and I guess deontology gets a little fuzzy when combined with theology.

          • Michael Bitton

            The philosopher Thomas Pogge is a deontologist associated with effective altruism.

        • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

          Kantian ethics? Incidentally, I'd be curious to know if there is anyone who was unconcerned about the needs of others- until they heard of the categorical imperative... :D

    • Emily H.

      "But there's already loads of art and music in existence; more than anyone can experience in a lifetime!" This idea seems to assume that "art" throughout history is a sort of indiscriminate bolus of uplifting aesthetic matter -- a protein powder or K-ration for the soul. This seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding of art. Art's primary function has always been to interpret the contemporary world through contemporary eyes, in ways that appeal to Art's function is not just to uplift the individual soul, as an Effective Altruist (or the makers of "Dead Poet's Society") might assume. Rather, it can also help communities view problems and possibilities that were not visible before.

      A nineteenth century reader of Dickens and Gaskell might have learned about abuses and oppression in their own society, and begun to feel empathy for people they had previously disregarded. Reading classical poetry wouldn't have had the same effect, even if there was "loads of" the stuff around.

      • Matt Sharp

        So you're essentially saying art is a subset of sociology?

        • Emily H.

          LOL I'm not sure how you got this out of my comment. I am, of course, suggesting art can't easily be untangled from the "sociological" aspects of life, given that, according to Wikipedia, "socology" is "the study of human social behavior and its origins, development, organizations, and institutions." It seems to me incredibly foolish to argue that art is unconnected to these concerns -- just a bunch of beautiful objects floating free of any real-world context (although I suppose a hardcore advocate of "Art for Art's sake" or Cleanth Brooks-style formalist criticism might try).

          In fields such as new historicism, cognitive literary studies, queer studies and critical race studies, art's relation to the social is analysed using the techniques of artistic/literary criticism and philosophy, not sociology.

  • Joanna Walsh

    I don't disagree with your conclusion at all - but, as an artist I accepted long ago that art is not necessarily moral, ethical or utilitarian. It has many purposes, is often not an attempt to make things 'beautiful' or 'better' and is certainly not necessarily altruistic. That art cannot be given one purpose is what makes it 'art' rather than anything else, and why it is so difficult to quantify politically. If art does not necessarily do us good, nor does always, or even often, spring from an impulse to do good. It's just one of those things humans do. It would be as impossible to strip it out of us (once we're beyond the basic needs of life) as it would be to remove our sex drives. It's also not a question of there being 'enough' art (and here I include music, writing, the whole lot). Art is focused, as any artist will tell you, less on an end-product than a process, which most artists want to share with others in some way, so let's perhaps call it an experience, an exchange. Should there be no more dance because we've had many types of dance already and - as dance is temporal and difficult to record effectively - it requires new dancers to perform it?

    Actually that's not even an ask-able question: as soon as people are lifted out of the direst conditions, some of them will start to create things, even if they just begin to whistle as they work, or to lay bricks in a certain pattern, no less 'useful' than the regular way, but somehow more interesting. It's up to you as to whether you decide to make that process a large part of your life, or to help create a world in which others will be enabled to - I'm very much afraid - start doing it themselves.

    • Emily H.

      Very good points. The idea that lives would be more "efficient" without doing art reminds me of the old Soviet orphanages where it was thought to be more "efficient" to raise children without touch or affection. Just because some deep-seated part of the human psyche has no obvious utilitarian endpoint, it's deeply arrogant and foolish to assume it isn't necessary.

  • Simon Very

    The well paid jobs that earn money that can be contributed to good causes are helping to grow an economy which is systematically responsible for much of the suffering that is being caused.

    More suffering reduction can be achieved by reducing consumption and encouraging others to reduce consumption. If peoples' creativity makes some of them consume less it can be doing more to reduce net suffering than feeding a destructive economy and using some of the money earned to offset against that destruction.

    The most altruistic thing someone living in a developed country with a high standard of living can do to reduce the suffering of the rest of the world's people would be to cut their own consumption and the way they can do that the most would be to not have any children, if indulgence in creativity needs limiting then start with that.

    • Sandy Asirvatham

      I don't know if this makes sense on global economic terms. It would seem to me that cutting consumption here would also lead to fewer jobs in other places, meaning fewer economic opportunities, meaning (often, but not necessarily) more suffering. What exactly do you see as the mechanism of cutting consumption here in order to reduce suffering elsewhere?

      Mind you, I am sympathetic to the general idea that consumer-driven society is profoundly destructive. But it's also the engine of wealth. There's an irreduceable paradox here, I suspect....

      • Simon Very

        I am suggesting that developing countries are developing in ways that do not do enough to reduce the suffering of large portions of their populations because the economic opportunities available are distorted by the way that these countries' economies are coupled to the developed world's economy. Many developing countries are highly naturally wealthy but the benefit of that natural wealth basically gets funneled into the hands of plutocrats that are supported by the governments of developed world nations.

        Put simplistically, developing economies would probably do better if they were allowed to develop without being messed around by the developed economies. They would not get the same hyper-fast growth opportunities but the growth they achieved might actually be sustainable and good for their populations.

        • Sandy Asirvatham

          I agree that plutocrats are the ones primarily benefiting from the global infrastructure that supports consumer-driven economies, and that exploitation/outright theft of natural resources is a fundamental part of the system as it stands. What you're suggesting, though, would also require that the populations of developing nations find their way to democratic power-holding that leads to more or less equitable distribution of those significant natural resources and wealth. This strikes me as unlikely.

          I am speaking from an admittedly very under-informed perspective here. There was a time 30 years ago when I spent a lot of energy reading and thinking about the global economy in political/philosophical terms....but I really don't anymore. So I'm not arguing with you so much as throwing out questions and concerns. It's certainly something I wish I had time to examine more closely.

          I am also intrigued by consumerism as a *seemingly* fairly basic desire not just of western culture but of almost all human culture at this particular time in history. I remember being amazed during a trip to India that whenever we took tour-bus excursions, the native Indian tourists (from other states or regions) were absolutely as avid about stopping to shop as they were about the "sights" that were the purported reason for the journey. If anything, shopping for silk saris or whatever actually seemed the real reason anyone took these trips. There is undeniable pleasure in material objects and it actually takes some doing to separate oneself from that pleasure.... Sometimes I wonder if it is only those of us who have experienced relative wealth and all the stuff it buys, and seen through its shallowness, who can make the effort to "detox" from its addictive nature.

          But maybe that supports your point: We in the rich west are in the best position to enlighten ourselves about consumerism's pointlessness, emptiness, and destructiveness.

          • Simon Very

            I am not terribly hopeful that better economies will come into being spontaneously either, but you never know. Give freedom a chance and all that.

    • Matt Sharp

      This is an interesting, and quite common, argument. Personally, I agree that generally we should be reducing our consumption. But on what basis do you think that "The most altruistic thing someone living in a developed country with a high standard of living can do to reduce the suffering of the rest of the world's people would be to cut their own consumption"

      It can cost a few tens of dollars to cure a person of blindness in developing countries. Many people could afford to give enough to treat tens or hundreds of people each year. How does reduced consumption compete with that?

      It's worth taking a look at the following article, which looks at "how harmful finance would have to be in order for it to outweigh the good done by the donations of someone Earning to Give to effective charities."

    • Fred G

      Definitely not true. How far do you think reducing your consumption would filter through to anyone in the rest of the world? Not at all. It would be completely negligible. On the other hand, if you donated 50% of your earnings you could literally save hundreds, if not thousands of lives, or immeasurably increase the quality of a significant number of lives.

  • Pablo Stafforini

    Effective altruism involves two elements: effectiveness and altruism. By focusing almost entirely on the latter, I think the author of the story paints a somewhat distorted picture of the EA movement.

    The amount of good you can do even with even very modest levels of altruism is immense, provided you channel that altruism effectively. As Toby Ord from Giving What We Can has noted, it costs about USD 40,000 to train a guide dog for a blind person in the United States, whereas only USD 20 to cure blindness in an African suffering from trachoma. Regardless of how much or how little you are prepared to sacrifice, you can accomplish incalculably more by favoring the most cost-effective causes. Failure to reach ideal levels of altruism shouldn't be an excuse for doing nothing at all, especially when there's so much anyone can do.

  • Simon Very

    Also, creativity is an aspect of innovation and the two cannot necessarily be separated neatly. Innovation includes the potential to allow new ways of making use of the environment more efficient and thereby reducing consumption and therefore suffering.

    • Danny Stein

      I don't they are saying creativity is bad, I think they are saying painting for paintings sake as a leisure activity is harmful, because it's taking up your time when you can be doing something to save lives.

      • Buck

        To clarify further, we're not even saying that painting is a bad idea: it's a bad idea to try to spend all of your time working. We're just saying that other full time jobs could be a better way of doing it.


    • Fred G

      Why are you conflating art with creativity?

      • Simon Very

        There is (historically at least) a degree of overlap between the arts and creativity generally.

  • Keith Armour

    If this is all about the minimizing of suffering through monetary donations, why look to individuals at all let alone artists? Large companies have deep pockets and the largest part of this planet's monetary wealth is held by only a handful of individuals and most of them are not artists. From where I am sitting it would make more sense to get, say, Monsanto on board with EA's ideas. One percent of the world's population has 40% of the worlds wealth according to the article linked below. If General Electric, Monsanto and others started to donate at the 10% level how much good would be done then? Wouldn't it be greater than all the artists combined? What if it were higher than 10%? Surely this would do the greatest good.

    If there is an EA reading this, I have a question, what level of activism does the organization use to engage the multinational corporate sector?

    • Ciaran Phillips

      I know there are people within the movement researching and experimenting with High Net Worth (HNW) fundraising. Unfortunately it's pretty complicated and difficult, anyone with a lot of money already has a lot of people telling them what to do with it, they also generally have complicated motives

      You mention large corporations - even if the heads of an organisation genuinely want to donate large sums to make the world a better place, and are concerned with the impact, it's likely that a lot of their customers and/or shareholders have their own conflicting motivations. An organisation that makes its money in the developed world is unlikely to donate all it's philanthropic budget in Africa if it feels it's going to face an angry backlash from customers for only supporting distant causes.

      This is an oversimplification of course, and the companies you mentioned would work worldwide, but the general point is that convincing them to donate to the most effective causes is going to be hard

      That isn't to say that we won't see achievements in this area though. I know Peter Thiel (co-founder of Paypal) attended the Effective Altruism summit in California. Dustin Moskovitz (co-founder of facebook) has also had involvement with the EA community in the setting up and operation of his foundation, Good Ventures.

    • Holly Morgan

      What Ciaran said, but also: How rich do you think *you* are on a global scale? The Giving What We Can website has a great calculator under "Why Give?" to show you, and most people I know who've used it have been surprised...! Sure, the richest 1% of the world's population can do a lot, but so can everyone in the richest 10%, and if everyone we encouraged to give a bit more just pointed to someone richer than them we'd never get anywhere ;-) (Spoiler alert: if you're on minimum wage in the UK, you're still in the richest 10% of the world.)

    • David Moss

      I think the article is addressed to ordinary individuals, though, not to EA organisations, telling them where they ought to focus their campaigning. The question is about what you, as an individual should do.

      • Keith Armour

        I Understand, I am re-framing the question.

  • Jaco Delport

    Disagree! Art, Music & Creativity is essential!
    Watch this video featuring the Landfill Harmonic with Lindsey Stirling:
    This is their website:

    They make instruments out of trash, so that they can express themselves.

  • Ciaran Phillips

    I think this article is really well-written, despite the provocative title; it shows a real effort to engage with ideas that probably weren't easy for the author to hear.

    I think there's a danger of people reading it thinking about these things in binary terms though. You don't have a choice between living entirely altruistically and living entirely selfishly. Everyone needs to be somewhat selfish, and EA thinking doesn't preclude the pursuit of art - it just says that it's not the most altruistic thing to do; that the amount of suffering in the world warrants 1. actively considering how much of your time/money/effort should be used altruistically rather than selfishly, and 2. trying to ensure that you achieve as much as you can with those resources

    Personally, I really enjoy playing music, and intend to start increasing the amount of time I dedicate to it, but because I want my life to have an impact I'm keeping it just as a hobby. When it comes to my altruistic actions, I'm taking EA ideas on board - dedicating more of my time and money to good causes, being selective of the causes I support, and choosing a career path where I can earn/donate more money than I could have if I continued on the path I originally planned.

  • Rezeya Montecore

    Wait... he created a satirical character... to show us that art is worthless.

    Yeah. These guys are on logic probation. If someone can explain to me how this is consistent with the rest of their beliefs, MAYBE I can take them seriously. But, and I hope I'm not straw-manning these fascinating oddballs, I don't think I can really break bread with people who think Voltaire, Goethe, and Shakespeare would've done more good for the world by helping peasants till their fields, than helping us advance the way our whole civilization thinks.

    Actually, no, come to think of it... even if you can explain how they can reconcile making propaganda with rejecting the value of all art and intellectual activity, these guys are still way too reductionist and materialistic for me to take them very seriously. We've made this mistake before. (IMHO, that's exactly what's wrong with Marx, emphasizing labor and material well-being, with no real working definition of happiness or self-fulfillment.) Oppressed humans do not live by donated bread alone.

    • prvanx

      And if it were up to these guys, a young Michelangelo would not have been an artist because, according to their logic, his initial scribblings are not as valuable as helping the peasants. EAs completely ignore the idea that the development of artistic skills may yield phenomenal results later on.

      This isn't even the largest fallacy present in the EAs' thinking, which is that art does not reduce suffering unless it is bent to some political or social statement. I personally find that my suffering is alleviated in the presence of a well articulated piece of prose, or when I see a transcendent work of visual art. To me, art is the expression of mental phenomena, and any expression of mental phenomena exposes us to new ways of looking at reality, which have value. Art helps us existentially relate to a world that often times seems alienating and strange.

      As with all moralizing movements, the EAs have decided to pick one particular ethical end and will not only justify the means to arrive at that end, but quash all other moral ends. Moral choices, however, are as much a product of the freedom to reason as they are the reasoning itself, and to limit oneself to a single moral end diminishes that freedom, even if the choice to limit oneself to that end is one made freely.

      This whole multi-verse argument also provides no solace, since we do not experience that art in THIS universe, which is the only one that means anything to us.

      • Danny N

        Right. And if you look at the multiverse argument, doesn't that mean we aren't really responsible for anything? If anything that CAN happen WILL happen, then there must necessarily exist several universes in which I live an unremarkable and fairly selfish existence. This one is just another one of them. In another set of universes, I made billions of dollars and used them to save the world.

      • Michael Bitton

        Hi prvanx,

        Thanks for your response. I'm one of the people quoted in the article. I don't speak for the entire EA movement, nor am I even that keen to associate with it, but I think most effective altruists would agree with my perspective here.

        I can assure you that I do recognize art's ability to reduce suffering and generally make the world a better place - even without making social and political statements. In fact, I think the most "interesting" works of art and the ones I enjoy most don't do any of that. Personal reactions to art, the social bonding aspect, the cultivating of creativity, the exchange of viewpoints, the building of empathy and social skills, etc. are legitimate benefits of art that factor into any kind of cost-benefit analysis of whether one should create art or not. I think that almost all works of art have net positive effects on the world. You've already mentioned some of the reasons why that's so.

        The controversy, if there is any, has to do with the scale of this positive impact. The EA position isn't "Art is useless, go do other things." It's more along the lines of "Art (and many other popular careers) are good, but saving lives is even better." Saving lives is simply daunting competition for a habit or hobby to go up against. There's a really strong burden of proof that needs to be met for any act that's claimed to be its equal.

        It's probable that if *everybody* stopped creating art that the damage done to society would be massive - but hopefully, nobody is proposing that. If changing even a single artist's mind toward EA values would lead to less good consequences, then EAs would prefer not to change that artist's mind. EA is about avoiding bad results. If you imagine EA values leading toward disastrous results, then you're envisioning a very unsophisticated version of EA - a version that hopefully nobody actually adopts. But again, I don't speak for everyone.

        In my experience, when people think EA values will lead to some dystopic future scenario, they are taking the "maximization" part of EA too seriously. As the end of the article states, nobody is really maximizing anything - they're only improving, increasing, doing more than they previously were. If people, not just artists, put more weight on the criterion of "How much good does this do for the world?" when choosing their career path, that would already be a great step forward. I think EAs are generally pretty aware of the danger that, in attempting to maximize goodness, one accidentally reduces goodness.

        The Michelangelo example is a good demonstration of how an artist can have a broad and lasting impact that could be argued to rival the good of say, distributing insecticide-treated bed nets in sub-Saharan Africa. It probably would have been senseless for Michelangelo to do much differently in his life. As a general rule, people should stay somewhat aligned with the things that they're good at and passionate about, especially if, like Michelangelo, you're talent at those things is extraordinarily rare.

        But on the other hand, artists like Michelangelo *are* extraordinarily rare. The average artist's impact is only a tiny sliver of Michelangelo's. We should look forward to rare artists doing incredible things while remaining realistic about the value of your typical novel, movie, painting, live performance, etc. It's important that when we speak of art, we identify whether we're talking about "Art in general" or "Only the very best artists that have ever lived." This article was written about art in general.

        I think that the average work of art has a good-but-small effect on the world. That's fine. Good-but-small things should be encouraged. But good-and-big things should be extra encouraged! Apart from the misleading title, this article makes it pretty clear, I think, that people aren't being asked to turn into cold, calculating robots - they're just being called on to do a little bit more, as much as they're comfortable with.

        (For the record, I don't buy the multiverse argument either and wish it wasn't featured in this article.)

        • prvanx

          Michael, thanks very much for your well-thought out post. A few responses:

          1) I think that the major force behind my Michelangelo example isn't with a view to the artist Michelangelo eventually became, but to highlight that Michelangelo wasn't always a great artist. He was surely born with talent, but as a child, it could be argued under EA theory that his scribblings as a child (which were a necessary step to him becoming a great artist) were not as valuable as his capacity to help in the fields to ensure that the community had food. The point is that we have no idea if Person X is going to be the next Michelangelo or not, and we will never know unless Person X is given the ability to develop their talent, which in the EA view is to act sub-optimally.

          2) There is a wide spectrum as to who is considered an artistic genius. I personally do not find artists like Cy Twombly or Mark Rotkho to be amazing artists, but there are scores of critics who believe they are. I am sure that there are artists that I value that others detest. Unless all art is held up to critical scrutiny, the geniuses will never be known. Emily Dickinson, for instance, lived a life that was by choice very reclusive and ordered her sister to destroy her works upon her death because she didn't see them as important. We now see them as remarkably important. Much in the same vein as above, I feel that the EA movement's inquiry would see work of a genius level destroyed, for an author like Dickinson would almost certainly believe that her work was not good enough, and that would warrant for her a different course of action.

          3) I'd like to address this: "Art (and many other popular careers) are good, but saving lives is even better." Art can save lives, the two are not mutually exclusive. The depressive can feel less alone in the presence of an artistic work that mirrors their emotion. The faithful can feel truly "saved" upon being exposed to a work of religious art. The philosopher can often times best express himself (as Kant held) by poems and poetry. The EA idea is that the saving of lives in a concrete, brutal (in the sense of brute existence) sense is not incompatible with the transformative power of art, and in fact, if the individual uses art as their outlet for negative or harmful feelings, their life can be saved.

          I would like to conclude by saying that I appreciate what the EA movement is trying to get across - that there are current activities that could qualify as a "waste of time" and as such, the inquiry "How much good is this doing for the world?" is perfectly reasonable. But the individual moral agent needs to make that assessment, and also decide how they will use their time more wisely.

          The moral decision is no decision at all unless the moral agent is motivated to effect the change they wish to see in the world and they are allowed to choose how to manifest that change. This is why I am usually skeptical of movements that attempt to proscribe a course of action as if the matter is settled beyond reasonable doubt. I have not heard yet a coherent response to the old Humean "is-ought" dilemma, and as such, moral freedom takes precedence over moral proscription for me.

          I also would think that the EA goals have far more relevance when it comes to activities other than art. There are easier targets!

          • Michael Bitton

            You're right. There are way easier targets. That's partly why art is not a focus area of effective altruism. I'm nearly the only person that's spent any time writing and thinking about art in this context and that's only because my background is in art. This article just happens to be about art and effective altruism because the writer is interested in both - but it could as easily be about almost any other field. I hope you don't take it as a suggestion that EAs spend their days walking around looking for artists to convert into surgeons.

            In response to point #3, which I find to be the most important, I want to clarify that EA isn't technically about saving the most lives possible - it's about making the world as good as possible. So the knock on art isn't that it (usually) doesn't literally save lives - it's that it (usually) doesn't achieve as much good in the world as other things you could do. That isn't the end of the world. We're constantly doing things that fall into that category. But again - this article happens to be about art in the context of effective altruism, and the answer, as effective altruists see it, is that a lot of artists could do even more good if they spent more time working in other areas. Take it as a prescription in the sense of "If you value X, then you should do Y... but if you happen to value something else, then go do that!" In this scenario X means something along the lines of "reducing as much suffering as possible."

            In response to #1 and #2, I want to stress that nobody is being forced to do anything. People that want to go into art are still welcome to do so and effective altruists couldn't stop them even if they wanted to. It's also important to remember that "the best thing you can possibly be doing" varies from person to person. If your passion lies in art, if that's what you're good at, if that's where your connections lie, if that's where your opportunities are, if you have no other burning interests or obvious options available to you, then the effective altruist action is to be an artist. (Although even within art there are more effective and less effective career paths.)

            It's up to artists to decide whether they fall into that mould or not. Hopefully, the Emily Dickinsons of the world have the foresight to stick to what they do best and hopefully (according to my values), the artists who could accomplish more in other careers make that change. I would say the same thing for every other career. Personally, I no longer have much interest in being an art house filmmaker but I still have interest in other uses of media - for example, entertainment-education, health communication, and social marketing. The change isn't so radical, nor should it have to be.

          • prvanx

            These are fair (and welcome) responses to my points. I wish you had written the article, as this nuanced explanation would have been helpful to assuage my suspicions and the suspicions of many others on this page. The tone of the article did not evoke the "If you value X, then you should do Y... but if you happen to value something else, then go do that!" formulation to me. It instead communicated "You should value X (the saving of lives) and if the activity Y you engage in does not optimally achieve X, then Y should be abandoned for activity Z, which optimally achieves X."

            Inherent in philosophical arguments, and especially ethical ones given that we have limited time on at least this plane of consciousness, are value judgments. What is existentially troubling about having our identities questioned (artistic or what-have-you) is that we must consider the possibility that we have indeed been "wasting our time." Moral duty has a strong pull, and some may view the fact that some activities are judged a better use of time than others to be a form of coercion by judgment. Some would say, "Why should we not be allowed to judge where our passion lies, where our talents lie, and so forth?" As I type this, I am reminded of Robert Pirsig's discussion of Quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - a term which he believes as undefinable. To what standard should we hold ourselves in deciding on a better alternative? It is always good to ask the question, but the answer is more elusive than comparing it to an action that saves many lives.

            There is a difference between the "artist's integrity" and the EA goals, as you state. "Artistic integrity" or "the doing of art for art's sake" always seems to me a bit ego-based, in that the artist is producing art to preserve their own image as an artist. But if we view art as an expression (which it is, whether or not it is to communicate a political message or to preserve one's "integrity" as an artist) then all art is valid on at least that basic level. And isn't the aim of the artist to express oneself in one way or another?

            I also would ask that those who question the use of artistic endeavors to think about the vehicles by which they came to understand language, ethics, and reason - the answer being from works of art. I learned to read from storybooks, I learned most of what I know of human nature from philosophy, mythology, literature, and history, all of which are artistic in one way or another. Art is, and always has been, the vehicle by which human wisdom and experience is conferred, which in itself is worth scores of lives, no matter its expression.

            I also must say something in regard to the vase - it certainly can tell us much about life. Just read "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats. Okay, bad example (the poem is really about the designs on the urn). But I recall marveling at a exhibit of Song dynasty earthenware in display in the Freer Gallery in DC recently and the pleasing quality of the symmetry reflected Chinese values of balance and elegance. Without the other, lesser period vases around it, I would not have been so taken with the craftsmanship or have regarded the values so clearly. Perhaps that is the real value in the "lesser" art.

            All being said, kudos to you, Michael, and those in the EA project for being brave enough to ask important questions regardless of the response you may provoke. Such is the path of truth.

          • Emily H.

            "Hopefully, the Emily Dickinsons of the world have the foresight to stick to what they do best." This is a telling example. Throughout most of history, women artists have been most easily persuaded that they should give up making art in favor of some endeavor that would have more obvious positive effects. This would most often have involved wifehood and motherhood, but doing charitable work in the community was also considered an important part of an eighteenth or nineteenth century lady's social duties.

            It seems crystal clear that the reason there are so few women artists is in history is that most of them didn't have the "foresight to stick to what they did best." They got the message that their voices and ideas weren't as important as their capacity to nurture, and it takes a very rare personality to ignore that message. Even today, men are more likely to be told that their gifts are unique and worthwhile -- just look at the New York Times editorial page, or the Best Director academy awards, or almost anywhere, really.

            Given art history, the notion that the special people who deserve to be full-time artists will "just know" they should stick to it is ludicrously over-optimistic. The message "why bother with mediocre self-expression when you could be HELPING people" will resonate more strongly with the people who have been hearing it, in one form or another, all their lives.

        • Emily H.

          "But on the other hand, artists like Michelangelo *are* extraordinarily
          rare. The average artist's impact is only a tiny sliver of
          Michelangelo's. We should look forward to rare artists doing incredible
          things while remaining realistic about the value of your typical novel,
          movie, painting, live performance, etc"

          This seems to me a reductive and shortsighted idea of what art is -- it assumes that "great" art comes from rare and unique geniuses, rather than from thriving artistic and cultural scenes that included the work of both average and exceptional talents. If Renaissance Florence hadn't been a thriving art market -- one were there was great demand for paintings & sculptures, and thus even non-great painters & sculptors could make a living -- there would have been no context for Michaelangelo's talents to become apparent. And every artist we consider "great" was formed by many artists whom we've never heard of. If Edward Bulwer Lytton was a crappy novelist, but he inspired Charles Dickens to become the writer he became, would he still have been better off working at a soup kitchen? When you put it that way, the question is absurd.

          • Michael Bitton

            Thanks for the response. As far as I can tell, you disagree with two claims:

            1- "Given art history, the notion that the special people who deserve to be full-time artists will "just know" they should stick to it is ludicrously over-optimistic."

            2- "This seems to me a reductive and shortsighted idea of what art is -- it assumes that "great" art comes from rare and unique geniuses, rather than from thriving artistic and cultural scenes that included the work of both average and exceptional talents."

            I don't think my posts made either of those claims. Your posts seem to imply that I think all artists should switch careers, leaving only a handful of art geniuses, who should be able to identify themselves even before becoming art geniuses. Fortunately, that isn't something I believe. Maybe my posts weren't clear enough.

            If the existence of a certain number of mediocre artists is A Good Thing, then I definitely want those mediocre artists to exist. I think it actually is the case that there need to be mediocre artists around.

          • Emily H.

            Thank you for your response. These quotations may not have been exactly what you intended to convey, but they are, as I read them, possible conclusions of what you're saying. For instance, the line "Hopefully, the Emily Dickinsons of the world have the foresight to stick to what they do best" could be taken to imply that we can reasonably hope that on average, talented people will persist and untalented people will give up. There's no empirical basis for this -- how many potential Emily Dickinsons spent their lives changing diapers? (I don't really like Emily Dickinson, but still.) I think any discussion of who makes art should take into account how cultural assumptions make it much easier and more rewarding for some people to express themselves and others.

            On the Michaelangelo thing, I suspect we are basically in agreement, but the nature of this discussion makes it easy for people to express themselves in false dichotomies about "great art" vs. "mediocre art." My beef is with that dichotomy, not with anything you specifically said about Michelangelo or w/e.

          • Michael Bitton

            I meant just what I said - hopefully, the artists that really are best suited for art stick to art. Whether others should "give up" depends on a lot of other factors, many of which are really difficult to gauge without being able to tell the future.

            One factor that hasn't really brought up yet either in the original article or in the comment is the social construction aspect of artistic taste. I wonder whether, as it is likely the case with pop stars, there have been a thousand poets "just as good" as Emily Dickinson, that aren't being recognized because they don't have Dickinson's privileged place in public discourse that has been allowed to develop over the past century. There has been some interesting research into how easily taste is influenced by factors such as price, reputation, and branding. I wonder whether even some of the really great artworks couldn't be replaced or partially replaced by other artworks currently seen as less important. I mean, you would expect *something* to fill the void.

    • Ed Lake

      The position, as I understand it, isn't that art is worthless - it's that most of the time, people who are making art could do more good for the world by doing something else. And when you consider how much art there already is, how bad most art is, and how tepid as a source of pleasure even very good art is compared to, say, a long walk, and certainly compared to having your cataracts removed so you can see again, that seems like a fair point. However, various EAs do acknowledge the potential of propaganda several times in the piece. They actually express a willingness to recruit artists for that purpose!

      • ericangel

        I have a suspicion I inhabit an entirely different universe than most folks writing comments here. Ed do you seriously mean to say that even very good art is "tepid as a source of pleasure" compared to a long walk? If yes, do you think that is a generalizable statement that is true in some sense for lots of people, or should be true in a prescriptive sense? I have certainly experienced long walks that were on a par with my particular taste in "very good art". I would never have thought to rate one over the other. Sometimes the two come together (Housman, Wordsworth); sometimes they have nothing to do with one another.
        A slightly broader point. I'm puzzled by the apparent confidence in numbers and measurement. I work a lot with efforts to measure wellbeing. I also spend lots of time trying to identify the causal relationships that produce wellbeing. The more work I do in this area the more I appreciate how complicated an endeavour it is. My natural science colleagues are often bemused (or frustrated) by my recourse to qualitative indicators. If you can't count it, it doesn't count!
        At first acquaintance at least, I do find the EA philosophy borders on self-parody. Still, I appreciate the effort to get people to think more carefully about altruism, especially those who are more privileged, which I certainly am. Now back to making music!

      • Emily H.

        "How tepid as a source of pleasure even very good art is compared to, say, a long walk." You most have been on some BANGIN' long walks in your time.

        • Ed Lake

          Of course. Haven't you?

    • David Moss

      You can be an EA and accept the conclusion of this argument without thinking that art is worthless, you can even think that it has an extremely high value.

      The question is just: how many (easily saved) human lives is such and such piece of art worth? If someone could easily save a number of lives (which anyone can, very, very easily) or produce some art, precisely how many lives need to be at stake for the art to be worth it?

      Comparing Shakespeare to peasants is probably a prejudicial way of looking at it. If we were talking about your and your family's lives, would creating or preserving works of art of a Shakespearean level of genius be worth it? How about you, your family and everyone in your town? These aren't emotional, rhetorical questions: this is exactly the choice that we and EA's do actually face (except it's other people, not you personally).

      It doesn't even have to be a matter of life and death for this case to be quite overwhelming. Being able to read Shakespeare, we can agree, is a very great good if you are privileged, able bodied, leisured... But it seems quite likely that being able to read and being able to see tout court are equally if not much greater goods. And that's if we're talking about Shakespeare. If we're talking about the additional works produced by your average, aspiring creative, it's not exactly crazy to suggest that they would do more good saving lives or curing illnesses etc.

  • Gen

    I think it's brilliant that EA exists and more people are thinking about how they can make the world a better place.

    However - it seems to completely miss any engagement with why poverty exists. If you go and work for a vulture fund company, who makes lots and lots of money preying on vulnerable economies to then make big buck when they crash - and then you give that money to a charity, are you really, on the whole, making the world a better place?

    I am a campaigner and artist. The two feed each other. I contribute by taking action as a policy campaigner, activist and organiser to change the way things are. I don't get paid very much to do it. The rest of the week I write music and perform. I get virtually nothing for that. All in all, I don't have much money to give away, but I give away what I can to different charities when I've got the money to do so. However, I believe that it's as important to tackle the rules which allow poverty to exist: corporate tax evasion, aid debt cycles, commodification of natural resources etc. as it is to put up the money to plug the hole.

    In short, it's important to mop up the mess but until we switch off the tap it will just keep coming. Check out if you agree.

    • Buck
    • David Moss

      Being an effective altruist doesn't intrinsically require that you donate to apolitical causes. If you sincerely think that political reform is the most effective means to help the developing world and political campaigning the most effective way to produce political reform, EA would recommend donating to some effective campaigning organisation. The reason being that, (just like with development charities), unless you are a veritable superman of campaigning, many times more proficient than any of your peers, you would still better serve political campainging through earning to give (and so funding many political campaigners- all as good as you- or campaigns). In the real world as it stands, resources are scarce for curing malaria and political campaigning, but skilled unemployed people looking to work in NGO's and campaigning organisations are wildly over-supplied.

      Of course, most EA's would say that it is unlikely that donating to political campaigning can produce as much good as donating to the very poor can. Mere dollars can save people's sight/cure easily preventable diseases/relieve starvation, or, devoted to political campaigning, it can print 20 fliers or pay for a trifling amount of online ads. It's not about whether politics or charity is more worthy or more important, in general; it's just about what actual individuals can actually do with limited time and resources.

  • ColtsHeadBen

    Reminds me of the senators who grandstand against PBS funding. "You've got cable TV, why the hell do you need Sesame Street?"

    Here as there, the answer is that energy spent making life worthwhile is energy well spent.

  • Chris Smith

    I think my main sadness reading this is that the author thought "I can't go all the way, therefore I can't do anything", even though he earlier recognises that the broad set of ideas that Effective Altruists promote show that we can all be doing better and that none of us is utterly altruistic and maximally effective.

    It's about being more effective with our efforts to do good. So for the author, at this stage, that might mean trying to introduce some ethically useful content into his work, or setting aside a small portion of any earnings for effective charities. Rhys, I don't know you, but i do know Holly and Sam, and I'm sure they wouldn't want you to have that impression. If you can give £10 a month, that's £10 a month better than £0 a month. If you can give that £10 to the most effective charities (I give my donations to SCI, a charity that distribute drugs that deal with intestinal worms and other neglected tropical diseases - an intervention that research suggests significantly improves school attendance and other good things) then that is more effective than giving it to the best known charities, or to particularly poorly run charities, or to charities that are run in areas that are less in need of support.

    Do not let the best be the enemy of the better.

    • Holly Morgan

      Spot on, Chris! It's an easy and common trap to fall into when you first properly comprehend that there's always going to be one more person you can help, no matter how much good you're already doing (I wrote more about this on The Life You Can Save's blog but I won't link to it unless someone asks me to). But it doesn't have to be daunting or can be exciting and challenging instead! You can always try to beat your "personal best" in giving :-) (Charlie Bresler wrote about this on The Life You Can Save's blog too.) As a general rule, we should only encourage people to push themselves a bit further when they take an honest look at themselves and think, "I could manage a bit more". I know we Effective Altruism folk can come across so bloody holier-than-thou, but I don't think I know a single person in the movement who thinks people who spend time on non-maximally-efficient ways of improving the world are evil (because that applies to, like, everyone...). Also this: (Sorry, I had to get one link in here; it's basically a premature response to Rhys's article!)

      • G

        Here is a challenge, if you're willing to engage critically and unreservedly:

        The focus on saving individual lives can become a risk of 'giving people fishes vs. teaching them how to fish.' Even the latter runs into trouble if the people in question don't have effective sanitation and their river full of fish is also full of cholera. At some point one needs to shift the effort toward root causes that, unless dealt with, render other efforts moot and meaningless.

        The #1 existential threat to humanity, above and beyond all else, is the climate crisis. As a rough estimate, figure an average of 1 billion preventable deaths for every added degree Celsius. The direct cause of climate change is the perpetuation of 19th century energy sources notably coal-fired electricity generation. But the underlying root causes of it are overpopulation and overconsumption.

        The greatest good would therefore come from:

        1) Replacement of coal-fired electricity generation with any non-carbon energy source. Every coal-fired power plant that's shut down and replaced, is a significant positive impact.

        2) Development of an effective male birth control pill. Ideally, compound the key ingredient with two other drugs: One, a subtle entactogen (empathy-inducer), the effects of which will begin to heal the individual attitudes that make for cultural attitudes of male supremacy. Two, any of a number of sexual enhancers, that will produce a direct pleasure incentive to men to take the pills. The compounded medication would leverage the patent life of the male contraceptive ingredient to a 20-year monopoly, which is sufficiently long to have an impact on global population _and_ on global cultural attitudes of men toward women.

        3) Promotion of a culture of reduced consumption, leveling downward from the top. The ecological impact of one American (speaking here as an American) is equivalent to that of ten average Indians or Chinese. But even in the USA, UK, and Western Europe (not to mention Dubai whose per-capita climate impact is double that of the USA), the lifestyles and ecological impacts of the top 0.1% (1/10 of 1%) are vastly disproportional. As a practical matter this translates to highly progressive income taxes as well as grassroots culture change. And, the grassroots culture change would most likely be driven by the arts, much as it was driven by popular music in the 1960s.

        4) Bonus Item #1: Develop a medical treatment for psychopathy (USA term 'sociopathy'). Psychopathy is a root cause of economic inequity, as well as a root cause of violent crime (the smart ones loot banks from the inside, the not-so-smart ones rob banks with guns). In fact I know of a research path that will lead in this direction and I'll freely share the information with you; this is serious science-based medicine and not quackery. If you're interested and there's a specific person to whom I can write, I'll do so.

        5) Bonus item #2: Develop new non-carbon energy technologies that are inexpensive to deploy. This gets into materials science (photovoltaic materials) and other areas that are beyond my scope to comment.

    • Melissa

      Out of curiosity, seems like there are several schistosomiasis organizations out there, some that treat the disease like SCI and some that focus on large-scale control of the disease vector. My own bias would be the support the latter because it seems like some countries have successfully eliminated the disease and that seems like a better longterm solution. Is there a reason that this is wrong?

  • robertwib

    Effective altruism does not say that art is a 'waste of time'. The delight that people get from art is real and valuable. Art can also move people towards greater wisdom and empathy towards others, which is excellent.

    There are simply some good reasons to think that for most folks, art is not the most morally valuable thing they can do right now, even if it's what they would find most fulfilling. There is already a great deal of incredible art available, and most young people can accurately predict not being outstanding artists whose work changes millions of people's lives. I certainly would not be!

    At the same time, there is so much unnecessary suffering from preventable disease, hunger, environmental damage, factory farms and poverty. I hope that these problems will gradually be solved in the coming century, but until they are, they appear to represent higher leverage opportunities to improve the state of the world.

    That said, we all need to spend time on things we enjoy for our own wellbeing. I spend a great deal of time writing for my own enjoyment, watching movies and listening to music. I don't think I would be able to stay sane without these things! And just because you aren't willing to do a 180 degree turn on your entire career to help more people - and of course, most aren't - doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't make incremental improvements where you can, for example by donating more this year than last.

    And fortunately for any artists out there, there remains great potential to spread compassion and understanding through art, if they decide to do so!

  • DoAsk DoTell

    I think everyone here is right in their views and rationalization... all things are good and bad in some ways, especially if taken to the extreme. Are there some Mother Teresa from the West in the West? Why is Mother Teresa a good "brand"? Let's not stop there... Why do we need such a Mother Teresa in the first place? Who gives her money, secret money from the Vatican, or from the Multinationals and their politician pets for some good PR?
    Ultimately, there is a time and a place for everything. Wouldn't Mother Teresa is more happy if she can make some art, like singing, dancing, painting, when she feels "down"?

  • Robert Zwemmer

    This guy nails it pretty well imo ( from 26.00 ) from a slightly different angle :

  • Severine7

    Ask an exhausting aid-worker what she wants to do after a 15-hour shift. Probably curl up with a good book or movie. Real life is full of suffering. Art offers a necessary respite.

    • David Moss

      Yes, there already exist more books, music etc. than anyone could read in a life time and if I/you/any other potential artiste declines to produce more, there will still be millions of other people producing yet more just as good and better than we could create.

      EA's aren't saying that there would be no harm done if we burnt every piece of art in the world. Just that most individuals (if Shakespeare is reading this maybe we should give him a pass?) would do more good saving lives and such.

      • Emily H.

        A deeply silly argument. First, how is any artist to know whether they are one of the few whose works are objectively "good" enough to be worthwhile? Since the most confident people are often the least talented, we'd be left with only Ayn Rands and and Dan Browns.

        Second, art has always been a contemporary phenomenon that commented on the artist's contemporary world. Reducing art to a canon of old "classics" (it's telling that you think only a 16th century white man is good enough to get a "pass"!) would rob it of its urgency, immediacy, and capacity to do good in the world.

  • Christina Arasmo Beymer

    It's doubtful that "everyone" can be doing more. And the ones who could do more, will they be compelled? Through guilt? That's a form of coercion. With much of the middle class getting poorer and poorer and with disease such as cancer and other health issues, many people are just trying to take care of their own families and themselves and going very broke in the process. Getting Hospice or any government assistance requires serious time and effort. If I could give, I would. I do when I have the money. Mercy Corps, Doctors Without Borders, and Charity Water are my top charities since less goes towards admin. and more toward the cause. I think empathy in action is more achievable. If you have the money, share it, and if you are in a position to feed someone or care for someone and you can spare some food and/or your time, do it. Art is a relief from suffering and without human expression life is not worth living.

  • Holly Morgan

    I just wanted to say that I find Rhys's article and the editor's comments refreshingly even-handed. Kudos, folks :-)

  • Bob Grumman

    Here's my reaction to the latest assault by the puritans on art. It features my alter ego, Poem:

    Poem in a Ripening of Art

    The shade of a tree
    winked unhurriedly over Poem, a
    sleep in a wide expanse where fruit
    was ripening through
    the idea of fruit, and art was ripening
    through the idea of fruit,
    laughing meaning against
    the snivelled sterility the womb-extenders
    were angrily nancing
    around the ripening art.

    He snorted awake, aware viscerally
    but not higher in his cerebrum
    that he'd been paltried into

    A major music a Minoan sun had been admiring into his sleep
    faded out of it and disappeared into the tree's shade,
    a boat with a red sail momentarily visible on its surface.

    • Bob Grumman

      As usual, I made a mistake in a comment: line six should be "through the fruit." It's important!

      • Bob Grumman

        I misspelled "sniveled," too. Not important but I'd rather spell everything right, however I may misuse it.

  • Fred G

    Why is art portrayed as so mutually exclusive from this 'new' philosophy? Surely it is possible that an artist can generate the most wealth by creating art, and then donate this to charity? Obviously this depends on our current framework wherein people place a value on their work, but that's not going to change in the foreseeable future.

    • David Moss

      That's absolutely correct and every EA would acknowledge this (if you're justifiably confident that you will make the most wealth, you should certainly pursue art). Of course almost everyone who thinks that they will make loads of money from their art is entirely mistaken.

      • Ruby

        But most people who think they will make "loads of money" doing anything are entirely mistaken. There are certainly exceptions, but the most common way for people to acquire vast wealth, of the philanthropically significant kind, is by inheriting it. Last I checked, considerable numbers of people in the U.S. couldn't even find a job, let alone "be justifiably confident" of a position that "would make the most wealth." The whole language of EA seems geared towards people who are already upper class. And how do you find a calculus for harm vs. benefit, even if we all did have a wide-open choice on employment. I was offered a job at a corporation that contributes to many ills in society. It would have paid me far more than my current, usually harmless work as a freelance artist. But would my giving away that extra $20,000 a year (a lot to me but a drop in the bucket of charitable contributions) really in anyway justify my contribution to propagating environmental and social ills?

  • Anon EA

    Minor note: At the time, Will MacAskill's name was 'William Crouch', so writing

    "The EA movement started coalescing in Oxford in 2009 when the
    philosophers Toby Ord and William MacAskill came together with around 20
    others to work out how to make radical altruism mainstream."

    is a little inaccurate, as that wasn't his name at the time. Apart from that, good article.

  • Andrew McIntosh

    Interesting article. Inspired a few thoughts -

    I feel the "either/or" treatment of art versus action is a zero sum game. Another way of looking at it, from the artistic point of view and similar to Southan's challenge regarding what you would do if someone created something similar to your creation, is to acknowledge the absolution over-saturation of artworks in the world today and just be content to create what you want for the pleasure of creating and not bother trying to "share" it too much with society in general. Where the selfishness comes in, perhaps, is thinking that everyone will be as enthusiastic about your creation as you are. It may well be, but statistically, given how much art exists, it probably wont. That's alright - create, indulge, take pleasure from your creations, just don't feel obliged so much to share with everyone. That, I think, is another "test to determine if you're creating art for yourself or the world". Just create for yourself first. The act of creation is a basic human instinct, to try and counter that with some greater good confuses the issue.

    But as for this Effective Alturism - I've long been suspicious of conspicuous "alturitsts". That there are people giving themselves a label based on how giving they are to others suggest, to me, an appalling selfishness. "She's the kind of person who lives for others; you can tell the others by their haunted expression" - that kind of thing. I've known genuinely altruistic people who take great pleasure helping others, a pleasure I would never want to deny them, but also take great pleasure in simple things like a good cup of tea and studying a racing form guide at the end of the day, and wouldn't make a public issue out of either desires. Such people made no issue of themselves, they were known, respected and loved by their actions. "Effective Altruism", on the other hand, going by this article at least, strikes me as some kind of modern guilt-trip one lays on oneself and everyone else in an effort to achieve some kind of moral superiority. If you're going to do good and help others, do good and help others, just don't make it into a creed or ideology.

    The artist who just wants to create for their own pleasure can do so. The altruist who wants to help others for the sake of helping others can do so. Neither involve drawing attention to themselves. On the other hand, the artists who wants to create to make a name for themselves are, ethically, on par with the altruists who want to make a name for themselves. Not a great deal of difference in the end.

  • Diego Caleiro

    Hi, I'm Diego Caleiro, I'm featured in this article a couple times. I wrote a long response addressed to all those who, Effective Altruists or not, fear they might someday be distorted when covered in the press, or other media:

    What is the kind of distortion you should expect if you are interviewed or go through media as a representative of EA?

    A part of it to catch your attention: I learned that 40 million is a massive number of people. It is so massive that though I nearly didn’t appear in one channel, and none of the links that I wanted them to provide were there, dozens of people came to me or to us in the next few days. Few had something to offer or knew what they were talking about. but it has shown me the power of big numbers. When people say no press is bad press, it’s because when you have massive numbers, those at the curve’s tail can be helpful for you. If it’s big enough, I recommend you do it, regardless of distortion. It’s those who see through that matter most.

    But for most press related matters, numbers are more mundane, in the low thousands, and trying to forecast the trade-off is worth it. Sometimes it is better not to do it. The recent coverage of Effective Altruism by Rhys Southan (with a distorted title by someone else, but keep in mind not even your interviewer has complete control over his writing), is a good case in point. I invite you to use it as proxy for how much you are willing to be.... continues

  • Aaron Gertler

    I spend some of my time making art, some of it making money, some of it learning, and some of it organizing an EA group. Balanced lives aren't incompatible with EA -- your own sanity has to come first.

    But after thinking for a while, I've decided that I'll still be able to live relatively happily as someone with a non-artistic job, and in doing so, I'll contribute to changing the lives of hundreds of other people, all with the same humanity and capacity for meaningful existence.

    There's a big gap between "don't make art" and "put people before art". I don't think the latter is heresy, though I'm slightly put off by the extreme values expressed by some EAs in this piece. (Still, these are important problems, and I respect those who devote far more energy than I do to solving them.)

  • Monstrous Carbuncle

    Don't fall in love, because you could have been at work.

  • james

    Why pick on artists? It is more a personality trait than a job description. Why not go after the wage slaves and their masters in the military -industrial complex? It has been well said that a person suffers more from their own hangnail than reading about the death of 10,000. Morals are relative and abstract,though generally in favor of a group's flourishing. Materialists and anti:materialists both make the mistake of believing in the perfectibility of man, if we would only move on that bright and shinning path.

    • Michael Bitton

      Effective altruists don't specifically target art. The writer happens to be an artist (screenwriter) intrigued by effective altruist ideas. This article could just as easily be about almost any other career.

  • mad

    Altruism with hardcore "moral" and "ethics" guides is just elitist charity.

  • housecatnick

    My brother posted this article on my FB timeline and this what I thought:

    "OK - now that I've been thinking about it more, I've been getting aggravated and now have this to say:

    Sam Hilton's inability to see the benefits of the artists and their work is single minded snobbery.

    I'm all for helping those in need - but there are many needs and there are many that assist the needy. My simple rebuttal is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

    If he's compelled to assist those in need struggling at the bottom half of the pyramid - that's cool. If Hilton continuously furrows his brow as he struggles to make sense of the author's art question, he is obviously unaware of the pyramid's apex and those that assist people who care to reach it..."

  • gogododo

    Is devoting one life to a career that will allow you to give the most money to various causes really an effective way to improve well being. While money is often needed, it does not do anything itself, but only allows people who are actually doing something greater means to do what ever they are doing. I'm not a conservative, but I do see how this mentality can create a surplus in bureaucracy without doing much to alleviate any suffering.

    As to what good art can do, art is a way of communicating ideas. Your idea may not be the best (if such things can really be quantified ) but would you rather not live in a world where there is a greater plurality of ideas. Especially considering how many of our ideas are coming from increasing smaller amounts of smaller corporate sources. We really don't know what a culture looks like without art, which is a strong reason why art is important. We know a lot about different cultures and they all seem connected to art in one way or another. Its all in balance, keep up the screen play

  • Andrew McIntosh

    Something else occurred to me - Bread And Roses. "Hearts starve as well as bodies..." - just because people are living at the bottom of the food chain doesn't mean they don't want art, music and basic enjoyment. Some of the poorest and most desperate people in the world still resort to the arts, particularly music, as a means of expression, a means of coping with the world and for the same reasons other people do, simply to take pleasure from life. That being the case, art has as much importance to people as food.

  • Linda Smith

    Art has never been about saving the world or anyone in it. Art is separate from life and all its political and social problems. Art is also separate from the artist who makes it. Art is complete in itself and isn't meant to "do" anything. One of the problems for artists today is the idea that artists need to go out and help build housing for the poor or plant community gardens because making art isn't enough.Some artists are even calling these activities art in order to make themselves feel better. While these things may be beneficial to some degree, they are not art in themselves. The great painter Ad Reinhardt once said that art only comes from other art and cannot be combined or mixed up with other things. "Art is art-as art and everything else is everything else. Art-as-art is nothing but art. Art is not what is not art." Reinhardt was also a social activist in his time but his efforts to effect social change were quite separate from his work as a painter. "Effective Altruism" seems more like a guilt trip than anything else and it's view of art and its place in the world is misguided. Instead of making art and artists the target, let's look at the multinational corporations and the 1% of the population who really could do something to help the rest of the world.

  • Michelle Root

    I think this sentence sums up a core problem with EA calculations:

    "The US documentary Searching for Sugar Man (2012) claims that the
    music of Sixto Rodriguez helped to inspire anti-apartheid protestors in
    South Africa, but presents this as an accidental and serendipitous
    side-effect rather than something Rodriguez could have consciously set
    out to do"

    Altruism and "doing good" is not a simple calculation. So many life saving and extending techniques and knowledge have come from pure research, and endeavor that is anti-utilitarian because we can't predict it's outcome. Similarly, as the quote expresses we cannot predict the impact of art at the time of it's making.
    Egotism, far more than art, is a problem worth investigating and I think the writer is slightly confused on that score. There is more than a
    little egotism in believing one can calculate good in our enormously
    complex worId.

    I'll grant that the writer in an article of this length cannot give a comprehensive description of all the EA entails. However, he describes a view that says I am better off working a job that makes lots of money that I can give to charity rather than working at my probably mediocre art which leaves me less money to give. I think it matters what work I do and who I do it for since so many high paying jobs I could work at are for corporations that largely contribute to global poverty, pollution, and conflict.

    I can understand the appeal of EA. Its philosophical simplicity is appealing. Unfortunately a life of reading literature and philosopy and experiencing art and music that has no practical purpose has rendered me incapable of seeing the world in such absolute terms.

    I would ask the EAs: Once we have applied all our resources and successfully ended human suffering, what then is the utility of our lives?

  • Connor

    Art has a profound impact on everything we do. Without it, life the way it is today would not be possible. I am an illustrator and i have been doing art my entire life and i couldn't see life without it. I am one person, and i give to charity when i can and i buy organic free trade stuff when i can afford it and i recycle constantly. That being said, to say that art is a selfish waste of time is extremely unfair. I have enough problems in my own life to worry about people I've never met before. They have their own problems and it may be far worse than mine but those problems are their problems and not mine. I would love to live in a happy and content world where everyone got along, nobody died, and there were no problems but that isn't realistic. The whole reason i am pursuing the path of art is to inspire people. If i can get just one person to say to me that i inspired them then that is enough. I can die happy knowing that i changed the life of a single human being. In no way is that selfish or a waste of time. In fact its practically the same thing as a person working in charities or the salvation army, i make art to inspire and help. The mental mind requires as much attention as the physical body and that is a fact. I am doing exactly what i feel can help people and myself at the same time, and that is all that really matters.

  • Cindy Shula Sher

    Art doesn't just satisfy the person who produces it. It makes billions of
    people happy. Should we all stop listening to music that makes us happy
    just because it is made by composers who become famous and earn a lot of
    money instead of devoting 100% of their time to eliminating poverty?
    Should I stop visiting art museums and listening to music or even
    jogging when I could be off saving the world? And what if you spend
    tireless amounts of hours at a school in an impoverished village and the
    education those kids receive allows some of them to begin creating
    And also, a lot of scientific endeavors could be seen as frivolous by their
    point of view. Because learning about the distant galaxies, which we
    will almost certainly never reach could be considered by the author to
    be a waste of time when instead the astronomer
    could be helping out other people all the time. And also, working on my
    artistic pursuits gets me out of my low funk. I don't know where I
    would be without it. Not to mention that art supply stores and musical
    instrument shops and Broadway theaters would go out of business and the
    people be left out of work if people didn't feel it was ethical to
    pursue their hobbies....

  • Angela Kennedy

    I do get this author is - sort of- troubled by some of the various
    arguments he is discussing - but he makes so many dogmatic and untenable
    assumptions about 'how people must be' which are problematic. Whether its the EA movement, or the author himself who is espousing this position is not clear. The piece presumes that 'ordinary' people have the power to alleviate ALL
    suffering, everywhere, which they clearly don't. It implies that ANY
    pleasure, whilst there are 'starving children in Africa' is ethically
    'wrong'. It contains a seam of magical voluntarism and puritanism that
    will only make those who DO have empathy for others feel despair at
    trying to follow impossible demands and exhortations, while those that
    DON'T get to carry on as before. I see this as an example of very flawed
    reasoning - also from a meat eater who no longer worries about animal
    suffering by the looks of it? So it's speciesist as well. That's his
    choice but it means his understanding of suffering is possibly limited
    and discrepant as well. Lastly the comment about Peter Singer was odd, especially when not interrogated. Singer is a utilitarian who has no understanding of the roles of social stratification and accompanying ideologies that structure how death-making decisions for babies and disabled people are made.

  • ConMcFlynn

    If all these questions are being posed about what 'art' is and what you 'should' do to vindicate yourself and/or prove yourself to other artists in the eyes of the 'EA's', these seemingly altruistic art super beings who we 'should' all aspire to be as artists for they have all the answers and we artists are mere shadows that should feel shame for deciding to express ourselves to make a living and/or to connect with the world in hopes to spread LOVE, the most freeing and aiding emotion and way of life.

    I find this article pedantic and undermining, as yet another group of 'know it all's' makes excuses for not being creative and raising their consciousness for their 'supposed idea' of the greater good. Art needs not labels, for if a person, an artist, decides to raise their consciousness this allows an artist to see the world in a clearer light, thus enabling them to make better decisions for the world around and to love more completely. Loving without restrictions, guilt, or worry, regardless of the world around.

    To create guilt and second guessing because one decides to express themselves is insanity, unless your intention is to quell the herd and create 'more' people who think exactly the same in these ever flowing close minded ways. I feel this article misses whatever point it was hoping to make, for you're making it sound like people, artists, who chose to express themselves, to create and heighten their consciousness and share this with the world as the 'bad guys' in the eyes of these 'EA's'...? The EA's yet another religious type of conformity telling people how 'they should act'...How dare you.

    Questioning people's creativity, artistic ways, and moral's, I say:how dare you, again.
    The audacity that this article implies is not only unreasonable it's completely counter productive, for you're going after artists...?People who are doing their best to change the world for the better already, for in my opinion artists are people who have chosen to do what they can to better the world around and I trust in artists. For the amount of 'soulless' consumers far outnumbers those willing to give themselves to the world for the betterment of the world, trusting in love. 'What horrible people... lovers... artists...they're to blame for all the world's problems...' You're in essence applying the divide and conquer tactics used to segregate humanity into judging sects since the beginning of time, another bully on the playground telling everyone to 'think like me'. Instead of welcoming all walks and minds driven by love and accepting them completely.

    This article seemingly does what it can to paint artists in a bad light because, artists, chose to express and create and share and love, yet in the eyes of the all knowing EA's this is not enough. 'It must be nice to have it all figured out, whilst walking through the woods in peace in the pastures that haven't been razed... Fair play to you, you world warriors...'

    The problem of the world's sufferings and pains does not rely on the shoulders of the artists, nor does it on the shoulders of those who only consume, as a human race we can hope that we can raise our consciousnesses together, enabling us to hopefully, one day, see what is truly important. To love and accept each other completely.

    To undermine art, to introduce the question of worth or whether or not it's necessary or relevant or whether one 'should' create because there's suffering and pains in the world is not only insulting, it's, and I say again, completely counter-productive. Misguided ignorance.

    The fact that the word conformity is in this article undermines each and every word that's been written, as this article is another attempt to put a label and/or to gain vindication and meaning through that which you say we 'shouldn't' do. Another attempt to force feed the human brain the right way to think and act... which
    only highlights how close minded you are. Think for yourself, don't be afraid.

    I'm sure you feel like you've accomplished a great message and written a great article by introducing the obvious realities that there's suffering and pains in the world, well done, I had no clue before you said it. To even go as far and word the article like you're the victim, the conflicted artist who continues to produce art, yet desires to solve the world's suffering immediately... well why don't you and your EA's go to these suffering places and change the world with your magical artistic wands...?

    As an artist this article's completely insulting, and to go further completely insults the intelligence of any artist who has the displeasure of reading this article. I wish you the best, you golden EA Heros, if only we could all be as knowledgeable and perfect as you, the EA people on your retreats, walking through the woods with all the time in the world to think and point fingers at a world that, in my opinion, you have no clue about. Blinded by your vanity and desires of your own self-importance.

    To use art and creativity and expression as a means of meaning, to make yourself feel better, to give yourself the soapbox so 'you feel important' – to point fingers and question those who do their best to spread love through the world, brings only greater sadness in to the world.

    Your close minded, labelling views are in need of some serious soul searching, look within, instead of extending your fingers throughout, and perhaps then you might realize the power of art, of creativity, of consciousness and love. For love, above all, can solve all the world's problems when it's allowed into a the heart of the world and
    humanity. And this shall not happen over night, which means you must start within yourself to better prepare yourself for the treacheries around and surrounding, for a mindful mind can see through the darkness and remain a loving being capable, and able to help and love the world, human beings, and all encompassing, 'in all it's entirety.'

    Continue to create excuses for yourself, hide behind your EA conformists, perhaps one day you'll reach a point where you'll be able to love fully and not judge, rather look at the world with love and accept all creatures to be equal and act, create, and express accordingly. Rather than using the sufferings and pains as a means to feel important and vindicated, essentially using the weakest as a platform so you feel strong. Shame on you. Your following suit like so many before. Try loving, be curious, find peace within and spread it around to the best of your ability – rather than pointing your jealous, hypocritically vain fingers in

    Side note: All '...' are meant to indicate italics.

  • Granite Sentry

    God help us if these narcissistic despots ever get political power.

  • Timothy Kinney

    It's all grist for the mill.

    You can't sit down and decide to make the piece of art that changes culture. But you can sit down and make a piece of art everyday and that significantly increases the probability that you do make the piece of art that changes culture. More importantly, you making art everyday increases the probability that someone else makes the piece of art that changes culture. This is true not just of art but of every "potentially good deed" that you can do. The point is not to survey all possible actions and to choose the best one (how a Millennial shops), the point is to make the best use of your time on the Earth. How can I be so sure?

    News flash: we are all replaceable. Living your life according to a replaceability equation means you're not living your life according to the present moment. It's in the present moment that compassion arises, not in the future or the past. Even if Einstein had starved in a field instead of becoming a theoretical physicist, someone would have taken the same ideas he was exposed to and developed them to the same conclusions. How can I be so sure?

    Ideas occur simultaneously across space when they are ready to appear. Because it's not the ideas that are being created. It's the mind that is ready to accept them. That is a product of culture. And that culture is much more the identity of humanity than whether I am an artist or an activist or a mathematician.

    If I want to do the most good I need to look at myself and see who I actually am. If I only see an artist then I do the most good by being an artist. But if I see a human being who is crying out because of the suffering and famine in the world, then I do the most good by calling attention to that suffering.

    Follow your bliss. Follow your bliss. Follow your bliss.

    It's all grist for the mill.

  • Emily H.

    Very thoughtful and well-written article. While these altruist's efforts are laudable, I think they're missing a big part of the picture. Firstly, since a human society without art has never existed, we don't know what it would be like -- removing art from the world would be, in effect, an experiment with potentially vast consequences. We don't know what effect experiencing art has on the development of empathy, critical thinking skills, etc. -- in part because nearly _every_ human doees experience art at some point, even if it's "only" comic books and Top 40 radio.

    Of course, an EA might say there's enough art out there already, but part of art's function is that it interprets the contemporary world, through contemporary eyes. Seeing The Maltese Falcon isn't a substitute for seeing Rhys Southan's black comedy, even if the former is "objectively" better. (It's also rather funny that EA's want to jettison traditional notions of artistic value, while holding on to pseudo-objective criteria like "one of the best scripts ever written.") And in an EA's eyes, is it really worth devoting any resources to printing copies of "Middlemarch" when you could be making vaccines or something instead?

    Throughout history "charity" has often done harm to its objects because the charity-givers dehumanized their supposed beneficiaries, condescended to them, or didn't understand their real needs. Think of missionaries trying to save the souls of "savages" by forcing them to adopt Christianity, or nineteenth-century workhouses that were run like jails, or Nicholas Kristof "solving" the prostitution problem by helping the police round up hookers. One way to avoid such harms is for would-be philanthropists to cultivate empathy and actually learn about the problems they are trying to fix, instead of just throwing money at them. (Nicholas Kristof is probably beyond help in this respect.) Art could play a role in this, as could performing individual charity work.

    The notion of becoming a more effective altruist by cultivating your individual subjectivity is one that EAs (unsurprisingly) ignore, but they probably shouldn't.

  • Emily H.

    Most EAs seem to believe that pre-existing art is okay, and it's just the making of new art that's a problem -- rather like with ivory. (Presumably the literary scholars and art historians who interpret pre-existing art and write the footnotes to the new editions are not pulling their effective altruistic weight, and will have to get jobs in PR or something, so our critical understanding of what these old works actually mean will progressively degrade, but let's set that aside for now.)

    We are living in a time when there are probably more women artists, artists of color and openly queer artists than at any other time in history. In this context, the notion that people should stop making art because we don't need any new voices is deeply offensive and tone-deaf. I wonder what the gender & race breakdown among Effective Altruists is?

  • Murray Reiss

    As I understand it, the EA approach is that we should all be making as much money as we can so that when we donate, say, 10% to "saving lives" that represents a significant amount. In which case the only objection to making art should be to making art that doesn't bring in enough money. The more money the art in question earns, the more highly an EA should regard it. Making money the measure of all things, no?

    • Emily H.

      This aspect of the EA program seems really...un-visionary. The more money you have, the more power you have? How subversive.

      • Murray Reiss

        Yeah. All I know about EA is from this article, I'd never heard of it before, but to me it comes across as the ends justifying the means: if you're making lots of money so that you can donate lots of money to "saving lives" does it t matter how you make that money? Doesn't sound like it. I don't mean they'd condone illegal activity, just the usual cut-throat capitalist corporate competition that keeps wages low over much of the world thereby necessitating all these NGOs to donate to in the first place.

  • stevenharp

    The EA mindset reminds me of the idealistic communists of the fifties. "Give according to your abilities and receive according to your need." There is no uniform ethical imperative toward such a man made altruism. We have different roles here.

  • Anon

    Why would anyone want to be maximally altruistic? You only live once!

  • Eric l

    I like this "The pair of them were heading to East Devon with a few others for a cottage retreat, where they were going to relax among sheep and alpacas, visit a ruined abbey, and get some altruism-related writing done." So you don't like art, but your going to a "cottage retreat" to get some writing done, that sounds like the very effective Altruism, maybe have a few beers while you figure out how to save the world. Idiots. Nonsense. This story seems like a hoax.

  • Jonathan

    How do EAs feel about procreation? Been seeing more and more doom-and-gloom articles lately about how finite resources are rapidly being depleted by an overpopulated Earth. To reduce suffering then, would EAs agree not to partake in childbearing?

    On that point, who is to say certain lives should be extended? Can't suffering also be reduced by letting people die swiftly? There have been criticisms made against the likes of Mother Theresa of all people for this very reason.

    Also, it seems to me like a bunch of critics here are just really bad at time management. How time consuming is it to research which charities are effective? After you make a donation, you will be left with plenty of time to make art, sing, dance, do things that don't pertain to advancing some mission. Presumably you work something like a 40 hour/week job. It doesn't sound like many of the EAs have taken on full-time charity jobs or anything like that.

    Just some scattered thoughts for ya. Really interesting article/concept. I've begun to accept my selfishness/self-centeredness. I am a bad/ineffective person. And I don't care. If that encourages you to donate all the more in my place, hey, maybe I've done some good after all.

  • aelena74

    I don't know. I think art is necessary but then most art is too mediocre. As for me, I love music, almost every style, from jazz to harsh industrial, classica, metal, dub, you name it, and I'd definitely rather live without sports than without art, or writing, essays, thought. I'd rather sacrifice football, basketball or the olympics for that matter, all of them seem more useless than art to me.

    my 2 cents

  • Angela O’Hara

    Art is a form of communication and takes many forms--the problem there is only one word "art" to express a vast variety of practices guided by an assortment of values. Art in my view in its most potent form is a form of service to humanity. Adopting an such an attitude as this EA movement shows a profound narrowness of thinking that money and labor is the only way to better society and help people. Perhaps if more people actualized themselves through the process of making art, there would be a lot less suffering and inequality in the world. Art liberates, heals, shows society a better way. Creativity is life force. Tell people they have no right to express their life force and live a dead, robotic life in service to some artificial self-serving ideal--THAT is unethical.

  • SaintMarx

    Conscious altruism is surely a quality to be cultivated; however, it is not the only virtue, especially not in the materialistic form apparently promoted by Effective Altruism.

    The brutal utilitarian calculus, wherein the only criteria are reduction of physical suffering and increase of material well-being, herein can lead to some extreme solutions. Here are some lovely options to minimize suffering:
    1. Drug everyone with a happy pill.
    2. Kill everyone who is suffering or unhappy.
    3. Kill all life. The final solution! No suffering at all!

    Even if the aim is to maximize well-being, the materialistic reductionism, that is, the description of such well-being in purely physical terms, is disastrously impoverished. Spiritual/philosophical and emotional/psychological well-being are equally important, if not more so, than physical well-being. As a simple exemplification, consider how many willingly undergo physical suffering for the spiritual, and even for art.

    Therefore, art which promotes spiritual well-being is not only justified, but necessary. Per Tolstoy, art should represent the highest possible spiritual values of its age.

    As another "utilitarian" evaluation of art: We do not know the full function of the aesthetic sense, but consider that Kant, one of the greatest thinkers of modernity, reluctantly determined that the aesthetic sense actually underlies and founds all other human knowledge and action, theory and practice. Without the sense of beauty and order, the rest could not arise.

  • Poshpaws

    EA seems to be the wrong approach. Working hard in the current global capitalist system in order to "plug" the gaps (help the poor, landless, unemployed etc.) just props up a failed social model. Indeed I feel this is true of all atruists who made a packet by wrecking the planet in some way. Better to change the system and have no altruists.

  • skanik

    It does need to be said that most art is mediocre.
    It would be interesting to find out why that is so.
    The fact that we, in the modern world, know all about global suffering
    puts us in whole new Ethical nexus than those before, say 1700, who could
    only know about the suffering of their neighbors.

  • Myfanwy

    During the height of the siege of Sarajevo in the mid nineties an artist friend of mine spent her her hungry, cold, dangerous days running an art gallery on the banks of the river under the front line and organising film festivals. Why? Because she realised in the midst of that horror, that creativity in all its forms was as essential to human life as food and water. It is what gives us joy, helps us connect and communicate and indeed find the possibility of altrusim within ourselves. More importantly, as a doctor and aid worker working in conflicts and disasters all over the world, I have discovered even in the most extreme circumstances, every one wants to do it and it is part of what both provides relief and the will to struggle on. I am not talking about useful, didactic art here (but oh yes, do lets bring back pictures of workers and peasants building factories and farms and striding into the better future created by the magic consequences calculator!) I am talking about the universal desire to draw, sing, paint, dance, act and create that exists in every child and adult and somehow gets lost or stamped out in the struggle to survive. If these altruists would like to be truly effective in creating a better world, extending the possibility of creativity equally to everyone is as essential as providing food.

  • Frazer Kirkman

    I think a more beautiful way to synergize artistic pursuits with effective altruism would be the idea that artists, of all kinds, shape society - they impact hearts and minds, and as such have an opportunity to use their art to open hearts. Each art piece can be a message that goes out for eternity reminding people to love, to give, to care, to dream, to think, to magnify their impact, and to....

  • Lil

    Great article and interesting points! I believe art and creativity can make this world a better place. It's not about the tools/medium you chose but what you choose to be and your values.
    Art is not just about painting a beautiful landscape! Art can convey a powerful message that could benefit charities.
    Also, Art is architecture, design, sculpture, music....and it can have a meaningful purpose and it can help million of people in many ways.
    Designers and creatives have it in their DNA to problem solve and transform the way people think and act, they can forge solutions to global problems through many mediums.
    I've recently collaborate with an artist on an art / charity idea and we had our first opening last week. It was a huge success and we were able to convey very important messages through Art to many people and we hope to have more people on board. and part of the money will go to charity. if you want to know more:
    So again it's not about the medium you use,but what you chose to be and use whatever talents, skills you have to do good.

  • Judy Hilton Gex

    I didn't make it through the entire article. EA... meh. There ARE artists who use their work to help feed people. Check out

  • clarinetmaven

    The Ethical Humanists credo is "it is not what you believe in but it what you do every day that counts." I would add to this all encompassing belief, that if we do not seriously do whatever is necessary to sustain all life on earth, animals and humans, then all our discussions regarding altruism will amount to naught. J. Elias

  • jansci

    Am I the only one who finds this article small minded and petty. What world of privdledged guilt is this person living in; do they even know what "art" is ? The "alchemy" of creation benefits everybody whether it be the artists studio or the farm it's hard work and both require acts of faith think of that next time you're squeezing an avacado.

  • Sigi Forester

    EAs seem to have overlooked one point though - a person must also feel good about themselves in order to be motivated to do good for others.
    I speak here from sad personal experience.
    If an artist suppresses their need for creativity to do "good works" for others, they end up feeling so bad that they can no longer do good for themselves OR for others.
    Every carer learns this, often the hard way: take care of yourself so you can take care of others. For me to neglect my creative self results in a slow but very sure downward spiral into a very dark place. But when I take the time for self-expression through art, I feel good enough about me to be able to face the bad of the world

  • Renee

    Art may not feed a hungry belly, but it feeds something else that hungers and must be filled. Even in Haiti, where children went days without food, they were still drawn to artistic aesthetic expression. If only primitive tools were at hand, they were used, and beauty was created, beauty that transformed lives, built solidarity and made people feel stronger for the battles ahead of them.

    Myself, I think of art as Kintsugi for the soul. The gold repairs the broken pieces and makes them stronger.

    As far as viewing everything through the lense of its supposed altruistic tally ... in life as in all things, there must be a balance. To look at everything through one lense means filtering out a great many other things that may be of value.

    We pursued space travel and invented water filters, memory foam and a great many other things we hadn't dreamed of that have alleviated suffering or made life better in some fashion. I don't have the complete list handy, but I'm pretty sure some of the advances have been medical in nature.

    Leonardo Da Vinci believed art trained his mind and his eye and thus enabled him to create all those inventions that today underly technology that is also saving lives.

    We aren't possessed of enough perception to see the outcome of all our actions ahead of time. We do things with the best of intentions, but in a terrible ignorance. It sometimes turns out well, and sometimes not. One of the things that saves us, is our diversity of effort. Not everyone travels down the same path, so all our eggs aren't in one basket. As even the most intelligent among us don't know and can't see where all our blind spots are — even Einstein and Da Vinci still made mistakes — the widespread exploration of all angles and avenues is wisdom. It is as necessary to our long-term survival as water and food.

    Art is just one of those many avenues. It can bring us insight for the future, and it can soothe the suffering of our journeys with something beautiful along the way.

    That last is surely not insignificant.

  • Less is more, more or less

    I'm coming in late to this discussion, but as an artist (professionally and by education and more importantly, nature) I would offer that the essence of ART is The Creative (1st hexagram of the I Ching) and that without The Creative all else is lost. An inventor is an artist and a pharmaceutical researcher is an artist as they move from the known and "real" through a realm of the "imagined and unreal" to manifest a new reality. Culturally (we in the West) have elevated certain "excessive" (born out of excess time and resources) forms of visual creativity above others. But that is just us, now.

    More subtle is this: The state of mind/being that is generated by and around The Creative permeates culture/society/being in ways we are ill-equipped (at the present time) to assess. But I think we can imagine (as many people in this discussion have alluded to) a world in which that has been stripped away and it is NOT a human place.

  • Curio

    This essay functions as a solid reductio ad absurdum against Utilitarianism.

  • CineCraft

    Very interesting discussion(s)! I wonder though, is the philosophy of the EAs in its own way problematic? Does it really foster lasting change or improvement to simply give of money or food or clothes? Or is that a bandaid on larger issues such as lack of job opportunities, support for mental health and addiction treatment, access to educational opportunities, and far deeper and more systemic issues relating to issues of de-regulation, class inequality and the lasting effects of colonialism on developing nations?

    It is bordering on cliche, but for lack of a better analogy, let us consider the old advice that, "give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." Of course I do not interpret this, as some do, as a reason to NOT give immediate aid to the needy. But I believe there is currency in that immediate aid is ultimately not a lasting solution, but imparting skills and enabling those in need to become self sufficient and supporting CAN BE a lasting solution.

    In this regard, I see art as indeed having a place, by promoting awareness that can lead to that lasting change. It opens eyes to the plight and the needs of others. It sounds the alarm. It can also indeed inspire and motivate, and satiate a fundamental need within humanity. Because as another oft repeated proverb goes, "Man does not live by bread alone." We thrive on our relationships with others, on knowing that we matter, on having a voice, and through art the disenfranchised and marginalized do have a chance to speak, which can often be as important as food, money and clothes.

  • HistoryArtist

    Kind of an absurd discussion, assuming that all positive work in the world must be "altruism" -- more akin to missionary work and charity -- rather than working in a serious way to change consciousness, to galvanize it and then organize it powerfully to make change, deep and participatory change. There are many reasons why there are, for instance, 19th century US slave narratives and later novels like those of Toni Morrison's whose project is in part to give flesh to what those narratives were not able to say or did not say for many reasons. There are reasons why those who have lived in extremity, been in war, suffered poverty and violent trauma, been sold, been beaten, been silenced, worked till exhaustion, etc etc etc., want to create art, and do in many ways; why arts projects cut drop-out rates -- and thereby decrease suffering. To discuss art as only made by the privileged and fairly unconscious, is an empty false and useless premise. Well, there are so many useless things about this article and its false premises, that I can't deal with it here. Gotta go do some socially conscious low paid exploitive work, then some socially conscious activist free work, then try to write, then sleep, then start again.

  • JD

    EA is and will only ever be and ideology, based in the minds of people who are suffering themselves- emotionally, underneath having their physical needs met, and using the 'movement' and 'taking care of others less fortunate' to make sure that their own real suffering never gets touched. Like all activism, it's an outside to in focus, which leaves the individual untouched. Helping those who have more gross, and physical baseline suffering has it's nobility, but to denounce an individual's expression of meaning and beauty and suffering, framed in a have and have not context-points back at their own inability to quell or access the roots of their own suffering. This is a very sad-tragic article.

  • Greg Fatbert

    The EA points of view expressed in this article are a wonderful example of how a complex situation can be presented in polemical, binary terms. More critical analysis, please.

  • Jed Judson

    Great, you've saved millions of lives. But thanks to overpopulation, technology, and climate change there are now millions of people starving, dying, with not enough jobs to work, resource wars, social conflict, etc. etc.

    So what are you going to do about their lives, then? EA seems like an incredibly simplistic way of viewing the world ... as if there were easy, clear-cut answers to relieving suffering in the world. There aren't! And there will never be.

    What about the suffering that happens in your own backyard, a neglected child, a person without a family, someone struggling with the death of a loved one? Who are you to say that one person's suffering is worth more than another's? Because -you- thought so? Because X, Y, or Z philosophers spun around some ideas? Why is any of that true? You don't know, I don't know. Yet EA seems to fabricate a belief system out of thin air, declares that it's true, good, or important, and then tries to impose it on people, when it's all built on a bunch of illusions.

    Creating and imposing an internally consistent belief system and believing in it isn't going to make confusing, difficult, ungraspable reality go away.

  • jmvp

    Penury does not impose obligation on anyone: The existence of others' suffering - and the fact of it - does not impose a requirement that one render aid, even if assisting is only mildly inconvenient to the self, unless one has in fact made another worse off by some previous, other act of one's own. If one cannot bear to live without assisting another then that is a different story. If we must help to assuage our own conscience, then that is another story, too. If one is an artist by nature, and not attuned to assisting others directly, then the apparent needs of one less fortunate are no obligation upon the artist to not act in keeping with the artist's own nature. No one is obliged by virtue of the fact that another's existence is more perilous than one's own. If one feels that one's existence, tied into the circle of life, is in fact damaging others (say through carbon emissions or indirect deforestation), then one should render aid to counterbalance the damage imposed. But this does not mean the entirety, or even the majority, of one's own life is now forfeit in service to those less fortunate. It is also arrogant to assume one's help is wanted, or that one can, in fact, even help people, in the final, most thorough analysis. Finally, art speaks to an emotional need of humans: are there any without it?

  • Liz

    This is a tremendously interesting article, confronting many issues I feel myself as I work in the arts and media. I think my feelings on the value of creation have changed as I've gotten older, and perhaps feeling as the author is discovering, the truth of the possible futility of what I'm doing, and that my efforts might be better spent on other, more tangibly effective pursuits.

    I think the problem I have with the EA philosophy though, is that in order to help others, we often must first be in a position of security and happiness ourselves. It's the analogy of the flight attendants and adults on a crashing plane needing to secure their own breathing masks before they can attend to the others around them. And perhaps what the arts provide some of us is a place of belonging and community, where we are practicing a skill that we have committed to learn because it has interested us, and there is something intellectually stimulating that we get out of it, that feeds us spiritually and fulfills the ideals of the kind of work we like to do.

    I see nothing wrong with the idea of working in a field that illuminates us not just to the behaviors and ideas of others, but also to those of ourselves, and then sharing those things we've learned (whether it be a tangible skill set or a set of ideas). I think the process of sharing experience through art can be just as consciousness raising as giving direct money to something -- sharing artistic projects creates a kind of space and community where important issues are acknowledged and discussed. It's also incredible, I might point out, how giving someone an activity to do (like art) that takes them out of their dire circumstances, can do just as much good as innoculating a disease. Helping people see possibilities for themselves in a world, that they might not previously have imagined for themselves, is something that is emotionally important to do, if not monetarily altruistic.

    And finally, not everything we do for work reflects the values we hold, or the things we do away from work that speak to a higher cause.

  • Ed
  • Ed

    By this logic, all that does not feed (that is, everything other than feeding) is unethical. i submit that this (under simple psychoanalysis), is the psychology of a "grand inquisitor" figure who wishes to feed the masses INSTEAD of educating them. However, survival and education are not mutually exclusive. Therefore, this false dichotomy is indicative of narcissism, or an inflated internal locus of control. I recommend the author and anyone who shares this sentiment to direct their efforts towards those in the highest echelons of human civilization and spare us learners and critical thinkers the pretension.