Why Effective Altruists Fear Art

Cueva de las Manos. Public domain.

We don’t know how our actions will be received in the future – with art, that’s the whole beauty

In recent months, ‘effective altruism’ – alongside the related concept of ‘longtermism’ – has experienced the kind of cut-through in public discourse that no philosophical position can ever really hope to achieve.

Well, I call ‘effective altruism’ a philosophical position. In fact, if you read some of the things written by its proponents, or look at how they’re living their lives (very much intertwined with one another, in service to The Cause),  it sometimes comes across as more of an intellectual cult. Effective altruists have started the non-profit 80,000 Hours to convince people to use their careers to serve the movement’s goals. Founded by leading effective altruist William MacAskill, the material on the organisation’s website often reads like the sort of thing you might expect to find in a pamphlet trying to induct you into Scientology, or to get you to become a Jehovah’s Witness: peppering radically oversimplified versions of deeply debatable ethical views with helpful footnotes to additional resources that make you feel clever when you look them up on your own (incidentally, conspiracy theorists also use similar tactics, presenting everything as a sort of autonomous intellectual journey).

At its heart, effective altruism is a form of consequentialism (a term often associated with utilitarianism, though originally coined by Elizabeth Anscombe as a pejorative for it): effective altruists believe that we both can and should rationally calculate how to do the most overall good in the world and then act on the basis of this calculation. Effective altruist philosophers spend lots of their time trying to do things like persuade the very wealthy to buy large quantities of mosquito nets, in order to save lives in areas affected by malaria. ‘Longtermism’ complements this view by asserting that, just as we should not refrain from helping people because they are geographically distant from us (Oxford-resident moral philosophers should offer charity to people living Africa just as readily as they should to people living down the road), nor should we refrain from helping people based on their temporal distance from us: when acting, we should offer (at least) equal weight to the interests of the many billions of people who do not yet exist, but will do years (centuries, millennia) from now.

To philosophical dirtbags like me – the sort of people who spend their lives eking out a precarious income sniping mostly unhelpfully from the sidelines – there can almost be nothing more annoying than effective altruism: a philosophy that I am not only convinced is deeply wrong on a theoretical level, but also arguably has infinitely more practical benefit than anything I will ever do. These people are wrong (not least because they believe in consequentialism, which is wrong). But they are successful (have jobs at Oxford). And they mean well. And they are also, all things considered, probably doing plenty of good (releasing billionaire wealth that would otherwise have gone unspent). Fuck ’em.

Luckily for me, however, effective altruism and longtermism are not in the news because everyone else loves them and thinks that effective altruism is right. In part, yes, interest in the movement has been triggered by the release of MacAskill’s recent book, What We Owe the Future (2022), which has seen him being profiled in places like The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and getting to do things like go on The Daily Show.

But the release of What We Owe the Future has also been conveniently timed for the movement’s (possible) implosion, with the revelations over MacAskill’s links to Elon Musk, the world’s richest man now starring on the news as ‘guy responsible for wrecking a major piece of global communication infrastructure’, and Sam Bankman-Fried, the failson cryptocurrency investor who was briefly a major donor to effective altruist campaigns before his electric magic beans empire rapidly and farcically collapsed. Bankman-Fried was especially involved in the movement, having previously worked for MacAskill’s Centre For Effective Altruism: publicly, he had stated he was pursuing what effective altruists call ‘earning to give’ – although since his net worth collapsed, he has implied that he was mostly using effective altruism as a sort of ethical front. Musk, meanwhile, has publicly associated himself with longtermism.

Bankman-Fried attempted to become involved in Musk’s disastrous takeover of Twitter, even promising Musk billions of dollars to help make it happen. While Musk does not seem to have taken him up on the offer, leaked court documents have shown that MacAskill attempted to bring the two together, the philosopher introducing Bankman-Fried to Musk as his ‘collaborator,’ who was also interested in purchasing Twitter to ‘[make] it better for the world.’ This is of course embarrassing (philosophers have fallen a long way since Thales of Miletus made a fortune investing in olive presses after using his philosophical knowledge to successfully predict a good harvest), but on the other hand: what could be better for future generations than ensuring they will never be able to log on?

One of the interesting things about effective altruists is that, while they seem to spend a lot of their time trying to impress dumb rich guys, they do not – unlike a lot of people who spend their time trying to impress the wealthy and stupid – seem to have anything to do with the artworld. They’re very much big tech people, as you might expect, given that their philosophical thought is founded on the (to most people with humanities degrees, laughably and obviously wrong) idea that you can somehow rationally calculate the human good. But they don’t even really seem to be at all interested in art: as far as I can tell, almost everything written about effective altruism (and longtermism) that involves art is about how they think people should stop spending any money on it.

Obviously there are a lot of conceptual problems with attempting to act in the interests of future generations (not least something that the moral philosopher Derek Parfit, one of the key intellectual influences behind the effective altruism movement, identified: namely that acting in the interests of future generations will inevitably cause some hypothetical future people to not exist, as they would only have existed in the worse version of the future you’re trying to prevent). But also, we just don’t really know what the challenges people might experience in the future are going to be. We could talk perhaps about the various disasters associated with man-made climate change. But actually, that’s not really a ‘long-term’ problem, so much as one that actually affects us – people who are alive – right now. What, then, does a commitment to longtermism actually achieve?

As others have claimed, a commitment to longtermism might be useful to people like Musk, as it allows them to claim they’re doing good, precisely by ignoring the interests of people who currently exist. For my money, ethics is a quite limited, specifically human thing, and that while we must of course think about how things will be for future generations, we also cannot do anything particularly specific for them: ethics is about trying to be a good person, not a good god. That might not be ‘optimal’, on some particular ideal of optimality, but that ideal is not something that creatures like us can ever really aspire to: even in tackling truly global challenges, we must think mortal thoughts, not deaden ourselves to reality by trying to think immortal ones. Even sincerely attempting to act in the interests of future people seems almost impossibly hard: we simply cannot know how our actions will ever be received (the difficulty of even doing this on an ‘ordinary’ human level was underscored for me when I took a look at social media the other week, and saw someone battling major fallout after gifting her neighbours unsolicited chilli).

But one thing we obviously can do for future generations, is make art. Think about the people who left imprints of their hands in the so-called Cueva de las Manos in what is now southern Argentina, or those who (some tens of thousands of years before even that) drew paintings of animals like lions and rhinoceroses in the Chauvet Cave in France. Think about the remains of any ancient civilization: an Egyptian or a Mayan pyramid, or a Greek temple. We don’t always know, precisely, why these things were made – what their ‘point’ was. We might be tempted to speak of the paintings of hands being ‘essentially human’. But frankly, we might as well be looking at something that’s been beamed to us from space.

But however much we may or may not know about the world from which a particular piece of art has emerged, they still open that world up to us, if only a crack. We have been left these things: we can value them, they can teach us things. And we can be grateful for them: they are gifts, if only inadvertent ones. Someone in the past once made them, and now they are here: for us. Not necessarily to do what we will. But to make something of them, in the present. Which might then be different, in the future.

Perhaps art threatens effective altruist types, because you can’t quantify it. In a way, we can’t really say what good it does: we might ‘value’ it, but we can’t say that a painting, for instance, saved x amount of lives. But if you’re interested in doing something for the future, then making art might actually be a lot more effective than, for instance, ‘working to prevent future catastrophes’. We don’t know how our actions will be received in the future: we don’t know, for instance, what catastrophes future generations might hurl themselves headlong into because we tried to help them prevent a different one right now (just to reiterate for clarity the point that climate change is not a hypothetical future catastrophe, but a real one we are undergoing right now). But with art, that’s the whole beauty. Just to see what might happen: let’s all send as many people alive in 8022 as possible a photo of our hands.

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