Attacking the Value of Art is Not a Good Strategy for Altruists

by Dwight Furrow


Destruction of the Buddhas 2001 Creative Commons License

The pages of Aeon contained one of the most dispiriting articles I have ever read. The author, a budding screenwriter, falls in with advocates of the Effective Altruism movement. They proceed to half-persuade him to give up his artistic pursuit because it is not as useful to society as finding a “real job” and donating his salary to charity. He then poses the question which for him is existential:

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?

In the end, he is not sure if the arts are where he wants to be:

“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. “

Has the world lost another Shakespeare?

Effective Altruism is a movement devoted to the utilitarian notion that we are morally required to maximize the good we do in the world. According to this view, in our choice of careers and activities we should use empirical evidence and cost-effectiveness calculations to determine what will do the most good by reducing suffering. Thus, for someone with artistic talent they are obligated to sell their talents to the highest bidder and then contribute the bulk of their earnings to the most effective charities. Only in rare cases where a work of art directly contributes to reducing suffering (or perhaps to producing propaganda for Effective Altruism) would it be justified to devote time and energy to artistic production. It is not enough for a person to do more good than harm; you must make yourself irreplaceable by producing more good than someone else could have produced in your place.

I find this dispiriting because the vision of human life embodied in the Effective Altruism movement is profoundly ugly and dehumanizing.

First of all, let's stipulate that people who devote their lives to alleviating suffering through battling hunger, disease, and ignorance are moral heroes who are to be admired. We surely need more altruism, not less. The problem is not in the activity itself but in the claim that everyone is morally obligated to maximize the alleviation of suffering. For although there are various ways that art might relieve suffering, there are more effective ways of doing so according to Effective Altruism.

Even if we accept the utilitarian orientation of Effective Altruism, the claim that art is relatively useless is utter nonsense. Most utilitarians argue that we should promote well-being, not merely reduce suffering. Since art produces enjoyment and edification, its considerable positive consequences cannot be ignored. The Effective Altruism movement seems to assume that alleviating suffering is more important than producing well-being, but I don't see a principled reason for that assumption. Obviously, the great master works of art history have produced much enjoyment for people who have the opportunity to view or listen to them. But we make a mistake when we think of art production only in terms of master works in the fine arts. The production of aesthetic objects—through craftwork, storytelling, cooking, gardening and the like, as well as painting, literature, sculpture, music, dance, etc–is pervasive throughout human cultures. There is likely no greater source of enjoyment than this creative activity. The countless small moments throughout each day in which we engage in aesthetic appreciation by noticing something to be attractive, fascinating, interesting, beautiful, pretty, or pleasant are a distinctive and essential component of life's meaning. To advocate that we subtract this from human life in the name of reducing suffering is to reduce life to a colorless trial of enduring monotony.The traditions of folk art are as robust as those of fine art and they emerge from cultures in which life involved much suffering. Presumably they did not view their art as a waste of time and found value in these activities despite the fact they did little to improve their material condition.

Granted, most artists do not produce individual works of enduring significance. But art is not the product of individual geniuses; it is the product of an artistic community that collectively produce something of great value. Without mediocre artists this community could not exist. The idea that we are only justified in pursuing an activity if we are doing something irreplaceable is silly. Human communities do not depend on this kind of perfectionism but rather on people making a contribution even if it not maximal.

But simply pointing to enjoyment as the aim of art understates its real value. In addition to producing pleasure, art exposes us to new ways of looking at reality, stimulates the imagination, and helps people cope with the uncertainties of human existence, and these must be considered in a utilitarian calculus. One reason we value art is that art expresses the point of view of the artist; and we value that point of view, not just because it gives us pleasure but because it multiplies our view of the world—through art we see the world through the perspective of others in a very perspicuous way. In fact, much of what we learn about the larger world comes from artistic expressions. As a teenager, much of what I knew about people outside my narrow group of family and friends I gleaned from song lyrics and stories. Granted there are non-aesthetic sources of information but they lack the power and emotional impact of art.

Art is the most effective means of making available to us the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of persons with whom we have no acquaintance. Works of art express cultural paradigms, ways of thinking and acting that encode and communicate a way of life, a sense of what is meaningful, admirable, and worth doing. It is simple ideologically-motivated ignorance to discount this social function; without it, the development of sympathy and empathy that makes altruism possible would be unthinkable. Evolution seems to have designed us to engage in and appreciate art, since creative expressions run deep in human pre-history. Yet, Effective Altruists would have us ignore this history as so much self-deceptive irrationality. Their arrogance is stunning.

The fact that the Effective Altruism movement ignores the social function of art is indicative of a larger problem—their implicit individualism. The discourse of ethics when directed at individuals is a council of despair. As individuals, when we decide to make the alleviation of suffering our aim, the demands on our energy and attention are overwhelming. As Emmanual Levinas argues, the face of the Other is infinite. There are too many others and their needs are too great to attend to them all. Individuals acting on their altruistic motives can be effective only on the margin, and the demand to maximize the alleviation of suffering is an empty gesture. This does not diminish the moral worth of their altruism but it does limit any assessment of consequences. Of course we can alleviate the suffering of individuals, and that matters, but it “makes the world a better place” in only a very limited sense. In our world, the causes of misery are war, reactionary political forces, corruption, and the predations of capitalism, all of which require collective action to mitigate. To advocate of individuals that they give up their personal concerns and projects to engage in a lost cause is irresponsible. Political action is more relevant than individual acts of altruism. Effective altruism must ask whether altruism is the most effective way of attaining their goal.

But finally, of course, the objections to this way of looking at moral obligations are well-known. Utilitarianism treats each individual as nothing but a conduit for the general welfare. Each of us is a tool to be used for someone else's benefit. The things we most care about, whether they be family, friends, or activities such as art, are of no value when our time and energy can be channeled into the goal of alleviating suffering according to utilitarianism. But this denies the sanctity and dignity of the individual person, a denial that has had baleful effects in human history. If the deeply held aspirations of a person to be an artist are of no consequence you can bet a lot of other deeply held aspirations such as to care for your own children or to remain free to conceptualize a life plan are of no consequence either. Utilitarianism in the end destroys the human personality.

Art and creative activity in general are expressions of fundamental human capacities and thus have ultimate worth. The avoidance of pain is intrinsically valuable as well but there is no single scale of value that allows these two sources of value to be traded off without loss. The sources of human motivation are diverse. We quite naturally come to care about those with whom we share a life and the activities that supply meaning to our lives; and once we come to care about something our motivational states are aligned to serve those interests. For most people, they define “having an impact” in terms of those objects of their care. This is especially true of activities that require great discipline such as artistic pursuits. The alleviation of suffering is surely something that many people take as their life-project and it is wonderful that they do so. But it is not for everyone; for most people such a goal is not psychologically accessible since it doesn't align with their motivational states.

If we are to make progress in alleviating suffering it will be through a strategy that acknowledges the diversity of goods that people pursue, not by dismissing them as irrational or immoral.

You can find more of my ruminations on art, especially on the art of food and wine, at Edible Arts.