Rhys Southan is swayed but thankfully not completely persuaded by ‘Effective Altruists’ begging of the question: ‘is it OK to make art?’ in his article appearing in Aeon recently. The foundational principle of the EA movement is that all human action should be focused on the alleviation of suffering. This might sound a laudable goal, particularly if the action is directed toward reducing global poverty and injustice and promoting health and well-being. But this activist movement is much more than raising awareness and encouraging charity. Rather, it makes some naked assertions about the meaning of life - that it is the sum total of subjective well-being – and purports to be in a position to direct how individuals should make their livelihoods.
EA wraps itself in a blanket of moral imperative, without providing a firm foundation of such, other than its own ethical judgments, based on monetary metrics. Furthermore, we’ve learned from decades of mismanaged, misdirected and miscoordinated aid efforts that development is a complicated business. It’s often institutions and governance which are the heart of deprivation and suffering. In certain circumstances these might be better addressed by changes in terms of trade, taxation, labour laws as well as corporate, federal and local governance reform. What people in poverty need more than anything else is to participate in their local, national or international economy with the skills and talents they possess, not to just receive aid from high earning individuals.
I find the stance of EA to be not just paternalistic but patronising and imperialistic. The argument that a forex trader working for a large investment bank manipulating libor, but giving a tenth of his or her income to charity is somehow worth more to the world than that individual conducting an orchestra but making less money is absurd, particularly if that manipulation causes hundreds of small businesses to go bust.
EA would argue that if the orchestra conductor can make more money as a forex trader, but really enjoys making music, well tough. What about the suffering the forex trader inflicts on his friends and family of doing something he/she doesn’t’ really want to do but is dictated to do so by the strictures of utilitarianism – like some overarching karmic dictator, always calculating, quantifying the monetary worth of every second spent earning. There’s also the presumption that all suffering occurs in developing countries. What about all those in poverty in London, pushed out of affordable housing by rich forex dealers and Russian oligarchs? What about all those suffering at the hands of very rich, donating domestic abusers?
By their own criteria, EA appears to ignore the enormous economic engine that are the creative industries. In the UK, these sectors generate as much as the financial one. Not to mention the scores of jobs and spillover into services and manufacturing that creatives produce. EA, do your research. See the work of BOP Consulting. In addition, it’s widely recognised that the arts are one of the most powerful ways to address mental illness and emotional abuse – see the work of the Art Therapy Alliance. The arts have been one of the most productive and powerful ways in which deprived individuals have been able to work their way out of poverty.Effective altruism is an ideology based on its own strict ethical judgments. They base their denouncement of the arts on the notion of replacability – that most artists aren’t very good and that they are easily replaced, ergo there should be fewer of them. Sounds like they’ve ditched the importance of freedom so beloved of John Stuart Mill. Radical ideologies lead to serious problems, and EA is just such a one – radically reductive and effectively paternalistic.